The meaning of work in God’s grand narrativeWritten by Subby Szterszky
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For North Americans, Labour Day marks the traditional end of summer and beginning of fall. No more summer holidays, no more wearing white. Time to get back to school and back to the regular routine of work. One might even be tempted to think of work as a direct result of the fall, in a manner of speaking.
One would be wrong, of course. Work is no more the consequence of the changing seasons, than it is of Adam and Eve’s original sin. But while most people would smile at the former idea, a surprising number would embrace the latter. For them, work is a drudgery and a curse, a necessary evil brought on by the failure of our first parents. Before that, they assume, all Adam and Eve did was hang out and relax – and that’s all we’re going to do in the new creation. Heaven is going to be like a permanent beach party in Hawaii.
Needless to say, such a caricature is less than faithful to the Scriptures’ portrayal of work. And as with all things in life, the meaning of work can only be seen clearly through the lens of God’s grand narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration.
Creation: tending the garden
The first command God gave to humanity was to fill the earth, subdue it and have dominion over it. This was a comprehensive mandate that encompassed all aspects of human cultural activity, including every form of work. As God’s image-bearing representatives, men and women were to care for and exercise authority over His created order.
For Adam and Eve in particular, God fine-tuned this cosmic mandate into a specific task: tending and keeping the garden in which He had placed them. This wasn’t just about harvesting fruit from trees so that they could eat. It was a call to cultivate and arrange the garden, to plant and prune it, to heighten its potential and bring out its beauty. It was to reflect God’s own creative activity by shaping His world and bringing order out of chaos.
At this point, it would be hard to imagine the first couple responding with a sigh and an exasperated, “Work, work, work!” This was, after all, before they’d come to distrust and disobey God. In caring for the garden, they would have experienced the joy of fulfilling the role for which they were designed, as well as feeling the pleasure of their Creator.
Fall: toil and diversification
None of this was to last, of course. The disobedience of Adam and Eve brought with it the curse of God upon His creation. The image of God in humanity had become distorted, and thus their dominion over the earth compromised. The pure pleasure of work in the garden devolved into an arduous chore with diminished returns. Death and suffering entered the world, as the effects of original sin tainted and disfigured the entire cosmos.
And yet all was not lost. Along with His curse, God also offered a gracious promise of hope. One of the woman’s descendants would in time rise up to crush the serpent’s head and reverse the curse. The world would not be destroyed and the human race would not be wiped out, but instead both would be redeemed by this future Saviour.
As a direct consequence of this promise, human society continued to flourish and diversify in its expressions of work and culture. The early chapters of Genesis provide a record of the beginnings of agriculture, viticulture, animal husbandry, metalworking, music, religion, the building of cities and the establishment of kingdoms. Fallen men and women living in a fallen world continued to reflect – however imperfectly – their divine image and calling.
Redemption: all to the glory of God
Then with the coming of Jesus, everything changed once again. God’s ancient promise in the garden about the woman’s serpent-crushing offspring was fulfilled. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus not only saved His people from their sins, but He also redeemed the entire creation from the destructive effects of those sins. He destroyed sin and death itself, and brought life and immortality to light. He initiated the process that will culminate at His return, when the cosmos will be remade, perfect once again, as the new heavens and the new earth.
In the meantime, work continues. Jesus didn’t come into the world to whisk people out of it. He lived for 30 years as a carpenter, attended weddings and dinner parties. As God in the flesh, He cares deeply about the flourishing of human culture as an expression of God’s image. And with the establishment of His kingdom, He expects His subjects to engage in the work He has given them until He returns.
That work, however, continues to take a myriad of forms. There’s an unfortunate tendency among some people of faith to divide work into sacred and secular, with only the sacred (full-time ministry in church or on missions, for example) having any real value. The rest is often viewed as secondary, with little lasting worth beyond paying the bills and putting food on the table.
But in the light of Christ’s all-encompassing redemption, such distinctions are artificial. All work is kingdom work. Every effort to advance knowledge, to do good, and to create beauty is a legitimate echo of the mandate given in the garden. Cooking meals, building houses, teaching children, selling clothes, writing songs, performing surgery, exploring nature – all is to be done to the glory of God.
Restoration: work in the eternal city
The story of humanity begins in a garden and ends in a city. At present, God has only offered a few tantalizing glimpses of that eternal city, in symbolic language, mostly in the final chapters of the book of Revelation. The city and its streets are described as being made of transparent, glass-like gold. The river of life runs like a crystalline canal down the middle of the main thoroughfare, with the tree of life lining the boulevard on both sides. As a clear callback to the garden, the tree provides a dozen kinds of fruit in season, a different kind each month, as well as leaves “for the healing of the nations.”
It is also evident that the city will be a place of ongoing cultural exchange and activity of some sort, with its gates always open to receive “the glory and the honour of the nations.” It will be the focal point of the new heavens and the new earth, the cosmos restored beyond its original pre-fallen perfection. In this renewed creation, those who belong to Christ will enjoy an eternal union with God far more intimate than what our first parents experienced in the garden.
God has chosen not to reveal too many details beyond that. Chances are we wouldn’t have the categories to grasp them at present anyway. Nevertheless, one thing appears certain: life in the eternal city will not be idle; it will be marked by joyous, energetic, creative activity. God is fashioning a new cosmos whose wonders will dwarf those of the present one, and He will fit His redeemed people to explore, discover and enjoy them – and Him – for all eternity. As He has promised, in His presence there will be fullness of joy, and at His right hand pleasures forevermore. Those who know and love Him can only worship with eager expectation.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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