Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23-24 ESV)
Stephen W. Hiemstra, Luncheon for the Soul, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia, September 17, 2014
Merciful father. Beloved Son. Spirit of Truth. Thank you for your presence among us this morning. Thank you for the food that we have eaten and the hands that prepared us. Open our hearts now to receive your word. Silence any voice in our minds except yours. Inspire the words spoken and illumine the words heard. In the precious name of your son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Who do you work for, really? (2X)
As some of you know, I used to work in construction during the summer as a student years ago. Of the many things that I did, a particular job in McLean, VA comes to mind when I think of those days. It was probably 1974 when I worked all summer to earn enough money to buy my first car—a used 1967 Volkswagen Beetle.
This job comes to mind because I met so many very colorful people and learned lessons that stuck with me. I used to say that this job convinced me that I wanted to finish college and never again work construction.
Unlike today when there are many Hispanics in construction work, back then most people working around McLean, VA in those days were from West Virginia. Many had police records. In my workgroup—all day workers—there were two African Americans—one was quiet and the other was noisy. The quiet one was arrested for robbing a bank at gunpoint; The noisy one used to chase me around with a razor.
My boss was not much better. He thought it was funny to instigate fights among the men. He went back to West Virginia one weekend and was arrested for getting drunk and shooting up someone’s trailer. Normally after payday, he would hang around, drink, and play cards until any workers present lost their entire paycheck. My boss was not much better.
In the middle of all this stuff, I got rather depressed. One morning I could not take it any longer. I skipped work and spent the day in the museum of art downtown. The next day my boss let me go. But first, he gave me some advice—at the next job site you go to, bring along your tools, and tell them that you are a carpenter’s helper. Later that morning, I did that on another job site and received not only a job but also a higher salary.
Who do you work for, really? (2X)
Our scripture passage today is taken from Paul’s letter to the church at Colosse, an agricultural town about 110 miles east of Ephesus in what is now modern Turkey (Garland 1998, 17-33). Commentators believe that Paul wrote this letter from Rome where he was under house arrest. Paul writes this letter having heard that the church was faithful (vv 1:3-4), but has also been under pressure from false teachers, probably teachers trying to convince them to return to Judaism (vv 2:8-19). In response to this pressure, Paul writes to them about the sufficiency of Christ for salvation and for life (vv 1:17-20; 2:6-7).
In chapter 3 where our passage is then focuses on the sufficiency of Christ. Paul writes: Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Colossians 3:2 ESV). He then proceeds to explain how to do this in practice.
The immediate context of our verses is a section referred to by scholars as the household codes where Paul gives advice to husbands, wives, parents, children, and slaves—every member of an ancient household (vv 3:18-22). Our verses then provide the general principle or summary statement of Paul’s teaching:
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ (vv 3:23-24).
In some sense, our attitude in our work summaries Paul’s letter and a key focus of our lives in Christ.
Who do you work for, really? (2X)
The gravity of idolatrous sin is obvious. If our loyalty, time, energy, and money point to what we really worship (Giglio 2003, 113), then the heart of idolatrous activity has to be our work—inside or outside the church; inside or outside the home. Work is often also a source of stress, fear, and anxiety.
Jesus understands. At one point, he presented a word picture of lilies and kings. Then, he advised: “do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried . . . Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.” (Luke 12:27–31) In other words, work is important; the kingdom of God is more important.
Work, as designed by God, is endowed with dignity. The Bible opens with God working—he creates (Welchel 2012, 7). God’s only son did manual labor! If Christ worked first with his hands as a carpenter, then working with our hands also has honor. Most of the disciples worked as fishermen—do you think they came home smelling like lilies? One of Jesus’ most radical acts was table ministry—he ate and drank with people who worked for a living (Matt 11:19).
The Apostle Paul’s attitude concerning work is significant in three ways. First, our work for human supervisors is also work for God! (Colossians 3:23–24). Second, many of the people that we work with and for are brothers and sisters—family—in Christ. How can anyone disrespect family? (Phlm 1:16). Impossible! Unthinkable! Third, Paul himself supported himself with manual labor as a tentmaker (Acts 18:2-3).
One of the church’s most important spiritual writers was a disabled veteran who worked in a kitchen. He hardly wrote anything at all. But he committed his work during the day to God in prayer. Brother Lawrence (1982, 23) wrote: “We should offer our work to Him before we begin and thank Him afterwards for the privilege of having done it for His sake.” He simply applied Paul’s advice: “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalian 5:17) And, the spiritual giants of his day beat a path to his door.
One measure of the idolatrous potential of work is to ask about identity. When you meet a new neighbor or someone at a party, how does your spouse identify you? Is it by your marital relationship, by your favorite sport’s team, or by your profession?
As Christians, our identity is in Christ. Work has dignity because we worship a God who demonstrated the dignity of work in creation and everything that can thereafter.
Who do you work for, really? (2X) As Christians, we know how to answer this question.
Loving Father. We praise you for giving us useful things to do. We praise for equipping us for work in your church. Thank you for giving us new eyes to see our work, our supervisors, and our primary responsibilities. The harvest is ready; prepare us to join the laborers. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Garland, David E. 1998. The NIV Application Commentary: Colossians/Philemon. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Giglio, Louie. 2003. The Air I Breathe. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Press.
Lawrence, Brother. 1982. The Practice of the Presence of God (Orig Pub 1691). New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House.
Whelchel, Hugh. 2012. How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press.