Work in the Bible
(i) Old Testament
God as a worker and initiator of work
(Genesis 1 & 2)
In the Bible, God is indeed depicted as a worker. For example, in Genesis 1 and 2, God wears no end of occupational hats: strategic planner, designer, civil engineer, real estate developer, project manager, waste manager, and many more. The psalmist declares that God “who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:4 NRSV, passim). And Jesus said, “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17). Paul Minear aptly says, “The God of the Bible is preeminently a worker.”
However, God’s work did not end with the creation of Adam and Eve. His continues to work by providing for His creatures (Ps. 104:27; 136:25; 145:15-16; Matt. 6:11), sustaining the creation (Neh. 9:6; Ps. 36:6; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3), and bringing salvation to people (John 5:17; Eph. 1:7).
This picture of God as a Worker holds far-reaching implications for every worker today. For example, it shows us that:
(1) Work is inherently good (see “God-The Original Worker” at John 5:17).
(2) Working with and reshaping what God has already created is an important activity. It pleases God. It matters to Him (see “People at Work” at Heb. 2:7).
(3) Whether we call our work “sacred” or “secular,” all legitimate work reflects the activity of God (see “The Spirituality of Everyday Work” at 1 Cor. 12:28-31, and “The Spirituality of Everyday Work” at Col. 3:1-2).
(4) God is honored in His work, and we are to honor Him by doing the work He has given us to do in a way that pleases Him (see “Your ‘Workstyle’ ” at Titus 2:9-10).
Ways in which human beings are co‐creators with God
(Genesis1:26 – 31)
The central idea of the Created Co-Creator as explored in The Human Factor is that “Human beings are God’s created co-creators whose purpose is to be the agency, acting in freedom, to birth the future that is most wholesome for the nature that has birthed us – the nature is not only our own genetic heritage, but also the entire human community and the evolutionary and ecological reality in which and to which we belong. Exercising this agency is said to be God’s will for humans.”
All creation displays God’s design, power, and goodness, but only human beings are said to be made in God’s image.
While it sounds like a straight-forward enterprise, deciding just how much humans should rely on technology and scientific discovery in order to promote human flourishing is not a small task left to those in faith communities and science communities to tackle individually. Also under consideration is how we react to the continuing environmental crisis, which is quite a challenge when considering the idea that our agency is God’s will.
Hefner in The Human Factor lists three core elements to the created co-creator that are still very relevant to religion-and-science scholars today. The first element is: The human being is created by God to be a co-creator in the creation which God has brought into being and for which God has purposes. One must take into consideration our evolutionary history and the goals and purposes for human life. This meaning and purpose, according to Hefner, is conceived in terms of human beings’ placement within natural processes and their contribution to those same processes.
The second element indicates that the evolutionary process that shaped humans is God’s method of bringing into being “a creature who represents the creation’s zone of freedom and who therefore is crucial for the emergence of a free creation.” This does place humans in a special role in creation, which is relevant when looking at Hefner’s point that homo sapiens are a symbiosis of genes and culture. A third element shows that freedom, which marks the created co-creator and its culture, is an instrumentality of God by enabling the creation to participate in the intentional fulfillment of God’s purposes. Under this idea, Hefner considers what this means in light of living in what may be called a “technological civilization.” This is something he would later return to in writings and in lectures on human becoming.
How at times work divides us
(Cain and Abel)
A long time ago, just after Adam and Eve had to leave the garden of Eden, they were very sad about disobeying God. They asked God how they could show Him how sorry they were. God told them that they could show Him how they felt by sacrificing a lamb, which they did.
After awhile, Adam and Eve had two sons. Their first son was called Cain and their second was called Abel.
Cain was a farmer. He grew vegetables and grains. Abel was a shepherd who looked the family’s herds. Cain and Abel were like most siblings — they didn’t always get along. But they were brothers and loved each other very much, despite their occasional fights.
Adam and Eve (their mom and dad) told Cain and Abel about the message God gave them that they should sacrifice a lamb to God to show how much they appreciated all He’d done and how sorry they were for their sins.
Abel was very concerned that his sacrifice be special to God. He chose his first and best lamb and offered it to the Lord. It was hard for Abel to give up his most prized possession, but it was important to him to try his best to do as God had asked.
Cain thought his little brother was a bit silly for giving up his best lamb. “Good grief,” he thought. “We need that lamb, God doesn’t. I’m sure He’d be just as happy if we sacrificed the runt of the litter. In fact, why does it need to be a lamb at all? I’m a farmer and it’s been a great year for my wheat crop — I can’t use everything I’ve grown. Why don’t I just burn some of the extra straw I have. That way, I won’t be wasting any.”
Cain’s reasoning sounds pretty good when you first hear it, doesn’t it?
Cain watched as the lamb burnt up completely on the altar, while his left over straw just smoldered a bit and never really caught fire at all.
That could mean only one thing! God preferred Abel.
Cain was jealous! He didn’t take the time or the responsibility to realize that it was his decision to sacrifice straw that caused the difference in God’s response to their sacrifices. Instead, he just got angry at his brother.
Cain asked Abel to go for a walk with him, and while he was still angry, Cain struck Abel to the ground and killed him.
When Cain realized what he’d done, he was more concerned that someone might have seen what he’d done than he was sorry for his brother’s death. He looked around and sighed a breath of relief that no one was nearby.
And then the Lord spoke, “Cain, where is your brother.”
Cain shrugged, “I dunno! Am I my brother’s keeper?”
God replied, “Cain, how could you be so cruel to your only brother. He has done nothing, but try his best for Me, for his parents… and for you.”
Cain fell to the ground sobbing. Finally, he felt the horror of what he’d done. And he had to live with that feeling and the knowledge that he’d murdered his little brother for the rest of his life.
The Tower of Babel
he story of the Tower of Babel is explained in Genesis 11 in just a few verses. This is a summary about Biblical account of the Tower of Babel.
The descendants of Noah were living in the area of Mesopotamia in Babylon. They settled in a land named Shinar. The population was growing and they all spoke one language. The people decided to build a tall, proud symbol of how great they had made their nation. The Babylonians wanted a tower that would “reach to the heavens” so that they could be like God and that they would not need Him. They began to construct a great ziggurat.
God did not like the pride and arrogance in the hearts of the people. God caused the people to suddenly speak different languages so they could not communicate and work together to build the tower. This caused the people to scatter across the land. The tower was named The Tower of Babel because the word Babel means confusion. This story is a powerful reminder of how important it is to obey God’s Word and to not think that we can build a successful but godless life on our own!
Israelites as slaves in Egypt
(Exodus1: 8 – 15, 5: 7 – 19)
Thousands of years ago, according to the Old Testament, the Jews were slaves in Egypt. The Israelites had been in Egypt for generations, but now that they had become so numerous, the Pharaoh feared their presence. He feared that one day the Isrealites would turn against the Egyptians. Gradually and stealthily, he forced them to become his slaves.
He made the slaves build grand ‘treasure cities’, as shown in the picture. The Egyptian overseer in red, holding a stick, is giving instructions to the barefoot slaves, who are building a wall. In the left hand picture, the overseer keeps watch on top of a tower, while the slaves make bricks from clay and straw.
But Pharaoh was still worried that his Israelite slaves would rise up against him. So he ordered a terrible punishment – all the first-born male babies of the Israelites were to be killed. Pharaoh gave orders to the midwives that ‘Every son that is born you, shall cast into the river’. In the corner of the picture, a naked child is being thrown into a river, while another child is already drowning there.
Old Testament laws protecting workers
(Deuteronomy 24: 5 – 22)
“You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning” (Lev. 19:13). Day laborers were generally poorer people who lacked land to farm themselves. They were especially dependent on immediate payment for their work, and thus needed to be paid at the close of each day (cf. Deut. 24:14-15). In our world, a comparable situation occurs when employers have the power to dictate terms and conditions of labor that take advantage of workers’ vulnerabilities. This occurs, for example, when employees are pressed to contribute to their bosses’ favored political candidates or expected to continue working after clocking out. These practices are illegal in most places, but unfortunately remain common.
10 When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into their house to get what is offered to you as a pledge. 11 Stay outside and let the neighbor to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. 12 If the neighbor is poor, do not go to sleep with their pledge in your possession. 13 Return their cloak by sunset so that your neighbor may sleep in it. Then they will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the Lord your God.
14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. 15 Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.
Prophets and their condemnation of workers’ exploitation
(Jeremiah 22: 13 –17, Ezra 3, Amos 5:11 ff.)
“Let justice roll down like waters!” (Amos 5:24). Magnificent words, but what do they mean? What the prophet Amos means by them you can work out from the injustices that he attacks. The people he denounces take their own cut from the hard work of poor people (Amos 5:11), treat them with contempt, and take bribes. When they sell wheat, they rig the scales and the currency (Amos 8:5). It is always poor people who are their victims. These ruthless exploiters are nameless, but they plainly have wealth and power. Their home is Samaria, the capital of the eighth-century B.C.E. kingdom of Israel (Amos 3:9, Amos 4:1, Amos 6:1). Amos shows God demanding justice from them rather than worship: “I hate, I despise your festivals…But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
Other prophets, working in the sister kingdom of Judah, are indignant about similar things. Micah attacks the “chiefs of the house of Israel” “who eat the flesh of my people” and “build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong,” probably referring to building done with forced labor (Mic 3:9, Mic 3:3, Mic 3:10). Isaiah presents God as denouncing “the elders and princes of his people,” saying “the spoil of the poor is in your houses” (Isa 3:14). Judgment awaits those who extend their land holdings at the expense of others (Isa 5:8).
So this is injustice: the powerful treat poor people—who are most of their fellow citizens—as sources of wealth and unpaid labor, using coercion, bribery, dishonesty, legal technicalities, and even violence. And justice means the opposite: those with power behaving honestly, generously, and respectfully to the poor (Ezek 18:5-9). The prophets do not question inequality as such. It is the way the powerful behave that brings God’s judgment down on them.
But the books of the prophets also contain visions of society without injustice. “The tyrant shall be no more…all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—those who…deny justice to the one in the right” (Isa 29:20-21). Jeremiah praises King Josiah because he did “justice and righteousness” and “judged the cause of the poor and needy” (Jer 22:15-16). Instead of exploiting the poor himself, Josiah used his power to protect them from being exploited by other powerful people. That idea of the just king becomes a vision of the future in Isa 1:1-9: “with righteousness he shall judge the poor”—that means he will give them their rights when they appeal to him. Look at the picture in Isa 11:6-9 of fierce animals like wolves and leopards living peacefully with their usual prey. All that ruthless greed will be at an end: “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” For to know God is to do justice, and to give the poor their rights (Jer 22:16).
Can there realistically be power without oppression? Perhaps not. But the prophets are relevant not because they are realistic but because they taught that the test of justice in a nation is how the weakest are treated. This teaching repeatedly emerges in Jewish and Christian writing ever since. The rabbis could not think of a worse sin for the people of Sodom than to issue a decree that no one was to help the poor. In one of Jesus’ parables, the rich man goes to hell for ignoring the poor beggar at his gate (Luke 16:19-31). He did not “listen to Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:31). And James’s words against the rich could have come straight out of the prophets (Jas 5:1-6).
ii) New Testament
Jesus’ teaching on the values which should be evident in our work
(Matthew 25: 14 – 30,Matthew 25: 31 – 46)
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.
Working for the Kingdom of God
Jesus was a man with a mission
He worked hard to promote the kingdom, to make it a reality on earth. As Matthew 9:35 says, “Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.”
Jesus gave himself to this completely and constantly. Serving God was his life focus and orientation. As he said in Luke 4:43 – “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”
The Gospels tell us that Jesus
- taught God’s way
- healed the wounded
- loved the loveless
- served the needy
He served God in all these ways in order to spread God’s kingdom message and to build up God’s kingdom community.
Jesus also calls other people to be a part of his mission
During his earthly ministry we are familiar with how he frequently said to people, “Follow me.” Now this phrase included in it an invitation to repentance and faith in Jesus – but most especially it was a call to “Come and work with me to advance God’s kingdom.”
Let’s look at one example of this in Mark 1:16-20:
“Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.”
Jesus chooses 70 disciples and sends them out by twos. Thus, there are 35 teams of Kingdom preachers in the territory, where “the harvest is great, but the workers are few.” (Luke 10:2) They are to go in advance into places where Jesus might follow. The 70 are to cure the sick and spread the same message that Jesus has been proclaiming.
These disciples are not to focus on teaching in synagogues. Jesus tells them to go to people’s homes. “Wherever you enter into a house,” he instructs, “say first: ‘May this house have peace.’ And if a friend of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him.” What is to be their message? Jesus says: “Tell them: ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you.’”—Luke 10:5-9.
The instructions Jesus gives the 70 are similar to those he gave when sending out the 12 apostles about a year earlier. He warns them that not all will receive them well. Their efforts, though, will prepare receptive ones so that when Jesus arrives shortly afterward, many will be eager to meet the Master and learn from him.
Before long, the 35 pairs of Kingdom preachers return to Jesus. They tell him joyfully: “Lord, even the demons are made subject to us by the use of your name.” This fine report surely thrills Jesus, for he responds: “I see Satan already fallen like lightning from heaven. Look! I have given you the authority to trample underfoot serpents and scorpions.”—Luke 10:17-19.