Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor

Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor

by Ben Witherington III


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Most Christians spend most of their waking hours working, yet many regard work as at best a necessary evil — just one more unfortunate by-product of humanity’s fall from grace. Not so, says Ben Witherington III, and in Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor, he considers work as neither the curse nor the cure of human life but, rather, as something good that God has given us to do. In this brief primer on the biblical theology and ethics of work, Witherington carefully unpacks the concept of work, considering its relationship to rest, play, worship, the normal cycle of human life, and the coming Kingdom of God. Work as calling, work as ministry, work as a way to make a living, and the notably unbiblical notion of retirement — Witherington’s Work engages these subjects and more, combining scholarly acumen with good humor, common sense, cultural awareness, and biblically based insights from Genesis to Revelation. “Ben Witherington has given the whole people of God something desperately needed to make sense of Monday to Friday — a theology of work that breaks down the heretical sacred-secular distinction. . . . Offers a work-view and life-view that, if embraced, would revitalize the mission of God’s people in the world. It’s that good.” — R. Paul Stevens author of The Other Six Days and Taking Your Soul to Work “Conducting a critical dialogue with the theological voices of our day, drawing upon the wisdom of the Christian tradition, and offering a sensitive reading of New Testament parables, Witherington delivers sound counsel on the Kingdom meaning of work and its implications for our lives today.” — Lee Hardy author of The Fabric of This World

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802865410
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 01/15/2011
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 984,193
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.47(d)

About the Author

Ben Witherington III is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. Related "kingdom" books of his include Imminent Domain: The Story of the Kingdom of God and Its Celebration

Read an Excerpt


A Kingdom Perspective on Labor
By Ben Witherington III

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Ben Witherington III
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6541-0

Chapter One

An Opus That Is Magnum: On the Goodness of Work

What is — "Paradise" — Who live there — Are they "Farmers" — Do they "hoe" — Do they know that this is "Amherst" — And that I — am coming — too — Emily Dickinson

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made By singing: — "Oh, how beautiful!" and sitting in the shade. Rudyard Kipling

Though Jesus stilled a storm, he didn't remove all storms from the life of the world; though Jesus cured individuals of diseases, he didn't rid the world of those diseases. To use the Gospel of John's "sign" language, Jesus' actions point to a future world, thereby signaling that the kind of world Isaiah envisioned is on its way. Jesus provided signs of a different future that God has in store for the natural world. Terence Fretheim

A Creation and New Creation Perspective on Work

Somewhere along the line, Adam got a bad rap, or at least the God of Adam did. Someone somewhere misread the story of Creation and Fall and came to the conclusion that work was a result of the Fall, not part of God's original creation design for human beings. On closer inspection, it is perfectly clear that God's good plan always included human beings working, or, more specifically, living in the constant cycle of work and rest. Permanent rest was to come only when one was "gathered to one's fathers," to use the patriarchal term. Permanent rest was to come only when one had been interred and had an R.I.P. sign over one's head. Barbara Brown Taylor writes that many readers of Genesis 1–3 "have somehow gotten the idea that physical labor is part of God's curse — labor pains for the woman and field labor for the man — until labor itself gets all mixed up with punishment. Clearly, this is not so. The earthling's first divine job is to till the earth and keep it."

Even just a momentary glance at the creation story tells us that work was meant to be in our DNA from the outset — God called humanity to fill the earth and subdue it. As Terence Fretheim has recently pointed out, the verb subdue in Genesis 1:28 indicates that even before the Fall, while the creation God made was "good," this does not mean it was tranquil and tame. There was a built-in wildness to it, and various kinds of inherent potential for growth and development. Furthermore, there is no reason for us to think that subduing the world is supposed to be easy or idyllic. Think of the back-breaking, bone-wearying work of someone like Daniel Boone, trailblazing and subduing the Kentucky wilderness. And here is where the Fall comes into the picture.

It is not work itself but the toilsomeness of work that was added to the equation as a result of the curse involved in the Fall. Both man and woman would experience "labor pains," indicates Genesis 3 — man in manipulating the good earth, woman in giving birth to children. But even here, what is said about the woman is that her pain in childbirth would be increased, which implies there was pain already inherent in the process of giving birth. Pain itself is not entirely a result of the Fall. In this case, "no pain, no childbirth" is what Genesis suggests. And there is another factor. Paul reminds us in Romans 8 that the whole of creation itself was subjected in the Fall, subject to futility, as he puts it, and therefore longs for liberation as much as we do. The earth itself is not at its best and some of it is quite resistant to use or change, much less to subduing or tending.

But it's not just all about subduing an unruly and unruled earth. In fact, the earliest full images of human work and purpose are found in Genesis 2:15: "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it." The first profession for humans, it would appear, was gardening. "Here human work is shown to have worth and dignity as a service to God and as something that gives purpose to human life. Work here is a creation ordinance, a God-appointed necessity for human life." W. R. Forrester, in reflecting on Genesis 1–3, concludes, "Man was meant to be a gardener, but by reason of his sin he became a farmer."

None of this, however, should lead us to the conclusion that good work, of whatever sort, is inherently futile or a result of the Fall. Indeed, even hard work, even hard manual labor is commended in the Scriptures, and sloth, as we shall see, is roundly condemned. In his crucial discussion of the matter Terence Fretheim makes the following key observation:

Genesis does not present the creation as a finished product, wrapped up with a big red bow and handed over to the creatures to keep it exactly as originally created. It is not a one-time production. Indeed, for the creation to stay just as God originally created it would constitute a failure of the divine design. From God's perspective, the world needs work; development and change are what God intends for it, and God enlists human beings (and other creatures) to that end. From another angle, God did not exhaust the divine creativity in the first week of the world; God continues to create and uses creatures in a vocation that involves the becoming of creation.

But my concern in this study is not merely to rehabilitate our notions of work by correcting bad exegesis of Genesis 1–3. My concern is to ask and answer the question of how work looks different in the light of Kingdom come, how work looks different if one believes Christ has changed the eschatological situation by his coming and that this affects the way we look at all we do as Christians.

The first thing to point out about the coming Kingdom is that Jesus did not come to declare an eternal holiday for his followers. The year of Jubilee, which Jesus invoked in his teaching, did not mean a year of no work of any sort. It meant, rather, a newfound dedication to doing the Lord's work. Listen for a moment to how Jesus describes why he came to this earth in John 9:4: "I must work the works of the One who sent me while it is day; the night comes when no one can work." In this passage Jesus is not talking about the twenty-four-hour cycle of light and darkness, of work and rest, that we all experience all the time. No, he is looking at things from an eschatological perspective, and with some urgency. He believes he has a limited duration on this earth, and he also believes God has sent him on a mission to accomplish certain things in this life, and he knows that he needs to get on with what God sent him to do. In the same manner, we all have a limited duration on this earth to accomplish what God put us here for, and so we too should have some urgency about getting on with the job.

The portrait of Jesus in John 9:4 comports with the fact that God is constantly portrayed in the Bible as a vigorous worker in the world, not merely a creator but also a redeemer, and not merely a redeemer but also a sustainer, and in the last days also a quality control manager — that is, a judge of works (see, for example, Ps. 107; John 5:17). If, as Paul Minear stresses, the God of the Bible is "pre-eminently a worker," it is no surprise Jesus is as well — like Father, like Son. It is also no surprise, then, that once Jesus has gathered his Twelve he sends them out two by two on a work detail!

God the Worker and His Workmanship

In one sense we should have known this from the beginning. After all, isn't God depicted as working with his hands to fashion Adam in the first place from the dust of the earth (Gen. 2)? And aren't there various other places where God is depicted as a potter in the Bible, fashioning not just human beings, but all of creation? Psalm 8:3 says the universe is the work of his fingers! Picture a God so enormous that creating the vast universe is like fashioning small bits of clay. Or consider Job 38:14: "The earth takes shape like a lump of clay under a seal; its features stand out like those of a garment."

Furthermore, God doesn't set creation in motion and leave it to its own devices, like the watchmaker God envisioned by William Paley. No, God is hands-on, constantly tinkering and intervening, like a gardener always on the job, or a potter always at the wheel. Notice, for example, how Isaiah 45:7 and Amos 4:13, among other texts, reveal God designing particular features of our world, including ordering the seasons, sending the rain and sunshine (see also Ps. 74:17 and Jer. 31:35). God makes the animals (Gen. 1; Job 40–41), and above all he makes the human animal. This is why one of the enduring and endearing images of the relationship of God to his image is that found in Isaiah 64:8: "We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand." Indeed, Jeremiah even suggests that God shapes the unborn child in the womb (1:5).

Sometimes the image of God as potter and humans as his vessels is used to remind us, the vessels, that we are not in a position to question or critique our maker, who knows better than we what we were fashioned for. Certainly part of what the Bible says we are fashioned for is work, and worship, and rest, and play. "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'He did not make me'? Can the pot say of the potter, 'He knows nothing'?" (Isa. 29:16; see also Isa. 45:9; Rom. 9:19-24). The image also suggests that, like a potter, God can refashion or shatter what he has made. God is hands-on, even after the initial creation of the vessel. But there is more. The image of potter and vessels suggests that different vessels are made for different purposes, and here we get into the realm of human vocation.

In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work. (2 Tim. 2:20-21)

Notice three things about this passage from 2 Timothy: (1) different vessels are made for different purposes, but all have a purpose; (2) any vessel, if it cleanses itself, can be made useful for an honorable purpose; (3) the function of any and all such cleansed vessels is good works! Human beings were intended to work, and not just to do any kind of work, but to do good works, doing them in accord with the way we have been fashioned, the abilities we have been given, and therefore the vocations for which we are best suited.

The potter is far from the only metaphorical description of God as a constant worker in the Bible. God is also described as metalworker, garment maker, dresser, gardener, farmer, winemaker, shepherd, tentmaker, builder, architect, musician, and composer. What this vast array of images of God as worker suggests is that God is involved in every good aspect of life, and indeed is the inspirer and equipper of all good work. And what these images equally suggest is that God models good work, and indeed we become God's co-workers, as we shall discuss in due course. God not only models work of various kinds; he also shares creativity and power with those he works with, choosing to work in community, from the dawn of Creation when he says, "Let us make man ..." and on an ongoing basis ever since. Fretheim concludes,

While creatures are deeply dependent upon God for their creation and life, God has chosen to establish an interdependent relationship with creatures with respect to both originating creation and continuing creation. God's approach to creation is communal, relational, and, in the wake of God's initiating activity, God works from within the world rather than on the world from without.... God's word in creation is often a communicating with others, rather than a top-down word. The creation texts thus show a sharp interest on God's part in sharing creative activity.

While I would qualify this remark by saying that sometimes God does act on the creation from outside of the creation (e.g., in a theophany), basically Fretheim is right. Divine intervention, however, only supplements ongoing divine involvement within the space-time continuum.

I agree with Robert Banks when he says that we should not ignore or dismiss these metaphorical images as if they can tell us nothing of importance about God or ourselves:

Rather than leading us astray from a profound understanding of God, images such as those we have considered serve to draw us further into God's mind. They do so because they are themselves an expression of God's imagination. As such they give clearer definition of who God is and what God does. They also bring the everyday work in which we are engaged into closer contact with the character and purposes of God.

These metaphors show us that God is indeed involved with, indeed revels in, the mundane and the ordinary. God is not just interested in our "religious" activities; he wants us to know the purpose and worth of all our work, and all of his work, whether it involves creation or re-creation, invention or redemption.

A Word to the Wise about Work's Purpose

I would suggest, without encouraging us to have Messiah complexes, that the same thing is true of each of us created in God's image that is true of God: we are called to be workers and that is an essential part of our purpose and mission on earth, all the more so since we now have God's salvation in Christ to proclaim to the world. We all have a limited time on earth, whether short or long, and we all have a God-given purpose on earth, regardless of whether we realize it.

Certainly one of the most miserable things a human can experience is the feeling of not knowing what she ought to be doing with her life. To avoid this feeling, we must grasp that our God-given purpose has a goal, a telos, to use the Greek term, not merely a terminus, and it most certainly involves us working, indeed working hard, for the Kingdom. We work with one eye on the horizon, realizing that the clock is ticking. But if we are working for the Kingdom, this means we also have a theological vision of work, a vision of what is worth doing and what is not, a desire to please the Master who gave us these tasks, and a teleological perspective striving for excellence — for anything worth doing is worth doing well, as well as is humanly possible. In short, our vision of work must be both eschatological and ethical, both theological and teleological.

On Being and Doing

We could debate endlessly whether being or doing is more important, but the fact is that both are equally important. We are to be new creatures in Christ, but as Paul says in Ephesians 2:13, we have been re-created in Christ "for good works," and not just to bask in the glow of our conversion experiences. One of my colleagues has a coffee cup that reads:

To be is to do — Plato To do is to be — Aristotle Do be do be do — Frank Sinatra

What this humorous mug shows is that being and doing are quite naturally intertwined and interdependent. This should be perfectly obvious to a Christian. You can't engage in Christian mission or work without first being a Christian! This should be obvious. But here is an important point — our purpose in life involves doing as much as being, and thus it is no wonder that if and when we come to the point of no longer having something meaningful and purposeful to do, something that takes us out of our own comfort zones and away from our pampering and serving ourselves, it is easy to see why we feel useless or purposeless in life. I am not suggesting that we can or should allow ourselves to be reduced to the equation you are what you do; I am simply saying that doing is essential to being if you are created in God's image, and there is no point in life when it ceases to be essential to who we are, short of death.

Bad Theologies of Work and Rest

I have been surprised over the years at what an ambivalent attitude many Christians display about work. I think some of this has to do with our theological assumptions. When we assume that salvation is purely a matter of being rescued by God, quite apart from our own best efforts, it is all too easy to develop a vision of work as something superfluous, as having nothing to do with our salvation. Too often we hear of a simplistic contrast between faith and works, or salvation and works, or grace and works, and too often this hard contrast leads to a distorted view of work.


Excerpted from Work by Ben Witherington III Copyright © 2011 by Ben Witherington III. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface: Caution-Work in Progress vii

1 An Opus That Is Magnum: On the Goodness of Work 1

2 A Theology of Work as Vocation 23

3 Slackers and Sloths of the World, Unite! 53

4 Call Forwarding and Vocation's Variation 67

5 Work as Ministry, Ministry as Work 79

6 Seeing the World from the Crouch Position: Work as Culture Making 99

7 New Balance: The Relationship of Work to Faith, Rest, and Play 129

Overtime: Take This Job and … 155

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