Creation and work

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Thinking about the Doctrine of Creation is particularly helpful as we seek to apply the Bible to the whole of our life because Creation points us both to the goodness and challenges of work. The Bible is, from the start a book for all 7 days of the week, not just one.

Whilst we are often particularly interested in what the Bible has to say about the Sabbath Day, our understanding of sabbath is rooted in what Scripture has to say about the other six days. John Frame muses:

“Bible students are sometimes surprised to learn that the fourth commandment requires them to work for six days! There is a work ethic in the fourth commandment that appears also, implicitly in the eighth, ninth and tenth commandments. Rest is the central meaning of the commandment, but rest has no meaning if it is not a rest from work.”[1]

The sixth commandment is the requirement to honour the Sabbath and the reason for keeping it is rooted in what Genesis tells us about creation. Exodus 20:8-11 says:

“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.”

Work and Worship

Earlier when looking at Genesis 2, we saw that the words used to describe the man’s work in the Garden as keeping and tilling it are worship words used to describe the work of the Levites in the Tabernacle. [2]  Our daily work is not just about providing for our families. It is in and of itself worship because we do it to God’s glory. Christians should not see their responsibilities during the week as they go out to earn a living as in conflict with their responsibilities as part of the church to be involved in ministries and to be sharing the Gospel. Obviously, there is the opportunity to share the Gospel with colleagues but work is also not just an opportunity for evangelism, it is good and God glorifying in and of itself.  This means that the Apostle Paul can say to slaves:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. As slaves of Christ, do the will of God with all your heart.  Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will reward each one of us for the good we do, whether we are slaves or free.”[3]

Work and the Fall

Work happens in the context of enjoyment of God’s provision for us. It is therefore not to be seen as a consequence of the Fall.  As Chris Wright says:

“The command to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ inescapably entails human work. Work is not itself a result of the fall, though it was certainly affected by it. Rather, work is part of the image of God in humankind, for God as presented to us in the creation narratives, is a worker. To be like God is to reflect God’s activity as we see it in the story of creation.”[4]

But note there that Wright does pick up on the effects of the Fall on labour. Similarly, Frame notes that:

“After the Fall, work becomes toilsome (Gen 3:17-19; cf Ps 90:10; Eccl. 2:18-26), but it is still necessary and beneficial (Deut 16:15; 1 Thess 4:11-12). So we are not to be lazy (Prov 6:6-11; 12:24, 27; 15:19).”[5]

It is important to recognise this because sometimes I think Christians speaking about the workplace can talk glibly, simply going back to Creation and forgetting about he effects of the Fall. Yes, work is good but we must not underestimate the destructive consequences of sin on work life. Just because work is itself good, does not mean that all work and all aspects of work are good.  To be sure, we want to encourage believers to enjoy, take pleasure in and see their work as worship, however we also need to recognise that significant parts of their jobs will be dissatisfying and unpleasant. This might include the creeping bureaucracy of tedious paperwork, poor work conditions, tyrannical and unfair bosses, unjust wage settlements, sexism and harassment in the workplace, spurious complaints and unnecessary waste and errors.

Just as we seek to glorify God through good work, we should want to speak out about and challenge bad work, injustice and poor conditions, even as we remind each other that it is possible to glorify God through patient endurance even in those contexts.

Work and Rest

Genesis 2 opens with the description of the 7th day when God rested.  In doing so, God (among other things) provided a pattern for us of work and rest.  This is the example that is picked up on in Exodus 20.

Like the inclusion of a prohibition, a restriction on what trees could be eaten from in Genesis 2:16-17, the command to rest on one day in seven provides another boundary marker which reminds us that we are not infinite but limited, that we rule over creation not as supreme, all powerful overlords but as accountable stewards. There will be times when we feel like our work is never done and that there are not enough hours in the day. There will be times when it will be tempting to keep on working. Indeed, many professions, especially those where there is a sense of vocation such as teaching and medicine seem to rely on workers who give every waking hour. They find that the work is infinite, there is always more that can be done.  This is true of those in pastoral ministry too. We can be even more tempted to work every hour because we see our work as so overtly connected to the Gospel.  Pastors and missionaries are finite too. We need rest

What is more, my belief that I have to keep on working may well reflect a belief that success or failure is dependent upon me that I am indispensable.  The reality is that when I rest, life goes on. The other side of the coin is sadly that some people fail to take appropriate breaks or rest, work excessively long hours and rarely get away on holiday out of fear that if they are not seen to be busy, they will become dispensable. Resting is an act of humility and trust.

John Frame notes that there has been some discussion within Reformed Christianity as to whether the Sabbath Day was primarily about rest or worship.

John Calvin describes the purpose of the Sabbath as:

“First under the rest of the seventh day, the divine Law giver meant to furnish the people of Israel with a type of the spiritual rest by which believers were to cease from their own works and allow God to work in them. Secondly, he meant that there should be a stated day on which they should assemble to hear the Law, and perform religious rites, or which, at least, they should specially employ in meditating on his works, and be thereby trained to piety. Thirdly, he meant that servants and those who lived under the authority of others, should be indulged with a day of rest and thus have some intermission from labour.”[6]

The implication seems to be that whilst rest from work is included in that purpose (point 3) that this is secondary to the purpose of gathering for corporate instruction and praise.  Frame takes the view that the focus is primarily on rest itself.

“The Sabbath rest is physical, not merely a ceasing of one activity in order to perform another.”[7]

I think this is helpful because it enables us to see the benefit of recreation as part of rest and even the opportunity to stop doing anything at all.  A rest day that adds an extra burden of legalism on people with the assumption that they must fill it with worthy activities does not feel like a rest day at all! Frame even goes so far as to suggest that:

“I therefore believe it is legitimate to spend part of the Sabbath in sheer physical rest. A nap on that day should not be disparaged as idleness.”[8]

I’m sure many of us will want to say a hearty “amen” to that! 

Frame also wants to protect us from the unhealthy dualistic distinction between work as earthyl and sinful and Sabbath worship as spiritual and good. He says:

The Sabbath command is not that we sin for six days and then receive grace on the seventh.”[9]

I am inclined to agree with Frame on this. However, I want to insist on the following qualifiers. First of all, we are all made differently both physically and emotionally. For some people, a change really is as good as a rest and they find relaxation and refreshment in doing something different.  Someone who spends his working days engaged in intellectual activity may find physical exercise and hard labour working on DIY or gardening helpful whilst someone whose work is physical may want to sit down with a good book or listen to an intellectually stimulating talk.  Those who spend much of the work in isolation may appreciate company whilst those who spend the week negotiating, supervising, teaching may find a day in solitude is just what they need for the week ahead.

Secondly, whilst the whole of life is worship, the sabbath worship is different in kind and if our whole life is about glorifying God and witnessing for him, then the rest and refreshment we need is spiritual.  Sabbath is a time for feeding together on God’s Word. Sabbath is a time for mutual encouragement. Sabbath is a time for gathering before we scatter.


I am reminded again that whatever we do, both in our rest and our work, we are to do it all for God’s glory.

[1]John M Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Philipsburg, NJ.: P&R Publishing, 2008), 541.

[2] See Numbers 3:7-8; 4:23-24, 26 and Deuteronomy 4:19. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 67.

[3] Ephesians 6:5-8.

[4] Christopher J Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Nottingham: IVP, 2004), 148.

[5] Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 798.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.ii.28 (Beveridge 1:339).

[7] Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 541.

[8] Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 541.

[9] Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 544.

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