Question: "What is a biblical theology of work?"
Answer: God created human beings to work. The first instruction God gave Adam was to work, to tend the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15). Unfortunately, over the centuries, the term work has gained some negative connotations. We often view work as a difficult or unpleasant activity we are forced to perform. However, work is simply engaging in physical or mental activity in order to achieve a purpose or result. Lifting a spoon to one’s mouth is work. Creating a song or poem to express the heart is work because such an activity is performed in order to achieve a result. In Western culture, the word work is most commonly associated with one’s profession or means of livelihood, as in “he went to work today,” meaning “he is employed in a job and will spend the day accomplishing his assigned duties.”
Work was given before sin entered the world and therefore is a part of God’s perfect creation. Work was not a result of the fall; the fall only made work more difficult (Genesis 3:17–19). Tending Eden was designed to be a pleasant and rewarding occupation for Adam. He would have loved caring for the garden and would have found it fulfilling and purposeful. God created Man to enjoy work so that God could enjoy watching him, just as parents enjoy watching their children achieve a new skill or create an art project.
Work helps fulfill man’s need for purpose. Unlike the animals, which are motivated by instinct and physical need, human beings operate from higher motivations. In addition to our bodily requirements for survival, we crave meaning in our lives. We need a reason to get up in the mornings. We need to know why we are here and whether life has purpose. Work was designed to be a partial fulfillment of those needs.
Work is the way we provide for our basic needs and help others who may be unable to work (Ephesians 4:28). Laziness, the habitual avoidance of work, is condemned in Scripture (Proverbs 13:4; 21:25). We are to embrace the work God has given us to do and express gratitude to Him that we have the ability to provide for ourselves and our families. Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” God instituted the tithe in the Old Testament as a reminder to the people that it was God who was blessing the work of their hands (Leviticus 27:30; Numbers 18:28–29).
People who neglected to provide for their families were condemned by the early church (1 Timothy 5:8). Paul gave instructions that those who refused to work should not be allowed to eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). He also reminded the churches that, even though he had the right to earn his living solely from his ministry to them, he also worked as a tentmaker to provide for himself (Acts 18:3; 20:34; 1 Thessalonians 2:9).
Jesus worked. It would have been understandable if the Son of God had spent all His time in the temple, discussing Scripture. But, for the first thirty years of His life, Jesus worked with his earthly father, Joseph, as a carpenter (Mark 6:3; Luke 2:51–52).
The biblical theology of work is that work was designed by God as man’s earthly occupation. It is the means by which we sustain life and make discoveries about God’s world. We were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and God works (Psalm 19:1; John 5:19). His work is creative, purposeful, and thorough; it is enjoyable to Him and beneficial to us (Psalm 92:4). One day, in the new heaven and the new earth, work will be returned to its pre-fall condition—it will be a fulfillment to us and a blessing to everyone else.