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

Is John Shelby Spong right that the Bible is unreliable?

Question:  I read an article by John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop, who seemed to question the historicity of the Bible and its authority over our lives in areas of morality.  Can you help me with his views?  Here is a link to the full article: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/29/my-take-the-3-biggest-biblical-misconceptions/?hpt=hp_c2.

Answer:  Reverend Spong sees three misconceptions people have about the Bible.

Misconception One

Spong’s  initial statement is,

To me, three misconceptions stand out and serve to make the Bible hard to comprehend.  First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it. 

Let me fill you in on a little secret.  When someone says that “every” biblical scholar or pastor or parent or politician or whoever says or believes the same thing, you can know for a certainty that this is an overstatement that is hiding contrary views.  And believe me, there are contrary views among biblical scholars on Spong’s position.

There have been many books written by reputable scholars for both the Old and New Testaments that support the historicity of the Bible.  But let’s deal with some of the examples Spong uses.

Spong notes,

Abraham, the biblically acknowledged founding father of the Jewish people, whose story forms the earliest content of the Bible, died about 900 years before the first story of Abraham was written in the Old Testament. 

From this disputed fact (disputed because there are reputable scholars who believe Moses wrote the account of Abraham 400 years after his life) Spong draws the conclusion that too much legend has grown up over that amount of time to give a realistic picture of a hero in Israelite history.  He makes the same argument about Moses and Jesus and the accuracy of their life stories.  Because the account of Jesus includes miracles this must surely be, in Spong’s mind, a padding of the account to make Jesus look more powerful than he was.

But oddly, when we read the account of Moses on the life of Abraham we do not find a glorified Abraham.  We see a very “warty” Abraham who lied about his wife being his sister, who married his wife’s servant at Sarah’s suggestion in order to circumvent what God told him would happen, and who expressed fear despite God’s promises to him that he would have a son through Sarah and that God would make a mighty nation from him.  Rather than glorifying Abraham we see him in his fallen human nature struggling to believe God.  By Spong’s account we ought to see him performing miracles and walking on water after so many years of legendary addition to his life story.

But this is not the way Bible history is written.  It defies the tendency Spong fears and gives us real people.  The other assumption Spong is making about the Bible is that God did not or could not guide the transmission of Abraham’s story, or Moses’ story or Jesus’ story, for that matter, accurately, protecting it from inaccurate accretion.  Spong’s naturalistic perspective, ruling out God’s purpose and power, taints all of his alleged concerns about the Bible.

Still dealing with the historicity of the Bible, Spong then asserts,

Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.

First of all, there is no reason to believe that Jesus did not speak or write in Greek, but even if he didn’t, how does that make an account of his life written in Greek therefore and of necessity inaccurate?  The logic is baffling!

It is of utmost importance, in fact, to recognize that such accounts of the life of an important person written only 40-70 years after his life and contained in thousands of existing manuscripts (there are over 5,000 existing New Testament manuscripts alone)  is unheard of for other famous individuals in history.  And it is likely that the accounts of the New Testament were written in some cases only 20-30 years after Jesus’ death.  This means there were people still alive who could refute or exonerate the accounts.  This is why Paul mentions that there were over 500 people who saw Jesus alive, or why the Gospels mention Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross, or other individuals who could be asked about these facts.

Spong’s last historical jab is this,

Perhaps the most telling witness against the claim of accurate history for the Bible comes when we read the earliest narrative of the crucifixion found in Mark’s gospel and discover that it is not based on eyewitness testimony at all.

Spong is here assuming a view of Mark’s Gospel that sees it as a deliberate attempt to conform the life of Jesus to Old Testament prophecies.  He assumes what he wishes to prove.  But there is ample tradition and indications within Mark’s Gospel itself that it is based on eyewitness account.

Misconception Two

The second misconception Spong mentions is “the distorting claim that the Bible is in any literal sense ‘the word of God.’ Only someone who has never read the Bible could make such a claim.”  Well, of course, there are many who have read the Bible and claim exactly that.  But Spong’s evidence is that God endorses the violent judgment of unbelievers and this could certainly not be attributed to the God “everyone” knows is the true God.  And because people have misused these passages they cannot be from God.  Huh?  Again, the logic escapes me.  Has anyone misused Spong’s words?  Then they cannot be true.

Misconception Three

“The third major misconception,” according to Spong, “is that biblical truth is somehow static and thus unchanging.”  And there is something to what Spong is saying here.  There is a progression through the Bible of understanding and perspective, but it does not seem accurate to portray this as changing truth.  Because God deals with Israel in a way He does not deal with the church does not mean He is changing truth.  We deal with our children one way when they are minors and another as they mature into adults.

Spong’s final statement is,

The ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes human limits and calls us to a recognition that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that that life is capable of being. The Bible is, thus, not about religion at all but about becoming deeply and fully human. It issues the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully and to have the courage to be our most complete selves.

But this only seems another way of saying that Spong has decided what being fully human is apart from Scripture, keeping the parts that fit with his perspective and explaining away those that don’t.  This kind of subjective handling of Scripture leaves one feeling that it would be best for him to simply say what he thinks is right and holy without appeal to the Bible at all.

For other articles exposing the poor logic and facts of John Shelby Spong see:

What’s Wrong with Bishop Spong?
William Lane Craig vs. John Shelby Spong on the resurrection of Jesus

John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels: A Critique

Randall Johnson

Lessons From the Old Testament: Not by Might, nor by Power

Zerubbabel displays a plan of Jerusalem to Cyr...
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So he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty. (Zechariah 4:6)

One of the consistent messages of the Old Testament is that despite the fact that we are made in God’s image, despite the fact that we can do amazing things with the abilities God gave us, and despite the fact that God loves us immensely, when it comes to accomplishing the purposes of God we are severely handicapped.  God communicated this to Jacob when, after wrestling with him all night at Peniel (Genesis 32:22-32), and after abiding Jacob’s lies and other means of making his life work out the way he wanted it to, He finally touched Jacob’s hip and disabled it.  Jacob needed to know that he could not depend on his own resources to accomplish even what he wanted to accomplish, much less accomplish the purposes of God.

This is the reason for David’s frequent self-description in the Psalms as “needy” (Psalm 40:17, for example).  This is why we read in the Psalms, “His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of the warrior; the LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love (Psalm 147:10).”

And when God is instructing His people Israel about the restoration of their exiled nation, He makes a point of noting to Zerubbabel, one of His appointed leaders, that it is not Zerubbabel’s strenth or might that will accomplish this.  Does this mean that Zerubbabel’s leadership is unnecessary?  Absolutely not!  Rather, it is an invitation to Zerubbabel and all leaders to look to God for strength and wisdom to do what is required.

We recognize that as a people we are hampered by our own sinful ways of responding to others, our own inner fears and failures, and our own lack of wisdom, at times, to always choose the right path.  And there are some obstacles that we cannot overcome no matter how righteously and wisely we are acting.  All of this combined makes it imperative that we look to the Lord for help.

Hezekiah did not have the resources to deal with attacking Assyria when they stood outside the walls of Jerusalem demanding surrender (2 Kings 18).  He brought the problem to Yahweh and Yahweh delivered His people.  Jehoshaphat faced much the same dilemma (2 Chronicles 20) and trusted in Yahweh in much the same way Hezekiah did.

Other leaders, however, trusted in their own wisdom and reacted out of their own selfishness and woundedness and failed to properly lead their people.  The examples of this are unfortunately very much more prominent in our biblical record than is comfortable.  Saul chose to sacrifice without Samuel, David chose to stay at home instead of going to war and committed adultery and murder, Solomon married into idolatry, his son listened to the advice of his young contemporaries and threw the kingdom into division, and the list goes on and on.

When will we realize that it is not by our might nor by our power that God’s purposes will be accomplished?  Rather, “those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles;  they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

Lessons From the Old Testament: Jesus in the Old Testament

Cover of "Peace Child: An Unforgettable S...
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When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. (Hosea 11:1,2)

Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. (Isaiah 7:13-16)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? (Psalm 22:1)

What do these passages have in common?  Each is an utterance by a prophet speaking about current history that in context do not seem to be related to Jesus at all, but that are quoted in the New Testament as being fulfilled by Jesus. What’s going on?

Though there are direct prophetic predictions relating to the Messiah, many, if not most, of the predictions of the Old Testament concerning Messiah are in fact indirect predictions.  And here is how it works.  A person in Israel whose role in some way anticipates a role the Messiah will play is spoken of or spoken to in ways that do relate directly to that person, but because that person is in some way a foreshadowing of the Messiah, the prophetic implication is that their experience relates to Messiah.  Another way to say this is, they are types of Messiah and their experiences are typical of Messiah.  By a type we mean that they are historical clues put in the life of God’s people by God to build expectation of the coming Messiah and to illustrate what the Messiah’s life will be like.

So, for example, Israel, the nation as a whole, is an illustration of Messiah.  The Messiah is intended to be the ultimate representative of the nation and the nation’s experience will in some way be played out in the experience of the Messiah.  So when Israel is rescued out of Egypt by Yahweh there is an expectation that the Messiah’s history will include a sojourn and rescue from Egypt.  Hosea wasn’t attending to this meaning when he wrote 11:1,2, but if you asked him if his depiction of Israel could have an impact on what happened to the Messiah, he would undoubtedly have said yes.

When Isaiah predicts that a virgin (in this case, his wife, whose child is born according to the next chapter as the sign Isaiah predicted) will have a child and his name will be Emmanuel (meaning, God with us), the immediate application of the prophecy is for King Ahaz to realize that God will deliver Judah from the alliance of nations Ahaz fears before Isaiah’s son is more than a few years old.  But if you asked Isaiah whether the life experience of his son, as a prophet, could be predictive of what Messiah’s life would be like, he could say yes.  Whether he would have understood that Messiah’s experience would be an advance on his son’s experience, I don’t know.  Mary was literally a virgin and bore the Messiah without a human father.  The Messiah’s experience always goes beyond the type’s experience in some way.

This is evident in David’s life also.  Even though he feels God has abandoned him to his enemies (they have figuratively pierced his hands and feet like dogs attacking a victim, Psalm 22:16), that is not actually the case.  God has not abandoned him but has indeed allowed him to experience attacks from his enemies only to be rescued eventually (see verses 22-24).  But in order for Jesus to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins He must literally be abandoned by the Father as the penalty for our guilt.

There are many prophecies that can be understood in this way in the Old Testament.  Interestingly there are similar “types” in other cultures, as evidenced in Don Richardson’s books, Eternity in Their Hearts and Peace Child.  In the latter he chronicles a means of assuring peace between two warring native tribes in one culture by the chief from one tribe giving his son to be cared for by the other tribe, thus guaranteeing the end of warring.  This “peace child” became Richardson’s key to opening the meaning of the gospel to this people when he described Jesus as God’s peace child offered to us.  God has built the expectation of a Messiah in many different cultures, but most clearly in Israel’s culture as recorded in the Old Testament.

Lessons From the Old Testament: Passionate Marriages

What is God’s standard for marriage?  What is it He desires to see as a reflection of His relationship to His people in the lives of married couples?  Surely He requires us to keep our vow of lifelong commitment, but is He satisfied if we tough it out in miserable perseverance, not feeling loved by or loving our spouse?  Not according to the Old Testament.

Proverbs 5:19 says, “A loving doe, a graceful deer— may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love.”  Here Solomon is encouraging his son(s) not to resort to a relationship outside marriage.  The way of the adulterer is death (5:5).  But it is not enough to simply steel ourselves against the desires of our hearts for a more romantic, more exciting relationship than we consider our marriage to be.  Instead, we must put the passion (or better, keep it stoked) in our marriage.

The language Solomon uses here is the language of intoxication.  The idea behind being “captivated” by my spouse’s love is that I am rocking and  reeling and drunkenness over how special my spouse’s love is.  That is God’s standard for marriage!  But how do I get that, or keep that.  I know what it feels like because that is how I started my marriage.  But what keeps that intoxication going?  What must I keep drinking to get drunk on love?

The Song of Solomon gives us the answer.  My take on the message of this Song of Songs is that romantic love is wonderful, powerful and noble when harnessed to commitment, but all such relationships will have their problems.  That is the realism of God and the realism of marriage.  Even God’s marriage to us is marked with such realism.  But of interest to us immediately is how this couple manages to keep the fires going.

Intimacy!!!  They are drunk on intimacy! They feed on intimacy.  They primarily feed on emotional intimacy in the context of sexual intimacy.   How do they do this?  They talk to each other.

They talk to each other!  Did you get that?  And the way they talk to each other is most important.  They do at least three things in this regard:

They affirm each other over and over.   There might be some negative things to say to each other, but they focus on the things they like about each other.  Of course, they do it in terms that we would not use in our culture (“I liken you, my darling, to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariot horses,” 1:9),  but you get the point.  This is their habit and their commitment.

They talk to each other when they make love.  I’m not trying to get too explicit here nor do I think that there is some prescription for how one has to talk before or during sex, but so much of our sexual interaction can feel selfish if we are not really focused on our partner.  Affirmation during love making puts sexual intimacy in the proper realm of emotional intimacy.  Now it is not just an expression of our yearnings, but of our love, as well.

They affirm the high value of their relationship.  After an argument, they affirm the value of their marriage (chapters 4&5).  In their recounting of the history of their relationship they affirm the value of their marriage and their love for each other (chapter 8). 

Place me like a seal over your heart,
   like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
   its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
   like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
   rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
   all the wealth of one’s house for love,
   it would be utterly scorned. (8:5-7)

Lessons From the Old Testament: Being Honest With God

We have a record of the private thoughts of saints made public in the Psalms.  And some of the things they utter to God seem blasphemous to us.  For example:

Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1,2)

All this came upon us, though we had not forgotten you; we had not been false to your covenant. Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path. But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals; you covered us over with deep darkness. If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god, would not God have discovered it, since he knows the secrets of the heart? Yet for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? (Psalm 44:17-24)

Job is perhaps the most blunt when he says to God, among other things,

Even if I summoned him and he responded, I do not believe he would give me a hearing. He would crush me with a storm and multiply my wounds for no reason. It is all the same; that is why I say,  ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’ (Job 9:16-17,22)

Why does God allow this kind of talk?  Is He encouraging us to say irreverent things about Him?  I would say rather that He is encouraging us not to think that we can conceal any of our thoughts from Him and that if we have a problem with Him we ought to speak it to Him.  If I have a problem with you but never let  you know it and simply allow the hurt and anger to build up inside, I will never be able to have a healthy relationship with you.  Instead, it will always be attended by bitterness and distrust.  And if I tell my concerns with you to others, I am guilty of slander.  The only way to get our relationship right is to go to you with my issues against you.  I may find out I was right or wrong.  But respect for our relationship means I will talk honestly with you.

The same is true of our relationship with God.  He does not want us to think wrong things about Him, but if we do, we need to take it to the only One who can correct our wrong viewpoint.  He already knows what we are thinking (Psalm 139).  To keep it locked inside for fear that we are going to offend God is futile.  If He is going to be offended He is offended by the thoughts He is already reading.  So take it to Him.  He is strong enough to handle anything we could think or say.  Bringing it verbally to Him is saying we care enough about our relationship with Him that we are willing to work it through to reconciliation.  This is what Job did and God commended him for this (Job 42:7). 

So free yourself up with the knowledge that God wants to hear whatever is in your heart.  Become totally honest with Him and it is like opening up your heart for God to bring His healing.

Jesus the Teacher (Part 1)

His disciples said after a particularly hard message from Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)  Two disciples who got a personal lesson from the resurrected Jesus about how the Old Testament predicted his death and resurrection, said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”  (Luke 24:32)

What was it about the way Jesus taught that had such an impact?

Well, we would be mistaken if we chalked it up to technique.  Jesus used some very powerful teaching techniques, but no technique can take the place of personal passion and virtue.  When Jesus taught he did so out of the depth of his relationship with God through the Holy Spirit.  He taught as one having authority (Matthew 7:29) because he knew who he was and who his Father was and his life was lived in complete obedience to everything God said.  No teacher is more powerful than the level of his or her obedience to what he or she is teaching.

When Jesus told people to drop what they were doing and follow him, they knew he was living out that very life himself.  When the rich young ruler came to Jesus his address to Jesus was, “Good Teacher” (Mark 10:17).  Everyone recognized the moral integrity of Jesus.

Jesus also taught the truth.  One of his most oft repeated phrases was, “I tell you the truth” (almost 80 times in our Gospels).  Others admitted of him, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth” (Mark 12:14).

His famous Sermon on the Mount was a brilliant exposition of the Law of Moses and its true intended meaning.  His parables have inspired us to live  for the kingdom.  His principles never fail to guide us truly.  He is the teacher par excellence, the living Word of God, the voice of the Father, the faithful and true Witness.  Jesus is our Master Teacher.