Bootstrap

Theology of Work Bible Commentary: New Testament

Default bible

Introduction to the Book of Matthew

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Work is an essential component of God's kingdom. Matthew, the tax collector-turned-apostle, recounts Jesus’ actions and teachings to show us how God intends us to live and work in his new kingdom. As followers of Jesus Christ, we live in two worlds. We stand with one foot in the human world, where our work may be subject to unspoken expectations that may or not be in accordance with God’s ways. At the same time, as Christians we are subjects of God's kingdom, committed to his values and expectations. In telling the story of Jesus, Matthew shows us how to navigate the human world using God’s compass. In doing so, he constantly points us toward the world’s true identity as the “kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” interchangeably; see Matthew 19:23-24). This kingdom “has come” to earth, even though it has not yet become completely realized here. Until it comes to completion, Jesus’ followers are to live and work according to God’s call as “resident aliens”[1] in this present world.

To guide us in this way of life and work, Jesus discusses workplace matters such as leadership and authority, power and influence, fair and unfair business practices, truth and deception, treatment of workers, conflict resolution, wealth and the necessities of life, workplace relationships, investing and saving, rest, and working in organizations with policies and practices that are at odds with biblical norms.

The Kingdom of Heaven Has Come Near (Matthew)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

At the beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus announces that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). When we read “kingdom of heaven,” we may think of harps, clouds, and angel choirs, but Jesus is clear that the kingdom of heaven refers to God’s rule on earth. The kingdom of heaven “has come near.” It has come here to this world.

The workplace consequences of living in God’s kingdom are profound. Kingdoms are concerned with governance, economics, agriculture, production, justice, defense—issues we see in most workplaces. Jesus’ teachings, as recorded by Matthew, speak directly to our life at work. In the Sermon on the Mount, he inducts his followers into the values, ethics, and practices of this new kingdom. In the Lord’s Prayer, he instructs them to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10). The Gospel of Matthew concludes as Jesus commissions his followers to go to work throughout the world because he has received “all authority in heaven and on earth” and will be present with them in their work on earth (Matthew 28:19-20). Matthew is clear that this kingdom is not fully realized on earth as we know it, but will reach completion when we see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30). Meanwhile, we turn our backs on the old ways of work, so that the new way of the kingdom of heaven is made visible in us as we live. Even now, we work according to its values and practices.

Working as Citizens of God’s Kingdom (Matthew 1-4)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

We live in what theologians call “the already, but not yet.” The kingdom of heaven has already been inaugurated by Jesus in his earthly ministry, but has not yet been fully realized—not until Christ returns in person as King. Meanwhile, our lives—including our work, our leisure, our worship, our joy, and our sorrows—are framed by the reality of living in a world partly controlled by the old, corrupt ways of the Fall (Genesis 3), yet partly ruled by its true Lord, Christ. As Christians, we put ourselves wholly under Jesus as Lord. Our habits on earth are now to reflect the coming kingdom of heaven. This is not to boast that we are more godly than others, but to accept the challenge of growing into God’s ways. God calls his people to many different roles and occupations on earth. In all these roles and occupations, we are to live out the true reality: the reign of God that is coming from heaven to earth.

A Balancing Act: Hans Hess’ Dilemma Whether or Not to Serve Sodas (Click to Watch)

At the same time, we cannot escape the ills of the world brought on by the Fall, including death (1 Corinthians 15:15-26), sin (John 1:29), and Satan (Revelation 12:9). Jesus himself experienced terrible, though temporary, suffering at the hands of sinful men, and so may we. In our work, we may suffer greatly through forced labor, permanent unemployment, even work-related death. Or we may suffer in smaller ways as we deal with challenging coworkers, unpleasant working conditions, promotions deserved but not received, or a thousand other setbacks. Sometimes we suffer from the consequences of our own sin at work. Others may suffer much more than we, but all of us can learn from the Gospel of Matthew how to live as Christ-followers in a fallen world.

Jesus the Messiah (Matthew 1-2)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Herod’s Disturbance (Click Here to Read)

In this daily reflection from The High Calling, Mark Roberts writes about how, in contrast to Herod in Matthew 2, we can submit our daily life and work to the lordship of the King of Kings.

The opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel narrate in rapid-fire succession stories demonstrating that Jesus is the Lord whose coming inaugurates the kingdom of heaven on earth. They explain who Jesus is in terms of Scripture fulfilled (the Messiah) and show that his entrance into the world is the epicenter of all of God’s dealings with humanity. The Gospel of Matthew begins with a description of Jesus’ ancestry and birth: the baby in a Bethlehem manger is in the line of Israel’s great king, David, and is a true Hebrew, going back to Abraham (Matt. 1:1-2:23). With each story, Matthew’s references to the Old Testament Scriptures show how Jesus’ coming reflects a particular ancient text.[1] We listen to Jesus because he is God's anointed, the promised Messiah, God entering the world in human flesh (John 1:14).

Scientists Tell Their Stories: David Wilkinson (Click to Watch at the BioLogos Website)

The story of the magi (or as the NRSV, translates it, “wise men”) is especially relevant to work. According to Daniel 1:20, 2:27, and 5:15 and Acts 8:9, and 13:6-8, magi were astrologers who observed the stars in order to interpret dreams and practice other magic. Both Daniel and Luke (in the book of Acts) take a dim view of their profession, seeing them as charlatans or false prophets. Nonetheless, going about their work of observing the stars, they glimpse the reality of God’s power in the world. Their work, flawed as it is, guides them to recognize Jesus as the son of God. Their response is to worship as best they are able. Note their generosity, a virtue God prizes highly throughout the Bible. Contrast them to Herod, who although being from the community of faith, reacts to the wise men’s discovery with hostility. It’s hard to imagine a more un-generous response than his. This contrast points out how God’s grace extends to all people and the entire cosmos, not only to believers. Conversely, the people of God continue to fall into sin, while non-believers morality may be exemplary.

Could it be that God is still drawing non-believers to himself through their work, including workers in science, nature, or the material world? As Paul puts it, “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1:20). This has applications when we talk about Christ in the workplace. Although we may think we are talking about Christ to people who don’t know him, it may actually be that God is already making himself known to them through their work, as he did with the magi. We might be more effective if we recognize that what we are actually doing is helping co-workers name and appreciate the presence of God that their work is already revealing to them. And we ourselves might do well to recognize God’s presence in our work. Christians often treat secular work with suspicion, as if the knowledge and skill employed there somehow undermines faith. Instead, what if we could recognize how all kinds of work reveal God’s handiwork and presence. Could recognizing God’s presence in ordinary work actually strengthen our faith?

For ideas on how churches can incorporate science in worship, see “Science and Faith in Harmony: Positive ways to include science in worship” from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Jesus Calls the Disciples (Matthew 3-4)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Nearly thirty years have elapsed between chapters two and three. John the Baptist reveals Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God to the crowds at the Jordan River (Matt. 3:17). Then Jesus, following his baptism by John, successfully withstands the temptations of the devil in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11) in contrast to Adam or the Israelites who had failed. (For more about the temptations of Jesus, see "Luke 4:1-13" in Luke and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.) In this, we preview the ancient roots of the coming kingdom: it is “Israel” as God originally intended it. And we see its revolutionary aspects; it brings victory over the prince of the fallen world.

Work is an essential element of God’s intent for the world. When God created Adam, he immediately gave him work to do (Genesis 2:15); throughout the Old Testament, God's people were also given work to do (Exodus 20:9). It should not surprise us that Jesus, too, was a laborer (Matt. 13:55). Jesus’ baptism, his wilderness temptations, and his prior work experience as a carpenter prepared him for the public work he would now begin (Matt. 4:12).

Here we encounter the first passage speaking directly to the question of calling. Soon after Jesus begins to preach the coming of the kingdom of heaven, he calls the first four of his disciples to follow him (Matt. 4:18-21). Others later respond to his call, making up the Twelve—the band of those called apart by Jesus to serve as his intimate students and the first servant-leaders for the renewed people of God (cf. Matthew 10:1-4; 19:28; Ephesians 2:19-21). Each of the Twelve is required to leave his former occupation, income, and relationships in order to travel with Jesus throughout Galilee. (The personal, family, and social sacrifices this required are discussed under "Mark 1:16-20" in Mark and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.) To these and other followers, Jesus holds out no hope of security or family ties. When Jesus later calls the tax collector Matthew, the implication is that Matthew will give up his work of tax collecting (Matt. 9:9).[1]

Does a call from Jesus mean that we have to stop working at our current job and become a preacher, pastor, or missionary? Is this passage teaching us that discipleship means abandoning nets and boats, saws and chisels, payrolls and profits?

The answer is no. This passage describes what happened to four men by the Sea of Galilee that day. But it does not prescribe the same thing for every follower of Jesus Christ. For the Twelve, following Jesus did mean leaving their professions and their families in order to itinerate with their roving master. Both then and now, there are professions that require similar sacrifices, including military service, sea trade, or diplomacy, among many others. At the same time, we know that even during Jesus’ earthly ministry not all true believers in him quit their day jobs to follow him. He had many followers who remained in their homes and occupations. Often he made use of their ability to provide meals, lodging, and financial support for him and his companions (e.g., Simon the Leper in Mark 14:3, or Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Luke 10:38, John 12:1-2). Often, they gave him entry to their local communities, which is something his traveling companions could not have done. Interestingly, Zacchaeus was also a tax collector (Luke 19:1-10), and although his life as a tax collector was transformed by Jesus, we see no evidence that he was called to leave the profession.

But this passage also leads us to a deeper truth about our work and following Christ. We may not have to give up our jobs, but we have to give up allegiance to ourselves or to anyone or any system contrary to God's purposes. In a sense, we become double agents for God's kingdom. We may remain in our workplace. We may perform the same tasks. But now we employ our work to serve the new kingdom and our new master. We still work to bring home a paycheck, but at a deeper level we also work to serve people, as our master did. When you serve people because of your allegiance to Christ, “you serve the Lord Christ,” as Paul puts it (Colossians 3:24).

This is more radical than it may first appear. We are challenged in the work we do. To the extent possible, we should seek to do those things that bring human flourishing, either through our part in carrying on the creation mandate, or our part in carrying out the redemption mandate. In short, we do those things that support people’s dreams and bring healing to the brokenness around us.

So we see that although a call from Jesus may or not change what we do for a living, it always changes why we work. As followers of Jesus, we work above all to serve him. In turn, this leads to a change in how we work, and especially how we treat other people. The ways of the new King include compassion, justice, truth, and mercy; the ways of the old prince of this world are devastation, apathy, oppression, deceit, and vindictiveness. The latter can no longer have any role in our work. This is more challenging than it may appear, and we could never hope to do so on our own. The practices required to live and work in these new ways can arise only from God’s power or blessing in our work, as will emerge in chapters 5 through 7.

The Kingdom of Heaven at Work in Us (Matthew 5-7)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Chapters 5 through 7 in Matthew's Gospel give us the most complete version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. While this very long passage (111 verses) is often treated as a series of discrete segments (thought by some to have been compiled from different teaching occasions), there is a cohesion and a flow of thought in the sermon that deepens our understanding of how the kingdom of heaven is at work in us, in our work, and in our family and community life.

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The Sermon on the Mount opens with the beatitudes—eight statements beginning with the word blessed.[1] This word affirms a state of blessing that already exists. Each beatitude declares that a group of people usually regarded as afflicted is actually blessed. Those blessed do not have to do anything to attain this blessing. Jesus simply declares that they have already been blessed. Thus the beatitudes are first of all declarations of God’s grace. They are not conditions of salvation or roadmaps to earn entry to God’s kingdom.

Those who belong to each blessed group experience God’s grace because the kingdom of heaven has come near. Consider the second beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4). People do not normally think of mourning as a blessing. It is a sorrow. But with the coming of the kingdom of heaven, mourning becomes a blessing because the mourners “will be comforted.” The implication is that God himself will do the comforting. The affliction of mourning becomes the blessing of profound relationship with God. That is a blessing indeed!

Although the primary purpose of the beatitudes is to declare the blessings given by God’s kingdom, most scholars also regard them as painting a picture of the character of that kingdom.[2] As we step into God’s kingdom, we hope to become more like those named as blessed—more meek, more merciful, more hungry for righteousness, more apt to make peace, and so on. This gives the beatitudes a moral imperative. Later, when Jesus says, “Make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), the beatitudes describe the character these disciples are meant to take on.

The beatitudes describe the character of God’s kingdom, but they are not conditions of salvation. Jesus does not say, for example, “Only the pure in heart may enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is good news because the beatitudes are impossibly hard to fulfill. Given that Jesus says, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28), who could truly be “pure in heart” (Matt. 5:8)? If it were not for God’s grace, no one would actually be blessed. The beatitudes are not a judgment against all who fail to measure up. Instead, they are a blessing for any who consent to join themselves to God’s kingdom as it “comes near.”

A further grace of the beatitudes is that they bless God’s community, not just God’s individuals. By following Jesus, we become blessed members of the kingdom community, even though our character is not yet formed in God’s likeness. Individually, we fail to fulfill the characteristics of some or all of the blessings. But we are blessed nonetheless by the character of the entire community around us. Citizenship in God’s kingdom begins now. The character of the kingdom community is perfected when Jesus returns, “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30).

With this understanding, we are ready to explore the specific character of each of the beatitudes and explore how it applies to work. We cannot attempt to discuss each beatitude exhaustively, but we hope we can lay the groundwork for receiving the blessings and living out the beatitudes in our daily work.[3]

"Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit, for Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 5:3)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The “poor in spirit” are those who cast themselves on God's grace.[1] We personally acknowledge our spiritual bankruptcy before God. It is the tax collector in the temple, beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:9-14). It is an honest confession that we are sinful and utterly without moral virtues needed to please God. It is the opposite of arrogance. In its deepest form, it acknowledges our desperate need for God. Jesus is declaring that it is a blessing to recognize our need to be filled by God’s grace.

Thus, at the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we learn that we don’t have the spiritual resources in ourselves to put Jesus’ teachings into practice. We can't fulfill God’s call by ourselves. Blessed are those who realize they are spiritually bankrupt, for this realization turns them to God, without whom they cannot fulfill what they are created to do and be. Much of the rest of the sermon rips away from us the self-delusion that we are capable of acquiring a state of blessedness on our own. It aims to produce in us a genuine poverty of spirit.

What is the practical result of this blessing? If we are poor in spirit, we are able to bring an honest appraisal of ourselves to our work. We don't inflate our résumé or boast about our position. We know how difficult it is to work with people who cannot learn, grow, or accept correction because they are trying to maintain an inflated picture of themselves. So we commit ourselves to honesty about ourselves. We remember that even Jesus, when he started working with wood, must have needed guidance and instruction. At the same time, we acknowledge that only with God at work within us can we put Jesus’ teachings into practice on the job. We seek God’s presence and strength in our lives each day as we live as Christians where we work.

In the fallen world, poverty of spirit may seem to be a hindrance to success and advancement. Often this is an illusion. Who is likely to be more successful in the long run? A leader who says, “Fear not, I can handle anything, just do as I say,” or a leader who says, “Together, we can do it, but everyone will have to perform better than ever before.” If there was ever a time when an arrogant, self-promoting leader was considered greater than a humble, empowering leader, that time is passing, at least within the best organizations. For example, a humble leader is the first characteristic mark of companies that achieve sustained greatness, according to Jim Collins’s well-known research.[2] Of course, many workplaces remain stuck in the old kingdom of self-promotion and inflated self-appraisal. In some situations, the best practical advice may be to find another workplace if at all possible. In other cases, leaving the job may not be possible, or it may not be desirable, because by staying a Christian could be an important force for good. In these situations, the poor in spirit are all the more a blessing to those around them.

"Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, for They Will be Comforted" (Matthew 5:4)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The second beatitude builds on our mental recognition of our poverty of spirit by adding an emotional response of sorrow. When we face the evil in our own lives, it saddens us; when we face the evil in the world—which includes possible evil in our workplace—that, too, touches our emotions with grief. The evil may come from ourselves, from others, or from sources unknown. In any case, when we honestly mourn evil words, evil deeds, evil policies on the job, God sees our sorrow and comforts us with the knowledge that it will not always be this way.

Those blessed with mourning about their own failings can receive comfort by admitting their errors. If we make a mistake with a colleague, student, customer, employee, or other person, we admit it and ask their pardon. This takes courage! Without the emotional blessing of sadness over our actions, we would probably never muster the guts to admit our mistakes. But if we do, we may be surprised how often people are ready to forgive us. And if, on occasion, others take advantage of our admission of fault, we can fall back on the blessing of non-arrogance that flows from the first beatitudes.

Some businesses have found expressing sorrow to be an effective way to operate. Toro, the manufacturer of tractors and lawn equipment, adopted a practice of showing concern to people injured while using their products. As soon as the company learns of an injury, it contacts the injured person to express sorrow and offer help. It also asks for suggestions to improve the product. Surprising as it may sound, this approach has reduced the number of customer lawsuits over a period of many years.[1] Virginia Mason Hospital found similar results from acknowledging their role in patient deaths.[2]

“Blessed Are the Meek, for They Will Inherit the Earth“ (Matthew 5:5)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents
Meekness in the Military

From “The Truth as I Know It, A Conversation with General Peter Pace,” Ethix 61

“There was an event in Vietnam where I almost made a very serious mistake. We had been on a patrol, and a young Marine named Lance Corporal Guido Farinaro, 19 years old, from Bethpage, New York, was killed by a sniper. The bullet came from a nearby village. I was the platoon leader, and he was my machinegun squad leader. I was enraged, and I called in an artillery strike to get the sniper. Then I looked to my right and saw 21-year-old Sergeant Reid B. Zachary. He did not say a thing, but he simply looked at me, and I knew what I was about to do was wrong.

“I called off the artillery strike and we swept the village, as I should have done in the first place. We found nothing but women and children, as the sniper was long gone. I don’t know that I could have lived with myself had I done what I originally planned to do. I don’t think I would be standing in front of you today. I had almost allowed the rage of the moment to overcome what I thought was some substantial thinking about who I was going to be in combat.

“After the event, I called my platoon together in a little bombed out crater, and I apologized to them. I told them had it not been for Sergeant Zachary, I probably would not have made the right decision. The reaction of the platoon was amazing. It was a very warm, family response, and I learned that a leader admitting mistakes, and thanking those who point them out to him or her, is really important.”

The third beatitude puzzles many people in the workplace, in part because they don’t understand what it means to be meek. Many assume the term means weak, tame, or deficient in courage. But the biblical understanding of meekness is power under control. In the Old Testament, Moses was described as the meekest man on earth (Numbers 12:3, KJV). Jesus described himself as “meek and lowly” (Matt. 11:28-29, KJV), which was consistent with his vigorous action in cleansing the temple (Matt. 21:12-13).

Power under God’s control means two things: (1) refusal to inflate our own self-estimation; and (2) reticence to assert ourselves for ourselves. Paul captures the first aspect perfectly in Romans 12:3. “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Meek people see themselves as servants of God, not thinking more highly of themselves than they ought to think. To be meek is to accept our strengths and limitations for what they truly are, instead of constantly trying to portray ourselves in the best possible light. But it does not mean that we should deny our strengths and abilities. When asked if he was the Messiah, Jesus replied, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matt. 11:4-6). He had neither an inflated self-image nor an inferiority complex, but a servant’s heart based on what Paul would later call “sober judgment” (Romans 12:3).

A servant’s heart is the crux of the second aspect of meekness: reticence to assert ourselves for ourselves. We exercise power, but for the benefit of all people, not just ourselves. The second aspect is captured by Psalm 37:1-11a, which begins with, “Do not fret because of the wicked,” and ends with “the meek shall inherit the land.” It means we curb our urge to avenge the wrongs done against us, and instead use whatever power we have to serve others. It flows from the sorrow for our own weaknesses that comprises the second beatitude. If we feel sorrow for our own sins, can we really feel vengeful over the sins of others?

It can be very challenging to put our power at work under God’s control. In the fallen world, it seems to be the aggressive and the self-promoting who get ahead. “You don't get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.”[2] In the workplace, the arrogant and powerful seem to win, but in the end they lose. They don’t win in personal relationships. No one wants an arrogant, self-seeking friend. Men and women who are hungry for power are often lonely people. Nor do they win in financial security. They think they possess the world, but the world possesses them. The more money they have, the less financially secure they feel.

In contrast, Jesus said that the meek “will inherit the earth.” As we have seen, the earth has become the location of the kingdom of heaven. We tend to think of the kingdom of heaven as heaven, a place completely different (golden streets, gates of pearl, a mansion over the hilltop) from anything we know here. But God's promise of the kingdom is a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). Those who submit their power to God will inherit the perfect kingdom coming to earth. In this kingdom, we receive by God’s grace the good things the arrogant fruitlessly strive for in the present earth, and more. And this is not a future reality only. Even in a broken world, those who recognize their true strengths and weaknesses can find peace by living realistically. Those who exercise power for the benefit of others are often admired. The meek engage others in decision making and experience better results and deeper relationships.

"Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness" (Matthew 5:6)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Understanding the fourth beatitude turns on understanding what Jesus meant by righteousness. In ancient Judaism, righteousness meant “to acquit, vindicate, restore to a right relationship.”[1] The righteous are those who maintain right relationships—with God and with the people around them. On the basis of right relationships, those who commit infractions are acquitted of guilt.

Have you received the blessing of being filled with right relationships? It flows from meekness (the third beatitude) because we can only form right relationships with others when we cease making all our actions revolve around ourselves. Do you hunger and thirst for right relationships—with God, with your co-workers, with your family, and your community? Hunger is a sign of life. We are genuinely hungry for good relationships if we yearn for others for their own sake, not just as snack food for meeting our own needs. If we see that we have God’s grace for this, we will hunger and thirst for right relationships, not only with God, but with the people with whom we work or live.

Jesus says that those who have this hunger will find their appetites filled. It is easy to see the wrongs in our workplaces and to want to do battle to fix them. If we do this, we are hungering and thirsting for righteousness, desiring to see wrongs righted. The Christian faith has been the source of many of the greatest reforms in the work world, perhaps most notably the abolition of slavery in Great Britain and the United States, and the genesis of the Civil Rights movement. But again, the flow of the beatitudes is important. We don’t take on these battles in our own strength, but only in recognition of our own emptiness, mourning our own unrighteousness, submitting our power to God.

“Blessed Are the Merciful, for They Will Receive Mercy” (Matthew 5:7)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

If you are blessed with sorrow for your own failings (the second beatitude) and with right relationships (the fourth beatitude), you will not find it difficult to show mercy to others on the job or anywhere else. Mercy consists of treating people better than they deserve from us. Forgiveness is a type of mercy. So is aiding someone whom we have no obligation to help, or forbearing to exploit someone’s vulnerability. Mercy, in all these senses, is the driving force of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. Through him, our sins are forgiven and we ourselves receive aid by the gift of God’s spirit (1 Corinthians 12). The Spirit’s reason for showing us this mercy is simply that God loves us (John 3:16).

At work, mercy has a highly practical effect. We are to aid others to attain their best outcomes, regardless of how we feel about them. When you assist a co-worker, whom you may not like and who may even have wronged you in the past, you are showing mercy. When you are the first contestant in an audition and you warn the later contestants that the judge is in a foul mood, you are showing mercy, though it may give them an advantage over you. When a competitor's child is sick, and you agree to reschedule your presentation to the client so your competitor won't have to choose between caring for the child and competing for the business, you are showing mercy.

These kinds of mercy may cost you an advantage you could otherwise have taken. Yet they benefit the work outcome, as well as the other person. Assisting someone you don’t like helps your work unit achieve its goals, even if it doesn’t benefit you personally. Or—as in the case of the competitor with a sick child—if it doesn’t benefit your organization, it benefits the client you aim to serve. The underlying reality of mercy is that mercy benefits someone beyond yourself.

An environment of forgiveness in an organization offers another surprising result. It improves the organization’s performance. If someone makes a mistake in an organization where mercy is not shown, they are likely not to say anything about it, hoping it will not be noticed and they will not be blamed.

This diminishes performance in two ways. The first is that an error covered up may be much more difficult to deal with later. Imagine a construction job where a worker makes a mistake with a foundation fitting. It is easy to fix if it is brought to light and repaired right away. But it will be very expensive to fix after the structure is built and the foundation buried. The second is that the best learning experiences come out of learning from errors. As Soichiro Honda said, “Success can only be achieved through repeated failure and introspection. In fact, success represents the 1 percent of your work that only comes from the 99 percent that is called failure.”[1] Organizations don’t have the opportunity to learn if mistakes are not brought forward.

"Blessed Are the Pure in Heart, for They Will See God" (Matthew 5:8)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents
Integrity in Auto Sales

The value of integrity in business is illustrated by Don Flow, CEO of Flow Automotive. He has a deep personal commitment to fairness. But he discovered that the selling practices in his automobile dealerships were leading to unfair treatment of poorer customers. He could not—and did not want to—separate his business practices from his personal commitments. So he changed his business practices. He explains the new practice this way:

"We have a customer-centric selling process. We don’t have the traditional run back and forth negotiating process; we have a pricing structure that’s set. Our prices are actually a little bit lower because we’ve been able to manage our costs better with our internal processes. You don’t have to be a tough negotiator, or more educated, to get a fair price. If you’ve got a Ph.D. or if you’re a janitor, you’ll pay the same price for the vehicle. We did a study and found that the people who typically paid the least for the cars were the most able to pay. Those least able to pay, paid the most. For me, it was wrong to take advantage of the least able, a clear violation of the biblical mandate in the book of Proverbs. We went back and restructured our business. Our profit structure has to be much tighter around the mean, and we have to communicate enough value that a person will pay us a fair return.”[1]

Here is a 4-minute video of Don describing how he applies the Christian faith to his business practices.

The sixth beatitude echoes Psalm 24:3-5:

Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.

“Clean hands and pure hearts” denote integrity, singleness of devotion, undivided loyalty. Integrity goes well beyond avoiding deceit and bad behavior. The root of integrity is wholeness, meaning that our actions are not choices we put on or take off as may seem convenient, but stem from the whole of our being. Notice that Jesus pronounces the blessing of being pure in heart not right after the blessing of hungering for righteousness, but after the blessing of showing mercy. Purity of heart arises not from perfection of our will, but from reception of God’s grace.

We can determine how much of this blessing we have received by asking ourselves: How much commitment do I have to integrity, when I might be able to get away with skillful deception? Do I refuse to let my opinion of someone be shaped by gossip and innuendo, no matter how juicy? To what extent are my actions and words accurate reflections of what is in my heart?

It is hard to argue against personal integrity in the workplace, yet in a fallen world it is often the butt of jokes. Like mercy and meekness, it can be seen as weakness. But it is the person of integrity who will “see God.” While the Bible is clear that God is invisible and “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 1:17, 6:16), the pure in heart can perceive and sense God's reality in this life. In fact, without integrity, the deceits we propagate against others eventually make us unable to perceive the truth. We inevitably begin to believe our own fabrications. And this leads to ruin in the workplace, because work based on unreality soon becomes ineffective. The impure have no desire to see God, but those who are part of Christ's kingdom are blessed because they see reality as it truly is, including the reality of God.

"Blessed Are the Peacemakers, for They Will Be Called Children of God" (Matt 5:9)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The seventh beatitude takes every Christian worker into the task of conflict resolution. Conflicts arise whenever people have differences of opinion. In a fallen world, the tendency is to ignore conflict or suppress it by using force, threat, or intimidation. But both of those are violations of the integrity (the sixth beatitude) of the people in conflict. In God's kingdom, it is a blessing to bring people together who are in conflict. Only then is it possible to resolve the conflict and restore the relationships. (Later in this article, we will explore Jesus’ method for conflict resolution in Matt. 18:17-19.)

The result of conflict resolution is peace, and peacemakers will be called “children of God.” They will reflect the divine character in their actions. God is the God of peace (1 Thessalonians 5:23) and we show ourselves to be his children when we seek to make peace in the workplace, in the community, in our homes, and in the whole world.

"Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted for Righteousness' Sake" (Matt 5:10)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The eighth and final beatitude may strike us as negative. Up to this point, the beatitudes have focused on humility, meekness, right relationships, mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking—all positive qualities. But Jesus includes the possibility of “persecution for righteousness’ sake.” This arises from the previous seven, because the forces that oppose God’s ways still hold great power in the world.

Note that persecution arising from unrighteous behavior is not blessed. If we fail through our own fault, we should expect to suffer negative consequences. Jesus is talking about the blessing of being persecuted for doing right. But why would we be persecuted for righteousness? The reality in a fallen world is that if we demonstrate genuine righteousness, many will reject us. Jesus elaborates by pointing out that the prophets, who like him announced God’s kingdom, were persecuted. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). Righteous people in the workplace may be subjected to active, even severe persecution by people who benefit—or believe they benefit—from injustice there. For example, if you speak up for—or merely befriend—people who are victims of gossip or discrimination in your workplace, expect persecution. If you are the president of a trade association, and you speak out against an unfair subsidy your members are receiving, don’t expect them to re-elect you. The blessing is that active persecution for the right reasons indicates that the powers of darkness believe you are succeeding in furthering God's kingdom.

Even the best organizations and most admirable people are still tainted by the Fall. None are perfect. The eighth beatitude serves as a reminder to us that working in a fallen world requires courage.

Salt and Light in the World of Work (Matthew 5:13-16)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Following the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers that people who receive these blessings matter:

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:13-16)

If you are a follower of Jesus living the beatitudes, you matter. You have an important role to play because you are the salt of the earth. Salt preserves and Christians help preserve what is good in the culture. In the ancient world, salt was very valuable: the Greeks thought it contained something almost divine, and the Romans sometimes paid their soldiers with salt. A soldier who didn't carry out his duties “was not worth his salt.” You are a seasoning agent. In a sense, you can bring the distinctive flavor of God's values to all of life. You can make life palatable.

Faith: How Open Can You Be?

Findlay debated with himself for some time, and then made a conscious decision to leave a Bible on his desk at work. Since becoming a believer he wanted to let others know about his newfound faith, and had concluded this small step could open some doors.

To continue reading, click here. You can return to this page afterwards.

Note that salt, to be effective, must be in contact with the meat or fish it is to preserve. To be effective, we must be involved where we work and where we live. This puts us in a tension because the dominant culture doesn’t necessarily like us. The majority of the time, living according to the beatitudes may make us more successful in work. But we need to be prepared for the times it doesn’t. What will we do if showing mercy, making peace, or working for justice jeopardizes our position at work? Withdrawing from the world is no answer for Christians. But it is difficult to live in the world, ready to challenge its ways at any time. In Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus acknowledged the reality of persecution. But in our contacts with the culture, we must retain our “saltiness,” our distinctiveness. It’s a balancing act we’re called upon to maintain.

“You are the light of the world.” The job description of a Christian is not only to maintain personal holiness, but also to touch the lives of everyone around us. At work, we touch many people who do not encounter Christ in church. It may be our most effective place to witness to Christ. But we have to be careful about how we witness for Christ at work. We are being paid to do our work, and it would be dishonest to stint our employers by using work time for evangelism. Moreover, it would be dishonorable to create divisions at work or a hostile environment for nonbelievers. We must avoid any possible taint of seeking self-promotion by proselytizing. And we always run the risk that our failings at work may bring shame on the name of Christ, especially if we seem to be enthusiastic about evangelism but shoddy in actual work.

With all these dangers, how can we be salt and light at work? Jesus said our light is not necessarily in the witness of our words, but in the witness of our deeds—our “good works.” “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and glorify your father who is in heaven.” The beatitudes have spelled out some of those good works. In humility and submission to God, we work for right relations, for merciful actions, and for peace. When we live as people of blessing, we are salt and light—in the workplace, in our homes, and in our nation.

What Is Righteousness? (Matthew 5:17-48)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Jesus makes a startling statement in Matthew 5:20. “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Ordinary people in his day revered the apparent righteousness of the religious leaders and could not imagine ever matching them in their piety. Jesus shocks them by stating that entrance into God's kingdom was available only to those whose righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees. Who, then, could be saved? The problem lay in equating righteousness with external piety, a common understanding of the word both then and now. But the word righteousness throughout the Bible (as noted above in the fourth beatitude) always denotes right relationships—with God and with people around us. This includes those in the workplace.

This becomes plain in the illustrations that follow. In Matthew 5:21-26, it is not enough not to murder someone; we must guard against harboring anger that leads to insults and broken relationships. We may feel anger, but the right way to handle anger is try to resolve conflict (Matt. 18:15-19), not to push the person away with insults or slander. Jesus is clear that a right relationship between you and your brother or sister is so vital that you should forego religious practices until you have cleared the matter between the two of you.

In the workplace, anger may be used to manipulate others. Or anger may overwhelm you because you feel unfairly treated. Deal with the issue: take the first step toward reconciliation, even though it may put you in a position of humility. Engaging in fair, open conflict resolution is the way of the new kingdom. Again, blessed are the peacemakers.

Wealth and Provision (Matthew 6)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Jesus speaks about wealth frequently. Wealth and provision are not in themselves work, but they are often the result of work, our own or someone else’s. A central tenet of economics is that the purpose of work is to increase wealth, making this a work-related topic. Here are Jesus’ teachings on wealth and daily provision as they appear in the Sermon on the Mount.

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread (Matthew 6:11)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

At Dayspring Technologies Turning to God for Daily Bread Applies to Cash Reserves (Click to Watch)

Immediately before this request for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer, we read, "Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). In God’s kingdom, receiving our daily bread is a certainty, but in our world marred by sin, daily sustenance is questionable. Although God has given humanity everything we need to produce enough food to feed everyone on earth, we have not ended hunger. Thus Jesus’ first word about wealth or daily provision is this petition, “Give us this day our daily bread." We turn to God for the bread we need.

But note that the petition is plural: Give US this day OUR daily bread. We don’t pray only for our own bread, but for bread for those who have none. As people longing to maintain right relationships with others, we take others’ need of bread into consideration: we share what we have with those who have need. If every person, business, institution, and government worked according to the purposes and principles of God’s kingdom, no one would be hungry.

Store Your Treasure in Heaven, Not on Earth (Matthew 6:19-34)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Not only are we to ask God for our daily provision, but we also are warned against stockpiling material wealth and other treasures on earth:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt. 6:19-21)

“Treasures in heaven” is not a vaporous reference to kindly thoughts in God’s heart or some such platitude. God’s kingdom will ultimately rule on earth. “Treasures in heaven” are things of worth in God’s coming kingdom, such as justice, opportunity for everyone to be productive, provision for everyone’s needs, and respect for the dignity of every person. The implication is that we would do better to invest our money in activities that transform the world, than in securities that protect our accumulated surplus.

Is it wrong, then, to have a retirement portfolio or even to care about the material things of this world for ourselves or for others? The answer is again both no and yes. The no comes from the fact that this passage is not the only one in the Bible speaking to questions of wealth and provision for those who are dependent on us. Other passages counsel prudence and forethought, such as, “Those who gather little by little will increase [wealth]” (Proverbs 13:11b), and, “The good leave an inheritance to their children’s children” (Proverbs 13:22). God guides Joseph to store up food for seven years in advance of a famine (Genesis 41:25-36), and Jesus speaks favorably in the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30, which will be discussed later) of investing money. In light of the rest of Scripture, Matthew 6:19-34 cannot be a blanket prohibition.

Tech Company Owner Says Business Decisions Reveal Where Your Heart Is (Click to Watch)

But the yes part of the answer is a warning, summed up beautifully in verse 21, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” We might expect this sentence to run the other way, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.” But Jesus’ actual words are more profound. Money changes the heart more than the heart decides how to handle money. Jesus’ point is not “You tend to put your money into things that matter to you, but, “the possessions you own will change you so that you care more about them than about other things.” Choose carefully what you own, for you will inevitably begin to value and protect it, to the potential detriment of everything else.

We may call this the “Treasure Principle,” namely, that treasure transforms. Those who invest their deepest treasure in the things of this world will find they are no longer serving God but money (Matt. 6:24). That can lead to anxiety coming from the uncertainties of money (Matt. 6:25-34). Will it be eroded by inflation? Will the stock market crash? Will the bonds default? Will the bank fail? Can I be sure that what I’ve saved will be enough to handle anything that could possibly happen?

The antidote is to invest in ways that meet people’s genuine needs. A company that provides clean water or well-made clothes may be investing in the kingdom of God, whereas an investment that depends on politically motivated subsidies, overheated housing markets, or material shortages may not. This passage in Matthew 6 is not a rule for portfolio management, but it does tell us that our commitment to the ways and means of God’s kingdom extends to how we manage such wealth as we have.

The question, then, is what kind of attention you should pay to material needs and the accumulation of resources. If you pay anxious attention, you are foolish. If you let them displace your trust in God, you are becoming unfaithful. If you pay excessive attention to them, you will become greedy. If you acquire them at the expense of other people, you are becoming the kind of oppressor against whom God’s kingdom is pitched.

How are we to discern the line between appropriate and inappropriate attention to wealth? Jesus answers, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you” (Matt. 6:33). First things first. Despite our large capacity for self-deception, this question can help us observe carefully where our treasure has put us. That will tell us something about our hearts.

“Do Not Judge, So That You May Not Be Judged” (Matthew 7:1-5)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Jesus calls us to realism about ourselves that will keep us from picking at or judging someone else:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matt. 7:1-5)

This may seem to pose a problem in the workplace. Successful work often depends on making assessments of other people’s character and work. Bosses must assess their subordinates, and in some organizations, vice versa. We must often decide whom to trust, whom to choose as partners, whom to employ, which organization to join. But Matt. 7:5, with the word hypocrite and the admonition, “First take the log out of your own eye,” shows that Jesus is speaking against false or unnecessary judgment, not against honest assessment. The problem is that we are constantly making judgments unaware. The mental pictures we make of others in our workplaces are composed more of our biased perceptions than from reality. Partly, this is because we see in others whatever serves to make us feel better about ourselves. Partly, it is to justify our own actions when we do not act as servants to others. Partly, it is because we lack the time or inclination to collect true information, which is much harder to do than storing up random impressions.

It may be impossible to overcome this false judgmentalism on our own. This is why consistent, fact-based assessment systems are so important in workplaces. A good performance appraisal system requires managers to gather real evidence of performance, to discuss differing perceptions with employees, and to recognize common biases. On a personal level, between those who are not one another’s bosses, we can accomplish some of the same impartiality by asking ourselves “What role do I have in that” when we notice ourselves forming a judgment against someone else. “What evidence leads me to that conclusion? How does this judgment benefit me? What would that person say in response to this judgment?” Perhaps the surest way to remove the log in our own eye is to take our judgment directly to the other person and ask them to respond to our perception. (See the section on conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15-17 below.)

Do to Others as You Would Have Them Do to You: The Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents
Jean Bartell Barber on the Golden Rule at Bartell Drugs

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). This brings us back to true righteousness, the mending and sustaining of right relationships on the job as well as elsewhere. If we have time for only one question before making a decision taking action, the best one may be, “Is this how I would want it to be done to me?”

Jesus Heals Many (Matthew 8-9)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents
God Couture

In chapters 5 through 7, we heard Jesus teaching about the kingdom of heaven coming to earth. In chapters 8 through 9, we see him enacting that kingdom through deeds of compassion and mercy. He heals an ostracized leper (Matt. 8:1-4), he has compassion on an officer of the Roman occupying forces (Matt. 8:5-20), and he delivers demoniacs sitting in the midst of a perfect storm of misery (Matt. 8:28-9:1). In all these cases, Jesus’ compassion leads him to act to reclaim God’s creation. The compassion of his followers can be expressed in equally practical ways.

As Jesus demonstrates the coming of the kingdom, he calls those who follow him “laborers” (Matt. 9:37-38). Some of us are led to work in physical and emotional healing, similar to Jesus’ work in these chapters. Others are led to work in occupations that provide food, water, shelter, transportation, education, health care, justice, safety, or good government, similar to Jesus’ work providing wooden goods until he was about thirty. Given the time Jesus spent healing people, it is surprising that most people think of him as a preacher rather than as a doctor. Still others are led to express their creativity in art, entrepreneurism, design, fashion, research and development, made as we are in the image of a creative God (Genesis 1). The point is that for Jesus there is no separation between the secular and the sacred, between the spiritual and physical aspects of announcing the kingdom of God.

Laborers Deserve Their Food (Matthew 10)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In chapter 10, Jesus sends out his disciples to proclaim the coming kingdom and to demonstrate it through powerful deeds of mercy and compassion. He instructs them to make no provision for their needs (Matt. 10:9-10), but instead to depend on the generosity of others. He is clear that the gospel is not to become a matter of commerce, “You received without payment; give without payment” (Matt. 10:8).

The lesson here for us is that earning money and thinking about finances are not bad; indeed, it is through our labor that God provides for us, for “the laborers deserve their food” (Matt. 10:10). But the warning is against allowing our earnings to become our primary focus at work. As workers under the Lord of the new kingdom, our primary focus is on the value of the work, not on the paycheck. Jesus’ instructions here are meant to keep God in the forefront of our hearts (cf. James 4:13-16). Whatever the signature at the bottom of our paycheck, God is ultimately underwriting it all.

My Yoke Is Easy (Matthew 11:28-30)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

As we walk through Matthew’s Gospel, we see that opposition to Jesus—his message and his actions—is increasing. It culminates in Matthew 12:14 with the religious leaders’ decision to stop him, even if it means killing him. This foreshadows and sets in motion the end to which the whole narrative is pointing: Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem. Knowing what lies ahead of him, Jesus nevertheless tells his followers,

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30)

If we do our work in yoke with him, we will find fulfillment and experience good relationships with God and people.[1] When God gave work to Adam in the Garden of Eden, the work was easy and the burden light under God's authority. When the human pair rebelled against their Maker, the character of work changed to hard labor against thorns and thistles (Genesis 3). Jesus invites us to work in yoke with him with the promise of rest for our souls. (For more on working in yoke with Christ, see "2 Corinthians 6:14-18" in 2 Corinthians and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.)

For an application of this passage, see "Change Tactics as You Grow" at Country Supply Study Guide by clicking here.

Working on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Making Time Off Predictable and Required

Read more here about a new study regarding rhythms of rest and work done at the Boston Consulting Group by two professors from Harvard Business School. It showed that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited. (Harvard Business Review may show an ad and require registration in order to view the article.) Mark Roberts also discusses this topic in his Life for Leaders devotional "Won't Keeping the Sabbath Make Me Less Productive?"

One of the chief areas of conflict between Jesus and his opponents was in keeping the Sabbath. In this passage, Jesus is criticized by religious leaders for allowing his followers to pluck and eat grain on the Sabbath. The Pharisees regarded this as work, which was forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus dismisses both their interpretation and their motivation. He argues that plucking just enough grain to satisfy immediate hunger does not break the Sabbath, because both King David and the temple priests did so without incurring God’s rebuke (Matt. 12:3-5). Moreover, true adherence to the Law of Moses should be motivated by compassion and mercy (Matt. 12:6). God’s love of mercy (allowing hungry people to pick grain to eat) is higher than God’s desire for sacrifice (following Sabbath regulations), as had already been revealed in Micah 6:6-8. The gift of a day of rest each week is a promise from God that we do not have to work incessantly just to make ends meet. It is not a judgment against relieving someone’s hunger or need on the Sabbath.

The connection between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian worship on Sunday, and the application of Jewish Sabbath law to the Christian life are discussed in greater depth in the sections on "Mark 1:21-45" and "Mark 2:23-3:6" in Mark and Work, the sections on "Luke 6:1-11; 3:10-17" in Luke and Work, and in the article Rest and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.

Parables of the Kingdom (Matthew 13)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Beginning in chapter 13, in the face of opposition, Jesus’ teaching style changes. Instead of proclaiming the kingdom clearly, he begins to speak in parables that are meaningful to believers but incomprehensible to unbelievers. Most of these brief stories are about workers: a sower planting a field (Matt. 13:3-9); a woman kneading yeast into bread (Matt. 13:33); a treasure-hunter (Matt. 13:44); a pearl merchant (Matt. 13:45-46); some fishermen (Matt. 13:47-50); and a householder (Matt. 13:52). For the most part, these are not stories about the work they depict. Jesus does not tell us how to properly sow a field, how to bake bread, or how to invest in commodities. Instead, Jesus uses material objects and human labor as elements of stories that give us insight into God’s kingdom. Our work is capable of bearing meaning, even in illustrating eternal realities. This reminds us that we and the world around us spring from God’s creation and remain parts of God’s kingdom.

Paying Taxes (Matthew 17:24-27 and 22:15-22)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In Jesus’ day, Jews paid taxes both locally to the Jewish temple and to the pagan government in Rome. Matthew records two separate instances depicting Jesus’ view on paying these taxes. The first incident is recorded in Matthew 17:24-27, where the collectors of the temple tax ask Peter whether Jesus pays that tax. Jesus, knowing of this conversation, asks Peter, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” Peter answers, “From others.” Jesus responds, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

The second incident, concerning the Roman tax, is found in Matthew 22:15-22. Here the Pharisees and Herodians want to entrap Jesus with the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Jesus knows the malice in their hearts and responds with a cutting question, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” When they hand him a denarius, he asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They respond, “The emperor's.” Jesus ends the conversation with the words, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Our true citizenship is in God’s kingdom, and we devote our resources to God’s purposes. But we give to earthly powers what is due. Paying taxes is one of the bedrock obligations we as citizens or residents undertake for the services we enjoy in any civilized society. Those services include the work of first responders (police, firefighters, medical people, and so on), as well as the social nets in place to assure justice or aid for the poor, the aged, and others in need. The Roman Empire was not governed primarily for the benefit of the common people, yet even so it provided roads, water, policing, and sometimes relief for the poor. We may not always agree on the type or extent of services our governments should provide, but we know that our taxes are essential in providing for our personal protection and for the help of those who cannot help themselves.

Even though not all of government activity serves God’s purposes, Jesus does not call us flout the tax requirements of the nations where we reside (Romans 13:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). Jesus is saying in essence that we do not necessarily have to resist paying taxes as a matter of principle. When possible, we should “live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14; cf. 1 Peter 2:12), while also living as lights shining in the darkness (Matthew 5:13-16; Philippians 2:15). To work at our jobs and to refuse to pay our taxes in a way that brings dishonor to God’s kingdom would be neither peaceable nor winsome.

This has direct applications to work. Workplaces are subject to governmental laws and powers, in addition to taxes. Some governments have laws and practices that may violate Christian purposes and ethics, as was true of Rome in the first century. Governments or their employees may demand bribes, impose unethical rules and regulations, subject people to suffering and injustice, and use the taxes for purposes contrary to God's will. As with taxes, Jesus does not demand that we resist every one of these abuses. We are like spies or guerrillas in enemy territory. We can’t get bogged down in fighting the enemy kingdom at every stronghold. Instead, we must act strategically, always asking what will most further the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. Of course, we must never engage in abusive practices for our own benefit. (This topic is also discussed under "Luke 19:1-10; 20:20-26" in Luke and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.)

Living in the New Kingdom (Matthew 18-25)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In chapters 18 through 25 of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus gives concrete images of what life in God’s kingdom is like. In many cases, these pictures apply particularly to work.

Conflict Resolution (Matthew 18:15-35)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents
Walls Break Down When We Deal With Conflict on a Personal Level

All workplaces experience conflict. In this passage, Jesus gives us a template for dealing with someone who has wronged us. He does not say, “Get even!” or “Strike back!” Instead, he lays out a process that begins with seeking one-on-one to be reconciled. The beatitude of meekness (Matt 5:5) means putting aside your self-justification long enough to express yourself respectfully and factually to the one who has hurt you, and to open yourself to their perspective (Matt. 18:15). This does not mean submitting to further abuse, but opening yourself to the possibility that your perception is not universal. But suppose that doesn’t resolve the conflict? The fallback second step is to ask people who know you both to go with you as you take up the issue again with the person who caused pain or injury. If the conflict still is not resolved, then bring the matter to the leadership (the church, in Matthew 18:16, which is addressing church conflict specifically) for an impartial judgment. If that judgment doesn’t resolve the issue, the offender who fails to abide by the judgment is removed from the community (Matt. 18:17).

Although Jesus was speaking about conflict with “another member of the church” (Matt. 18:15), his method is a remarkable precursor to what is now recognized as best practice in the workplace. Even in the finest workplaces, conflicts arise. When they do, the only effective resolution is for those in conflict to engage each other directly, not to complain to others. Rather than play out a personal conflict in front of an audience, get with the person privately. In the age of electronic communication, Jesus’ approach is more important than ever. All it takes is a name or two in the “cc:” line or one press of the “reply all” button to turn a simple disagreement into an office feud. Even though two people could keep an email chain to themselves, the possibilities for misunderstanding are multiplied when an impersonal medium such as e-mail is used. It might be best to take Jesus’ advice literally, “Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (Matt. 18:15).

Pointing out the fault is a two-way street. We need to be open to hearing faults pointed out to us as well. Listening—Jesus mentions listening three times in these three verses—is the crucial element. Contemporary conflict resolution models usually focus on getting the parties to listen to each another, even while preserving the option to disagree. Often, attentive listening leads to the discovery of a mutually acceptable resolution. If it doesn’t, then others with the appropriate skills and authority are asked to get involved.

The Rich Young Man (Matthew 19:16-30)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The issue of money, earlier discussed in Matthew 6, raises its head again with the story of the rich young man who was drawn to Jesus. The young man asks Jesus, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, and he responds that he has done that from his youth. A distinctive element in Matthew’s narrative is that the young man then asks Jesus, “What do I still lack?” He shows great insight in asking this question. We can do everything that appears right but still know that something is not right on the inside. Jesus responds, “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21).

We know from the four Gospels that Jesus did not call all of his hearers to give away all their possessions. Not all people are as burdened by their possessions as this young man was. In his case, the challenge was radical because of his strong attachment to wealth (Matt. 19:22). God knows precisely what is in our hearts and what is needed as we serve him.

Is our treasure in our work, our jobs, our performance and skills, our retirement funds? These are good things (gifts from God) in their place. But they are secondary to seeking first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33) and a right (righteous) relationship with God and with others. We hold our wealth and our work on an open palm lest, like the rich young man, we end up turning away sorrowfully from God. (This story is discussed in greater depth in the entries for Mark 10:17-31 and Luke 18:18-30 at www.theologyofwork.org.)

The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

God's Generosity in Providing Us With Work for His Kingdom (Click to Listen)

This parable is unique to Matthew’s Gospel. The owner of a vineyard hires day laborers at various times throughout the day. The ones hired at six o'clock in the morning put in a full day’s work. Those hired at five o'clock put in only one hour of work. But the owner pays everyone a full day’s wage (a denarius). He goes out of his way to make sure that everyone knows that all are paid the same in spite of the different number of hours worked. Not surprisingly, those hired first complain that they worked longer but earned no more money than those who started late in the day. “But the owner replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?... Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:13, 15-16).

Unlike the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3-9; 18-23), Jesus does not give us an explicit interpretation. As a result, scholars have offered many interpretations. Because the people in the story are laborers and managers, some assume it is about work. In that case, it seems to say, “Don't compare your pay to others” or “Don't be dissatisfied if others get paid more or work less than you do in a similar job.” It could be argued that these are good practices for workers. If you earn a decent wage, why make yourself miserable because others have it even better? But this interpretation of the parable can also be used to justify unfair or abusive labor practices. Some workers may receive lower wages for unfair reasons, such as race or sex or immigrant status. Does Jesus mean that we should be content when we or other workers are treated unfairly?

Moreover, paying people the same regardless of how much work they do is a questionable business practice. Wouldn’t it give a strong incentive to all workers to show up at five o'clock in the afternoon the next day? And what about making everyone’s pay public? It does reduce the scope for intrigue. But is it a good idea to force those working longer hours to watch while those who worked only one hour are paid an identical wage? It seems calculated to cause labor strife. Pay for nonperformance, to take the parable literally, doesn’t seem to be a recipe for business success. Can it really be that Jesus advocates this pay practice?

Work as Realm of Prayer: Matthew 20 (Click Here to Read)

This sermon from The High Calling discusses how the first goal of our work is to be at work in the Master’s Vineyard. True joy is found when we labor for the Master as opposed to mammon. The worker who realizes that his or her work is first for the Master finds true joy and fulfillment.

Perhaps the parable is not really about work. The context is that Jesus is giving surprising examples of those who belong to God’s kingdom: for example, children (Matt. 19:14) who legally don’t even own themselves. He is clear that the kingdom does not belong to the rich, or at least not to very many of them (Matt. 19:23-26). It belongs to those who follow him, in particular if they suffer loss. “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matt. 19:30). The present parable is followed immediately by another ending with the same words, “the first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matt. 20:16). This suggests that the story is a continuation of the discussion about those to whom the kingdom belongs. Entry into God’s kingdom is not gained by our work or action, but by the generosity of God.

Once we understand the parable to be about God’s generosity in the kingdom of heaven, we may still ask how it applies to work. If you are being paid fairly, the advice about being content with your wage may stand. If another worker receives an unexpected benefit, wouldn’t it be graceful to rejoice, rather than grumble?

Pay Equity at Toro

Ken Melrose describes the importance of pay equity at the Toro Company:

In 1981, when I was appointed CEO, Toro was on the verge of bankruptcy. I felt it was my calling from God to build a culture using the concept of servant leadership. It seemed obvious to me to look at the “rank & file” employees as the real strength of the organization.

We were careful not to let the salary gaps up and down the organization get too large and cause disgruntlement. We were particularly concerned about stock options getting out of hand creating a feeling of “haves and have-nots”, paying particular attention to the employees at the lower part of the pay scale. We wanted to engender the idea that we all were one big team and all had a stake in the company’s success. To initiate this we gave every employee a share of Toro stock as a symbol, and then built on it by creating a 401k that annually rewarded all employees with stock in the company. While the managers at the top had more stock than those at the bottom, the fact was that we were all “owners”....[1]

To continue reading, click here. You can return to this page afterwards.

But there is also a broader application. The owner in the parable pays all the workers enough to support their families.[2]The social situation in Jesus’ day was that many small farmers were being forced off their land because of debt they incurred to pay Roman taxes. This violated the God of Israel’s command that land could not be taken away from the people who work it (Leviticus 25:8-13), but of course this was of no concern to the Romans. Consequently, large pools of unemployed men gathered each morning, hoping to be hired for the day. They are the displaced, unemployed, and underemployed workers of their day. Those still waiting at five o'clock have little chance of earning enough to buy food for their families that day. Yet the vineyard owner pays even them a full day’s wage.

If the vineyard owner represents God, this is a powerful message that in God’s kingdom, displaced and unemployed workers find work that meets their needs and the needs of those who depend on them. We have already seen Jesus saying that, “laborers deserve their food” (Matt. 10:10). This does not necessarily mean that earthly employers have a responsibility for meeting all the needs of their employees. Earthly employers are not God. Rather, the parable is a message of hope to everyone struggling to find adequate employment. In God’s kingdom, we will all find work that meets our needs. The parable is also a challenge to those who have a hand in shaping the structures of work in today’s society. Can Christians do anything to advance this aspect of God’s kingdom right now?

Servant Leadership (Matthew 20:20-28)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Despite this parable of God’s grace and generosity, despite hearing Jesus remark twice that the first shall be last and the last first, Jesus’ disciples are still missing the point. The mother of James and John asks Jesus to grant her two sons the most prominent places in his coming kingdom. The two men are standing there and Jesus turns to them and asks, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They respond, “We are able.” When the other ten disciples hear about this, they are angry. Jesus takes this opportunity to challenge their notions about prominence.

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matt. 20:25-28)

Does Servant Leadership Mean an Intern Gets the Business Class Upgrade? (Click to Watch)

True leadership is found in serving others. What this looks like will vary according to the workplace and situation. This doesn’t mean that a CEO must take a monthly turn sweeping the floors or cleaning the toilets, nor that any worker can cite helping someone else as an excuse for not doing their own work well. It does mean that we do all our work with the aim of serving our customers, co-workers, shareholders, and others whom our work affects. Max De Pree was a long time CEO of Herman Miller and member of the Fortune Hall of Fame. He wrote in his book Leadership Is an Art, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.”[1]

The servant is the person who knows his or her spiritual poverty (Matt. 5:3) and exercises power under God’s control (Matt. 5:5) to maintain right relationships. The servant leader apologizes for mistakes (Matt. 5:4), shows mercy when others fail (Matt. 5:7), makes peace when possible (Matt. 5:9), and endures unmerited criticism when attempting to serve God (Matt. 5:10) with integrity (Matt. 5:8). Jesus set the pattern in his own actions on our behalf (Matt. 20:28). We show ourselves to be Christ-followers by following his example.

Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The parable of the two sons (Matt. 21:28-32) is about two brothers whose father tells them to go work in his vineyard. One tells his father that he will but doesn’t do it. The other tells his father that he won’t go but ends up working all day among the vines. Jesus then asks the question, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” The answer is clear: the one who actually worked, though initially refusing to do so. This parable continues earlier stories in Matthew about the people who actually are part of God’s kingdom. Jesus tells the religious leaders in his audience that “tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt. 21:31).[1] The folks who look the least religious will enter God’s kingdom ahead of religious leaders, because in the end they do God’s will.

How to Get People at Work to Dislike You and Trust You (Click to Listen)

In this sermon, Will Messenger dares you to transform your relationships at work.

In work, this reminds us that actions speak louder than words. Many organizations have mission statements declaring that their top aims are customer service, product quality, civic integrity, putting their people first, and the like. Yet many such organizations have poor service, quality, integrity, and employee relations. Individuals may do the same thing, extolling their plans, yet failing to implement them. Organizations and individuals falling into this trap may have good intentions, and they may not recognize they are failing to live up to their rhetoric. Workplaces need both effective systems for implementing their mission and goals, and impartial monitoring systems to give unvarnished feedback.

Parable of the Tenants (Matthew 21:33-41)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The parable immediately following the parable of the wicked tenants (Matt. 21:33-41) takes place in a workplace, namely, a vineyard. However, Jesus makes it clear that he is not talking about running a vineyard, but about his own rejection and coming murder at the instigation of the Jewish religious authorities of his day (Matt. 21:45). The key to applying it to today’s workplace is verse 43, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” We all have been given responsibilities in our work. If we refuse to do them in obedience to God, we are working at odds with God’s kingdom. In every job, our ultimate performance appraisal comes from God.

The Great Commandment is a Great Framework (Matthew 22:34-40)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day often fought over the relative importance of commandments. Some held the view that observing the Sabbath was the most important of all commandments. Others valued circumcision over all else. Still others would have believed, as many modern Jews do today, that the most important commandment is found in Deuteronomy 6:5 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

So when a lawyer asks Jesus to weigh in on the question, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest” (Matthew 22:36), he might be asking Jesus to pick sides in an already contentious debate.

Yet Jesus plunges into a new area of insight by answering not only which commandment is the greatest, but how people might go about fulfilling it. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Jesus says, and then he adds a second commandment, from Leviticus 19:18 “love your neighbor as yourself,” which he joins with the first commandment by saying it is “like it.” (See the TOW Bible Commentary on Leviticus 19:17-18.) Through Jesus’ logic, loving God is linked inextricably to loving other people. John echoes this statement when he says, “If anyone says he loves God but hates his brother, he is a liar.” (1 John 4:20)

Work is a primary way through which we love other people. Our workplaces are often the places where we encounter the widest diversity of people, and their nearness to us day after day gives us the unique challenge of loving people who are different from ourselves. We also love others through our work when our work meets the important needs of customers or other stakeholders. For more examples seeOur Work Fulfills the Great Commandment” (Mark 12:28-34) and “The Good Samaritan at Work--Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself (Luke 10:25-37).”

But Jesus not only commands us to love others but to love others as we love our own selves. What does this look like in the workplace? It looks like a cook double-checking the internal temperature of a hamburger after someone says “Does that look all right to you,” because that’s what she would do if cooking the hamburger for herself. It looks like a sales clerk calling over a more-experienced colleague when a customer asks a question he is not sure he knows the answer to—rather that giving an answer he thinks is right—because he would want that information himself before buying. It looks like a mechanic stripping apart the brake job he just completed because he heard a strange noise and that’s what he would do before driving his own car. It looks like a businessman asking his colleagues, “Is it possible we’re not taking her seriously enough because she’s a woman?” knowing that he would want a colleague to stand up for him when he’s being misunderstood.

Don't Follow the Crowd (Click Here to Read)

In this daily reflection from The High Calling, Mark Roberts asks us, "When have you been tempted to follow the crowd into doing wrong? What helps you to stand against what is wrong in order to honor God?"

These are small examples, yet each of them may come at a price—a lost commission, an hour of unbillable time, a short night’s sleep, access to the inner circle of power. All of our labor has the potential to serve, and therefore love, our neighbors. But to love a neighbor, as yourself, may require taking risks that we would surely take in order to serve our own ends, but which loom large when undertaken only for the benefit of someone else. It is truly a high bar, and perhaps that is why Jesus joins “love your neighbor as yourself” with “love the Lord” in the Great Commandment.

Parable of the Faithful Servant (Matthew 24:45-51)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

This parable is about a slave who has been put in charge of the entire household. This includes the responsibility to give other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time. Jesus says, “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives” (Matt. 24:46). That slave will be promoted to additional responsibility. On the other hand, Jesus observed,

But if that wicked slave says to himself, My master is delayed, and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 24:48-51)

In a modern workplace context, the slave would be equivalent to a manager with a duty to the owners while managing other workers. The owner’s interests are met only when the workers’ needs are met. The manager has responsibilities to both those above and below him in authority. Jesus says that it is the servant leader’s duty to look to the needs of those under him as well as those above him. He cannot excuse himself for mistreating those under his authority by claiming it is somehow for the benefit of his superiors. He depicts this reality dramatically in the punishment meted out to the worker who cares only for his own interests (Matt. 24:48-51).

The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

One of Jesus’ most significant parables regarding work is set in the context of investments (Matt. 25:14-30). A rich man delegates the management of his wealth to his servants, much as investors in today’s markets do. He gives five talents (a large unit of money)[1] to the first servant, two talents to the second, and one talent to the third. Two of the servants earn 100 percent returns by trading with the funds, but the third servant hides the money in the ground and earns nothing. The rich man returns, rewards the two who made money, but severely punishes the servant who did nothing.

Film Producer Says: If We're Responsible With Our Funds, God Will Open Doors (Click to Watch)

The meaning of the parable extends far beyond financial investments. God has given each person a wide variety of gifts, and he expects us to employ those gifts in his service. It is not acceptable merely to put those gifts on a closet shelf and ignore them. Like the three servants, we do not have gifts of the same degree. The return God expects of us is commensurate with the gifts we have been given. The servant who received one talent was not condemned for failing to reach the five-talent goal; he was condemned because he did nothing with what he was given. The gifts we receive from God include skills, abilities, family connections, social positions, education, experiences, and more. The point of the parable is that we are to use whatever we have been given for God’s purposes. The severe consequences to the unproductive servant, far beyond anything triggered by mere business mediocrity, tell us that we are to invest our lives, not waste them.

Yet the particular talent invested in the parable is money, on the order of a million U.S. dollars in today’s world. In modern English, this fact is obscured because the word talent has come to refer mainly to skills or abilities. But this parable concerns money. It depicts investing, not hoarding, as a godly thing to do if it accomplishes godly purposes in a godly manner. In the end, the master praises the two trustworthy servants with the words, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave” (Matthew 25:23). In these words, we see that the master cares about the results (“well done”), the methods ("good”), and the motivation (“trustworthy”).

More pointedly for the workplace, it commends putting capital at risk in pursuit of earning a return. Sometimes Christians speak as if growth, productivity, and return on investment were unholy to God. But this parable overturns that notion. We should invest our skills and abilities, but also our wealth and the resources made available to us at work, all for the affairs of God’s kingdom. This includes the production of needed goods and services. The volunteer who teaches Sunday school is fulfilling this parable. So are the entrepreneur who starts a new business and gives jobs to others, the health service administrator who initiates an AIDS-awareness campaign, and the machine operator who develops a process innovation.

God does not endow people with identical or necessarily equal gifts. And God does not expect identical or necessarily equal results from everyone's work. In the parable, one servant makes a return of five talents, while another makes two talents. The master praises both equally (Matthew 25:23). It's important to observe that both servants invest for the benefit of their master, and they return to him not only his original investment, but also what they make on his behalf. When we say that everything we have is a "gift" form God, we don't mean that what we have belongs to us now, instead of to God. We mean that it is a privilege to be entrusted with talents, resources, and opportunities to work toward God's purposes in the world. The implication of the parable is that we if we do so, we take our place among all the faithful, trustworthy servants of God, no matter how big or small our accomplishments may seem.

For a discussion of the highly similar parable of the ten minas see "Luke 19:11-27" in Luke and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.

To read more about gifts and calling, see our Calling and Vocation Overview. To read more about using our gifts in community, see "Gifted Communities (1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40)."

Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Jesus’ final teaching in this section examines how we treat those in need. In this account, when Jesus returns in his glory, he will sit on his throne and separate people “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matt. 25:32). The separation depends on how we treat people in need. To the sheep he says,

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matt. 25:34-36)

These are all people in need, whom the sheep served, for Jesus says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40). To the goats, he says,

Depart from me...for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me... Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. (Matt. 25:41-43, 45)

Individually and corporately, we are called to help those in need. We are “bound in the bundle of the living under the care of the Lord your God” (1 Samuel 25:29), and we cannot ignore the plight of human beings suffering hunger, thirst, nakedness, homelessness, sickness, or imprisonment. We work in order to meet our own needs and the needs of those dependent on us; but we also work in order to have something to give to those in need (Hebrews 13:1-3). We join with others to find ways to come alongside those who lack the basic necessities of life that we may take for granted. If Jesus’ words in this passage are taken seriously, more may hang on our charity than we realize.

Jesus does not say exactly how the sheep served people in need. It may have been through gifts and charitable work. But perhaps some of it was through the ordinary work of growing and preparing food and drink; helping new co-workers come up to speed on the job; designing, manufacturing, and selling clothing. All legitimate work serves people who need the products and services of the work, and in so doing, serves Jesus.

The Last Supper (Matthew 26:17-30)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The plot to kill Jesus moves forward as Judas (one of the Twelve) goes to the religious leaders with an offer to turn him over to the temple soldiers. With events moving quickly toward crucifixion, Jesus shares a final meal with his disciples. In that meal, Jesus chooses the manufactured items of bread and wine to represent himself and his coming sacrifice. Holding up a loaf of bread, he says, “This is my body” (Matt. 26:26); then holding up the skin of wine, he says, “This is my blood” (Matt. 26:28). The Son of God is the product of no one’s work, not even the Father’s. In the words of the Nicene Creed, he is “begotten, not made.” But he chooses common, tangible things like bread and wine, made by people to illustrate his sacrifice. As Alan Richardson puts it:

Without the toil and skill of the farmer, without the labour of the bakers, the transport workers, the banks and offices, the shops and distributors—without, in fact, the toil of mines and shipyards and steel-works and so on—this loaf would not have been here to lay upon the altar this morning. In truth, the whole world of human work is involved in the manufacture of the bread and wine which we offer.... Here is the strange unbreakable link that exists between the bread that is won in the sweat of man’s face and the bread of life that is bought without money or without price.[1]

The entire community participates.

We cannot pretend to know why Jesus chose tangible products of human labor to represent himself rather than natural articles or abstract ideas or images of his own design. But the fact is that he did dignify these products of work as the representation of his own infinite dignity. When we remember that in his resurrection he also bears a physical body (Matt. 28:9, 13), there can be no room to imagine the kingdom of God as a spiritual realm divorced from the physical reality of God’s creation. After creating us (Genesis 2:7; John 1), he chose articles of our handiwork to represent himself. This is a grace almost beyond comprehension.

Jesus’ Death and Resurrection (Matthew 27-28)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Your Attitude and Your Job (Click to Listen)

More than any other Gospel writer, Matthew emphasizes the earth-shattering implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and brings us back to the central motif of the kingdoms of heaven and earth. The darkening of the heavens, the shaking of the earth, and the resurrection of the dead (Matt. 27:45-54) would have been clear signs to the Jews that the present age was ending and the age to come had begun. Yet life and work seem to go on as they always had; it was business as usual. Did anything really change at that cross on Golgotha’s hill?

The Gospel according to Matthew answers with a resounding yes. Jesus’ crucifixion was the deathblow for a world system founded on pretensions of human power and wisdom. His resurrection marks the definitive intrusion of God’s ways into the world. The reign of God’s kingdom has not yet taken in the entire earth, but Christ governs all those who will follow him.

Go and Make Disciples (Matthew 28:16-20)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Let's Take a Deeper Look at the Theology of Work (Click to Listen)

Jesus’ earthly ministry was ending. Matthew 28:16-20 narrates his commissioning of those who followed him:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This passage is often referred to as the Great Commission, and Christians tend to focus on its evangelistic aspect. But the commission is actually to “make disciples,” not merely to “win converts.” As we have seen throughout this article, work is an essential element of being a disciple. Understanding our work in the context of the Lordship of Christ is part of fulfilling the Great Commission.

We have our marching orders. We are to take the good news to all nations, baptizing those who believe the good news, and teaching them “to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). As we look back over these twenty-eight chapters of Matthew, we see many commands that touch us in the workplace. These teachings are for us and for those who come after us.

Conclusion to Matthew

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

God cares about our work, and the Scriptures have much to say about this. As noted at the beginning, the Gospel according to Matthew addresses the theology and practice of work on many fronts: leadership and authority, power and influence, business practices, truth and deception, treatment of workers, conflict resolution, wealth and the necessities of life, workplace relationships, investing and saving, rest, and living in God’s kingdom while working in secular places.

Christians often assume that our lives are to be split into two realms, the secular and the sacred. Our work can become merely a way of earning a living, a secular activity with no godly significance. Going to church and personal devotion are assumed to be the only sacred elements of life. A misreading of Matthew could support this split. The kingdom of the earth could represent the material, secular parts of life; and the kingdom of heaven, the sacred, ethereal parts. But a true reading of Matthew is that both kingdoms include all of life. The kingdom of God has both material and spiritual aspects, and so does the kingdom of the fallen earth. The Christian way is to put our entire life, including our work life, at the service of God’s kingdom, which Christ is bringing to earth even now.

Jesus calls his followers to live and work in the midst of the fallen world, while holding fast to God’s purposes, virtues, and principles. For individual Christians, the sacred and the secular cannot be separated. “No one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24). In this universe created and sustained by God, there is no “secular” space, immune to his influence, out of his control, or upon which he does not claim sovereignty.

But while the kingdom of darkness remains, the kingdom of God is also at hand. The world’s people and systems often do not reflect the ways of God. Those called by Christ have to learn how to serve God’s kingdom faithfully while learning to exist amid the very real powers that oppose God’s way. The Christian worldview cannot be one of escape or disregard for this world. Above all people, Christians should rightly be engaged in creating structures that reflect the kingdom of God in all realms of life, the workplace included. We are to model the practices of God’s kingdom in our workplaces, especially practices in which we turn over our power and wealth to God and depend on his power and provision. This is what it means to live (not just speak) the paradigmatic prayer of the Lord, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Key Verses and Themes in Matthew

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Verse

Theme

Matthew 4:18-22 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus’ call upon us is radical and life-changing, but does not necessarily mean a call away from one’s work and workplace.

Matthew 5:1-16 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

These beatitudes are pictures of the kind of kingdom-oriented character that should mark every believer, including in the workplace. The result will at times be persecution, but will be a faithful witness of light in the darkness.

Matthew 5:33-37 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

The Christian should be a person whose deeds match his words. This is a virtue that applies to personal as well as work life.

Matthew 6:19-34 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

The Christian is one who treasures rightly God’s coming kingdom over the money and possessions of this world. In all our work, we must keep God’s coming kingdom and his ways as our central motivation.

Matthew 8:18-22 Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19A scribe then approached and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 21Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 22But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

Matthew 9:9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

Matthew 9:37-38 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Jesus’ call to discipleship may at times require a change of occupation and a radical disruption to life.

Matthew 10:5-15 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. 11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. 12As you enter the house, greet it. 13If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

The Christian’s relationship to money is a precarious one in which he or she must be careful to remember that in work all that is earned is a gift from God.

Matthew 17:24-27 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” 25He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” 26When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. 27However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

The Christian lives a life of dual citizenship. Allegiance is due only to God, but we must also shine as lights in this dark world by living according to its rules (when possible) in work, money, and taxes, so as to not cause offense.

Matthew 19:16-30 Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”17And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”18He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness;19Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

27Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. 30But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Riches in this world can indeed make it difficult to enter the kingdom of God. The issue is what we treasure most in hearts, whether it be our work and possessions or God’s kingdom and king.

Matthew 20:1-16 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This parable models the Christian virtue of humble faith in God’s grace—not grumbling against God’s grace toward others nor being self-congratulatory.

Matthew 20:20-28 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

True leadership is not self-promoting nor does it come from greatness in the world’s eyes. True leadership is service and care for others.

Matthew 21:33-41 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Matthew 24:45-51 “Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? 46Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. 47Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. 48But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. 51He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matthew 25:1-13 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Matthew 25:14-30 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

In every aspect of our lives, including our work, our character should be marked by faithfulness and trustworthiness. This means living and working in such a way that our lives reflect hope in God’s coming kingdom.

Introduction to Mark

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The Gospel of Mark, like the other Gospels, is about the work of Jesus. His work is to teach, to heal, to perform signs of God’s power, and most of all to die and be raised to life for the benefit of humanity. Christ’s work is absolutely unique. Yet it is also a seamless part of the work of all God’s people, which is to cooperate with God in restoring the world to the way God intended it from the beginning. Our work is not Christ’s work, but our work has the same end as his. Therefore the Gospel of Mark is not about our work, but it informs our work and defines the ultimate goal of our work.

By studying Mark, we discover God’s call to work in the service of his kingdom. We discern the rhythms of work, rest, and worship God intends for our lives. We see the opportunities and dangers inherent in earning a living, accumulating wealth, gaining status, paying taxes, and working in a society that does not necessarily aim toward God’s purposes. We meet fishermen, labourers, mothers and fathers (parenting is a type of work!), tax collectors, people with disabilities that affect their work, leaders, farmers, lawyers, priests, builders, philanthropists (mostly women), a very rich man, merchants, bankers, soldiers, and governors. We recognize the same bewildering range of personalities we encounter in life and work today. We encounter people not as isolated individuals, but as members of families, communities, and nations. Work and workers are everywhere in the Gospel of Mark.

Mark is the briefest Gospel. It contains less of Jesus’ teaching material than Matthew and Luke. Our task, then, must be to pay close attention to the details in Mark to see how his Gospel applies to non-church work. The primary work-related passages in Mark fall into three categories: 1) call narratives, as Jesus calls disciples to work on behalf of God’s kingdom; 2) Sabbath controversies concerning the rhythm of work and rest; and 3) economic issues concerning wealth and its accumulation, and taxation. We will discuss the call narratives under the heading of Kingdom and Discipleship, the Sabbath controversies under the heading of Rhythms of Work, Rest and Worship, and the episodes related to taxation and wealth under Economic Issues. In each of these categories, Mark is primarily concerned with how those who would follow Jesus must be transformed at a deep level.

As with the other Gospels, Mark is set against a background of turbulent economic times. During the Roman era, Galilee was undergoing major social upheaval, with land increasingly owned by a wealthy few — often foreigners — and with a general movement away from small-scale farming to larger-scale, estate-based agriculture. Those who had once been tenant farmers or even landowners were forced to become day labourers, often as a result of having lost their own property through the foreclosure of loans taken to pay Roman taxes.[1] Set against such a background, it is small wonder that economic and fiscal themes emerge in Mark’s narrative and in the teaching of Jesus, and an awareness of this social context allows us to appreciate undercurrents in these that we might otherwise have overlooked.

The Beginning of the Gospel (Mark 1:1-13)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The accounts of John’s preaching and of Jesus’ baptism and temptation say nothing directly about work. Nevertheless, as the narrative gateway to the Gospel, they provide the basic thematic context for all that follows and cannot be bypassed as we move to passages more obviously applicable to our concerns. An interesting point is that Mark’s title (Mark 1:1) describes the book as “the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ.” From a narrative point of view, drawing attention to the beginning is striking, because the Gospel seems to lack an ending. The earliest manuscripts suggest that the Gospel ends suddenly with Mark 16:8, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The text ends so abruptly that scribes added the material now found in Mark 16:9-20, which is composed from passages found elsewhere in the New Testament. But perhaps Mark intended his Gospel to have no ending. It is only “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” and we who read it are participants in the continuing Gospel. If this is so, then our lives are a direct continuation of the events in Mark, and we have every reason to expect concrete applications to our work.[1]

We will see in greater detail that Mark always portrays human followers of Jesus as beginners who fall far short of perfection. This is true even of the twelve apostles. Mark, more than any of the other Gospels, presents the apostles as unperceptive, ignorant, and repeatedly failing Jesus. This is highly encouraging, for many Christians who try to follow Christ in their work feel inadequate in doing so. Take heart, Mark exhorts, for in this we are like the apostles themselves!

John the Baptist (Mark 1:2-11) is presented as the messenger of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. He announces the coming of “the Lord.” Combined with the designation of Jesus as “Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1), this language makes clear to the reader that Mark’s central theme is “the kingdom of God,” even though he waits until Mark 1:15 to use that phrase and to connect it to the gospel (“good news”). “The kingdom of God” is not a geographical concept in Mark. It is the reign of the Lord observed as people and peoples come under God’s rule, through the transforming work of the Spirit. That work is highlighted by Mark’s brief description of the baptism and temptation of Jesus (Mark 1:9-13), which by its brevity emphasizes the descent of the Spirit onto Jesus and his role in driving him into (and presumably through) the temptation by Satan.

This passage cuts across two opposite, yet popular, conceptions of the kingdom of God. On the one hand is the idea that the kingdom of God does not yet exist, and will not until Christ returns to rule the world in person. Under this view, the workplace, like the rest of the world, is enemy territory. The Christian’s duty is to survive in the enemy territory of this world long enough to evangelize, and profitably enough to meet personal needs and give money to the church. The other is the idea that the kingdom of God is an inner, spiritual domain, having nothing to do with the world around us. Under this view, what the Christian does at work, or anywhere else aside from church and individual prayer time, is no concern of God’s at all.

Against both of these ideas, Mark makes it clear that Jesus’ coming inaugurates the kingdom of God as a present reality on earth. Jesus says plainly, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The kingdom is not fulfilled at present, of course. It does not yet govern the earth, and will not do so until Christ returns. But it is here now, and it is real.

The Pain of Multi-Layered Relationships at Work, Entrepreneur John Marsh (Click to Watch)

Therefore, to submit to the reign of God and to proclaim his kingdom has very real consequences in the world around us. It may well bring us into social disrepute, conflict, and, indeed, suffering. Mark 1:14, like Matthew 4:12, draws attention to John’s imprisonment and links this to the commencement of Jesus’ own proclamation that “the kingdom has come near” (Mark 1:15). The kingdom is thus set over against the powers of the world, and as readers we are forcefully shown that to serve the gospel and to honour God will not necessarily bring success in this life. Yet at the same time, by the Spirit’s power, Christians are called to serve God for the benefit of those around them, as the healings Jesus performs demonstrate (Mark 1:23-34, 40-45).

The radical significance of the Holy Spirit’s coming into the world is made clearer later in the Gospel through the Beelzeboul controversy (Mark 3:20-30). This is a difficult section, and we have to be quite careful in how we deal with it, but it is certainly not unimportant to the theology of the kingdom that undergirds our theology of work. The logic of the passage seems to be that by casting out demons, Jesus is effectively liberating the world from Satan, depicted as a strong man now bound. Like their Lord, Christians are meant to employ the Spirit’s power to transform the world, not to escape the world or to accommodate to it.

The Calling of the First Disciples (Mark 1:16-20)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

This section needs to be treated cautiously: while the disciples are paradigms of the Christian life, they also occupy a unique position in the story of salvation. Their summons to a distinctive kind of service, and to the forsaking of their current employment, does not establish a universal pattern for Christian life and vocation. Many, indeed most, of those who follow Jesus do not quit their jobs to do so (see Vocation Overview at www.theologyofwork.org). Nevertheless, the way in which the demands of the kingdom cut across and override the usual principles of society are transferable and enlightening to our work.

Chick-Fil-A: How Faith in the Workplace Helps the World to Flourish (Click to watch)

The opening clause of Mark 1:16 presents Jesus as itinerant (“as he passed along”), and he calls these fishermen to follow him on the road. This is more than just a challenge to leave behind income and stability or, as we might put it, to get out of our “comfort zone.” Mark’s account of this incident records a detail lacking in the other accounts, namely, that James and John leave their father Zebedee “with the hired men” (Mark 1:20). They themselves were not hired men or day labourers, but rather were a part of what was probably a relatively successful family business. As Suzanne Watts Henderson notes in relation to the response of the disciples, the “piling up of particulars underscores the full weight of the verb [to leave]: not just nets are left behind, but a named father, a boat and indeed an entire enterprise.”[1] For these disciples to follow Jesus, they have to demonstrate a willingness to allow their identity, status, and worth to primarily be determined in relation to him.

Fishing was a major industry in Galilee, with a connected sub-industry of fish salting.[2] At a time of social turbulence in Galilee, these two related industries supported each other and remained steady. The willingness of the disciples to forsake such stability is quite remarkable. Economic stability is no longer their chief purpose for working. Yet even here we must be cautious. Jesus does not reject the earthly vocation of these men but reorients it. Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to be “fishers of people” (Mark 1:17), thereby affirming their former work as an image of the new role to which he is calling them. Although most Christians are not called to leave their jobs and become wandering preachers, we are called to ground our identity in Christ. Whether we leave our jobs or not, a disciple’s identity is no longer “fisherman,” “tax collector,” or anything else except “follower of Jesus.” This challenges us to resist the temptation to make our work the defining element of our sense of who we are.

The Paralytic Man (Mark 2:1-12)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Work as Prayerful Relationships: Mark 5 (Click Here to Read)

This sermon from The High Calling discusses another healing miracle of Jesus in Mark (5:1-20) where Jesus brings healing to both a wayward individual and a fearful crowd. If we consider work as a form of prayer, then how we regard one another in the workplace makes a difference. Business is about relationships; how we manage those relationships can make the difference for our success both as business people and Christians.

The story of Jesus healing the paralytic man raises the question of what the theology of work means for those who do not have the ability to work. The paralytic man, prior to this healing, is incapable of self-supporting work. As such, he is dependent on the grace and compassion of those around him for his daily survival. Jesus is impressed by the faith of the man’s friends. Their faith is active, showing care, compassion, and friendship to someone who was excluded from both the financial and relational rewards of work. In their faith, there is no separation between being and doing.

Jesus sees their effort as an act of collective faith. “When Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’” (Mark 2:5). Regrettably, the community of faith plays a vanishingly small role in most Christians’ work lives in the modern West. Even if we receive help and encouragement for the workplace from our church, it is almost certain to be individual help and encouragement. In earlier times, most Christians worked alongside the same people they went to church with, so churches could easily apply the Scriptures to the shared occupations of labourers, farmers, and householders. In contrast, Western Christians today seldom work in the same locations as others in the same church. Nonetheless, today's Christians often work in the same types of jobs as others in their faith communities. So there could be an opportunity to share their work challenges and opportunities with other believers in similar occupations. Yet this seldom happens. Unless we find a way for groups of Christian workers to support one another, grow together, and develop some kind of work-related Christian community, we miss out on the communal nature of faith that is so essential in Mark 2:3-12.

In this brief episode, then, we observe three things: (1) work is intended to benefit those who can’t support themselves through work, as well as those who can; (2) faith and work are not separated as being and doing, but are integrated into action empowered by God; and 3) work done in faith cries out for a community of faith to support it.

The Calling of Levi (Mark 2:13-17)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The calling of Levi is another incident that occurs as Jesus is moving (Mark 2:13-14). The passage stresses the public nature of this summons. Jesus calls Levi while teaching a crowd (Mark 2:14), and Levi is initially seen “sitting at the tax booth.” His employment would make him a figure of contempt for many of his Galilean contemporaries. There is a measure of debate over just how heavily Roman and Herodian taxation was felt in Galilee, but most think that the issue was rather sore. The actual collection of taxes was contracted out to private tax collectors. A tax collector paid the tax for his entire territory upfront, and collected the individual taxes from the populace later. To make this profitable, he had to charge the populace more than the actual tax rate and the tax collector pocketed the mark-up. The Roman authorities thereby delegated the politically sensitive work of tax collection to members of the local community, but it led to a high rate of effective tax, and it opened the doors to all sorts of corruption.[1] It is likely that this was one of the factors contributing to land loss in Galilee, as landowners took loans to pay monetary taxes and then, if their harvests were poor, lost their properties as collateral. The fact that we initially encounter Levi in his tax booth means that he is, in effect, a living symbol of Roman occupation and a reminder of the fact that some Jews were willing collaborators with the Romans. The link made in Mark 2:16 between tax collectors and “sinners” reinforces the negative associations.[2]

Where Luke stresses that Levi leaves everything to answer Jesus’ call (Luke 5:28), Mark simply recounts that Levi follows him. The tax collector then throws a banquet, opening his house to Jesus, his disciples, and a mixed group including other tax collectors and “sinners.” While the image is suggestive of a man seeking to share the gospel with his business colleagues, the reality is probably a little more subtle. Levi’s “community” comprises his colleagues and others who, as “sinners,” are shunned by leading figures in the community. In other words, their work made them part of a sub-community that had high-quality social relationships internally, but low-quality relationships with the communities around them. This is true for many kinds of work today. Our co-workers may be much more open to us than our neighbours are. Being a member of a work community may help us facilitate an encounter with the reality of the gospel for our co-workers. Interestingly, the hospitality of communal eating is a major part of Jesus’ ministry and suggests a concrete way by which such encounters might be hosted. The hospitality of lunch with colleagues, a jog or workout at the gym, or a shared beverage after work can build deeper relationships with our co-workers. These friendships have lasting value themselves, and through them the Holy Spirit may open the door to a kind of friendship evangelism.

This raises a question. If Christians today were to host a meal with colleagues from work, friends from their neighbourhood, and friends from their church, what would they talk about? The Christian faith has much to say about how to be a good worker and how to be a good neighbour. But do Christians know how to speak about them in a common language understandable to their colleagues and neighbours? If the conversation turned to workplace or civic topics such as a job search, customer service, property taxes or zoning, would we be able to speak meaningfully to nonbelievers about how Christian concepts apply to such issues? Do our churches equip us for these conversations? It appears that Levi — or Jesus — was able to speak meaningfully about how Jesus’ message applied to the lives of the people gathered there.

The question of taxation will recur later in the gospel and we defer until then some of our questions about Jesus’ attitude towards it.

The Twelve Disciples (Mark 3:13-19)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In addition to the accounts of the calling of specific disciples, there is also the account of the appointing of the apostles. There is an important point to be noted in Mark 3:13-14, namely, that the Twelve constitute a special group within the broader community of disciples. The uniqueness of their apostolic office is important. They are called to a distinctive form of service, one that may depart significantly from the experience most of us will have. If we are to draw lessons from the experience and roles of the disciples, then it must be through recognition of how their actions and convictions relate to the kingdom, not merely the fact that they left their jobs to follow Jesus.

The qualifications listed for Simon, James, John, and Judas in Mark 3:16-19 are relevant here. Simon’s name is, of course, supplemented with the new name given to him by Jesus, “Peter,” which closely resembles the Greek word for “rock” (petros). One cannot help but wonder if there is both a certain irony and a certain promise in the name. Simon, as fickle and unstable as he will prove to be, is named The Rock, and one day he will live up to that name. Like him, our service to God in our workplaces, just as elsewhere in our lives, will not be a matter of instantaneous perfection, but rather one of failure and growth. This is a helpful thought at times when we feel we have failed and brought the kingdom into disrepute in the process.

Just as Simon is given a new name, so too are the sons of Zebedee, referred to as the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). It is a quirky nickname, and seems humorous, but it also quite likely picks up on the character or personality of these two men.[1] It is an interesting point that personality and personality types are not effaced by inclusion in the kingdom. This cuts both ways. On one hand, our personalities continue to be part of our identity in the kingdom, and our embodiment of the kingdom in our place of work continues to be mediated through that personality. The temptation to find our identity in some stereotype, even a Christian one, is challenged by this. Yet, at the same time, our personalities may be marked by elements that themselves ought to be challenged by the gospel. There is a hint of this in the title given to Zebedee’s sons, since it suggests a short temper or a tendency toward conflict and, even though the name is given with fondness, it may not be a nickname to be proud of.

The issue of personality makes a significant contribution to our understanding of applying the Christian faith to our work. Most of us would probably say that our experiences of work, both good and bad, have been greatly affected by the personalities of those around us. Often the very character qualities that make someone an inspiring and energizing colleague can make that person a difficult one. A motivated and excited worker might be easily distracted by new projects, or might be prone to quickly formed (and quickly expressed) opinions. Our own personality plays a huge role too. We may find others easy to work with or difficult, based as much on our personalities as theirs. Likewise, others may find us easy or difficult to work with.

But it is more than a matter of getting along with others easily. Our distinctive personalities shape our abilities to contribute to our organization’s work — and through it to the work of God’s kingdom —for better or worse. Personality gives us both strengths and weaknesses. To a certain degree, following Christ means allowing him to curb the excesses of our personality, as when he rebuked the Sons of Thunder for their misguided ambition to sit at his right and left hands (Mark 10:35-45). At the same time, Christians often err by setting up particular personality traits as a universal model. Some Christian communities have privileged traits such as extraversion, mildness, reticence to use power, or — more darkly — abusiveness, intolerance, and gullibility. Some Christians find that the traits that make them good at their jobs — decisiveness, skepticism about dogma, or ambition, for example — make them feel guilty or marginalized in church. Trying to be something we are not, in the sense of trying to fit a stereotype of what a Christian in the workplace ought to be like, can be highly problematic and can leave others feeling that we are inauthentic. We may be called to imitate Christ (Philippians 2:5) and our leaders (Hebrews 13:7), but this is a matter of emulating virtue, not personality. Jesus, in any case, chose people with a variety of personalities as his friends and workers. Many tools are available to help individuals and organizations make better use of the variety of personality characteristics with respect to decision making, career choice, group performance, conflict resolution, leadership, relationships at work, and other factors.

While on one level this needs to be related to a theology of wealth or property, on another level it needs to be related to the point at which the theologies of church and work meet. It is always tempting, and in fact can seem like an obligation, to maintain a network of Christians within the working environment and to seek to support one another. While laudable, there needs to be a certain reality injected into this. Some of those who present themselves as followers of Jesus may, in fact, have misplaced hearts, and this may affect the opinions they advocate. At such times, our responsibility as Christians is to be prepared to challenge one another in love, to hold one another to account as to whether we are truly operating according to the standards of the kingdom.

Discipleship in Process (Mark 4:35-41; 6:45-52; 8:14-21)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The Gospel of Mark, more than the other Gospels, highlights the ignorance, weakness, and selfishness of the disciples. This comes despite the many good things Mark has to say about them, including their response to Jesus’ initial call (Mark 1:16-20) and to his commissioning of them (Mark 6:7-13).[1]

​Certain incidents and narrative devices develop this portrait. One is the repetition of boat scenes (Mark 4:35-41; 6:45-52; 8:14-21), which parallel one another in emphasizing the disciples’ inability to truly comprehend Jesus’ power and authority. The last boat scene is closely followed by the unusual two-stage healing of a blind man (Mark 8:22-26), which may function as a kind of narrative metaphor for the only partial vision of the disciples regarding Jesus.[2] Then follows Peter’s confession of Christ (Mark 8:27-33), with his dramatic moment of insight followed immediately by Satanic blindness on the apostle’s part. The disciples’ limited grasp of Jesus’ identity is matched by their limited grasp of his message. They continue to desire power and status (Mark 9:33-37; 10:13-16; and 10:35-45). Jesus challenges them several times for their failure to recognize that following him requires a fundamental attitude of self-sacrifice. Most obviously, of course, the disciples desert Jesus at the time of his arrest and trial (Mark 14:50-51). The juxtaposition of Peter’s threefold denial (Mark 14:66-72) with the death of Jesus throws the cowardice and courage of the two men, respectively, into sharper relief.

Yet Peter and the others will go on to lead the church effectively. The angel who speaks to the women following the resurrection (Mark 16:6-7) gives them a message to the disciples (and Peter is singled out!), promising a further encounter with the resurrected Jesus. The disciples will be very different following this encounter, a fact that Mark does not explore but that is well developed in Acts, so that the resurrection is the key event in effecting such change.

What relevance does this have to work? Simply and obviously, that as disciples of Jesus with our own work to do, we are imperfect and in process. There will be a good deal that we will be required to repent of, attitudes that will be wrong and will need to change. Significantly, we must recognize that, like the disciples, we may well be wrong in much of what we believe and think, even about gospel matters. On a daily level, then, we must prayerfully reflect on how we are embodying the reign of God and prepared to show repentance over our deficiencies in this regard. We may feel tempted to portray ourselves as righteous, wise, and skilled in our workplaces, as a witness to Jesus’ righteousness, wisdom, and excellence. But it would be a more honest and more powerful witness to portray ourselves as we really are—fallible and somewhat self-centred works-in-process, evidence of Jesus’ mercy more than demonstrators of his character. Our witness is then to invite our co-workers to grow along with us in the ways of God, rather than to become like us. Of course, we need to exercise ourselves rigorously to growth in Christ. God’s mercy is not an excuse to be complacent in our sin.

The First Days of the Movement (Mark 1:21-45)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

A major block of material (Mark 1:21-34) takes place on the Sabbath, the day of rest. Within this block, some of the action is located in the synagogue (Mark 1:21-28). It is significant that the weekly routine of work, rest, and worship is integrated into Jesus’ own life and is neither ignored nor discarded. In our own age, where such a practice has been greatly diminished, it is important to remind ourselves that this weekly rhythm was endorsed by Jesus. Of course, it is also significant that Jesus does his work of both truth and healing on this day. This will later bring him into conflict with the Pharisees. It also highlights that the Sabbath is not just a day of rest from work, but also a day of active love and mercy.[1]

As well as the weekly rhythm, there is also a daily rhythm. Following the Sabbath, Jesus rises while it is still “very dark” to pray (Mark 1:35). His first priority of the day is to connect with God. The emphasis on the solitude of Jesus in this time of prayer is important, stressing that this prayer is not a public performance, but a matter of personal communion.

Work as Prayerful Activity (Click Here to Read)

In this sermon based on Mark 6, George Cladis argues that we should link the tasks we do at work to prayerful activity, meeting needs for our God of extravagant love. You can make a difference for the Kingdom of God in your home, your cubicle, your office, your trade—wherever you conduct your work as prayerful activity.

Daily prayer seems to be an extremely difficult practice for many workplace Christians. Between early morning family responsibilities, long commutes, early working hours, a desire to get ahead of the day’s responsibilities, and late nights needed to accomplish the day’s work (or entertainment), it seems almost impossible to establish a consistent routine of morning prayer. And later in the day is harder still. Nowhere does Mark depict judgment against those who do not or cannot pray daily about the work that lies ahead of them. But he does depict Jesus — busier than anyone around him — praying about the work and the people God sets before him every day. Amid the pressures of working life, daily prayer may seem to be a personal luxury we can’t afford to indulge. Jesus, however, couldn’t imagine going to his work without prayer, much as most of us couldn’t imagine going to work without shoes.

Regular time set apart for prayer is a good thing, but it is not the only way to pray. We can also pray in the midst of our work. One practice many have found helpful is to pray very briefly at multiple times during the day. “Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families,” found in the Book of Common Prayer (pages 136-143) (available online here), provides brief structures for prayer in the morning, at noon, in the later afternoon and at night, taking account of the rhythms of life and work during the day. Even briefer examples include a one- or two-sentence prayer when moving from one task to another, praying with eyes open, offering thanks silently or out loud before meals, keeping an object or verse of Scripture in a pocket as a reminder to pray and many others. Among the many books that help establish a daily prayer rhythm are Finding God in the Fast Lane by Joyce Huggett[2] and The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard.[3]

The Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-3:6)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The Purpose of the Sabbath (Click Here to Read)

In this daily reflection from The High Calling Mark Roberts considers how the teaching of Jesus about the purpose of the Sabbath speaks to us today: "In a world so filled with busyness, where electronic communication invades every moment, where people are running ragged and neglecting their most important relationships, we need the gift of rest."

We have noticed already, in our discussion of Mark 1:21-34, that the Sabbath is integrated into the weekly rhythms of Jesus. The clash that takes place between Jesus and the Pharisees is not over whether to observe the Sabbath but over how to observe it. For the Pharisees, the Sabbath was primarily defined in negative terms. What, they would ask, is prohibited by the commandment to do no work (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15)?[1] To them, even the casual action of the disciples in picking ears of grain constitutes a kind of work and thus ignores the prohibition. It is interesting that they describe this action as “not lawful” (Mark 2:24), even though such a specific application of the fourth commandment is lacking in the Torah. They regard their own interpretation of the law as authoritative and binding, and do not consider the possibility that they might be wrong. Even more objectionable for them is Jesus’ act of healing (Mark 3:1-6), which is depicted as the key event leading the Pharisees to plot against Jesus.

Making Time Off Predictable and Required (Click Here to Read)

Read more here about a new study regarding rhythms of rest and work done at the Boston Consulting Group by two professors from Harvard Business School. It showed that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited. (Harvard Business Review may show an ad and require registration in order to view the article.) Mark Roberts also discusses this topic in his Life for Leaders devotional "Won't Keeping the Sabbath Make Me Less Productive?"

By contrast with the Pharisees, Jesus regards the Sabbath positively. The day of freedom from work is a gift for humanity’s good. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Moreover, the Sabbath affords opportunities to exercise compassion and love. Such a view of the Sabbath has good prophetic antecedent. Isaiah 58 links the Sabbath with compassion and social justice in the service of God, culminating with a description of God’s blessing on those who will “call the Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13-14). The juxtaposition of compassion, justice, and Sabbath suggests that the Sabbath is most fully used as a day of worship by the demonstration of compassion and justice. After all, the Sabbath itself is a remembrance of God’s justice and compassion in delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15).

The first Sabbath account (Mark 2:23-28) is triggered by the disciples’ action of picking ears of grain.[2] While Matthew adds that the disciples were hungry, and Luke describes their action of rubbing the ears of grain between their hands before eating them, Mark simply describes them as picking the grain, which conveys the casual nature of the action. The disciples were probably absently picking at the seeds and nibbling them. The defence that Jesus offers when challenged by the Pharisees seems a little strange at first, because it is a story about the house of God, not the Sabbath.

Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions. (Mark 2:25–26)

Scholars are divided over how — or even whether — Jesus’ argument works according to principles of Jewish exegesis and argumentation.[3] The key is to recognize the concept of “holiness.” Both the Sabbath and the house of God (with its contents) are described as “holy” in Scripture.[4] Sabbath is sacred time, the house of God is sacred space, but lessons that may be derived from the holiness of one may be transferred to the other.

Jesus’ point is that the holiness of the house of God does not preclude its participation in acts of compassion and justice. The sacred spaces of earth are not refuges of holiness against the world, but places of God’s presence for the world, for his sustenance and restoration of the world. A place set apart for God fundamentally is a place of justice and compassion. “The sabbath [and by implication, the house of God] was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Matthew’s version of this account includes the detail, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” from Hosea 6:6 (Matthew 12:7). This makes explicit the point that we see with more reserve in Mark.

The Purpose of the Sabbath, Part 2 (Click Here to Read)

In this daily reflection from The High Calling Mark Roberts considers how the question and the action of Jesus make it clear that the Sabbath is a day for saving life, not just in the particular sense of rescuing someone from a life-threatening situation, but also in the larger sense of bringing people to wholeness. ​

The same point emerges in the second Sabbath controversy, when Jesus heals a man in a synagogue on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). The key question that Jesus asks is, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” The silence of the Pharisees in the face of this question serves as a confirmation that the Sabbath is honoured by doing good, by saving life.

How does this apply to our work today? The Sabbath principle is that we must consecrate a portion of our time and keep it free from the demands of work, allowing it to take on a distinctive character of worship. This is not to say that the Sabbath is the only time of worship, nor that work cannot be a form of worship itself. But the Sabbath principle allows us time to focus on God in a different way than the working week allows, and to enjoy his blessing in a distinctive way. Crucially, too, it gives us space to allow our worship of God to manifest itself in social compassion, care, and love. Our worship on the Sabbath flavors our work during the week.

The topic of Sabbath is discussed in depth in the article, Rest and Work at www.theologyofwork.org. Recognizing that there is no single Christian perspective about the Sabbath, the Theology of Work Project explores a somewhat different point of view in the section on "Sabbath and Work" in the article Luke and Work.

Jesus the Builder (Mark 6:1-6)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The Art of Making, the Carpenter (Click to Watch)

The Art of Making, The Carpenter from Deep Green Sea on Vimeo.

An incident in Jesus’ hometown gives a rare insight into his work prior to becoming a traveling preacher. The context is that Jesus’ hometown friends and acquaintances can’t believe that this familiar local boy has become a great teacher and prophet. In the course of their complaints, they say, “What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2–3). This is the only passage in the Bible to directly state Jesus’ trade. (In Matthew 13:55, Jesus is called “the carpenter’s son,” and Luke and John do not mention his profession.) The underlying Greek (tekton) refers to a builder or craftsman in any kind of material,[1] which in Palestine would generally be stone or brick. The English rendering “carpenter” may reflect the fact that in London wood was the more common building material at the time the first English translations were made.

In any case, a number of Jesus’ parables take place at construction sites. How much of Jesus’ personal experience might be reflected in these parables? Did he help construct a fence, dig a wine press, or build a tower in a vineyard, and observe the strained relations between the landowner and the tenants (Mark 12:1-12)? Did one of his customers run out of money halfway through building a tower and leave an unpaid debt to Jesus (Luke 14:28-30)? Did he remember Joseph teaching him how to dig a foundation all the way to solid rock, so that the building can withstand wind and flood (Matthew 7:24-27)? Did he ever hire assistants and have to face grumbling about pay (Matthew 20:1-16) and pecking order (Mark 9:33-37)? Was he ever supervised by a manager who asked him to join in a scheme to defraud the owner (Luke 16:1-16)? In short, how much of the wisdom in Jesus’ parables was developed through his experience as a tradesman in the first-century economy? If nothing else, remembering Jesus’ experience as a builder can help us see the parables in a more concrete light.

Parables at Work (Mark 4:26-29 and 13:32-37)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Mark contains only two parables that are not also found in the other Gospels. Both of them concern work, and both are very short.

The first of these parables, in Mark 4:26-29, compares the kingdom of God to growing grain from seed. It has similarities to the more familiar parable of the mustard seed, which follows immediately afterwards, and to the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-8). Although the parable is set in the workplace of agriculture, the role of the farmer is deliberately minimized. “He does not know how” the grain grows (Mark 4:27). Instead, the emphasis is on how the kingdom’s growth is brought about by the inexplicable power of God. Nonetheless, the farmer must “rise night and day” to cultivate the crop (Mark 4:26) and go in with his sickle (Mark 4:28) to reap the harvest. God’s miracle is given among those who do their assigned work.

The second uniquely Marcan parable, in Mark 13:32-37, illustrates the need for Jesus’ disciples to watch for the second coming of Jesus. Intriguingly, Jesus says, “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch” (Mark 13:34). While he is away, each servant is charged to keep doing his work. The kingdom is not like a master who goes to a far country and promises to eventually call his servants to join him there. No, the master will be coming back, and he gives his servants the work of growing and maintaining his household for his eventual return.

Both parables take it as a given that Jesus’ disciples are diligent workers, whatever their occupation. We will not discuss the other parables here, but refer instead to the extensive explorations in Matthew and Work and Luke and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.

Wealth (Mark 10:17-22)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Jesus’ encounter with a rich man who asks “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” constitutes one of the few passages in Mark that speaks directly to economic activity. The man’s question leads Jesus to list (Mark 10:18) the six most socially oriented commandments in the Decalogue. Interestingly, “Do not covet” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21) is presented with a definite commercial twist as “Do not defraud.” The rich man says that he has “kept all of these since my youth” (Mark 10:20). But Jesus states that the one thing he lacks is treasure in heaven, obtained by sacrificing his earthly wealth and following the vagrant from Galilee. This presents an obstacle that the rich man cannot pass. It seems that he loves the comforts and security afforded by his possessions too much. Mark 10:22 emphasizes the affective dimension of the situation—“When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving.” The young man is emotionally disturbed by Jesus’ teaching, indicating an openness to its truth, but he is not able to follow through. His emotional attachment to his wealth and status overrules his willingness to heed the words of Jesus.

Applying this to work today requires real sensitivity and honesty with regard to our own instincts and values. Wealth is sometimes a result of work—ours or someone else’s—but work itself can also be an emotional obstacle to following Jesus. If we have privileged positions—as the rich man did—managing our careers may become more important than serving others, doing good work, or even making time for family, civic, and spiritual life. It may hinder us from opening ourselves to an unexpected calling from God. Our wealth and privilege may make us arrogant or insensitive to the people around us. These difficulties are not unique to people of wealth and privilege, of course. Yes, Jesus’ encounter with the rich man highlights that it is hard to motivate yourself to change the world if you are already on top of the heap. Before those of us of modest means and status in the Western world let ourselves off the hook, let us ask whether, by world standards, we also have become complacent because of our (relative) wealth and status.

Before we leave this episode, one crucial aspect remains. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). Jesus’ purpose is not to shame or browbeat the young man, but to love him. He calls him to leave his possessions first of all for his own benefit, saying, “You will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” We are the ones who suffer when we let wealth or work cut us off from other people and remove us from relationship with God. The solution is not to try harder to be good, but to accept God’s love; that is, to follow Christ. If we do this, we learn that we can trust God for the things we really need in life, and we don’t need to hold on to our possessions and positions for security.

This parable is further discussed under "Luke 18:18-30" in Luke and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.

Status (Mark 10:13-16, 22)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

A distinctive aspect to Mark’s rendering of the story is its juxtaposition with the account of the little children being brought to Jesus, and the subsequent statement that the kingdom is to be received like such infants (Mark 10:13-16). What links the two passages is probably not the issue of security, or relying on financial resources rather than on God. Rather, the point of contact is the issue of status. In ancient Mediterranean society, children were without status, or at least were of a low status.[1] They possessed none of the properties by which status was judged. Crucially, they owned nothing. The rich young man, by contrast, has an abundance of status symbols (Mark 10:22) and he owns much. (In Luke’s account, he is explicitly called a “ruler,” Luke 18:18.) The rich young man may miss entering the kingdom of God as much because of his slavery to status as because of his slavery to wealth per se.

In today’s workplaces, status and wealth may or may not go hand in hand. For those who grow in both wealth and status through their work, this is a double caution. Even if we manage to use wealth in a godly manner, it may prove much harder to escape the trap of slavery to status. Recently a group of billionaires received much publicity for pledging to give away at least half of their wealth.[2] Their generosity is astounding, and in no way do we wish to criticize any of the pledgers. Yet we might wonder, with the value of giving so recognized, why not give away much more than half? Half a billion dollars still exceeds by far any amount needed for a very comfortable life. Is it possible that the status of remaining a billionaire (or at least a half-billionaire) is an impediment to devoting an entire fortune to the purposes that are so clearly important to a donor? Is it any different for workers of more modest means? Does regard for status keep us from devoting more of our time, talent, and treasure to the things we recognize as truly important?

The same question can be asked of people whose status does not correlate with wealth. Academics, politicians, pastors, artists, and many others may gain great status through their work without necessarily making a lot of money. Status may arise from working, say, at a particular university or remaining the toast of a certain circle. Can that status become a form of slavery that keeps us from jeopardizing our position by taking an unpopular stance or moving on to more fruitful work elsewhere?

How painful might it be to put our work-related status at risk — even a little bit — in order to serve another person, diminish an injustice, maintain your moral integrity, or see yourself in God’s eyes? Jesus had all this status and even more. Perhaps that’s why he worked so hard to set aside his status through daily prayer to his “father” and by putting himself constantly in disreputable company.

The Grace of God (Mark 10:23-31)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The subsequent words of Jesus (Mark 10:23-25) elaborate the significance of the encounter, as Jesus stresses the difficulty faced by the wealthy in entering the kingdom. The young man’s reaction illustrates the attachment the rich have to their wealth and to the status that goes with it; significantly, the disciples themselves are “perplexed” by Jesus’ statements about the wealthy. It is perhaps noteworthy that when he repeats his statement in Mark 10:24, he addresses the disciples as “children,” declaring them unburdened by status. They have already been unburdened by wealth as a result of following him.

Jesus’ analogy of the camel and the eye of the needle (Mark 10:25) probably has nothing to do with a small gate in Jerusalem,[1] but could be a pun on the similarity of the Greek word for a camel (kamelos) and that for a heavy rope (kamilos). The deliberately absurd image simply emphasizes the impossibility of the rich being saved without divine help. This applies to the poor as well, for otherwise “who can be saved?” (Mark 10:26). The promise of such divine help is spelled out in Mark 10:27, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” This keeps the passage (and hopefully us, as readers) from descending into a simple cynicism toward the rich.

This leads Peter to defend the disciples’ attitudes and history of self-denial. They have “left everything” to follow Jesus. Jesus’ reply affirms the heavenly reward that awaits all those who make such sacrifices. Again, the things left by such people (“house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields”) potentially have connotations of status and not merely material abundance. In fact, Mark 10:31 pulls the whole account together with a forceful emphasis on status—“Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Up until this point, the account could reflect either a love for things in and of themselves, or for the status that those things provide. This last statement, though, places the emphasis firmly upon the issue of status. Soon after, Jesus declares this in explicit workplace terms. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:44). A slave, after all, is simply a worker with no status, not even the status of owning their own ability to work. The proper status of Jesus’ followers is that of a child or slave — no status at all. Even if we hold high positions or bear authority, we are to regard the position and authority as belonging to God, not ourselves. We are simply God’s slaves, representing him but not assuming the status that belongs to him alone.

The Temple Incident (Mark 11:15-18)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The incident where Jesus drives out the vendors and money changers from the temple has mercantile overtones. There is a debate over the precise significance of this action, both in terms of the individual Gospel accounts and in terms of the Historical Jesus tradition.[1] Certainly, Jesus aggressively drives out those who are engaging in trade in the temple courts, whether selling clean animals and birds for sacrifice or exchanging appropriate coinage for temple offerings. It has been suggested that this is a protest over the extortionate rates being charged by those involved in the trade, and thus the abuse of the poor as they come to make offerings.[2] Alternatively, it has been seen as a rejection of the annual half-shekel temple tax.[3] Finally, it has been interpreted as a prophetic sign act, disrupting the processes of the temple as a foreshadowing of its coming destruction.[4]

Assuming we equate the temple to the church in today’s environment, the incident is mostly outside our scope, which is non-church-related work. We can note, though, that the incident does cast a dim light on those would attempt to use the church to secure workplace advantages for themselves. To join or use a church in order to gain a favoured business position is both commercially damaging for the community and spiritually damaging for the individual. By no means do we mean that churches and their members should avoid helping each other become better workers. But if the church becomes a commercial tool, its integrity is damaged and its witness clouded.

Taxes and Caesar (Mark 12:13-17)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The issue of taxation has arisen obliquely already, in terms of the call narrative of Levi (Mark 2:13-17, see above). This section treats the matter a little more directly, although the meaning of the passage is still debatable in terms of its logic. It is interesting that the whole incident described here essentially represents a trap. If Jesus affirms Roman taxation, he will offend his followers. If he rejects it, he will face charges of treason. Because the incident hinges on such particular circumstances, we should be cautious about applying the passage to dissimilar contemporary situations.

The response of Jesus to the trap revolves around the concepts of image and ownership. Examining the common denarius coin (essentially, a day’s wage), Jesus asks whose “image” (or even “icon”) is upon the coin. The point of the question is probably to allude deliberately to Genesis 1:26-27 (humans made in the image of God) in order to create a contrast. Coins bear the image of the emperor, but humans bear the image of God. Give to the emperor what is his (money), but give to God what is his (our very lives). The core element, that humans bear the imago Dei, is unstated, but it is surely implied by the parallelism built into the logic of the argument.

In using such argumentation, Jesus subordinates the taxation issue to the greater demand of God upon our lives, but he does not thereby deny the validity of taxation, even that of the potentially abusive Roman system. Nor does he deny that money belongs to God. If money belongs to Caesar, it belongs even more to God because Caesar himself is under God’s authority (Romans 13:1-17; 1 Peter 2:13-14). This passage is no warrant for the often expressed fallacy that business is business and religion is religion. But, as we have seen, God recognizes no sacred-secular divide. You cannot pretend to follow Christ by acting as if he cares nothing about your work. Jesus is not proclaiming license to do as you please at work, but peace about the things you cannot control. You can control whether you defraud others in your work (Mark 10:18), so don’t do it. You cannot control whether you have to pay taxes (Mark 12:17), so pay them. In this passage, Jesus doesn’t say what your obligation might be if you can control (or influence) your taxes, for example, if you are a Roman senator or a voter in a twenty-first-century democracy.

This incident is discussed in greater depth under "Luke 20:20-26" in Luke and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.

Our Work Fulfills the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Seeing that Jesus is skilled at interpreting scripture, a scribe asks him a question that was already under contention among Jewish leaders. “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answers with two linked commandments that would be well known to his listeners. The first is a declaration to the Jewish people from Deuteronomy 6:5 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Then in the same breath Jesus adds, “The second is this,” and he quotes Leviticus 19:18 ”You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (See the TOW Bible Commentary on Leviticus 19:17-18.) If you love God, you will love your neighbor. For more on the link between these two commandments see “The Great Commandment is a Great Framework” (Matthew 22:34-40) and “The Good Samaritan at Work--Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself” (Luke 10:25-37).

Jesus’ wise answer gives us some insight into God’s priorities. If there are just two tasks God wants us to concentrate on more than any other they are loving God and loving those around us. It is worth mentioning that by saying, “as yourself,” Jesus also expects us to love ourselves.

Faith in Our Workplaces (Video)

Thankfully, work can be one of the primary ways we respond to the Great Commandment. Yet many people fail to recognize that our work can be a way of loving others. Many jobs give Christians an opportunity to fulfill the basic needs of another person. Take health care, for example. A doctor who writes a prescription, a pharmacist who fills that prescription, and the person who stocks the shelves at CVS all play a role in delivering necessary health services to their neighbors. Further up and down the supply chain we see the invaluable work of scientists who test the effectiveness of medical interventions, construction workers who maintain the roads along which medication travels, and case workers who process health insurance claims, all participating in loving their neighbors by meeting their basic human needs.

But human needs do not only extend to healthcare. People also need food, shelter, laughter, and connection to meaning greater than themselves. So farmers and restaurant workers, home builders and home insurers, comedians and children, and philosophers and pastors all have a way to love others through their daily work, simply by doing their work well. Every time you cross a street, you depend on the love shown you by the mechanics who did the most recent brake jobs on every car hurtling toward the intersection.

Through work we meet our financial needs and those of our family. Since God commands each person to love ourselves, this is another way that work fulfills the Great Commandment.

Lastly, we might ask how we can love God through our work. One way is to love God consciously while doing our work, in a fashion made famous by sages such as Brother Lawrence. But if continuous mindfulness is not our particular gift, we can love God by doing something that God wants done. The broader story of the redemption that Jesus offers gives us a picture of what God wants done in the marketplace. Many industries or workplaces have problems that call for redemption. A Christian worker can do something God wants done by modeling forgiveness, compassion, and integrity.

However we work, it is important to remember the order of the two parts of the Great Commandment. Loving God comes first, loving neighbor second. As Dorothy Sayers notes, “The second commandment depends upon the first, and without the first, it is a delusion and a snare…. If we put our neighbor first, we are putting man above God, and that is what we have been doing ever since we began to worship humanity and make man the measure of all things….There is, in fact, a paradox about working to serve the community, and it is this: that to aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work; the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work.”[1]

Practically speaking, this means that we love our neighbor by doing true work, that is, work as God would have us do it. This may or may not be how our neighbor—customer, client, co-worker, supplier, etc, —would have us do it. For example our co-workers might want us to serve them by doing their work for them, but God would probably have us serve them by helping them do it themselves. Or a customer might want us to provide the product with the lowest price, whereas God might want us to educate the customer why a higher-priced item is better for the customer, the environment or the community. The first half of the Great Commandment plants our feet in the solid ground of God’s purposes. We are to work for others as servants of God, not as people-pleasers.

Upon hearing Jesus’ answer to his question, the scribe concurs that Jesus is right in his priorities. Loving God and loving people are indeed more important than specific commandments required by the Jewish law. Jesus responds that his questioner is “not far from the kingdom of God.” Similarly, when we hold our own actions up to the standard of the Great Commandment, when we love God completely and care for others with the same care we show ourselves, we bring the kingdom of God to our places of work.

The Cross and Resurrection (Mark 14:32-16:8)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The topics of status and grace return to the fore as Jesus faces his trial and crucifixion. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Even for him the path of service requires renouncing all status:

The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again. (Mark 10:33–34)

The people — correctly — proclaim Jesus as Messiah and King (Mark 11:8-11). But he sets aside this status and submits to false accusations by the Jewish council (Mark 14:53-65), an inept trial by the Roman government (Mark 15:1-15), and death at the hands of the humanity he came to save (Mark 15:21-41). His own disciples betray (Mark 14:43-49), deny (Mark 14:66-72), and desert him (Mark 14:50-51), except for a number of the women who had supported his work all along. He takes the absolute lowest place, forsaken by God and men and women, in order to grant us eternal life. At the bitter end, he feels abandoned by God himself (Mark 15:34). Mark, alone among the Gospels, records him crying the words of Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). On the cross, Jesus’ final work is to absorb all of the world’s forsakenness. Perhaps being misunderstood, mocked, and deserted was as hard on him, as was being put to death. He was aware that his death would be overcome in a few days, yet the misunderstanding, mockery, and desertion continue to this day.

Many today also feel abandoned by friends, family, society, even God. The sense of abandonment at work can feel very strong. We can be marginalized by co-workers, crushed by labour and danger, anxious about our performance, frightened by the prospect of layoffs, and made desperate by inadequate pay and meagre benefits, as was so memorably described in Studs Terkel’s book, Working. The words of Sharon Atkins, a receptionist in Terkel’s book, speak for many people. “I’d cry in the morning. I didn’t want to get up. I’d dread Fridays because Monday was always looming over me. Another five days ahead of me. There never seemed to be any end to it. Why am I doing this?”[1]

But God’s grace overcomes even the most crushing blows of work and life for those who will accept it. God’s grace touches people from the immediate moment of Jesus’ submission, when the centurion recognizes, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39). Grace triumphs over death itself when Jesus is restored to life. The women receive word from God that “he has been raised” (Mark 16:6). In the section on Mark 1:1-13, we noted the abruptness of the ending. This is not a pretty story for religious pageants but God’s gut-wrenching intervention in the grit and grime of our ragged lives and work. The busted tomb of the crucified criminal is more proof than most of us can stand that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mark 10:31). Yet this amazing grace is the one way our work can yield “a hundredfold now in this age” and our lives lead into “the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:30). No wonder that “terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).

Conclusions: Drawing Together Some Threads (Mark)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The Gospel of Mark is not organized as an instruction manual for human work, but work is visible on every page. We have drawn out some of the most significant threads in this tapestry of life and labour, and applied them to issues of twenty-first-century work. There are many kinds of work, and many contexts in which people work. The unifying theme is that all of us are called to the work of growing, restoring, and governing God’s creation, even while we await the final accomplishment of God’s intent for the world when Christ returns.

Within this grand outline, it is striking that much of Mark’s narrative revolves around identity themes. Mark shows that entering the kingdom of God requires transformation in our personal identity and communal relationships. Issues of status and identity were wrapped up with wealth and employment in the ancient world in a much more formal way than is the case today. But the underlying dynamics have not changed radically. Issues of status still influence our choices, decisions, and goals as workers. Roles, labels, affiliations, and relationships all factor into our employment and can cause us to make decisions for better or worse. We can all be vulnerable to the desire to assert our place in society by means of our property, wealth, or potential influence, and this, in turn, can affect our vocational decisions. All of these elements factor into our sense of identity, of who we are. Jesus’ challenge to be ready to relinquish the claims of earthly status is, therefore, of fundamental significance. Relatively few may be called to the particular choices made by the twelve disciples, to leave their employment entirely, but the challenge to subordinate worldly identity to the demands of the kingdom is universal. Self-denial is the essence of following Jesus. Such an attitude involves the refusal to allow our identity to be determined by our status in a fallen world.

Such a radical self-denial is impossible without grace. God’s grace is the miracle that transforms life and work, so that we are capable of living and serving in God’s kingdom while we dwell in a fallen world. Yet God’s grace seldom comes through instantaneous transformation. The narrative of the disciples is one of failure and restoration, of eventual, not immediate, change. Like them, our service in the kingdom of God remains marred by sin and failure. Like them, we find it necessary to repent of much along the way. Perhaps, though, we will also be like them in leaving a lasting legacy in the world, a kingdom whose borders have been expanded by our activity, and whose life has been enriched by our citizenship. As hard as it is to give up the things that inhibit us from following Christ to the full in our work, we find that serving him in our work is far more rewarding (Mark 10:29-32) than serving ourselves and our follies.

Key Verses and Themes in Mark

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Verses

Themes

Mark 1:16-20 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake — for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The first disciples are called while they are at work. Their relationship with their work is re-oriented by their new relationship with Jesus.

Mark 1:35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.

Jesus frames the daylight hours (the time of work) with a commitment to prayer and communion with God.

Mark 2:3, 5 Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them …When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

A man incapable of work is brought to Jesus. The story is not just about his healing, but about the place of corporate faith and mutual help.

Mark 2:14-17 As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples — for there were many who followed him.

Levi is called to discipleship; he responds by offering his home and wealth to honor Jesus, and to provide an opportunity for others to encounter him.

Mark 2:27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. (see context in 2:23-3:6)

The Sabbath rhythm is presented as valuable by Jesus, but as something for us to benefit from, not obsess about.

Mark 3:16-19 So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

The Twelve are appointed. The presence of nicknames in the lists hints at the importance of personality within the group. The naming of Judas is a sober reminder that many claim to follow Jesus, but are not aligned with the Kingdom. As we consider our relationships with Christian colleagues, both of these points are relevant.

Mark 4:35-41 (Jesus stills a storm on the Lake of Galilee, after his disciples wake him from sleeping on a cushion in the stern.)

Mark 6:45-52 (Jesus walks on the water.)

Mark 8:13-21 (Jesus takes a boat across the lake, but the disciples have forgotten to bring bread.)

Three parallel boat scenes that emphasize the disciples’ lack of understanding. This is part of Mark’s intention to portray the disciples as being in process, from failure to strength.

Mark 10:21-22 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

The rich young man cannot bring himself to part with his possessions and the status that they represent. Status is as important as luxury in this story.

Mark 11:15-17 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

Jesus disrupts economic activity in the temple, possibly because the particular practices he sees there are unjust or abusive.

Mark 12:15-17 “Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

Jesus replies to the difficult question of taxation by emphasizing the ultimate authority of God, yet without denying the validity of taxation.

Introduction to Luke

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The Gospel of Luke proclaims Jesus as the king who is coming into the world. Appointed by God, his rule will put right everything that has gone wrong following the rebellion and fall of humanity that began with Adam and Eve. At present, much of the world is governed by rebels against God’s authority. Yet this world is God’s kingdom nonetheless, and the stuff of daily life — including work — is the stuff of God’s kingdom. God cares very deeply about the governance, productivity, justice, and culture of his world.

Jesus is both the king and model for all those who hold lesser authority. Although Christians are familiar with referring to Jesus as “king,” somehow for many of us this title has come to seem primarily religious, rather than referring to an actual kingdom. We say that Jesus is the king, but we often mean that he is the king of the priests. We think of him as the founder of a religion, but Luke demonstrates that he is the re-founder of a realm — the kingdom of God on earth. When Jesus is personally present, even Satan and his minions acknowledge his rule (e.g., Luke 8:32) and his power is unchallengeable. After he returns, temporarily, to heaven, his model shows the citizens of his kingdom how to exercise authority and power in his stead.

Jesus’ leadership extends to every aspect of life, including work. It is no surprise then, that Luke’s Gospel has wide application to work. Luke pays deep attention to work-related topics such as wealth and power, economics, government, conflict, leadership, productivity and provision, and investment, as we will discuss. We will proceed roughly in the order of Luke’s text, although occasionally taking passages out of order so we can consider them in a unit with other passages sharing the same theme. We will not attempt to discuss the passages that contribute little to an understanding of work, workers, and workplaces. It may prove surprising how much of Luke’s Gospel turns out to be related to work.

God at Work (Luke 1, 2, and 4)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Zechariah’s Surprising Day at Work (Luke 1:8-25)

Luke’s Gospel begins in a workplace. This continues Yahweh’s long history of appearing in workplaces (e.g., Genesis 2:19-20; Exodus 3:1-5). Zechariah is visited by the angel Gabriel on the most important workday of his life — the day he was chosen to minister in the holy place of the Jerusalem temple (Luke 1:8). While we may not be accustomed to thinking of the temple as a place of labor, the priests and Levites there were engaged in butchery (the sacrificial animals did not kill themselves), cooking, janitorial work, accounting, and a wide variety of other activities. The temple was not simply a religious center, but the center of Jewish economic and social life. Zechariah is impacted deeply by his encounter with the Lord — he is unable to speak until he has given witness to the truth of God’s word.

The Good Shepherd Appears Among the Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)

Create Work Where There Is None (Click to Watch)

Albert Black of On Target Supplies & Logistics says he’s watched God “break into the midst” of his work, as the shepherds did long ago. God wants people to have jobs, so Albert started a business in his boyhood neighborhood where unemployment was high. Just like the shepherds in the fields, Albert’s people do work that serves people, in Albert’s case delivering whatever people need whenever they need it.

The next workplace encounter takes place a few miles down the road from the temple. A group of shepherds watching their flocks by night are visited by an angelic host announcing the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:9). Shepherds were generally regarded as disreputable, and others looked down on them. But God looks down on them with favor. Like Zechariah the priest, the shepherds have their workday interrupted by God in a surprising way. Luke describes a reality in which an encounter with the Lord is not reserved for Sundays, retreats, or mission trips. Instead, each moment appears as a moment of potential in which God can reveal himself. The daily grind may serve to dull our spiritual senses, like the people of Lot’s generation whose routines of “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building” blinded them to the coming judgment on their city (Luke 17:28-30).[1] But God is able to break into the midst of everyday life with his goodness and glory.

Jesus’ Job Description: King (Luke 1:26-56, 4:14-22)

If it seems strange for God to announce his plan to save the world in the midst of two workplaces, it might seem even stranger that he introduces Jesus with a job description. But he does, when the angel Gabriel tells Mary she is to give birth to a son. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).

While we may be unaccustomed to thinking of “king of Israel” as Jesus’ job, it is definitely his work according to Luke’s Gospel. Details of his work as king are given: performing mighty deeds, scattering the proud, bringing down rulers from their thrones, lifting up the humble, filling the empty with good things, sending the rich away empty, helping Israel, and showing mercy to Abraham’s descendants (Luke 1:51-55). These famous verses, often called the Magnificat, portray Jesus as a king exercising economic, political, and perhaps even military power. Unlike the corrupt kings of the fallen world, he employs his power to benefit his most vulnerable subjects. He does not curry favor with the powerful and well-connected in order to shore up his dynasty. He does not oppress his people or tax them to support luxurious habits. He establishes a properly governed realm where the land yields good things for all people, safety for God’s people, and mercy to those who repent of evil. He is the king that Israel never had.

Later, Jesus confirms this job description when he applies Isaiah 61:1-2 to himself. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). These are political and governmental tasks. Thus, in Luke at least, Jesus’ occupation is more closely related to present-day political work than it is to today’s pastoral or religious professions.[2] Jesus is highly respectful of the priests and their special role in God’s order, but he does not primarily identify himself as one of them (Luke 5:14; 17:14).

The tasks Jesus claims for himself benefit people in need. Unlike the rulers of the fallen world, he rules on behalf of the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and those who have fallen into debt (whose lands are returned to them during the year of the Lord’s favor; see Leviticus 25:8-13). His concern is not only for people in desperate need. He cares for people in every station and condition, as we will see. But his concern for the poor, the suffering, and the powerless distinguishes him starkly from the rulers he has come to displace.

John the Baptist Teaches Workplace Ethics (Luke 3:8-14)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Much of Luke consists of Jesus’ teaching. As it happens, the first teaching in Luke is directly about work, although it comes from John the Baptist rather than Jesus. John exhorts his audience to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8) lest they face judgment. When they ask specifically, “What then should we do?” (Luke 3:10, 12, 14), John gives economic, not religious, responses. First, he tells those who have an abundance of possessions (two tunics or ample food) to share with those who have nothing (Luke 3:10). He then gives instructions to tax collectors and soldiers, relating directly to their work. Tax collectors should collect only what they are required to, rather than padding the tax bill and pocketing the difference. Soldiers should not use their power to extort money and accuse people falsely. They should be content with their pay (Luke 3:13-14).

Discipleship Insight From the TOW Bible Commentary on Luke 3

When John tells the tax collectors, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” (Luke 3:13), he was speaking radical words to a profession marked by entrenched, systemic injustice. Taxes throughout Palestine were gathered through a system of “tax farming” in which governors and other high-level officials outsourced the right to collect taxes in their jurisdictions.[1] In order to win a contract, a prospective tax collector would have to agree to give the official a certain amount over and above the actual Roman tax. Likewise, the tax collectors’ own profits were the amounts they charged over and above what they passed up to the governmental officials. Since the people had no way to know what the actual Roman tax was, they had to pay whatever the tax collector assessed them. It would have been hard to resist the temptation for self-enrichment, and almost impossible to win bids without offering fat profits to the governmental officials.

Notice that John does not offer them the option to stop being tax collectors. The situation is similar for those Luke calls “soldiers.” These are probably not disciplined Roman soldiers but employees of Herod, who at that time ruled Galilee as a client king for Rome. Herod’s soldiers could (and did) use their authority to intimidate, extort, and secure self-gain. John’s instruction to these workers is to bring justice to a system deeply marked by injustice. We should not underestimate how difficult that would have been. Holding citizenship in God’s kingdom while living under the rule of kings of the fallen world can be dangerous and difficult.

Also notice that tax collectors and soldiers respond to John’s announcement of God’s judgment by asking, “What should we do?” They ask this question as groups (“we”) sharing the same occupation. Could occupational groups today do the same?

  • school teachers asking, “What should we do?”
  • business executives asking, “What should we do?”
  • grocery store clerks asking, “What should we do?”
  • office workers asking, “What should we do?”

The text invites us to understand God’s intent for our specific work, not only for work in general. How might we, in our present occupation, respond to the call of the Gospel?

In the passage a religious leader—the prophet John the Baptist—develops enough credibility with groups of workers—tax collectors and soldiers—that they are willing to invite his input into their ethics at work. Can groups of workers today find help from religious leaders–or from people with biblical/theological capability among themselves—to mutually discern what God intends in their own occupations? Jesus himself promises to guide those who gather together for guidance, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).

The Equipping Church” article explores how churches can help workers in common occupations recognize and act on God’s intent for their work.

Jesus is Tempted to Abandon Serving God (Luke 4:1-13)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Just before Jesus begins his work as king, Satan tempts him to abandon his allegiance to God. Jesus goes to the wilderness, where he fasts for forty days (Luke 4:2). Then he faces the same temptations the people of Israel faced in the wilderness of Sinai. (The answers Jesus gives to Satan are all quotes from Deuteronomy 6-8, which tells the story of Israel in the wilderness.) First, he is tempted to trust in his own power to satisfy his needs, rather than trusting in God’s provision (Luke 4:1-3; Deuteronomy 8:3, 17-20). “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread” (Luke 4:3). Second, he is tempted to switch his allegiance to someone (Satan) who flatters him with shortcuts to power and glory (Luke 4:5-8; Deuteronomy 6:13; 7:1-26). “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Third, he is tempted to question whether God really is with him, and therefore to try forcing God’s hand in desperation (Luke 4:9-12; Deuteronomy 6:16-25). “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here” (the temple). Unlike Israel, Jesus resists these temptations by relying on God’s word. He is the man that the people of Israel — like Adam and Eve before them — were meant to be, but never were.

As parallels to the temptations of Israel in Deuteronomy 6-8, these temptations are not unique to Jesus. He experiences them much as we all do. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Like Israel, and like Jesus, we can expect to be tempted as well, in work as in all of life.

The temptation to work solely to meet our own needs is very high at work. Work is intended to meet our needs (2 Thessalonians 3:10), but not only to meet our needs. Our work is meant to serve others also. Unlike Jesus, we do not have the option of self-service by means of miracles. But we can be tempted to work just enough for the paycheck, to quit when things get difficult, to shirk our share of the load, or to ignore the burden our poor work habits force others to carry. The temptation to take shortcuts is also high at work.

Fulfilling a Mission but Running A Deficit? Christian Tech Firm Puts Values Before Profit (Click to Watch)

The temptation to question God’s presence and power in our work may be the greatest of these temptations. Jesus was tempted to test God by forcing his hand. We do the same thing when we become lazy or foolish and expect God to take care of us. Occasionally this happens when someone decides God has called him or her to some profession or position, and then sits around waiting for God to make it happen. But we are probably more likely to be tempted by giving up on God’s presence and power in our work. We may think our work means nothing to God, or that God only cares about our church life, or that we cannot pray for God’s help for the day-to-day activities of work. Jesus expected God to participate in his work every day, but he did not demand that God do the work for him.

The entire episode begins with God’s Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness to fast for forty days. Then, as now, fasting and going on a retreat was a way to draw close to God before embarking on a major life change. Jesus was about to begin his work as king, and he wanted to receive God’s power, wisdom, and presence before he started. This was successful. When Satan tempted Jesus, he had spent forty days in God’s spirit. He was fully prepared to resist. Yet, his fast also made the temptation more visceral. “He was famished” (Luke 4:2). Temptation often comes upon us far sooner than we expect, even at the beginning of our working lives. We may be tempted to enroll in a get-rich-quick scheme, instead of starting at the bottom of the ladder in a genuinely productive profession. We may come to face to face with our own weaknesses for the first time, and be tempted to compensate by cheating or bullying or deception. We may think we can’t get the job we want with the skills we have, so we are tempted to misrepresent ourselves or fabricate qualifications. We may take a lucrative but unfulfilling position “just for a few years, until I’m settled,” in the fantasy that we will later do something more in line with our calling.

Preparation is the key to victory over temptation. Temptations usually come without warning. You may be ordered to submit a false report. You may be offered confidential information today that will be public knowledge tomorrow. An unlocked door may offer a sudden opportunity to take something that isn’t yours. The pressure to join in gossiping about a co-worker may arise suddenly during lunch break. The best preparation is to imagine possible scenarios in advance and, in prayer, plan how to respond to them, perhaps even write them down along with the responses you commit to God. Another protection is to have a group of people who know you intimately, whom you can call on short notice to discuss your temptation. If you can let them know before you act, they may help you through the temptation. Jesus, being in communion with his Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, faced his temptations with the support of his peer community — if we may so describe the Trinity.

Our temptations are not identical to Jesus’, even if they have broad similarities. We all have our own temptations, large and small, depending on who we are, our circumstances, and the nature of our work. None of us is the Son of God, yet how we respond to temptation has life-changing consequences. Imagine the consequences if Jesus had turned aside from his calling as God’s king and had spent his life creating luxuries for himself, or doing the bidding of the master of evil, or lying around waiting for the Father to do his work for him.

Jesus Calls People at Work (Luke 5:1-11; 27-32)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Twice Jesus goes to people’s workplaces to call them to follow him. The first is when Jesus gets some fishermen to interrupt their work and let him use their boat as a podium. Then he gives them some excellent fishing tips and suddenly calls them to become his first disciples (Luke 5:1-11). The second is when he calls Levi, who is at his work of collecting taxes (Luke 5:27-32). These people are called to follow Jesus by leaving their professions. We tend to think of them as full-time church workers, but full-time “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20) would be a more accurate description. Although these individuals are called to a particular kind of work in Jesus’ kingdom, Luke isn't saying that some callings (e.g., preaching) are higher than others (e.g., fishing). Some of Jesus’ followers—like Peter, John, and Levi—follow Jesus by leaving their current employment (Luke 5:11). We will soon meet others—such as Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-41), another tax collector named Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) and a Roman military officer (Luke 1-10)—who follow Jesus by living transformed lives in their present occupations. In one case (Luke 8:26-39), Jesus commands a person not to leave his home and travel around with him.

Those who travel with Jesus apparently cease wage-earning work and depend on donations for provision (Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-24). But this is not a sign that the highest form of discipleship is to leave our jobs. It is a specific call to these individuals and a reminder that all our provision is from God, even if he typically provides for us through conventional employment. There are many models for following Christ in our various occupations.

Besides appearing in workplaces, Jesus also sets many of his parables in workplaces, including the parables of the new patches/wineskins (Luke 5:36-39), the wise and foolish builders (Luke 6:46-49), the sower (Luke 8:4-15), the watchful servants (Luke 12:35-41), the wicked servant (Luke 12:42-47), the mustard seed (Luke 13:18-19), the yeast (Luke 13:20-21), the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7), the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), and the wicked tenants (Luke 20:9-19). Workplaces are where Jesus turns when he wants to say, “The kingdom of God is like…” These passages are not generally meant to teach about the workplaces in which they are set, although sometimes they do provide a bit of workplace guidance. Rather, Jesus uses familiar aspects of workplaces primarily to make points about God’s kingdom that transcend the parables’ particular settings. This suggests that ordinary work has great significance and value in Jesus’ eyes. Otherwise it would make no sense to illustrate God’s kingdom in workplace terms.

For more about Jesus’ calling of the disciples, see "Mark 1:16-20" in Mark and Work and "Matthew 3-4" in Matthew and Work at www.theologyofwork.org. For more about calling in general, see the article Vocation Overview at www.theologyofwork.org.

Healing in the Book of Luke

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Dr. Eileen Burd Sees God in Her Work Serving the Sick and Suffering (Click to Watch)

In Jesus’ day, as now, the work of healing and health was essential. Jesus heals people in thirteen episodes in the Gospel of Luke: 4:31-37; 4:38-44; 5:12-16; 5:17-26; 7:1-10; 7:11-17; 7:21; 8:26-39; 8:40-56; 9:37-45; 13:10-17; 17:11-19; and; 18:35-43. By doing so, he brings wellness to suffering people, as he announced he would do when he took on the mantle of king. In addition, the healings are actualizations of the coming kingdom of God, in which there will be no sickness (Revelation 21:4). God not only commands people to work for others’ benefit, he empowers people to do so. God’s power is not restricted to Jesus himself, for in two passages, Jesus empowers his followers to heal people (Luke 9:1-6, 10:9). Yet all the healings depend on God’s power. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann sums this up beautifully. “Jesus’ healings are not supernatural miracles in a natural world. They are the only truly ‘natural’ thing in a world that is unnatural, demonized, and wounded.”[1] They are a tangible sign that God is putting the world back to right.

The healings reported in the Gospels are generally miraculous. But Christians’ non-miraculous efforts to restore human bodies can also be seen as extensions of Jesus’ life-giving ministry. It would be a mistake not to notice how important healing is to the redemptive work of God’s kingdom. This work is performed daily by doctors, nurses, technologists, claims processors, hospital parking lot attendants, and countless others whose work makes healing possible. Luke himself was a physician (Colossians 4:14), and we can imagine his particular interest in healing. However, it would be a mistake to infer that the healing professions are inherently higher callings than other professions.

Sabbath and Work (Luke 6:1-11; 13:10-17)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The Sabbath is an essential part of the biblical understanding of work, and Jesus teaches about the Sabbath in the Gospel of Luke. Work and rest are not opposing forces, but elements of a rhythm that make good work and true recreation possible. Ideally, that rhythm meets people’s needs for provision and health, but in a fallen world, there are times when it does not.

Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-11)

In Luke 6:1-5, it is the Sabbath, and Jesus and his disciples are hungry. They pluck heads of grain in a field, rub them in their hands, and eat the kernels. Some Pharisees complain that this constitutes threshing and is therefore working on the Sabbath. Jesus responds that David and his companions also broke the sacred rules when they were hungry, entering the house of God and eating the consecrated bread that only priests were allowed to eat. We might imagine that the connection between these two episodes is hunger. When you are hungry it is permissible to work to feed yourself, even if it means working on the Sabbath. But Jesus draws a somewhat different conclusion. “The Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath” (Luke 6:5). This suggests that keeping the Sabbath is grounded in understanding God’s heart, rather than developing increasingly detailed rules and exceptions.

Set Free on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17)

Making Time Off Predictable and Required (Click Here to Read)

Read more here about a new study regarding rhythms of rest and work done at the Boston Consulting Group by two professors from Harvard Business School. It showed that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited. (Harvard Business Review may show an ad and require registration in order to view the article.) Mark Roberts also discusses this topic in his Life for Leaders devotional "Won't Keeping the Sabbath Make Me Less Productive?"

Other healings Jesus performs on the Sabbath are described in Luke 6:9 and 14:5. Nonetheless, it would be hard to piece together a theology of the Sabbath from only the events in Luke. But we can observe that Jesus anchors his understanding of the Sabbath in the needs of people. Human needs come before keeping the Sabbath, even though keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. Yet by meeting human needs on the Sabbath, the commandment is fulfilled, not abolished. The healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath provides a particularly rich example of this. “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” the indignant synagogue ruler chides the crowd. “Come on those days and be cured and not on the sabbath day” (Luke 13:14). Jesus’ reply begins with the law. If people water their animals on the Sabbath, as was lawful, “ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16).

Additional discussions of the Sabbath — in some cases with a differing perspective — can be found under "Mark 1:21-45" and "Mark 2:23-3:6" in Mark and Work, and in the article Rest and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.

The Ethics of Conflict (Luke 6:27-36; 17:3-4)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Do Good to Those Who Hate You (Luke 6:27-36)

All workplaces experience conflict. In Luke 6:27-36, Jesus addresses situations of conflict. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27-28). Luke leaves no doubt that this is a teaching for the economic world, for he specifically relates it to lending money. “Lend [to your enemies], expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35). This doesn’t seem like a viable commercial lending strategy, but perhaps we can understand it at a more abstract level. Christians must not use their power to crush people with whom they are in conflict. Instead, they must actively work for their good. This can apply to the workplace at two levels.

At the individual level, it means that we must work for the good of those with whom we are in conflict. This does not mean avoiding conflict or withdrawing from competition. But it does mean, for example, that if you are competing with a co-worker for promotion, you must help your co-worker/opponent do their work as well as they can, while trying to do yours even better.

At the corporate level, it means not crushing your competition, suppliers or customers, especially with unfair or unproductive actions such as frivolous lawsuits, monopolization, false rumors, stock manipulation, and the like. Every occupation has its own circumstances, and it would be foolish to draw a one-size-fits-all application from this passage in Luke. Competing hard in business via intentional fraud might be different from competing hard in basketball via an intentional foul. Therefore, an essential element of believers’ participation in an occupation is to try to work out what the proper modes of conflict and competition are in light of Jesus’ teaching.

Rebuke - Repent - Forgive (Luke 17:3-4)

Later, Jesus again addresses interpersonal conflict. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3, NIV). We shouldn’t take this as family therapy only, because Jesus applies the term “brother” to all those who follow him (Mark 3:35). It is good organizational behavior to confront people directly and to restore good relationships when the conflict is resolved. But the next verse breaks the bounds of common sense. “If the same person sins against you seven times a day and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive” (Luke 17:4). In fact, Jesus not only commands forgiveness, but the absence of judgment in the first place. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned” (Luke 6:37). “Why do you see the speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Luke 6:41).

Would it be wise to be so nonjudgmental at work? Isn’t sound judgment a requirement for good organizational governance and performance? Perhaps Jesus is talking about giving up not good judgment but judgmentalism and condemnation—the hypocritical attitude that the problems around us are entirely someone else’s fault. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t so much mean “Ignore repeated moral lapses or incompetence,” so much as, “Ask yourself how your actions may have contributed to the problem.” Perhaps he doesn’t mean, “Don’t assess others’ performance,” so much as, “Figure out what you can do to help those around you succeed.” Perhaps Jesus’ point is not leniency but mercy. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).

God's Provision (Luke 9:10-17; 12:4-7; 12:22-31)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Throughout Luke, Jesus teaches that living in God’s kingdom means looking to God, rather than human effort, as the ultimate source of the things we need for life. Our labor is not optional, but neither is it absolute. Our labor is always a participation in the grace of God’s provision.

Jesus Feeds Five Thousand (Luke 9:10-17)

God Provides for Normal Life, Remembers Worried Entrepreneur (Click to Watch)

Jesus demonstrates this in actions before he teaches it in words. In the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:10-17), God, in the person of Jesus, takes responsibility for meeting the crowd’s need for food. He does it because they are hungry. Exactly how Jesus works this miracle is not stated. He makes use of ordinary food — the five loaves of bread and two fish — and by God’s power, a little bit of food becomes enough to feed so many people. Some of Jesus’ disciples (the fisherman) were in the food service profession and others (e.g., Levi the tax collector) were in civil service. He employs their accustomed labor, as they organize the crowd and serve the bread and fish. Jesus incorporates, rather than replaces, the ordinary human means of providing food, and the results are miraculously successful. Human work is capable of doing good or doing harm. When we do as Jesus directs, our work is good. As we so often see in the Gospel of Luke, God brings miraculous results out of ordinary work—in this case, the work of providing the necessities of life.

Jesus Teaches About God's Provision (Luke 12:4-7; 12:22-31)

Later, Jesus teaches about God’s provision. “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear….Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:22-31). Jesus offers this as plain common sense. Since worrying cannot add so much as an hour to your life, why worry? Jesus doesn’t say not to work, only not to worry about whether your work will provide enough to meet your needs.

Dispel Worry by Helping Others Succeed (Click to Watch)

God gave Joe Kreutz, CEO of County Commerce Bank, relationships that made him feel secure enough to run his bank to help the community, customers and employees succeed, rather than worrying about himself.

In an economy of plenty, this is excellent advice. Many of us are driven by worry to labor in jobs we don’t like, keeping hours that detract from our enjoyment of life, neglecting the needs of others around us. To us, the goal doesn’t seem like “more” money but rather “enough” money, enough to feel secure. Yet seldom do we actually feel secure, no matter how much more money we make. In fact, it's often true that the more successful we are at bringing in more money, the less secure we feel because we now have more to lose. It’s almost as if we would be better off if we had something genuine to worry about, as do the poor (“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” Luke 6:21). To break out of this rut, Jesus says to “strive for [God’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (Luke 12:31). Why? Because if your ultimate goal is God’s kingdom, then you have the assurance that your ultimate goal will be met. And feeling that assurance, you can recognize that the money you make actually is enough, that God is providing for your needs. To earn a million dollars and be afraid you may lose it is like being a million dollars in debt. To earn a thousand dollars and to know that you will ultimately be fine is like getting a thousand dollar gift.

But what if you don’t have a thousand dollars? About a third of the world’s population subsists on less than a thousand dollars a year.[1] These people may have enough to live on today, but face the threat of hunger or worse at any moment, whether or not they are believers. It is difficult to reconcile the hard fact of poverty and starvation with God’s promise of provision. Jesus is not ignorant of this situation. “Sell your possessions and give to the poor,” he says (Luke 12:33, NIV), for he knows that some people are desperately poor. That’s why we must give to them. Perhaps if all Jesus’ followers used our work and wealth to alleviate and prevent poverty, we would become the means of God’s provision for the desperately poor. But since Christians have not done so, we will not pretend to speak here on behalf of people who are so poor that their provision is doubtful. Instead, let us ask whether our own provision is presently in doubt. Is our worry in proportion to any genuine danger of lacking what we really need? Are the things we worry about genuine needs? Are the things we worry about for ourselves remotely comparable to the things the desperately poor need that we do nothing to provide for them? If not, then anything but Jesus’ advice not to worry about the necessities of life would be foolhardy.

The Good Samaritan at Work—Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself (Luke 10:25-37)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The theme of God’s provision through human labor continues in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, God’s provision for a crime victim comes through the compassion of a foreign traveler, who evidently has enough wealth to pay for a stranger’s medical care. This may be the best-known of all Jesus’ parables, though it occurs only in the Gospel of Luke. It follows immediately after Luke’s account of the Great Commandment. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus says that greatest commandment in all of scripture is to “love God” and “love your neighbor.” In Luke 10:25-37 the discussion of the greatest commandment continues directly into the Parable of the Good Samaritan. For the workplace implications of the Great Commandment, see "The Great Commandment is a Great Framework (Matthew 22:34-40)” and “Our Work Fulfills the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34).”

In Luke’s account, the lawyer begins by asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the lawyer to summarize himself what is written in the law, and the lawyer returns with the Great Commandment “Love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replies that this is indeed the key to life.

The lawyer then asks Jesus a follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds by telling a story which has been called “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” This story is so compelling that it has permeated into popular knowledge far beyond Christian circles. People who have never picked up a Bible will still recognize the meaning of the term “Good Samaritan” as someone who takes care of a stranger in need.

CEO Ron Johnson Asks: Who Is My Neighbor at Work? (Click to Watch)

Given the cultural idea of a “Good Samaritan” as someone with an extraordinary talent for compassion, we might be tempted to overlook the actual Samaritan in Jesus’ story. And yet it is important to our understanding of our own work to examine why the Samaritan Jesus describes was a successful businessman.

The Samaritan in Jesus’ story comes upon the Jew injured by robbers along a well-known trading route. The Samaritan likely traveled that trade route often, as evidence by the fact that he was known at a nearby inn and deemed trustworthy enough by the innkeeper to demand an extension of services on credit. Whatever the nature of his business, the Samaritan was successful enough to be able to afford oil and wine for medicinal purposes and lodging at an inn for a complete stranger. He is willing to spend his money on the stranger, and his time too. The Samaritan puts his other business on hold to see to the needs of the injured stranger.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan can thus be interpreted as a story about using our material success to benefit others. The hero of the parable spends his money on a stranger without any direct obligation to do so. They are not related by kinship or even by faith. Indeed, the Samaritans and the Jews were often antagonistic toward one another. And yet in Jesus’ mind, to love God is to make anyone who needs our help into our “neighbor.” Jesus emphasizes this point by reversing the thrust of the lawyer’s original question. They lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” a question that begins with the self and then asks who the self is obligated to aid. Jesus reverses the question, “Which of the three was a neighbor to the man?” a question that centers on the man in need, and asks who is obligated to help him. If we begin by thinking of the person in need, rather than ourselves, does that give us a different perspective on whether God calls us to help?

This doesn’t mean we are called to absolute, infinite availability. No one is called to meet all the needs of the world. It is beyond our capability. The Samaritan doesn’t quit his job to go searching for every injured traveler in the Roman Empire. But when he crosses paths—literally—with someone who needs the help he can give, he takes action. “A neighbor,” says the preacher Haddon Robinson, “is someone whose needs you have the ability to meet.”

The Samaritan doesn’t just help the injured man by throwing a few coins his way. Rather, he makes sure all the man’s needs are cared for, both his immediate medical needs and his need for a space to recuperate. The Samaritan thus cares for the man as he might care for his own self. This fulfills Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Samaritan takes on an extraordinary degree of risk to help this stranger. He risks getting jumped by the same bandits when he stoops to see what has happened to the man. He risks being cheated by the Innkeeper. He risks being saddled by the expense and emotional weight of caring for someone who has become chronically ill. But he takes on these risks because he acts as if his own life were the one in question. This is Jesus’ best example of what it might mean to be a neighbor to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Another feature of the story that would have surprised Jesus’ listeners is the ethnicity of the hero, a Samaritan. Jesus’ people, the Jews, considered Samaritans ethnically and religiously inferior. Yet the Samaritan is more attuned to the Law of Moses than the Jewish religious leaders who pass by on the other side of the road. His presence in Jewish territory is not a danger to be feared, but a saving grace to be welcomed.

At work we have many chances to be neighbors with co-workers, customers and others across ethnic or cultural divides. Being a Good Samaritan in the workplace means cultivating a specific awareness of the needs of the other. Are there people in your workplace who are being robbed in some way? Often specific ethnic groups are deprived of recognition or promotion. A conscientious Christian should be the one to say, “Are we giving this person a fair shake?”

Similarly, just as enmity had grown between the Jews and Samaritans, management and employees often think of themselves as two distinct tribes. But that doesn’t need to be the case. One company didn’t see it that way at all. Arthur Demoulas, CEO of the chain of groceries Market Basket, made it a point to treat his workers exceptionally well. He paid them well over the minimum wage and refused to scrap the company’s profit-sharing plan even when the company lost money during an economic downturn. He forged direct connections with his workers, learning the names of as many of them as possible. This was no small feat in a company of 25,000 employees. When Market Basket’s board of directors fired Arthur Demoulas in 2014, due in large part to his generous practices, the employees of the supermarket chain went on strike. Workers refused to stock the shelves until Arthur Demoulas regained control of the company. It was perhaps the first instance ever of workers of a large company organizing at the grassroots level to choose their own CEO, and it was fueled by Arthur Demoulas’ self-sacrificing generosity.

In this case, being a Good Samaritan actually boosted Arthur Demoulas’ success. Perhaps it’s not only good spiritual counsel but good business advice when Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

The Shrewd Manager and the Prodigal Son (Luke 16:1-13; 15:11-32)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-13)

The key to security about the things we need is not anxious earning and saving, but trustworthy service and spending. If God can trust us to spend our money to meet the needs of others, then the money we ourselves need will also be provided. This is the point of the parable of the dishonest manager. In it, a manager squanders his master’s property and, as a result, is notified he will be fired. He uses his last days on the job to defraud his master further, but there is a strange twist to how he does it. He does not try to steal from his master. Perhaps he knows it will be impossible to take anything with him when he leaves the estate. Instead, he fraudulently reduces the debts of his masters’ debtors, hoping that they will reciprocate the favor and provide for him when he is unemployed.

Like the dishonest manager, we cannot take anything with us when we depart this life. Even during this life our savings can be destroyed by hyperinflation, market crashes, theft, confiscation, lawsuits, war, and natural disaster. Therefore, building up large savings offers no real security. Instead, we should spend our wealth to provide for other people, and depend on them to do the same for us when the need arises. “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:9, NRSV footnote b). By providing for his master’s debtors, the dishonest steward is creating friendships. Mutual fraud is probably not the best way to build relationships. But apparently it is better than not building relationships at all. Building relationships is far more effective for gaining security than building wealth is. The word eternal signifies that good relationships help us in times of trouble in this life, and they will also endure into eternal life.

An extreme example of this principle occurs whenever war, terror, or disaster destroys the economic fabric of society. In a refugee camp, a prison, or a hyperinflated economy, the wealth you formerly may have had cannot procure even a crust of bread. But if you have provided for others, you may find them providing for you in your most difficult hour. Note that the people the dishonest manager helps are not wealthy people. They are debtors. The dishonest manager is not depending on their riches but on the relationship of mutual dependence has built with them.

Yet Jesus is not saying to depend on the fickle sentiments of people you may have helped over the years. The story turns quickly from the debtors to the master in the story (Luke 16:8), and Jesus endorses the master’s maxim, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” (Luke 16:10). This points to God as the guarantor that using money for relationships will lead to lasting security. When you build good relationships with other people, you come to have a good relationship with God. Jesus does not say which matters more to God, the generosity to the poor or the good relationships with people. Perhaps it is both. “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (Luke 16:11). True riches are good relationships with people founded on our mutual adoption as God’s children, and a good relationship with God is realized in generosity to the poor. Good relationships produce good fruit, which gives us greater ability to build good relationships and be generous to others. If God can trust you to be generous with a little bit of money and use it build good relationships, he will be able to entrust you with greater resources.

This suggests that if you do not have enough savings to feel secure, the answer is not trying to save more. Instead, spend the little you have on generosity or hospitality. Other people's responses to your generosity and hospitality may bring you more security than saving more money would. Needless to say, this should be done wisely, in ways that truly benefit others, and not merely to assuage your conscience or flatter people targeted as future benefactors. In any case, your ultimate security is in God’s generosity and hospitality.

Echoes of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)

A Challenge to Rethink Our Perspective on Salvation (Click to Listen)

This may be surprising financial advice: Don’t save, but spend what you have to draw closer to other people. Notice, however, that it comes immediately after the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In that story, the younger son wastes his entire fortune, while the older son saves his money so frugally that he can’t even entertain his closest friends (Luke 16:29). The younger son’s profligacy leads to ruin. Yet his squandering of the wealth leads him to turn to his father in utter dependence. The father’s joy over having him back washes away any negative feelings he has about the son costing him half a fortune. By contrast, the older son’s firm grasp on what’s left of the family’s wealth turns him away from a close relationship with his father.

In the stories of both the dishonest manager and the prodigal son, Jesus does not say that wealth is inherently bad. Rather, he says that the proper use of wealth is to spend it, preferably on God’s purposes—but if not that, then on things that will increase our dependence on God.

Jesus and Wealth in the Book of Luke

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

How to Become a Generous Person (Click Here to Read)

In this daily reflection from The High Calling, Mark Roberts considers how the path to being a generous person in Luke 12:32-34 goes like this: God gives generously to you. You give generously to others in response. Your act of giving opens your heart, transforming you on the inside to become a generous person.

The last two passages move from the topic of provision to the topic of wealth. Although Jesus has nothing against wealth, he views wealth with suspicion. Market economies are predicated upon the generation, exchange and accumulation of privately owned wealth. This reality is so deeply embedded in many societies that the pursuit and accumulation of personal wealth has become, for many, an end in itself. But, as we have seen, Jesus does not see the accumulation of wealth as a proper end in itself. Just as one’s work (modeled upon the life of Jesus) must exhibit a profound concern for others and an unwillingness to use work-related power or authority only for self-gain, so also wealth must be used with a deep concern for neighbors. While Luke’s second volume, Acts (see Acts and Work at www.theologyofwork.org), has more wealth-related material, his Gospel also poses significant challenges to dominant assumptions about wealth.

Concern for the Wealthy (Luke 6:25; 12:13-21; 18:18-30)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents
Put Family Ahead of Business

Peter Schneck sold a thriving ad agency when he realized it was keeping him from being in a close relationship with his son.

Jesus’ first problem with wealth is that it tends to displace God in the lives of wealthy people. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). Jesus wants people to recognize that their lives are defined not by what they have, but by God’s love for them and his call upon their lives. Luke expects us — and the work we do — to be fundamentally transformed by our encounters with Jesus.

But having wealth seems to make us stubbornly resistant to any transformation of life. It affords us the means to maintain the status quo, to become independent, to do things our own way. True, or eternal, life is a life of relationship with God (and other people), and wealth that displaces God leads ultimately to eternal death. As Jesus said, “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:25). The wealthy may be lured away from life with God by their own wealth, a fate that the poor escape. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” says Jesus (Luke 6:20). This is not a promise of future reward, but a statement of present reality. The poor have no wealth to stand in the way of loving God. But “woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6:25). “Be hungry” seems a bit of an understatement for “miss eternal life by putting God outside your orbit of interest,” but that is clearly the implication. Yet perhaps there is hope even for the wretchedly rich.

The Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21)

The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) takes up this theme dramatically. “The land of a rich man produced abundantly,” too much to fit in the man’s barns. “What shall I do?” he worries, and he decides to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. He is among those who believe that more wealth will lead to less worry about money. But before he discovers how empty his worrisome wealth is, he meets an even starker fate: death. As he prepares to die, God’s mocking question is a double-edged sword, “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20). One edge is the answer, “not yours,” for the wealth he counted upon to satisfy him for many years will pass instantly to someone else. The other edge cuts even deeper, and it is the answer, “yours.” You—the rich fool—will indeed get what you have prepared for yourself, a life after death without God, true death indeed. His wealth has prevented him from the need to develop a relationship with God, exhibited by his failure to even think of using his bumper crop to provide for those in need. “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

Friendship with God is seen here in economic terms. God’s friends who are rich provide for God’s friends who are poor. The rich fool’s problem is that he hoards things for himself, not producing jobs or prosperity for others. This means both that he loves wealth instead of God, and that he is not generous toward the poor. We can imagine a rich person who truly loves God and holds wealth lightly, one who gives liberally to the needy, or better yet, invests money in producing genuine goods and services, employs a growing workforce, and treats people with justice and fairness in their work. In fact, we can find many such people in the Bible (for example, Joseph of Arimathea, Luke 23:50) and in the world around us. Such people are blessed both in life and afterwards. Yet we do not want to remove the sting of the parable: if it is possible to grow (economically and otherwise) with grace, it is also possible to grow only with greed; the final accounting is with God.

The Rich Ruler (Luke 18:18-30)

Jesus’ encounter with the rich ruler (Luke 18:18-30) points to the possibility of redemption from the grip of wealth. This man has not let his riches entirely displace his desire for God. He begins by asking Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In answer, Jesus summarizes the Ten Commandments. “I have kept all these since my youth,” replies the ruler (Luke 18:21), and Jesus accepts him at his word. Yet even so, Jesus sees the corrupting influence that wealth is working on the man. So he offers him a way to end wealth’s pernicious influence. “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). Anyone whose deepest desire is for God surely would leap at the invitation to daily, personal intimacy with God’s Son. But it is too late for the rich ruler — his love of wealth already exceeds his love for God. “He became sad, for he was very rich” (Luke 18:23). Jesus recognizes the symptoms and says, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25).

By contrast, the poor often show amazing generosity. The poor widow is able to give away everything she has for the love of God (Luke 21:1-4). This is no summary judgment by God against wealthy people, but an observation of the heavy grip of wealth’s seductive power. The people standing near Jesus and the ruler also recognize the problem and despair over whether anyone can resist the lure of wealth, though they themselves have given away everything to follow Jesus (Luke 18:28). Jesus, however, does not despair, for “what is impossible for mortals is possible for God” (Luke 18:27). God himself is the source of strength for the desire to love God more than wealth.

Perhaps wealth’s most insidious effect is that it can prevent us from desiring a better future. If you are wealthy, things are good as they are now. Change becomes a threat rather than an opportunity. In the case of the rich ruler, this blinds him to the possibility that life with Jesus could be incomparably wonderful. Jesus offers the rich ruler a new sense of identity and security. If he could only imagine how that would more than make up for the loss of his wealth, perhaps he could have accepted Jesus’ invitation. The punch line comes when the disciples speak of all they’ve given up and Jesus promises them the overflowing riches of belonging to the kingdom of God. Even in this age, Jesus says, they will receive “very much more” in both resources and relationships, and in the coming age, eternal life (Luke 18:29-30). This is what the rich ruler is tragically missing out on. He can see only what he will lose, not what he will gain.

The story of the rich ruler is further discussed under "Mark 10:17-31" in Mark and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.

Concern for the Poor (Luke 6:17-26; 16:19-31)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents
Diversified Chemical Technologies - Caring for the Poor by Investing in Business in Detroit

The well-being of the rich is not Jesus’ only concern with regard to wealth. He also cares about the well-being of the poor. “Sell your possessions,” he says “and give alms [to the poor]. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (Luke 12:33). If the hoarding of wealth is harming the rich, how much more is it harming the poor?

God’s persistent concern for the poor and powerless is inherent in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-26), and indeed throughout Luke’s Gospel. But Jesus brings it to a point in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). This rich man dresses in grand clothes and lives in luxury, while he does nothing to help relieve Lazarus, who is dying of hunger and disease. Lazarus dies, but so, of course, does the rich man, which reminds us that wealth has no great power after all. The angels carry Lazarus to heaven, apparently for no reason other than his poverty (Luke 16:22), unless perhaps for a love of God that was never displaced by wealth. The rich man goes to Hades (or “hell” as the NIV translates it), apparently for no reason other than his wealth (Luke 16:23), unless perhaps for a love of wealth that drove out any room for God or other people. The implication is strong that the rich man’s duty was to care for Lazarus’ needs when he was able (Luke 16:25). Perhaps by so doing, he could have found room again in himself for a right relationship with God and avoided his miserable end. Further, like many of the rich, he cared for his family, wanting to warn them of the judgment to come, but his care for God’s wider family as revealed in the law and prophets was sadly lacking, and not even one returning from the dead could remedy that.

Investing in Jesus' Work (Luke 8:3; 10:7)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-13) teaches the importance of using money wisely. Luke provides examples in the persons of those who invest their money in Jesus’ work: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna are named alongside the twelve disciples because of their financial support for Jesus’ work. It is surprising how prominently women figure in this list, because few women in the ancient world possessed wealth. Yet “these women were helping to support them out of their own means” (Luke 8:3, NIV). Later, when Jesus sends out evangelists, he tells them to depend on the generosity of the people among whom they serve, “for the laborer deserves to be paid” (Luke 10:7).

Give and Give and it Will Come Back to You (Click to Watch)

Buddy Roybal is founder of Coronado Paint & Decorating located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Employees are given time off and are paid to do volunteer work in the community.

What may seem surprising is that these two somewhat off-hand comments are all that Luke says about giving to what we would now recognize as the church. Compared to the unceasing concern Jesus shows for giving to the poor, he doesn’t make much of giving to the church. Nowhere, for instance, does he interpret the Old Testament tithe as belonging to the church. This is not to say that Jesus sets generosity to the poor against generosity to the church. Instead, it is a matter of emphasis. We should note that giving money is not the only means of generosity. People also participate in God’s redemptive work by creatively employing their skills, passions, relationships, and prayers.

Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Need to Find Some Significance in Your Job? (Click to listen)

The story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) also puts generosity in the context of love for God. Martha works to prepare dinner, while Mary sits and listens to Jesus. Martha asks Jesus to rebuke her sister for not helping, but instead Jesus commends Mary. Regrettably, this story has often suffered from dubious interpretations, with Martha becoming the poster child for all that is wrong with the life of busyness and distraction, or what the Medieval Church called the active or working life of Martha, which was permitted but inferior to the perfect life of contemplation or the monastery. But the story must be read against the backdrop of Luke’s Gospel as a whole, where the work of hospitality (a vital form of generosity in the ancient Near East) is one of the chief signs of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.[1]

Mary and Martha are not enemies but sisters. Two sisters squabbling about household duties cannot reasonably be construed as a battle of incompatible modes of life. Martha’s generous service is not minimized by Jesus, but her worries show that her service needs to be grounded in Mary’s kind of love for him. Together, the sisters embody the truth that generosity and love of God are intertwined realities. Martha performs the kind of generosity Jesus commends in Luke 14:12-14, for he is someone who cannot pay her back in kind. By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary shows that all our service ought to be grounded in a lively personal relationship with him. Following Christ means becoming like Martha and Mary. Be generous and love God. These are mutually reinforcing, as is the two sisters’ relationship with each other.

Generosity: The Secret to Breaking Wealth's Grip (Luke 10:38-42; 14:12-14; 24:13-15)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

This suggests that God’s secret weapon is generosity. If by God’s power you can be generous, wealth begins to lose its grip on you. We have already seen how deeply generosity worked in the heart of the poor widow. It is much harder for the rich to be generous, but Jesus teaches how generosity might be possible for them too. One crucial path to generosity is to give to people who are too poor to pay you back.

Jesus said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or relatives or your rich neighbors in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (Luke 14:12-14)

Give and Give and it Will Come Back to You (Click to Watch)

Buddy Roybal is founder of Coronado Paint & Decorating located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Employees are given time off and are paid to do volunteer work in the community.

Generosity that earns favors in return is not generosity but favor-buying. Real generosity is giving when no payback is possible, and this is what is rewarded in eternity. Of course, the reward in heaven could be taken as a kind of delayed gratification rather than true generosity: you give because you expect to be paid back at the resurrection, rather than during earthly life. This seems like a wiser sort of favor-buying, but favor-buying nonetheless. Jesus’ words do not rule out interpreting generosity as eternal favor-buying, but there is a deeper, more satisfying interpretation. True generosity — the kind that doesn’t expect to be paid back in this life or the next — breaks wealth’s God-displacing grip. When you give away money, money releases its grip on you, but only if you put the money permanently beyond your reach. This is a psychological reality, as well as a material and spiritual one. Generosity allows room for God to be your God again, and this leads to the true reward of the resurrection — eternal life with God.

Power and Leadership in Luke

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

As king, Jesus is the leader of God’s realm. He employs his power in many ways recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Yet Christians are often reluctant to exercise leadership or power, as if the two were inherently evil. Jesus teaches otherwise. Christians are called to lead and to exercise power, but unlike the powers of the fallen world, they are to use it for God’s purposes rather than for their own self-interest.

Persistence: The Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), a poor, powerless person (the widow) persists in nagging a corrupt, powerful person (the judge) to do justice for her. The parable assumes John the Baptist’s teaching that holding a position of power and leadership obligates you to work justly, especially on behalf of the poor and weak. But Jesus focuses the parable on a different point, that we are “to pray always and to not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). He identifies the hearers — us — with the woman, and the prayed-to person — God — with the corrupt judge, a strange combination. Assuming that Jesus doesn’t mean that God is corrupt, the point must be that if persistence pays off with a corrupt human of limited power, how much more will it pay off with a just God of infinite power.

The purpose of the parable is to encourage Christians to persevere in their faith against all odds. But it also has two applications for those who work in positions of leadership. First, the juxtaposition of a corrupt judge with a just God implies that God’s will is at work even in a corrupt world. The judge’s job is to do justice, and by God, he will do justice by the time the widow is finished with him. Elsewhere, the Bible teaches that the civil authorities serve by God’s authorization, whether they acknowledge it or not (John 19:11; Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13). So there is hope that even in the midst of systemic injustice, justice may be done. A Christian leader’s job is to work toward that hope at all times. We cannot right every wrong in the world in our lifetimes. But we must never give up hope, and never stop working for the greater good[1] in the midst of the imperfect systems where our work occurs. Legislators, for example, seldom have a choice of voting for a good bill versus a bad bill. Usually the best they can do is to vote for bills that do more good than bad. But they must continually look for opportunities to bring bills to a vote that do even less harm and even more good.

The second point is that only God can bring about justice in a corrupt world. That is why we must pray and not give up in our work. God can bring miraculous justice in a corrupt world, just as God can bring miraculous healing in a sick world. Suddenly, the Berlin wall opens, the apartheid regime crumbles, peace breaks out. In the parable of the persistent widow, God does not intervene. The widow’s persistence alone leads the judge to act justly. But Jesus indicates that God is the unseen actor. “Will not God grant justice for his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7).

Risk: The Parable of the Ten Minas (Luke 19:11-27)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The parable of the ten minas (“pounds” in the NRSV translation) is set in the workplace of high finance. A rich — and soon to be powerful — nobleman goes on an extended trip to be crowned king. Most of his people hate him and send word ahead that they oppose this coronation (Luke 19:14). In his absence, he assigns three of his servants to invest his money. Two of them take the risk of investing their master’s money. They earn handsome returns. A third servant is afraid to take the risk, so he puts the money in a safe place. It earns no return. When the master returns, he has become king of the whole territory. He rewards the two servants who made money for him, promoting them to high positions of their own. He punishes the servant who kept the money safe but unproductive. Then he commands that all who opposed him be killed in his presence.

Jesus tells this parable immediately before going to Jerusalem, where he is to be crowned king (“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” Luke 19:38) but soon is rejected by his people. This identifies Jesus with the nobleman in the parable, and the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21) with the people in the parable who oppose the nobleman’s coronation. By this we know that the people have profoundly misjudged their soon-to-be king, except for the two servants who work diligently in his absence. The parable, in this context, warns us that we must decide if Jesus is indeed God’s appointed king and be prepared to abide the consequences of our decision either to serve him or oppose him.[1]

This parable makes explicit that citizens of God’s kingdom are responsible to work toward God’s goals and purposes. In this parable, the king tells his servants directly what he expects them to do, namely, to invest his money. This specific calling or command makes it clear that preaching, healing, and evangelism (the apostles’ callings) are not the only things God calls people to do. Of course, not everyone in God’s kingdom is called to be an investor, either. In this parable, only three of the country’s residents are called to be investors. The point is that acknowledging Jesus as king requires working toward his purposes in whatever field of work you do.

Seen in this light, the parable suggests if we choose to accept Jesus as king, we must expect to lead risky lives. The servants who invested the master’s money faced the risk of being attacked by those around them who rejected the master’s authority. And they faced the risk of disappointing their master by making investments that might lose money. Even their success exposes them to risk. Now that they have tasted success and been promoted, they risk becoming greedy or power-mad. They face the risk that their next investments — which will involve much greater sums — will fail and expose them to much more severe consequences. In Anglo-American business (and sports) practice, CEOs (and head coaches) are routinely fired for mediocre results, whereas those in lower-level positions are fired only for exceptionally poor performance. Neither failure nor success is safe in this parable, or in today’s workplace. It is tempting to duck for cover and search for a safe way of accommodating to the system while waiting for things to get better. But ducking for cover is the one action Jesus condemns in the parable. The servant who tries to avoid risk is singled out as unfaithful. We are not told what would have happened if the other two servants had lost money on their investments, but the implication is that all investments made in faithful service to God are pleasing to him, whether or not they achieve their intended payoff.

For a discussion of the highly similar parable of the talents see "Matthew 25:14-30" in Matthew and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.

Humble Service (Luke 9:46-50, 14:7-11, 22:24-30)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Jesus declares that leadership requires humble service to others, as we see in three additional passages. In the first (Luke 9:46-50), Jesus’ disciples begin arguing who will be the greatest. Jesus replies that the greatest is the one who welcomes a child in his name. “The least among all of you is the greatest.” Notice that the model is not the child, but the person who welcomes a child. Serving those whom everyone else considers not worth their time is what makes a leader great.

The second passage (Luke 14:7-11) is Jesus’ response to the social posturing he sees at a banquet. Not only is it a waste of time, Jesus says, it’s actually counterproductive. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” As applied to leadership, this means that if you try to take credit for everything, people will want to stop following you, or get distracted from their work by trying to make you look bad. But if you give credit to others, people will want to follow you and that will lead to true recognition.

The third passage (Luke 22:24-30) returns to the question of who is the greatest among the disciples. This time Jesus makes himself the model of leadership through service. “I am among you as one who serves.” In all three stories, the concepts of service and humility are tied together. Effective leadership requires service — or is — service. Service requires acting as if you are less important than you think you are.

See *Leadership (CONTENT NOT YET AVAILABLE) at www.theologyofwork.org for more on this subject.

Taxing Issues (Luke 19:1-10; 20:20-26)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Jesus Applies for a Job (Click Here to Read)

In this sermon on Luke 19 from The High Calling, George Cladis discusses how Jesus invites us to new life that involves all of ourselves, including our work. We are encouraged to invite Jesus into our workplace and make him part of what we do at work.

All along, Luke has identified Jesus as the one who is bringing God’s rule to earth. In chapter 19, the people of Jerusalem finally recognize him as a king. As he rides into town on a colt, crowds line the road and sing his praises. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38). As we know, God’s kingdom encompasses all of life, and the issues Jesus chooses to discuss immediately before and after his entry to Jerusalem touch on taxes and investments.

Zacchaeus, the Tax Collector (Luke 19:1-10)

As he passes through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus comes upon a tax collector named Zacchaeus, who is sitting in a tree to get a better view of Jesus. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today,” Jesus says (Luke 19:5). The encounter with Jesus profoundly changes the way Zacchaeus works. Like all tax collectors in Roman client states, Zacchaeus made his money from overcharging people on their taxes. Although this was what we might now call “industry standard practice,” it depended on deceit, intimidation, and corruption. Once Zacchaeus comes into the kingdom of God, he can no longer work this way. “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much’” (Luke 19:8). Exactly how — or whether — he will continue to make a living, he doesn’t say, for it is beside the point. As a citizen of God’s kingdom, he cannot engage in business practices contrary to God’s ways.

Render Unto God What is God's (Luke 20:20-26)

After Jesus is welcomed as king in Jerusalem, there is a passage in Luke that has often been used wrongly to separate the world of work from the kingdom of God: Jesus’ saying about taxes. The teachers of the law and the chief priests try to “trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor” (Luke 20:20). They ask him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. In response, he asks them to show him a coin, and immediately they produce a denarius. He asks whose portrait is on it and they reply, “Caesar’s.” Jesus says, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25, NIV).

This reply has sometimes been interpreted as separating the material from the spiritual, the political from the religious, and the earthly and from the heavenly realms. In church (God’s realm), we must be honest and generous, and look after the good of our brothers and sisters. At work (Caesar’s realm), we must shade the truth, be driven by worry about money, and look out for ourselves above all. But this misunderstands the sharp irony in Jesus’ reply. When he says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he is not sanctioning a separation of the material from the spiritual. The premise that Caesar’s world and God’s world do not overlap makes no sense in light of what Jesus has been saying throughout the Gospel of Luke. What is God’s? Everything! Jesus’ coming into the world as king is God’s claim that the entire world is God’s. Whatever may belong to Caesar also belongs to God. The world of taxes, government, production, distribution, and every other kind of work is the world that God’s kingdom is breaking into. Christians are called to engage that world, not to drop out of it. This passage is the opposite of a justification of separating the work world from the Christian world. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (taxes) and to God what is God’s (everything, taxes included). For a more thorough discussion of this incident, see the section on "Matthew 17:24-27 and 22:15-22" in Matthew and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.

The Passion of Jesus (Luke 22:47-24:53)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Jesus’ work climaxes in his willing self-sacrifice on the cross, as with his last gasp he breathes out trust in God, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). By Jesus’ self-sacrifice and by the Father’s mighty deed of resurrection, Jesus passes fully into the position of eternal king foretold at his birth. “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32-33). This is truly God’s beloved Son, faithful unto death as he works on behalf of all who have fallen into the poverty of sin and death, in need of a redemption we cannot provide ourselves. In this light, we see that Jesus’ care for the poor and powerless is both an end in itself and a sign of his love for everyone who will follow him. We are all poor and powerless in the face of our sin and the world’s brokenness. In his resurrection we find ourselves transformed in every aspect of life, as we are caught up in this extravagant love of God.

The Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The episode on the road to Emmaus is a fitting example of generosity for all Jesus’ followers. At first it seems to take Jesus’ death almost too lightly, or are we wrong to see something humorous in the two disciples instructing Jesus in the latest news? “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” they ask (Luke 24:18). One can almost imagine Cleopas adding, “Where have you been?” Jesus takes it in stride and lets them talk, but then turns the tide and makes them listen. Gradually, the light begins to dawn on them that perhaps the women’s story of the Messiah’s miraculous resurrection is not as crazy as they initially thought.

If this were all there was to the story, we might learn nothing more than that we are often “foolish…and…slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25) all that God has written. But the disciples do one thing right in this story — something so apparently insignificant it would be easy to miss. They offer hospitality to Jesus. “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over” (Luke 24:29). Jesus blesses this small act of generosity with the revelation of his presence. In the breaking of the bread they at last recognize him (Luke 24:32). When we offer hospitality, God uses it not only as a means of serving those in need of refreshment, but also as an invitation for us to experience Jesus’ presence ourselves.

Conclusion to Luke

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The Gospel of Luke is the story of the emergence of the kingdom of God on earth in the person of Jesus Christ. As the true king of the world, Christ is both the ruler to whom we owe our allegiance and the model for how we are to exercise whatever authority we are given in life.

As our ruler, he gives us one great commandment in two parts. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself…. Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:27-28). In one sense, this commandment is nothing new. It is simply a summary of the Law of Moses. What is new is that the kingdom based on this law has been inaugurated by God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus. It was God’s intent from the beginning that humanity should live in this kingdom. But from the time of Adam and Eve’s sin onward, people have lived instead in the kingdom of darkness and evil. Jesus has come to reclaim the earth as God’s kingdom and to create a community of God’s people who live under his rule, even while the kingdom of darkness retains much of its sway. The essential response of those who come to citizenship in Christ’s kingdom is that they live all of their lives — including work — in pursuit of the purposes and according to the ways of his kingdom.

As our model, Jesus teaches us these purposes and ways. He calls us to work at tasks such as healing, proclamation, justice, power, leadership, productivity and provision, investment, government, generosity, and hospitality. He sends God’s spirit to give us everything we need to fulfill our specific callings. He promises to provide for us. He commands us to provide for others, and thereby suggests that his provision for us will generally come in the form of other people working on our behalf. He warns us of the trap of seeking self-sufficiency through wealth, and he teaches us that the best way to avoid the trap is to use our wealth in furtherance of relationships with God and with other people. When conflicts arise in our relationships, he teaches us how to resolve them so they lead to justice and reconciliation. Above all, he teaches that citizenship in God’s kingdom means working as a servant of God and of people. His self-sacrifice on the cross serves as the ultimate model of servant leadership. His resurrection to the throne of God’s kingdom confirms and establishes forever the active love of our neighbor as the way of eternal life.

Introduction to the Gospel of John

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Work pervades the Gospel of John. It starts with the work of the Messiah, who is God’s agent of the creation of the world. Christ’s work of creation pre-dates the Fall, pre-dates his incarnation in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, and pre-dates his work of redemption. He is sent by God to be the redeemer of the world precisely because he is already the co-creator of the world. His work of redemption is not a novel course of action, but a restoration of the world to the path it was always intended to take. It is a fulfillment of the creation’s promise.

Human labor is an integral part of the fulfillment of creation (Genesis 2:5). But the work humans do has become corrupted, so the redemption of work is an integral part of the Messiah’s redemption of the world. During his earthly ministry, we will see that the work Jesus does for the Father is an integral aspect of Father and Son’s love for each other. “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10). This provides the model for redeemed human labor, which is likewise meant to nurture our love for one another as we work together in God’s good world. In addition to modeling good work, Jesus teaches about workplace topics such as calling, relationships, creativity and productivity, ethics, truth and deception, leadership, service, sacrifice and suffering, and the dignity of labor.

One of John’s chief interests is to remind people that a casual glance at Jesus will never do. Those who remain with him find his simple images opening up into an entirely new way of looking at the world. This is as true of work as it is of anything else. The Greek word for “work” (ergon) appears over twenty-five times in the Gospel, while the more general term for “doing”(poieō) occurs over one hundred times. In most cases, the words refer to Jesus’ work for the Father; but even this, it turns out, will hold promise for ordinary human employment. The key to making sense of this material is that it takes work to work out what the Gospel of John means. The meaning often lies deeper than a casual reading can uncover. Therefore, we will delve into a limited number of passages with particular meaning for work, workers, and workplaces. We will pass over passages that do not contribute essentially to our topic.

In the Beginning Was the Word (John 1:1-18)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1:1-3) The majestic opening of John’s Gospel shows us the limitless scope of the Word’s work. He is the definitive self-expression of God, the one through whom God created all things in the beginning. He stretches out the cosmos as the canvas for the expression of God’s glory.

The Word is working; and because his work began in the beginning, all subsequent human labor is derived from his initial labor. Derived is not too strong a word, because everything people work with was created by him. The work God did in Genesis 1 and 2 was performed by the Word. This may seem too fine a point to press, but many Christians continue to labor under the delusion that the Messiah only began working once things had gone irredeemably wrong, and that his work is restricted to saving (invisible) souls to bring them to (immaterial) heaven. Once we recognize that the Messiah was working materially with God from the beginning, we can reject every creation-denying (and thus work-denigrating) theology.

Therefore we need to correct a common misunderstanding. John’s Gospel is not grounded in a dichotomy of the spiritual versus the material, or the sacred versus the spiritual, or any other dualism. It does not portray salvation as the liberation of the human spirit from the shackles of the material body. Dualistic philosophies such as these are regrettably common among Christians. Their proponents have often turned to the language of the Gospel of John to support their views. It is true that John frequently records Jesus’ use of contrasts such as light/darkness (John 1:5; 3:19; 8:12; 11:9-10; 12:35-36), belief/unbelief (John 3:12-18; 4:46-54; 5:46-47; 10:25-30; 12:37-43; 14:10-11; 20:24-39) and spirit/flesh (John 3:6-7). These contrasts highlight the conflict between God’s ways and the ways of evil. But they do not constitute a division of the universe into dual sub-universes. They certainly do not call Jesus’ followers to abandon some sort of “secular” world in order to enter a “spiritual” one. Instead, Jesus employs the contrasts to call his followers to receive and use the power of God’s spirit in the present world. Jesus states this directly in John 3:17, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus came to restore the world to the way God intended it to be, not to lead an exodus out of the world.

If further evidence for God’s ongoing commitment to the creation is needed, we may turn to John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The incarnation is not the triumph of the spirit over the flesh, but the fulfillment of what the flesh was created for in the beginning. And the flesh is not a temporary base of operations, but the Word’s permanent abode. After his resurrection, Jesus invites Thomas and the others to touch his flesh (John 20:24-31) and later has a breakfast of fish with them (John 21:1-15). At the end of the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to wait “until I return” (John 21:22-23, NIV), not “until I get us all out of here.” A God hostile to, or uninterested in, the material realm would hardly be inclined to take up permanent residence within it. If the world in general is of such immense concern to God, it stands to reason that the work done within that world matters to him as well.

I Have Called You Friends (John 1:35-51, John 15:15)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

We will return to the conventional term “disciples” momentarily, but the term “friends” captures the essence of John’s depiction of the disciples. “I have called you friends,” says Jesus (John 15:15). The relational element is critical: they are Jesus’ friends who first and foremost remain in the presence of Jesus (John 1:35-39; 11:54; 15:4-11) John appears to go out of his way to crowd as many people as possible on stage with Jesus in chapter 1. John the Baptist points Jesus out to Andrew and another disciple. Andrew gets his brother Simon. Philip, who is from the same town as Andrew and Simon, finds Nathanael. It is not simply that Jesus will advance his mission through a web of interpersonal relationships. Weaving a web of relationships is the point of the whole enterprise.

But the disciples are not just buddies basking in the radiance of Jesus’ friendship. They are also his workers. They are not working in an obvious way yet in chapter 1 (though even the fetching of siblings and neighbors is a type of evangelistic labor), but work they will. Indeed, as we will see, it is precisely this connection between friendship and labor that holds the key to John’s theology of work. Work produces results while it also builds relationships, and this is another echo of Genesis 2:18-22.

Water Into Wine at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Jesus’ “first sign” (John 2:11), changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana, lays the foundation for understanding the subsequent signs. This is no parlor trick done to attract attention to himself. He does it reluctantly, and the miracle is hidden even from the master of the banquet. Jesus does it only in the face of pressing human need and to honor his mother’s request. (Running out of wine at the wedding would have brought great shame on the bride, the groom, and their families, and that shame would have lingered long in the village culture of Cana.) Far from being an unmoved mover (as some Greeks regarded God), Jesus shows himself to be the loving, responsive Son of the loving, eternal Father and the beloved human mother.

The fact that he turns the water to wine shows that he is like the Father not only in love, but also in his power over the creation. Attentive readers of John should not be surprised that the Word who made all things, now made flesh himself, is able to bring material blessings to his people. To deny that Jesus can work miracles would be to deny that Christ was with God in the beginning. What is most surprising, perhaps, is that this apparently unplanned miracle ends up pointing unmistakably to Jesus’ ultimate purpose. He has come to draw people to God’s consummate wedding feast, where they will joyfully dine with him together. Jesus’ mighty works, done with the stuff of the present world order, are amazing blessings in the here and now; and they also point to still greater blessings in the world to come.

Jesus Teaches Nicodemus (John 3:1-21)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Jesus’ discussions with Nicodemus and his disciples hold innumerable treasures. We will begin with a verse that has profound implications for human labor. “The Father loves the Son, and has placed all things in his hands” (John 3:35). While the immediate context emphasizes the fact that the Son speaks the Father’s words, the remainder of the Gospel makes it clear that “all things” really does mean “all things.” God has authorized his Messiah to create all things, God sustains all things through him, and God will bring all things to their appointed goal through him.

This passage reiterates what we learned in the prologue: the Father involves the Son in the founding and sustaining of the world. What is new is the revelation of why the Father chose to include the Son, rather than simply creating by himself. It was an act of love. The Father shows his love for the Son by placing all things in his hands, beginning with the act of creation. The world is a “labor of love” in the fullest sense of the word. Work must be something more wonderful than we usually give it credit for, if adding to someone’s workload is an act of love. We will develop this all important idea further as we see Jesus in action throughout the remainder of the Gospel.

But chapter three does more than reiterate how the Word took on human flesh. It also illustrates the inverse process, how human flesh can become filled with God’s spirit. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit (John 3:5). We receive God’s Spirit (“enter his kingdom”) through a form of birth. Birth is a process that occurs in the flesh. When we become truly spiritual, we do not slough off the flesh and enter some immaterial state. Instead, we are more perfectly born — born “from above” (John 3:3) — into a state of union of Spirit and flesh, like Jesus himself.

During his discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus says that those born from above will “come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:21). Later he uses the metaphor of walking in the light to illustrate the same idea (John 8:12; 11:9-10; 12:35-36). This has important ethical implications for work. If we are conducting all our work openly, we have a powerful tool for remaining faithful to the ethics of God’s kingdom. But if we find ourselves hiding or obscuring our work, it is often a strong indication that we are following an unethical path. This is not an unbending rule, for Jesus himself acted in secret at times (John 7:10), as did his followers, such as Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38). But at the least we might ask, “Who is my secrecy truly protecting?”

For example, consider a person doing business in a place where local officials frequently request a bribe. The request is always made in secret. It is not a documented, open payment, as is a tip or an expediting fee for faster service. There are no receipts and the transaction is not recorded anywhere. The words of John 3:20-21, "those who do what is true come to the light," can be an inspiration to draw these requests into the open. The business person could say to the official requesting the bribe, “I don’t know much about these kinds of payments. I would like to bring in the ambassador, or the management, to get this documented.” This is not a direct refusal, but a request to make the payment openly. Some people have found this kind response to be a helpful strategy for dealing with expectations of bribery.

It is important to understand that the metaphor of walking in the light is not a one-size-fits-all rule. Confidentiality and secrecy can have a proper place in work, as in personnel matters, online privacy or trade secrets. But even if we deal with information that should not be made public, we seldom need to act in complete darkness. If we are hiding our actions from others in our departments or from people with a legitimate interest, or if we would be ashamed to see them reported in the news, then we may have a good indication that we are acting unethically.

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The story of the woman at the well (John 4:1-40) has as much direct discussion of human labor as any story in John; but one has to draw deeply to taste it all. Many Christians are familiar with the woman’s inability to move from the everyday work of drawing water to Jesus’ pronouncements on the life-giving power of his word. This motif permeates the Gospel: the crowds repeatedly show an inability to transcend everyday concerns and address the spiritual aspects of life. They do not see how Jesus can offer them his body as bread (John 6:51-61). They think they know where he is from (Nazareth, John 1:45), but they fail to see where he is really from (heaven); and they are equally ignorant as to where he is going (John 14:1-6).

All of this is certainly relevant for thinking about work. Whatever we think of the intrinsic good of a steady water supply (and every drink we take confirms that it is indeed a good thing!), this story surely tells us that physical water alone cannot confer on us eternal life. In addition, it is easy for modern Westerners to miss the drudgery of the woman’s daily water chores, and ascribe her reluctance to fetch the water to sheer laziness. But the curse on labor (Genesis 3:14-19) bites hard, and she can be forgiven for wanting a more efficient delivery system.

We should not conclude, however, that Jesus comes to free us from work in the grimy material world so that we can bathe in the sublime waters of spiritual serenity. We must first, as always, remember the comprehensive nature of Christ’s work as depicted in John 1: the Messiah made the water in the well, and he made it good. If he then uses that water to illustrate the dynamics of the Spirit’s work in the hearts of would-be worshippers, that could be seen as an ennoblement of the water rather than a downgrading of it. The fact that we reckon first with the Creator, then with the creation, is no slight on the creation, especially since one function of creation is to point us toward the Creator.

We see something similar in the aftermath of the story, where Jesus uses reaping as a metaphor to help the disciples understand their mission in the world:

“Do you not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest'? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages, and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may rejoice together” (John 4:35-36).

In addition to providing the palpable blessings of the daily bread for which we are instructed to pray, agricultural work can also serve as a way of understanding the advance of God’s kingdom.

More than that, Jesus directly dignifies labor in this passage. We first have the statement, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work [Gk., ergon]” (John 4:34). It is worth noting that the first appearance of the Greek word ergon in the Bible[1] shows up in Genesis 2:2. “On the seventh day God had finished the work [Gk., “his works,” erga] that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done [again, “his works,” erga in Gk.].” While we cannot be certain that Jesus is alluding to this verse in Genesis, it makes sense in light of the rest of the Gospel to take “God’s work” in John 4:34 to mean the comprehensive restoration or completion of the work God had done in the beginning.

There is something more subtle at work here as well. In John 4:38, Jesus makes the somewhat cryptic statement, “I sent you to reap for that which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” He is referring to the fact that the disciples have a field of Samaritans ripe for the kingdom, if they will only open their eyes to the opportunity. But who are the “others” who have done the “labor”? Part of the answer seems to be, surprisingly, the woman at the well, who is remembered more for her spiritual slowness than for her subsequent effective testimony for Jesus. “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did’” (John 4:39). The disciples will simply be reaping where the woman has sown. Yet there is still another worker here: Christ himself. Back at the beginning of the story, we read that Jesus was “tired” from his journey. A more literal translation would be that Jesus was “labored” from his journey. The word translated “tired” is kekopiakōs, literally “labored.” This is the same root that appears in John 4:38 (and nowhere else in John’s Gospel), “…you did not labor [kekopiakate]…others have labored [kekopiakasin]…you have entered into their labor [kopon]…” In truth, Jesus was labored from his journey in Samaria. The field of Samaria is ripe for harvest in part because Christ has labored there. Whatever work we do as Christ’s followers is filled with the glory of God, because Christ has already worked the same fields to prepare them for us.

As we have seen, the redemptive work of Christ after the Fall is of a kind with his creative/productive work from the beginning of time. Likewise, the redemptive work of his followers is in the same sphere as their creative/productive work typified by homemakers drawing water and farmers reaping crops.

Evangelism is one of the many forms of human work, neither higher nor lower than homemaking or farming. It is a distinctive form of work, and nothing else can substitute for it. The same may be said of drawing water and harvesting grain. Evangelism does not displace creative/productive work to become the only truly worthy human activity, particularly since any work well done by Christians is a testimony to the renewing power of the Creator.

Jesus Heals on the Sabbath (John 5)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The healing of the man at the pool of Bethsaida brings to the surface a controversy familiar from Matthew, Mark, and Luke: Jesus’ penchant for healing on the Sabbath. If the controversy is familiar, however, Jesus’ self-defense takes a slightly different angle. His lengthy argument is crisply summarized in John 5:17, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” The principle is clear. God keeps the creation going even on the Sabbath, and therefore Jesus, who shares the divine identity, is permitted to do the same. Jesus was almost certainly not alone in arguing that God was at work on the Sabbath, but his deduction about justifying his own work is unique.

As a result, we cannot use this story to deduce the propriety or impropriety of our working on the Sabbath. We may be doing God’s work, but we do not share the divine identity as Christ does. Human work having life-or-death consequences—military self-defense (1 Maccabees 2:41) or pulling an animal from a ditch—was already accepted as legitimate on the Sabbath. The healing itself is not questioned in this episode, even though the man would have suffered no harm had Jesus waited until Sunday to heal him. Instead, Jesus is criticized for permitting him to carry a mat—a form of work, according to the Jewish Law—on the Sabbath. Does this imply that Jesus permits us to drive to vacation on the Sabbath? Fly on Sunday to a business meeting that begins on Monday morning? Operate a continuous casting plant 24/7/365? There is no hint here that Jesus is merely widening the list of activities permitted on the Sabbath. Instead, let us apply the theme we see running through John—work that maintains and redeems the creation (material or spiritual) and contributes to closer relationships with God and people is appropriate for the Sabbath. Whether any particular work fulfills this description must be discerned by the person(s) involved. For more on this topic, see "Matthew 12:1-8" in Matthew and Work, "Mark 1:21-45" and "Mark 2:23-3:6" in Mark and Work, and "Luke 6:1-11; 13:10-17" in Luke and Work and the article Rest and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.

A clearer, and more important, lesson for us from this narrative is that God is still at work to maintain the present creation, and Jesus furthers that work in his healing ministry. Jesus’ signs are at one level the in-breaking of the new world. They demonstrate “the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5). At the same time, they are also the up-keeping of the present world. It seems perfectly appropriate to see this as a paradigm for our own myriad jobs. As we act in faith to restore what has been broken (as doctors, nurses, auto mechanics, and so forth), we call people to remember the goodness of the creator God. As we act in faith to develop the capacities of the creation (as programmers, teachers, artists, and so on), we call people to reflect on the goodness of humanity’s God-given dominion over the world. The work of redemption and the work of creation/production, done in faith, both shout out our trust in the God who is, and who was, and who is to come. God created all things through Christ, is restoring them to his original intent through Christ, and will bring them to their appointed goal through Christ.

Jesus the Bread of Life (John 6)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

John’s telling of the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:1-15) echoes many of the themes we saw in the wedding feast at Cana and the healing of the paralytic man. Again, Jesus works to sustain life in the present world, even as the sign points toward the ultimate life he alone can offer. John 6:27-29, however, poses a particular challenge for the theology of work:

"Do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."

A quick reading reveals at least two major issues: first, Jesus appears to issue a direct command not to work; and second, he appears to reduce even work for God to belief.

The first issue is a matter of context. All Scripture, like all communication, must be seen in context. The issue in John 6 is that people want to keep Jesus around to serve as a Magical Baker King, who will keep the loaves coming. Thus when Jesus says, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26), he is rebuking their spiritual shortsightedness. They ate the bread, but they were unable to see what this sign signified.

One way to understand what Jesus says next is to recognize it as the same lesson we learned in chapter 4. Eternal life comes not from an unending supply of food, but from the living Word who proceeds from the mouth of God. Jesus ceases the preliminary work (serving loaves) when it no longer results in the desired end product (relationship with God). Any competent worker would do the same. If adding more salt ceases to make the soup taste better, a decent cook stops adding salt. Jesus doesn’t mean “stop working,” but stop working for more stuff (food) when more stuff isn’t what you need. This may sound too obvious to need the Word of God to tell us, but who among us doesn’t need to hear that truth again this very day? The apparent prohibition against working for temporal gain is a hyperbolic expression designed to focus on mending the crowd’s relationship to God.

In addition we might ask the question, "What is the difference between food that perishes and food that endures for eternal life?" According to Jesus, food that perishes is food that merely fills you up. It satisfies the immediate need, but nothing more. As applied to the workplace, this could be working just for the paycheck, with no concern for the value of the work itself. By contrast, working for food that endures for eternal life, is analogous to work that accomplishes God’s purposes.

As for the issue of God's purposes for work being reduced simply to belief, this must be seen against the backdrop of the rest of the Gospel and the theology of John’s letters. John delights in pushing things to extremes. On the one hand, his high view of God’s sovereignty and creative power leads him to exalt a humble dependence on God, as we see in this chapter. God’s work on our behalf is infinite—we need only to believe him and accept the work of God in Christ. On the other hand, Jesus is equally capable of laying the emphasis on our active obedience. “Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he did” (1 John 2:6), and again, “The love of God is this: that we obey his commandments” (1 John 5:3). We might join these two extremes with the Pauline expression, “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5), or James 2:18, “I by my works will show you my faith.” In other words, according to the Bible, belief is not mere intellectual assent, but includes faithful action. To believe in the one whom God has sent is not merely to agree that Jesus is the Son of God, but also to follow Jesus by doing the good work that God intends for us.

Jesus Heals a Man Born Blind (John 9)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Jesus and his disciples see a man born blind (the entire chapter 9). The disciples look on him as a lesson or case study on the sources of sin. Jesus looks on him with compassion and works to remedy his condition. Christ’s unusual method of healing and the subsequent actions of the no-longer-blind man, again show that the world of flesh-and-bone — and mud — is the place of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ method — mixing spit with dirt and putting it on the man’s eyes — is not madness, but a calculated echo of the creation of mankind (Genesis 2:7). In both biblical and Greek tradition, mud (pēlos) is used to describe what people are made of. Note, for example, Job 10:9, “Remember that you fashioned me like clay; will you turn me to dust again?”[1]

Jesus’ Sacrifice (John 10-12)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Learning to Save My Students Instead of Judging Them (Click Here to Read)

An encounter with the words of Jesus in John 12 encourages a teacher to change his approach to his relationship with his students and his work.

As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem for the last time, he does his greatest sign—the raising of Lazarus at Bethany (John 11:1-44). Jesus’ opponents, who have already tried to stone him (John 8:59; 10:31), decide that both Jesus and Lazarus must go. With his death looming, Jesus speaks about the cross in a paradoxical way. He uses what appears to be the language of exaltation, saying that he will be “lifted up” and draw all men to himself. Yet John makes clear in the follow-up note that this refers to the “lifting up” of the cross. Is this mere wordplay? Not at all. As Richard Bauckham points out, it is in the work of supreme self-sacrifice on the cross that Jesus fully reveals that he is indeed the exalted Son of God. “Because God is who God is in his gracious self-giving, God’s identity, we can say, is not simply revealed but enacted in the event of salvation for the world which the service and self-humiliation of his Son accomplishes.”[1]

Jesus’ coming self-sacrifice would extract many forms of cost. It would cost him his death, of course, but also excruciating pain and thirst (John 19:28). It cost him the heartbreak of seeing his disciples (except John) desert him and his mother bereft of him (John 19:26-27). It cost him the shame of being misunderstood and wrongly blamed (John 18:19-24). These costs were unavoidable if he was to do the work God set before him. The world could not come into being without the work of Christ in the beginning. The world could not be restored to God’s intention without the work of Christ on the cross.

Our work may also call for costs that are not fair to us, but which cannot be avoided if we are to complete our work. Jesus worked to bring true life to others. To the extent that we use our work as a forum for self-glorification, we depart from the pattern set for us by the Lord Jesus. Is Jesus acknowledging that work performed for others has an unavoidable cost? Perhaps so. Doctors earn a good salary from healing people (at least in the modern West) yet suffer an unavoidable burden of pain from witnessing their patients’ suffering. Plumbers get an enviable hourly rate, but also get covered with excrement from time to time. Elected officials work for justice and prosperity for their citizens, but like Jesus, bear the sorrow of knowing, “you always have the poor with you” (John 12:8). In each of these professions, there might be ways to avoid suffering alongside others—minimizing interaction with unsedated patients; plumbing only in new, unsoiled houses; or hardening our hearts to the most vulnerable people in society. Would doing so be following the pattern of Jesus? Although we often speak of work as how you make your living, any compassionate worker also experiences work as how you break your heart. In this way, we work like Jesus.

Servant Leadership (John 13:1-20)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Up to this point in John, we have seen Jesus doing work that no one else had ever done before — making water into wine, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead. Now he does what almost anyone can do, but what few want to. He washes feet. The king does the work of a slave.

In doing so, Jesus brings to a head the question that has been following us the entire course of John’s Gospel—to what extent is Jesus’ work an example for our own work? It would be easy to answer, “Not at all.” None of us are the Lord. None of us die for the sins of the world. But when he washes the disciples’ feet, Jesus explicitly tells them — and by extension us — that we are to follow his example. “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example” (John 13:14-15). Jesus is an example we are meant to follow, so far as we are able.

This attitude of humble service should accompany all we do. If the CEO walks the production floor, it should be as if coming to wash the assembly workers’ feet. So, too, the gas station attendant should clean the bathroom floors as if being there to wash the motorists’ feet. This is not so much a matter of action as attitude. Both the CEO and the gas station attendant can probably serve people better through other activities than washing feet, even if their employees or customers were willing. But they should see themselves as performing humble service. Jesus, the Spirit-filled teacher who reigns over the entire cosmos, deliberately performs a concrete act of lowly service to demonstrate what ought to be the habitual attitude of his people. By doing so, he both dignifies and demands from his followers humble acts of service. Why? Because doing so brings us tangibly face to face with the reality that godly work is performed for the benefit of others, not merely for the fulfillment of ourselves.

The concept of servant leadership has received widespread attention in business and government in recent years. It arises not only in the Gospel of John but also in many parts of the Bible. [1]

Farewell Words: Upper Room Discourse (John 14-17)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Chapters 13 through 17, often called the Upper Room Discourse, contain so much profound theology that we can only touch on a few salient points. For our purposes, we are specifically interested in examining chapters 14 through 17. It is important to recognize that Jesus’ words are not a dispassionate lecture. He is in anguish for the disciples whom he loves, and whom he must soon leave and his words are designed above all to comfort them in their distress.

The Importance of Workplace Relationships (John 14-17)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

An emphasis on personal relationships suffuses the theology of these chapters. Jesus calls the disciples “no longer servants…but friends” (John 15:15, NASB). They work for him, but in a spirit of friendship and collegiality. It is in the fullest sense of the term a family business. The work and the relationships intertwine, for Jesus is not working on his own. “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:10-11). Neither will the disciples be left as orphans to muddle through the world as best they can (John 14:18). Through the Spirit, Jesus will be with them, and they will do the same things he has been doing (John 14:12).

This is deeper than it may appear. It does not mean merely that after Jesus dies, his disciple/friends can still experience him in prayer. It means that they are active participants in the world-creation/restoration that fuels the loving relationship between the Father and the Son. They do the work of the Son and Father, and they join the intimacy of the Son and Father (and the Spirit, as we shall see in a moment). The Father shows his love for the Son by allowing him to share in the glory of world formation and re-creation.[1] The Son shows his love for the Father by ever and only doing his will, making and remaking the world for the Father’s glory according to the Father’s wishes in the power of the Spirit. The disciple/friends enter into this ever-flowing love of the Father, Son, and Spirit, not only by mystical reflection but also by embracing the Son’s mission and working as he did. The call to share in the love is inextricable from the call to share in the labor. The prayer, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (John 17:23), is matched by, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18), and it issues forth in “Do you love me?...Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).

Coffee Shop Employees Build Relationships and Demonstrate Faith With Simple Q&A (Click to Watch)

An essential aspect of human labor is the opportunity it provides for fellowship through common projects. For many people, the workplace provides the most significant context outside family for personal relationships. Even those who work alone — inside or outside their own homes—are typically enmeshed in a web of relationships involving suppliers, customers, and so on.[2] We have seen that Jesus calls his disciples not only as co-laborers but also as a community of friends. The relational aspect of work is not an accidental by-product of an essentially utilitarian enterprise of labor. Rather, it is an absolutely critical component of work itself, going back to the time when Adam and Eve worked together in the garden. “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner,’” says the Lord God (Genesis 2:18). The creation becomes the means of interpersonal connection as humans work alongside one another, and in so doing enter into God’s labor to bring creation to its fulfillment.

This can be a tremendous encouragement to project-oriented people who are sometimes made to feel unspiritual because of their reluctance to spend an abundance of time talking about their feelings. Talking with other people is a necessary activity for developing relationships, but we should not neglect the importance of doing work as a means for nurturing relationships. Working together can build relationships in and of itself. It is no accident that we spend a great deal of time working with and for other people. Modeled on God’s own work within the Trinity, we are able to find relationship in work. Work toward a common goal is one of the chief ways God brings us together and makes us truly human.

I Am the Vine and You Are the Branches (John 15)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Three Men on a Mission of Integrity, Love, and Community

Ryan Dixon, Dan Griffith and Stephen Lee started True Vine, a micro brewery in Tyler, Texas. "We're very tied with our family; so we didn't want something that was going to take us away from that," Ryan said. Instead, the trio decided to open as a production brewery, selling their beer to local establishments. Read more about how they seek to live out their faith in their family and work lives here.

The metaphor of vine and branches begins with the blessing of relationship with Jesus and through him with the Father (John 15:1). “As the father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (John 15:9). Yet the outcome of this love is not passive bliss but productive labor, metaphorically expressed as bearing fruit. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit” (John 15:5). The God who produced the universe wants his people to be productive too. “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit” (John 15:8). Our ability to do work that makes a lasting difference in the world is a great gift from God. “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name” (John 15:16). The promise of effectiveness echoes Jesus’ promise earlier, that “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (John 14:12).

The fruit borne by Jesus’ followers is sometimes taken to refer to converts to Christianity. “Greater works than these” would then mean “more converts than I myself made.” For those called to evangelism, this is certainly true. If Jesus is speaking in this passage only to the apostles—appointed as they were to preach the good news—in this passage, then perhaps fruit refers only to converts. But if he is speaking to believers in general, then fruit must refer to the whole range of work to which believers are called. Since the entire world was created through him, “the works that I do” include every imaginable kind of good work. For us to do “greater works” than heretofore seen could mean designing better software, feeding more people, educating wiser students, improving the effectiveness of organizations, increasing customer satisfaction, employing capital more productively, and governing nations more justly. The value of bearing fruit does not lie in whether we work in business, government, health care, education, religion, or any other field. The value lies in whether our work serves people’s needs. “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another” (John 15:17). Service is the active form of love.

My Kingdom Is Not of This World (John 18:36)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Rather than risk reducing John’s passion narrative to a proof-text for work issues, we will address a single verse that is as important for what it does not say as for what it says. “Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom is not from here’” (John 18:36). On the positive side, we find here a marvelous summary of the Passion. Jesus is proclaiming that he is indeed a king, but not the sort of king who is liable to be recognized by a wily politico like Pilate. If Jesus must sacrifice himself for the life of the world, he will do so. And he must indeed sacrifice himself, because his kingship, which is both absolute and absolutely self-giving, will inevitably draw a death sentence from the powers that be.

But it is equally important to recognize what Jesus is not proclaiming. He is not saying that his kingdom is an ephemeral, internal religious experience that does not impinge on economic, political, or social issues in the real world. As the NRSV, the NIV, and other translations indicate, his kingdom is instead from another realm (John 18:36). His rule—like he himself—originates from heaven. But he has come to earth, and his kingdom is a real kingdom on this earth, more real than even Rome could ever be. His kingdom come to earth has a different set of operating principles. It is powerfully at work within the world, but it does not receive its marching orders from the present rulers of the world. Jesus doesn’t explain at the time what it means for his kingdom to be from another world yet in the world he himself constructed. But he reveals it in vivid terms later, in the vision reported in Revelation 21 and 22, when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven. Jesus’ kingdom descends to take its rightful place as the capital of this world, where all his disciples find their eternal home. Whenever Jesus speaks of eternal life or the kingdom of God, he is referring to the earth we inhabit now, transformed and perfected by the Word and the power of God.

The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved (John 21:20)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The final chapter of John provides an opportunity to reflect not so much on work itself, but on the identity of the worker. The disciples are fishing when they meet Jesus. This is sometimes seen as a bad thing, as if they are fishing when they ought to be preaching the kingdom of God. But there is nothing in the text that suggests disapproval. Rather, Jesus blesses their labor with a miraculous catch. Afterwards, they return to their appointed work as preachers, yet even this reflects only their specific calling and is no slight on fishing as such.

However we take the setting, the impetus of the chapter is the restoration of Peter and the contrast of Peter’s future with that of the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:20). Peter’s threefold affirmation of his love for Jesus restores his relationship with Jesus after his earlier threefold denial. Looking to the future, Peter will endure martyrdom, while it is cryptically hinted that the Beloved Disciple will enjoy a longer life. We will focus our attention on the latter figure, since his self-designation speaks directly to the question of human identity.

It is a curious thing that the identity of the Beloved Disciple is never revealed in the Fourth Gospel. Most scholars deduce that he is the Apostle John (though there are some dissenters[1]), but the real question is why he shrouds his name in such secrecy. One answer would be that he wishes to distinguish himself from other disciples. He is specially loved by Jesus. But this would be a strange motive in a Gospel permeated with Christ’s model of humility and self-sacrifice.

A far better explanation is that he terms himself the “disciple whom Jesus loved” as a way of representing what is true of all disciples. We are all to find our identity first and foremost in the fact that Jesus loves us. When you ask John who he is, he does not answer by giving his name, his family connections, or his occupation. He responds, “I am someone Jesus loves.” In John’s words, the Beloved Disciple finds himself “leaning on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13:23, KJV), and likewise, the Messiah finds his identity “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18, KJV).[2] In the same way, we are to find out who we are, not in what we have done, or in who we know, or in what we have, but in Jesus’ love for us.

Yet if Jesus’ love for us—or, we may say, the Father’s love for us through Jesus—is the source of our identity and motivation of our lives, we work out this love in our activity in God’s creation. One crucial aspect of that activity is our daily work. Through God’s grace, work can become an arena where we live out our relationship with God and others through loving service. Our everyday labor, however humble or exalted it may be in others’ estimation, becomes the place where God’s glory is displayed. By God’s grace, as we work, we become living parables of the love and glory of God.

Introduction to Acts

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The Acts of the Apostles depicts the early church working hard to grow itself and serve others in the face of opposition, shortages of people and money, government bureaucracy (church bureaucracy came later), internal strife, and even the forces of nature. Their work shows similarities to what Christians face in non-church-related workplaces today. A small group of people put all their heart into work that brings Christ’s love to people in every sphere of life, and they find the amazing power of the Holy Spirit at work in them as they do it. If this is not what we experience in our daily work, perhaps God wants to guide, gift, and empower our work as much as he did theirs.

Work takes center stage, as you might expect in a book about the “acts” of the leaders of the early church. The narrative is abuzz with people walking, speaking, healing, giving generously, making decisions, governing, serving food, managing money, fighting, manufacturing clothes, tents, and other goods, baptizing (or washing), debating, arguing, making judgments, reading and writing, singing, defending themselves in court, gathering wood, building fires, escaping hostile crowds, embracing and kissing, holding councils, apologizing, sailing, abandoning ship, swimming, rescuing people, and through it all, praising God. The men and women in the book of Acts are ready to do whatever it might take to accomplish their mission. No work is too menial for the highest among them, and no work too daunting for the lowliest.

Yet the depth of the Book of Acts stems not so much from what the people of the early church do, but why and how they engage in this amazing burst of activity. The why is service. Serving God, serving colleagues, serving society, serving strangers—service is the motivation behind the work Christians do throughout the book. This should come as no surprise because Acts is in fact the second volume of the story that began in the Gospel of Luke, and service is also the driving motivation of Jesus and his followers in Luke. (See Luke and Work at www.theologyofwork.org for essential background information on Luke and his audience.)

If the why is service, then how is to constantly challenge the structures of Roman society, which was based not on service but exploitation. Luke continually contrasts the ways of God’s kingdom with the ways of the Roman Empire. He pays attention to Jesus’ and his followers’ many interactions with the officials of the empire. He is well aware of the systems of power—and the socioeconomic factors that support them—operative in the Roman Empire. From the emperor to nobles, to officials, to landowners, to freemen, to servants and to slaves, each layer of society existed by wielding power over the layer below. God’s way, as seen in the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, is just the opposite. God’s society exists for service, and especially for service to those in weaker, poorer or more vulnerable positions.

Ultimately, then, Acts is not a model of the kinds of activities we should engage in as Christ’s followers, but as a model of the commitment to service that should form the foundation of our activities. Our activities are different from the apostles’, but our commitment to service is the same.

Missional Community (Acts 1:6)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In the book of Acts, Jesus’ mission to restore the world as God intended it to be is transformed into the mission of the community of Jesus’ followers. Acts traces the life of the community of Jesus’ followers as the Spirit forms them into a group of people who work and use work-related power and wealth differently from the world around them. The work begins with the creation of the unique community called the church. Luke begins with the community “when they had come together,” and continues with the mission to “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). To accomplish this work, the community must first be oriented to its vocation for the kingdom of God, and then to its identity as the kingdom of God’s witnesses in daily life.

An Orienting Vocation for the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:8)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The book of Acts begins with a post-resurrection interaction between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus teaches his disciples about “the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). They respond with a question about establishing a sociopolitical kingdom, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).[1] Jesus’ response relates closely to our lives as workers.

It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:7-8)

First, Jesus closes down the disciples’ curiosity about the timeline of God’s plan. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). We are to live in anticipation of the fullness of God’s kingdom, but not in a way that wonders about the precise timing of God’s return in Christ. Second, Jesus does not deny that God will establish a sociopolitical kingdom, that is “to restore the kingdom to Israel,” as the disciples’ question put it.

Jesus’ disciples were all well versed in the Scriptures of Israel. They knew that the kingdom described by the prophets was no other-world reality, but that it was a real kingdom of peace and justice in a world renewed by the power of God. Jesus does not deny the reality of this coming kingdom, but he expands the boundaries of the disciples’ expectation by including all creation in the hoped-for kingdom. This is not merely a new kingdom for the territory of Israel, but “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The fulfillment of this kingdom is not yet (“at this time”) but it is here, in this world.

I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God ... And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, See, the home of God is among mortals. (Revelation 21:2-3)

The kingdom of heaven comes to earth, and God dwells here, in the redeemed world. Why is it not here yet? Jesus’ teaching suggests that part of the answer is because his disciples have work to do. Human work was needed to complete God’s creation even in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:5), but our work was crippled by the Fall. In Acts 1 and 2, God sends his spirit to empower human work. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8a). Jesus is giving his followers a vocation—witnessing, in the sense of bearing witness to the Spirit’s power in every sphere of human activity—that is essential to the coming of the kingdom. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit fills the gap between the essential role that God assigned to human work and our ability to fulfill that role. For the first time since the Fall, our work has the power to contribute to fulfilling God’s kingdom at the return of Christ. Scholars, by and large, view Acts 1:8 as the programmatic statement for this second of Luke’s two volumes.

Indeed, the entire book of Acts can be taken as a (sometimes faltering) expression of the Christian vocation to bear witness to the risen Jesus. But bearing witness means far more than evangelizing. We must not fall into the mistake of thinking Jesus is talking only about the work of the individual sharing the gospel with an unbeliever through his or her words. Instead, bearing witness to the coming kingdom primarily means living now according to the principles and practices of God’s kingdom. We will come to see that the most effective form of Christian witness is often—even primarily—the shared life of the community as it goes about its work.

The shared Christian vocation of witness is possible only through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit transforms individuals and communities in ways that result in the sharing of the fruits of human labor—especially power, resources, and influence—with the community and the surrounding culture. The community witnesses when the strong aid the weak. The community witnesses when its members use their resources to benefit the wider culture. The community witnesses when those around see that working in the ways of justice, goodness, and beauty leads to fuller life.

The locations mentioned by Jesus reveal that the witness of the disciples puts them in social danger. Jesus’ group of Jewish disciples is commanded to speak for a man who has only recently been crucified as an enemy of the Roman Empire and a blasphemer of the God of Israel. They are called to take up this vocation in the city in which their teacher was killed, among the Samaritans—historic, ethnic enemies of the Jews—and in the broad reaches of the Roman Empire.[2]

In summary, Acts begins with an orienting vocation that calls Jesus’ followers to the primary task of witness. Witness means, above all, living in accordance with the ways of God’s coming kingdom. As we will see momentarily, the most important element of this life is that we work primarily for the good of others. This vocation is made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit and is to be exercised with little regard for social barriers. This orienting vocation does not denigrate the value of human work or the working lives of Jesus’ disciples in favor of proclaiming Jesus by word alone. Quite the opposite, Acts will argue forcefully that all human work can be a fundamental expression of God’s kingdom.

A Christian Identity as God's Kingdom Witnesses in Daily Life (Acts 2:1-41)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

There is no question that the story of Pentecost is central to the life of the early Christian community. This is the event that initiates the vocation of witness described in Acts 1:8. This section of Acts makes claims on all workers in two ways. First, the Pentecost account identifies its Christian hearers within a new community that brings to life the re-creation of the world—that is, the kingdom of God—promised by God through the prophets. Peter explains the phenomenon at Pentecost by referring to the prophet Joel.

These [men] are not drunk, as you suppose, for it’s only nine in the morning. No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2:15-21)

Peter refers to a section of Joel that describes the restoration of God’s exiled people. Peter uses this section to claim that God has initiated his once-and-for-all deliverance of his people.[3] The return of God’s people to the land both fulfills God’s covenantal promises and initiates the re-creation of the world. Joel describes this re-creation with breathtaking imagery. As God’s people return to the land, the desert comes to life as a sort of new Eden. Dirt, animals and people all rejoice at the victory of God and the deliverance of God’s people (see Joel 2). Among the rich images in this section of Joel, we hear that the restoration of God’s people will lead to immediate economic impact. “The LORD said: ‘I am sending you grain, wine and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a mockery among the nations’” (Joel 2:19). The climax of this act of deliverance for Joel is the outpouring of the Spirit upon the people of God. Peter understands the coming of the Spirit to mean that the early Jesus followers are—in some real, even if profoundly mysterious, manner—participants in God’s new world.

A second important and closely related point is that Peter describes salvation as rescue from a “corrupt generation” (Acts 2:40). Two things need clarification. First, Luke does not describe salvation as escape from this world into a heavenly existence. Instead, salvation begins right in the midst of this present world. Second, Luke expects that salvation has a present-tense component. It begins now as a different way of living, contrary to the patterns of this “corrupt generation.” Because work and its economic and social consequences are so central to human identity, it should come as no surprise that one of the first patterns of human life to be reconstituted is the manner by which Christians manage their power and possessions. The flow, then, of this early section of Acts moves like this: (1) Jesus suggests that all human life should bear witness to Christ; (2) the coming of the Spirit marks the initiation of the long-promised “day of the Lord” and initiates people into God’s new world; and (3) expectations of the “day of the Lord” include profound economic transformations. Luke’s next move is to point to a new people, empowered by the Spirit, living according to a kingdom economy.

An Orienting Community That Practices the Ways of God's Kingdom: Acts 2:42-4:32

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

After Peter announces the Spirit’s creation of a new kind of community, Acts traces the rapid growth of such communities in a variety of places. The community summaries in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-38 are the most concentrated descriptions. Indeed, the texts themselves are remarkable in describing the scope of commitment and shared life of the early believers.[5] Because the summaries have many similarities, we will discuss them in tandem.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as who owned lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds from what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native from Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of Encouragement”). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:32-37)

While these texts do not describe work directly, they are keenly concerned with the deployment of power and possessions, two realities that are often an outcome of human labor. The first thing to note, in comparison to the surrounding society, is that Christian communities cultivate a very different set of practices with regard to the use of power and possessions. It is clear that the early Christians understood that the power and possessions of the individual were not to be saved for the comfort of the individual, but were to be expended or wisely invested for the good of the Christian community. Stated succinctly, goods are for the good of another. More than anything else, life in the kingdom of God means working for the good of others.

Two things should be stated here. First, these texts ask us to understand our identities primarily as members of the Christian community. The good of the community is the good of each individual member. Second, this is a radical departure from the patronage economy that marked the Roman Empire. In a patronage system, gifts from the rich to the poor create a structure of systematic obligation. Every gift from a benefactor implies a social debt now owed by the beneficiary. This system created a sort of pseudo-generosity in which generous patrons often gave out of self-interest, seeking to accrue honor connected to patronage.[6] In essence, the Roman economy viewed “generosity” as a means to social power and status. These notions of systematic reciprocal obligation are completely absent in the descriptions in Acts 2 and 4. In the Christian community, giving is to be motivated by a genuine concern for the flourishing of the beneficiary, not for the honor of the benefactor. Giving has little to do with the giver and everything to do with the receiver.

This is a completely different socioeconomic system. Like Luke’s Gospel, Acts regularly demonstrates that Christian conversion results in a reoriented approach to possessions and power. Moreover, this insistence that goods are to be used for the sake of the neighbor is patterned explicitly off of Jesus’ life, mission, and—primarily—his self-giving death. (See Luke and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.)

The Economics of Radical Generosity (Acts 2:45; 4:34-35)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

There is continuing debate about whether or not these community summaries advocate a certain economic system, with some commentators describing the practice of the community as “proto-communism” and others seeing a mandatory divestiture of goods. The text, however, does not suggest an attempt to change the structures beyond the Christian community. Indeed, it would be difficult to think of a small, marginalized, socially powerless group having designs on changing the imperial economic system. It is clear that the community did not fully opt out of the systems of economics within the empire. Likely, fishermen remained members of fishing cartels and artisans continued to do business in the market.[7] Paul, after all, continued making tents to support his missionary travels (Acts 18:3).

Rather, the text suggests something far more demanding. In the earliest church, people of means and power liquidated their goods for the sake of the less powerful “from time to time” (Acts 4:34) as anyone “had need” (Acts 2:45; 4:35). This describes a kind of radical availability as the normal status of each person’s possessions. That is, the resources—material, political, social, or practical—of any member of the community were put at the constant disposal of the Christian community, even while individual members continued to oversee their particular resources. Rather than systematically prescribing the distribution of wealth in such a way as to ensure flat equality, the earliest church accepted the reality of economic disequilibrium, but practiced a radical generosity whereby goods properly existed for the benefit of the whole, not the individual. This form of generosity is, in many ways, more challenging than a rigid system of rules. It calls for ongoing responsiveness, mutual involvement in the lives of community members, and a continual willingness to hold possessions loosely, valuing the relationships within the community more than the (false) security of possessions.[8]

It is highly likely that this system within a system was inspired by the economic ideals expressed in Israel’s law, climaxing with the practice of Jubilee—the once-in-fifty-years redistribution of land and wealth within Israel (Leviticus 25:1-55). Jubilee was designed by God to ensure that all people had access to the means of making a living, an ideal that appears never to have been widely practiced by God’s people. Jesus, however, introduces his ministry with a set of texts from Isaiah 61 and 58 that produce a great many Jubilee themes:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)

Jubilee ethic is further alluded to in Acts 4:34, where Luke tells us “there were no needy persons among them.” This appears to be a direct echo of Deuteronomy 15:4, where the practice of the Sabbath year (a mini-Jubilee occurring once every seven years) is designed to ensure that “there should be no poor among you.”

It is fitting that the Christian community would see this as a model for their economic life. But whereas in ancient Israel, the Sabbath year and the Jubilee were to be practiced only every seven and fifty years, respectively, radical availability marked the resources of the early Christian community. We can imagine it in terms similar to the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said of old, ‘Give back your land to those who are landless once every fifty years,’ but I say to you, ‘Make your power and resources available any time you see the need.’” Radical generosity based on the needs of others becomes the basis of economic practice in the Christian community. We will explore this in depth through the incidents in the book of Acts.

The practices of the early churches challenge contemporary Christians to think imaginatively about models for radical generosity today. How could radical availability stand as a witness to the kingdom of God and form a plausible alternative way of structuring human life in a culture marked by the tenacious pursuit of personal wealth and security?

The Holy Spirit Empowers Radical Generosity With Every Kind of Resource (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-38)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Two final points are important to note with regard to the use of resources in the early Christian community. First is the necessity of the Holy Spirit to the practice of radical generosity. The descriptions of the community in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-38 follow immediately from the first two major manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Luke could not be clearer in forging a link between the Spirit’s presence and power and the ability of the community to live with Christ-like generosity. We must understand that one of the fundamental works of the Spirit in the life of the early Christians was the cultivation of a community that took a radically different stance toward the deployment of resources. So, while we often get caught up in looking for the more spectacular manifestations of the Spirit (visions, tongues, and so on), we need to reckon with the fact that the simple act of sharing or consistent hospitality might be one of the most magnificent gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Second, lest we begin to think that this word is only for those with financial resources, we see Peter and John demonstrate that all resources are to be used for the sake of others. In Acts 3:1-10, Peter and John encounter a beggar at the gate of the temple. The beggar is looking for money, though Peter and John have none. They do, however, have a witness to the coming of the kingdom through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Hence, Peter replies, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6). Here is an example of resource sharing that is not connected to monetary wealth. The use of power and position to build community will occur on several further occasions in Acts.

Perhaps the most moving expression occurs when Barnabas—who, in Acts 4:32-38, is an example of radical generosity of financial resources—also puts his social resources at Paul’s disposal, helping welcome him into the reluctant fellowship of the apostles in Jerusalem (see Acts 9:1-31). Another example is Lydia, who employs her high social standing in the textile industry in Thyatira as a means of entry for Paul into the city of Thyatira (Acts 16:11-15). Social capital is to be deployed, like any other capital, for the good of the kingdom as understood by the Christian community.

A Just Community Is a Witness to the World (Acts 2:47; 6:7)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

When resources are properly deployed in the life of the Christian community—as they are after the selection of the table servers in Acts 6—the community becomes a magnet. The community’s life of justice—marked primarily by the other-centered use of power and possessions—draws people to it and to its head, Jesus. When the community uses its possessions and privileges to give life to those in need, when the resources of the individual are fully committed to benefit others in the community, people flock to join. We have seen already that “the Lord added to their number daily those being saved” (Acts 2:47). It is evident in the aftermath of the Spirit-empowered service in Acts 6 as well. The community-forming, justice-promoting work of the seven deacons results in life for many. “The word of God spread; the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

A Clash of Kingdoms: Community and Power (Acts 5-7)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Acts takes place in the earthy reality of a genuine community, and it does not gloss over the threat that the effects of sin pose to communities. The first two major threats to the Christian community that Luke presents are resource-related issues. As we will see, Ananias and Sapphira, as well as the Hebrew/Aramaic speaking sector of the community, fall into sin in relation to their stewardship of resources and power. For Luke, this defect threatens the very life of the community.

Ananias and Sapphira: A Case of Malicious Identity (Acts 5:1-11)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) are nothing if not frightful and puzzling. The two, a married couple, sell a piece of property and publicly give the proceeds to the community. However, they secretly hold back a portion of the money for themselves. Peter detects the deception and confronts the two separately. Merely hearing Peter’s accusation causes each of them to fall dead on the spot. To our ears, their fate seems out of proportion to their infraction. Peter acknowledges that they were under no obligation to donate the money: “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? he says. And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). Private property has not been abolished, and even those in the community of love-for-neighbor may legitimately choose to hold the resources God has entrusted to them. So why does lying about the money bring instant death?

Many attempts have been made to describe the reason for their deaths and even simply to name the sin they committed.[9] It appears, fundamentally, that Ananias and Sapphira’s transgression is they are counterfeit community members. As the scholar Scott Bartchy puts it, “By lying in order to achieve an honor they had not earned, Ananias and Sapphira not only dishonored and shamed themselves as patrons but also revealed themselves to be outsiders, non-kin.”[10] They are not so much misers as imposters.[11]

Their deceit demonstrates that they are still functioning as members of the Roman patronage system, while they pretend to have become members of the Christian love-of-neighbor system. They attempt to look like Barnabas in his other-centered approach to stewarding resources (Acts 4:36-37). But their motivation is actually to gain honor for themselves on the cheap. In so doing, they actually function as part of the Roman patronage economy. They look generous, but they are giving for the sake of status, not love. Moreover, their lie about their stewardship of resources is interpreted by Peter as a lie to the Holy Spirit and to God (Acts 5:3-4). How striking that a lie to the community is equated with a lie to the Spirit of God! And a lie about resources is as serious as a lie about “religious” matters. We have seen already that one of the primary roles of the Holy Spirit is to form God’s people into a community that uses resources in accordance with a deep concern for others. It is not surprising, then, that Ananias and Sapphira’s faked act of generosity is depicted as falsifying the work of the Spirit. Their false generosity and their attempt to deceive the Holy Spirit are a threat to the identity of the Christian community. This is a sober reminder of the serious stakes connected to the Christian community and to our own participation within it.

Ananias and Sapphira’s deceit occurs in the realm of money. What if it occurred in the realm of work itself? What if they had falsely pretended to serve their masters as though serving God (Colossians 3:22-24), or to treat subordinates justly (Colossians 3:25), or to engage in conflict honestly (Matthew 18:15-17)? Would deceiving the Christian community about such things have caused a similarly unacceptable threat to the community? Luke doesn’t report on any such cases in Acts, yet the same principle applies. Genuinely belonging to the Christian community carries with it a fundamental change in our orientation. We now act in all ways—including work—to love our neighbors as ourselves, not to increase our social status, wealth and power.

The Spirit and the Worker (Acts 6:1-7)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Themes from the account of Ananias and Sapphira are present in Acts 6:1-7, which marks the first intra-group dispute in the Christian community. The Hellenists are probably Greek-speaking Jews who have returned to Jerusalem from one of the many Diaspora communities in the Roman Empire. The Hebrews are probably Jews who are from the historic land of Israel (Palestine) and who primarily speak Aramaic and/or Hebrew. It takes very little social imagination to see what is happening in this situation. In a community that sees itself as the fulfillment of Israel’s covenant with God, members who are more prototypically Israelite are receiving more of the group’s resources than the others. This sort of situation happens regularly in our world. Those who are most similar to the leaders of a movement on the basis of background, culture, status, and so on, often benefit from their identity in ways unavailable to those who are in some way different.

Serving the Word and Serving Tables Are Equally Valuable (Acts 6:2-4)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The Church on “Wednesdays”, Naomi Compton

One of the greatest contributions that Acts makes to a theology of work emerges from the apostles’ response to the intra-community injustice of Acts 6:1-7. The work of administering justice—in this case, by overseeing food distribution—is just as important as the work of preaching the word. This may not be clear at first because of a misleading translation in the NRSV and the NIV:

The twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” (Acts 6:2, NRSV)

It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. (Acts 6:2, NIV)

The term “wait on tables” (Acts 6:2) may sound a little condescending compared to “serving the word of God” (Acts 6:4). Are the Twelve saying that taking care of people’s need for food is less important than preaching the word? One way of interpreting this passage says that waiting on tables is “trivial,”[12] a “humble task”[13] or one of the “lower tasks”[14] in the community. This line of interpretation sees Stephen’s subsequent preaching as the “real” purpose behind the Spirit’s influence in Acts 6:3.[15] There would be no need for the Holy Spirit to get involved in the menial task of managing the allocation of resources, according to this view.

But this reflects a bias in translation not found in the original Greek. When English translations say “wait on tables” (Acts 6:2) in contrast to “serving the word” (Acts 6:4) they are using different words—“wait” and “serve"—to translate the same Greek word, diakaneo, which is the original word in both Acts 6:2 and 6:4. It means “to serve.” Therefore, a more literal translation would be “serve tables” and “serving the word." Both are diakaneo, service. There is no reason to use a slighter word for serving tables. Not every English translation displays this bias—for example both the King James Version and the New American Standard Bible translate Acts 6:2 as “serve tables” rather than “wait on tables.”

It is not reason [i.e., right] that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. (Acts 6:2, KJV)

It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. (Acts 6:2, NASB)

Moreover, just a few words later, in Acts 6:3-4, even the NRSV and the NIV translate the same word as “serving” and “ministry,” respectively.

We, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word. (Acts 6:3–4, NRSV)

[We] will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:4, NIV)

Thus, the Greek original, and some English translations, give the important sense that the work of serving those in need is on a par with the apostolic work of prayer and preaching. The apostles serve the word, and the deacons (as they have come to be called) serve those in need. Their service is qualitatively the same, although the specific tasks and skills are different. Both are essential in the formation of God’s people and for the witness of God’s people in the world. The life of the community depends upon these forms of service, and Luke does not give us the sense that one is more powerful or more spiritual than the other.

Despite all this, could it be argued that the condescension about serving tables is not just a matter of translation but is really present in the disciples’ own words? Could the apostles themselves have imagined that they were chosen to serve the word because they are more gifted than those who are chosen to serve tables? Is that what they mean when they say it would not be right to neglect serving the word in order to serve tables? If so, they would be falling back into something similar to the Roman patronage system, setting themselves up with a status too high to sully by serving tables. They would be substituting a new source of status (gifts of the Holy Spirit) for the old Roman one (patronage). The gospel of Christ goes deeper than this! In the Christian community there is no source of status. A more consistent understanding would be that if you're called to serve the word of God, you shouldn't neglect serving the word in order to do something else. Likewise, if you're called to serve tables, you shouldn't neglect serving tables in order to do something else. People may be called to different tasks, but there is no biblical reason to regard some callings as higher than others.

Ironically, one of the table-servers, Stephen, turns out to be even more gifted as a preacher than most of the apostles (Acts 6:8-7:60). Yet despite his preaching gift, he is set aside for the service of resource distribution. At that moment, at least, it was more important to God’s purposes for him to serve as a table-server than as a word-server. For him, no lingering hunger for status stands in the way of accepting this call to serve tables.

This has strong resonances in today's world. Frequently, workers in food service occupations—the modern equivalent of "serving tables"—find themselves in low-status jobs with inadequate pay, poor benefits, high turnover, and difficult or even abusive working conditions. This passage from the book of Acts speaks directly to this situation. In God's eyes, working in food service—or any other occupation—is not a trivial or demeaning job, but a form of service on par with the work of the Apostles. What can Christians do to make this vision a reality in today's places of work?

The Work of Community Leadership Is a Work of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:3)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The workers best suited to heal the ethnic divide in the Acts 6 community are qualified because they are “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” Like those qualified for prayer and preaching, the table-servers’ ability is the result of spiritual power. Nothing less than the power of the Spirit makes possible meaningful, community-building, peace-making work among Christians. This passage helps us to see that all work that builds the community or, more broadly, that promotes justice, goodness, and beauty, is—in a deep sense—service (or ministry) to the world.

In our churches, do we recognize the equal ministry of the pastor who preaches the word, the mother and father who provide a loving home for their children, and the accountant who gives a just and honest statement of her employer’s expenditures? Do we understand that they are all reliant upon the Spirit to do their work for the good of the community? Every manner of good work has the capacity—by the power of the Spirit—to be a means of participation in God’s renewal of the world.

Work and Christian Identity (Acts 8-12)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The next section of Acts moves the Christian community, by the power of the Spirit, across cultural barriers as the gospel of Jesus Christ is extended to foreigners (Samaritans), social outcasts (the Ethiopian eunuch), enemies (Saul), and all ethnicities (Gentiles). This section tends to introduce figures by giving their occupation (roughly rendered). In this section we meet:

  • Simon, a sorcerer (Acts 8:9-24)
  • An Ethiopian eunuch, who is an important economic official for the queen of Ethiopia (Acts 8:27)
  • Saul, the Pharisee and persecutor of Christians (Acts 9:1)
  • Tabitha, a garment maker (Acts 9:36-43)
  • Cornelius, a Roman centurion (Acts 10:1)
  • Simon, a tanner (Acts 10:5)
  • Herod, a king (Acts 12)

Issues of work are not Luke’s main concern in this section, so we must be careful not to make too much of the naming of occupations. Luke’s point is that the way they exercise their vocation marks them heading either toward the kingdom or away from it.

Those headed into the kingdom use the fruits of their labor to serve others as witnesses of God’s kingdom. Those headed away from the kingdom use the fruits of their labor solely for personal gain. This is evident from a short summary of some of these characters. Several of them seek only personal gain from their work and its accompanying power and resources:

  • Simon offers money to the apostles so that he can have power to bestow the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18-19) —a clear effort to maintain his social status as a “man [who] is the power of God that is called Great” (Acts 8:10).
  • Saul uses his network of relationships to persecute followers of Jesus (Acts 9:1-2) in order to protect the social status he enjoyed as a zealous Jew (Acts 22:3) and Pharisee (Acts 26:5).
  • Herod uses his power as Rome’s client-king to bolster his popularity by killing James the apostle (Acts 12:1-3). Herod later allows himself to be acclaimed as a god, the ultimate patronage status claimed by the Roman emperors (Acts 12:20-23).

The consequences of these acts are dire. Simon is strongly rebuked by Peter (Acts 8:20-23). Saul is confronted by the risen Jesus, who identifies himself with the very community Paul is persecuting (Acts 9:3-9). Herod is struck dead by an angel of the Lord and eaten by worms (Acts 12:23). Standing in counterpoint to them are several people who use their position, power, or resources to bless and bring life:

  • Tabitha, a garment maker, makes clothes to share with widows in her community (Acts 9:39).
  • Simon, a leather worker, opens his home to Peter (Acts 10:5).
  • Cornelius, a Roman centurion already known for generosity (Acts 10:4), uses his connections to invite a great number of friends and family to hear the preaching of Peter (Acts 10:24).

Though he was introduced prior to this section, Barnabas—who we know from Acts 4:37 is a Levite—uses his position within the community to graft Saul into the apostolic fellowship, even when the apostles resist (Acts 9:26-27), and to validate the conversions of Gentiles in Antioch (Acts 11:22-24). We should note that Acts 11:24 shares the secret of Barnabas’s ability to use his resources and position in such a way as to build the community of Christians. There we learn explicitly that Barnabas was “full of the Holy Spirit.”

The message in all these examples is consistent. The power, prestige, position, and resources that arise from work are meant to be used for the sake of others—and not only for the benefit of the self. This, again, is modeled on no less a figure than Jesus, who—in Luke’s Gospel—uses his authority for the benefit of the world and not only for his own sake.

Acts 11:27-30 gives a community example of the use of resources for the good of others in need. In response to a Spirit-inspired prophecy of a worldwide famine, “The disciples determined that according to his ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea” (Acts 11:29). Here we see the use of the fruit of human labor for the benefit of others. And here we see that this sort of generosity was not merely spontaneous and episodic but planned, organized, and deeply intentional. The collection for the church in Jerusalem is discussed further in the section on "1 Corinthians 16:1-3" in 1 Corinthians and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.

Acts 11:1-26 begins an account of how the Christian community resolved a deep dispute about whether Gentile must convert to Judaism before becoming followers of Jesus. This dispute is discussed in an article on chapter 15.

A Clash of Kingdoms: Community and Powerbrokers (Acts 13-19)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

We will explore this section according to four main themes relevant to the theology of work that emerges from Acts. First, we will examine one further passage relating to vocation as witness. Second, we will discuss how the Christian community exercises the power of leadership and decision making itself. Third, we will look at how the Spirit-led community engages the powers that be in the wider culture. Fourth, we will examine whether following Christ rules out certain forms of vocation and civic engagement. Finally, we will explore Paul’s own practice of continuing to work as a tentmaker on his missionary journeys.

Vocation in the Context of Community (Acts 13:1-3)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Acts 13:1-3 introduces us to a set of practices in the church at Antioch. This community is remarkable both for its ethnic diversity and its commitment to practical witness of the kingdom of God.[16] We have seen already how Luke shows that work—especially the use of power and resources—functions as a form of witness.[17] We have seen in Acts 6:1-7 that this applies equally to vocations we more naturally associate with ministry (such as missionary) and those we are more likely to call “work” (such as hospitality.) All vocations have the potential to serve and witness the kingdom, especially when employed in the pursuit of justice and righteousness.

Acts 13:1-3 shows the Christian community trying to discern how the Spirit is leading them toward witness. Paul and Barnabas are singled out to work as traveling evangelists and healers. What is remarkable is that this discernment is accomplished communally. The Christian community, rather than the individual, is best able to discern the vocations of its individual members. This could mean that today’s Christian communities should participate alongside families and young people as they seek answers for questions such as, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” “What will you do after graduation?” or “To what is God calling you?” This would require Christian communities to develop a much greater expertise in vocational discernment than is presently common. It would also require them to take a much more serious interest in work that serves the world beyond the structures of the church. Merely asserting authority over young people’s work lives is not enough. Young people will pay attention only if the Christian community can help them do a fuller job of discernment than they can do by other means.

Doing this well would be a double form of witness. First, young people from all religious traditions—and none—struggle deeply with the burden of choosing or finding work. Imagine if the Christian community could genuinely help reduce the burden and improve the outcomes. Second, the great majority of Christians work outside the structures of the church. Imagine if all of us engaged in our work as a means of Christian service to the world, improving the lives of the billions of people we work alongside and on behalf of. How much more visible would that make Christ in the world?

Community discernment of vocation continues throughout Acts, with Paul taking many missionary partners from the community—Barnabas, Timothy, Silas, and Priscilla, to name but a few. Second, testifying again to Luke’s realism, we see that this shared vocation to witness does not eliminate the relational tension brought about by human sinfulness. Paul and Barnabas have such a serious dispute over the inclusion of John Mark (who had deserted the team on a previous engagement), that they go separate ways (Acts 15:36-40).

Leadership and Decision Making in the Christian Community (Acts 15)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

An example of the radical reorienting of social interactions in the Christian community arises during a deep dispute about whether Gentile Christians must adopt Jewish laws and customs. In hierarchical Roman society, the patron of a social organization would dictate the decision to his followers, perhaps after listening to various opinions. But in the Christian community, important decisions are made by the group as whole, relying on their equal access to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The dispute actually begins in chapter 11. Peter experiences a surprising revelation that God is offering “the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18) to Gentiles without requiring them to become Jews first. But when he travels to Jerusalem in the company of some uncircumcised (Gentile) men, some of the Christians there complain that he is violating Jewish law (Acts 11:1-2). When challenged in this way, Peter does not become angry, does not attempt to lord it over the men by reminding them of his leading position among Jesus’ disciples, does not denigrate their opinions, and does not impugn their motives. Instead, he tells the story of what happened to lead him to this conclusion and how he sees God’s hand in it, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17). Notice that he portrays himself not as wise, nor morally superior, but as one who was on the verge of making a serious mistake until corrected by God.

Then he leaves it to his challengers to respond. Having heard Peter’s experience, they do not react defensively, do not challenge Peter’s authority in the name of James (the Lord’s brother and the leader of the Jerusalem church), and do not accuse Peter of exceeding his authority. Instead, they too look for God’s hand at work and reach the same conclusion as Peter. What began as a confrontation ends with fellowship and praise. “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God” (Acts 11:18). We can’t expect every dispute to be resolved so amicably, but we can see that when people acknowledge and explore the grace of God in one another’s lives, there is every reason to hope for a mutually upbuilding outcome.

Peter departs Jerusalem in concord with his former antagonists, but there remain others in Judea who are teaching that Gentiles must first convert to Judaism. “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses,” they say, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas are in Antioch at the time, and they, like Peter, have experienced God’s grace to the Gentiles without any need for conversion to Judaism. The text tells us that the division was serious, but a mutual decision was made to seek the wisdom of the Christian community as a whole. “After Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders” (Acts 15:2).

They arrive in Jerusalem and are greeted warmly by the apostles and elders (Acts 15:4). Those who hold the opposite opinion—that Gentiles must first convert to Judaism—are also present (Acts 15:5). They all decide to meet to consider the matter and engage in a lively debate (Acts 15:6). Then Peter, who is of course among the apostles in Jerusalem, repeats the story of how God revealed to him his grace for the Gentiles without the need to convert to Judaism (Acts 15:7). Paul and Barnabas report their similar experiences, also focusing on what God is doing rather than claiming any superior wisdom or authority (Acts 15:12). All the speakers receive a respectful hearing. Then the group considers what each has said in the light of Scripture (Acts 15:15-17). James, functioning as the head of the church in Jerusalem, proposes a resolution. “I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:19–20).

If James were exercising authority like a Roman patron, that would be the end of the matter. His status alone would decide the issue. But this is not how the decision unfolds in the Christian community. The community does accept his decision, but as a matter of agreement, not command. Not only James, but all the leaders—in fact, the entire church—have a say in the decision. “The apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided …” (Acts 15:22). And when they send word to the Gentile churches of their decision “to impose on you no further burden” (Acts 15:28b), they do so in the name of the whole body, not the name of James as patron. “We have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you” (Acts 15:25). Moreover, they claim no personal authority, but only that they have tried to be obedient to the Holy Spirit. “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28a). The word seem indicates a humility about their decision, underscoring that they have renounced the Roman patronage system with its claims of power, prestige, and status.

Before we leave this episode, let us notice one more element of it. The leaders in Jerusalem show remarkable deference to the experience of workers in the field—Peter, Paul, and Barnabas—working on their own far from headquarters, each facing a particular situation that required a practical decision. The leaders in Jerusalem highly respect their experience and judgment. They communicate carefully about the principles that should guide decisions (Acts 15:19-21), but they delegate decision making to those closest to the action, and they confirm the decisions made by Peter, Paul, and Barnabas in the field. Again, this is a radical departure from the Roman patronage system, which concentrated power and authority in the hands of the patron.

The beneficial effects of the practice of uniform education about mission, principles, and values combined with localized delegation of decision making and action are well known because of their widespread adoption by business, military, educational, nonprofit, and government institutions in the second half of the twentieth century. The management of virtually every type of organization has been radically transformed by it. The resulting unleashing of human creativity, productivity, and service would be no surprise to the leaders of the early church, who experienced the same explosion in the rapid expansion of the church in the apostolic age.

However, it is not clear that churches today have fully adopted this lesson with respect to economic activity. For example, Christians working in developing countries often complain that they are hampered by the rigid stances of churches far away in the developed world. Well-meaning boycotts, fair-trade rules, and other pressure tactics may have the opposite consequences of what was intended. For example, an economic development missionary in Bangladesh reported about negative results of the imposition of child labor restrictions by his sponsoring organization in the United States. A company he was helping develop was required to stop buying materials that were produced using workers under sixteen years old. One of their suppliers was a company consisting of two teenaged brothers. Because of the new restrictions, the company had to stop buying parts from the brothers, which left their family without any source of income. So their mother had to return to prostitution, which made things much worse for the mother, the brothers, and the rest of the family. “What we need from the church in the U.S. is fellowship that is not oppressive,” the missionary later said. “Having to comply with well-intentioned Western Christian dictates means we have to hurt people in our country.”[18]

The Community of the Spirit Confronts the Brokers of Power (Acts 16 and 19)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In the latter half of Acts, Paul, his companions, and various Christian communities come into conflict with those who wield local economic and civic power. The first incident occurs in Pisidian Antioch, where “the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city” (Acts 13:50) are incited against Paul and Barnabas and expel them from the city. Then, in Iconium, Paul and Barnabas are maltreated by “both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers” (Acts 14:5). In Philippi, Paul and Silas are imprisoned for “disturbing” the city (Acts 16:19-24). Paul has run-ins with the city officials of Thessalonica (Acts 17:6-9) and the proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12). Later, he comes into conflict with the silversmiths’ guild of Ephesians (Acts 19:23-41). The conflicts culminate with Paul’s trial for disturbing the peace in Jerusalem, which occupies the final eight chapters of Acts.

These confrontations with local powers should not be surprising given the coming of God’s Spirit announced by Peter in Acts 2. There we saw that the coming of the Spirit was—in some mysterious way —the initiation of God’s new world. This was bound to threaten the powers of the old world. We have seen that the Spirit worked in the community to form a gift-based economy very different from the Roman patronage-based economy. Christian communities formed a-system-within-a-system, where believers still participated in the Roman economy but had a different manner of using resources. Conflict with local leaders was precisely due to the fact that these leaders had the greatest stake in maintaining Rome’s patronage economy.

The confrontations in Acts 16:16-24 and Acts 19:23-41 both merit deeper discussion. In them, the shape of the kingdom clashes deeply with economic practices of the Roman world.

Confrontation Over the Liberation of a Slave Girl in Philippi (Acts 16:16-24)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The first of the two confrontations occurs in Philippi, where Paul and Silas encounter a girl with a spirit of divination.[19] In the Greco-Roman context, this type of spirit was associated with fortune-telling—a connection that “brought her owners a great deal of money” (Acts 16:16). This seems to be an example of the grossest form of economic exploitation. It is puzzling that Paul and Silas do not act more quickly (Acts 16:18). Perhaps the reason is that Paul wants to make a connection with her or her owners before correcting them. When Paul does act, however, the result is spiritual liberation for the girl and financial loss for her owners. The owners respond by dragging Paul and Silas before the authorities, on charges of disturbing the peace.

This incident demonstrates powerfully that the ministry of liberation Jesus proclaimed in Luke 4 can run counter to at least one common business practice, the exploitation of slaves. Businesses that produce economic profit at the expense of human exploitation are in conflict with the Christian gospel. (Governments that exploit humans are just as bad. We discussed earlier how Herod’s violence against his people and even his own soldiers led to his death at the hands of an Angel of the Lord). Paul and Silas were not on a mission to reform the corrupt economic and political practices of the Roman world, but the power of Jesus to liberate people from sin and death cannot help but break the bonds of exploitation. There can be no spiritual liberation without economic consequences. Paul and Silas were willing to expose themselves to ridicule, beating and prison in order to bring economic liberation to someone whose sex, economic status, and age made her vulnerable to abuse.

If we look ahead two thousand years, is it possible that Christians have accommodated to, or even profited from, products, companies, industries, and governments that violate Christian ethical and social principles? It is easy to rail against illegal industries such as narcotics and prostitution, but what about the many legal industries that harm workers, consumers, or the public at large? What about the legal loopholes, subsidies, and unfair government regulations that benefit some citizens at the expenses of others? Do we even recognize how we may benefit from the exploitation of others? In a global economy, it can be difficult to trace the conditions and consequences of economic activity. Well-informed discernment is needed, and the Christian community has not always been rigorous in its critiques. In fact, the book of Acts does not give principles for gauging economic activity. But it does demonstrate that economic matters are gospel matters. In the persons of Paul and Silas, two of the greatest missionaries and heroes of the faith, we see all the example we need that Christians are called to confront the economic abuses of the world.

Chapters 17 and 18 contains much of interest with regard to work, but for the sake of continuing the discussion of confrontations arising from the gospel’s challenge to the systems of the world, this article is followed by the account of the confrontation in chapter 19:21-41, returning then to chapters 17, 18, and the other parts of chapter 19.

Confrontation Over the Disruption of Trade in Ephesus (Acts 19:21-41)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The following discussion falls a little out of order (skipping over Acts 19:17-20 for the moment) so that we can cover the second incident of confrontation. It occurs in Ephesus, home to the Temple of Artemis (also known by the Roman name Diana). The Artemis cult in Ephesus was a powerful economic force in Asia Minor. Pilgrims streamed to the temple (a structure so grand that it was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) in hopes of receiving from Artemis enhanced fertility in the hunt, in the field, or in the family. In this context, as with other tourism centers, many of the local industries were tied to the ongoing relevance of the attraction.[20]

A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the artisans. These he gathered together, with the workers of the same trade, and said: “Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business. You also see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost the whole of Asia this Paul has persuaded and drawn away a considerable number of people by saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.” When they heard this, they were enraged and shouted: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The whole city was filled with confusion; and people rushed together to the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s travel companions. (Acts 19:24-29)

As Demetrius recognizes, when people become followers of Jesus, they can be expected to change the way they use their money. Ceasing to buy items related to idol worship is merely the most obvious change. Christians might also be expected to spend less on luxury items for themselves and more on necessities for the benefit of others. Perhaps they will consume less and donate or invest more in general. There is nothing prohibiting Christians from buying silver items in general. But Demetrius is right to see that patterns of consumption will change if many people start believing in Jesus. This will always be threatening to those profiting most from the way things were before.

This prompts us to wonder which aspects of economic life in our own context might be incommensurate with the Christian gospel. For example, is it possible that, contrary to Demetrius’s fears, Christians have continued to buy goods and services incompatible with following Jesus? Have we become Christians, yet continued to buy the equivalent of silver shrines to Artemis? Certain “aspirational” branded items come to mind, which appeal to buyers’ desires to associate themselves with the social status, wealth, power, intelligence, beauty or other attributes implied by the items’ “brand promise.” If Christians claim that their standing comes solely from the unconditional love of God in Christ, does self-association with brands function as a kind of idolatry? Is buying a prestigious brand essentially similar to buying a silver shrine to Artemis? This incident in Ephesus warns us that following Jesus has economic consequences that may make us uncomfortable at times, to say the least.

Engaging the Culture With Respect (Acts 17:16-34)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Despite the need to confront the power brokers in the wider culture, confrontation is not always the best way for the Christian community to engage the world. Often, the culture is misguided, struggling, or ignorant of God’s grace, but not actually oppressive. In these cases, the best way to proclaim the gospel may be to cooperate with the culture and engage it with respect.

In Acts 17, Paul provides a model for us in how to engage the culture respectfully. It begins with observation. Paul strolls the streets of Athens and observes the temple of the various gods he finds there. He reports that he “looked carefully” at the “objects of worship” he found there (Acts 17:22), which he notes were “formed by the art and imagination” of people (Acts 17:29). He read their literature, knew it well enough to quote, and treated it respectfully enough to incorporate it into his preaching about Christ. In fact, it even contains some of God’s truth, Paul says, for he quotes it as saying, “As even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring’” (Acts 17:28). A commitment to the radical transformation of society does not mean that Christians have to oppose everything about society. Society is not so much totally godless—“for in him we live and move and have our being”—as God-unaware.

In a similar way in our workplaces, we need to be observant. We can find many good practices in our schools, our businesses, in government, or other workplaces, even though they do not arise within the Christian community. If we are truly observant, we see that even those unaware or scornful of Christ are nonetheless made in the image of God. Like Paul, we should cooperate with them, rather than try to discredit them. We can work with nonbelievers to improve labor/management relationships, customer service, research and development, corporate and civic governance, public education, and other fields. We should make use of the skills and insights developed in universities, corporations, nonprofits, and other places. Our role is not to condemn their work, but to deepen it and show that it proves that “he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). Imagine the difference between saying, “Because you don’t know Christ, all your work is wrong,” and “Because I know Christ, I think I can appreciate your work even more than you do.”

Yet at the same time, we need to be observant about the brokenness and sin evident in our workplaces. Our purpose is not to judge but to heal, or at least to limit the damage. Paul is particularly observant of the sin and distortion of idolatry. “He was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16). The idols of modern workplaces, like the idols of ancient Athens, are many and varied. A Christian leader in New York City says,

When I’m working with educators, whose idol is that all the world’s problems will be solved by education, my heart connects to their heart about wanting to solve the world’s problems, but I would point out to them that they can only go so far with education, but the real solution comes from Christ. The same is true for many other professions.[21]

Our careful observations, like Paul’s, make us more astute witnesses of Christ’s unique power to set the world to rights.

While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30–31)

Tent Making and Christian Life (Acts 18:1-4)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The passage most often connected to work in the book of Acts is Paul’s tent making in Acts 18:1-4. Although this passage is familiar, it is often understood too narrowly. In the familiar reading, Paul earns money by making tents, in order to support himself in his real ministry of witnessing to Christ. This view is too narrow, because it doesn’t see that the tent making itself is a real ministry of witnessing to Christ. Paul is a witness when he preaches and when he makes tents and uses his earnings to benefit the broader community.

This fits directly into Luke’s view that the Spirit empowers Christians to use their resources for the sake of the whole community, which in turn becomes witness to the gospel. Remember that Luke’s orienting idea for Christian life is that of witness, and the entirety of one’s life has the potential to bear witness. It is striking, then, that Paul is an exemplar of this Spirit-formed practice.

It is certainly true that Paul wants to support himself. Yet his impulse was not only to support himself in his preaching ministry, but also to provide financial support to the entire community. When Paul describes his economic impact among the Ephesians, he says:

I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities, and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:33-35, emphasis added, RSV)

Paul’s money-earning work was an effort to build up the community economically.[22] Paul employs his skills and possessions for the sake of the community, and he explicitly says that this is an example others should follow. He does not say that everyone should follow his example of preaching. But he does say everyone should follow his example of toiling to help the weak and being generous in giving, as Jesus himself taught. Ben Witherington argues convincingly that Paul is not claiming any higher status arising from his apostolic position, but rather is “stepping down the social ladder for the sake of Christ.”[23]

Entrepreneur John Marsh No Longer Feels Shame for Loving God and Making Money (Click to Watch)

In other words, it is not the case that Paul engages in tent making as a necessity so that he can do his “real job” of preaching. Instead, Paul’s varieties of work in the sewing shop, marketplace, synagogue, lecture hall, and prison are all forms of witness. In any of these contexts, Paul participates in God’s restorative project. In any of these contexts, Paul lives out his new identity in Christ for the sake of God’s glory and out of love for his neighbors—even his former enemies. Even as he is being transported across the sea as a prisoner, he employs his gifts of leadership and encouragement to guide the soldiers and sailors holding him captive to safety during a severe storm (Acts 27:27-38). If he had not had the gift of being a preacher and apostle, he would still have been a witness to Christ simply by the way he engaged in making tents, toiling for the sake of the community, and working for the good of others in all situations.

Tent making has become a common metaphor for Christians who engage in a money-earning profession as a means to support what is often called “professional ministry.” The term “bi-vocational” is often used to indicate that two separate professions are involved, the money-earning one and the ministry one. But Paul’s example shows that all aspects of human life should be a seamless witness. There is little room to draw distinctions between “professional ministry” and other forms of witness. According to Acts, Christians actually have only one vocation, according to Acts—witnessing to the gospel. We have many forms of service, including preaching and pastoral care, making tents, building furniture, giving money and caring for the weak. A Christian who engages in a money-earning profession such as making tents, in order to support a non-money-earning profession such as teaching about Jesus, would be more accurately described as “dual service” rather than “bi-vocational”—one calling, two forms of service. The same would be true of any Christian who serves in more than one line of work.

The Gospel and Limits to Vocation and Engagement (Acts 19:17-20)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Acts 19:13-16 presents an odd story that leads to the repentance of “a number who had practiced magic” (Acts 19:19). They collected their magic books and burned them publicly, and Luke tells us that the value of the scrolls burned by these converts was 50,000 drachmas. This has been estimated as the equivalent to 137 years of continuous wages for a day laborer or enough bread to feed 100 families for 500 days.[24] Incorporation into the community of God’s kingdom has massive economic and vocational impact.

While we cannot be certain whether those who repented of their engagement in magic were repenting of a means of earning a living, such a costly collection of books was unlikely to have been a mere hobby. Here we see that the change in life precipitated by faith in Jesus is immediately reflected in a vocational decision—a result familiar from Luke’s Gospel. In this case, the believers found it necessary to abandon their former occupation entirely.

In many other cases, it is possible to remain in a vocation but necessary to practice it in a different way. For example, imagine that a salesperson has built a business selling unnecessary insurance to senior citizens. He or she would have to cease that practice, but could continue in the profession of selling insurance sales by switching to a product line that is beneficial for those who buy it. The commissions might be less (or not), but the profession has plenty of room for legitimate success and lots of ethical participants.

A much more difficult situation occurs in professions that could be done legitimately, but in which illicit practices are so thoroughly entrenched that it is difficult to compete without violating biblical principles. Many civil servants in high-corruption nations face this dilemma. It might be possible to be an honest building inspector, but very difficult to do if your official pay is $10 a week and your supervisor demands a $100 a month fee to let you keep your job. A Christian in that situation faces a difficult choice. If all the honest people leave the profession, so much the worse for the public. But if it is difficult or impossible to make a living honestly in the profession, how can a Christian remain there? This is something Luke discusses in Luke 3:9, when John the Baptist counsels soldiers and tax collectors to remain in their jobs but to cease the extortion and fraud practiced by most of their profession. (See "Luke 3:1-14" in Luke and Work at www.theologyofwork.org for more on this passage.)

4 Attributes of Paul's Leadership as Witness (Acts 20-28)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The last nine chapters of Acts present an action-packed account of an attempt on Paul’s life, followed by his imprisonment at the hands of two Roman governors and his harrowing shipboard journey to trial in Rome. In many ways, Paul’s experience recapitulates the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, and Acts 20-28 could be thought of as a kind of Passion of Paul. The aspect of these chapters most relevant to work is the depiction of Paul’s leadership. We will focus on what we see of his courage, his suffering, his respect for others, and his concern for the well being of others.

Paul's Courage (Acts 20-28)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

After the conflicts in Philippi and Ephesus, Paul receives threats of imprisonment (Acts 20:23, 21:11) and death (Acts 20:3, 23:12-14). These threats are not idle, for indeed two attempts are actually made on his life (Acts 21:3; 23:21). Paul is taken into custody by the Roman government (Acts 23:10) and a suit is brought against him (Acts 24:1-9), which, though false, ultimately leads to his execution. Given the episodes of conflict we have already explored, it is no surprise that following the ways of God’s kingdom leads to conflict with the oppressive ways of the world.

Yet through it all, Paul maintains an extraordinary courage. He continues his work (preaching) despite the threats, and even dares to preach to his captors, both Jewish (Acts 23:1-10) and Roman (Acts 24:21-26; 26:32; 28:30-31). In the end, his courage proves decisive, not only for his work of preaching, but for saving the lives of hundreds of people in the midst of a shipwreck (Acts 27:22-23). His own words sum his attitude of courage as those around him shrink back in fear. “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).

The point, however, is not that Paul is a man of extraordinary courage, but that the Holy Spirit gives each of us the courage we need to do our work. Paul credits the Holy Spirit for keeping him going in the face of such adversity (Acts 20:22; 21:4; 23:11). This is an encouragement to us today, because we also can depend on the Holy Spirit to give us the courage we may lack. The danger is not so much that courage may fail us in the moment of greatest terror, but that general worry will deter us from taking even the first step into following the ways of God’s kingdom in our work. How often do we fail to defend a colleague, serve a customer, challenge a boss, or speak up about an issue, not because we are under actual pressure, but because we are afraid that if we do we might offend someone in authority? What if we adopted a position that before we will act contrary to God’s ways at work, we at least have to receive an actual order to do so? Could we begin by counting on the Holy Spirit to sustain us at least that far?

Paul's Suffering (Acts 20-28)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Paul needs every ounce of courage because of the heavy sufferings he knows his work will bring. “The Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me,” (Acts 20:23) he says. He is kidnapped (Acts 21:27), beaten (Acts 21:30-31; 23:3), threatened (Acts 22:22; 27:42), arrested many times (Acts 21:33; 22:24, 31; 23:35; 28:16), accused in lawsuits (Acts 21:34; 22:30; 24:1-2; 25:2, 7; 28:4), interrogated (Acts 25:24-27), ridiculed (Acts 26:24), ignored (Acts 27:11), shipwrecked (Acts 27:41) and bitten by a viper (Acts 28:3). Tradition says that Paul is eventually put to death for his work, although this is not recounted anywhere in the Bible.

Leadership in a broken world entails suffering. Anyone who will not accept suffering as an essential element of leadership cannot be a leader, at least not a leader in the way God intends. In this, we see another radical refutation of the Roman patronage system. The Roman system is structured to insulate the patron from suffering. Patrons alone, for example, had the right to escape bodily violation, as we see when Paul’s status as a citizen (a patron, albeit of a household of one) is the only thing that protects him from an arbitrary flogging (Acts 22:29). Paul nonetheless embraces bodily suffering, along with many other forms, as the necessity of a leader in Jesus’ way. Today, we may seek to become leaders for the same reason men in ancient Rome sought to exercise patronage—to avoid suffering. We might succeed in gaining power and perhaps even insulating ourselves from the hurts of the world. But our leadership cannot benefit others if we will not accept hurt to ourselves to a greater or lesser degree. And if our leadership does not benefit others, it is not God’s kind of leadership.

Paul's Respect (Acts 20-28)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Despite Paul’s utter conviction that he is in the right about both his beliefs and his conduct, he shows respect for everyone he encounters. This is so disarming, especially to those who are his enemies and captors, that it gives him an unimpeachable opportunity as a witness of God’s kingdom. When he arrives in Jerusalem, he respects the Jewish Christian leaders there and complies with their odd request to demonstrate his continued faithfulness to the Jewish Law (Acts 21:17-26). He speaks respectfully to a crowd that has just beaten him (Acts 21:30-22:21), to a soldier who is about to flog him (Acts 22:25-29), to the Jewish council that accuses him in a Roman court of law—even to the point of apologizing for inadvertently insulting the high priest—(Acts 23:1-10), to the Roman governor Felix and his wife Drusilla (Acts 24:10-26), to Felix’s successor Festus (Acts 25:8-11; 26:24-26), and to King Agrippa and his wife Bernice (Acts 26:2-29) who imprison him. On his journey there, he treats with respect the centurion Julius (Acts 27:3), the governor of Malta (Acts 28:7-10), and the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome (Acts 28:17-28).

We should not confuse the respect Paul shows with timidity about his message. Paul never shrinks from boldly proclaiming the truth, wherever the chips may fall. After being beaten by a Jewish crowd in Jerusalem who falsely suspect him of bringing a Gentile into the temple, he preaches a sermon to them that concludes with the Lord Jesus commissioning him to preach salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 22:17-21). He tells the Jewish council in Acts 23:1-8, “I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6). He proclaims the gospel to Felix (Acts 24:14-16) and proclaims to Festus, Agrippa and Bernice, “I stand here on trial on account of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors” (Acts 26:6). He warns the soldiers and sailors on the boat to Rome that “the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives” (Acts 27:10). The book of Acts ends with Paul “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30–31).

Paul’s respect for others often wins a hearing for him and even turns enemies into friends, notwithstanding the boldness of his words. The centurion about to flog him intervenes with the Roman tribune, who orders him released (Acts 22:26-29). The Pharisees conclude, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (Acts 23:9). Felix determines that Paul “was charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment” (Acts 23:29) and becomes an avid listener who “used to send for him very often and converse with him” (Acts 24:26). Agrippa, Bernice, and Festus come to see that Paul is innocent, and Agrippa begins to be persuaded by Paul’s preaching. “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” he asks (Acts 26:28). By the end of the voyage to Rome, Paul has become the de facto leader of the ship, issuing orders that the captain and centurion are happy to obey (Acts 27:42-44). On Malta, the governor welcomes and entertains Paul and his companions, and later provisions their ship and sends them away with honor (Acts 28:10).

Not everyone returns Paul’s respect with respect, of course. Some vilify, reject, threaten, and abuse him. But, in general, he receives far more respect from people than do the masters of the Roman patronage system among whom he operates. The exercise of power may command the appearance of respect, but the exercise of true respect is much more likely to earn a response of true respect.

Paul's Concern for Others (Acts 20-28)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Most of all, Paul’s leadership is marked by his concern for others. He accepts the burden of leadership not to make his life better, but to make others’ lives better. His very willingness to travel to hostile places to preach a better way of life is proof enough of this. Yet we also see his concern for others in concrete, personal ways. He heals a boy who is severely injured by a fall from an upper-floor window (Acts 20:9-12). He prepares the churches he has planted to carry on after his death, and encourages them when they are overcome “with much weeping” (Acts 20:37). He attempts to preach the good news even to those who are trying to kill him (Acts 22:1-21). He heals all the sick on the island of Malta (Acts 28:8-10).

A striking example of his concern for others occurs during the shipwreck. Although his warning not to make the voyage had been ignored, Paul pitches in to help and encourage the crew and passengers when the storm strikes.

Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul then stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and thereby avoided this damage and loss. I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.” (Acts 27:21–25)

His concern does not end with words of encouragement but proceeds with practical acts. He makes sure everyone eats to keep up his strength (Acts 27:34-36). He devises a plan that will save everyone’s life, including those who can’t swim (Acts 27:26, 38, 41, 44). He directs preparations for running the ship aground (Acts 27:43b), and prevents the sailors from abandoning the soldiers and passengers (Acts 27:30-32). As a result of his concerns and actions, not a single life is lost in the wreck (Acts 27:44).

Paul’s leadership encompasses far more than the four factors of courage, suffering, respect, and concern for others, and it is visible far beyond Acts 20-28. Yet these factors as presented in these chapters form one of the most stirring demonstrations of leadership in the Bible and remain as much of an example today as they did in Luke’s day.

Conclusion to Acts

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Investigating work and work-related issues in Acts presents a coherent treatment of vocation in God’s world. In Acts, a Christian view of work is not relegated simply to the realm of ethics. Rather, work is an active form of witness in God’s redemption of the world. The logic of Acts moves in this direction:

1. The coming of the Spirit initiates Christ’s kingdom—God’s new world—in a new way. The Roman patronage system that seeks status for the self is replaced with a spirit of love that seeks the good of others. This follows the example of Jesus who spends himself for the sake of others—evident above all in the cross.

2. The Christian vocation is conceptualized as Spirit-empowered witness to Christ’s kingdom, not only by proclamation but also by acting in accord with God’s spirit of love in everyday life.

3. The Christian vocation is given to the entire community of believers, not merely to individuals. The believers’ practice is not perfect—sometimes very far from perfect—but it is a real participation in the new world, nonetheless.

4. The community bears witness to Christ’s kingdom by working and using work-related resources—power, wealth, and status—for the sake of others and the community as a whole. Membership in the community goes hand in hand with a transformed way of life, leading to love and service. An exemplary result is the practice of radical generosity with every kind of resource.

5. When work is performed in this way, every profession can be an act of witness by practicing the structures of justice, righteousness, and beauty brought forth by God’s kingdom.

6. The Christian community thus produces a way of working that challenges the structures of the fallen world, and sometimes brings it into conflict with the world’s power holders. Nonetheless, the intent of the community is not to clash with the world but to transform it.

7. Leadership is a prominent arena in which the new spirit of love and service for others is enacted. Authority is shared and leadership is encouraged at every level of the community. Leaders accept the burden of acting for the good of others, and they respect the wisdom and authority of those they lead. Leadership attributes—including courage, suffering, respect, and concern for others—come to the fore in the example of the Apostle Paul.

Acts helps us to see that all of human life—including our work and the fruit that emerges from our work—can be a means of participating through the power of the Spirit already emerging in God’s kingdom coming to earth. In this way work is not only dignified but also essential to the human vocation of witness. As it was from the beginning, work is central to what it means to be fully human. Workers today are called to be cultivators and transformers of earth, culture, family, business, education, justice and every other sphere—all for the sake of God’s kingdom.

Key Verses and Themes in Acts

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Verse

Theme

Acts 1:6 When they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Christian life occurs in a community oriented with a vocation for the kingdom of God

Acts 1:8 You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The Christian community is oriented to witness of God’s kingdom in daily life.

Acts 2:17-21 In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day … Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Christian life is participation in God’s new world

Acts 2:40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”

Christian life is participation in God’s new world

Acts 2:42-47 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers … All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need … And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Acts 3:6 But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Acts 4:18-21 So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” … All of them praised God for what had happened.

God is sovereign over systems of power

Acts 4:25-26 It is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant: “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.”

God is sovereign over systems of power

Acts 4:32-38 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. There was a Levite … [who] sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Acts 5:1-11 But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?” … Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died … And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Acts 5:27-32 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority … And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

God is sovereign over systems of power

Acts 6:1-7 Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” … The number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Acts 8:18-24 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money … ” Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Acts 8:26-40 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” … Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch … [who] had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” … Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him …

Power, status, and resources are not substitutes for a relationship with God

Acts 9:36-43 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs … Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord …

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Acts 9:43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Acts 10:24 The following day they came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Acts 11:27-30 At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Acts 12:20-23 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they came to him in a body; and after winning over Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for a reconciliation, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. The people kept shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!” And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

All authority comes from God

God is sovereign over systems of power

Acts 13:1-3 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

Discernment of particular vocation is done within the Christian community

Acts 13:50 But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their region.

The Christian life brings confrontation with the powerful

Acts 16:11-15 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony … The Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Acts 16:16-24 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities …

The gospel liberates from evil manifest in oppressive economic practices

Acts 17:12 Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing.

The church has economic diversity

Acts 18:3-4 Because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers. Every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks.

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Acts 19:19 A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins.

Some particular vocations are inimical to the Gospel

Acts 19:23-41 About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way. A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the artisans. These he gathered together, with the workers of the same trade, and said, “ … this Paul has persuaded and drawn away a considerable number of people by saying that gods made with hands are not gods …” When they heard this, they were enraged and shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The city was filled with the confusion; and people rushed together to the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s travel companions … When the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “… we are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” When he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

The Christian life brings confrontation with the powerful

Acts 20:33-35 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing. You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Acts 21:8 The next day we left and came to Caesarea; and we went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him.

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Acts 27:11 But the centurion paid more attention to the pilot and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said.

Power, status, and resources are to be used for the sake of the community

Introduction to Romans

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Paul’s letter to the Romans is best known for its vision of God’s gra­cious actions toward humanity through the cross and resurrection of Christ. “It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom. 1:16). There is something deeply wrong with us individually, and with the world as a whole, from which we need to be saved, and Romans tells us how God is saving us from it.

Romans is deeply theological, but it is not abstract. God’s salvation is not a concept for analytical discourse in Romans, but a call to action (Rom. 6:22). Paul tells how God’s salvation affects our wisdom, our hon­esty, our relationships, our judgment, our ability to endure setbacks, our character, and our ethical reasoning, all of which are essential to our work. Here, in the nitty-gritty of human relationships and the desire to do good work, is where God’s salvation takes hold in our world.

Written sometime during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero (AD 54–68), the letter to the Romans hints of darkness and danger sur­rounding the Roman house churches, which comprised both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christ. Some of the Jewish members of the congre­gations had been exiled by an edict of Emperor Claudius in 49 and had only recently returned, probably having lost their property and financial stability in the meantime (Acts 18:2). Anti-Jewish sentiment in the wider Roman culture surely exerted pressures upon the Christian churches. Paul’s extended reflection on God’s faithfulness to both Jew and Gentile in this letter was not an abstract pondering of the ways of God, but a skillful theological reflection on these historical events and their conse­quences. The result is a set of practical tools for making moral decisions leading to a new quality of life in every place where people live and work.

The letter to the Romans has been exceptionally important in the development of Christian theology. To give just two examples, Martin Luther broke with Pope Leo X largely because of his disagreement with what he perceived to be the Roman Catholic understanding of Romans. And Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans was arguably the most influ­ential theological work of the twentieth century.[1] In the past twenty-five or thirty years, a major theological debate concerning the relationship between salvation and good works has arisen about Romans and the rest of Paul’s letters, often called the New Perspective on Paul. The general commentaries on Romans explore these issues at length. We will focus specifically on what the letter contributes to the theology of work. Of course, we need to have a basic understanding of Paul’s general points before applying them to work, so we will do a certain amount of general theological exploration as needed.

The Gospel of Salvation—Paul’s Vocation (Romans 1:1–17)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The opening verse of Romans announces Paul’s own vocation, the work that God has called him to do: proclaiming the gospel of God in word and deed. So what is the gospel of God? Paul says that it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16–17, NRSV). For Paul, the gospel is more than words—it is the power of God for salvation. He emphasizes that this salvation is not for one group of people only but is intended to help anyone on earth to be among the people of God, by faith. Romans, then, is above all about God’s salvation.

What is salvation? Salvation is the work of God that sets human beings in right relationship with God and with one another. As we will see momentarily, what we are being saved from are broken relation-ships—with God and with other people—that unleash the evil forces of sin and death in the world. Therefore, salvation is first of all the healing of broken relationships, beginning with the healing that reconciles the Creator and the created, God and us. Our reconciliation with God leads to freedom from sin and a newness of life that is not limited by death.

Christians have sometimes reduced Paul’s gospel of salvation to something like, “Believe in Jesus so that you personally can go to heaven when you die.” This is true, as far as it goes, but grossly inadequate. To begin with, a statement like that says nothing about relationships other than between the individual and God, yet Paul never ceases talking about relationships among people and between people and the rest of God’s creation. And Paul has much more to say about faith, about life in Jesus, about God’s kingdom, and about the quality of life both before and after death than could ever be encapsulated in a single slogan.

Likewise salvation cannot be reduced to a single moment in time. Paul says both that we “were saved” (Rom. 8:24) and that we “will be saved” (e.g., Rom. 5:9). Salvation is an ongoing process rather than a one­time event. God interacts with each person in a dance of divine grace and human faithfulness over time. There are decisive moments in the process of being saved, of course. The central moments are Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. “We were reconciled to God through the death of his Son,” Paul tells us (Rom. 5:10), and “He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also” (Rom. 8:11).

Each of us might also regard the first time we said we believe in Christ as a decisive moment in our salvation. Romans, however, never speaks of a moment of personal salvation, as if salvation happened to us in the past and is now in storage until Christ comes again. Paul uses the past tense of salvation only to speak of Christ’s death and resurrec­tion, the moment when Christ brought salvation to the world. When it comes to each believer, Paul speaks of an ongoing process of salvation, always in the present or future tenses. “One believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” (Rom. 10:10). Not “believed” and “confessed,” past tense, but “believes” and “confesses,” present tense. This leads directly to, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” future tense (Rom. 10:13). Salva­tion is not something that was given to us. It is always being given to us.

We take the trouble to emphasize the ongoing action of salvation because work is one of the preeminent places where we act in life. If sal­vation were something that happened to us only in the past, then what we do at work (or anywhere in life) would be irrelevant. But if salvation is something going on in our lives, then it bears fruit in our work. To be more precise, since salvation is the reconciliation of broken relation­ships, then our relationships with God, with other people, and with the created world at work (as everywhere in life) will be getting better as the process of salvation takes hold. Just to give a few examples, our salvation is evident when we take courage to speak an unpopular truth, listen to others’ views with compassion, help colleagues attain their goals, and produce work products that help other people thrive.

Does this mean that we must work—and keep working—to be saved? Absolutely not! Salvation comes solely through “the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:15). It “depends on faith” (Rom 4:16) and nothing else. As N. T. Wright puts it, “Whatever language or terminology we use to talk about the great gift that the one true God has given to his people in and through Jesus Christ, it remains precisely a gift. It never is something we can earn. We can never put God into our debt; we always remain in his.”[1] We do not work to be saved. But because we are being saved we do work that bears fruit for God (Rom. 7:4). We will return to the question of how salvation is given to us in “Judgment, Justice, and Faith” below in Romans 3.

In sum, salvation is the ultimate work of Christ in the world, the goal toward which believers always “press on,” as Paul puts it (Phil. 3:12). Salvation underlies everything Paul and everything believers do in work and life.

Our Need for Salvation in Life and Work (Romans 1:18–1:32)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

We saw in Romans 1:1–17 that salvation begins with reconciliation to God. People have become estranged from God because of their “god­lessness and wickedness” (Rom. 1:18). “Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21). We were created to walk in intimacy with God among the creatures of the Garden of Eden (Gen. 1–2), but our relationship with God has become so broken that we no longer recognize God. Paul calls this state a “debased mind” (Rom. 1:28).

Lacking the presence of mind to remain in the presence of the real God, we try to make our own gods. We have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and four-footed animals or reptiles” (Rom. 1:23). Our relationship with God is so thoroughly damaged that we cannot tell the difference be­tween walking with God and carving an idol. When our real relationship with the true God is broken, we create fake relationships with false gods. Idolatry, then, is not merely one sin among others, but the essence of a broken relationship with God. (For more on idolatry, see “You Shall Not Make for Yourself an Idol,” Exodus 20:4, at www.theologyofwork.org.)

When our relationship with God is broken, our relationships with other people also break down. Paul lists some of the broken aspects of human relationships that ensue.

They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slander­ers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Rom. 1:29–31)

We experience nearly all these forms of broken relationships at work. Covetousness, strife, and envy over others’ positions or paychecks, malice and rebellion toward those in authority, gossip and slander of co-workers and competitors, deceit and faithlessness in communications and commit­ments, insolence, haughtiness, and boastfulness of those who experience success, foolishness in decisions, heartlessness and ruthlessness by those in power. Not all the time of course. Some workplaces are better and some worse. But every workplace knows the consequences of broken relation­ships. All of us suffer from them. All of us contribute to causing them.

We may even compound the problem by making an idol of work it­self, devoting ourselves to work in the vain hope that it alone will bring us meaning, purpose, security, or happiness. Perhaps this seems to work for a time, until we are passed over for promotion or are fired or laid off or retire. Then we discover that work comes to an end, and meanwhile we have become strangers to our family and friends. Like “mortal men and birds and four-footed animals and reptiles,” work was created by God (Gen. 2:15) and is inherently good, yet it becomes evil when elevated to the place of God.

All Have Sinned (Romans 2–3)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents
Entrepreneur Takes Employment Practice From Romans 3:23 - All Have Sinned and Fallen Short

Sadly, this brokenness extends even to Paul’s own workplace, the Christian church, and in particular the Christians in Rome. Despite being God’s own people (Rom. 9:25), “called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7), the Christians in Rome are experiencing a breakdown in their relation­ships with one another. Specifically, Jewish Christians are judging Gen­tile Christians for not conforming to their own peculiar expectations, and vice versa. “You say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with the truth,’” Paul notes (Rom. 2:2). Each side claims that they know God’s judgments and speak for God. Claiming to speak for God makes their own words into idols, illustrat­ing in miniature how idolatry (breaking relationship with God) leads to judgment (breaking relationship with other people).

Both sides are wrong. The truth is that both Gentiles and Jews have strayed from God. Gentiles, who should have recognized the sovereignty of God in the creation itself, have given themselves over to the worship of idols and to all the destructive behavior that follows from this basic mistake (Rom. 1:18–32). Jews, on the other hand, have become judg­mental, hypocritical, and boastful that they are the people of the Torah. Paul summarizes both situations by saying, “All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12).

But the crux of the problem is not that each side misunderstands God’s expectations. It is that each side judges the other, destroying the relationships that God had brought into being. It is crucial to recognize the role of judgment in Paul’s argument. Judgment causes broken rela­tionships. The specific sins noted in Romans 1:29–31 are not the causes of our broken relationships, but the results. The causes of our broken relationships are idolatry (toward God) and judgment (toward people). In fact, idolatry can be understood as a form of judgment, the judgment that God is not adequate and that we can create better gods on our own. Therefore, Paul’s overarching concern in chapters 2 and 3 is our judg­ment of others.

You have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in pass­ing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? (Rom. 2:1–3)

If we wonder what we have done that puts us in need of salvation, the answer above all is judgment and idolatry, according to Paul. We judge others, though we have no right to do so, and thus we bring God’s judg­ment on ourselves as he works to restore true justice. To use a modern metaphor, it is like the Supreme Court overturning a corrupt judge in a lower court who didn’t even have jurisdiction in the first place.

Does this mean that Christians are never to assess people’s actions or to oppose people at work? No. Because we work as God’s agents, we have a duty to assess whether the things happening in our workplaces serve or hinder God’s purposes and to act accordingly (see Rom. 12:9–13:7 for some examples from Paul). A supervisor may need to discipline or fire an employee who is not doing his or her job satisfactorily. A worker may need to go over a supervisor’s head to report an ethical or policy violation. A teacher may need to give a low grade. A voter or politician may need to oppose a candidate. An activist may need to protest a cor­porate or government injustice. A student may need to report cheating by another student. A victim of abuse or discrimination may need to cut off contact with the abuser.

Because we are responsible to God for the outcomes of our work and the integrity of our workplaces, we do need to assess people’s actions and intentions and to take action to prevent injustice and do good work. But this does not mean that we judge others’ worthiness as human beings or set ourselves up as morally superior. Even when we oppose others’ actions, we do not judge them.

It can be difficult to tell the difference sometimes, but Paul gives us some surprisingly practical guidance. Respect the other person’s conscience. God has created all people in such a way that “what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness” (Rom. 2:15). If others are genuinely following their own conscience, then it is not your job to judge them. But if you are setting up yourself as morally superior, condemning others for following their own moral compass, you are probably passing judgment in a way for which “you have no excuse” (Rom. 2:1).

Judgment, the Source of Broken Relationships (Romans 3:1–20)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

What can be done with a world of people separated from God by idolatry and from one another by judgment? God’s true justice is the answer. In Romans 3, as Paul describes what happens in salvation, he puts it in terms of God’s justice. “Our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God” (Rom. 3:5).

Before proceeding, we need to say a bit about the terminology of justice and righteousness. Paul uses the Greek word for justice, dikaiosynē and its various forms, thirty-six times in Romans. It is translated as “righteousness” most often and as “justice” (or “justification”) less fre­quently. But the two are the same in Paul’s language. The primary use of dikaiosynē is in courts of law, where people are seeking justice to restore a situation that is not right. Therefore, salvation means being made right with God (righteousness) and with other people and all of creation (jus­tice). A full exploration of the relationship between the words salvation, justification, righteousness, and salvation is beyond the scope of this chapter but will be addressed in any general commentary on Romans.[1]

If this seems abstract, ask yourself whether you can see concrete implications at work. Is it the case that the (false) judgments people make about one another are the root of broken relationships and injus­tice where you work? For example, if a manager and employee disagree over the employee’s performance review, which of these causes greater damage—the performance gap itself or the hostility arising from their judgment? Or if someone gossips about another person at work, which causes greater damage—embarrassment over the item that was gossiped about or resentment over the judgment revealed by the gossiper’s tone and the listeners’ snickers?

If our false judgment is the root of our broken relationships with God, other people, and the creation, how can we possibly find salvation? The thing we need—justice/righteousness—is the one thing we are most incapable of. Even if we want to be put back into right relationships, our inability to judge rightly means that the harder we try, the worse we make the problem. “Who will rescue me?” Paul cries (Rom. 7:24).

We cannot hope to be rescued by anyone else, for they are in the same boat we’re in. “Everyone is a liar,” Paul tell us (Rom. 3:4). “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one” (Rom. 3:10–12). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).

Yet there is hope—not in humanity, but in God’s faithfulness. “Will their unfaithfulness nullify the faithfulness of God?” Paul asks. “By no means!” he replies (Rom 3:3–4). On the contrary, “injustice serves to confirm the justice of God.” This means our workplaces are settings for grace just as much as our churches or families. If we feel that our work­place is too secular, too unethical, too hostile to faith, too full of greedy, soulless people, then it is exactly the place where the cross of Christ is effective! God’s grace can bring reconciliation and justice in a factory, office block, or petrol station just as fully as in a cathedral, abbey, or church. Paul’s gospel is not only for the church, but for the whole world.

God’s Justice Through Jesus, the Solution to Our False Judgments (Romans 3:21–26)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Given that our judgment is false and hypocritical, how can we ever find righteousness and justice? This is the question that leads into the dramatic crux of Romans 3. God’s response is the cross of Christ. God gives his justice/righteousness to us because we are unable to bring justice/righteousness ourselves. God accomplishes this through the cross of Jesus, in which he demonstrates that “he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

God’s means of accomplishing this is through the death and resur­rection of Jesus. “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). God freely chose to accept the cross of Christ as though it were a holy sacrifice of atonement in the Jew­ish temple (Rom. 3:25). As on the Day of Atonement, God chose to pass over people’s wrongdoing in order to establish a kind of new beginning for all who believe. And although Jesus was a Jew, God regards the cross as an offer of salvation to all people. Through the cross, everyone can be restored to a right relationship with God.

Although we lack righteousness/justice, God has both in infinite sup­ply. Through the cross of Jesus, God gives us the righteousness/justice that restores our broken relationships with God, other people, and all creation. When God gives us salvation, he gives us righteousness/justice.

The righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21–26; emphasis added)

The cross is God’s surprising justice—surprising because although God is not the sinner, God makes the sacrifice. Does this mean any­thing in today’s secular workplaces? It could be a very hopeful note. In situations where the problems in our workplaces are caused by our own errors or injustice, we can count on God’s righteousness/justice to overcome our failings. Even though we can’t make ourselves right, God can work his righteousness/justice in us and through us. In situations where others’ errors and injustice cause the problems, we may be able to set things right by sacrificing something of ourselves—in imitation of our Savior—even though we did not cause the problem.

For example, consider a work group that operates in a culture of blame. Rather than working together to fix problems, people spend all their time trying to blame others whenever problems arise. If your work­place is a culture of blame, it may not be your fault. Perhaps your boss is the blamer-in-chief. Even so, could a sacrifice by you bring reconciliation and justice? The next time the boss starts to blame someone, imagine if you stood up and said, “I remember that I supported this idea the last time we talked about it, so you’d better blame me too.” What if the time after that, two or three other people did the same thing along with you? Would that begin to make the blame game fall apart? You might end up sacrificing your reputation, your friendship with the boss, even your fu­ture job prospects. But is it possible that it could also break the hold of blame and judgment in your work group? Could you expect God’s grace to take an active role through your sacrifice?

Faith/Faithfulness, the Entry to God’s Justice (Romans 3:27–31)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In the previous section we looked at Romans 3:22–26 and high­lighted the righteousness/justice that God gives us in salvation. Now let us look again at the passage to highlight the role of faith.

The righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the pres­ent time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21–26; emphasis added)

Clearly, God’s gift of righteousness/justice is intimately tied up in faith and belief. This brings us to one of the most famous themes in Ro­mans, the role of faith in salvation. In many ways, the Protestant Refor­mation was founded on paying attention to this and similar passages in Romans, and their importance remains central to Christians of virtually every kind today. While there are many ways of describing it, the central idea is that people are restored to a right relationship with God by faith.

The Greek root-word pistis is translated as “faith” (or sometimes “believe,” as in one instance above), but also as “faithfulness” as in Ro­mans 3:3. The English language distinguishes between faith (mental assent, trust, or commitment) and faithfulness (actions consistent with one’s faith). But in Greek there is only the single word pistis for both faith and faithfulness. There is no separating what a person believes from the evidence of that belief in the person’s actions. If you have faith, you will act in faithfulness. Given that in most workplaces our faithful­ness (what we do) will be more directly evident than our faith (what we believe), the relationship between these two aspects of pistis takes on a particular significance for work.

Paul speaks of “the pistis of Jesus” twice here, in Romans 3:22 and 3:26. If translated literally, the Greek says “pistis of Jesus,” not “pistis in Jesus.” The literal wording of Romans 3:22 is thus that we are saved by Jesus’ faithfulness to God (the pistis of Jesus). In other passages, pistis clearly refers to our faith in Jesus, such as Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” In truth, our faith in Jesus cannot be separated from Jesus’ faithfulness to God. Our faith in Jesus comes about because of Jesus’ faithfulness to God on the cross, and we respond by living faithfully to him and placing our trust in him. Remembering that our salvation flows from Jesus’ faithfulness, not merely our state of belief, keeps us from turning the possession of faith into a new form of works-righteousness, as if our act of saying “I believe in Jesus” is what brings us salvation.

The full meaning of faith/faithfulness in Paul’s writing has two im­portant implications for work. First of all, it puts to rest any fear that by taking our work seriously we might waver in recognizing that salvation comes solely by God’s gift of faith. When we remember that Christ’s faithfulness on the cross has already accomplished the work of salva­tion, and that our faith in Christ comes solely by God’s grace, then we recognize that our faithfulness to God in our work is simply a response to God’s grace. We are faithful in our work because God has given us faith as a free gift.

Second, the faithfulness of Christ impels us to become more and more faithful ourselves. Again, this is not because we think that our faithful actions earn us salvation, but because having been given faith in Christ, we earnestly desire to become more like him. Paul speaks of this as the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5, 26). Without faith, it is impossible to be obedient to God. But if God gives us faith, then we can respond in obedience. In fact, much of the latter half of Romans is devoted to showing us how to be more obedient to God as a result of the grace God has given us through faith.

An Exemplary Faith: Abraham Trusted God’s Promises (Romans 4)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

As we have seen in Romans 1–3, the cross of Christ brings salvation to all people—Jews and Gentiles alike. In Christ, God puts all people back into right relationship with God and one another without regard to the provisions of the Jewish law. For this reason, Paul’s principal focus throughout Romans is helping the divided and quarreling Christians in Rome to reconcile their broken relationships in order to live faithfully into what God has accomplished in Christ.

This interpretation of Christ’s death raises a problem for Paul, however, since he is writing not only to uncircumcised Gentiles but also to circum­cised Jews, for whom the law still matters. Further, Paul’s interpretation seems to ignore the story of Abraham, understood to be “father” of the Jews, who was in fact circumcised as a sign of his covenant with God (Gen. 17:11). Doesn’t the story of Abraham suggest that entering the covenant of God requires male circumcision for all peoples, whether Jewish or Gentile?

“No,” argues Paul in Romans 4. Interpreting the story of Abraham from Genesis 12:1–3, 15:6, and 17:1–14, Paul concludes that Abraham had faith that God would honor his word and make the childless Abra­ham the father of many nations through his barren wife Sarah. Conse­quently, God reckoned Abraham’s faith as righteousness (Rom. 4:3, 9, 22). Paul reminds his readers that God’s acknowledgment of Abraham’s righteousness took place long before Abraham was circumcised, which came later as a sign of his already-existing faith in God (Rom. 4:10–11).

In other words, at the time God reckoned Abraham’s faith as putting him in right relationship with God, Abraham shared the same status as an uncircumcised Gentile in Paul’s world. Thus, concludes Paul, Abraham became the father of both Jews and Gentiles through the righteousness of faith rather than righteousness under the Jewish law (Rom. 4:11–15).

The example of Abraham in Romans 4 provides Christians with great hope for our work and workplaces. Abraham’s example of trusting God’s promises—despite adverse circumstances and seemingly impossible odds—emboldens us not to waver in trust when we face challenges at work or when God does not seem to be present (see Rom. 4:19). God did not immediately fulfill the promise to Abraham, which further en­courages us to be patient in waiting for God to renew or redeem our circumstances in life.

Grace Reigns for Eternal Life Through Jesus Christ (Romans 5)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In Romans 5 Paul links this divine gift of righteousness to the obedience of Christ and the grace that now flows into the world through him. Several important features of this chapter illuminate our experiences of work.

Grace Transforms Suffering in Our Life in Christ (Romans 5:1–11)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In Romans 5:1–11 Paul offers more encouragement by reminding the Romans that through Christ we have already “gained access” to God’s “grace in which we stand” (Rom. 5:2). Grace signifies God’s life-giving power that raised Jesus from the dead. Grace continues to bring new and more abundant life into the world to and through Christ’s follow­ers. By living Christ’s obedient life of faith and faithfulness in our own circumstances, we experience God’s life-giving grace that can bring us joy and peace at work, at home, and in every context of life.

Nevertheless, trusting the grace of God often calls for steadfast patience in the face of many challenges. Just as Christ suffered in the course of his obedience to God, we too may experience suffering when we embody Christ’s life of faith and faithfulness. Paul even says he “boasts” in his suffering (Rom. 5:3), knowing that his suffering is a participation in the suffering Jesus experienced in his mission to reconcile the world to God (Rom. 8:17–18). Moreover, suffering often brings growth.

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts. (Rom. 5:3–5)

Therefore God does not promise that life and work will be happy for believers all the time. Many people suffer at work. Work can be boring, degrading, humiliating, exhausting, and heartless. We can be underpaid, endangered, and discriminated against. We can be pressured to violate our consciences and God’s principles. We can be fired, laid off, made redundant, downsized, terminated, unemployed or underemployed for long periods. We can bring suffering on ourselves by our own arrogance, carelessness, incompetence, greed, or malice against others. We can suf­fer even in good jobs. We should never be content with abuse or mis­treatment at work, but when we have to endure suffering at work, all is not lost. God’s grace is poured out on us when we suffer, and it makes us stronger if we remain faithful.

To give an example, preparing the soil and caring for crops cannot guarantee that the grain will grow tall or the vegetables will ripen. Poor weather, drought, insects, and blight can ruin the harvest. Yet, through grace, farmers may come to accept all these aspects of nature, while trusting God’s care. This in turn shapes the patient, faithful character of farmers who come to care deeply for all of God’s creation. A deep ap­preciation of nature, in turn, can be a great asset for the work of farming.

Entrepreneur is Grateful for Failures and the People Who Kept Her Believing (Click to Watch)

Similarly, grace empowers us to remain faithful and hopeful even when the employer for whom we work closes their doors during hard economic times. So, too, God’s life-giving power sustains many highly educated young adults who still have trouble finding meaningful em­ployment. Grace also inspires a team to persevere in developing a new product, even after repeated failures, knowing that what they learn by failing is what makes the product better.

God’s love sustains us through all kinds of suffering in life and work. “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” Even when suffering threatens to harden our hearts, God’s love makes us agents of his reconciliation, which we have received in Christ (Rom. 10–11).

Grace and Righteousness Lead to Eternal Life Through Christ (Romans 5:12–21)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Romans 5:12–21 reflects a dense and complex theological argu­ment involving a number of different contrasts between the disobedient Adam and the obedient Christ, through whom we are made righteous and promised eternal life. The passage gives us assurance that Christ’s obedient act of self-giving for others puts all who come to him into right relationship with God and one another. As participants in Christ’s faith and faithfulness, we receive a share of the divine gifts of righteousness and eternal life promised by God through Christ. Therefore, we no longer participate in Adam’s disobedience but find eternal life by participating in Christ’s obedience to God.

Paul speaks of God’s grace operating in both the present time and eternity. Reconciliation has already been given through Christ (Rom. 5:11), so that we are already able to live God-honoring lives. Yet God’s reconciliation is not yet complete and is still in the process of “leading to eternal life” (Rom. 12:21). If we have received Christ’s reconciliation, then our work now is an opportunity to contribute to the better future where Christ is leading. Innovators gain new possibilities to create, de­sign, and build products that improve the common good. Service workers have new opportunities to make other lives better. Artists or musicians can create aesthetic beauty that enhances human life for God’s glory. None of these are means to eternal life. But every time we work to make the world more as God intends it to be, we receive a foretaste of eternal life. When we remain obedient to Christ’s pattern of faith and faithful­ness in our workplace settings, no matter what the circumstances, we can trust that our life is eternally secure in the hands of our faithful God.

Walking in Newness of Life (Romans 6)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Although God’s grace has come into the world to bring reconciliation and justice, there are still evil spiritual powers at work opposing the life-giving power of God’s grace (Rom. 6:14). Paul often personifies these evil spiritual forces, calling them such names as “sin” (Rom. 6:2), “flesh” (Rom. 7:5), “death” (Rom. 6:9), or “this world” (Rom. 12:2). Human be­ings must choose whether, through their actions in daily life, to partner with God through Christ or with these evil forces. Paul calls choosing to partner with God “walking in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). He compares walking in newness of life to Christ’s new life after being raised from the dead. “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). In our lives here and now, we can begin to live—or “walk”—in reconciliation and justice just as Christ now lives.

To walk in newness of life requires us to abandon our judgmentalism and to do God’s justice rather than continuing in our self-serving habits (Rom. 6:12–13). As instruments of God’s justice, believers act in ways through which the life-giving power of God’s grace builds up people and communities in Christ. This is far more active than merely refraining from bad behavior. Our calling is to become instruments of justice and reconciliation, working to root out the effects of sin in a troubled world.

For example, workers may have fallen into a habit of judging man­agement as evil or unfair, and vice versa. This may have become a con­venient pretext for workers to cheat the company, use paid time for personal activities, or fail to do excellent work. Conversely, it may be a convenient excuse for managers to discriminate against workers they don’t personally like, or to evade safety or workplace fairness regulations, or to withhold information from workers. Merely following the regula­tions or refraining from cheating would not be walking in newness of life. Instead, walking in newness of life would require us first of all to give up our judgments of the other side. Once we no longer regard them as unworthy of our respect, then we can begin to discern specific ways to restore good relationships, reestablish just and fair dealings with one another, and build up one another and our organizations.

Making this kind of change in our life and work is exceedingly difficult. Paul says that sin continually seeks to “exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” However good our intentions, we soon fall back into our broken ways. Only God’s grace, made real in Christ’s death, has the power to pry us free from our habits of judgment (Rom. 6:6).

Therefore God’s grace does not cast us “free” to wander aimlessly back into our old ills. Instead he offers to strap us into new life in Christ. The bindings will chafe whenever we begin to wander off course, and Paul admits that walking in newness of life will feel a lot like slavery at first. Our choice, then, is which kind of slavery to accept—slavery to newness of life or slavery to our old sins. “You are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness [justice]” (Rom. 6:25). “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification [newness of life]. The end is eternal life” (Rom. 6:22). The advantage of walking in newness of life is not that it feels freer than slavery to sin, but that it results in justice and life, rather than shame and death.

Walking in Newness of Life in the Workplace (Romans 6)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Giving God Glory at Work (Video)

What does it mean to be a “slave” of God’s grace in our places of work? It means that we do not make decisions at work based on how things affect us, but about how they affect our master, God. We make decisions as God’s stewards or agents. This is actually a familiar concept in both Christian faith and the secular workplace. In the Christian faith, Christ himself is the model steward, who gave up his own life in order to fulfill God’s purposes. Similarly, many people in the workplace have a duty to serve the interests of others, rather than their own. Among them are attorneys, corporate officers, agents, trustees and boards of direc­tors, judges, and many others. Not many workplace stewards or agents are as committed as Jesus was—willing to give their lives to fulfill their duties—but the concept of agency is an everyday reality in the workplace.

The difference for Christians is that our duty ultimately is to God, not the state or shareholders or anyone else. Our overarching mission must be God’s justice and reconciliation, not merely obeying the law, making a profit, or satisfying human expectations. Unlike Albert Carr’s claim that business is just a game in which normal rules of ethics don’t apply,[1] walking in newness of life means integrating justice and reconciliation into our lives at work.

For instance, walking in newness of life for a high school teacher might mean repeatedly forgiving a rebellious and troublesome student, while also seeking new ways to reach that student in the classroom. For a politician, walking in newness of life might mean drafting new legislation that includes input from a number of different ideological perspectives. For a manager, it might mean asking the forgiveness of an employee in front of everyone who is aware of the manager’s transgression against the employee.

Walking in newness of life requires us to look deeply into our pat­terns of work. Bakers or chefs might easily see how their work helps feed hungry people, which in itself is a form of justice. The same bakers and chefs might also need to look more deeply at their personal interactions in the kitchen. Do they treat people with dignity, help others succeed, bring glory to God? Walking in newness of life affects both the ends we try to accomplish and the means we use to do so.

The Invasive Power of “Sin” (Romans 7)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In chapter 7, Paul continues to emphasize that newness of life in Christ frees us from being “captive” to the “old written code” of the law (Rom. 7:6). Nonetheless, the law itself is not the problem with human existence, for “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). Instead, concludes Paul, the problem is the God-opposing power he calls “sin” taking up residence in human beings (Rom. 7:13). Sin has taken advantage of the law’s commandments by using them as tools to deceive people (Rom. 7:11), thus preventing each person from being able to obey the law as God intended (Rom. 7:14, 17, 23).

Sin’s power is not merely making bad choices or doing things we know we shouldn’t. It is as if an evil power has invaded the territory of each person’s spirit and taken control, “sold into slavery under sin,” as Paul puts it (Rom. 7:14). Under this slavery to sin, we are unable to do the good called for in the commandments and known in our hearts (Rom. 7:15–20). This occurs despite our good intentions to do what God desires (Rom. 7:15–16, 22).

In other words, knowledge of what is good is not enough to overcome the power of sin that has invaded us! “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:19). We can be rescued from this plight only by the intervention of another, more powerful spiritual force—the Holy Spirit who becomes the focus in Romans 8.

Peer Groups at the Workshop

By Jane Lancaster Patterson and John Lewis

A member of one of our weekly reflection groups at The Workshop had a subordinate whose work had substantially deteriorated over the past months. She had resolved to terminate the employee and was asking the group to help her imagine the most faithful way to handle that responsibility. The group discussed how the standards and norms of the surrounding culture would suggest a direct conversation with the employee, clearly explaining the reasons for the termination. “But how would Jesus do it?” the group asked one another. After further conversation, she left to ponder how to approach her challenging task.

The next week she returned with a moving story. Instead of immediately terminating the employee, she opened the conversation with “Is there something happening in your life that I should know about that might be affecting your work?” The question opened the floodgates for the employee to tell her about his ailing mother and the family difficulties brought about by the daily care he was providing to his mother.

By acting with humility rather than exercising her power and status as the employer, this woman embodied the cross of Christ. She did not terminate the employee, but worked with him to adjust his schedule so that he could meet his familial and work responsibilities. The employee’s work improved only somewhat over time. But by following the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, she and the others in her workplace experienced a peace not present before the conversation. The event also fostered a deeper level of trust and confidence in her leadership among all the employees.

The Workshop is located in San Antonio, Texas, USA

We are well aware that knowing what God wants is not enough to keep us on the right track in workplace situations. For instance, even when we know in our minds that God wants us to treat everyone with respect, we sometimes fall prey to the false perception that we could get ahead by speaking poorly about a co-worker. Likewise, in the work of parenting, mothers and fathers know that shouting in anger at a young child is not good. But sometimes the power of sin overtakes them and they do so anyway. A lawyer who charges clients for services by the hour knows he should keep scrupulous time records, but may nevertheless be overpowered by sin to pad his hours to increase his income.

Alone, we are especially vulnerable to the power of sin within us. Wherever we work, we would do well to seek out others (Rom. 12:5) and help one another resist this power that tries to overcome our will to do what is right and good. For example, a small but growing number of Christians are joining small peer groups of people who work in similar situations. Peer groups meet anywhere from an hour once a week, often at work locations, to half a day once a month. Members commit to telling each other the details of situations they face at work and to discussing them from a faith perspective, developing options and committing to action plans. A member might describe a conflict with a co-worker, an ethical lapse, a feeling of meaninglessness, a company policy that seems unfair. After gaining the others’ insights, the member would commit to a course of action in response and report to the group about results at future meetings. (For more on this, see “Equipping Churches Connect Daily Work to Worship” at www.theologyofwork.org.)

Living According to the Spirit Leads to a New Quality of Life (Romans 8:1–14)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Believers are free from the law, but walking in newness of life is based on a firm moral structure (hence, “the law of the Spirit,” Rom. 8:2). Paul calls this moral structure “living according to the Spirit” or “setting our minds on the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5). Both terms refer to the process of moral reasoning that guides us as we walk in newness of life.

This kind of moral compass does not work by listing specific acts that are right or wrong. Instead it consists of following the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” that has freed believers “from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1–2). The words life and death are the keys. As discussed earlier in Romans 6, Paul understands “sin,” “death,” and the “flesh” as spiritual forces in the world that lead people to act in ways that are con­trary to God’s will and produce chaos, despair, conflict, and destruction in their lives and in their communities. By contrast, living according to the Spirit means doing whatever brings life instead of death. “To set the mind on the flesh [our old patterns of judgment] is death but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). Setting the mind on the Spirit means looking for whatever will bring more life to each situation.

For example, the Jewish law taught that “you shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13). But living according to the Spirit goes far beyond not lit­erally murdering anyone. It actively seeks opportunities to bring better life to people. It can mean cleaning a hotel room so that guests remain healthy. It can mean clearing the ice from a neighbor’s sidewalk (or pave­ment) so pedestrians can walk safely. It can mean studying for years to earn a Ph.D. in order to develop new treatments for cancer.

Another way to put it is that living according to the Spirit means living a new quality of life in Christ. This comes from setting aside our judgments of what another person deserves and seeking instead what would bring them a better quality of life, deserved or not. When making assignments, a manager could assign a task that stretches subordinates’ abilities, rather than limiting them to what they are already capable of, then inviting them to check in every day for guidance. When asked to lend a replacement tool, a skilled tradesperson could instead show a junior worker a new technique that will prevent breaking the tool the next time around. When asked “Why did our dog die?” a parent could ask a child “Are you afraid someone you love might die?” instead of only explaining the pet’s immediate cause of death. In each of these situa­tions, the moral goal is to bring a better quality of life to the other person, rather than to fulfill a demand of the law.

Bringing life, rather than fulfilling the law, is the moral compass of those who are being saved by God’s grace. We are free to live according to the Spirit rather than to enslave ourselves to the law because “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

A Habit of Discrimination

As a young man, I worked in a farm supply warehouse in southern Delaware. After a while I realized that all the white workers—including me, the new hire—had the clean, easy job of loading and unloading farm supplies. All the black workers were assigned to backbreaking work in the hot dust-choked seed-bagging room. It didn’t seem like management or the white workers were particularly racist. It was just a fact of life that nobody talked about; black people got the worst jobs. Nobody even seemed to think about it, and after a while I didn’t either.

William Messenger, as told to the TOW Project, January 10, 2014

Paul’s inclusion of “peace” as an aspect of setting our minds on the Spirit (Rom. 13:6, as above) points out the social aspects of living according to the Spirit because peace is a social phenomenon.[5] When we follow Christ, we try to bring a new quality of life to our society, not just to ourselves. This means paying attention to the social conditions that diminish life at work and elsewhere. We do what we can to make life better for people we work among. At the same time, we work to bring justice/righteousness to the social systems that shape the conditions of work and workers.

Christians can be a positive force for improvement—even survival—if we can help our organizations set their minds on the need for a new quality of life. We probably can’t change our organizations much on our own. But if we can build relationships with others, earn people’s trust, listen to the people nobody else listens to, we may help the organization break out of its ruts. Plus, we bring the secret ingredient—our faith that God’s grace can use us to bring life to even the deadest situation.

Conversely, if we do not set our minds on the Spirit at work, we can be arrogant and destructive, whether in our relationships with fellow workers, competitors, clients, or others. Setting our minds on the Spirit requires constantly evaluating the consequences or fruit of our work, always asking whether our work enhances the quality of life for other people. If we are honest in our assessments, no doubt it also requires daily repentance and the grace to change.

Suffering With Christ in Order to Be Glorified With Christ (Romans 8:15–17)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Paul contrasts life in the Spirit with life under the Jewish law. Paul says believers have received a “spirit of adoption” as children of God, rather than “a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear” (Rom. 8:15). Every­one who “belongs to” Christ (Rom. 8:9–10) is now an adopted child of God. In contrast, those under the law live in slavery to the power of sin and also in fear—presumably fear of the law’s threats of punishment for disobedience. Believers are free of this fear, since there is now “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). When we live faithfully in Christ, we do not face the law’s threats of punishment, even when we get things wrong in our daily life and work. Hardships and failures may still mar our work, but God’s response is not condemnation but redemption. God will bring something worthwhile out of our faithful work, no matter how bad it seems at present.

At least two aspects of these verses inform our approach to work or life in our workplaces. First, as adopted children of God, we are never alone in our work. No matter what our dissatisfaction or frustrations with the people we work among, or the work, or even a lack of support for the work from our families, the Spirit of God in Christ abides with us. God is always looking for an opportunity to redeem our suffering and turn it into something good and satisfying in our lives. As we observed earlier in connection with Romans 5, faithfully enduring hardship and suffering in our work can lead to the formation of our character and ground our hope for the future. (See “Grace Transforms Suffering in Our Life in Christ,” above in Romans 5:1–11.)

Second, at one time or another, most people encounter failures, frustrations, and hardships in their work. Our work places obligations on us that we wouldn’t otherwise have, even obligations as simple as showing up on time every day. Faithfully engaging these challenges can actually make the work more rewarding and satisfying. Over time these experiences give us greater confidence in God’s redeeming presence and greater experience of his motivating and energizing Spirit.

In some situations you may be welcomed and promoted for bring­ing reconciliation and justice to your place of work. In other situations you may be resisted, threatened, punished, or terminated. For example, bad relationships are an unfortunate feature of many workplaces. One department may habitually sabotage another department’s accomplish­ments. Strife between managers and workers may have become insti­tutionalized. People may be terrorized by an office bully, an academic clique, a shop floor gang, a racial dividing line, or an abusive boss. If you bring reconciliation in situations like these, productivity may increase, turnover may be reduced, morale may soar, customer service may re­bound, and you may be praised or promoted. On the other hand, the bul­lies, cliques, gangs, racial divides, and abusive bosses are almost certain to oppose you.

Eagerly Awaiting Bodily Redemption for Ourselves and God’s Creation (Romans 8:18–30)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents
Wayne Alderson at Pittron Steel

Wayne Alderson created a cooperative, collegial working environment at Pittron Steel, and the company was rewarded with productivity and quality gains that made it very profitable. It was so successful that it was bought out by another company. The new management reverted to the traditional management vs. labor work environment, firing Wayne and the managers who had created the collegial environment. Workplace strife ensued, and the company’s productivity declined until it went out of business seven years later.

The good work that Wayne and his workforce did at Pittron was extinguished, although his ideas have been copied by others and are still in use in other companies today.[1]

Being “glorified” with Christ (Rom. 8:17) is our hope for the future. But according to Paul that hope is part of a process already underway. We are to engage patiently in it, with the expectation that at some point it will be completed (Rom. 8:18–25). The gift of the Holy Spirit already received as “first fruits” of this process (Rom. 8:23) signifies our adop­tion as children of God (Rom. 8:14–17, 23). This constitutes proof that the process is underway.

This process culminates in “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). This is not a rescue of our souls out of our physical bodies, but the transformation of our bodies along with the entire creation (Rom. 8:21). This process has already begun, and we experience its “first fruits” (Rom. 8:24) in our life and work today. But far more and better is yet to come, and at present the “whole creation” groans in “labor pains” as it eagerly anticipates being set free from its own “bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:19–23). Paul is clearly drawing on imagery from Genesis 2–3, where not only Adam but also creation itself was subjected to decay and death, no longer able to live into what God created them to be. This reminds us to consider the impact of our work on all of God’s creation, not only on people. (For more on this topic, see “Dominion” in Genesis 1:26 and 2:5 at www.theologyofwork.org.)

The process is slow and sometimes painful. We “groan” while we wait for it to be accomplished, Paul says, and not only us individually but “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” (Rom. 8:22–23). This echoes the groaning of Israel while enslaved in Egypt (Exod. 6:5) and reminds us that nearly 30 million people are still enslaved in the world today.[2] We can never be content with merely our own release from the evil forces in the world, but we must serve God faithfully until he com­pletes his salvation in every part of the world.

Nonetheless, the salvation of the world is sure, for “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). God is at work in us now, and the time is com­ing when God’s salvation will be complete in the world. God’s original verdict “It is very good” (Gen. 1:31) is vindicated by the transformation at work in us now, to be fulfilled in God’s time.

Because the transformation is not yet complete, we have to be prepared for difficulties along the way. Sometimes we do good work, only to see it wasted or destroyed by the evil that is presently in the world. Even if we do good work, our work may be vandalized. Our recommendations may be watered down. We may run out of capital, lose the election to a scoundrel, drown in red tape, fail to engage a student’s interest. Or we may succeed for a time, and then find our results undone by later events. Health workers, for example, have been on the verge of eradicating polio on several occa­sions, only to face new outbreaks due to political opposition, ignorance, vaccine-related transmission, and the swift pace of modern travel.[3]

Nothing Can Come Between Us and the Love of God (Romans 8:31-39)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

God is for us, says Paul, having given his own Son for “all of us” (Rom. 8:31–32). Nothing is able to come between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35–39). “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor pow­ers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39). Many of these things seem to threaten us in the sphere of work. We face menacing or incompetent bosses (rulers). We get stuck in dead-end jobs (things present). We make sacrifices now—working long hours, taking classes after work, serving in low-paid internships, moving to another country looking for work—that we hope will pay off later but may never pan out (things to come). We lose our jobs because of economic cycles or regulations or unscrupulous actions by power­ful people we never even see (powers). We are forced by circumstance, folly, or the crimes of others into degrading or dangerous work. All these things can do us real hurt. But they cannot triumph over us.

Christ’s faithfulness—and ours, by God’s grace—overcomes the worst that life and work can do to us. If career progress, income, or prestige is our highest goal at work, we may end up disappointed. But if salvation—that is, reconciliation with God and people, faithfulness, and justice—is our chief hope, then we will find it amid both the good and bad in work. Paul’s affirmations mean that no matter what the difficulties we encounter with our work, or the complexities and challenges we face with co-workers or superiors in our workplaces, the love of God in Christ always abides with us. The love of God in Christ is the steadying force in the midst of adversity now, as well as our hope for bodily redemption in the future.

God’s Character is to Have Mercy on Everyone (Romans 9–11)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In Romans 9–11, Paul returns to the immediate problem the letter is meant to address—the conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Since this is not our primary concern in the theology of work, we will summarize quickly.

Paul discusses God’s history with Israel, with special attention to God’s mercy (Rom. 9:14–18). He explains how God’s salvation comes also to the Gentiles. Jews experienced God’s salvation first, beginning with Abraham (Rom. 9:4–7). But many have fallen away, and at present it seems as if the Gentiles are more faithful (Rom. 9:30–33). But the Gentiles should not become judgmental, for their salvation is interwoven with the Jews (Rom. 11:11–16). God has preserved a “remnant” of his people (Rom. 9:27, 11:5) whose faithfulness—by the grace of God—leads to the reconciliation of the world.

For Jews and Gentiles alike, then, salvation is an act of God’s mercy, not a reward for human obedience (Rom. 9:6–13). With this in mind, Paul takes on a number of arguments on both sides, always concluding that “God has mercy on whomever he chooses” (Rom. 9:18). Neither Jews nor Gentiles are saved by their own actions, but by God’s mercy.

Salvation from God, says Paul, comes by confessing Jesus as Lord and believing that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9–10). In other words, salvation comes to everyone who trusts in the life-giving power of God that enriches the lives of both Jews and Gentiles who follow Jesus as Lord (see Rom. 10:12–13). Disobedience—whether of Gentiles or Jews—provides God with the opportunity to show the world the mercy of God toward everyone (Rom. 11:33). Paul’s concern in this letter is to reconcile broken relationships between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus.

Romans 9–11 offers hope to all of us in our work and in our work­places. First, Paul emphasizes God’s desire to have mercy on the disobe­dient. All of us, at one point or another in our working lives, have failed to embody Christ’s faith and faithfulness in some aspect of our work. If God has mercy on us (Rom. 11:30), we are called to have mercy on others in our work. This does not mean ignoring poor performance or keeping quiet in the face of harassment or discrimination. Mercy is not the enablement of oppression. Instead, it means not letting a person’s failures lead us to condemn the person in their entirety. When someone we work with makes a mistake, we are not to judge them as incompetent but to assist them in recovering from the error and learning how not to repeat it. When someone violates our trust, we are to hold that person accountable, while at the same time offering forgiveness that, if met with repentance, creates a path for reestablishing trust.

Second, this section of the letter reminds us of our responsibility to persevere as faithful Christians so that we might be the faithful “rem­nant” (Rom. 11:5) on behalf of those who have temporarily stumbled in their obedience of faith. When we see those around us fail, our task is not to judge them but to stand in for them. Perhaps our faithfulness can mitigate the damage done to others and even deliver those who caused it from harsh punishment. If we see a colleague mistreat a customer or a subordinate, for example, perhaps we can intervene to correct the situation before it becomes a firing offense. When we remember how close we have come to stumbling or how many times we have failed, our response to others’ failings is mercy, as was Christ’s. This does not mean we allow people to abuse others. It does mean we put ourselves at risk, as did Christ, for the redemption of people who have erred under the power of sin.

Third, these chapters remind us to demonstrate for the rest of our colleagues what the obedience of faith looks like in daily life and work. If we actually walk in newness of life (see “Walking in Newness of Life” in Romans 6) and set our minds on how our actions can bring a new quality of life to those around us (see “Living According to the Spirit Leads a New Quality of Life” in Romans 8), won’t others be attracted to do the same? Our actions at work may be the loudest praise we can ever offer to God and the most attractive witness our co-workers ever see. God’s desire is for everyone in the world to be reconciled to God and to one another. So every aspect of our work and life becomes an opportunity to bear witness for Christ—to be one of God’s reconciling agents in the world.

Fourth, we need to remain humble. When we, like the factions to whom Paul was writing, judge our own position as superior to those around us, we imagine that we have the inside track to God. Paul speaks directly against this arrogance. We don’t know everything about how God is at work in others. As General Peter Pace, retired chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the U.S. Armed Forces, puts it, “You should always tell the truth as you know it, and you should understand that there is a whole lot that you don’t know.”[1]

The specific ways we embody this ministry of reconciliation in the world are as diverse as our work and workplaces. Thus we turn to Ro­mans 12 for further direction from Paul on how to discern ways to carry out God’s reconciling love in our work.

The Community of Grace at Work (Romans 12)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Romans 12 highlights the social and community aspects of salvation. Paul was not writing to an individual but to the community of Chris­tians in Rome, and his constant concern is their life together—with a special emphasis on their work. As we saw in Romans 1–3, salvation in Christ comprises reconciliation, righteousness and justice, and faith and faithfulness. Each of these has a communal aspect—reconciliation with others, justice among people, faithfulness to others.

Be Transformed by the Renewing of Your Minds (Romans 12:1–3)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents
Equipping Others for Success

By Don Flow, Owner and CEO, Flow Automotive

Living love for Christian leaders is defined by the life of Jesus, who came to serve, not to be served. Equipping others is the appropriate use of power by leaders because it directs the purpose of the use of power to the enabling of the other to flourish in service to the community. Power used in this manner is an expression of a profound love and an appreciation for the unique giftedness of all people. It is not power over but power in service to the other. Power used in this manner releases the gifts of others. This means Christian leaders must have a deep knowledge of the people with whom they work, what their gifts are, and they must help each person understand how important their gifts are for the entire organization. Christian leaders will be committed to the importance of every person in the organization and to all of the work done. For Christians, there are no little people (Schaeffer) and there is no ordinary work (Lewis).

Source: Talk given at KIROS, Seattle, 2008.

To bring the communal aspect of salvation to life means a reorien­tation of our minds and wills from self-serving to community-serving.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Rom. 12:2–3)

Let’s begin with the second half of this passage, where Paul makes the communal aspect explicit. “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” In other words, think less about yourself and more about others, more about the community. Later in chapter 12 Paul amplifies this by adding, “Love one another with mutual affection” (Rom. 12:10), “Contribute to the needs of the saints,” “Extend hospitality to strangers” (Rom. 12:13), “Live in harmony with one another” (Rom. 12:17), and “Live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18).

The first part of this passage reminds us that we are unable to put others first without God’s saving grace. As Paul points out in Romans 1, people are enslaved to a “debased mind” (Rom. 1:28), “futile in their thinking,” darkened by “senseless minds” (Rom. 1:21), which results in doing every kind of evil to one another (Rom. 1:22–32). Salvation is liberation from this slavery of the mind, “so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Only if our minds are transformed from self-centeredness to other-centeredness—imitating Christ, who sacrificed himself for others—can we put reconcili­ation, justice, and faithfulness ahead of self-serving aims.

With transformed minds, our purpose shifts from justifying our self-centered actions to bringing new life to others. For example, imagine that you are a shift supervisor at a restaurant and you become a candidate for promotion to manager. If your mind is not transformed, your chief goal will be to beat the other candidates. It will not seem hard to justify (to yourself) actions such as withholding information from the other candidates about supplier problems, ignoring sanitation issues that will become visible only in the others’ shifts, spreading dissent among their workers, or avoiding collaboration on improving customer service. This will harm not only the other candidates but also their shift workers, the restaurant as a whole, and its customers. On the other hand, if your mind is transformed to care first about others, then you will help the other candidates perform well, not only for their sake but also for the benefit of the restaurant and its workers and customers.

Living Sacrifices for the Sake of the Community (Romans 12:1–3)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Needless to say, putting others ahead of ourselves requires sacrifice. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” Paul exhorts (Rom. 12:1). The words bodies and living emphasize that Paul means practical actions in the world of daily life and work. All believers become living sacrifices by offering their time, talent, and energy in work that benefits other people and/or God’s entire creation.

We can offer a living sacrifice to God every waking moment of our lives. We do it when we forgive someone who transgresses against us in our workplace or when we take the risk to help heal a dispute between others. We offer a living sacrifice when we forego unsustainable use of the earth’s resources in pursuit of our own comfort. We offer a living sacrifice when we take on less-than-satisfying work because supporting our fam­ily matters more to us than finding the perfect job. We become a living sacrifice when we leave a rewarding position so our spouse can accept a dream job in another city. We become a living sacrifice when, as a boss, we take the blame for a mistake a subordinate makes in his or her work.

Involving the Community in Your Decisions (Romans 12:1–3)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The transformation of the mind “so that you may discern what is the will of God” (Rom. 12:2) comes hand in hand with involving the community of faith in our decisions. As those in the process of being saved, we bring others into our decision-making processes. The word Paul uses for “discern” is literally “to test” or “to approve” in Greek (dokimazein). Our decisions must be tested and approved by other believers before we can have confidence that we have discerned the will of God. Paul’s warning “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think” (Rom. 12:3) applies to our decision-making capability. Don’t think you have the wisdom, the moral stature, the breadth of knowledge, or anything else needed to discern God’s will by yourself. “Do not claim to be wiser than you are” (Rom. 12:6). Only by involving other members of the faithful community, with its diversity of gifts and wisdom (Rom. 12:4–8) living in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16), can we develop, test, and approve reliable decisions.

Can We Talk About the Real Issues?

As told by Al Erisman

When I was in Nepal I was asked to talk with a group of Christians about ethics. One person asked for advice in how to handle a difficult bribery situation. I asked if the group of Christians gathered there had ever come together to pray for wisdom about this concern. The person asking the question said no, they were ashamed of the issue and didn’t talk about it together.

I told them I could outline some principles from the Scripture to consider, but said the only specific advice I would offer was to commit to talking as community about how to handle such a difficult issue. I was from the outside and didn’t have all of the cultural and economic context. They needed to talk about their actual struggles, not just about safe topics with easy answers.[1]

This is more challenging than we might like to admit. We may gather to receive moral teaching as a community, but how often do we actually talk to one another when making moral decisions? Often decisions are made by the person in charge deliberating individually, perhaps after receiving input from a few advisors. We tend to operate this way because moral discussions are uncomfortable, or “hot” as Ronald Heifetz puts it. People don’t like to have heated conversations because “most people want to maintain the status quo, avoiding the tough issues.”[2] In addition, we often feel that community decision making is a threat to whatever power we possess. But making decisions on our own usually just means following preconceived biases, in other words, being “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). This raises a difficulty in the sphere of work. What if we don’t work in a community of faith, but in a secular company, government, academic institution, or other setting? We could assess our actions communally with our co-workers, but they may not be attuned to the will of God. We could assess our actions communally with our small group or others from our church, but they probably will not understand our work very well. Either—or both—of these practices is better than nothing. But better still would be to gather a group of believers from our own workplace—or at least believers who work in similar situations— and reflect on our actions with them. If we want to assess how well our actions as programmers, fire fighters, civil servants, or school teachers (for example) implement reconciliation, justice, and faithfulness, who better to reflect with than other Christian programmers, fire fighters, civil servants, or school teachers? (See “Equipping Churches Encourage Everyone to Take Responsibility” in The Equipping Church at www.theologyofwork.org for more on this topic.)

Work as Members of One Another (Romans 12:4–8)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

One essential practical application of walking in newness of life is to recognize how much we all depend on one another’s work. “For as in the body we have many members, and not all of the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Rom. 12:4–5). This interdependence is not a weakness, but a gift from God. As we are being saved by God, we become more integrated with one another.

Paul applies this to the work that each of us does in our particular role. “We have gifts that differ” (Rom. 12:6a) he notes, and when he names a few of them, we see that they are forms of work: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, generosity, leadership, and compassion. Each of them is a “grace given to us” (Rom. 12:6b) that enables us to work for the good of the community.

Don’t Go it Alone

Sherron Watkins, recognized by Time magazine as one of the persons of the year for her whistle blowing in the Enron scandal, reflected on what she learned about taking a stand. She said, “In hindsight, I also wish that some of my peers had gone with me to meet with Ken Lay. Jordan Mintz was an in-house lawyer who was very concerned about this. I did not know that he had already taken these things to another law firm, and they had said they are very problematic. I did not know that Vince Kaminski had protested these things. So if I had just Vince and Jordan with me, the outcome might have been different…. If someone is in the unfortunate position where I was, I say don’t go it alone. I should have found a few more people to go with me because then they could not have dismissed me as one lone person.”[1] Ethix conversation, June 2007.

Paul develops this process in the context of a specific community—the church. This is fitting because the entire letter revolves around a problem in the church—the conflict between Jewish and Gentile believers. But the list is not particularly “churchy.” All of them are equally applicable to work outside the church. Prophecy—”to proclaim a divinely imparted message” or “to bring light to something that is hidden”[2]—is the ability to apply God’s word to dark situations, something desperately needed in every workplace. Ministry—with its cognate “administration”—is the ability to organize work so that it does in fact serve those it’s supposed to serve, e.g., customers, citizens, or students. Another term for it is “man­agement.” Teaching, exhortation (or “encouragement”), and leadership are obviously as applicable to secular settings as to church. So is generos­ity, when we remember that giving our time, our skills, our patience, or our expertise to assist others at work are all forms of generosity.

Compassion is a vastly underrated element of work. While we might be tempted to view compassion as a hindrance in the competitive world of work, it is actually essential for doing our work well. The value of our work comes not merely from putting in hours, but from caring about how our goods or services serve others—in other words, by compassion. Autoworkers who do not care whether their parts are put on properly are of no use to the company, customers, or co-workers, and will sooner or later be candidates for dismissal. Or if the auto company doesn’t care whether its workers care about its customers, the customers will soon enough switch to another brand. The exceptions to this are products and services that intentionally profit from customers’ weaknesses—addictive substances, pornography, products that play on fears about body image and the like. To make money in cases like this, it may be necessary not to have compassion for customers. The very fact that it’s possible to make money from harming customers in these fields suggests that Christians should try to avoid those workplaces in which compassion is not es­sential to success. Legitimate occupations make money from meeting people’s true needs, not from exploiting their weaknesses.

With all these gifts, the life-giving power of God is experienced in particular acts and ways of doing things. In other words, the power of God that enriches people’s lives comes through concrete actions taken by the followers of Jesus. God’s grace produces action in God’s people for the good of others.

Specific Behavioral Principles to Guide Moral Discernment (Romans 12:9–21)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Paul identifies specific guiding principles to help us serve as conduits overarching concern to let love be genuine—or, literally, “unhypocritical” (Rom. 12:9). The rest of Romans 12:9–13 elaborates on genuine love, in­cluding honor, patience in suffering, perseverance in prayer, generosity to those in need, and hospitality to everyone.

Of particular note is Romans 12:16–18, where Paul encourages the Romans to “live in harmony with one another.” Specifically, he says, this means associating with the least powerful in the community, resisting the urge to repay evil for evil, and, whenever possible, living peaceably with everyone.

If we have genuine love, then we care about the people we work for and among. By definition, when we work, we do so at least partly as a means to an end. But we can never treat the people we work among as a means to an end. Each is inherently valuable in his or her own right, so much so that Christ died for each one. This is genuine love, to treat each person as one for whom Christ died and rose again to bring new life.

We show genuine love when we honor the people with whom we work, calling everyone by name regardless of their status, and respecting their families, cultures, languages, aspirations, and the work they do. We show genuine love when we are patient with a subordinate who makes a mistake, a student who learns slowly, a co-worker whose disability makes us uncomfortable. We show genuine love through hospitality to the new employee, the late-night arrival, the disoriented patient, the stranded passenger, the just-promoted boss. Every day we face the pos­sibility someone will do us some evil, small or great. But our protection is not to do evil to others in self-defense, nor to be worn down into despair, but to “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). We cannot do this by our own power, but only by living in the Spirit of Christ.

Living Under the Power of God (Romans 13)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” says Paul. “Those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). Knowing that the systems of Rome’s rule were not in line with God’s jus­tice, this counsel must have been hard for some in the Roman churches to hear. How could obeying the idolatrous, ruthless Roman emperor be a way of living in the Spirit? Paul’s answer is that God is sovereign over every earthly authority and that God will deal with the authorities at the right time. Even Rome, powerful though it might have been, was ultimately subject to the power of God.

In the workplace, it is often true that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Rom. 13:3). Bosses often organize work effectively and create a fair environment for ironing out disputes. Courts regularly settle cases involving patents, land title, labor relations, and contracts equitably. Regulators often serve to protect the environment, prevent fraud, enforce workplace safety, and ensure equal access to housing op­portunities. Police generally apprehend criminals and assist the inno­cent. The fact that even nonbelieving authorities so often get things right is a mark of God’s grace in the world.

But authorities in business, government, and every workplace can get things devastatingly wrong and sometimes abuse power for self­ish ends. When this happens, it helps to distinguish between human-generated powers (even if they are significant) and the power of God that lies over, behind, and through all of creation. Often the human powers are so much closer to us that they can tend to block out our sense of God’s movement in our lives. This passage serves as an encouragement to discern where God is active and to join our lives to those activities of God that will foster true fullness of life for us and for all.

People who worked at Tyco International when Dennis Kozlowski was CEO must have wondered why he was allowed to get away with raiding the company’s coffers to pay for his outrageous personal life­style. We can imagine that those who tried to work with integrity may have felt afraid for their jobs. Some otherwise ethical people may have succumbed to the pressure to participate in Kozlowski’s schemes. But eventually Kozlowski was found out, charged, and convicted of grand larceny, conspiracy, and fraud.[1] Those who trusted that justice would eventually be restored ended up on the right side of the story.

Paul offers practical advice to the Roman Christians, who were liv­ing in the center of the most powerful human authorities the Western world had ever known. Obey the law, pay your taxes and commercial fees, give respect and honor to those in positions of authority (Rom. 12:7). Perhaps some had thought that, as Christians, they should rebel against Roman injustice. But Paul seems to see self-centeredness in their attitude, rather than God-centeredness. Self-serving rebelliousness will not prepare them for God’s “day” (Rom. 13:12) that is coming.

For example, in some countries tax evasion is so commonplace that needed services cannot be provided, bribery (to enable the evasion) corrupts officials at every level, and the tax burden is unfairly distrib­uted. The government loses legitimacy in the eyes of both the taxpayers and the tax evaders. Civil instability slows economic growth and human development. No doubt, much of the money that is collected is used for purposes inconsistent with Christian values, and many Christians may respond by evading taxes along with everyone else. But what would hap­pen if Christians committed, in an organized fashion, to pay their taxes and to monitor the government’s use of funds? It could take decades to reform government in this manner, but would it eventually work? Paul’s argument in Romans 12 suggests it would.

Many Christians live in democracies today, which gives the addi­tional responsibility to vote for wise laws that express God’s justice as best we can. Once the votes are counted, we have a responsibility to obey the laws and the authorities, even if we disagree with them. Paul’s words imply that we are to obey the legitimate authorities, even while we may be working to change unjust ones through democratic means.

In every sphere of life, we have an ongoing responsibility to resist and to transform all unjust systems, always putting the common good above self-interest. Even so, we are to show respect to the authorities, whether at work, school, church, government, or civic life. We believe that change will occur not because we express outrage, but because God is sovereign over all.

Paul completes chapter 13 noting that by loving other people, we ful­fill the commandments. Living in the Spirit inherently fulfills the Jewish law, even by those who don’t know it. He reiterates that this comes not by human striving, but by the power of Christ in us. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” he concludes (Rom. 13:14).

Welcoming—Living Peacefully With Different Values and Opinions (Romans 14–15)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

At this point in the letter, Paul has finished developing his method of moral reasoning. Now he pauses to give some implications arising from it in the unique context of the Roman churches, namely, in the disputes among believers.

The chief implication for the Roman churches is welcome. The Roman Christians are to welcome one another. It’s not hard to see how Paul derives this implication. The goal of moral reasoning, according to Romans 6, is to “walk in newness of life,” meaning to bring a new qual­ity of life to those around us. If you are in a broken relationship with someone, welcome is inherently a new quality of life. Welcome is recon­ciliation in practice. Quarrels seek to exclude others, but welcome seeks to include them, even when it means respecting areas of disagreement.

Welcoming Overcomes Quarrels Over Differing Opinions (Romans 14:1–23)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions,” begins Paul (Rom. 14:1). The “weak in faith” may be those who lack confidence in their own convictions on disputed issues (see Rom. 14:23) and rely on strict rules to govern their actions. Specifically, some of the Jewish Christians kept the strictures of Jew­ish dietary laws and were offended by other Christians consuming non-kosher meat and drink. Apparently they refused even to eat with those who did not keep kosher.[1] Although they regarded their strictness as a strength, Paul says it becomes a weakness when it causes them to judge those who do not share their conviction. Paul says that those who keep kosher “must not pass judgment on those who eat [non-kosher meat].”

Nonetheless, Paul’s response to their weakness is not to argue with them, nor to ignore their beliefs, but to do whatever will make them feel welcome. He tells those who do not keep kosher not to flaunt their free­dom to eat anything, because doing so would require the kosher-keepers either to break fellowship with them or to violate their consciences. If there is no kosher meat to be found, then the non-kosher should join with the kosher and eat only vegetables, rather than demanding that the kosher-keepers violate their consciences. “It is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat,” Paul says (Rom. 14:20).

Both groups feel strongly that their views are morally important. The strong believe that for Gentiles to keep kosher is a refusal of God’s grace in Christ Jesus. The weak believe that not keeping kosher—and the merely eating with people who don’t keep kosher—is an affront to God and a violation of the Jewish law. The argument is heated because freedom in Christ and obedience to God’s covenants are truly important moral and religious issues. But relationships in the community are even more important. Living in Christ is not about being right or wrong on any particular issue. It is about being in right relationship with God and with one another, about “peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

Moral disagreements can be even more difficult at work, where there is less common ground. An interesting aspect in this regard is Paul’s special concern for the weak. Although he tells both groups not to judge each other, he places a greater practical burden on the strong. “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Rom. 15:1). Our model for this is Jesus, “who did not please himself” (Rom. 15:3). This means that those who are in the right, or in the majority, or who otherwise have the most power are called to vol­untarily refrain from violating the consciences of others. In most work­places, the opposite occurs. The weak must accommodate themselves to the dictates of the strong, even if doing so violates their conscience.

Imagine, for example, that someone in your workplace has religious or moral convictions that require a particular modesty of dress, say cov­ering the hair or the shoulders or legs. These convictions could be a form of weakness, to use Paul’s terminology, if they make that person uncomfortable around others who do not conform to their idea of modest dress. Probably you would not object to the person wearing such mod­est dress themselves. But Paul’s argument implies that you and all your co-workers should also dress modestly according to the other person’s standards, at least if you want to make your workplace a place of wel­come and reconciliation. The strong (those not hampered by legalism about dress codes) are to welcome the weak (those offended by others’ dress) by accommodating to their weakness.

Remember that Paul does not want us to demand that others accom­modate to our compunctions. That would turn us into the weak, whereas Paul wants us to become strong in faith. We should not be the ones tsk-tsk-ing about others’ dress, language, or taste in music on the job. Imagine instead that Christians had a reputation for making everyone feel welcome, rather than for judging others’ tastes and habits. Would that help or hinder Christ’s mission in the world of work?

Welcoming Builds Up the Community (Romans 14:19–15:33)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Another aspect of welcoming is that it strengthens the community. “Each of us must please the neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor” (Rom. 15:3) in much the same way that a welcoming host makes sure that a visit strengthens the guest. The “neighbor” here is another member of the community. “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding,” Paul says (Rom. 14:19). Mutual up-building means working together in community.

From chapters 14 and 15, we see that welcoming is a powerful prac­tice. Paul is not talking about simply saying hello with smiles on our faces. He is talking about engaging in deep moral discernment as a com­munity, yet remaining in warm relationship with those who come to different moral conclusions, even on important matters. As far as Paul is concerned, the continuing relationships in the community are more important than the particular moral conclusions. Relationships bring a quality of life to the community that far exceeds any possible satisfac­tion from being right about an issue or judging another to be wrong. It also is a more attractive witness to the world around us. “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). When we welcome one another, the final result by God’s mercy (Rom. 15:9) is that “all the peoples praise him” (Rom. 15:12).

A Community of Leaders (Romans 16)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents
Jeff Rogers on Calling As Tied to Identity

Chapter 16 of Romans belies many people’s common assumptions about the nature of Paul’s work—namely, that he was a solitary, heroic figure, enduring hardships to carry out his lonely and exalted calling to spread the gospel among the Gentiles. In Romans 16, however, Paul makes it clear that his work was a community effort. Paul mentions twenty-nine co-workers by name, plus many more by terms such as “the church in their house” and “the brothers and sisters who are with them.” Paul’s list sets equal value upon the work of both women and men, without distinct roles for either, and seems to include people of various social stations. Several are clearly wealthy, and some of those may be freedmen and freedwomen. Others may well be slaves. Paul praises the particular work of many, such as those who “risked their necks” (Rom. 16:3), “worked very hard” (Rom. 16:6), “were in prison with me” (Rom. 16:7), “worked hard in the Lord” (Rom. 16:12), or acted “as a mother to me” (Rom. 16:13). He mentions the work of Tertius “the writer [scribe] of this letter” (Rom. 16:22) and Erastus “the city treasurer” (Rom. 16:23).

Observing Paul within such a wide circle of co-workers undercuts the modern Western emphasis on individuality, especially in the work­place. Like everyone he names, Paul worked in community for the good of community. This final section of the letter lets us know that the gospel is everyone’s work. Not all are apostles. We are not all called to leave our jobs and travel around preaching. Paul’s list of the varied gifts of service in Romans 12:6–8 makes that clear. No matter what kind of work occupies our time, we are called to act as servants of the good news of God’s salvation for all people. (See “Work as Members of One Another,” in Romans 12:4–8.)

These greetings also remind us that church leaders are workers. It is sometimes tempting to see Paul’s work as somehow distinct from other kinds of work. But Paul’s repeated reference to the work of those he names reminds us that what is true of Paul’s ministry is true of all work­places. Here, where we spend much of our time each week, is where we will either learn to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4)—or remain mired in the power of death. In our workplace relationships we are invited to seek the good of the other, according to the model of Christ. In the often mundane work of our minds and hearts and hands is where we are of­fered the chance to become channels of God’s grace for others.

In the final verses of Romans, it is apparent that no one’s work stands in isolation; it is interwoven with the work of others. Paul recognizes those who have gone before him, passing on their faith to him, those who have worked beside him, and those who have risked their lives for him and for their common work. This point of view calls each of us to look at the whole fabric of community that constitutes our places of work, to consider all the lives intertwined with ours, supporting and enhancing what we are able to do, all who give up something that they might want for themselves in order to benefit us and to benefit the work that goes beyond us into God’s world.

Summary & Conclusion to Romans

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Paul’s dominant concern in Romans is salvation—God’s reconcili­ation of the world through the cross of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God is working to reconcile all people to himself, to reconcile people to one another, and to redeem the created order from the evil forces of sin, death, and decay. Paul’s concern is not abstract but practical. His aim is to heal the divisions among Christians in Rome and to enable them to work together to accomplish God’s will for their lives and work.

In this setting, Paul shows how salvation comes to us as a free gift bought by God’s faithfulness in the cross of Christ and by God’s grace in bringing us to faith in Christ. In no way does this free gift imply that God does not care about the work we do and the way we work. Instead, Paul shows how receiving God’s grace transforms both the work we do and the way we do it. Although we don’t work to earn salvation, as God is saving us, he gives us the amazing diversity of gifts needed to serve one another and build up our communities. As a result, we walk in a new way of life, bringing life in Christ to those around us and, in God’s time, to the fullness of creation.

Selected Bibliography (Romans)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Fowl, Stephen E. Philippians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans. The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary, 2005.

Grieb, A. Katherine. The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002.

Jewett, Robert. Romans: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. Hermeneia, 2007.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001.

Keck, Leander. Romans. Nashville: Abingdon Press. Abingdon New Testament Commentary, 2005.

Moo, Douglas. The Epistle to the Romans in the New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: MI, Eerdmans, 1996.

Stowers, Stanley K. A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews & Gentiles. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Wright, N. T. The Climax of the Covenant. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991.

N.T. Wright. The Letter to the Romans, in The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. 10. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.

Introduction to 1 Corinthians

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

No other letter in the New Testament gives us a more practical pic­ture of applying the Christian faith to the day-to-day issues of life and work than 1 Corinthians. Topics such as career and calling, the lasting value of work, overcoming individual limitations, leadership and ser­vice, the development of skills and abilities (or “gifts”), fair wages, en­vironmental stewardship, and the use of money and possessions are prominent in the letter. The unifying perspective on all these topics is love. Love is the purpose, means, motivation, gift, and glory behind all work done in Christ.

The City of Corinth (1 Corinthians)

The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, which he founded on his second missionary journey (AD 48–51), is a treasure trove of practical theology for Christians facing everyday challenges. It provides Paul’s instruction to Christians grappling with real-life issues, including conflicts of loyalty, class differences, conflicts between per­sonal freedom and the common good, and the difficulty of leading a diverse group of people to accomplish a shared mission.

In Paul’s time, Corinth was the most important city in Greece. Sitting astride the isthmus that joins the Peloponnesian Peninsula to mainland Greece, Corinth controlled both the Saronic Gulf to the east and the Gulf of Corinth to the north. Merchants wanted to avoid the difficult, danger­ous sea journey around the fingers of the Peloponnese, so a great deal of the goods flowing between Rome and the western empire and the rich ports of the eastern Mediterranean were hauled across this isthmus. Al­most all of it passed through Corinth, making it one of the empire’s great commercial centers. Strabo, an older contemporary of Paul, noted that “Corinth is called ‘wealthy’ because of its commerce, since it is situated on the Isthmus and is master of two harbors, of which the one leads straight to Asia, and the other to Italy; and it makes easy the exchange of mer­chandise from both countries that are so far distant from each other.”[1]

The city had something of a boomtown atmosphere during the mid­dle of the first century as freed slaves, veterans, merchants, and trades­men streamed into the city. Though what we might now call “upward mobility” was elusive in the ancient world, Corinth was one place where it might be possible, with a few good breaks and a lot of hard work, to establish oneself and enjoy a reasonably good life.[2] This contributed to the unique ethos of Corinth, which viewed itself as prosperous and self-sufficient, a city whose core value was “entrepreneurial pragmatism in the pursuit of success.”[3] Many cities in today’s world aspire to this very ethos.

The Church in Corinth and Paul’s Letters (1 Corinthians)

Paul arrived in Corinth in the winter of AD 49/50[4] and lived there for a year and a half. While there he supported himself by working in tentmaking—or perhaps leather working [5] (Acts 18:2), the trade he had learned as a boy—in the workshop of Aquila and Priscilla (see 1 Cor. 4:12). He lays out his reasons for following this course in 1 Corinthians 9 (see below), even though he could have taken advantage of full-time support as a missionary from the start, as indeed he later does (Acts 18:4 and 2 Cor. 11:9).

In any case, his Sabbath-day preaching in the synagogue soon bore fruit, and the church in Corinth was born. The church seems to have been made up of not more than a hundred people when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Some were Jews, while most were Gentiles. They met in the houses of two or three wealthier members, but most belonged to the large underclass that populated all urban centers.[6]

Paul continued to be keenly interested in the development of the church even after he left Corinth. Paul had written the congregation at least one letter prior to 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9) in order to address a problem that had come up after his departure. Members of the house of Chloe, who may have had business interests to attend to in Ephesus, visited Paul there and reported that the church in Corinth was in danger of coming apart at the seams over various divisions of opinion (1 Cor. 1:11). In entrepreneurial Corinthian style, competing groups were creating par­ties around their favorite apostles in order to gain status for themselves (chapters 1-4). Many were up in arms due to serious differences over the sexual behavior and business ethics of some of their members (chapters 5-6). Then another group of representatives from the church arrived with a letter in hand (1 Cor. 7:1, 16:17), querying Paul on a number of important issues, such as sex and marriage (chapter 7), the propriety of eating meat that had been previously offered to idols (chapters 8-10) and worship (chapters 11-14). Finally, Paul had also learned from one of these sources, or perhaps Apollos (see 1 Cor. 16:12), that some in the Corinthian church were denying the future resurrection of believers (chapter 15).

These questions hardly grew out of academic discussions. The Corin­thians wanted to know how as followers of Christ they should act in mat­ters of daily life and work. Paul gives answers throughout 1 Corinthians, making it one of the most practical books of the New Testament.

All Are Called (1 Corinthians 1:1–3)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In the opening paragraph of 1 Corinthians, Paul lays out themes that he will address in more detail in the body of his letter. It is no coinci­dence that the concept of calling is front and center in the introduction. Paul states in the very first verse that he was “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (1:1). A strong conviction that he was called directly by God pervades Paul’s letters (see e.g. Gal. 1:1) and is fundamental to his mission (see Acts 9:14–15). It lent him remarkable fortitude in the face of enormous challenges. Likewise, the Corinthian believers are “called” along with “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). We will soon see that the basis of our calling is not individual satisfaction but community develop­ment. Although Paul doesn’t develop this point until later in the letter (see 7:17-24), even at this juncture it is clear he thinks all believers are meant to pursue the calling designed for them by God.

Spiritual Resources Available (1 Corinthians 1:4–9)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

According to the conventions of ancient letter writing, a greeting was followed by a section in which the author praised the recipient.[7] In most of his letters, Paul modifies this literary form by offering thanksgiving rather than praise and by using a standard phrase much like we have here: “I give thanks to my God always for you . . .” (see 1 Cor. 1:4, as well as Rom. 1:8; Phil. 1:3; Col. 1:3; 1 Thess. 1:2; and 2 Thess. 1:3). In this case, Paul expresses his thanks that the Corinthian believers have experienced the grace of God in Christ. This is more than some vague piety. Rather, Paul has something quite specific in mind. The believers in Corinth have been “enriched in [Christ]” (1 Cor. 1:5) so that they “are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7). Paul specifically names two gifts, speech and knowledge, that the Corinthian church enjoyed in abundance.

For our purposes, it is especially important to note that Paul is con­vinced that the believers in Corinth have received the spiritual resources they need to fulfill their calling. God has called them, and he has given them gifts that will enable them to be “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8). Although the day of perfection has not arrived yet, whether at work or anywhere else, Christians already have access to the gifts that will come to complete fruition on that day.

It is hard to imagine that all Corinthian Christians felt as if their work was a special occupation designed individually for them by God. Most of them were slaves or common laborers, as we will see. What Paul must mean is that whether or not each person’s occupation seems special, God gives the gifts needed to make everyone’s work contribute to God’s plan for the world. No matter how insignificant our work seems, no matter how much we long to have a different job, the work we do now is important to God.

The Need for a Common Vision (1 Corinthians 1:10–17)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Paul states in thesis-like fashion what he is trying to accomplish by writing 1 Corinthians.[8] “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10). The verb he uses in this final phrase is a metaphor that connotes mending of human relationships. Thus Paul is urging the Corinthians to overcome the factionalism that has damaged the unity of the church.

Four Steps to a More Ethical Organization (Click to Read)

In business, as in the church, a common purpose and vision is essential for the organization's success. While making a profit is a good goal, it cannot be an end in itself. William Seidman and Michael McCauley outline four steps for developing an ethical—and ultimately successful—organization.[2]

Modern Western culture highly values diversity, so we are in danger of construing Paul’s injunctions negatively. He is not arguing for confor­mity of thought (as other passages make clear), but he understands quite clearly that a sense of common purpose and vision is essential. If there is continual strife and disagreement about basic values and convictions and no cohesion among its members, any organization is doomed to failure. Although Paul is writing to a church, we know he also thought Christians should contribute to the workings of society at large. “Be sub­ject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1; emphasis added). Therefore, we should seek common purpose not only in church but also in the places we work. Our role as Christians is to do good work in unity and harmony with both believ­ers and nonbelievers. This does not mean we acquiesce to immorality or injustice. It does mean that we develop good relationships, support co-workers, and care to do our work excellently. If we cannot in good conscience do our work wholeheartedly, we need to find someplace else to work, rather than grumble or shirk.

Status in Church and at Work: Friends in Low Places (1 Corinthians 1:18–31)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Paul reminds the congregation in Corinth that most of them do not come from the ranks of the privileged classes. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). But the effectiveness of the church did not de­pend on having people with all the connections, educations, or fortunes. God accomplishes his purposes with ordinary people. We have already seen that the value of our work is based on God’s gifts, not on our cre­dentials. But Paul draws a further point. Because we are nobody special by nature, we can never treat other people as insignificant.

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:27–29; emphasis added)

Since Paul’s day, many Christians have attained positions of power, wealth, and status. His words remind us that we insult God if we allow these things to make us arrogant, disrespectful, or abusive toward people in lower-status positions. Many workplaces still accord special privileges to higher-ranking workers, bearing no relevance to the actual work at hand. Aside from pay differences, high-status workers may enjoy fan­cier offices, first-class travel, executive dining rooms, reserved parking, better benefits packages, company-paid club memberships, residences, drivers, personal services, and other perquisites. They may receive spe­cial deference—for example, being called “Mr.” or “Ms.” or “Professor”— when others in the organization are called by first names only. In some cases, special treatment may be appropriate, based on the nature of the work performed and organizational responsibilities. But in other cases, such privileges may create unwarranted gradations of human worth and dignity. Paul’s point is that such distinctions have no place among the people of God. If we enjoy—or suffer—such distinctions at work, we might ask ourselves whether they contradict the equal dignity of persons in the presence of God and, if so, what we might do to remedy them.

It Takes All Sorts (1 Corinthians 3:1–9)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

We noted above that the main problem in the Corinthian church was that of factionalism. Cliques were forming under the banner of Paul’s name versus the name of Apollos, another missionary to the Corinthian church. Paul will have none of this. He and Apollos are simply servants. Although they have different roles, neither of them is more valuable than the other. The planter (Paul) and the irrigator (Apollos)—to use an ag­ricultural metaphor—are equally vital to the success of the harvest, and neither is responsible for the growth of the crop. That is entirely God’s doing. The various workers have a common goal in mind (a bounteous harvest), but they have different tasks in line with their abilities and call­ing. All are necessary and no one can do every necessary task.

Paul, in other words, is aware of the importance of diversification and specialization. In his famous 1958 essay, “I, Pencil,” economist Leonard Read followed the course of the manufacture of a common pencil, making the point that no single person knows how to make one. It is actually the product of several sophisticated processes, only one of which a given individual can master. By the grace of God, different people are able to play different roles in the world’s workplaces. But specialization at times leads to interpersonal or interdepartmental fac­tionalism, poor lines of communication, and even personal vilification. If Christians believe what Paul says about the God-given nature of different roles, perhaps we can take the lead in bridging dysfunctional divides in our organizations. If we are able simply to treat others with respect and value the work of people different from ourselves, we may be making significant contributions to our workplaces.

An important application of this is the value of investing in worker development, whether our own or that of people around us. In Paul’s letters, including 1 Corinthians, it sometimes seems that Paul never does anything himself (see, for example, 14-15) but instructs others how to do it. This is not arrogance or laziness, but mentoring. He would far rather invest in training effective workers and leaders than in calling all the shots himself. As we mature in serving Christ in our places of work, perhaps we will find ourselves doing more to equip others and less to make ourselves look good.

Do Good Work (1 Corinthians 3:10–17)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Paul introduces the metaphor of a building under construction in order to make a new point—do good work. This point is so important to understanding the value of work that it is worth including the passage in its entirety here.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foun­dation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:10–15)

This may be the most direct statement of the eternal value of earthly work in all of Scripture. The work we do on earth—to the extent we do it according to the ways of Christ—survives into eternity. Paul is speaking specifically of the work done by the community of the church, which he likens to a temple. Paul compares himself to a “skilled master builder” who has laid the foundation, which is, of course, Christ himself. Others build on top of this foundation, and each one is responsible for his own work. Paul likens good work to gold, silver, and precious stones, and shabby work to wood, hay, and straw. Though some have tried to assign specific meanings to each of these materials, it is more likely that the difference is simply that some materials have the ability to withstand testing by fire while others do not.

Paul is not making any judgment about any individual’s salvation, for even if anyone’s work fails the test, “the builder will be saved.” This pas­sage is not about the relationship between a believer’s “good works” and his heavenly reward, though it has often been read in that way. Instead, Paul is concerned with the church as a whole and how its leaders work within the church. If they contribute to the unity of the church, they will be commended. If, however, their ministry results in strife and faction­alism, they are actually provoking God’s wrath, because he passionately protects his living temple from those who would destroy it (vv. 16-17).

Although Paul is writing about the work of building a Christian com­munity, his words apply to all kinds of work. As we have seen, Paul regards Christian work to include the work believers do under secular authority as well as in the church. Whatever our work, it will be evalu­ated impartially by God. The final assize will be better than any per­formance review, since God judges with perfect justice—unlike human bosses, however just or unjust they may be—and he is able to factor in our intent, our limitations, our motives, our compassion, and his mercy. God has called all believers to work in whatever circumstances they find themselves, and he has given us specific gifts to fulfill that calling. He expects us to use them responsibly for his purposes, and he will inspect our work. And to the degree that our work is done in excellence, by his gifts and grace, it will become part of God’s eternal kingdom. That should motivate us—even more than our employer’s approval or our paycheck— to do as good a job as we possibly can.

Christian Leadership as Service (1 Corinthians 4:1–4)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents
Practicing Kindness and Compassion in Commercial Banking - Danielle Burd, EVP

In this passage, Paul offers a definitive statement of what it means to be a leader: “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stew­ards of God’s mysteries” (1 Cor. 4:1). “Us” refers to the apostolic lead­ers through whom the Corinthians had come to faith and to whom the various factions in the church claimed allegiance (1 Cor. 4:6). Paul uses two words in this verse to elaborate what he means. The first, hypēretēs (“servants”), denotes an attendant, a servant who waits on or assists someone. In this sense, leaders attend personally to the needs of the people they lead. Leaders are not exalted, but humbled, by accepting leadership. The job requires patience, personal engagement, and in­dividual attention to the needs of followers. The second is oikonomos (“stewards”), which describes a servant or slave who manages the affairs of a household or estate. The chief distinction in this position is trust. The steward is trusted to manage the affairs of the household for the benefit of the owner. Likewise, the leader is trusted to manage the group for the benefit of all its members, rather than the leader’s personal ben­efit. This quality is explicitly ascribed to Timothy (2 Cor. 4:17), Tychicus (Eph. 6:21; Col. 4:7), Paul (1 Tim. 1:12), Antipas (Rev. 2:13), and, above all, Christ (2 Tim. 2:13; Heb. 2:17). These are the kinds of people God relies on to carry out his plan for his kingdom.

Modern workplaces often set up systems to reward leaders for using their teams to accomplish the organization’s objectives. This is probably a wise practice, unless it encourages leaders to attain such rewards at the expense of the people they lead. Leaders are indeed responsible to accomplish—or better yet, exceed—the work their teams are assigned to do. But it is not legitimate to sacrifice the needs of the group in order to obtain the leader’s personal rewards. Instead, leaders are called to accomplish the group’s goals by meeting the needs of the group.

Working With Nonbelievers (1 Corinthians 5:9–10)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In chapter 5, Paul introduces the question of working with nonbe­lievers, a question he will explore more fully in chapter 10 and ultimately in 2 Corinthians chapter 6 (see “Working with Nonbelievers” in 2 Corinthians). At this point, he says simply that Christians are not called to withdraw from the world because of fears about ethics. “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons—not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:9–10). By mentioning the greedy, robbers, and idolaters, he explicitly indicates he is including the work world in his instructions. Although we are to avoid immorality ourselves, and we are not to associate with immoral Christians, Paul expects us to work with nonbelievers, even those who do not observe God’s ethical principles. Needless to say, this is a difficult proposition, although he defers getting into specifics until chapter 10. The point he makes here is simply that Christians are forbidden from trying to create some kind of Christian-only economy and leaving the world to fend for itself. Instead, we are called to take our place in the work of the world alongside the people of the world.

Bloom Where You Are Planted (1 Corinthians 7:20–24)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

In the middle of a chapter that deals primarily with issues relating to marriage and singleness, Paul makes an important statement about call­ing and work. Other things being equal, believers should remain in the life situation in which they found themselves when they were converted (1 Corinthians 7:20). The specific question that Paul is dealing with does not directly impinge upon most people in the Western world, though it is critical in many parts of the globe today. What should believers who are slaves do if they have the chance to gain freedom?

Slavery in the ancient world was a complex phenomenon that is by no means identical to its modern manifestations, whether in the pre-Civil War American South, or in debt bondage in contemporary South Asia, or in sex trafficking in virtually every country on earth. Certainly, it was equally heinous in many cases, but some slaves, particularly the household slaves Paul probably has in mind here, were better off, at least economically, than many free people. Many educated people, including doctors and accountants, actually chose slavery for precisely that reason. Thus, for Paul, it was a genuinely open question whether slavery or freedom would be the better lot in any given situation. Modern forms of slavery, on the other hand, always severely diminish the lives of those enslaved.

Paul's question then is not whether slavery should be abolished, but whether slaves should seek to become free. It is difficult to determine the precise nature of Paul’s instruction here because the Greek of 1 Co­rinthians 7:21 is ambiguous, so much so that it is open to two divergent interpretations. As the NRSV and a number of commentators under­stand it, it should be rendered as follows: “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.” Equally possible (and more likely, in our opinion), however, is the sense given in the NIV, NASB, and KJV, which is, “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (NIV). Whatever Paul’s advice, his underlying belief is that, compared to the difference between being in Christ and not in Christ, the difference between being a slave and a free person is relatively minor. “For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ” (7:22). Thus, if there are no compelling reasons to change your status, it is probably best to remain in the situation in which you were called.

Understanding God's Call on Our Lives

Paul’s teaching here has important application for the workplace. While we may feel that getting the right job is the most important factor in serving God or experiencing the life he intends for us, God is much more concerned that we make the most of every job we have over the course of our lives. In a given instance, there may be good reasons to change jobs or even professions. Fine, go ahead and do so. Yet any mor­ally legitimate job can fulfill God’s calling, so don’t make finding your life’s work into your life’s work. There is no hierarchy of more godly and less godly professions. Certainly this cautions us against believing that God calls the most serious Christians into church jobs.

For an in-depth discussion of this topic, see the article Vocation Overview at www.theologyofwork.org.

Maintain the Proper Perspective (1 Corinthians 7:29–31)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Paul addresses the question of whether the promised return of the Lord implies that Christians should abandon ordinary daily life, includ­ing work.

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on . . . let those who buy [be] as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor. 7:29–31)

Apparently some believers neglected family duties and ceased work­ing, in the same way you might neglect to sweep the floor before mov­ing to a new house. Paul had previously dealt with this situation in the church in Thessalonica and given unambiguous instructions.

Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thess. 3:10–12)

Paul’s logic will be easier to understand if we recognize that 1 Cor. 7:29 does not indicate merely that “the time is short” in the sense that Jesus’ second coming is almost here. Paul uses a verb here that describes how an object is pushed together (synestalmenos), so that it becomes shorter or smaller as a whole. “Time has been compressed” might be a better translation, as suggested by the NASB rendering, or “Time has been shortened.” What Paul apparently means is that since Christ has come, the end of the vast expanse of time has at last become visible. “The future outcome of this world has become crystal clear,” writes scholar David E. Garland.[1] 1 Cor. 7:31 explains that “the present form of this world is passing away.” The “present form” has the sense of “the way things are” in our fallen world of damaged social and economic relationships. Paul wants his readers to understand that Christ’s coming has already effected a change in the very fabric of life. The values and aspirations that are simply taken for granted in the present way of doing things are no longer operative for believers.

The proper response to the compression of time is not to cease work­ing but to work differently. The old attitudes toward everyday life and its affairs must be replaced. This brings us back to the paradoxical state­ments in 1 Corinthians 7:29–31. We should buy, yet be as though we have no possessions. We should deal with the world as though not dealing with the world as we know it. That is, we may make use of the things this world has to offer, but we shouldn’t accept the world’s values and principles when they get in the way of God’s kingdom. The things we buy, we should employ for the good of others instead of holding tightly to them. When we bargain in the market, we should seek the good of the person from whom we buy, not just our own interests. In other words, Paul is calling believ­ers to “a radically new understanding of their relationship to the world.[2]

Our old attitude is that we work to make life more comfortable and satisfying for ourselves and those close to us. We seek to gather things into our possession that we think will bring us status, security, and ad­vantage over others. We compartmentalize worship of our gods first, then attention to our marriage second, then work third, and then civic engagement fourth, if we have any time and energy left. The new atti­tude is that we work to benefit ourselves, those close to us, and all those for whom Jesus worked and died. We seek to release the things in our possession for use where they will make the world more as God desires it. We integrate our lives of worship, family, work, and society and seek to invest in—rather than shuffle around—physical, intellectual, cultural, moral, and spiritual