The Gospel and Work

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'Those of us who value reason are alarmed about the increasingly extreme religious influence in our Government, on our lawmakers, and in our public institutions – especially our education system. Many people, while standing up for freedom of religion, and freedom not to believe, feel that the proper place for religion is in the place of worship or home.'

Those are the words of the Executive Director of the National Secular Society, in an introductory message on the Society's website.  Many people feel that the proper place for religion is the place of worship or the home.  Don't bring your faith to work.  Don't bring it to school.  Don't bring it to politics, law, media or any other sphere of public life.  That's the pressure of UK society today.  But how are Christians to respond?  How does becoming a Christian change the way I understand and do work?  Should the gospel have anything to say about work?

We're in Session 6 of our Gospel in Life series.  This week's topic is The Gospel and Work.  Please do open up the blue bibles to page 842 so that you can follow along in 1 Timothy 6.  I want to remind you as well that we ran a three-week mini sermon series on Work just a few months ago in the evening services, so if you missed that and you want to hear more that I'm able to cover this morning, get onto the website, holytrinitygateshead.org.uk and listen to those.

Genesis 2 tells us that God created man – the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Genesis 2 then tells us that God put the man to work - The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. The first thing God did with Adam was to set him to work.  Man was to rule over God's creation and to care for it, under God's authority.  So work is part of the very nature of what it is to be human.  Planes are built to fly, food is cooked to be eaten and man is created to work.

Gospel in Life author Tim Keller defines work as taking the raw material of this created world and rearranging it for human flourishing.  So for Adam and Eve, that meant tending the Garden to produce food.  For others it means using bricks to make houses, using chemicals to make medicines, using instruments to make music, using knowledge to give education.  Taking the raw material of this created world and rearranging it for human flourishing.

That definition covers us whether we work for others or for ourselves, at an office or in the home, full time or part time, paid or unpaid, studying or job-seeking, raising profits or raising children.  Put another way, your work is whatever you rest from.  Whatever it is you are doing just before you sit down to 'Have a Break, Have a Kit Kat', that's your work.  Taking the raw material of this created world and rearranging it for human flourishing.

That by way of definitions, I've got just two points to make and they are these: work is fallen and work is redeemed.

1 – Work is fallen

Let's go back to Genesis briefly before we get to 1 Timothy.  When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, trusting there would be something else that would bring greater satisfaction and fulfilment than him, God's blessing was removed and replaced with the curse.  Tim Keller put it really well in last week's Gospel in Life DVD slot.  He said that man's disobedience of God reversed the created order and lead to everything disintegrating.  Adam and Eve, and all people since, experience spiritual alienation from God, emotional alienation within, social alienation from each other and physical alienation from nature.  And that last element, physical alienation from nature, is most obvious in sickness and pain and ultimately death, but also in the new struggle to rule over God's creation, that is, in work.  Before the Fall, it was a joy to rule creation under God, but after the Fall, work is a painful battle.  God said to Adam,

Cursed is the ground because of you;

through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you,

and you will eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food

until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken;

for dust you are and to dust you will return. [Genesis 3.17b-19]

It's in that context that Paul writes to Timothy, so please look at 1 Timothy 6 and we'll read v6-9.

In verses 3-5 Paul writes to Timothy about false teachers in the church.  They have persuaded some people that the gospel is a good business opportunity, that God will reward their behaviour with financial blessing.  And it's not true.  There is great gain to be had from godliness, v6, but that gain is in the context of contentment, and it isn't financial gain.  Our Father God doesn't dish out promotions and pay rises to those who improve their godliness, and we wouldn't be better off if he did.

When a child obeys a parent, the true reward isn't a chocolate bar or a rise in pocket money.  The true reward for the child is a happy relationship with the parent rather than the tension and stress of disobedience and discipline.  Likewise godliness with contentment, godliness with the attitude that I everything I need in Jesus Christ, that brings great spiritual gain.

As we covered in the home reading for Gospel in Life Session 3 (The Gospel and Idolatry), work, like many good things in creation, can become an idol.  In fact, work can be the outer skin of several quite different idols.  For example,

You work to gain power over others.

You work to gain approval from others.

You work to gain money so that you can be financially secure.

You work to gain money so that you can have a good time.

You work to gain a sense of achievement and pride.

In all these things you're looking for some sort of fulfilment that you believe can only come from your idol, via work, and not from God.  And in some ways work is fulfilling.  We should expect that, as a function of mankind from creation, work is good, work has dignity and work does bring some pleasure and fulfilment.  But we were made to live and work under God's authority and in relationship with him, and we can't do away with the creator and expect to find fulfilment in a created function.

The writer of Ecclesiastes understood this.  He built houses too good to feature on Grand Designs, he took up landscape architecture, irrigation engineering, farming and theatre.  He wrote,

'My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labour.  Yet […] I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.  And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. […]  So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labour under the sun.'

We'll come back to him in a minute to see what he concluded.

So if work is fallen, what does that mean for us?  Well the main application of this is to search our hearts for these work idols. Ask yourself, what would failure in your work look like?  If you're in paid work, perhaps it would be demotion or made redundancy.  If you're raising children, perhaps it would be your child getting into trouble with the police.  If you're studying, perhaps it would be failing your final exams.

Imagine that scenario for you and ask what is the outcome that you fear the most?  Loss of influence over others?  Disapproving looks from other parents at the school gate?  Lack of financial security?  Yes, these scenarios are very difficult, but we must not idolise work.  We can't put our hope in work for fulfilment, security or happiness, because only God can give us these things.  Let's see how.

2 – Work is redeemed

Read v9-12.

These verses are originally written to Timothy, but we can apply a lot of the details and principles to ourselves and our work.  If we are followers of Jesus and can say that Jesus is Lord, then we share Timothy's good confession of verse 12 and the eternal life to which he is called.

Paul says there are people who want to get rich and they fall into temptation and a trap and then into ruin and destruction.  This is because of their love of money – idolatry, replacing God with work to gain power or approval or money or pride.  But you: Flee from all this.  Pursue this better way.  Fight the good fight of the faith.  Take hold of eternal life.

That little phrase crops up twice in the last verses of this letter.  Verse 12 'Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.' Verse 19 'so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.' The verb 'take hold' has a very physical ring to it.  The same word comes up when the soldiers seize Simon of Cyrene and force him to carry Jesus' cross, or when Jesus grabs Peter when he starts to sink after walking on the water.  Take hold, seize, grasp.  And he says take hold of eternal life.  But surely Timothy already has eternal life.  How can he 'take hold' of something he already has?  Eternal life is the life of the new creation, of heaven.  It's the life that followers of Jesus will enjoy forever.  Jesus defined it in terms of knowing himself and knowing God the Father.  So eternal life has not only the obvious future aspect of the age to come, but it's also a possession to take hold of in this life now for those who follow Jesus.

I like to fall asleep on a train journey.  If I take the train to London for a wedding or something like that, I like to stick some earphones in and doze off.  Always best if you're getting off at the end of the line, of course.  But imagine you get given a £1000 ticket on the famous Blue Train from Pretoria to Cape Town in South Africa.  By day you glide past waterfalls, sunflower farms and flocks of wild ostrich.  At night you watch the moon rise over the desert. The following dawn you are among the world's finest vineyards and eventually you pull in beneath Table Mountain.  The only things that might distract you from the views are the marble-tiled, gold-plumbed bathrooms, stately lounges, gourmet dining and personal butlers.  That's not a train journey you'd want to sleep through, is it?  In fact, even though it's 27 hours long, you'd probably want to stay awake for the whole trip.

And as Christians we can just trundle along month by month, year by year periodically wondering where the time goes, not quite awake.  But Jesus says that he has come that we may have life and have it to the full.  Jesus says that the Christian life is a life worth staying awake for.

Why is that?  Well, the gospel – the good news about Jesus, his death in our place and resurrection in power – is the answer to the Fall.  All the disintegration of the Fall is being overturned by the gospel.  This will ultimately be completed when Jesus returns, but the transformation starts for anyone when they accept Jesus as Lord.  Verse 12, Timothy was called to this eternal life 'when [he] made [his] good confession in the presence of many witnesses.' It's the confession Jesus made before Pilate, verse 14, that is, when Jesus confirmed to Pilate that he was the king of the Jews, with everything that entails.  Eternal life, life knowing God the Father through God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, begins for us in this life with that same confession.  And that means that the gospel transforms everything, starting this side of heaven.  So,

Because of the gospel, we can be freed from unfulfilment by serving God in our day-to-day work.

Because of the gospel, we can be freed from overworking by following God's creation pattern of work and rest.

Because of the gospel, we can flee from the dangers of wealth by trusting God for security and pleasure.

Because of the gospel, we can flee from worldliness by submitting our workplace practices to God.

One example of this gospel transformation comes at the end of this chapter.  Read v17-19. Timothy, command those who are rich not to trust in their riches, but to trust in God, who gave richly provides their riches along with everything else.  Command the rich to be rich in generosity so that they become rich with true riches.  In this way they take hold of the life that is true life.

What answer did the writer of Ecclesiastes arrive at in response the question of the meaning of life and the meaning of work?  Chapter 12: Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.  He concludes: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

The gospel gives meaning to the most unfulfilling work.

The gospel transforms us to bring honesty, integrity and ethics into our work.

The gospel prompts us to reject idolatrous overworking by deliberately resting.

The gospel changes our attitude to money by enabling us to be content and generous.

This radical, gospel approach to work speaks volumes to the people we work with, whether in the office or the home or elsewhere.  This approach to our work challenges those who don't have this eternal life and encourages those who do to take hold of it.  Many people in this secular society who don't know Christ won't like this gospel approach to work, nor will they honour us or God for it.  But others will be stirred by it, and we need to be ready to take every opportunity to give the reason for the hope that we have, urging them with gentleness and respect, to make the same confession that Jesus is Lord.

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