Friday 2 March 2012


We begin a new series looking at what the bible says about work - Why do I work? What work should I do? Why is work so hard? These are questions - you might be surprised to learn - that the bible deals with right from the beginning. But it does so not by looking at our work, but first by looking at God’s. Turn with me to Genesis, the first book of the bible, where we see God's work in creation.

Genesis 1, verse 1, reads, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The very first definition of God is that of creator. He speaks creation into being. “Let there be light, and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). God’s power is displayed in his word. Let there be... and there was!

But Genesis also teaches us, that God’s power is seen in his work.

The working God

“Work” is precisely the word used in Chapter 2 to summarise the entire act of creation in Chapter 1.

Thus the heavens and earth were completed in their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.
Genesis 2:1-2

God is the creator God. God is the working God. On the last day - the seventh day - he finished the work he had been doing; God rested from all his work.

But what kind of work is this? God has just created the world. It is work that displays his creativity. It is work that displays his awesome power. Today, the most powerful and creative people are those that work at companies like Apple designing the next iPad. Or it is the project manager overseeing the construction of a skyscraper. Or the engineer working at the CERN super-collider.

And yet what Genesis 2 goes on to show us is that God’s work is lowly work. God’s work is, in fact, manual work. Because Genesis 2 introduces us to God as the gardener.

Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground— trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.
Genesis 2:8-9

God plants a garden. He plants all kinds of trees in this garden - trees that are good to look at; trees that are good for food. That is, after the end of Chapter 1, where God has spoken the universe into being - setting the sun and moon in place, separating the sea from the land, creating all manner of plant and animal life - Genesis 2 shifts the attention away from the fireworks - away from the skyscrapers, away from the office - and instead focuses the camera on one spot, taking us to God’s backyard, as if to say, this garden is where we really see God in action. He gets his hands dirty. God starts with an empty patch of ground, he gets on his knees to plants shrubs and fruit trees and bushes with colourful flowers. This is God’s work. This is God’s world.

Why is this important? Because this is also our work. God involves man in his work in his world.

1. God involves us in his work

The LORD God took and man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
Genesis 2:15

The Hebrew word for work is “ebed” which literally means “to serve”. God puts the man in the garden to “serve” the ground, by getting his hands dirty digging into the ground. In other words, this is manual labour. This is Adam’s first job. And it has all the dignity and value of serving God himself (and if you look closely, of serving like God himself).

This is Adam’s first job given him by God as an act of service, worship and stewardship. Adam was a gardener, just like God.

My first point is this: Any job and every job has worth in God’s eyes, even the lowly ones. Or should I say, especially the lowly ones. If we understand the bible as Christians, we can never look down on any job. No matter how lowly-paid it is. No matter how smelly it is. All work is valuable work in God’s eyes.

Remember that Jesus was a carpenter (the Greek word “tekton” in Matthew 13:55 refers to a skilled-worker or even a construction worker). He worked with his hands which were more than likely covered with cuts and callouses. Peter, James and John were fishermen. Do you have relatives working as fishermen? You smell them the moment they enter a room and you smell them long after they leave. Paul worked as a tent-maker. He didn’t get a job at the Theology Department lecturing Greek when he visited Cambridge, though he certainly had the qualification to do so. No, he was at the Market Square fixing bikes all day, so that on the weekends he could preach at the Chinese Church and not have to ask anyone to cover his water bill. These men were not ashamed of work - hard work, even. In fact, in Paul’s case he intentionally took up a job so that he could offer the message of the gospel for free, and not have to rely on other Christians (1 Corinthians 9:18).

Christians should not be afraid of hard work, and indeed, ought to recognise the value of hard work because we worship a working God. We worship God with our work.

The problem arises when we do not see work as an occupation; work as a job; but work as a status symbol: When we see work not as work, but as a career. Instead of worshipping God with our work, we end up worshipping our career as God.

A career is a ladder we climb that leads first and foremost to my advancement and my success. Work then becomes a means of getting to that next step in my career, not at all something worth in and of itself in the sight of God. For the sake of my career, I will only do work that advances my career. As I am rewarded with the nice car, the office with a view, the embossed business cards - these affirm my importance in the company and my contribution to society within my career; but less and less the actual work that I do, or my true status as child of God. So when I introduce myself to someone for the first time, it is much easier to say that I am an IT programmer, to tell a stranger which company I work for, than it is to simply say to a colleague I know well and see every single day in the coffee room that I am a Christian and that I spent Sunday afternoon with other Christians listening to what Word of God has to say about work. Why? Because I don’t want to be thought of as strange, but also because talking about my job means I get to talk about me - what I’m doing in my life, what are my goals and aspirations.

And when my job isn’t that of a doctor, lawyer, architect, programmer and I come to a place like the Chinese Church where the most respected Christians are doctors, lawyers, architects and programmers - why then, I immediately change the subject and talk about the weather. If that’s you, hear what the bible is saying to you today. God appreciates your work. Your work, perhaps more than the doctor’s, or lawyer’s, programmer’s or architect’s is likely to be more valuable in God’s eyes.

And what I want you to see next is that God blesses you in your work.

2. God blesses us through our work

And the LORD God commanded the man, You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.
Genesis 2:16-17

This is the same Garden of Eden, that God had planted, that Adam is now charged to work on and to take care of. And God says to Adam, he may eat free from any and every tree in this garden (Any, that is, except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We’ll back come to that later.)

Adam’s food comes from Adam’s work and God provides both.

When Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11) he did not mean for us to sit on our backsides all day waiting for the pizza to be delivered. It was the prayer of the labourer who was paid at the end of the day, enough for the day, for a whole day’s work. The Christian who says to God, “Give us today our daily bread,” but refuses to find a job is not displaying faith but rather, is being lazy and disobedient.

So much so, that in the New Testament, Paul says to the Thessalonians:

For even when we were with you we gave you this rule: If a man will not work, he shall not eat.
2 Thessalonians 3:10

Don’t take God’s grace for granted. That is what Paul is saying. Work is given us by God as a grace, so that we can provide for ourselves and for others. When we reject work, we reject God’s provision. When we refuse to work we take God’s grace for granted.

We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies.
2 Thessalonians 3:11

What Paul is refuting is idleness. Laziness. Staying in your parent’s home, sleeping in the mornings, sponging off the goodwill of others, and refusing to be productive; spending all your time on Facebook and blogging about how the government should fix the economy and complaining about how bad the last Transformers movie was. Paul says, “They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread that they eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:11-12).

This is a verse that many a graduating student would do well to take to heart. I know it is the last long summer holiday you expect to have in some time and you want to take that extended trip around Europe. I know that you never wanted to be an engineer after all and would like to explore your options as crime-fiction novelist. I know you could earn so much more money with that MBA instead of starting out at the same level like all the other fresh grads doing data entry.

But are you simply avoiding the reality that you need to work? That you have made a commitment to work - to a scholarship body or to your parents? That, even though, the position offered you isn’t as lucrative as you thought it was going to be, it is nonetheless honest work?

Now it is worth noticing that the problem Paul is dealing with is not simply unemployment. One million youths in the UK today are unemployed. A staggering rate of 8.3 per cent of the population are without jobs, a situation that Britain has not seen for 17 years. It is difficult to find work in this economic climate.

But even that’s you, I hope you will guard yourselves against idleness. That’s the heart of the issue for Paul who tells the Christians to “keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). It is the Christians brother who refuses to find work but instead takes advantage of the goodwill of others and causes problems within the church. Be gainfully occupied and more importantly be willing to work, and to work hard. And just to state the obvious, watching Big Bang Theory and updating your Facebook status all day doesn’t count! There is a place for these things (and we’ll see that in a moment), but it will tempting to fill up your time selfishly and destructively.

To recap: (1) All work is from God, especially lowly work. Don’t reject work simply because it doesn’t fit in with your idea of career. Concentrate of working in such a way as to glory God in your work. (2) All work is God’s means of blessing us; of providing for us and our families.

But finally and most importantly, work isn’t all there is. The purpose of work is rest.

3. God blesses us with his rest

Thus the heavens and earth were completed in their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.
Genesis 2:1-2

For six days, God works. On the seventh, God rests. The Hebrew word for “rest” is where we get the English word, “Sabbath”. It is the reason why the Israelites were commanded by Moses to Sabbath, or to stop all forms of labour, on the seventh day. It is why we have the weekend.

What do you do on your weekend? A silly question since you’re all here in church. But what is the weekend for? Some will say, “To relax and to recharge.” Others, “To get away from the office.” Still others, “To spend time with family.” And I’m sure some of you will say to me, “To worship God.”

But looking at Genesis 2, a more fundamental question to ask would be: Why does God rest? Is he taking a holiday? Does God need a break from creating the universe to catch up on Jeremy Lin's latest game on TV?

Rather, looking at Genesis, we see that God finished his work of creating the world. His work is done. And the seventh day, the resting day is there for God to enjoy his finished work. The purpose of the Sabbath is God’s joy. That’s what rest means. It means to enter into God’s enjoyment of his creation, where he sits back, looking at all his hands have made, and says, “It is very good.”

Work is not all there is, but points us to the purpose of work, which is rest. The hard worker knows this.

The sleep of a labourer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.
Ecclesiastes 5:12

Rest is reward for the hard worker. The Sabbath is God’s reward for his servants. The weekend isn’t just there to get away from it all; to switch off from work. No, if you understand work as God’s means of blessing you, you can look back on the last six days - no matter how hard it has been, no matter how difficult your colleagues and fellow students were, no matter how many mistakes you made - without regrets and full of thankfulness to God and joy in your heart. If you understand work, you will understand rest.

I hope you enjoy your weekends. You know, D,W,J and P always plan these amazing trips away and if you’ve ever been on holiday with them, or seen the photos they’ve taken, you’ll know how much fun and adventure they have together. They laugh about all the times they had, the food they ate, the stupid things they did. Yet D can tell you, planning for these trips can be stressful. It takes time, money, patience (especially with these guys). Sometimes, you plan for these holidays because things are tough at work. Sometimes you go on these holidays because something inside you said, “I need this!”

And what I’m getting at is: Holidays are meaningless to those who don’t need them. Sundays don’t mean a thing if you aren’t gainfully occupied the rest of the week. Your struggles at work awaken your need for rest. The reasons why some people can’t sleep, is simply because they have wasted the day. They stay up, trying to do something meaningful, something fun, something that will make the day count. But the sleep of the labourer is sweet. He knows how to rest because he knows what it means to work.

In a way, that’s just common sense. In fact, Christians call this common grace. It is a rhythm of life that God sets into all of his creation. Whether you are a Christian or not a Christian, we can see this connection between work and rest in our daily lives.

After the fall

Yet, at this point we need to see that Genesis 2 describes our relationship with God before sin. The man is still in the garden enjoying God’s provision, meeting with God as you would a friend. But in Genesis 3, everything changes. The man and the woman are kicked out of the garden and forbidden from ever coming back. The whole creation is cursed with death and decay. Why?

The answer is not: because man didn’t work hard enough. It is not that Adam failed to do God’s work. It was that he rebelled against God’s word.

To Adam he said, Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,' Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
Genesis 3:17

Adam had disobeyed God’s instructions forbidding him from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God had warned him, “When you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). But the man and woman refused to obey God’s rules. It wasn’t good enough that the man and woman were free to eat from any other tree in the garden. They wanted to be able to eat from this tree as well.

This is what the bible calls sin. Now, sin isn’t so much breaking the rules as it is making the rules. Yes, it is true that Adam and Eve broke God’s one rule about not eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But the heart of sin is wanting to be like God, knowing good and evil, which was the temptation of the serpent in the garden (Genesis 3:5). They didn’t want God telling them what was good or evil, Adam and Eve wanted to decide for themselves what was good and evil. What Eve saw in the fruit was “good” (Genesis 3:6) not evil, so she took it, ate it and gave some to her husband. In doing so, Adam and Eve were deciding to be their own gods, making the rules for their own lives, and disobeying God’s rule over their lives. The bible calls this sin.

And notice, that for Adam, God’s punishment for his sin falls upon his work.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.
Genesis 3:18-19

God curses the ground, such that it would no longer produce fruit but “thorns and thistles”. For Adam, work has turned to toil. He still has to work, for he still has to eat, but he does so, “by the sweat of [his] brow”.

Because of the fall, all work is hard work, disproportionately so. It doesn’t matter that your workplace serves free sandwiches at lunch. It doesn’t matter how nice a guy your boss is in the office. It doesn’t matter how many laws are passed regulating work conditions and protecting employees from unfair treatment. Work at any job long enough and there will be days when you wish you did something else. All work is hard work. All work, after the fall, has become toil.

The reason is death, which  is God’s punishment over Adam’s sin. “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Understanding this, we are better prepared to look at what God’s rest means in the bible. Rest is ultimately not that weekend barbeque or that holiday trip to Word Alive. God’s rest is rescue from his punishment of death upon our sin.

Come to Jesus

Two thousand years ago a humble carpenter from a small town in Galilee, said these words:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus offers us rest for our souls. And notice how this rest comes to us: by taking his yoke upon our shoulders; by learning from his humility. A yoke is a wooden frame you put on oxen, with which these oxen pull a cart or a plough through a field. It is a picture of intense hard work; it is imagery of a great burden to bear.

Except that Jesus says his yoke is easy. His burden is light. Why? Because as you are joined to Jesus, he carries all the weight. He does all the work. And he gives you all his rest.

On the cross, Jesus bore the full weight of the punishment of our sin. He took God’s anger and our curse of death upon himself. That was the work he came to earth to do and he did it on our behalf. The message of the good news - the gospel - is that by trusting in Jesus’ death on the cross, we enter into his reward. We enter into God’s eternal rest. We join in fellowship with our God and Father who rejoices over us, his new creation.

Weak and wounded sinner
Lost and left to die
O, raise your head, for love is passing by
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus and live! 

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