This past week, I taught on the theology of work at our chapel’s Wednesday Night Live program, using my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work as a resource. It was week two of our ten-week study. We had nine students in attendance, up from six the first week, which was encouraging to me.
As it often happens when I teach from God’s Word, I veered a little from my notes when inspiration struck. Quite unexpectedly, I came up with a critical connection to the NT and an application that somehow I had not expressed in my book. I would like to recall some of the things I presented, which may be as helpful to others as it was to my class.
First, let me set the stage as to what led to this inspired bunny trail.
After welcoming the new students and introducing the topic by reading a few quotes from chapter 3 in my book, I laid a solid scriptural foundation to describe how the triune God is a worker. We started with Gen. 1:1, where we see that God created the heavens and the earth. Next, we read Gen. 2:2-3, where the word “work” is used three times to describe what God did in those first six days.
We moved on to show how the LORD God called Adam to be His co-worker. This concept is described in Gen. 2:4-5, which is referred to as the creation or cultural mandate. God blessed Adam with the responsibility to expand His creation. Timothy Keller, in his book, Every Good Endeavor, states, “We are given specific work to do because we are made in God’s image.”
We then took a quick peek at Gen. 2:4-5, which highlighted God’s plan to work with Adam as His co-worker to cultivate the ground. God would provide the rain and Adam would provide the manpower. Next, we read Gen. 2:8, where we see that God had planted the Garden of Eden and had put the man there. A few verses later, we see the purpose for Adam’s geographic assignment. Gen. 2:15 informs us that God put Adam in the garden “to work it and take care of it.”
Anyone who has worked in a garden of their own knows how much work is entailed to get the ground ready, to remove the rocks and other vegetation, lay out rows for seeds, plant those seeds, cover them with dirt, water them until they grow, and keep the garden free of weeds and cute furry herbivores.
The idea that Moses was trying to get across to his audience and to us is that Adam’s number one job was to protect the garden and to expand it.
Tim Keller, in Every Good Endeavor has expounded on what it meant for Adam to take care of the garden. He argues, “The material creation was made by God to be developed, cultivated, and cared for in an endless number of ways through human labor.”
Later, Keller instructs, “The word ‘subdue’ might be read to imply that the forces of nature were adversarial and needed to be conquered in some way.” He continues, “‘ruling’ the world as God’s image bearers should be seen as stewardship or trusteeship. God owns the world, but he has put it under our care to cultivate it.”
Keller challenges us to consider what God’s blessing of working in the garden entails: “Just as he subdued the earth in his work of creation, so he calls us now to labor as his representatives in a continuation and extension of that work of subduing.”
Michael Wittmer, in his insightful book, Becoming Worldly Saints, adds a little humor to our discussion. Evidently, the original readers who understood the Hebrew language may have been amused by the fact that Adam’s name and vocation were linked linguistically. He mentions that since God made Adam from the earth, Adam’s name actually means “dirt”. Wittmer observes that we have similar theologically appropriate male names today, such as Clay, Dusty, and Sandy.
Back to last week’s class.
It occurred to me as we were discussing these passages that there were a few parallels worth mentioning between the creation mandate in Gen. 1:28 and the Great Commission in Matt. 28:18-20. I thought that since they were more familiar to the latter, this might help my students understand the former by seeing the continuity between these two commandments. Teachers create connections.
The first command was given by God to Adam at the creation of the world. The other one was given by Jesus to His disciples at the creation of the church. B oth divine commands apply to us today.
We, like Adam, are made in God’s image; as the church, we are being remade into the image of Jesus Christ. (See Rom. 8:29, 1 Cor. 15:49, and 2 Cor. 3:18.) We are called to multiply ourselves in order to expand God’s Kingdom on earth. God requires our participation in completing what He began. Most importantly, God’s presence is promised in the doing of this hard work by His coworkers.
Other than acknowledging Jesus’ direct statement about the presence of the triune God to His disciples as He was about to depart, I had not addressed these connections in my book. I think I will have to do more research to see if any of the other writers on this topic had noticed the same thing.
I was also able to make a personal application during this lesson, one that I was surprised I missed when writing my book. It occurred to me that just as Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden for God’s purposes, to work with God as his co-worker, we too have been placed by God in our own respective figurative gardens to fulfill God’s purposes there.
I know that everywhere I went, either by my own decision or by Uncle Sam reassigning me while I was on active duty, God always had a purpose for me there. I was called to take care of the people and things He entrusted to me and to expand His kingdom by multiplying myself through discipleship.
I trust that these observations and application will be helpful to those who are wrestling with their own understanding of the theology of work. These are fundamental biblical principles that can be life-changing as we face going to work each day. My vision is that Christians who experience God’s presence at work will say, “Thank God it’s Monday!” and not just wait until Friday to be thankful.
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.