To straighten out our malformed theology of work, we need to go all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. The Lord God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there he placed the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. . . . Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it (Gen 2:7-9; 15).
The most notable thing about this passage is that it takes place before the Fall. Work is not a result of sin. It is part of God’s original design for humanity. The word cultivate in Genesis 2:15 is actually the Hebrew word for work or service. The word keep carries the idea of care or protection. God put Adam in the garden of Eden to work it and to care for it.
Let this sink in: Work is what we were created for.
It’s right there in the Bible, plain as day. God created you to work. And that’s only the beginning of the story! Adam started out tending a garden, but God had much bigger plans in mind.
God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:27-28).
Adam’s dominion over the garden was to expand into dominion over the whole earth. By producing godly offspring and teaching them to work, Adam and Eve were to subdue all of creation. The language of subduing and ruling mirrors what God did in creation: turning chaos into order. Adam and Eve are to turn the whole earth into the Garden of Eden. And it won’t happen by magic, but by concerted effort.
Theologians call Genesis 1:27-28 the “cultural mandate.” God is mandating that humans will create culture. Adam and Eve will produce children. Those children will create families, and those families will band together into cities and social networks. Those networks of human beings will reflect all the aspects of human culture—language and art and music and food and philosophy and theology.
It is no accident that the ultimate biblical picture of redeemed humanity involves a city (Rev. 21:2). A city reflects human culture in its most developed and complex forms. God’s purpose for humanity started in a garden, but it culminates in a great cultural center. One of my seminary professors used to say, “God expected Adam and Eve to split the atom.” He didn’t just intend for them to have babies and plant trees. They were meant to exercise dominion over all of creation, turning the entire earth into a showcase of the glory and beauty and majesty of God—and then working it and caring for it for all of eternity.
So work was God’s design from the beginning. And the ultimate goal was for every aspect of life and culture to be saturated with the beauty and glory and love of God.