A Biblical Theology of Work

People spend nearly half of their lives working, yet for many Christians it is a source of pain and frustration. Is this the reality of living in a fallen world, or can my job have dignity and purpose? How does one serve Christ through their work, or is that only for missionaries and pastors? What is God’s purpose for work, and how does the Lordship of Christ reveal that purpose and unlock its value and eternal significance? This short podcast series explores these topics and more as we seek to construct a Biblical theology of work through a serious study of the Scriptures.

This series of messages is by David Forsyth. These messages were preached during our Sunday Morning Adult Sunday School. Click here for more teaching by David Forsyth.

A Biblical Theology of Work – Introduction (Selected Scriptures)

People spend nearly 50% of their lives working yet for many Christians it is a source of pain and frustration. Is this just the reality of living in a fallen world or can my job have dignity and purpose?

How do I serve Christ through my work or is that only for missionaries and pastors?  What is God’s purpose for work and how does the Lordship of Christ reveal that purpose and unlock its value and eternal significance?

During the next eight weeks we are going to explore these topics and more as we seek to construct a Biblical theology of work through a serious study of the Scriptures.

Sermon Transcript

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Well, we are beginning a series called A Biblical Theology of Work. So this is probably a little different than is typically done. So we’re going to be ransacking the Scriptures together over nine weeks and applying the truth found therein to build a theology with regard to the topic of work.

But let me begin on a little bit lighter tone as we start and just share with you some funny statements that have been drawn from job applications. You remember those. At least, I remember them when you filled them out by hand and turned them in. But here are a few just to get you thinking. Reasons for leaving the last job: “They insisted that all employees get to work by 8:45 every morning. Couldn’t work under those conditions.” Or another was, “Was met with a string of broken promises and lies, as well as cockroaches.” Or, one of my favorites, “The company made me a scapegoat, just like my three previous employers.” Let’s see. Here’s one. Job objectives: “My goal is to be a meteorologist, but since I have no training in meteorology, I suppose I should try stockbrokerage.” Just a few more. Some typos—how typos, misspellings can change the meaning of a word. Here’s one listed under work experience: “Dealing with customer conflicts that arouse.” Or “Develop and recommend an annual operating expense ‘fudget.’” “I’m a rabid typist.” And the last one, “Instrumental in ruining entire operation for a Midwest chain.” So, yes, a misspelling can change the meaning of things.

So as we said, I want to start this morning and talk to you about the topic of work. This is an introduction, and introductions, by necessity, don’t get down super deep. They’re designed to invite us into—think of an introduction to a book—it’s designed to invite us into the book, so it kind of hints at what is to come. It’s designed to whet our appetite, and that’s what we’re designed to do here this morning is to whet your appetite and hopefully to come back over the next eight weeks as we work together to build that biblical theology.

So just thinking about the topic of work, on average we spend roughly 50% of our lives working. On average, roughly 50% of our lives working. Yet for many people it is a source of great frustration and pain. That is unfortunately true. So let me begin and stimulate your thinking with regard to work by asking you a series of questions. These are just reflective questions for you to turn over in your mind.

How many of you like your job? Let’s just start with that. How many of you like your job? Would you change jobs if you could? You don’t have to answer these. Just think about it. Would you change jobs if you could?

How many of you are working simply for a paycheck? Working for a paycheck. I owe, I owe, so off to work I go, right? How many can’t see how your work has any significance or eternal value? My work has no significance, no eternal value. Is that kind of how you’re thinking? That’s how you feel? Are you bored and unchallenged at work? Do you see your job as repetitive, routine, and dead-end? Is that kind of the sense you have of it? Do you feel trapped in your job because of financial responsibilities? Can’t consider anything else. I got bills. I have to make a certain amount of money.

Does Sunday and Monday seem worlds apart? Can you communicate the purpose of your work in terms of your Christian faith? Can you communicate the purpose of your work in terms of your Christian faith, or are they disconnected? Are you hiding your Christianity Monday through Friday? Are you hiding it? Do you find it difficult to make complex ethical decisions, and you’ve compensated by adopting a business ethic Monday through Friday and then a church ethic for the weekends? So I have my church ethics on Saturdays and Sundays, and I have my business ethics Monday through Friday because why? Well, it’s a dog-eat-dog world.

Do you hate your job? Do you hate your job? And you wonder, what do you have to look forward to for the next thirty years? Hate this job, yet thirty years. I mean, it’s worse than a prison sentence.

Are you working for the weekend? TGIF [thank God it’s Friday], right? Working for the weekend. Just got to get through to Friday. Or maybe if you’re a little bit older, are you working for retirement? I just got to hang on till I get to retirement. Man, the magic age—sixty-two and a half, sixty-five, sixty-seven. Goes up, by the way. Figure that out. Keeps going up. Got to hang on till retirement. Four years to go! Is that how you see work?

You make plenty of money? Plenty of money. Yet you’re still very restless in your work. Just a restlessness, lack of contentment. Do you wonder how to influence your coworkers for Christ? You know that you’ve heard that enough on Sundays to know that I’m supposed to be doing this, but I have no idea how. How do I do that? Are you having trouble balancing work demands with your other interests and commitments? Work takes so much time that you have no time for other things.

Do you feel like your job lacks dignity? No dignity in my job. Moms, do you feel yourself struggling to try to balance your responsibilities both in and outside the home? Is that a struggle? I’ve got a boss, right? Struggles. How do we balance all that? If you’re a stay-at-home mom, do you feel frustrated and undervalued? Does the workplace seem like it offers something that will fill the void that you’re missing? Being a stay-at-home mom is just not making it for me. I need something more. The lure of the workplace. Young mom, can you articulate to others why and how wiping runny noses and cleaning up spilled milk has eternal significance? Eternal significance? Wiping runny noses, cleaning up spilled milk has eternal significance. But do you know how and why?

Would you agree with this statement? Success in life means success at work. Success in life means success at work. In other words, if I am unsuccessful at work, I will not ultimately be successful at life. Do you agree to that? You’re spending 50% of your time involved in work. It’s an important question. How do we judge success? How do you judge success? Do you judge it according to the four p’s? Promotion, prestige, power, pay? Is that how you judge it? Is that success? If I could just get that promotion, if I could just get this raise, if I could just have my own office, I’d be successful. Terrible illusion.

All right, that’s enough to hopefully get the gears cranking, and judging by the solemn faces I’m looking at, I should go back to a couple more of those funny statements from job applications. But it is a serious topic for sure. And let me just say this to you. We’re going to build a very robust and glorious, Christ-glorifying and soul-satisfying biblical theology of work. So for the next eight weeks, we are going to address this topic, a topic that is seldom taught on in the Church, seldom addressed.

Why? Why is it important that we do this? Why is this an important series? Here’s your answer. It is because of the lordship of Christ. That’s why. It is because of the lordship of Christ. When God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, He made Him Lord of all.

Listen to Peter in Acts chapter 2 and verse 36. “‘Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.’” Jesus’s own words in Matthew 28:18: “‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.’” All authority has been given to Me. It is ultimately a question of the lordship of Christ and how does the lordship of Christ fit into the field of our work? How does it intersect?

It’s Paul who says that recognizing and submitting to Jesus’s lordship is essential to salvation. “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). But the lordship of Christ applies to beyond merely the spiritual realm. It applies to all aspects of life. If He truly is Lord of all—all authority in Heaven and on earth given to Him—then He is Lord of all. Every aspect of our lives is to be lived under the lordship of Christ. And that includes that function in which we spend 50%.

Second Corinthians 5:10. Paul writes, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” It is the lordship of Christ.

Okay, so very briefly, I’ve got four false views of work. Remember, this is an introduction. We’re not exhausting these topics. We’re just salting the oats. We’re just putting it out there. So I have four false views of work that I just want to go through with you quickly. We will debunk them more fully as we develop over the next eight weeks. But for now, this is a start.

So the first false view of work is that work is a result of the fall. Work is a result of the fall, therefore it is necessarily evil. A lot of people won’t articulate the second part of that. They’ll say, yeah, work is a result of the fall, and they won’t put the second half. But, hey, you know what, if it’s a result of the fall, then…

So Genesis, chapter 3, which is way back in the beginning. We read in verses 17 and 18—oh, maybe we’ll throw 19 in as well. This is after the fall. Genesis 3, beginning in verse 17:

17 Then to Adam, He [the Lord] said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’; cursed is the ground because of you; in toil [or literally “in pain.” Same word, by the way, that’s spoken of Eve. “In toil (or pain)”] you will eat of it all the days of your life.

18 “Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; and you will eat the plants of the field;

19 By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Whoo. That doesn’t look very glorious. That doesn’t look very glorious. So this idea that work is a result of the fall, and the corollary—therefore it is necessarily evil—it confuses something here. And what it confuses is the result of the fall upon work, which makes it more difficult and frustrating, with the purpose of work, which was given by God before the fall.

And if you let your eye flip back to chapter 2 and verse 18, you find it there. It’s important to make sure we understand which side of the fall we’re talking about. Genesis 2:18: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.’” And that’s not the verse I was looking for. It’s 15 is the verse I was looking for; 18 is a good verse, too, by the way. That actually launches a whole series on marriage.

But here we are—15: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” There we go. Prefall. So the idea that work is a result of the fall is just a confusion of order in the biblical text. So work is not an evil to be avoided. It’s a good to be embraced. It’s a good to be embraced.

Another false view is derived from 2 Peter 3:7, where Peter writes, “But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.” So this second false view is the notion that it’s all going to burn anyway. Why bother? It’s all going to burn anyway. Why bother? So in its extreme, this view assumes that since God has promised to consume the earth in the fires of judgment, anything we do which is of an earthly nature is at best temporal and ultimately futile. This is how the false reasoning progresses. It’s all going to burn. So any effort I put in beyond what’s necessary to get by is a waste. It’s all going to burn anyway. Why sustain the creation if it’s going to be destroyed anyway?

The answer is because it reflects the image of God. Christ Himself sustains the creation. Colossians 1:17: “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” He is the one who sustains the creation. And He doesn’t just sustain it in a barest simplicity painted with shades of gray. Christ sustains the creation in beauty and complexity, with sights and sounds that even the best HD television struggles to try to reproduce. So plant your garden, paint your house, build a bookcase, pick up the trash, write poetry, music, and in doing so, you are emulating Christ. You are emulating Christ.

There’s a quote that’s attributed to Martin Luther, the great sixteenth-century reformer. It goes like this—according to the attribution, by the way, no one can seem to find it in any of Luther’s writings. Okay, just letting you know that. So it doesn’t prove that he didn’t say it, but there’s not a lot of evidence. But if you go on the internet, everyone attributes it to Luther. So there it is. It goes like this: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” So whether Luther said it or not, I like it. And it contains a great kernel of truth. Plant an oak tree that will outlive you. Why? Because you’re emulating Christ, that’s why.

Third false view. You can’t serve God and mammon, right? Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Or mammon, if you like the old King James, which is unfortunately, or fortunately, the way I memorized it.

This idea that you can’t serve God and wealth, or God and mammon, is based on a mistaken understanding of what Jesus is actually saying here in the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 6 and verse 24. What He is addressing here is ultimate loyalties. That’s what is that question. Ultimate loyalties. Who and what will we worship? That’s what Jesus is addressing there. He is not making a negative statement upon the life spent working and being paid for one’s work and being a thrifty person and accumulating a measure of financial wealth. Okay? It is not about that. It is about ultimate loyalties. Where does your loyalty lie? Who or what do you worship? That’s what it’s about.

Now, this idea that you can’t serve God and mammon leads into and is sometimes associated with the fourth and final false view here that I have for you, and that’s this: I call it the sacred-secular divide. The sacred-secular divide. The basic idea behind that is that God has two types of people. He has those few individuals who are special and have been called by Him to the spiritually higher plane of ministry, and then there’s everybody else.

In this view, the called are closer to God, more sensitive and obedient to His Word, yea even more holy, and ultimately closer to God’s heart. Therefore, they are often the ones called on to pray. Do you ever notice that? Hey, Pastor, would you pray for us? We’re just having lunch together. Anybody here is capable of this. These called ones are the sacred workers. They’re the clergy. Everybody else is the laity. We’ve got clergy and laity.

Now this type of thinking is totally foreign to the New Testament. Totally foreign. Instead, it finds its roots in a misinterpretation of the Old Testament priesthood. It assumes that the mode of the Levitical priesthood continues even to this day.

One of the most obvious examples of all of this is seen in the Roman Catholic Church. Okay, this is classic Roman Catholic theology and ecclesiology, but Protestantism has also drunken deeply of this poisoned well. We Protestants, we have drunk deeply of this poisoned well as well. Peter says all believers are part of a new priesthood not based upon physical descent but upon the saving grace of God. First Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”

We are a priesthood. There is no clergy-laity distinctions. We see this manifestation of the sacred-secular divide. It’s revealed in an often unspoken pecking order that goes something like this: The real spiritual ones are the missionaries, followed by church planters. They’re second—church planters. Missionaries, church planters, pastors. Missionaries, church planters, pastors. Four, Christian workers. Fifth, bivocational pastors. “You’re only a bivocational pastor. My son’s a missionary.” Nice. It’s unspoken, usually, but believe me, it exists. Very much exists.

The message is not always so subtle. But it’s basically this: if you really want to serve God, you need to quit your job, go to seminary, and become a missionary or pastor. If you really want to serve God, quit your job, go to seminary, become a missionary or a pastor, and then you will be serving God. But a lot of people don’t desire that. They don’t want to quit their job and go to seminary.

But if this prevailing notion is actually true, then basically what happens is that for all those who don’t quit the job and go to seminary, then their role becomes that essentially of someone who contributes a few volunteer hours a week and puts money in the offering plate so that real ministry can be accomplished. So, hey, you go to a seminary, that’s powerful. Sold out for God. But other than that, you know what? Show up, volunteer, put money in the plate every week. We’ll take care of the real ministry for you.

Many, many churches, they wouldn’t articulate it like that—that’s crass—but that’s kind of how it’s put together. Listen to me, beloved. If you must disengage from work in order to do real ministry, then unless you quit your job, you can only be at best a part-time Christian, a layperson. Say it again. If you must disengage from work in order to do real ministry, then unless you quit your job, you can only be, at best, a part-time Christian, a lay worker, a layperson. But that certainly is contradicted by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4, verses 11 to 13, where he writes, “He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service [Do you see that? “For the equipping of the saints for the work of service”], to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”

The work of the ministry is done by the believers, the body of Christ. Furthermore, if 50% of your life is off-limits to the Bible except for a few commands like, well, thou shall not steal, so, you know, hey, don’t steal at work, then essentially your work has no value to God. And if your work has no value to God, you are at best a second-class citizen. But that is not true. It is not true. So we must not let these false assumptions, even motivated out of a genuine desire to honor God, shape our understanding of this most important aspect of human life. As Paul says, we must take “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Well, this is good. I’m going to be able to put some time in the bank. I’m going to introduce you to a concept. It’s called time in the bank. And it works like this: if I finish before the appointed finishing time, then all of that time accrues into a bank to be utilized at a later point. You understand? All right. That’s how it works.

So the messages over the next couple of months are designed to help us systematically build out our Christian worldview with regard to work. That’s what we’re shooting for. Okay, so I want to do it through eight—oh, excuse me, seven topics. Seven topics. There’s eight messages because one is so voluminous it won’t fit into a single. It’s a two-parter. But here are the seven topics that I plan to cover together with you.

Number one, “Workers by Design.” We are workers by design. So we will spend a good amount of time in the first couple of chapters of Genesis. And then we will deal with “The Problem of Work.” In other words, we’re going to look at work prefall and postfall so that we have a really clear understanding of what’s true and what’s not. Okay? So the problem with work.

Third, “Work and the Wisdom of Proverbs.” Work and the wisdom of proverbs. And we will speak about laziness in work. Okay, then fourth, “The Redemption of Work.” The redemption of work. Work spoiled. Work redeemed by Christ. That’s what we will look at. What does it mean that work has been redeemed by Christ?

Fifth, “The Doctrine of Vocation.” It’s a neat old word from the Latin vocare. It means to summon or to call. What is a vocation? It is your calling. What is your calling? Because you all have one. I’ll tip my hand a little. It is not necessarily a lifetime calling. It can and frequently does change. What is your calling? The doctrine of vocation. By the way, a great lesson for young people coming of age in life. Like, “What am I going to do with my life? I just want to get a job, make money.” Not the doctrine of vocation. There’s so much more. So much more.

Sixth, we’ll look at “Work and the Great Commission.” Work and the Great Commission. In other words, what does evangelism and work—how do they relate to one another? How do I evangelize at work? Hint: it’s not standing around the water cooler talking about Jesus while you’re being paid to do something else, okay? Just put it out there right now. That’s not what it is.

And then seven, “Work and Welfare.” How are the glorious truth of work and the necessity of welfare—the care of the less fortunate—how do they relate? We’re living in a very broken system. Very broken. So do we just say, hey, you know what, it’s a broken system and there’s nothing we can do, and just that’s what it is? Or is there a way to salvage and reclaim the glory of Christ with regard to the care for the needy? What role does the Church play? What role do I play as an individual? What role do you play? That’s the two-parter, by the way. Work and welfare.

So next week, we begin by learning that God designed work and created us to participate with Him in it. That’s the big idea. Big idea next week is that God designed work and He created us to participate with Him in it. If we catch a vision of that, all kinds of glories begin to open up before us.

Well, I hope I’ve just teased you a little bit, like an introduction is designed to do, draw you in. Hope you’ll come. I think it’ll be a blessing. It revolutionized—I just have to tell you this—it revolutionized my life in the preparation of the material that God enabled me to prepare and preach ten years ago.

David Forsyth

David Forsyth

Teacher

David was born and grew up in Massachusetts, later attending the University of Massachusetts at Lowell where he graduated with a BS in Business Administration (1979). 

Upon graduation, he married Carol, his college sweetheart, and began a career in banking. After several work-related moves, they found themselves in 1991 living in southern California with their 4 young children. 

In 1995, Foothill Bible Church, Upland, CA, the church they were attending, asked David to leave his position at the bank and join the staff as Associate Pastor of Administration and Christian Education.

Two years later, while still serving on staff, he enrolled at The Master’s Seminary, completing his Mdiv in 2002. Upon graduation and the retirement of the church’s teaching pastor, the congregation unanimously extended a call to David to fill that role.He served there until 2019 when he and Carol moved to Sandpoint, ID, to become actively involved in the discipleship of their grandchildren. David and Carol began attending KCC in June of 2021, where they find great joy in loving and serving the church body.

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