On September 5, 1882, thousands of workers assembled in New York City to participate in America’s first Labor Day parade. The event was sponsored by New York’s Central Labor Union. According to documents from the period, workers and families marched from City Hall to Union Square, then gathered in Reservoir Park for picknicking, music, and speeches.
Several individual states established official Labor Day holidays until Congress turned it into a Federal holiday in 1894. Curiously, one labor union of that era also passed a resolution setting aside the Sunday before Labor Day as “Labor Sunday” to focus on “the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement” (Dept. of Labor).
What follows considers, not “spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement,” but biblical aspects of work in general, mostly from Genesis 2:7-15.
5 truths to help us value the blessing of work
1. Work is God-like.
It has always impressed me that the first time we encounter God in Scripture we find Him working: “in the beginning God created.” In Genesis 2:7, we see God working again: “the Lord God formed man.” This time the details intensify the labor involed: “of the dust of the ground.” In a manner of speaking, God not only work, but He got His hands dirty. And earlier, in 2:3 we’re told that when He finished, God “rested” (i.e. ceased) specifically from “from all His work.” The early chapters of Genesis repeatedly call our attention the fact that our God works.
In the NT, God-incarnate also showed an intense focus on His work.
For this reason the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.” (NKJV, John 5:16-17)
But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” Therefore the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him anything to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.” (NKJV, John 4:32–34)
I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do. (John 17:4)
When we engage in productive effort (a. k. a., “work”) we are following God’s example. To the degree we make God’s industrious character visible through our labors, we also glorify Him.
2. Work is what we were made for.
Genesis 2:15 reveals that God “took the man and put him in the garden … to tend and keep it.” The narrative flows from God forming man (2:7) to God’s preparation of a place for man to thrive (2:8-15), and that thriving included labor—tending and keeping.
We were designed and built not only to be active, but to be responsibly active, working in service of realities greater than ourselves. Adam’s task was not merely to do the necessary work to feed himself or his future family. Rather, he was tasked with enhancing and further ordering something that belonged to Another.
Two words disclose the character of Adam’s work.
- The word “tend” (עָבַד, abad) conveys substantial effort over time. Jacob used the word in reference to his labors for Laban: “you know that with all my might I have served [עָבַד, awbad] your father” (Gen. 31:6).
- The word “keep” (שׁמר, shawmar) refers to “limit[ing] access and movement of persons or objects in and out of an area, implying protection to or from the object being guarded” (Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages). The same word appears in Genesis 3:24 where flaming-sword bearing cherubim “guard” (ESV, NKJV, NASB) the path to the tree of life.
The point is that God gave Adam important and challenging work, and that work involved responsible stewardship (c.f. Gen. 1:26). The assignment was the calling, the vocation, of the first man and reveals what all of us, as his descendents, were designed to do.
3. Work is individual.
Though Adam’s assignment reveals much about how all of us relate to work, the particulars were for him alone. We do not know what jobs might have been assigned to Adam’s offspring if there had been no Fall and ejection from the Garden. What we see is Eden as Adam’s work and no one else’s.
A similar pattern is evident in the language of Ezekiel 36:1.
And Bezalel and Aholiab, and every gifted artisan in whom the Lord has put wisdom and understanding, to know how to do all manner of work for the service of the sanctuary, shall do according to all that the Lord has commanded. (NKJV, Exodus 36:1)
Though our vocation and our job are often not the same thing (e.g., Acts 18:3), the principle remains that God fashions each of us (Psa.139:16) for particular work that belongs to us alone (also helpful: Exod. 35:34-35).
4. Work is not quite what it used to be.
Though work is truly a blessing from God, it’s also tainted. Genesis 3:17-19 tells us what happened. When Adam and Eve chose the path of rebellion and self-determination, God fundamentally altered their relationship with the created world and their work in it.
[C]ursed is the ground … in toil [literally, “pain”] you shall eat of it … thorns … thistles … in the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Work is not a curse but work is cursed. Though Adam’s pre-Fall work was challenging, and that was part of the joy and pleasure of it, even the best of our post-Fall work brings some measure of drudgery, frustration, or just boredom with it. Blessedly, some jobs include less of that than others, and some bring so much of the joy of fine skills well used, the “toil” is hardly noticeable (as they say, “great work, if you can get it!”).
The fact that work is now linked to survival and brings suffering with it partly expalins why we’re all responsible to do our own work and why we should not expect others to do it for us.
If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. 11 For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. 12 Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread. (NKJV, 2 Thess. 3:10–12)
But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (NKJV, 1 Tim. 5:8)
5. Work is worship.
Work isn’t automatically worship, but it can be worship. For Adam, work was finding joy in being and doing what the Creator intended. It was joining Him in the work of nurturing His creation, then walking with Him in the “cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8), bearing God’s image (1:26) all the while.
For us, work brings similar opportunities. The NT calls us to view labor as something we give to God. Though it may often be difficult to think in these terms, we’re commanded to go about our work consciously seeking to present it as a gift to our Redeemer—because, whether we realize it or not, that’s what our work truly is.
Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. 23 And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. (NKJV, Col. 3:22–24)