What images do the word “work” bring to mind? If students and others I’ve had the chance to ask are any measure, the first thoughts aren’t all that positive. For myself I can recall flip comments I have made (half-) jokingly about hating when my work gets in the way of my hobby (cycling, mountain biking—the sport of kings!). From what I get from others, I’m fairly typical.
This all is unfortunate, because work in Scripture is an intrinsic good — a calling we have from God — and, I even want to offer, our work is an act of worship the Living God delights to receive.
Work: an Intrinsic Good
“In the beginning, God created…” — the words leading off the divine record of God’s creative work — introduce 2 narratives (Gen. 1-2:3; & 2:4-chapter 3) that locate human work in God’s created order. This is because these narratives reveal the divine intention to bless the creation (Gen. 2:3, “Sabbath” blessing is the crown of the 1st narrative) and also the means to achieve that intention as an image empowered and called for that purpose (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15). Image of God language is where human activity, work, and business, enter the account and where they are defined in three relational dimensions with one modus operandi.
The three vectors of relationship established in the image of God texts are first toward God, then toward one another, and finally toward the creation itself. To the first, humanity is called as God’s steward to administer his kingdom. Mankind is the priest-figure of the temple-Garden of Eden God has created. Humans are charged to be fruitful, multiply, fill, rule and subdue (Gen. 1:28), tend and keep (protect/guard, Gen. 2:15) what God has made — including the spirit-realm (Gen. 3:15). They are God’s co-laborers in providing for the creation’s blessing. They do so in fellowship with God, empowered by his own Spirit.
The second relational dimension concerns the internal dynamic of the image itself. Adam and Eve are created as complements, who were to prosecute their commission in union together — the failure to confront the Adversary together should also be noted as part of their transgression in Genesis three.
The final dimensional realm for the image is about the stewardship of the creation itself. Ruling, subduing (use of the word elsewhere in Scripture means putting down something hostile), tending and keeping are all imperatives for the human inhabitants of God’s garden. Humanity is made accountable for the flourishing of the Master’s created possessions.
As noted earlier, Adam and Eve, as God’s stewards, were to administer their Master’s possessions in partnership with him. They were to do it also in a manner characteristic of him. That is love. God is holy love (1 John 4:8) which is why his desire for his people is that they love him (Deut. 6:4, “… You must love the Lord your God …”) and why this love and love of others may be called the sum of all of his instructions we must fulfill (Matt. 22:37-39). Thus, Adam and Eve’s commission in each relational dimension is fulfilled in love. This means active, other-preferring, self-denying service to the object loved to promote its fulfilling of the Creator’s intention for it. In the creation narrative, this manner of action is contained in the concept of blessing noted earlier. Toward the creation and one another then, Adam and Eve were to do all to empower the flourishing, success and prosperity of the creation and one another in the presence and power of the Creator. This is the substance of their “work.” It is what they were made to do with God and for God.
When put this way — as activity that serves others and at minimum does no harm to the creation (sustainability) — work is good in itself. It is part of what makes us human. Thus even the jobs, or the parts of our job descriptions, we might consider boring, as obligation, “chores,” or creatively suffocating, constitute a good for us and a delight to our Creator.
Work an Act of Worship
The intrinsic good of work leads us to our second observation that our work is worship. This move requires first a word about what constitutes worship, and again as with thoughts of work, our first response can be limited. For many (most?), worship is tightly tied to specific contexts like what happens in church Sunday mornings, or even more narrowly, what happens at particular times of Sunday gatherings — like times of corporate singing. Common definitions of worship can even fund such thinking — “Worship is an active response to God whereby we declare his worth,” or “To worship God is to ascribe to Him supreme worth, for He alone is worthy.” Surely times of corporate singing Sunday mornings are acts of worship, but worship is not circumscribed by the benediction. I want to suggest that you can go to work Monday for the same reasons you go to church on Sunday. Ascribe God worth when talking to a customer about a service call? Absolutely. Actively respond to God fixing a busted water heater? Yes, certainly.
The intrinsic good of work is what allows us to connect our work to worship. Fulfilling the Master’s will in the Master’s way pleases the Master and radiates his perfections to others. It is worship in its most holistic, organic and sacred sense. It is holy, that is, set apart for God, in line with Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:1 that we present our bodies as a living sacrifice. It means that as bondslaves and stewards of the One who bought us (1 Cor. 6:19) we cannot compartmentalize or limit our understanding of worship. The same is true for how we think of our work as “mission” or ministry: we’re always on mission, or work as a sacrifice we offer; we are priests wherever we go, and work as inherently spiritual; we do not leave the Holy Spirit (or spiritual gifts!) when we walk out of Sunday services.
The same holistic mindset that can see work as holy service to God also makes it messianic. Here again we are speaking broadly, but fairly, I think. As God’s co-laborers in the kingdom (Col. 4:16) this side of both the fall and Heaven, our work is redemptive. Of course there are dimensions of redemption that God alone and his Messiah accomplish (John 5:17), and nothing we do contributes to that; but in the work-worship that we prosecute in this sin-darkened world we also join this redemptive work of God. When we conduct our work with ethics that risk career or benefit by the world’s standards, and we do it because we are secure in God’s Christ for us, we wield redemptive power and with our Messiah we confront the powers of this present darkness (Eph. 6:12). Here is the “messianic meaning” of the believer’s work in the present age.
When we frame our work as an intrinsic human good and as a sacred act of worship we should not be shy to take this thought with us as we head for the job each day. Work is something far more important than “making money” – the reason most give for working, or not, as in American notions of “retirement.” Likewise, because work is good and fundamental to human life, we should wish it for others.
An immediate application of this concerns the church’s efforts in poverty alleviation. It suggests that work should be a component of how we define poverty and how we work to alleviate it. As to a definition, we all get that poverty is the lack of material goods needed to sustain life, but should it also not include a word about the means of acquiring those goods through work? Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, in an important book on this subject—When Helping Hurts, suggest that material poverty is not being able to fulfill God’s calling to work and support yourself or your family from the fruit of that work. It’s not just about having enough things; it’s ultimately about the poor having the work that gets those things. So also, poverty alleviation is not simply a matter of giving material goods for relief when the poor cannot work, it is finally an effort to provide the poor the chance to work. Poverty alleviation must include the church’s efforts in eliminating the barriers to work, so that the poor have the chance to participate in the human good work is for them and the those they can serve through it.
Whether for your own view of Monday morning or for ministry you might offer to those around you, work is a gift for human flourishing—flourishing before our Maker, flourishing in community with others and flourishing for the creation itself.
May God give you grace as stewards of His work.
 Van Duzer sees the partnership in Gen 2:5 where it is because there’s no human being to cultivate the earth that God doesn’t allow plants to sprout or rain to water the earth (Jeff Van Duzer, Why Business Matters to God [IVP, 2010], 36).
 Images in the ancient Near East were understood to bear the spirit of the one imaged, according to Clines (D. J. A. Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” Tyndale Bulletin 19 , 89-90).
 “… kabash [subdue] assumes that the party being subdued is hostile to the subduer, necessitating some sort of coercion if the subduing is to take place. Thus the word connotes ‘rape’ in Est. 7:8, or the conquest of the Canaanites in Num. 32:22, 29; Josh. 18:1; I Chr. 22:18. In II Chr. 28:10; Neh. 5:5; Jer. 34:11, 16, it refers to forced servitude” (John N. Oswalt, “vbK;,” TWOT [Moody, 1980],1: 430).
 Allen and Borror, Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel [Multnomah, 1982], 16; and Ralph P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church [Eerdmans, 1974], 10), respectively.
 The suggestion is that of Jürgen Moltmann (On Human Dignity [Fortress, 2007], 44).
 Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself (Moody, 2012), 55.