Work: From Creation to Eternity

“All vocations are intended by God to manifest His love in the world. For each special calling gives man some particular place in the Mystery of Christ, gives him something to do for the salvation of all mankind. The difference between the various vocations lies in the different ways in which each one enables men to discover God’s love, appreciate it, respond to it, and share it with other men. Each vocation has for its aim the propagation of divine life in the world. —Thomas Merton 


When the wisdom of the universe is confined to 66 books written thousands of years ago, how can it possibly address all of the issues we deal with today? It’s an age-old question, and one that came up often during my years as dean of a private Christian high school. Prof. Schwarz, is it okay to watch an R-rated movie? Is it wrong to speed if you’re taking someone to the hospital? How far is too far?

Most of the time, my response was, “It depends.” My students were looking for a divine command – some passage in Scripture toward which I could point them that addressed their particular situation – but usually, that wasn’t what I could give them. The Bible just wasn’t that clear. And the same line of questions came up again when it was time to choose a college and a major. Do I have to be a minister? Will God love me less if I major in accounting? Again, it depends.

Normative commands are one way God has chosen to communicate with us in Scripture. One of the most famous chapters in the Bible, Exodus 20, lists ten of them. But these commands are not the only, or even the most common, way that God communicates his ideal standards to us. And when it comes to our vocation and living in the modern age, normative commands can be demoralizing and even a bit terrifying. Moses, for example, says, “You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest” (Deut 23:19). Are most modern financial transactions sinful? Or consider Paul’s exhortation “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17). This seems to imply that there is less honor in being an doctor or a creative director than being a missionary or preacher.

One of my good friends was the star quarterback at our large public high school in Texas. He worked very hard to be on the A-team. After college he served a campus ministry for a few years before attending law school. When he finally joined a law practice, he told me that he felt like he was now on the spiritual B-team. Why? Is there a system and an ordering in the value and worth of vocations? If someone chooses a career other than the mission field, does that make him or her a second-class citizen in the church? What does the Bible have to say about this?

The Law of Love

When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment, he responded:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:37-40).

God’s ultimate command is to love, and the other commands given in the Bible, like not stealing or murdering, help us understand what love is. We are so deeply broken intellectually and emotionally by our sin that we would not know what love was without the clarifying help of these commandments.

In John, Jesus tells us the ultimate meaning of love: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). In other words, the summary command that governs all Christian thoughts and actions is articulated in the life and death of Jesus Christ. The other commands give us a glimpse of love, but the narrative actually gives us the bottom line – love like Jesus loved. That central idea that should govern how we live, act, work, create, and play is expressed in the Gospel itself.

Many summarize the gospel as the work of Jesus Christ to redeem people from sin. This is a legitimate summary of the truth, but it faces the same complications as any other summary. Just as great books that are turned into movies never quite capture the quintessence of the story because they miss key developments that add significance, this two-part summary of the gospel misses some very important details and aspects of Christ’s love and nature. As the second person of the Trinity, Christ was actively involved in creation (John 1:1-10; Col 1:16). Similarly, the love of Christ is best described as a marriage that begins at the end of time (Rev 19:1-10) and continues to grow in depth and richness for all eternity. So, the law of love that we are to follow cannot properly be understood apart from creation and, later, restoration in the new heavens and new earth. Christ’s dealings with sin, his laying down of his life, has a deep and rich context that begins before we were created and extends into eternity. There is an eternal significance to redemption that extends to all things.

The Grand Narrative

It is important to realize that most of the Bible is not made up of specific commands. Most of the Bible is made up of stories – or really, one grand story. If we want to understand God’s plan for anything – family, education, war, politics, art, employment – then we must become students of God’s broader story, the metanarrative that runs through all of life from before the foundations of the world and through eternity.

This grand narrative helps us make sense of the commands the Bible does contain. It gives them a context in which they can be understood. The story contains four key parts that serve as the interpretative framework for the way God wants us to think, feel, and act: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

An understanding of creation helps us see things the way that they were intended to be. The fall helps us perceive everything and everyone as they are. Redemption gives us a vision for what can be and serves as the means to make that vision a reality. And as we come to grasp restoration and the new heavens and new earth, we are given a glimpse of what people and things will become.

In this journal, we are specifically interested in the way issues surrounding work fit into this narrative. The workplace, whether it be in a field, in an office or factory, at a school or in a home or shop, serves as an excellent laboratory in which to work out what it means to imaginatively apply the gospel to all aspects of our lives. After all, we spend most of our waking hours working. Let’s briefly look at each of these key elements of the story in relation to work. I hope you will dig deeper into the chapters, books, sermons and stories that follow.

Creation

The first act of God revealed to us in Genesis 1 is creation, and we know that this creative act was work because it is described as such in Genesis 2 before God rests. Thus, part of being made in the image of God is being involved in creative work. It should not surprise us that most of our lives involve work and service, because it was that for which we were created. On the sixth day, God blessed humankind and said “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28), and He gives another command to work in Gen 2:15. John Murray, Scottish theologian and author of the next article in this journal, provides a vision for what some of this might mean:

[T]he subduing of the earth must imply the expenditure of thought and skill and energy in bringing the earth and its resources under such control that they would be channeled to the promotion of certain ends which they were suited and designed to fulfill but which would not be fulfilled apart from the exercise of man’s design and labor.1

Fall

Work similarly plays a prominent role in the curse given by God after Adam and Eve fell into sin:

Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground. (Gen 3:17-19)

Sin frustrates and complicates our work. Most of us realize this, and it doesn’t take much time to experience it on a given day. The thought, skill and energy we put into subduing this earth is currently painful and tiring. Timothy Keller explains, “Work is not itself a curse, but it now lies with all others aspects of human life under the curse of sin.”2 Keller devotes four chapters of Every Good Endeavor to our problems with work – fruitlessness, pointlessness, selfishness, and idolatry. The fall does not force Adam to labor – that was already his design, as Murray highlights – but it does make keeping the garden a battle with weeds.

Redemption

The redeeming and renewing work of Jesus Christ is the central episode in all of history. It is the climax of everything, and yet it is also something in which God invites us to participate. We cannot forget that we are his images set up on earth to rule in his place, and maybe the most important thing with which we have been entrusted is the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). An understanding of the whole narrative tells us that the one seated on the throne in heaven is engaged in the renewal of all things (Rev 21:5). Just as Christ sends a missionary to preach the gospel even though he can supernaturally intervene and save the lost, his mode of bringing reconciliation and renewal to the world is through the work of our hands. Albert Wolters clarifies:

The obvious implication is that the new humanity (God’s people) is called to promote renewal in every department of creation. If Christ is the reconciler of all things, and if we have been entrusted with “the ministry of reconciliation” on his behalf (2 Cor 5:18), then we have a redemptive task wherever our vocation places us in this world.3

Thus, our expenditure of thought and skill and energy in subduing the earth as we confront the pain and weeds of the curse should be a means of reconciliation. In fact, it can be the means of ministry that God has placed us on the earth to accomplish; whether it be working as a plumber to improve sanitation, eradicating a disease in a research lab, protecting financial assets in an office, or providing wise counsel. We are called to be the salt of the earth, and as salt we must play a preserving role wherever the sovereign king has placed us.

Restoration

As previously mentioned, Christ’s work of redemption extends to all things, but it also extends into eternity as the relationship with God that was established in the garden is restored. Jonathan Edwards spent a great deal of time writing and discussing heaven because he believed that heaven has everything to do with how we live on earth. Stephen Nichols helps us understand Edwards’s thinking in relation to our future work:

We will have work, just “no striving and no weariness,” as Edwards points out. He continues, “Heaven is not a place of labour and travail, but a place of rest, Heb 4:9…But the rest of heaven does not consist in idleness, and cessation of all action, but only cessation from all the trouble and toil and tediousness of action.” It is work free from “unpleasantness…grief and care.” For now, all the difficulties in our way bring about a deeply felt weariness. Here’s the good news: in heaven work will be without wariness. Paradoxically, work will be “refreshment.” It will also be reward, the highest of reward, as we “perpetually behold God’s glory and properly enjoy his love.” This work will be our eternal happiness.4

The more we think about heaven and our employment therein, the more we will see our life a prelude “for the grand, eternal symphony to come.”5

The Bottom Line

Why is this important? Because it’s in our vocation that most of us have the opportunity to live like the good Samaritan. It’s easy to donate a few hours here or a week in an exotic foreign country there, but it is taking what we learn in those settings and applying it to the rest of our lives that really matters. Mission trips and weekend service projects should be seen as gateway drugs to a life of dying to self, and for most of us, that will not be vocational missions or ministry.

Jesus summarizes the law by calling us to love God and love our neighbor. The essence of the law is love, and the commandments act like modifying adverbs that tell us what that love is. On one level, it means not stealing a neighbor’s possessions. At a deeper level, however, we see that the greatest
understanding of love is actually laying down one’s life. It is not refraining from stealing because stealing is wrong, it is refraining from stealing because you are willing to lay your needs and desires down for the good of another. Can you major in engineering? It depends. If that’s the way God has prepared and called you to help bring restoration, renewal and redemption to all things, then absolutely.

1 John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957) p. 37.
2 Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor (New York: Dutton, 2012) p. 89.
3 Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) p. 73.
4 Stephen J. Nichols, Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of Living in Between (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006) p. 93.
5 Stephen J. Nichols, Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of Living in Between (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006) p. 101.