Evangelical theology has moved away from making value distinctions between “Christian” work (connected to the church and the proclamation of the gospel) and “secular” work (all other good but “non-spiritual” labor). There’s a recognition that all work done by a Christian can and should be done for God’s glory.
My aim in this article is not to return to the unbiblical idea that only gospel-related work has any eternal value. However, I want to examine one of Paul’s letters, Colossians, in which he says a surprising amount about work and in which he, I think, provides a paradigm for thinking about the distinction between two different types of work.
All work done by a Christian can and should be done to God, but only some work is done for the kingdom of God.
We’ll see that while Paul does affirm the theological and eschatological value of all work that Christians do, he nevertheless also distinguishes between two different types of work. All work done by a Christian can and should be done to God, but only some work is done for the kingdom of God. This distinction helps us to be clear that there is a difference between, for want of a better word, “ministry” and “non-ministry” work. That is, while all work done by a Christian is glorifying to God and has intrinsic value—and even, as we’ll see, intrinsic eschatological value—not all work is kingdom work. This latter category is a narrower, distinct type of work.
In Colossians 4:10–11, Paul tells the Colossians that Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus (called Justus) “are the only men of the circumcision among [Paul’s] fellow workers for [εἰς] the kingdom of God” (4:11).
Let’s examine a number of aspects of this verse.
For the Kingdom or in the Kingdom?
Most modern commentators render the phrase εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ as “for the kingdom of God,” indicating that Paul’s coworkers are laboring with him to advance or “bring about” the kingdom. More specifically, Scot McKnight understands Paul to be commending his coworkers for working to “to spread the redemptive reign of God in Christ by forming churches throughout the Roman Empire.”
However, recently Paul Foster has suggested a different understanding of the preposition εἰς in 4:11: these coworkers are “in” the kingdom of God. He argues that given Paul’s description of the kingdom in 1:13 where believers are described as having been transferred into (εἰς) “the kingdom of his beloved son,” a “spatial” meaning is more likely in 4:11. As such, Foster suggests, the verse is stating that “the co-workers, like Paul, are those who now ultimately exist in the sphere of God’s rule.”
The phrase εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν is common in the Gospels and it’s usually preceded by a verb of motion, particularly “to enter” (εἰσέρχομαι). However, a brief survey of the NT’s use of εἰς in the context of “work” language (ἐργάζομαι and cognates; κοπιάω) shows that εἰς is used to connect the work to the goal or end of the work. So, for example, in Colossians 1:28 Paul describes his ministry as proclaiming Christ and “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” He then adds “for [εἰς] this I toil [κοπιῶ], struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (1:29). The preposition εἰς indicates the goal of his labor. This is consistent across the NT (cf. Rom. 8:28; 16:6; Gal. 4:11; 2 Cor. 5:4–5; 8:23; Eph. 4:11–12; 1 Tim. 4:8–10; 3 John 5). The pattern across the NT is that εἰς is used with “work” language to indicate the goal or the purpose of the work. We’ll examine more fully what Paul means by working “for the kingdom” below, but before doing so let’s consider the reference to his coworkers.
This understanding of εἰς is confirmed when we examine the use of the term “coworker” or “fellow worker” (συνεργός). Paul doesn’t use the word very frequently. However, in Romans 16 he asks the church at Rome to greet “Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in [ἐν] Christ Jesus” and “Urbanus, our fellow worker in [ἐν] Christ” (16:3, 9). In 2 Corinthians 1:24 Paul describes himself and his colleagues as “coworkers . . . for your joy” (my translation), the latter phrase expressed with the genitive (τῆς χαρᾶς ὑμῶν). In 2 Corinthians 8:23 he speaks of Titus as his partner and coworker “for your benefit” (εἰς ὑμᾶς). In 1 Thessalonians 3:2, Paul describes Timothy as “our brother and God’s coworker in [ἐν] the gospel of Christ.”
Admittedly, we’re not dealing with a large number of texts, but the tendency seems to be to use ἐν when he wishes to speak of the position of his coworkers “in Christ” and to use the genitive or εἰς when he wishes to express the purpose to which the coworkers labor. Again, this confirms the idea that Paul is describing his coworkers as people who are working with him to somehow further the kingdom of God.
What’s significant is that Paul views only a certain number of people as “workers for the kingdom” (οἱ ὄντες ἐκ περιτομῆς οὗτοι μόνοι συνεργοί) in Colossians 4:11. However, it’s not altogether straightforward to identify what Paul means. Most commentators and English versions suggest these men were the only Jews among Paul’s coworkers for the kingdom. In any case, Paul cannot be saying that these three men are the only Jewish Christians. No, the restriction comes with respect to their work for the kingdom of God. In short, for Paul, not everyone can be described as a “coworker” for the kingdom.
Defining Kingdom Work
What does Paul mean that these are his coworkers for the kingdom of God (εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ)? Paul has already spoken of God delivering people “from the domain of darkness” and transferring them to “the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13). This is experienced in practice in terms of “redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:14). Paul doesn’t specify what working “for the kingdom” entails, but if we read 4:11 in light of 1:13–14 it would seem that it involves work that brings people into the kingdom—work that’s connected to the proclamation of the gospel.
Acts speaks about Paul proclaiming the kingdom (Acts 20:25; 28:31; cf. 19:8; 28:23). Paul can also speak about God calling people into his kingdom (1 Thess. 2:12; cf. the appearance of the kingdom as a motivation for preaching the Word in 2 Tim. 4:1). These fellow workers are involved in the work of proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. This isn’t necessarily their only occupation any more than it was always Paul’s own occupation (he was a tentmaker according to Acts 18:3; cf. 1 Cor. 4:12), but they labored together in the proclamation of the gospel to an extent that they could be identified as coworkers with Paul “for the kingdom.”
So, Who Are the Kingdom Workers?
When Paul identifies only these three men as his Jewish coworkers for the kingdom of God, does that mean only these men were working for the kingdom of God? To help answer this question, we first need to return to Paul’s first reference to work in his prayer in Colossians 1:9–10. Paul describes his constant prayer that these believers “may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”
They labored together in the proclamation of the gospel to an extent that they could be identified as coworkers with Paul ‘for the kingdom.’
G. K. Beale has helpfully shown that despite common consensus, the letter to the Colossians draws deeply on the Old Testament. For 1:9–10, he observes the parallels with Exodus 31:3, 35:31–32, and 1 Kings 7:14. These are the only OT texts that combine the language of “Spirit” and “filling” with the language of “wisdom and understanding” and “knowledge.” In each case “the effect of the filling [is] that of doing God’s will in ‘every good work.’”
The specific work mentioned is either the building of the tabernacle (Bezalel and Oholiab in Exodus) or the temple (Solomon in 1 Kings). Thus, the reference to “every good work” in Colossians 1:10 with its potential allusion to tabernacle/temple building suggests Paul is praying that the Colossian believers might take their part in “building up the body of Christ,” “the new spiritual temple.” Broadly understood, we can view this as a prayer that all of the Christians in Colossae do work that’s equivalent to “work for the kingdom,” that advances the cause of the gospel of the kingdom.
We see a similar dynamic in 1 Corinthians and the language of the “work of the Lord.” I’ve elsewhere sought to demonstrate that the “work of the Lord” is specific gospel-related work. In 15:58, Paul calls on every Christian to be “abounding in the work of the Lord.” Every Christian, then, is to give themselves (as they’re able) to “gospel work.” However, in the very next chapter Paul identifies a group of Christians including “the household of Stephanas” who have “devoted themselves to the service of the saints” (16:15). This work and service, though, seems to be of a different order than that of every Christian envisioned in 1 Corinthians 15:58, since the Corinthians are told to “be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer” (16:16).
In other words, every Christian is to do the “work of the Lord,” but there are some whose activity is more closely bound up with this work so that they can be identified as a “worker.” We can speak—perhaps somewhat anachronistically—of those in full-time ministry (some Christians) and those who do ministry (every Christian). Returning to the language of Colossians, we can say that not every Christian is a “worker” for the kingdom of God (4:11). There were many Jewish Christians but only Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus Justus were Paul’s Jewish “coworkers” for the kingdom. However, every Christian can do fruitful work for the kingdom of God (1:10).
We can summarize it as follows: every Christian can do kingdom related work (1:9– 10); some Christians’ activity is so dominated by this type of work that they can be described as “(co-)workers for the kingdom of God” (4:11); Christians whose time is dominated by other activity, such as slaves, still work “for the Lord” (3:23) even though their service is not “work for the kingdom.”