Understanding how key biblical themes develop over time is essential for reading the Bible correctly and living faithfully.
One biblical theological theme that can transform our daily lives and identities is that of work. To discuss how a biblical theology of work can transform our work lives, I conversed with Dr. James Hamilton, author of a new book in the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series from Crossway called Work and Our Labor in the Lord.
Dr. Hamilton is the Professor of Biblical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of several books, including God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment and What is Biblical Theology? among other commentaries and books on biblical theology. He currently serves as preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, KY in addition to responsibilities at Southern Seminary. The transcript of our conversation is below.
Kevin Halloran: On the first page of Work and Our Labor in the Lord, you write this: “Biblical theology…is the attempt to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors…to attempt to understand their worldview.” Can you explain how biblical theology shapes our worldview and why that’s so important?
Dr. James Hamilton: I can do that easily by contrasting it with a movie I watched last night on an airplane: Interstellar.
If you’ve seen this movie, the underlying premise—which I found so unbelievable that it took away from my enjoyment of the movie—is that our world cannot sustain life anymore. The earth is dying and there is a new Dust Bowl coming, and no one will be able to survive on earth. That kind of eschatology (or understanding of where things are going) then informs the work people try to do in the movie, and they actually think that they are trying to save the world—to save humanity. They accomplish it through supernatural feats of the manipulation of time, and it involves relativity and gravity (it’s a little complex, but honestly it was unbelievable).
Our worldview is the big story of where things came from, what we understand to be wrong, how we understand those things might get better, and where everything is going in the end—it is going to inform all of our lives. I think the Bible’s account of all those things—in spite of the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and the so-called ‘sexual revolution’—is still the most compelling one available.
KH: The part of your book that most drove me to worship was the chapter on creation. It made me ponder the wisdom and glory of God in creating work. My question is this: why did God ultimately create work?
Dr. James Hamilton: Life would be pretty slow if we didn’t have any tasks to do… In the very good world prior to the fall, I don’t think we would know the frustrations, difficulties, feelings of lethargy, and lack of desire to do work. Minus all of the negative effects of sin, God created a world where there would be a rhythm of diligent labor followed by rest, and then more diligent labor where you actually accomplish something. You actually get to see something completed.
I can remember years ago, Elizabeth Elliot contrasted sweeping the floor with writing a book. She said, sometimes I really love to sweep a floor because I can see the fruits of my work. Whereas, if I sit down to write, I might not see that book for years. It’s great to mow the grass and see the fruits of our labor and see the lawn nice and trimmed. Work is a gratifying thing; it can be a physically exhilarating thing to engage in, depending on what kind of work we are talking about. And so, this may sound strange, but work is a gift, a mercy from God, something good that he created for us to engage in.
Work is a gift, a mercy from God, something good that he created for us to engage in.
KH: Like you express in the book, working is a way to reflect our working God. He created six days and rested on the seventh. That being said, what are some misconceptions Christians have about work that a biblical theology of work can clear up?
Dr. James Hamilton: I don’t know how widespread these misconceptions are, but I think people tend to think it stems from the judgment spoken on Adam’s work in Genesis 3:17–19. This overshadows the fact that Adam was supposed to work and keep the garden in Genesis 2:15 prior to the fall. Then their own experience of work being frustrating and perhaps misreadings of the book of Ecclesiastes where “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity” can lead people to the conclusion that the world is going to burn, my work doesn’t matter. They might also misinterpret that poem that concludes ‘only what’s done for Christ will last’—this kind of idea.
The Bible teaches that everything that we do has value and that our labor in the Lord, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:58, [and I do in] the subtitle of the book, is not in vain. This is because we are created in the image and likeness of God and we are to bring God’s character to bear on all creation in everything that we do.
KH: In addition to clearing up negative misconceptions of work, biblical theology also provides a positive power for believers as they think about work. How might a biblical theology of work encourage someone perpetually discouraged in his or her work?
Dr. James Hamilton: The Scriptures encourage us that, ultimately, we work for the Lord—[as] that classic statement in Colossians 3 says, “Whatever you do work at it with all your heart as for the Lord and not for men.” Discouragement tends to come from, maybe an overbearing boss who never says anything positive; a lack of acclaim or commendation… We counter that by remembering that ultimately we are working for the Lord and not for men. There’s an audience of one that I’m seeking to please.
In the new heavens and new earth, we’re not going to be these cloudy, wispy ghosts, we are going to be resurrected bodies in the new heavens and new earth, engaged in grand projects for the glory of God.
The whole Bible’s framework teaches that work was in the garden and continues after the fall. Now that Christ has come, there’s a possibility for the redemption even for the things that we engage in, and our hearts are renewed. We come at this as a remade humanity. In the new heavens and new earth, we’re not going to be these cloudy, wispy ghosts, we are going to be resurrected bodies in the new heavens and new earth, engaged in grand projects for the glory of God. If we have this broader framework, it will reinforce and inform the idea that we are really working for God’s glory.
KH: My last question might be a challenge because you wrote an entire book on the subject, but if you had to give a one-minute biblical theology of work, how would you do it?
Dr. James Hamilton: I would start with what Jesus said in John 10, “My Father is working until now and I am working.” A biblical theology of work starts with the idea that God is a worker. From there, I would say that as those made in the image and likeness of God, we are made to work. We are going to be most satisfied and most fulfilled when we are doing what we were created to do. From there, I would walk through that big story where God created good work in the garden. That work was judged as the result of man’s sin—it was made more difficult—and yet the man was mercifully allowed to do that work. The warning was that in the day you eat of it, you will die. He died spiritually, but I think through God’s words, he began to trust the Lord and he began to continue his work.
Christ came and has set in motion the renewal of all things in such a way that we live as children of God. We live in a manner worthy of the gospel in everything we do. I think that in all kinds of jobs there are ways to lay down our lives to benefit other people spiritually, and we work in anticipation of a renewal of all things when all tears will be wiped away.
When as the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah, “Would that I had thorns to battle” (Isaiah 27:4)—there will be no more thorns and thistles on the ground, and all things will be made new, and we will know as we are known, and we will be the Lord’s.
KH: Thank you Dr. Hamilton for the time to discuss Work and Our Labor in the Lord.