A Biblical Theology of Work – Part 1

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

oil on wood panel
oil on wood panel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been referred to as the Cultural Mandate.  It is a requirement from God of all human beings that we reproduce ourselves in order to fill the earth and subdue it.  God built a planet we call Earth capable of sustaining many billions of people and He wants us, commands us, to rule over it in a way that in fact does sustain us.  This requires work, effort on our part, to successfully accomplish the utilization of Earth’s resources in a way that pleases God and brings life to Earth’s population — us.

Before Adam and Eve disobeyed God (Genesis 3) God gave them work to do (Genesis 2) that included taking care of the Garden of Eden (2:15) and understanding and overseeing the animals of this area (2:19,20).  This responsibility did not cease after man’s rebellion, but became fraught with frustration as the ground began to work against man’s best efforts to grow food.  In the process human beings developed systems for raising livestock, growing food, producing music and forging tools (Genesis 4), all of which were necessary for our health and development as divine-image replicators.

In contrast to the pagan notions of man’s responsibilities, God did not create us to be His slaves and do all His dirty work.  He made us to be presidents to His chief executive role, vice-regents to His kingly rule, and managers for His owner-operated business.  There are at least three implications to this Cultural Mandate:

  • We are workers under divine appointment

We are not independent contractors.  The work we are called to do is or should be determined by God.  We are responsible for knowing what kind of work would be acceptable to Him in faithfully caring for His world and each other.  We may say that providing prostitution, or drugs, or control over other people is providing a service, but it is not the kind of service God says helps His world thrive.  And of course, He knows best what will make us thrive.  Our work must be of the kind that furthers the honor of God and the welfare of mankind.  This is His world and we are asked to share in making it livable.

  • We are stewards of God’s green earth

A steward is someone who takes care of someone else’s property.  His or her responsibility is not to own it but to develop it for the sake of the owner.  It just so happens in this case that the owner, God, has made us partners in the ownership, but nevertheless, He is the principle owner.  So our work must serve to develop and utilize, not exploit for ourselves, the world He has given us.  This means we must use arts and technology wisely and lovingly to reflect the character of God and benefit our race (see Lessons from the Old Testament: Arts and Technology).  It must certainly mean that we do not so exploit our world that we make it less habitable or reduce its quality of livability.

  • The more of us there are, the more work that needs to be done

We were made to care for each other the way God cares for us.  So as we multiply we need to create better systems for caring for each others’ needs for food, shelter, beauty, clothing and protection.  Our goal cannot be personal wealth but public weal, the prosperity and well-being that we can secure for all people.  And though it might be argued that capitalism is the best system in a fallen world for such public weal, sinners always find a way to take personal advantage of even the best systems to the detriment of others, and those who submit to God look for ways no matter the system to help others thrive.

Are you a plumber?  You are helping me and our whole culture thrive.  Do you grow food, deliver and sell food, make clothes, sell insurance, pave roads, build buildings, serve in government, paint pictures, make music, heal, administer funds, advocate for lawbreakers, develop community laws, cut hair, raise livestock, put out fires or any number of other “professions”?  You are working as God’s appointees to tend His world and people in ways that make it possible for us to fill the earth.  You are so cool, because the part that you play combined with the part that I play and all of us play makes possible a relatively peaceful and prosperous life.  We are caring for each other under God’s wise direction, and that’s what makes the world go round.

For further reading:

What is the Cultural Mandate?

The Cultural Mandate

What the Cultural Mandate Means for Your Work

Video and Resources from Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City


Lessons From the Old Testament: Total Depravity

Cover of "Heart of Darkness (Hesperus Cla...
Cover of Heart of Darkness (Hesperus Classics)

The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. (Genesis 6:5)

Where does the Old Testament stand on the condition of human beings?  Are we basically good people?  Are we basically bad?  Without doubt there are tales in the Old Testament of some pretty amazing people who live extraordinary lives.  Some, like Joseph, son of Jacob, seem to demonstrate flawless attitudes and behavior.  But by and large, even our greatest examples of faith and obedience have feet of clay and betray a remarkable penchant for foolishness and wickedness (Just think of Abraham twice telling everyone his wife is his sister and nearly losing her and the promised seed to a pagan).

Incredibly, though, this part of the narrative of history we have in Genesis 6 describes a time when every single human being except Noah and his family could be described as all evil all the time.  How is this possible?  Interestingly, after the flood that destroys this wicked generation, God puts in place some new restraints against such wickedness.  He, in essence, invests human government with some sharp teeth.  He requires men who murder to lose their lives also.  He imposes the death penalty (Genesis 9).  He separates the nations into factions of foreign speakers who cannot understand each other and thus cannot unite to create sinful chaos.

Apparently, without restraints on our behavior human beings will become as evil as possible without exception (except for the grace of God).  As in Joseph Conrad‘s Lord Jim and  Heart of Darkness (or the movie based on this same concept, Apocalypse Now), the further we get away from civilizing forces the more corrupt we become.  God’s testimony to this reality is stated in Jeremiah:

The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?
(Jeremiah 17:9)

Apparently God uses the pressure of punishment, conscience and other human beings acting in righteousness to keep our wicked hearts from being evil continually.  What we think is our superior wisdom and righteousness is really God’s constraint of the image of God in us being put to evil use.  If we put the gifts God gave us  (our reason, emotions and will) to good use with His power, we can do amazing good ( like Joseph did).  But without God’s influence in our lives we will always put His gifts to selfish and abominable use.

David says,

Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
(Psalm 51:5)

His individually destructive sins of adultery and murder had their origin at conception.  He was born a sinner and remained a sinner throughout his life, but especially yielded to sin when he felt he was in a place of no restraints.  He was the king of the land.  Who would hold him to account?  Of course, God did through Nathan the prophet.  God brought restraint to David’s life in the form of a righteous man, Nathan, and the workings of David’s own conscience:

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.

For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
(Psalm 32:3,4)

We are totally depraved people, according to the Old Testament.  That doesn’t mean that we are all completely sold out to sin and incapable of doing anything good.  What it means is that apart from God’s restraining influence in our lives we are all completely sold out to sin and incapable of doing anything good.  Any good we do is a testimony to God’s restraining work in our lives.

Lessons From the Old Testament: What God Wants For Us

So God created man in his own image,
       in the image of God he created him;
       male and female he created them.

 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Genesis 1:27,28

Pagan creation accounts represent the gods creating humans as their servants to do things the gods themselves don’t want to do, and getting upset with humans for being too noisy.  The Genesis account stands as a stark contrast and lets us know that God, the true God, really has quite a different perspective on us humans.

Humans are created in God’s image.  What an amazing statement!  In some sense God goes out of His way to make humans with a special quality, the quality of being like God.  Theologians and philosophers, exegetes and Bible students, have wrestled long over the meaning of this concept.  Is the image of God in humans the ability to think, feel and decide?  Is it righteous character?  Is it the ability to have personal relationship?  Or is it the right to rule over the earth with God?  It seems best to include all these ideas in the concept of being made in God’s image. 

We see the ability to think, feel and decide as an aspect of the divine image in Isaiah 1:3 where God compares the people of Israel to a donkey because, despite their superior intellect, they do not have as much sense as the donkey when it comes to recognizing who “butters their bread.”  We see the aspect of righteous character referred to by Paul in Ephesians 4:24 of “the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.”  We see the relational aspect of God’s image throughout the Scriptural emphasis on God’s desire to have a loving relationship with humans.  And we see in this very Genesis context the aspect of rulership with God when the Lord tells humans to “subdue the earth.”

God wants us to rule with Him.  He does not give up rulership of the earth, as plenty of Scriptures tell us (for example, Psalm 50:10).  But He wants to share dominion over the earth with us.  He is not content to relegate us to a minor role in the earth, but desires to elevate us to the highest position.  David marvels at this in Psalm 8 where he says,

What is man that You are mindful of him,
         And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
         And You have crowned him with glory and honor. (verses 4,5)

So right here, at the very beginning of the Bible, God wants to make sure that we know how much He thinks of us and wants for us.  Though sin in our lives has caused us to fail on many counts at co-ruling with God, He still desires it for us.  He wants us to look to Him for guidance on ruling the earth as good stewards with Him of it’s precious resources.  But the fact is He wants to partner with us because He values us above all of His creation.  Don’t ever doubt that God has nothing but good will for humans.  We are His princes and princesses if we want to be.  All this is possible, of course, through a redemptive relationship with Jesus Christ, whose rulership is our example and promise.  In Him we become the rulers God always meant us to be.