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The spiritual significance of work

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In many ways, our work defines us; it can even be a source of purpose linked with our identity. In the context of the New Testament, Christian work is central, but regular, earthly occupations are also highlighted and are pregnant with spiritual import.

If viewed solely through the lens of the characters’ vocations, the Gospels could almost read like an allegory. Snapshots of just a few characters in Scripture (e.g., Peter, Paul, Matthew and Jesus) bring this idea to life. While they all had practical occupations as well as divine appointments, the mundane aspects of their everyday work likely enhanced or prepared them for their spiritual work.

For example, after Jesus called Peter, He changed Peter’s occupation from fisherman to “fisher of men” (Matt 4:19). The physical concept of fishing was then applied to the spiritual work prepared for Peter to do in bringing people to the knowledge of God.

Additionally, we are told that Paul was a tentmaker (Acts 18:3). His occupation would probably have consistently reminded him of the fact that life in this world is temporary, and that he was not to settle in and make himself comfortable. He was not living for this world but for eternity, and this enabled him to move from place to place, spreading the Gospel and sacrificing fleeting pleasures. The transience and difficulty of his life was juxtaposed to the eternal significance he was making through his work as an apostle.

Matthew’s vocation, like Paul's, would have prepared him to grasp more fully the nature of life as a follower of Christ and the sharp contrast between living for this world alone and living for eternity. However, for Matthew, his work as a tax collector would have been the antithesis of his life as a follower of Jesus.

Tax collectors were often corrupt and collected more than they needed to in order to pad their own paychecks. That vocation, which Matthew abandoned at Jesus’ call (Matt. 9:9), suggests legalism: Matthew both enforced and abused the law for his own gain just like the Pharisees, although they operated under the cloak of respectability and religiosity. His background therefore would have made him uniquely sensitive to the difference between living under a system of law and abuse and living under grace.

Lastly, we come to Jesus, the carpenter. His father Joseph was a carpenter, so we see that He did the work of His earthly father just as He did the spiritual work of His heavenly Father. As He built with His hands, He was also building in a spiritual sense: building the kingdom of God and His Church.

The fact that He was a carpenter also provides foreshadowing in the text: Jesus was to die on the wooden boards of a cross. All through His life He would have been nailing boards, handling the materials that would be the instruments of His death, fully knowing and embracing that fate. In this way His earthly vocation suggests control of His fate- the shaping and building of His purposes.

Scripture teaches the importance of work, even work that seems mundane. We can be encouraged that whatever our occupation, it may be used by God for our growth and edification and to point us toward eternal significance.

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