18 Jun Jesus and the Good of Work
In 1817, Percy Shelley penned his poem, “Ozymandias,” a meditation on the greatness of human work that is as pointed as it is brief. The title is a Greek name for Rameses II, the Egyptian ruler often thought of as the Pharoah of Israel’s Exodus. Shelley’s sonnet concludes with these words:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The poet makes of Ozymandias an eloquent monument to the futility of great works—and, by extension—of all work devoted to making a name for oneself. It’s work that, by raising itself up over and against all human limits and by laying claim to heaven itself, results in manifest idolatry, the exploitation of the earth, and the domination of peoples. And it ends in dust. This “king of kings” is reduced to an edifice in the midst of a desert.
Short though it is, Shelley’s poem rolls like a post-credit scene in a film we might title Babel: a “colossal wreck” made by human hands, surrounded by desert. Panning across a desolate waste, our imagined camera settles and slowly closes on piles and piles of bricks, remnants of scaffold about a great, unfinished mass, and, over everything, dust. Fade to close. As Olivia Burne unfolded in our second article on the Good of Work, Scripture’s story of Babel offers us a lens. The prototypical “mighty work,” Babel makes it clear that work has become a site of contestation with the earth, with each other, and, above all, with God. Under the fall, work tends to become a place of fear and insecurity, of a scramble to the top for ourselves; it becomes a site of exploitation, oppression, and division. It is a place where our hearts are revealed, and we experience God’s judgement on sin.
Babel is a scene that has been repeated countless times since; as Shelley’s poem reminds us, it should give us pause here and now. And yet, despite this, a memory of God’s good purposes for work persists. At some level, we resonate with the reality that work, while often difficult or fraught, is somehow a good thing. We can’t help noticing work is sometimes fulfilling, albeit in a passing way. We hanker after those times when it’s a good, even fruitful, thing. It calls to our sense of self, and it awakens hopes, even in the face of death and decay. Indeed, we may even be excited by the story of Eden, by the possibility that work is not merely a means to life, or a way of fulfilment, but a reflection of our place in things.
Such a memory persisted in Israel’s theology of the priesthood. Just as Adam and Eve were given to work and keep the garden, so the work of the priests was described using the same Hebrew words (often translated “serve” and “guard” or, more prosaically, “doing the work”: see Nm 3:7–8; 18:5–6; 1 Chr 23:32; Ez 44:14). The priests and tabernacle re-imaged Eden, recalling the good role God gave to human beings, and, with this, the meaning of work: to make known God’s good rule and will, and to work in such ways that creation is enabled to be the creation purposed by God, thereby bringing him glory.
So, as the post-credit scenes of Babel: the Recurring Story roll, we find ourselves asking: is there more to good work than a memory of Eden? How can good work be restored to us, and we to good work? Enter Jesus.
Jesus and the Work of the Father
The Levitical priesthood persisted as a sign of the need for our work to be worship, but it could only be a “shadow and a copy,” a pointer to God’s ultimate purposes (Heb 8:5). The sacrifices the priests offered for themselves and for the people day after day, generation upon generation, could not eradicate sin and death. But Jesus, who was “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners,” “sacrificed for [our] sins once for all when he offered himself” (Heb 7:26–27). In this, Jesus completes what he calls “the work of the father.” And it is in him that our role to work and keep God’s good creation is restored to us.
We recall that Adam and Eve set aside God’s gift of life and with it the calling to work to God’s glory. They chose instead to believe the lie that they could grasp at life for themselves without trust in God. All things, including work, were corrupted. But Jesus is able to accomplish all he does for the life of the world because he lives a life of unbroken trust in the one he calls his “Father.” Indeed, he says his food—the tree he eats from, if you like—“is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (Jn 4:34). Here, finally, is a human being whose work is shaped by his commitment to live from God and to live for God’s purposes and glory.
This sounds magnificent but perhaps a little removed from your 9–5 existence. So it’s worth recalling at this point that for most of his life, Jesus’s work was, as far as we know, manual and everyday; he was a carpenter, a tradie, who worked with his hands to make things for daily life (Mk 6:3). As such, we can assume he shared in many of the aspects of work we’re familiar: limitations of time, energy, and materials; the challenge of relationships at work; how best to manage money and resources; and what jobs to take on for who and how. His was, to the Roman mind, one of the servile (as opposed to the liberal) arts, and his status was pegged accordingly. In God’s identification with our life, Jesus shares in all this mundane stuff. And this is not some lack-lustre prelude to a brief but brilliant career as Saviour; his work as a day-by-day worker is just as much a part of his walk of unbroken trust in the Father as anything else that follows.
It is perhaps unsurprising then that “work” should be a recurrent way Jesus—especially in John’s Gospel—speaks about his particular mission. The fullness of what Christ accomplishes cannot, of course, be a matter of mere work—God’s redemption concerns the whole cosmos. Nevertheless, in the course of his saving work, Jesus opens up new meaning, conditions, and possibilities for our work.
Firstly, the “engine room” of Jesus’s work is his intimacy with the Father through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is a work that is from God, and done through and with God. “My Father,” Jesus says, “is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (Jn 5:17). Jesus’s work is ordered by God’s purposes and is done in partnership with God through the Spirit. Indeed, at one point he explains, “it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work”!
Secondly, the content of this good work reflects God’s purposes for creation: it is for God. Jesus exposes sham righteousness and human rebellion against God’s ways, and he lifts up the poor and needy—he heals, delivers people from evil, and brings life to people. In his death, Jesus suffers the consequences of our rejection of God—and that includes everything that menaces good work and makes it futile or worse: sin, evil, and death. Jesus’s resurrection is the Father’s exultant “Yes!” to Jesus’s “Your will be done.” It is, by extension, God’s affirmation that good work finds its completion in obedience to God’s will. In this way, Jesus’s unique work as God’s Son marks a renewal of our created purpose: to bring to bear on creation God’s good rule and will, and to work in such ways that creation is enabled to be the creation purposed by God.
Finally, Jesus’s good working is not only for God’s purposes but for God’s glory. His work is above all marked by a concern to “testify” to God—that is, to magnify and bring honour to his name. In this, too, he is restoring to humanity our role in creation: our glory and freedom is to bring glory to God through loving obedience. As such, Jesus pursues the Father’s work faithfully, with purpose and hope, confident in God’s character and design. It’s for this reason he can pray, ”I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” It’s with confidence as well as agony that his final cry from the cross is “It is finished!” (Jn 19:30).
Work Made Good: From; Through; For
To speak, then, of work’s redemption is to speak first and foremost about a decisive work of God in Jesus. Where do we see truly good work? In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In him we see a new way of working that is from God, done through the power of God, and that is for God’s redeeming purposes and glory. It’s a work grounded in unbroken trust, one heaven-bent on blessing and bringing God’s deliverance, and it is completed in free obedience to God’s will.
And so this, now, is the true condition of all good work: that it be from God, through God, and for God. As it was with Jesus, so it is with us: to live and work in this way is to find yourself participating—in the whole of your life—in God’s own good working, and to find yourself restored to our human purpose. “For we are God’s handiwork,” Paul writes to the church at Ephesus, ”created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10). We need to hear the expansiveness and liberty of this declaration. This is not a stultifying curtailment of work to evangelism and acts of charity according to heaven’s tightly managed brief. Paul is declaring that God himself has done a work that makes good work possible: we’re free again to work and keep the garden—free from sin’s curse and all the distortions this brought to our work; we’re free to work with the grain of the universe, to bless the earth and glorify God. Our work is now from God, is to be done through and with God, and has lasting meaning insofar as it is to him and for him.
So much explains the remarkable freedom of the Christian at work. For his critics ancient and modern, Jesus’s working career was a patent failure. When it came to it, what did he have to show for all his efforts in the end? He left no financial provision for the public good; he’d not built any architectural statement, no monumental reminders; he left no clear political legacy; no lasting impact on this disease or that social condition; no technological innovation; he produced nothing of material value, not even a book of his own teachings. And such inadequacy didn’t trouble his identity at all. In this, he displayed an unparalleled freedom. He was free from the need to make a name for himself, the need to prove his effectiveness, to—as we say—make a difference. His name, of course, has endured; he has made a difference, left a legacy (indeed, since the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, his body the Church has been ceaseless in its efforts). But Jesus’s work was—and remains—an overflow of his identity as the Son, his life of unbroken trust in the Father, from whom his work came, through whom it was realised, and who it glorified by free obedience.
And so it is for us: our work is from God, an out-working of our place in God’s household. Whenever you’re working, Scripture reminds us, you’re serving something or someone. However enamoured our age is with fantasies of self-fulfilment, such small-minded liberations always turn out to be chained to one or other false god, be that the ancient deity Wealth and Security, or the modern abstraction of Self-Determination. Indeed, our contemporary landscape is littered with the scaffolding and waste of myriad unfinished Babels. But followers of Jesus are free. Our identies are not secured by work, but are God’s gracious gift: “How great,” exults John, “is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” The Christian is free to work. “You have to serve somebody.”’ Yes! we say—and I serve the only good and worthy Master, the Lord Jesus!
Not only are we freed from the project of making a name for ourselves, but our freedom is such that we now have hope and purpose in our work, because God himself has underwritten our human vocation. Christ’s victory over sin, evil, and death, frees work from all those things that distort and menace it, and re-establishes God as the source and goal of our restored calling. I don’t need to use work to give me an identity, and neither do I need to use work to secure that identity against the ravages of sin, time, and death. Jesus has completed his work. God has raised his faithful worker from death. This is why Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). Insofar as our work is good—that is, insofar as it is rooted in God’s good purpose and offered to his glory—it is hopeful and purposeful here and now. As Porters Gate Worship Project put it, “Teach us to run, to finish the race, for only what’s done in love will remain” (“Establish the Work of Our Hands”). What’s done in love will remain.
Our good work is not only from God, but through and with God too. Just as Jesus did the works of his Father, joined with his Father, and found it was the Father in him at work, so this is true of us also. Our work too, can share in the relationship Jesus had with the Father, and can be empowered by the Holy Spirit. Through baptism and the gift of the Spirit, we have life in Christ, and this includes work: again, we’ve been created in Christ Jesus to do good works of God’s purpose. Like Jesus, we find the Spirit is present in our lives to enable, sustain, direct, and correct our working. This why Paul describes us as synergoi, as “fellow-workers” of God (1 Cor. 3:9). This is no mere metaphor—Paul is naming the experience of the early Church. Like Jesus, they found God’s Spirit at work in them, sustaining, directing, and enabling their endeavours. And we too are called to learn what this means where we are, with our particular roles and responsibilities: to be harnessed in tandem with Jesus, and to learn from a good master (Mt 11: 28-30).
So what does it look like to learn such collaboration with God at work—in vision setting and planning, in delivery and execution, in relationships of collaboration and contract? How might I learn to work attentive to God’s priorities and the prompting of God’s Spirit, so that like Jesus I do nothing by myself, but am about God’s work? How do I need to learn to pray and abide in Scripture so that I might work more faithfully? All these questions have answers that the Church has faithfully learned and passed down. Each of us likewise need to take up the invitation to learn what it means to be God’s fellow-worker.
Our work is to be from God and through God. And it is for God: for his purposes, and for his glory. “Let your light shine before all men, that they may see your good works, and praise your Father in heaven,” says Jesus (Mt. 5:16). What is happening here? However much we might like the idea of shining away brightly, we can’t conclude Jesus is talking about job-satisfaction for the workers. Rather, he’s naming what results when women and men faithfully reflect God’s purposes, taking up the call to work and keep the garden: the world is lit up with God’s light as people see God’s work unfolding. Good work brings a blessing to all who see it, and leads others to praise of God Most High. Our work is not for us, but is for the life of the world, and the glory of God.
Work made good: possibility, dignity, responsibility
What then characterises good work? You can find one response to this question in the companion piece to this article by Sam Bloore, “Four Ways Faith Reshapes our Work.” Here I want to unpack three ways in which Jesus’s redemption transformed the character of work: we need to consider possibilities, dignity, and responsibility.
What good work is possible? What counts as work? We’ve noted that Jesus’s life included a majority of faithful, manual work, day in and day out, before he embarked on a period of dedicated ministry. For his followers, both aspects of Jesus’s working are part of our working life, and both need to concern us: we’re right to be interested in the goodness of putting bread on the table and the goodness of God’s mission to redeem humanity. When we try to think about good work, our contemporary Christian imagination struggles, swithering between ministry and “just a job.” But this is an illusion, a variation on secularism’s division of “religious” and “non-religious” spheres. The scope of what Christ has accomplished addresses all of work: all of our working is of interest to God, and we’re called to devote all to him.
What counts as work has also been transformed by the distinctive life of the Church. As Oliver O’Donovan points out, for our secular world “work” means whatever can secure a market and sustain itself, “with the result,” he remarks, “that a great deal of frivolous and sometimes corrupting activity is dignified with the title of ‘industry’”; by the same token, we might add much that is good work—parenting, say, or the creation of art, or community building—is put in doubt.1 But now human work is sanctified, drawn into Christ’s way of working for and with the Father. So much is reflected in the fact that the birth of the Church saw the flourishing of myriad new ways of working. Work now derived its meaning not from remuneration, or the race and status of the worker, but from its dedication to the Lord. The deacons (diakonos, lit. the “household service”) of the earliest Church took up particular works for service of Christ. In this, they took up Jesus’s own example, who described himself as a diakonos, as one who serves (see Lk 22:27). Preachers and itinerant prophets were as much workers as anyone else: they could neither flaunt their status nor go unsupported by the community (see 1 Tim. 5:17-18). These patterns gave rise to many remarkable outworkings. Think, for example, of the women and men of the monastic movements by whose unremunerated efforts so much goodness was allowed to flourish amidst the cultural collapse of the Dark Ages.
Thus where the Gospel is proclaimed work is opened up to new possibilities, possibilities that are accorded dignity. Human beings love to divide things and play them off against one another. Work is often a means of differentiating between us: some work is meaningful, some is not, and the workers are accorded status and meaning accordingly. Undoubtedly, work is—as we’ve seen—a site of contestation, a means of oppression. Much work is alienating (and alienation is not just limited to assembly lines—it’s a feature of the knowledge economy too). But one of the notable impacts of the Gospel on work historically has been a confidence that even the most menial task can be an occasion to glorify God, that the humblest labour has dignity before God. For the ancients, work was at bottom a servile matter. Those who ruled, who had prestige, or who were intellectuals, didn’t work, but were understood to be men and women of leisure. While such divisions have cropped up throughout the centuries since (and still trouble us now) they were undermined in the early Church. The first Christians were not interested in work as a source of meaning and status. Every good employ was an occasion for God’s glory, and no work was beneath his notice. By the same token, those who sought to take advantage of God’s generosity by exploiting the community were exhorted to work (see 2 Thess. 3). In the community of Jesus’s followers, there’s good work for all to do, however that may be.
Because it is now about partnering with God, about the Lord’s business (whether that be preaching, painting, or pruning), work is not only satisfying in real ways, but also a matter of responsibility. Why is James so fierce with the rich in his letter to the Church? Because in gaining and hoarding at the expense of others, they’re returning to Babel, and their rebellion likewise stands condemned (Jas. 5:1-6). As the prophets of Israel make clear time and again, the Lord will hold responsible those who use work as a means of exploiting and oppressing others. More generally, we’re called to work joyfully and responsibly. Such responsibility marks Jesus’s own working: in the final agony of his death, he ensures his mother is provided for. Even as he brings to completion the work of his Father, he fulfils the duties of a son to his mother. We likewise, and in accordance with our particular gifts, context, and roles, are called to work as people answerable not simply to a line-manager or shift supervisor, but to God. In this, the clearest test is when we labour alone, or when the work is unseen, or misunderstood. Why persist in my efforts? Why avoid that shortcut? Why take such care? Because I too need to be faithful to the task at hand. What’s done in love will remain.
The final word concerns not work but rest, which is, O’Donovan notes, work’s correlative: one picks up where the other leaves off, and the two are bound together. But the point of rest, he suggests, is not merely to recover so we can get up on Monday and do it all over again (to think like this leads us back into a totalised work, something our spiritual discipline of sabbath rejects). Our pattern, rather, is the Lord God himself who, after his labours, rested on the seventh day. What did God do as he rested? He looked at his work, and saw its meaning, its character, and value: in his case, that his creation was good. We too are made to rest from work in order to take time to reflect on what has happened, on what we have made of things. “It is only as we rest that we see our work as an achievement to take satisfaction in. It puts us in a position to love our work. …We let go of our work in order to take a reflective view of it as something to be glad of” (O’Donovan, p.120). Indeed, it is through such reflection that we’re best placed to see what is lacking or false in our labour: to see oppression and injustice, to pray for God’s forgiveness in our failings, and to allow God to reorder our work and give us wisdom. Above all, it is as we rest that we can offer good work back to God in thanksgiving and praise. For, as Romans 11 reminds us,
and through him
and to him
are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen!
This is part three of a three-part Theology of Work series. You can read part one, “God, Creation, and the Good of Work,” here. You can read part two, “The Fall, Toil, and the Tower of Babel,” here.
1 I have found O’Donovan’s book Entering Into Rest (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017) particularly helpful for thinking about work. Here see p. 129. More generally, see pp. 104-134.
(Image by Mateusz Butkiewicz, CC Zero)