A Biblical Theology of Work Based on Union with Christ
Union: The Triune Worker God
The foundation of a biblical theology of work starts with the first three Hebrew words of the Bible. In the beginning, the triune God created. The Hebrew word for this kind of work is only used of God; it is the unique work God alone does. Though each person of the Trinity is not explicit in the text, the language represents God as a plurality who works from the start. Within the Trinity, God works from the common union each person shares with the others. Both John and Paul affirm the divine creative partnership that births the heavens and the earth (Jn 1:3 and Col 1:16).
Both creation accounts have much to say about God’s work. In the first, he communicates (1:3), separates (1:4), names (1:5), orders (1:5), forms (1:9), fills (1:11), commands (1:22), authorizes (1:26), provides (1:29), and evaluates (1:31). Once it is noticed, the text focuses the reader’s attention on the God who works.
There is no god like the Triune Worker God depicted in Genesis.
The God revealed in Job has the same force. At the end of nearly 40 chapters, God appears to Job and magnified the difference between Creator and creature. R. Paul Stevens notes the contrast: “God was working even before there were human beings. God works when humans cannot work. God does work that human beings cannot do. And God’s work is wild.” Yet, the pericope of the first account closes by introducing a new word to describe God’s work. This Hebrew word is used of ordinary work throughout Scripture, so when it is used to describe the entirety of God’s work in creation, all work is inherently dignified. God does two kinds of work: work only he can do and work humans do.
At the end of the first account is God’s repetitious statement of the completion of his work and the rest that follows. Perhaps, since it is couched in the middle of the two creation accounts, and repeats as a refrain, it should be given more attention than it normally gets. God established a pattern and limit to work, and it is a precursor to the Sabbath law. Though God does not need rest, he rests nonetheless after establishing shalom. Shalom is “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” God delighted in the shalom he created, and he rested in it. Indeed, all of creation rested in it.
Union and Mission Shared: Working as the Image of God
Each creation account provides a deeper understanding of the awestriking plot that God Almighty works and finds delight in his work, and, astonishingly, he wants to share it uniquely with humanity. Out of union and for union, in the climax of the creation accounts, God creates mankind in his image and gives him work to do. By using the first person plural pronoun in Genesis 1:26, the Triune Worker God extends his union to mankind, and he extends his creative work to male and female by commissioning them to be fruitful and multiply in Genesis 1:28.
Being made in the image of God, Adam and Eve have common union with God, each other, and creation, and they participate in a common mission with God.
Indeed, God has assigned a crown of glory and honor to humanity (Ps. 8:5).
After blessing them, God commissions Adam and Eve as his agents in creation to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion” (Gn 1:28). Though known as the Cultural Mandate, Amy Sherman calls it the Great Mandate, linking its importance to the Great Commission and Great Commandment. The dominion given by God to humanity “is not the authority to work against God’s creation, but the ability to work for it.” Stevens describes it as “procreativity and co-creativity” with God as “co-workers.” Keller describes it as “exercising stewardship over the rest of creation.” For him, filling the earth is creating civilization; ruling and subduing is cultivating what God has entrusted to us. “It is rearranging the raw material of God’s creation in such a way that it helps the world…thrive and flourish.” The mission or work is to take what God has made and build on it— “to actualize the universe’s potential.” It is in human nature to bring fulfillment to God’s creation.
In the second creation account, God reveals his reason for making two genders. In Genesis 2:18, 20, Eve is described as a “helper” (Ezer). Out of the 21 uses of this word in the Old Testament (OT), almost all of them are used by God to describe himself. He is the Great Helper. So, Eve is Adam’s great helper to carry out the work God assigned. Grounds for making Eve’s role a subordinating one in the text are nonexistent. The work itself is clarified using the Hebrew words for tilling and keeping. Tom Nelson notes the wide usage of the first word, avodah, as “work,” “service,” “craftsmanship,” and “worship,” seeing that the idea of work relates to the ideas of service to God and others and worship.
The work given to God’s image-bearers is both mental and manual. Adam names the animals God brings him (Gn 2:19). Tilling and keeping require getting the hands dirty and mixing it up with creation. Both kinds of work are not only valued but expected by God. In sum, “The human task is to extend the creative work of God in a multitude of ways limited only by God’s gifts of imagination and skill, and the limits God sets.” At the close of the two creation accounts, Adam and Eve are co-workers with God in a garden, working to bring creation to fulfillment and resting in shalom.
Disunion: The Present Reality of Work
Because the daily experience humanity has with work demonstrates its toil and futility, the story of work for most people starts in Genesis 3. Therefore, it is essential to give a full and clear explanation of work’s true beginning (Gn 1-2). After shalom is broken and union with God, others, and creation is disjointed, humanity’s job description does not change; it becomes more difficult and less fruitful. Pursuing their own vision for life rather than God’s and making themselves the final authority, Adam and Eve were the first humans to know life is no longer the way it was intended to be. Now, more work would be needed to cultivate the fruit God intended.
Neither Adam nor Eve are cursed; rather it is the serpent, child-bearing, and the ground that are cursed (Gn 3:14-19). The procreative work and the co-creative work in themselves are not cursed, but the means for producing their fruit will be painful and toilsome. The choice to supplant God meant disunion with him, one another, and creation, but the text is clear the most painful result is the experience of work.
Fruitfulness is still possible, but fruitlessness is a new reality.
At the Tower of Babel, humanity comes together as co-workers with one another but not with God to make a name for themselves (Gn 11:3-4). Work is now used to thwart God’s purposes. So, God forces them to fill the earth by scattering them in a disuniting effort (Gn 11:8).
Outside of God’s original design, Qoheleth teaches that all work is meaningless and toilsome because it is under the sun, temporary and ultimately fruitless (Eccl 2:18-26). Yet, even in that dark hour, God reveals himself to be gracious and loving by promising to crush the serpent and provide a sacrifice to cover humanity’s shame (Gn 3:15, 21). “Thorns and thistles will exist until Christ comes again and brings the whole human story to a wonderful fulfillment…we must be empowered by the future, the eternity that is infiltrating the thorns and thistles of this world now.” The rest of the story of Scripture is the unfolding of God’s great plan to bring all things in heaven and earth together in Christ (Eph 1:10), through the renewal and repurposing of work.
Reunion in the Old Testament: Work for the Good
After Babel, God chooses one man and his family to bless all the families of the earth in an all-encompassing plan of redemption (Gn 12:3). In this plan, if work were a character, the role would be a subtly prominent one. The core theme articulated above of common union and common mission is progressively revealed with new and deeper meaning in the redemptive story of the OT. By choosing to extend his union and mission to Abram, God forms a people to be his stewards and co-laborers in the world. For example, though he was unaware of it, Joseph saved his great-grandfather’s family and much of the known world from severe famine through his vocation (Gn 50:20).
The nation of Israel is enslaved by Egypt, but God delivers them and forms them as a nation through Moses. “The first major activity God directs for his redeemed people on their way to the promised land is a community art project called the tabernacle.” In Exodus 31, Bezalel and Oholiab the first in Scripture to be “filled with the Spirit of God,” and it is to excel in their craft, their work. The purpose is to complete the mental and manual labor God gave for building the tabernacle. This filling enabled God to have a place to dwell among his people, restoring their common union.
Israel could enjoy reunion with God as his chosen people by keeping the Law, but the entire world could also enjoy reunion with God through Israel. The Law was set up to keep an unholy people in union with a holy God, but it also provided a moral guide for living and working in a way that all the people of the earth would be blessed.
God makes Israel co-workers with him in accomplishing his mission to restore all things.
Two important examples of this are the Sabbath and God’s priority of justice.
First, the entire chapter of Leviticus 25 emphasizes and expands the idea of Sabbath rest. God commanded his people to rest on the seventh day just as he did (Ex 20:8-11), but he adds to it by commanding his people to allow the land to rest every seventh year and by setting aside a year of Jubilee every fiftieth year. The limits of the individual, the community, and the economy are in view, and God expects his people to take them seriously. Land is returned, families are restored, and shalom is renewed.
Second, Leviticus 19:9 says, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest.” Reaping and harvesting is mental and manual labor, and when this law is followed, it enables others to work for their own flourishing. The book of Ruth portrays this law, revealing God’s heart for the marginalized and depicting work as the central way God cares for them. When Israel did not work in the way God intended, they worked beyond their limits, cheated others, and disregarded the common good.
The Wisdom Literature and the Prophets depict the wisdom of God’s plan to give humanity good work to do. When it is done well, according to the way God made the world, it produces relational, spiritual, and economic shalom; it is in the DNA of creation, waiting to be cultivated and stewarded. Consider the wife of noble character described as the wisdom manifesto of Proverbs (Prv 31:10-31). She engages in commerce through multiple businesses, manages her household, plants, makes clothes, loves her family; she plans ahead, works hard to capitalize on opportunities for creating wealth, and considers how her work benefits the poor and the community. She is the epitome of “energy expended purposefully.” And the purpose is shalom.
The prophets spend much of their time criticizing God’s people for ignoring the Law and working for their own gain and selfish desires, trampling the poor and marginalized. Direct and indirect exploitation by God’s people is condemned in a loud voice repeatedly. Isaiah begins his prophecy by refocusing the purpose of work toward God’s shalom: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” In other words, work to restore shalom. For example, in Jeremiah 29:4-7, God tells conquered Israel to seek the shalom of their captors, Babylon, through the work of procreativity and co-creativity.
Reunion in the New Testament: Remade in Christ for Work
If one has not considered that most of Jesus’ time on earth was spent making things, it may come as quite a shock. It was possible he was even a small business owner if he took over Joseph’s work (Mt 13:55). Mark 6:3 uses the Greek word teknon to describe Jesus’ work before his public ministry started at age 30 (Luke 3:23). Rather than the normal translation of “carpenter,” “craftsman” is better because the word connotes using one’s hands and raw materials to build or improve. This aligns with the mandate given to Adam and Eve to till, cultivate, and keep the ground. This should “speak volumes about the importance of our day-to-day vocational work.”
Jesus comes not only as Savior and Lord but as God the Worker.
The Incarnation illuminates and solidifies two foundational truths. First, creation and the material world is so good that God himself can put on human flesh and take on human work. Dualistic tendencies in American and Church culture cloud this truth, and it has worked itself into a wide divide between so-called secular and sacred work. Second, John chooses to use tabernacle to communicate Jesus’ indwelling. It means to make one’s tent, and it points backward to the tabernacle as the place God dwells among his people. Jesus’ Incarnation is the activity and the place of God’s reunion for all creation. Common union with God is restored literally in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus defined his job description before he began his public ministry by reading in the synagogue from Isaiah’s scroll (Lk 4:16-21). His work is about freeing the oppressed and proclaiming good news to the poor; it is the launch of his kingdom, making wrong right. Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as coming to earth (Mt 4:17) and invites people to enter it. Accompanying the description and invitation are foretastes of what it looks like, largely coming from the workplace. “Of Jesus’ 132 public appearances in the New Testament, 122 were in the marketplace; of the fifty-two parables that Jesus told, forty-five had a workplace context.”
An example of what holistic salvation looks like is Zacchaeus. Typically, the redemptive relational narrative is emphasized over the economic one in this passage. Zacchaeus’ transformation includes his work life. He does not quit being a tax collector; rather, he uses his vocational power to enact economic and relational shalom in his community (Lk 19:1-10).
Jesus’ work is the restoration of the shalom he intended in the beginning. It is a plan to unite all things in heaven and on earth in Christ (Eph 1:10).
The execution of that plan in one sense has already been accomplished. Salvation is available now in Christ to all who believe (Jn 1:12). This caused some followers of Jesus to stop their work, and Paul corrected them in 2 Thes 3:10-12. But, in another sense, all creation waits the final restoration of all things when Jesus returns. In the meantime, Jesus extends his mission to his disciples. In the inbetween, “the proper response to the compression of time is not to cease working but to work differently.”
As Adam had a helper in Eve, so the last Adam has a helper, too (1 Cor 15:45). The Church is the bride of Christ and therefore also the body of Christ because of their union (Eph 5:23-25). All who are in Christ are also united to the Triune God and to one another.
What God intended for the union of himself, humanity, and creation in Genesis is a reality for those in Christ now.
Not only has relational union been restored but the mission of God to restore shalom is accomplished through the work of every Christ follower in every sphere of work for all time, making all work sacred.
N. T. Wright states, “It is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’s followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice.” Every profession can and must be used for the glory of God and the good of others. The work itself is part of the mission; it is not just a mission field. The Church is the commissioned community sent by Christ to the ends of the earth via every channel of culture to restore shalom over every square inch. She must work distinctly.
Perfect Union: Permanent, Fulfilled Work
The resurrection is the firstfruits of the new creation when heaven and earth come together in God’s great oikonomia finally and perfectly (Eph 1:10).
Perfect union of heaven and earth is perfect shalom, when the webbing together of God, man, and creation for eternal flourishing is the true and only reality.
This is what Jesus directs his followers to pray for (Mt 6:10) and work toward (Mt. 28:18-20). In Scripture, the only prototypes of that final kingdom are the first creation and Christ’s resurrection. But, the end of Revelation provides a glimpse into what can be expected, and John uses familiar imagery to describe it from Isaiah. That image is a new city with the best cultivations.
The work of civilization begins in a garden and finds completion in a new city. Cities are replete with work. John describes his vision of a new heavens and a new earth, with the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven (Rev 21:1-3). This is the dwelling place of God coming down, harkening back to his description of Jesus’ descent from heaven to earth in John 1:14. Perfect union is established and the mission is complete. No temple is needed. The gifts of kings coming into the city are “the products of human culture,” articulating a continuity between the old and the new. Drawing on Isaiah’s vision of the new Jerusalem, John’s vision is of final shalom. Isaiah describes a place without violence, where people do not work in vain, and the people from the youngest to the oldest live with joy and fill out their days (Is 65:17-25). This is the kind of city God would build; it is the kind of city he asked Israel to participate in building in Jeremiah 29; and as a city, and in God’s design, it requires human labor.
Work does not disappear in the new world; indeed, it is finally and truly visible.
Human beings were made to work, and they will still be humans in the new world. Therefore, “our labor is not in vain.” (1 Cor 15:58). Paul summarizes his most important chapter with those words. Pointing to the foundational necessity of the resurrection for the faith of all Christians, Paul concludes with a charge to be steadfast in the work of the Lord. “The work of the Lord" is worked out in every kind of work. “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poem, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future.” Work matters for eternity.
Much more could be said and many more biblical principles and verses could be included in a more robust theology of work. What has been attempted here is to frame work in the biblical narrative of union, disunion, reunion, and perfect union, with a special emphasis on identifying the theme of common union and common mission in both Testaments. Work is a gift given to God’s image-bearers for the good of the entire creation; though it causes frustration, is used flippantly and maliciously, and seems a necessary evil at times, it is redeemed and restored through Christ’s work and given back to humanity renewed for God’s kingdom purposes.
 Mark Roberts, “Genesis 1-2 and Work” (class lecture, Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA, October 2, 2017).
 R. Paul Stevens, Work Matters: Lessons from Scripture. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2012), 89.
 Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 34.
 Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1995), 10.
 All Scripture quoted is from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.
 Sherman, Amy, “Made for Work” in The Pastor’s Guide to Fruitful Work and Economic Wisdom: Understanding What Your People Do All Day, eds. Drew Cleveland and Greg Forster (Kansas City, KS: Made to Flourish, 2012), 25.
 Will Messenger, ed., Theology of Work Bible Commentary, Volume 1: Genesis through Deuteronomy. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 2015), 12.
 Stevens, Work Matters: Lessons from Scripture, 11.