The Believer as a Worker
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
Many people define themselves by the work they do. As Christians we are called to work for the Lord. He calls us, equips us, and defines the sphere of our labours and, in a coming day, He will review and reward us. As the apostles faced the daunting task of world evangelism, it was reassuring to know that the Lord was working with them.1 We may be just as sure that He will be with us. Scripture teaches, however, that our labour could be useless if undertaken with unworthy motives.2 The indispensible motivation is love to Christ, driven by a burning sense of His love for us.3
‘I would not work my soul to save,
That work my Lord has done;
But I would work like any slave
For love of God’s dear Son’.
This paper surveys the topic of working for God.4 We begin by observing that God sets an example to us by His glorious workmanship both in creation and redemption. The main part of the paper surveys spiritual work as depicted by three disciplines: agriculture, construction, and care. We conclude on the solemn subject of review and reward.
The opening chapters of the Bible present God as the consummate workman. He calls the universe into being, and perfects the heavens and earth by His handiwork in His six great creative days. He takes pleasure in His work.5 Following this He rests on the seventh day, setting a pattern for mankind thereafter. Work – the Creator’s appointment – is seen to be good for man, tending and developing that which God had created.6 Following the fall, work remains God’s appointment, but its character changes to arduous toil. Whilst the focus of this paper is spiritual work, each of us should see our workaday lives as God’s gracious provision for us, and a vital means whereby we can serve and glorify Him.
The physical creation becomes the environment in which a far greater work of God takes place, the work of redemption. The Lord could say: ‘The Father works hitherto and I work’.7 Paul reminds the Ephesians that ‘we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works’.8 God is the supreme architect and builder, and the magnificence of His city will be the wonder of the eternal world.9 God is characterized by boundless initiative and creativity, and His beloved Son could say, ‘I must work the works of Him that sent me’.10 All this effort on the part of divine persons surely points us to our responsibilities as His blessed and grateful people.
Work, especially its near-relation ‘labour’, can be daunting and discouraging if undertaken alone. The New Testament word for labour, kopiao, denotes work which involves weariness, toil, and distress. How much of this do we experience as we seek to serve the Lord?
Happily God commends fellowship in His work: ‘Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labour’, Eccles. 4. 9. Older and younger, males and females, Jews and Gentiles – all are included. The word translated ‘fellow-workers’ occurs thirteen times in the New Testament and provides an interesting study.11 Priscilla and Aquila, who had supported Paul in many ways, are so designated. Titus brought comfort to Paul at a time of bitter heartache arising from opposition at Corinth. Various other close associates of Paul are thus described, those who are ‘fellow-workers in Christ’ (communion); ‘God’s fellow-labourers’ (divine sovereignty); ‘in the gospel’ (responsibility); ‘unto the kingdom of God’ (objective). Providing hospitality for these workers was an enriching experience, and thereby saints could be ‘fellow-workers for the truth’. May we each rejoice in the strength and encouragement of unity in promoting the gospel.
Many valuable spiritual lessons can be derived from what the Bible has to say about agricultural work.
Assuredly the Lord of the harvest is still thrusting forth labourers into His harvest.12 Of first importance is the fact that regardless of the workers’ expertise, they are absolutely cast upon God for successful growth: ‘God gives the increase’.13 At the same time there is a great diversity of operations such as ploughing, cultivation, sowing, reaping, and gleaning. All these need to be carefully coordinated if the desired harvest is to be secured. Ploughing is tough work, and is to be undertaken in hope.14 In an age of widespread ignorance of scripture, the preparatory activity of teaching the ABCs of divine truth is an inescapable first step in our evangelism. Sowing directs our thoughts to the preaching of the word, ‘the seed is the word of God’; ‘the field is the world’.15 In the great gospel harvest, there is scope for all to engage.
Abundant patience is required, for harvests are not reaped immediately, but only after painstaking cultivation and dependence upon God: ‘See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain’.16
Evaluation of results needs to be undertaken with care. Sometimes, we will labour to the point of exhaustion with little visible result; at other times we may reap with comparatively little effort.17 Both despair on the one hand and triumphalism on the other would be alike inappropriate. God has ways of encouraging us, whilst keeping our feet firmly on the ground!18
Construction work is often referred to in both Testaments. In connection with the tabernacle in the wilderness, a wide range of skills were engaged in its construction. Wise-hearted women spun yarns to produce the beautiful fabric for the tabernacle and the priestly garments. Skilled workers, Bezaleel and Aholiab, were specially endued with the Spirit of God to construct the sacred vessels, according to the pattern disclosed to Moses. What glory descended on the tabernacle when, at length, all was completed, erected, and sanctified according to God’s plan!
Today, we do not construct material temples, but each of us can surely build for God. With reference to the founding of the church in Corinth, Paul describes himself as a ‘wise master-builder’, laying the essential foundation which is Jesus Christ. Other workers then add a superstructure, ‘But let each one take heed how he builds on it’.19 Contextually, the focus is on teaching calculated to build up the local assembly, but undoubtedly the principle may be applied more broadly.
All conscientious tradespeople wish to do a good job. Why should the service of God be thought different? Hence, Paul exhorts Timothy, ‘Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth’.20 We learn by practice, and often from our mistakes. Praise God, He is graciously at work in us, as well as through us.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the charge to the inn-keeper in respect of the rescued man was, ‘Take care of him’.21 One of the most urgent works today is the care and cure of souls. The local church should be an environment where love and care is extended to those who have been battered and bruised by sin and Satan. Far from being an exclusive club for a spiritual elite, it should resemble a hospital22 where Christians are nursed to spiritual health, fitness, and confidence to serve the Lord. Skilled spiritual physicians are required to diagnose and restore erring saints, always acting in a spirit of due humility.23 Whilst the care and nourishment of the church of God is the prime focus of an overseer, we are each expected to have ‘the same care one for another’.24 Thank God for One who did not look on His own things, but whose loving concern brought Him down in the form of a bondservant to where we were! Let’s not miss the implications.25
Results and reward
Work is normally undertaken with an expectation of reward or compensation: ‘the labourer is worthy of his wages’.26 Astounding as it may seem to sinners saved by grace, the New Testament teaches that Christ will be pleased to review and reward His faithful workers. Not that the reward is restricted to the future. In the providence of God, the earnest and prayerful Christian worker27 may find much to encourage, even here and now: a precious sense of God’s presence amidst the pain of labour, ‘the Lord working with them and signs following’; and the salvation of souls, and their resultant spiritual progress. ‘The husbandman that laboureth must be the first to partake of the fruits’.28
At the same time, the Lord alone has the blood-bought right to review and reward His servants. Using the graphic imagery of fire sweeping through an ancient city to describe the penetrating assessment of Christ at His judgement seat, Paul states: ‘each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is’.29 The materials used and the quality of our workmanship will be fully exposed, and the dross consumed. What joy will then be the portion of those whose work survives that ultimate test!30
1 Mark. 16. 20; cp. Matt. 28. 20.
2 1 Cor. 13. 1-3; Rev. 2. 4-5.
3 2 Cor. 5. 14.
4 For further reading see helpful papers in: J. Heading and C. E. Hocking (Eds), Church Doctrine and Practice, Precious Seed Publications, 1979, pp. 244-299.
5 Gen. 1. 31.
6 Gen. 2. 15.
7 John 5. 17.
8 Eph. 2. 10.
9 Heb. 11. 10.
10 John 9. 4.
11 Gk. sunergos: Rom. 16. 3, 9, 21; 1 Cor. 3. 9; 2 Cor. 1. 24; 8. 23; Phil. 2. 25; 4. 3; Col. 4. 11; 1 Thess. 3. 2; Philem. 1, 24; 3 John 8.
12 Matt. 9. 38.
13 1 Cor. 3. 7.
14 ‘Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground, Hos. 10. 12; ‘he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope’, 1 Cor. 9. 10.
15 Luke 8. 11; Matt. 13. 38.
16 James 5. 7.
17 John 4. 35-38 should be carefully considered in this connection.
18 2 Cor. 12. 7-10.
19 1 Cor. 3. 10.
20 2 Tim. 2. 15
21 Luke 10. 35.
22 See J. H. Large, ‘Figures of the church: a hospital’, found in J. Heading and C. E. Hocking (Eds.) Church Doctrine and Practice, Precious Seed Publications, 1979, pp. 75-79.
23 Gal. 6. 1. The verb rendered ‘restore’ is elsewhere used of setting broken limbs and mending nets.
24 1 Tim. 3. 5; 1 Cor. 12. 25.
25 Phil. 2. 4-11.
26 Luke 10. 7.
27 Col. 4. 12.
28 2 Tim. 2. 6 RV.
29 1 Cor. 3. 13.
30 1 Cor. 3. 12-15; cp. Rev. 1. 14b.