EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, James M. Hamilton Jr., professor of biblical theology at Southern Seminary talks with Towers writer Andrew J.W. Smith about this new book, Work and Our Labor in the Lord.

AS: Why is a healthy, biblical theology of work so important?
JH: Growing up, I was under this misconception that the really important work was missions and then second to missions was full-time vocational ministry. And I was in a low ecclesiology setting, so that didn’t necessarily mean church. Once I got serious about the faith I had the impression that other people who were serious about the faith thought that way too. If you were really going to pursue the Lord, then what you were going to do was go into full-time vocational ministry, whether that was some form of campus ministry or church ministry or you were going to really lay it all down and go to the mission field. And there were no doubt traditions where that misconception is not burdening people’s consciences and places where they have a high view of vocation, and in some ways have done a better job in preserving their theology and then communicating that theology to the laypeople. So all this to say, I don’t think the Bible presents the matter as, “If you’re really going to be useful in life you’re going to serve the Lord.” I would say: If you’re going to be useful, you’re going to serve the Lord doing whatever he has built you to do. I think that’s the appropriate biblical response to it. And having come to that, out of this other misconception, I was eager to get the opportunity to try to think through what the perspective of the biblical authors is when it comes to the work that we do. That was kind of the problem that led me to it.

AS: What was God’s original vision for work in creation?
JH: It’s fascinating when you look at Genesis 1:28, God creates this massive world, then he starts with two people, and the first thing he commands them to do is be fruitful and multiply. Then every successive imperative in Genesis 1:28 is going to build and grow out of the “be fruitful and multiply.” So they’re to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” with people, and “subdue” the earth, and then “have dominion” over all the animals. That’s their responsibility. They’re not going to be able to either subdue the earth or have dominion over the animals unless they fill the earth. And they’re only going to be able to fill the earth if they are fruitful and multiplying. There’s this logical progression here from one command to the other that implies that even if they’re fruitful and multiply but they don’t train those kids, if they don’t disciple those kids, they’re not going to be able to subdue the earth and have dominion over the animals. So, that is to say, the first thing is they’ve got to do is have a great marriage. This couple, Adam and Eve, their marriage is crucial to the whole task. They’ve got to have a healthy marriage that produces children, and then they’ve got to be great parents. Because what Genesis 1:28 is growing out of is in Genesis 1:26, God makes man in his own image and his own likeness, and then male and female in verse 27, and then in Genesis 1:28 he tells them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. If you just go with that progression, this means that God wants the earth full of people who reflect his image and likeness, which I think means God wants the earth full of his glory, and the way that the man and the woman are to image God is that they are to bring his character and authority and way of doing things into all creation. It’s a whole life thing where there has to be this balance between marriage and parenting and work and the ultimate significance of it is the glory of God.

AS: How would you say work is tied to the purpose of creating humanity?
JH: If we take a step back and look at God himself, you’ve got God doing this work at creation, and then you’ve got Jesus saying things like, “My Father is working until now and I am working,” when they’re disputing with him about what is going on on the Sabbath day. Then you have passages like Hebrews 1 speaking of the way that Jesus is upholding all things by the word of his power. So God is a worker. And he makes man in his image and likeness, and one aspect of that is that we also are to be workers.

AS: How is that purpose then marred or affected by the fall? Where does it go wrong?
JH: I think at the most basic level, the rebellion is a failure to trust God. Satan makes these suggestions about how God can’t be trusted and they believe Satan and they don’t trust the Lord. This introduces alienation between man and God, alienation between man and woman, alienation between man and his environment. Then God speaks words of judgment over the tasks given first to the woman and then to the man. So he makes the work they were created to do more difficult because of their sin. And I think if we were to just read the first five chapters of Genesis, maybe even the first four chapters of Genesis, I think a valid conclusion we can draw is every time someone sins, their work gets harder. So God’s judgment against man’s sin makes the work that God gave man to do harder. It introduces a curse on it.

AS: Often in our circles, students might feel frustrated by a paper they have to write, or a job they have to show up for. We often think of work itself as a curse.
JH: Yeah, work is not a curse. Adam and Eve were both given work to, do in the Garden of Eden and in the new creation we’ll be doing work. There will be work in the new heavens and the new earth. Work is not the curse. One major aspect of the curse is that we were driven out of the land of Eden, so we’re out of the direct presence of God and we don’t enjoy all the blessings that the presence of God brings to the Garden of Eden. So the blessed land is closed off to us. I think also in the words of judgment that are spoken, particularly in Genesis 3:16 to the woman and in 3:17-19 God has frustrated what he created us to do. He’s made that more difficult and painful. So the woman’s going to have pain in childbearing, and the man is going to have painful toil on the ground. The world’s not going to cooperate with us any more and our bodies are not going to cooperate with us any more. So that makes work hard.

AS: About the new heavens and the new earth, will the eschatological renewal of work be like a return to Eden, almost a rediscovery of that original intention?
JH: Right, I think it will be a created world, a new heaven and a new earth. And I think the best interpretation of the relevant passages indicates this is going to be a renewed version of this world. It’s going to be a renewed physical world and there will be no temple: God and the land will be the temple. God’s blessed presence will be enjoyed by everybody. So everyone and everything will enjoy the blessed presence of God because of it’s proximity of him. And then we will work to God’s glory. We will steward what he has given. Jesus speaks on various occasion of people reigning in the new heavens and the new earth. Paul says we will judge angels, so there will be decisions made. I think the subduing the earth and the exercising dominion is going to continue.

AS: Will we have jobs in the new earth?
JH: It’s a great question. In some ways, it’s hard to know when Jesus for instance is telling a parable about someone whose master comes and the master says, “You have done well; I will set you over five cities,” can we take it to indicate there will be cities? We know there will be a new Jerusalem. That seems to indicate there will be people in those who exercise authority in those cities, and I think that indicates that we will have various kinds of responsibilities and there will be hierarchies of authority. It’s hard to project what life is going to be like in the new heavens and the new earth from the text.

AS: Based on this theology, how would you challenge or admonish a Christian who tends to be a little more lazy or unproductive?
JH: I would want to do two things. First I’d want to sketch in the whole Bible picture: creation, fall, redemption, restoration. You’ve got work in the original creation, work was made more difficult through the fall, through Christ our work can be renewed, and then in the new heavens and the new earth we will do work. Having sketched in that overarching schema, assuming this is a believer, I think you can do a carrot and a stick. The carrot is, “Whatever you do, do with all your heart as for the Lord and not for men.” The stick is, “If any man will not work, let him not eat.” That indicates that we have a responsibility to work. And if we are not upholding our end of the bargain, other people should not provide for us. There is the accountability that if you’re not going to work, we’re not going to feed you.