In Part Two of our series on Vocation, developed by the GFM Ohio Valley Team, Bob Trube (formerly Senior Area Director for the GFM Ohio Valley Team), explores how we may think about our work against the backdrop of God’s purposes and God’s work, or mission, in the world.
The story in which we live shapes the way we live our lives. Missio dei or “the mission of God” is a compact phrase that articulates the notion that we find ourselves within the story of God’s activity in the world. “Mission” implies work that is purposeful and directed toward an end, a day when it may be said, “mission accomplished.” God is on a mission in the world! What is that mission?
One of the ways that this missional story of God has been articulated is under the four-part narrative arc of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.
- It is a story of all things created by and subject to the rule of a good God with human beings as God’s vice-regents, ruling over the earth under his rule, direction, and care. The entire creation, including humans, is good (Genesis 1 and 2).
- The fall represented rebellion against God’s gracious rule, a choice to rule apart from God, to “be as gods.” This introduced discord, destruction and death into humanity’s relationship with God, one another, with the rest of creation, and even with oneself (Genesis 3). The creation itself is now laboring under the effects of our sin (Romans 8:19-22).
- God Himself promised to redeem humans from sin and death (Gen. 3:15). He called forth a line of people to follow Him faithfully. That line culminated in Jesus the incarnate Son who acted for both God and humanity in proclaiming God’s rule, dying for sin, and rising to life. After ascending, he sent the Spirit at Pentecost, giving birth to the church, a new, trans-national people reconciled to God and each other through Christ. God entrusts the church with a ministry of reconciliation encompassing both people and God’s world, through proclamation and faithful presence in the world.
- Yet the missio dei is always greater than the people of God. The consummation of God’s kingdom, with the personal return of Christ, fulfills what the proclamation and presence of the church only anticipates in the final defeat of evil, the resurrection to everlasting life of all who hope in Christ, who rule with him in the new heaven and new earth. God will restore the creation itself, along with us, to the goodness intended all along. (Revelation 21 and 22).
In our work, we join with God in fostering the flourishing of his creation. Genesis 2:4-5 says, “Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth, and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground….” We have a picture of God and human beings co-laboring in bringing forth the fruitfulness of the earth.
Genesis 2:15 makes this more explicit: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work and take care of it.” Notice that this comes before the fall. Furthermore, the Hebrew words for “work” (avad) and “take care of” or “keep” (shamar) are words used respectively for the worship of God, and the keeping of his commands. This close connection points to the intrinsic worth and goodness of work. Good work is that done in the “fear of the Lord” and attentive to his designs for the world upon which we work.
The review and naming of the creatures in Genesis 2:19-20 might even point to the beginnings of the academic enterprise. We study and articulate our understanding of every facet of God’s creation. Part of our co-labors with God involves giving names to what God has made, whether distant stars and galaxies, or the microbiome that makes its home on every inch of our bodies. The making, testing, and application of theories flow from this. No wonder we sometimes pause amid our work and say, “I was made for this.” We were!
In the context of God’s command about work in Genesis 2:15, in 2:16-17, God invites the man and woman to eat of any of the trees of the garden except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. From the perspective of work, the Fall is work contrary to God’s command. While work is not the curse, but intrinsically good, the disobedience of the human couple results in work becoming toilsome and subject to futility (Genesis 2:17-19).
Likewise, human rebellion alienates us from God, ourselves, each other, and the creation. All of this has consequences. Work can become a “god” in our lives—a thing of ultimate concern that begins to control us. We have difficulties in discerning work that is fitting for us. We have conflict and communication issues with others that make work difficult. And sometimes our work doesn’t “work” or is detrimental to the creation.
Redemption in the Old Testament
This is not the last word about our work. The God did not give up his vision of creatures who would work with him in ruling over his creation. Beginning with Abraham, God’s promise encompasses the nation of Israel. Coming to a focus in the person of Christ, God’s redemption encompasses all the nations of the earth. God has been working out in history his purpose to restore a fallen creation and humanity to reflect his vision.
He works through workers to fulfill these ends. Artisans like Bezalel and Oholiab fabricate the Tabernacle. Shepherds become kings. Amos the prophet picked figs. Nehemiah went from trusted aide to the emperor to leading the spiritual and urban renewal project in Jerusalem.
Redemption in Christ
We speak of Christ’s death and resurrection to atone for sin and to extend eternal life to all who believe as the “work” of Christ. Indeed, his whole life models working according to the will of God his Father: “Jesus gave them this answer: ‘Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.’” (John 5:19). One of the terms the apostle Paul uses to express what Christ’s work has accomplished is reconciliation:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19, NIV).
To “reconcile” is to restore a relationship between two things that have been estranged. Christ has accomplished this. Christ’s life, death and resurrection decisively addresses our estrangement with God, others, ourselves and the creation. Our work is to “message” that.
How do we do that? Certainly, part of this is bearing witness to Christ’s reconciling work and inviting others to be reconciled to God through him (2 Corinthians 5:20-21). But elsewhere, Paul commands, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). All our work of tending and keeping and naming, given us in creation, may be done in Christ’s name.
We will not, prior to the return of Christ, complete all this work. Bearing witness, restoring relationships, pursuing justice, understanding and caring for the creation all anticipate the day Christ consummates God’s purposes. In that day, he returns for his bride the Church and bodily raises us to life everlasting in the new heavens and new earth, the new creation centered around the New Jerusalem. There are hints that we will enjoy both rest and fruitful work.
The kings of the earth will bring their splendor into the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:24). The tree of life for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2) implies their continuing and transformed existence. Luke 19:11-27 speaks of faithful servants having charge of cities on the return of the master. Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 6:3 of judging angels. There will be continuity between our faithful work in this life and the work we engage in, in the new creation.
“See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind…the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more…They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them” (Isaiah 65:17-23 NIV).
Our work is intrinsically good, a manifestation of what it means to image God, the first worker. We participate in the mission of God in our care of the creation and joining in his redemptive purposes as his reconciled people. Apart from work that requires us to violate God’s commands, all work may be ways to glorify God in Christ. In ways we yet do not fully understand, our work is significant for time and eternity. God is actively healing His creation and He uses our work as one of the ways He does that. Our work matters to God!
“We need Christian people to work as healers: as healing judges and prison staff, as healing teachers and administrators, as healing shopkeepers and bankers, as healing musicians and artists, as healing writers and scientists, as healing diplomats and politicians. We need people who will hold on to Christ firmly with one hand and reach out the other, with wit and skill and cheerfulness, with compassion and sorrow and tenderness, to the places where our world is in pain. We need people who will use all their god-given skills, as Paul used his, to analyze where things have gone wrong, to come to the place of pain, and to hold over the wound the only medicine which will really heal, which is the love of Christ made incarnate…” N.T. Wright
[Read Part One of this series: Vocation: What is Vocation?]
- How have you viewed work? Toilsome? Fun? A paycheck? Service to God or others? Has your faith in any way shaped how you think about work?
- How is God’s story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation important to our understanding of our work?
- What encouragement have you found for your work in these ideas about work?
 From For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2014.
Bob Trube is Associate Director of Faculty Ministry and Director of the Emerging Scholars Network. He blogs on books regularly at bobonbooks.com. He resides in Columbus, Ohio, with Marilyn and enjoys reading, gardening, choral singing, and plein air painting.