The Eternal and Spiritual Significance of Work

By Eddy Sanders

Your work has spiritual importance. I’m not writing that only to Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, elders, and preachers, but also to those with “regular” jobs. Work with spiritual and eternal significance applies to believers regardless of their job title. Yet, somewhere along the way, the divine side of work was separated from regular work and was perceived as less significant.

The Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright raised this issue for me a few years ago. In The Mission of God’s People, he writes, “The great majority of believers do not get sent out as traveling missionaries in the traditional sense. . . . Most Christians live in the ordinary everyday world, working, making a living, raising families, paying taxes, contributing to society and culture, getting along, doing their bit.”1

Reading through his chapter entitled “People Who Live and Work in the Public Square” made me question the separation between “spiritual” work and regular work. I thought true work was related to the church and all other work was a necessary evil and financial support for the church.

I’m convinced that the eternal and spiritual significance of work extends to all facets of human productivity. For some, it might be a role as an engineer on a BNSF locomotive, or an educator in a public high school, on a farm, in a bank, or in a steel mill.

Notice Wright’s question: “Does such routine ordinary life have any purpose other than to give us opportunities to bear witness to our faith and to earn enough money to have some to spare to give to missionaries and ‘real mission’?”2 For too long we have seen work in the public sphere without eternal and spiritual significance.

The Call to Work

Scripture’s emphasis upon work begins on the first page. God created the universe. It was his handiwork. His work hits its climax with the creation of humanity. Gordon Wenham notes, “The creation of man in the divine image is without doubt the focal point of Gen[esis] 1, the climax of the six days’ work.”3

Overview of a factory at workNotice that God’s work in the beginning of Scripture does not possess a dichotomy between the eternal and earthly—work that truly matters and work that is a necessary evil. All his work was eternal and earthly. It had spiritual and earthly significance. After all, everything was eternal at that point!

In Genesis 2, God puts his work to work: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).4 Work is immediately assigned to humanity. It is in our spiritual and physical DNA.

In Genesis 3, work changes due to the curse. Work becomes labor and toil, and hierarchy of roles comes into existence.5 After the curse, work remains a major emphasis in Scripture.6

After the curse, this question arises: Does work maintain eternal significance or is it reduced to a necessary evil? A few texts (of many more) address this question. For instance, marriage and parenting carries on beyond the curse, though changed (Genesis 1:28; 2:24). The New Testament continues these two themes but with an emphasis on the spiritual and eternal aspect. In Hebrews 13:4, the author writes, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” About parenting, Paul writes, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

Notice the following Old Testament passage that focuses upon work. Haggai relays to the people, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the Lord” (Haggai 1:7, 8). God is glorified through the exiles’ work in rebuilding the temple.

The New Testament develops the theme of work with a spiritual and eternal focus in many passages. A couple of well-known examples:

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:9, 10).

Here’s the point: themes found in the Old Testament are developed in the New Testament with an emphasis on the spiritual and eternal aspect. I believe work is no exception. But here’s the objection: “Work” in Haggai’s message focused on the temple. Paul’s references are written to the church and refer to Christian “works” related to or within the church. True. But should the eternal and spiritual significance of our productivity exist only on the church property or when we are working on “spiritual” things? Does “church” work matter while “earthly” work is a necessary evil? I don’t see this separation in the Bible.

I know a preacher who led the church through a building campaign with a few business leaders in the church. There was a service on the day of the building’s grand opening. When it was over, the preacher invited these business leaders to walk on the roof as people were leaving. One of the leaders said something like, “I’ve never really been part of anything great for God. This has been an amazing project in my life!”

Do the businessman’s skills in project management, budgets, and leading possess eternal and spiritual significance only when they are used in a church context?

Consider this proverb that focuses on the ancient skill of sheep-herding: “Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds, for riches do not last forever; and does a crown endure to all generations? When the grass is gone and the new growth appears and the vegetation of the mountains is gathered, the lambs will provide your clothing, and the goats the price of a field” (Proverbs 27:23-26).

Now, we could spiritualize this proverb and apply it to Jesus’ identity or elders’ roles in the New Testament (cf. 1 Peter 5:1-5), or we could read it for what it says. It says a sheepherder should work hard to care for the animals so there will be income in the near future. But where do we see the eternal significance in this passage?

In his discussion of work and the Sabbath, John Goldingay writes, “It is against the background of the ordinary that we understand the holy, and against the background of the holy that we understand the ordinary.”7 In writing this, Goldingay highlights the relationship between the eternal and the everyday, the earthly and the spiritual. They exist side by side as they did at creation.

The eternal significance of “regular” work exists because our work is spiritual based on God’s relationship with us. The well-known verse says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23, 24, italics mine ).

You Work for God!

I have spent most of my working life in the context of a church. My workweek begins on Monday always with an eye to Sunday. Sunday comes and goes, and then service planning, sermon preparation, and other tasks start fresh each Monday. I don’t view Sunday as the only day my work has spiritual significance. My weekly task list and accomplishments has spiritual and eternal significance because of whom I work for—God.

You work for God too! Regardless of where your paycheck comes from or the tasks you accomplish, believers who work in business, education, military, medicine, marketing, and so on must see their work with a divine perspective. A Christian who works diligently in his career field can infuse his work with spiritual and eternal significance because of his identity as a believer and his God-given skills.

The daily grind and the “secular” roles we find ourselves in are places where God is working. He desires to be present and redeem those areas through our effort. This leads me to a few questions that will help each of us see the eternal and spiritual significance of our daily tasks.

How can I see my “secular” role with spiritual and eternal significance? I think of a PTA leader who is encouraged by other mothers to take the role. She decides to make the direction of the year one where parents intentionally reach out to teachers with encouragement and strengthen parent-teacher relationships. She coordinates parent room-leaders to contact all parents and send monthly cards to the teacher. Though this PTA leader does not “preach a sermon,” what she does communicates creativity (Genesis 1!) and growing relationships.

Do I see myself as a “priest” who serves God weekly? From stay-at-home mothers to executives, all have the task of offering skills, attitude, and resources to serve and glorify God (Romans 12:1, 2).

How can I see the spiritual and eternal significance in my daily tasks? Could this apply to the clerk at Old Navy? What if that clerk worked in such a way that her positivity and excellence were obvious to other employees and customers?

What can Christian leaders do to challenge the distinction between the earthly and the eternal that exists in perspectives toward work? Leaders and preachers could remind folks regularly in lessons and Communion meditations that a Christian serving in any role may bring God’s presence to that context.

________

1Christopher Wright, The Mission of God’s People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 222.

2Ibid.

3Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis (Waco: Thomas Nelson, 1987), 37.

4All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.

5John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 3:462.

6Many biblical books engage human work and productivity. Passages such as Deuteronomy 6–8, Haggai 1 and 2, Ephesians 2, and numerous others engage work from different perspectives.

7Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, 3:643.

Eddy Sanders serves as academic dean at Saint Louis Christian College, Florissant, Missouri, and as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.

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