Our Labour in the Lord
The first Monday in September is Labor Day. This day was instituted as a holiday to honour the labourers of the world. In Europe Labor Day is celebrated on the first of May, which shows a closer connection to Socialism and Communism. However, also on this side of the ocean the institution bears the stamp of humanism.
Are we allowed to honour the workers? Is it good to express appreciation for the work they do, if their work is done in a proper and constructive way, truly building up society? Also as Christians, we can answer these questions in the affirmative. We can honour the workers if their work is done within the framework of the teaching of Scripture. Scripture tells us to put our life and work in the light of God's revelation. This means that we place our life and work in relation to Him, Who is the Creator and Redeemer. We are His creatures called to give ourselves with what we are and what we do to Him. This is possible for sinners through Jesus Christ, who is our Saviour also with regard to our daily work.
In this context of creation and redemption Scripture contains words of praise for those who are diligent in their labours and fulfill their task with wisdom and skill. Examples of such praise can be found, for instance, in the book of Proverbs. In its last chapter great honour is given to the diligent, wise, hard-working wife and mother at home. So, indeed, God teaches us to give honour to those who faithfully fulfill their daily calling. This is in line with the whole of God's revelation. God tells us many good things about our daily work: in connection with both creation and redemption. About both aspects I would like to make a few remarks.
The Context of Creation
Man was created in God's image and after His likeness. (The reader should understand that this word "man" means here, and more often in this article, human being, member of the human race.) This is already such a great gift of God's favour. Man is created to be God's adopted child. Then comes a next gift of God's favour and love. God patterns man's daily labour after His own creation work. When God made heaven and earth, His pattern was: six days of work, then the day of rest. It is this divine order of work and rest, which God gives also to His children, to man, on earth. Here is, so to speak, a second likeness with God. It is again: so Father, so child.
This is evident from the account in Genesis 2, first of all. When "God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all His work which He had done in creation" (Genesis 2:3) this was not a blessing and hallowing of this day for the sake of the day itself. It was also not a blessing and hallowing for the sake of God Himself. It was clearly a blessing and hallowing for man, God's child. Man was blessed with the rule that after six days of work the seventh day would be a day of rest, a day set apart, holy for special service of God.
That we can speak here of God's gift with the pattern of six days of work and a day of rest is evident from the Fourth Commandment, too. "Six days you shall labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work,…"The basis for this divine pattern for Israel's life and work is that "in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day" (Exodus 20:9-11).
We truly can speak of God's rich favour for man in this given (and commanded) pattern of work on six days, followed by a day of rest. There is the gift of daily labour of the good Creator for man, but it is not slavery without rest. Man's work means that he is busy on earth to the glory of his Creator and Father, as His child, in His communion week after week.
Now this labour on earth is more exactly defined by the LORD with the words "God blessed them and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion…'" (Genesis 1:28). These last words characterize man's daily labour as a royal task. This task was further defined by God's instruction when He placed Adam in the garden of Eden. The king had "to till (cultivate, develop) it and keep (take care of, guard) it" (Genesis 2:15).
It is evident that this royal character of man's work is not meant to be a tyrannically exploiting the earth in pure self-service. God, the Creator and Owner, gave the charge. Therefore, the work had to be done in obedience to Him. Daily labour was to be done in His service. This fact gave to the daily work, beside the royal, a priestly character. In the royal execution of his work on earth, man was to be priest, dedicating his life and work to His God and Maker. In doing so, man would, of course, be listening to God's revelation, which gives his existence and work a prophetic character, also. So man was made and called to be God's prophetic, and priestly king on earth in his daily work.
The Context of Redemption
Then man sinned in rebellion. Eve saw the forbidden fruit as means to become wise. The fruit was to make man independent of the revealed wisdom of God. The devil suggested that man would find the necessary wisdom for the proper execution of his dominion in himself. He would be like God, totally independent. He would have his own inner wisdom. However, what Satan suggested was rebellious and destructive foolishness. With this rebellion, this refusal to have dominion as a prophetic and priestly king subject to God, man brought the curse of God over the earth and great trouble on his daily work. He had still to fulfill his charge to "be fruitful and fill the earth and subdue it." But his labour would be subject to vanity.
After the fall in sin God said to Eve that this being fruitful and filling the earth was going to be done in pain and with trouble. He said to Adam that his tilling and keeping would be on a cursed ground, in painful toil (the Hebrew text uses for the toil of man the same word as for the pain of woman). And at the end of a life in this painful trouble for both, there would be death, as God had warned: "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19).
All this sounds very somber, indeed. Our daily labour has become subject to vanity. It is the somber vanity under which the book of Ecclesiastes sighs and moans. It is the vanity or futility of which Paul speaks in Romans 8. We live, through our sin, under the just punishment of God. Trouble, futility, pain, and the end of ail this is death. It seems hopeless when we read the punishment in Genesis 3 and the sighing and groaning of Ecclesiastes.
But there is hope. There is one thing which we may never forget when reading Genesis 3. True, after the fall in sin God announced His punishment. But the first one who hears God's word of wrath is the serpent. And in this word of wrath and coming judgment for the serpent God speaks His promise of redemption to Adam and Eve. It is the word of the great antithesis, of the coming of the great Seed of the woman; He will bruise the head of the serpent.
This promise of God's grace in this Seed dominates what follows. It dominates God's words of punishment to Eve and to Adam. Painful toil will there be for Eve and her daughters? Yes, but in exactly this painful way the seed was to come with His redemption. With their troubled and painful labour they would serve His arrival. Painful toil will there be for Adam and his sons in tilling and keeping, in subduing? Yes, but in this sorrowful labour to provide food on the table, they would be taking care of the mothers of the seed and of the seed itself (Christ and His church). Thus they would serve the coming of that seed. It is a beautiful thing that Scripture tells us also of the faith of Adam. After having heard God's words of punishment, but (at the same time) in the context of redemption in Christ, Adam spoke his word of faith when he gave his wife the name Eve, "mother of all living" (Genesis 3:20); and he added his act of faith when he "knew Eve his wife" so that she conceived (Genesis 4:1).
The gospel message from Genesis 3 is that children of Adam and Eve are called to see their often hard daily labour, done with sighing and moaning, in the light of God's word of punishment for sin, yes, but also in the light of the promised redemption through the coming seed of the woman. God's call to the people in the Old Testament dispensation was: accept the antithesis and place your daily work in this light and context of the coming Redeemer. In the way of this faith they would receive the grace of living as prophetic, priestly kings in their faith-fellowship with their God. In this way of faith the gift of their daily work, although still performed with so much pain and trouble, was still a good gift, because in the coming Christ their work, done in faith, was not in vain.
This gospel in Christ regarding our daily labours comes out with great force in the New Testament, too. God's Son has come as the great Seed of the woman (cf. Revelation 12). He has defeated Satan with his claim on sinners. Now Paul, apostle of Christ, can write to Titus to bid older women "to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands, that the word of God may not be discredited" (Titus 2:4,5). And Paul can write to Timothy that "woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty" (1 Timothy 2:15).
These words of the apostle sound strange to modern ears. They must be read in the light of God's work of creation and redemption. A wife and mother at home, finding her daily labours in taking care of husband and children in the light of Scripture, and doing so for God and His Christ, for God's church and kingdom, does a tremendously important work. Done in faith that this work is royal and priestly and prophetic, she will be mother of the next generation of God's people. She is building the church of Christ in her daily labours. She is working for the glory of the Name of the LORD and the coming of His kingdom by her living by God's Word in obedience of faith.
The same Paul can write to men, and those not married, yes, to slaves with their slave-labour: "Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord, and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ" (Colossians 3:23-24, cf. Ephesians 6:5-8). Therefore, whatever our daily labour, if it is honourable work, done in the light of the Gospel of Christ Jesus, bound to the will of the Creator, we may see it as prophetic, priestly, royal service, to God's glory. Sure, the trouble and pain will remain as long as this earth remains. But in the end God will wipe all tears from the eyes of his children. On the new earth there will be no trouble, no pain. All things will be eternally new for God's children, including their new task.
In this light we may see our labour, also on Labour Day, through the grace of God. Let us, then, do our daily work in true Christian faith, not to be praised and honoured by man, but with the aim that God be praised and that we may receive the eternal inheritance as our reward (Colossians 3:24).