My work and the kingdom of God
This article is based on a talk given at the CCL evening, “The dignity of work”. It was the second talk for the evening—the first being Chase Kuhn on “The dignity of work”.
My work and the kingdom of God
1. Does my work as a [lubrication engineer/commercial real estate agent/dog walker] “extend” God’s kingdom?
Many people very commonly try and find dignity in their work, and think that their work as a lubrication engineer, commercial real estate agent, dog walker or whatever somehow extends God’s kingdom. So our work is valuable and has dignity because, by doing it, we extend God’s kingdom.
There are a number of people who hold to this understanding—for example, Ken Costa, who wrote,
When we declare truth even in small measures, the kingdom of God is advanced. This can be true when we draft documents, sell products or mark exams—indeed in any activity we do in our working day. 1
The kingdom of God is ‘the sphere of God’s goodness’ in the world. We are called to advance that kingdom, sharing the ‘sphere of goodness’ and extending it as we operate with God’s values. Our actions at work have the potential to advance the kingdom of God and his ‘sphere of goodness’, or to hinder it. 2
Or Mike Frost and Alan Hirsch, who wrote,
We partner with God in the redemption of our world. … We do extend the kingdom of God in daily affairs and activities and actions done in the name of Jesus.3
Those who argue for this sort of understanding do so with the best of intentions: they want us to not fall into the idea that the time we spend at work is time wasted. However, what they propose is not in line with Scripture, and I want us to briefly see why this is the case before going on to consider how our work actually relates to the kingdom of God. This means we need to consider two key questions: “What is the kingdom?” and “How does the kingdom extend?”
Ken Costa, in the second passage I quoted above, understands the kingdom as the sphere of God’s goodness in the world. So as you live as a Christian at work, the gospel shapes the way you do your work (as it should!), and so as you do your work truthfully, faithfully, diligently and lovingly, you (he argues) extend the kingdom of God.
The problem is that when we examine the Scriptures, we don’t see the kingdom as the sphere of God’s goodness, and we don’t see it spreading by people—that is, by Christians—doing good.
a. What is the kingdom of God?
So what is the kingdom of God? Answering this question in full would take an entire book, but let me summarise the Bible’s teaching briefly. When Jesus started his public ministry, the Gospels (especially Matthew, Mark and Luke) tell us that he announced that the kingdom of God had come: “The kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus says in Mark 1:15. And because the kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus calls upon people to respond—to repent and believe: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2); “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
There are two things we should note: the kingdom is centred on Jesus. It is his kingdom—his rule. Elsewhere in the Gospels, he describes it as “my kingdom” (Luke 22:30; John 18:36; emphasis added). In other words, to call the kingdom “the sphere of God’s goodness” is too vague and general. No, God’s kingdom is the kingdom of his Son—the Son of David who, God promised, would rule over God’s people forever. The kingdom of God is the kingdom of Christ.
Furthermore, this kingdom is entered through repentance and faith. A verse in Paul’s letters, which talks about believers, underlines this for us:
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col 1:13-14)
Again, the “kingdom” in this passage is the rule or domain of God’s Son, and we leave the kingdom of darkness and enter the kingdom of God when we respond to the gospel—when we trust Christ and have our sins forgiven.
b. How does the kingdom “extend”?
Given that the kingdom of God is the kingdom of Christ, how does that kingdom extend? Well, in one sense, that’s not quite the right question: God’s kingdom is what it is. But if the kingdom of God is God’s rule in Christ, then the kingdom extends, in a sense, as more and more people come under the rule of God in Christ—that is, as more people are rightly related to God and come into relationship with him through Christ, have their sins forgiven and become Christians. When that happens, they leave the kingdom of darkness and are transferred into the kingdom of God’s Son. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert make this point too:
The only way the kingdom of God—the redemptive rule of God—is extended is when he brings another sinner to renounce sin and self-righteousness and bow his knee to King Jesus.4
So does your work extend the kingdom? No—not in and of itself. Your work is a response to God’s saving you and bringing you into his kingdom. As a Christian, you do your work lovingly and to the glory of God, because he has saved you: he’s brought you into his kingdom. But while you’re at work, you will (as every Christian is) be concerned to see more people enter this kingdom.
2. What is my “other” work?
This is leads us to ask another question: “What is my ‘other’ work?” Obviously as you read this article, you may be thinking about your job—your ‘secular’ work. But we also need to think about that work in relationship to the other works that the Bible calls us to give our time to. The New Testament speaks of “the work of ministry” and “the work of the Lord”.
a. The work of ministry
Who does the work of ministry? Well, the minister, obviously. You would think that, wouldn’t you. But Ephesians 4 turns that on its head:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [or pastors] and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ … (Eph 4:11-13)
So the job of your pastor is to equip you to do the work of ministry. And as you do the work of ministry—as you speak the gospel to other Christians—the body of Christ will be built up.
Why do I bring this up in an article about work? Well, I think it helps us get away from this unhelpful secular/sacred divide—as if you do secular work and your pastor does ministry (so-called) “sacred” work. Ephesians 4 shows us that we all do the work of ministry. It’s a responsibility for all of us. In fact, your pastor does a lot of what we might call “secular” work: just ask your pastor how much admin he has to do.
b. The work of the Lord
Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 15:58, at the end of a great chapter on the resurrection, Paul calls on the Corinthians to give themselves to the work of the Lord: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (cf. 1 Cor 16:10; 16:15-16; Phil 2:29-30). The work of the Lord, then, is the work that the Lord is doing of bringing people into and keeping people in his kingdom. It’s gospel work. It’s ministry work.
But it’s very important to note that 1 Corinthians 15:58 is directed to the Corinthian church, not just to the elders, leaders and pastors. This abounding in the work of the Lord, then, is for every Christian. It is a truth we all believe, but we need to be reminded of it constantly: gospel ministry is for all believers.
I wonder if, in our right and good enthusiasm to encourage people into Bible colleges to be trained and equipped in the most rigorous way possible, that we have unintentionally sent the signal that those who remain in secular work are somehow less significant as Christians. You might have felt that tension. And that unintentional signal has created an unhelpful Christian vs. secular work divide.
Nothing could be further from the truth! The work that Christians do in the workplace is valuable. It’s an expression of your relationship to God. It’s an expression of your love for God and your love for neighbour.
But Paul is also very clear that gospel ministry—gospel work—is for all Christians. The Corinthians were all to give themselves to the work of the Lord. So gospel ministry should not be put into competition with secular work. In your secular job, you honour God in how you do your job; you are not just wasting your time at work. The fact that your work can be done in a way that honours God and loves your neighbour means that it is not meaningless.
But you are also called by God through Paul to always be abounding in the work of the Lord—to give yourself as you are able to the work of the Lord. That is work with specific Christian content; it is not the same as the actual activity of your secular job. It could be sharing the gospel with someone; it could be helping with Sunday school; it could be going door-knocking, writing to missionaries, leading Bible Study or reading the Bible one-to-one with a colleague. It is going to look different for each of us.
There is a wonderful parable in the Gospels when a woman anoints Jesus with perfume before his burial, and Jesus commends her by saying, “She has done what she could” (Mark 14:8). I think that is all the Lord requires of us—that we do what we can. For some of us, it will be a little; for some of us, it will be a lot. But we are all to do what we can. We are all to devote ourselves to the work of the Lord.
So as we Christians think about our work in the office, the factory floor, the hospital and the classroom, we also have to think about how our work integrates with the work of the Lord. Because, yes, we are called to do our jobs well in a godly way, and that is good; it pleases God, and it is important and significant. But it is not the work of the Lord.
I have a friend who has a high-level job with a multi-national company, and he takes two hours off every week to teach Scripture at his local primary school. I have another friend who works as a lawyer in the city of London and who leads Bible study at church in the evening and then goes back to work afterwards. Neither of these friends would say that their work did not matter, and neither of them would say that everyone has to do exactly what they do; it will look different for all of us. But critically neither of them would say that their work—their secular job, if you like—extends the kingdom of God—that their work itself was the work of the Lord. So they look for opportunities as the Lord has given them to do the work of the Lord.
3. Can we speak of priorities?
But can we speak of priorities? Is the work we do for the Lord—as we have opportunity—more important than our secular work? This is where the rubber hits the road, and this is where things are more controversial.
There is an unhelpful way to think about this, and it is sometimes been understood that gospel work—the work of the Lord—extends the kingdom and lasts forever, and therefore only gospel work is of any value. If you are doing secular work, you’re really just wasting your time. I hope you can see that this kind of understanding is deeply unbiblical. At the risk of sounding like a broken record (or an mp3 track on repeat!), our secular work does have value, because we are valuable in God’s sight, and so what we do matters.
Think about marriage. Not all of us are married, but I think marriage is a helpful way of thinking of these issues. Scripture could not be stronger on the importance of marriage. Paul says in Ephesians 5:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Eph 5:25, 28)
Or when thinking about family more generally in the same way, Paul says,
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim 5:8)
In other words, if you can work (and please note I am saying this to the person who can work, not the person who can’t) and you refuse to, and so fail to provide for your family, you are worse than an unbeliever.
Paul could not be stronger on the importance of marriage and family responsibilities. But as important as they are, they are not of ultimate importance. Consider 1 Corinthians 7:29-35:
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul basically says, “Look, it’s absolutely fine if you marry; it’s a good thing to marry. But if you do marry, do not make marriage the ultimate priority in your life.” Why? Because of verse 31: “the present form of this world is passing away”. And so, in comparison to your devotion to the Lord, “let those who have wives live as though they had none” (1 Cor 7:29).
Paul does not mean that in an absolute sense, because elsewhere, he tells husbands to be devoted to their wives—to lay down their lives for their wives (Eph 5:25, 28). But in terms of priorities, your devotion to the Lord should always trump your devotion to your husband or wife—so much so, it can look as if you’re living as if you have none.
Now, Paul does not give details of how this works out in practice. We need wisdom to nut out the practicalities in our own lives. But I think we can draw a parallel with the work of the Lord. On the one hand, Paul talks about “those who deal with the world” to act “as though they had no dealings with it” (1 Cor 7:31). But on the other hand, he says in 1 Corinthians 15:58,
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:58; emphasis added)
“All of you Corinthians,” Paul is saying—not just the leaders, not just the elders, not just the pastors—“All of you are to be abounding in the work of the Lord”. So I think we can speak of a priority: that is, just as our marriages (if we are married) should not trump our devotion to the Lord, so our work should never be exalted to the place that it becomes more important than our devotion to the Lord.
Now, very simply, that means if you are asked to lie or do something unethical at work, you simply can’t do it. But I think it also means that if your work is preventing you from serving the Lord, then as far as it depends on you (and I know this is an important thing to say), it may be time to think about other employment.
I know a person who is very senior in a global accountancy firm who, for the last ten years, has consistently refused the offer of a partnership, because he knows that it would impact his family and, in particular, his ability to serve at his local church. Another friend turned down a promotion so that she could continue to give time to serving the gospel at her local church.
The work of the Lord has to have ultimate priority. This quote from Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert is very helpful:
We need another speed. We need a speed that is somewhere between of the utmost importance and of no importance. Something like really, really important might do the trick. The fact is, we as Christians have lots of things on our plate. There are many things that the Lord calls us to do that are not of the utmost importance, in the sense that they are earth-shattering, kingdom-building, eternity-making things. And yet they are really, really important, and we are called to be faithful in doing them. If we’re honest with ourselves, we already have this speed, and we use it all the time. Think about our marriages, for example. Our marriages are not going to make it into eternity; they’re not of the utmost importance (Matt. 22:30). And yet they are really, really important, and we give much of our lives and our love and our energy to them. We don’t default to saying that because they’re not of the utmost importance, they must be of no importance at all.5
The message of 1 Corinthians 15:58 is that the work of the Lord—the progress of the gospel—is of the utmost importance. In a sense, it is what we exist for as Christians—to see the kingdom of God extend and people come under the Lordship of Christ. So that is what we give ourselves to when we explain the gospel to our colleagues at work, when we pray for missionaries, when we teach Scripture or Sunday school, and when we read the Bible one-to-one with a younger Christian.
4. Should I cease my work as a [lubrication engineer/commercial real estate agent/dog walker] and devote myself more fully to the “work of the Lord”?
So should you quit your job as a lubrication engineer, commercial real estate agent or dog walker, and devote yourself to the work of the Lord? I hope that you can see that, in one sense, this is the wrong question to ask. Tomorrow as you go to work, what you are doing is valuable. It has real dignity. You are loving your neighbour as you strive to do the best work you can possibly do, and as you do so, you are serving God and pleasing him. You are not wasting your time, because you are not a waste of time; you are the image of God and your represent him at work.
But tomorrow at work, you also need to remember God’s command through the Apostle Paul—to devote yourself to the work of the Lord and to remember that the world in its present form is passing away, so God has also placed you in your workplace as a witness to him. It’s not the only thing you can say about your work, but it is true. And so you are to prayerfully seek opportunities to speak of Christ to your colleagues. Remember: as important as your work is (and it is really really important), it is not of ultimate importance.
And so I hope on the way to work tomorrow, you reflect on your life, your priorities and your commitment to the gospel going out. For some of us, this will mean making changes in how we use our time. For some of us, as we reflect on the gifts that God has given us, the encouragement of our churches, it may mean ceasing our secular jobs and going into full-time Christian ministry—not because we are wasting our time at work, but because we are convinced that the spread of the kingdom should be the ultimate priority in our lives. So if people think we have the gifts, why would we not give our whole lives over to this work? But critically, for the majority of us who remain in paid employment, we need to remember that we too, just like the missionary or the pastor, are to give ourselves to the work of the Lord.
Here is William Taylor reflecting on Jesus’ words to the disciples in John 4:38 about the need to be involved in God’s harvest:
How much more of a delight is it that we are engaged in service to the King of Kings. If we have responded to Jesus and acknowledged him as our Lord, his words are also true of us: ‘I sent you to reap when you have not worked for’ (John 4:38). What an honour that is. Should that not transform our attitude to our work, however dull or humdrum it might be? … There is a different work to be doing in addition to our paid employment. We are working alongside other people, so it is harvest time. It is harvest time every working moment of every working day of every working week. It is harvest time in the office and on the ward and in the classroom and on the shop floor. In every relationship and at every point it is harvest time. Therefore, if we have an opportunity to go out for a quick coffee, a quick lunch break or a drink after work, that is an opportunity to speak of Christ and to be engaged in God’s harvest time. Likewise, if we are at a party, we must see that as harvest time. Superimposed over activity there is to be work done for the Lord Jesus Christ as we bring his word to others at work.6
So as you work tomorrow, remember these two passages:
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Col 3:23-24; emphasis added)
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:58)
1 Ken Costa, God at Work: Living Every Day with Purpose, Continuum, London, 2007, p. 30.
2 Costa, God at Work, 28.
3 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church, revised ed., Baker, Grand Rapids, 2013, p. 146.
4 Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom and the Great Commission, Crossway, Wheaton, 2011, p. 121.
5 DeYoung and Gilbert, p. 230.
6 William Taylor, Revolutionary Work, 10Publishing, 2016, p. 76.