A New Story for Work

We’ve seen the good news about work – that God created us to express his image by creating, cultivating, and exercising fruitful dominion in the world. We’ve also seen the bad news about work – that sin has marked our work with drudgery, strife, idolatry and futility. Now it’s time for the really good news about work: Jesus has come to transform everything, including us – and including our work!

Work and the New Creation
How does the Gospel write a new story for our work? We might begin with Paul’s summary in II Cor. 15:11-21. At its heart, this passage tells us that “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (v. 17) Notice that God is still in the business of creating – but now, he is making a new creation, made possible by the fact that God has “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (v. 21) So the setting of this new story is “in Christ,” and its goal is a “new creation.” Paul tells us that this means “the old has passed away,” with all of its alienation, strife, idolatry and futility. Not only that, but “the new has come.”

What is this “new” that has come? In Christ, God has “reconciled us to himself, and given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (v. 18) This first benefit of the new creation speaks directly to the first two marks of sin on our work: alienation that leads to drudgery, and strife that makes our work a battleground for broken relationships. We are no longer disconnected from God, from our work, or from one another. We no longer need live at odds with others. Both alienation and strife are swallowed up in the ministry of reconciliation!
Paul also tells us that God has now given us a new identity: we are “ambassadors for Christ.” (v. 20) This new identity speaks to the other two marks of sin on our work: the idolatry that comes from seeking identity in our work, and the futility that comes from making our work an end in itself. Our identity is no longer “butcher, baker, or candlestick maker,” but rather “ambassador for Christ.” This identity includes a purpose much larger than ourselves, making our work a means towards an eternal end, and not an end in itself. With our identity firmly grounded in Christ and our purpose driven by his mission in the world, idolatry and futility can no longer characterize our labors.

Work as Worship
The Gospel answers the effect of sin on our work with both reconciliation and identity in Christ, but that’s not all. In Romans 12:1-2, the Apostle Paul follows his long and thorough exposition on Jesus’ work of bearing our sins and their consequences with a single command: “Present your bodies as living sacrifices, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Because Jesus has become the eternal sacrifice for our sins, worship no longer means offering an animal to die on the altar, but rather offering ourselves to live on the altar! This means that every activity under the sun (which the writer of Ecclesiastes saw as futility) now becomes an act of worship. When we go to work “in Christ,” whether it involves data entry, astrophysics, cleaning floors, or teaching children, we go to worship God.

Work as the Theater of Our Discipleship
Perhaps the best picture of Jesus’ transformation of our work is in his interaction with his disciples. In all four Gospels, we find Jesus engaging his disciples in their workplace – especially those who were fishermen. When he called them, he couched his call in terms of their profession: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” This meant not only that their current occupation was analogous to the task to which he was leading them, but also I believe, their skills and know-how as fishermen would contribute to their new vocation as his disciples. The Synoptic Gospels tell us that Peter, Andrew, James and John all “left their nets” to follow Jesus (Mt. 4:18-22, Mk. 1:16-20, Lk. 5:11), but we shouldn’t take this to mean that they forever ceased to be fishermen. They may well have plied their trade even during the years of training with Jesus, but we know for certain that after his resurrection they were once again on the sea of Galilee fishing. John 21 tells the story of a morning encounter with Jesus that involves a bountiful catch, worshipful acknowledgment of who Jesus was, joyful communion over breakfast on the beach, and intimate, life-defining conversations with the Lord – all in the context of work!

These disciples’ experience with Jesus at work invites us to consider the difference between “career” and “calling.” For a disciple, “career” becomes a theater in which to live out our “calling” as followers of Jesus. When “career” is our identity, our job becomes an idol that saps our souls, and defines our lives. “Productivity” becomes the measure of our worth, our relationships, and our meaning. In Christ, however, we have a new identity as those called to follow Jesus in all spheres of our lives – home, work, leisure, and relationships. As we live out this calling, work becomes a place to experience God’s abundant grace, a place to encounter the risen Christ, a place to worship him. Our job can become not only useful, but redemptive, a platform upon which to display God’s image restored in us. We can create, cultivate, and exercise godly dominion as an expression of the new creation God is accomplishing in us by the sacrifice of his Son, and the work of his Spirit.

The Future of Work
One more image in the New Testament points toward the future of work. In Revelation 21, as John describes the New Jerusalem in all of its radiant splendor and divine glory, he notes a striking detail. Into this city, which needs neither temple nor sun because it is filled with God’s radiant presence, John says the kings of the earth will bring “the glory and honor of the nations.” (v. 26) Opinions abound as to what this represents, but I have become convinced that it refers to the best of the culture of the nations, product that is fruit of the creative, cultivating image of God in humanity. If this is so, it tells us that the work of our hands can not only be lasting, but holy, since “nothing unclean will ever enter” into that city. (v. 27)

Will we work in the new creation? We can only speculate as to the answer. In my mind, it stand to reason that, since God has created us in his own image, that we might exercise creative and godly dominion of creation, and since he has redeemed us in Christ so that this image might be restored, it would stand to reason that he intends for us to display his image as creative, cultivating image-bearers throughout all eternity.

The work of Christ has healed the false divide between secular and sacred, material and spiritual. He has made all things new – even our work. The work of the Christian mechanic is indeed as sanctified as the work of a Christian pastor. All of life is the proper sphere for living out our identity as followers of Jesus.