Volume 47 - Issue 1

Two Types of Work: Work for the Lord and Work for the Kingdom of God

By Peter Orr


This article explores Colossians, a letter in which Paul says a considerable amount about work. It suggests that Paul speaks about two different types of work—“work for the Lord” (3:23–24) and “work for the kingdom” (4:11)—and that this distinction provides a paradigm for thinking about the difference between “ministry” and “non-ministry” work. While Paul affirms the theological and eschatological value of all work that Christians do, he nevertheless can make a distinction between different types of work in their relationship to the kingdom of God.

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 is a recognition that all work done by a Christian can and should be done for God’s glory. Whereas earlier generations of evangelicals lacked material go help them navigate life as a Christian at work, we are now well served by a number of very helpful books.1

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 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. In short, we will 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.

This distinction is not sacred/secular but general/specific. Paul affirms that all work has intrinsic theological value before God, but that not all work is the same in relation to the kingdom of God. We will see that all work done by a Christian can and should be done to God, only some work is done for the kingdom of God. This distinction helps us to be clear that there is a distinction 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 will see, intrinsic eschatological value, not all work is kingdom work. This latter category is a narrower, distinct type of work.

1. Work in Colossians: A Survey

The letter of Colossians contains a high frequency of words related to “work.” Following his greeting (1:1–2) and opening thanksgiving (1:3–8), Paul recounts his prayer for the Colossians. The goal of Paul’s prayer in 1:9–10 is that the Colossian Christians be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, that they might bear fruit “in every good work” (ἐν παντὶ ἔργῳ ἀγαθῷ).2 His description of their pre-Christian state is that they were “alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil works [ἔργοις]” (1:21).3 An essential difference, then, between the Christian and the non-Christian is the character of the “works” they do (good or evil). Further, the faith of the Christian is directed to the God who has raised them to new life by his “powerful working [ἐνέργεια]” (2:12).4 The whole of the Christian life is encapsulated when Paul says, “whatever you do, in word or work [ἐν λόγῳ ἢ ἐν ἔργω],”5 all of it is to be done “in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17).

Paul uses “work” language to refer to his own ministry of proclaiming Christ, “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (1:28). This is the end for which he “toil[s] struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within” Paul (1:29). Although the language of “toil” (κοπιῶ) can refer to any kind of work,6 it is frequently used by Paul, as here, to refer to the work of ministry.7 Similarly, Paul’s language of “struggling” (ἀγωνίζομαι) was originally used in an athletic context but came to mean “contend” or “fight” in a more general sense. As Moo suggests, the word combined here with “toil” “likely refers to the general work of ministry: preaching the gospel, admonishing converts, resisting false teachers.”8 He notes that only here and in 1 Timothy 4:10 are both words used together “to denote his apostolic ministry, and it is surely no coincidence that both contexts deal with false teaching.”9

The language of “toil” seems to be an expansion of the nature of Paul’s suffering in verse 24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”10 However, Paul is very quick to emphasize11 that his “struggle for his readers is not rooted in his own ability but in God’s power working through him.”12 That is, he is “struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (εἰς ὃ καὶ κοπιῶ ἀγωνιζόμενος κατὰ τὴν ἐνέργειαν αὐτοῦ τὴν ἐνεργουμένην ἐν ἐμοὶ ἐν δυνάμει; 1:29). Similarly, he describes Epaphras as always “struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (4:12). As such, Paul tells the Corinthians that Epaphras has “worked hard [ἔχει πολὺν πόνον] for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis” (4:13). He uses the same language in the context of his instruction to slaves, telling them that “whatever they do they are to work [ἐργάζομαι] heartily” (3:23).

Work language then is applied to everything that a Christian might do—from the good “deeds” done because they are a Christian, to the labor they do because they live in the world through to specific ministry labor—whether done by Paul or others.

2. Work in Colossians: A Distinction

However, if we examine two verses more closely, we can see an important distinction emerge. In 3:23 when he tells the Colossians13 that “whatever” they do, they are to “work heartily” (ἐκ ψυχῆς),14 the rationale is that this is to be done “as for the Lord and not for men” (ὡς τῷ κυρίῳ καὶ οὐκ ἀνθρώποις). As such, this verse is a “particular application” of 3:17: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”15 We will examine the details of this verse below, but at this stage we can note that all work is to be done “for the Lord”—it has theological significance in other words. Further, it also has eschatological significance since, as Paul tells them, it is “from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (3:24).

In 4:10–11, Paul gives greetings to the Colossians from Aristarchus, Mark and Jesus (“who is called Justus”). He then identifies these as “the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God” (συνεργοὶ εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεου; 4:11). We will examine below what Paul means by his restriction “the only men of the circumcision,” but at this stage it is enough to note the distinction between work “for the Lord” (3:23) and “work for the kingdom of God” (4:11).

Here, then, is a basic distinction we can make. All work is “for the Lord.” Whatever you are doing, you are “serving the Lord Christ” (3:23–24). And all work has eschatological significance since work carried out faithfully like this will lead to receiving and inheritance as a reward (3:24). However, only some work is work “for the kingdom of God” (4:11).

The rest of this article examines this distinction in more detail and draws some practical implications.

3. Work for the Lord

What we have in Colossians 3 is Paul’s clear teaching that all work has theological significance if it is done “in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17). Such work, even the work of a slave, can be done with the knowledge that “from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward” since one is “serving the Lord Christ” (3:24).

What does Paul mean when he says in 3:24 that work is to be done “as for the Lord and not for men” (ὡς τῷ κυρίῳ καὶ οὐκ ἀνθρώποις)”? What is the nature of the “as” (ὡς) here? Does he mean they are to think of themselves “as if they were working for the Lord” (even though they are not—they are working for an earthly master)? Or does he mean that they are to work in a way that reflects the reality that they are, ultimately, working “for the Lord”? Either sense is within the scope of meaning of the particle ὡς.

The use of ὡς in this verse is described in BDAG entry 3: “marker introducing the perspective from which a pers[on], thing, or activity is viewed or understood as to character, function, or role, as.”16 In other words, ὡς explains the perspective through which they are to view their work—“to the Lord.” However, the particle can express a real or unreal perspective. A few examples illustrate this. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4:1, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ [ὡς ὑπηρέτας Χριστου] and stewards of the mysteries of God.” Here the Corinthians are to regard Paul and his colleagues in a particular way: “as servants of Christ,” which they really are. Similarly, in Colossians 3:12, Paul commands the believers, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones [ὡς ἐκλεκτοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ], holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” They are to clothe themselves in light of their true identity—“God’s chosen ones.” However, sometimes the comparison is “unreal.” So, in 2 Corinthians 6:8 Paul laments that he and his colleagues “are treated as impostors [ὡς πλάνοι], and yet are true.” They are being treated as if they are imposters, which they are not. Similarly, in Colossians 2:20 he tells them: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world [ὡς ζῶντες ἐν κόσμω], do you submit to regulations.” Spiritually the Colossians are dead to the elemental forces of the world, but they are living as if they are alive to them (which they are not).

We see the same variety in the precise construction that we have here in Colossians 3:23: an imperative qualified by a phrase introduced by ὡς. In 1 Timothy 5:1 Paul tells Timothy “not to rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father” (ὡς πατέρα)—that is, as if he were a father. In 2 Thessalonians 3:14, Paul tells the church to not associate with the congregation member who ignores what Paul says so that they might feel ashamed. In the next verse he qualifies this by telling them not to regard this recalcitrant brother “as an enemy” (ὡς ἐχθρόν). Again, the idea is that they are not to regard him as if he were an enemy (which he is not). However, Paul immediately adds that they are to “warn him as a brother” (ὡς ἀδελφόν). Here we see the qualification reflecting reality—this man is a brother (in Christ) and so he is to be warned as a brother. Similarly, James tells his readers that they are to “speak and so act as [ὡς] those who are to be judged under the law of liberty” (Jas 2:12). They are going to be judged by the law of liberty, and so they are to act in line with that reality.

So, what is the sense of ὡς in Colossians 3:23? Does Paul mean, “the right way to work for your earthly master is as if you were working for the Lord”; or is he saying, “work for your earthly master understanding the reality that you are, in fact, working for the Lord”? Either is possible. However, given the statement in 3:24 where Paul tells the slaves that they are enslaved to Christ (τῷ κυρίῳ Χριστῷ δουλεύετε),17 when he tells them to work ὡς τῷ κυρίῳ, it would seem that this reflects reality. Though they are working for a human master, even in doing so they are actually working for the Lord.

Paul continues in the following verse to the effect that the motivation for their working for the Lord is that they know18 that they “will receive the inheritance [κληρονομία] as your reward.” In the first century world into which Paul was writing, slaves did not receive inheritances (cf. Gal 4:7; Rom 8:15–17). Although the inheritance in view here is the spiritual reward19 for their faithful labor for Christ, this language continues to give dignity to the labor of the Christian slave.

What inheritance does Paul have in mind? He has already used the language of inheritance (using the related Greek word κλῆρος) in 1:12 when he gave thanks to the Father who had “qualified” the Colossians “to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” The nature of this inheritance is expanded in the next verse when Paul describes how God has “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (1:13). Reading the two verses together, the inheritance is participation in the kingdom. This connection between inheritance and kingdom is seen elsewhere in Paul’s letters (e.g., 1 Cor 6:9; 15:50; Eph 5:5). Understanding the inheritance as the kingdom means that the slaves who work faithfully (for the Lord), will inherit the kingdom as a reward for their labor. This is not “salvation by works,” but a dignifying of their labor. Done in faithfulness it ends in the kingdom of God even if, on earth, slaves would have no inheritance.

Paul finishes 3:24 with what most English translations render as a statement: “You are serving the Lord Christ” (ESV; cf. NIV; CSB; RSV; NASB; KJV; NKJV). However, the NET Bible agrees with some commentators20 that the verb δουλεύετε should be understood as an imperative: “Serve the Lord Christ.” In either case, the work that the slave does work for an earthly master which would receive no earthly inheritance or reward, is faithfully rewarded by the Lord whom they are serving—they will inherit the kingdom.

Any work, even work done by a first century slave, is work of deep significance. It has theological value. It is work done “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (3:17) and it is done “for the Lord” (3:23) with the worker “serving the Lord Christ” (3:24). It has eschatological value since the one who works faithfully this way will receive an inheritance from the Lord.

4. Work for the Kingdom of God

Turning to 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). In this section we will examine a number of aspects in this verse.

4.1. 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 co-workers are laboring with him to advance or “bring about” the kingdom.21 More specifically, McKnight understands Paul to be commending his co-workers for working to “to spread the redemptive reign of God in Christ by forming churches throughout the Roman Empire.”22 However, recently Paul Foster has suggested a different understanding of the preposition εἰς in 4:11: these co-workers 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.”23

Although to an extent true of any word in any language, the particular meaning of a preposition in Greek is especially determined by its context. The phrase εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν is common in the Gospels and it is usually preceded by a verb of motion, particularly “to enter” (εἰσέρχομαι).24 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. In Romans 8:28, Paul states that “for those who love God all things work together for [εἰς] good.” In Romans 16:6, Paul asks the believers to “Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you” (ἐκοπίασεν εἰς ὑμᾶς). In Galatians 4:11, Paul expresses his fear that he “may have labored over you [κεκοπίακα εἰς ὑμᾶς] in vain.” In 2 Corinthians 5:4, Paul reflects on the future bodily resurrection. He continues in the next verse that “he who has prepared [κατεργασάμενος] us for [εἰς] this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (5:5). Three chapters later he describes Titus as his “partner and fellow worker [συνεργός] for [εἰς] your benefit” (8:23). In Ephesians 4:11–12, Paul reflects on how God gave “apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” to equip God’s people “for [εἰς] the work of ministry, for [εἰς] building up the body of Christ.” In 1 Timothy 4 Paul reflects on the value of godliness which “is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (4:8). This shapes his ministry as he states “to this end [εἰς τοῦτο] we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (4:10). John, as he writes to Gaius commends him that “it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts [ὃ ἐὰν ἐργάσῃ] for [εἰς] these brothers, strangers as they are” (3 John 5).

The pattern across the NT then is that εἰς is used with “work” language to indicate the goal or the purpose of the work. We will examine more fully what Paul means by working “for the kingdom” below, but before doing we will examine the reference to his co-workers.

4.2. Co-workers

This understanding of εἰς is confirmed when we examine the use of the term “co-worker” or “fellow worker” (συνεργός). Paul does not use the word συνεργός 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 “co-workers … for your joy,”25 the latter phrase expressed with the genitive (τῆς χαρᾶς ὑμῶν). In 2 Corinthians 8:23 he speaks of Titus as his partner and co-worker “for your benefit” (εἰς ὑμᾶς). In 1 Thessalonians 3:2, Paul describes Timothy as “our brother and God’s co-worker in [ἐν] the gospel of Christ.” Admittedly, we are 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 co-workers “in Christ” and to use the genitive or εἰς when he wishes to express the purpose to which the co-workers labor. Again, this confirms the idea that Paul is describing his co-workers as people who are working with him to somehow further the kingdom of God.

4.3. Paul’s Only Co-workers?

What is 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 is not altogether straightforward to identify what Paul means. Three interpretations are generally offered for οἱ ὄντες ἐκ περιτομῆς οὗτοι μόνοι συνεργοί. The first understands Paul to be contrasting his Jewish co-workers (Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus Justus) with his Gentile co-workers, as in the ESV rendering: “These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers.” The second interpretation understands Paul to be contrasting his Jewish co-workers with other Jews, as reflected in the CSB: “These alone of the circumcision are my co-workers for the kingdom of God.” The third interpretation understands Paul to be saying: “these Jewish men, these are my only co-workers.”26 The third option is sometimes qualified so that Paul is saying “these are the only co-workers presently with me.”27 However, even with this qualification it is frequently ruled out because in the context, Paul “certainly seems to present Epaphras, Luke, and Demas (vv. 12–14) as three other co-workers who are with him (and he does so explicitly in Phlm. 24).”28

Although the second interpretation is gaining popularity,29 most commentators and English versions opt for the first interpretation implying that these men were the only Jews among Paul’s co-workers for the kingdom.30 In any case, Paul cannot be saying that these three men are not 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 “co-worker” for the kingdom.

4.4. Working for the Kingdom

What does Paul mean that these are his co-workers 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).31 This is experienced in practice in terms of “redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:14).

Paul does not 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—that is, work that is 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 Timothy 4:1).

These fellow-workers are involved in the work of proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. This is not necessarily their only occupation any more than it was always Paul’s own occupation (tent-making, according to Acts 18:3; cf. 1 Cor 4:12), but they engaged together in the labor of the proclamation of the gospel to an extent that they could be identified as co-workers with Paul “for the kingdom.”

4.5. Workers for the Kingdom of God: All Christians?

When Paul identifies only these three men as his Jewish co-workers for the kingdom of God, does that mean that 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.” G. K. Beale has helpfully shown that despite common consensus,32 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 7:14.33 He notes that these are the only OT texts which 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’ (Exod. 31:3; 35:31–32; 1 Kings 7:14).”34 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 that Paul is praying that the Colossian believers might take their part in “building up the body of Christ,” “the new spiritual temple.”35 Broadly understood, we can view this as a prayer that all of the Christians in Colossae do work that is equivalent to “work for the kingdom,” that which 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 have elsewhere sought to demonstrate that the “work of the Lord” is specific “gospel” related work.36 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 are 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 “co-workers” for the kingdom. However, every Christian can do fruitful work for the kingdom of God (1:10). We can state 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); those Christians whose time is dominated by other activity, such as slaves who still work “for the Lord” (3:23) even though their service of their earthly masters is not “work for the kingdom” per se.

5. Conclusions and Implications

There is a lack of precision with regard to this distinction in popular writing on work. Often the distinction between work done “for the king” is collapsed into work done “for the kingdom.” For example, Ben Witherington states this about Christians working in general:

Certainly one of the most miserable things a human can experience is the feeling of not knowing what she ought to be doing with her life. To avoid this feeling, we must grasp that our God-given purpose has a goal, a telos, to use the Greek term, not merely a terminus, and it most certainly involves us working, indeed working hard, for the Kingdom.37

He expresses his point even more directly:

The truth is that even when work seems like drudgery, if it is done God’s glory it is good in character, and if it is done for the edification of others it is at the very least divine drudgery, not mere toil, not mere activity. It has meaning, purpose, direction. It is Kingdom-bringing.38

As such, Witherington argues, “The sacred-versus-secular dichotomy doesn’t work when it comes to defining Christian work. Any work that is good and godly, any work worth doing, can be done to the glory of God and for the help of humankind. And while we are at it, any such work is full-time ministry.”39

This thinking is common. So, in his foreword to Daniel Doriani’s book Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation, Brian Chapell suggests that work “is not merely about making a living while avoiding sin; it is about extending the kingdom rule of the Lord Jesus Christ.”40

Similarly, in an earlier work Miroslav Volf suggests that as Christians “do their mundane work, the Spirit enables them to cooperate with God in the kingdom of God that ‘completes creation and renews heaven and earth.’”41

Ken Costa argues as follows:

The kingdom of God is “the sphere of God’s goodness” in the world. We are called to advance that kingdom, sharing the “sphere of goodness” and extending it as we operate with God’s values. Our actions at work have the potential to advance the kingdom of God and his “sphere of goodness,” or to hinder it.42

When we declare truth even in small measures, the kingdom of God is advanced. This can be true when we draft documents, sell products or mark exams—indeed in any activity we do in our working day.43

Consider a final example from Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch: “We partner with God in the redemption of our world.… We do extend the kingdom of God in daily affairs and activities and actions done in the name of Jesus.”44

The sentiments behind these quotations are entirely commendable. They reflect a right desire to remind Christians that their work has dignity, that it is not a waste of time. However, I think these writers are trying to find this dignity in the wrong place—namely the kingdom of God. Paul sees work for the kingdom of God as specific work.

What I hope this study has shown is that Paul can think about work in two ways: there is a general sense in which all work that a Christian does is done to the Lord and there is a more specific, narrow sense in which work can be done for the kingdom of God. All work that a Christian does has value—it is theologically significant (it is done to the Lord) and it is eschatologically significant (it results in an inheritance). However, this does not mean all work is kingdom work. This is a narrower range of activity which is expressly focused on the extension of the kingdom.

I think confusion has come when Christians who have rightly wanted to affirm the value of all work that Christians do have done so by attributing the wrong type of eschatological significance to work45 or by suggesting that all work that Christians do is kingdom work. What we have seen in Colossians is that Paul affirms the value of all work but can still distinguish different types of work—not all work is kingdom work.

In this article I have argued that work “for the kingdom” is specific so that only certain Jewish men can be described as having the time to devote to it so that they can be designated “co- workers for the kingdom” (4:11). I have also argued that 1:9–10 hints that every Christian can be involved in this type of work. However, even their other activity which is not directly “work for the kingdom” is still of theological and eschatological value (3:23–24)—it is “for the Lord,” and it results in an inheritance.

The language of “sacred” and “secular” work is ultimately not helpful. Because a Christian is sanctified, all legitimate work they do is sacred. However, perhaps with Paul, we can and should distinguish work done “for the Lord” and work done “for the kingdom.”

[1] E.g., Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World (New York: Penguin, 2012); Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert, The Gospel at Work: How the Gospel Gives New Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs, revised ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018); Daniel M. Doriani, Work: Its Purpose, Dignity and Transformation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2019).

[2] Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the ESV. The meaning of πᾶς here is probably “every kind of,” so Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 97.

[3] ESV adjusted. It is possible that the two dative expressions (τῇ διανοίᾳ and ἐν τοῖς ἔργοις τοῖς πονηροῖς) both express “means”—that is, they were at enmity with God “by means” of their mind and “by means” of their evil deeds. So G. K. Beale, Colossians and Philemon, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 113; Moo, Colossians, 140.

[4] To be more specific, Beale suggests that we should understand that the resurrection came about by “faith in the working of God” understanding τῆς ἐνεργείας τοῦ θεοῦ as an objective genitive (the object of faith). He discusses the possibility that the genitive is subjective “faith by God’s working”—that is, God has produced their faith by his activity. However, the genitive case following πίστις in Paul’s writings “typically describes the object of faith and not its source,” according to Beale, Colossians and Philemon, 193.

[5] ESV adjusted. So Paul Foster, Colossians, BNTC (London: T&T Clark, 2016), 364; cf. Moo, Colossians, 291.

[6] Moo (Colossians, 162) references the following texts: Luke 5:5; 1 Cor 4:12; Eph 4:28; 2 Tim 2:6; cf. James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 126.

[7] Moo (Colossians, 162) notes Rom 16:6, 12; 1 Cor 15:10; 16:16; Gal 4:11; Phil 2:16; 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 4:10; 5:17.

[8] Moo, Colossians, 162.

[9] Moo, Colossians, 162.

[10] Beale, Colossians, 153.

[11] The Greek of 1:29 is “dense with synonym and repetition for emphasis,” according to Scot McKnight, The Letter to the Colossians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 204 n. 564.

[12] Beale, Colossians, 153, who notes the parallel with 1 Corinthians 15:10 to underline the fact that “Paul’s ministry is not performed by a synergistic activity involving his own independent contribution together with the help of God’s grace.”

[13] For a rationale for widening the applicability of this to believers more generally, see David Pao, Colossians and Philemon, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 274.

[14] Soul here is a stylistic synonym for “heart” used in the previous verse—“both denote the correct inner attitude to be displayed by slaves” (Foster, Colossians, 388).

[15] Beale, Colossians, 323.

[16] BDAG 1104.

[17] It may be that this is an imperative, an interpretation I consider below.

[18] Understanding the εἰδότες as a causal participle with Pao, Colossians, 274.

[19] That the inheritance is the reward (i.e., understanding the genitive to be epexegetical with Moo, Colossians, 313, and Pao, Colossians, 274).

[20] For example, Pao, Colossians, 275–76. McKnight (Colossians, 363) is unsure, while Beale (Colossians, 332) argues that an indicative is to be understood.

[21] So, for example, Moo, Colossians, 343; Dunn, Colossians, 279.

[22] McKnight, Colossians, 391.

[23] Foster, Colossians, 427.

[24] Matthew 5:20, 7:21, 18:3, 19:23, 19:24; Mark 9:47, 10:23, 10:24, 10:25; Luke 18:25; John 3:5; Acts 14:22. Cf. εἰσπορεύομαι (Luke 18:24); ἔρχομαι (Luke 23:42); προάγω (Matthew 21:31).

[25] My translation.

[26] For more options, see Moo, Colossians, 341. A recent significant option has been expressed by Lionel Windsor. He suggests the possibility that Colossians 4:10–11 may reflect “the possibility that Israel’s special place in the apostolic mission is in the background here,” as Paul’s language echoes the Synoptic Gospels (e.g., Luke 4:43; 8:1; 9:2, 60; 16:16). See Lionel Windsor, Reading Ephesians and Colossians after Supersessionism (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017), 222. Whether or not this is correct this does not change the overall thrust of my argument that “work for the kingdom” is being used to refer to specific gospel related work.

[27] Dunn, Colossians, 279.

[28] Moo, Colossians, 341.

[29] As shown by its adoption in the CSB.

[30] Cf. NIV: “These are the only Jews among my co-workers.”

[31] On the interchangeability of kingdom of Son and kingdom of God, see Dunn, Colossians, 280.

[32] See G. K. Beale, “The Old Testament in Colossians: A Response to Paul Foster,” JSNT 41 (2018): 1–14. See also the work of Beale’s former student Christopher A. Beetham, Echoes of Scripture in the Letter of Paul to the Colossians, reprint ed. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010).

[33] Beale, Colossians, 55; Isaiah 11:2–3 is another possible parallel.

[34] Beale, Colossians, 55.

[35] Beale, Colossians, 55.

[36] Peter Orr, “Abounding in the Work of the Lord (1 Cor 15:58): Everything We Do as Christians or Specific Gospel Work?,” Themelios 38 (2013): 205–14.

[37] Ben Witherington III, Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 9, emphasis original.

[38] Witherington, Work, 21. Witherington does acknowledge that “we need to be wise enough to see the difference between work of temporal and of enduring value” and that, for example, it would not be the best use of his time to mow his grass if it meant he neglected his “higher calling to write and teach and preach” (Work, 90).

[39] Witherington, Work, 126.

[40] Brian Chapell, foreword to Doriani, Work, xi. Doriani himself is more circumspect on this issue: “We show that Christ, the King, has come and that his kingdom has arrived, even in our work, in every realm of life” (Work, 186).

[41] Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 115, citing Jürgen Moltmann, “The Right to Work,” in On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 45.

[42] Ken Costa, God at Work: Living Every Day with Purpose (London: Continuum, 2007), 28.

[43] Costa, God at Work, 30.

[44] Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church, revised ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 146.

[45] As argued in Orr, “Abounding in the Work of the Lord,” 205–14.

Peter Orr

Peter Orr is lecturer in New Testament at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia.

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