Jeremy Sarber On Life & Scripture
Jeremy Sarber

Following Jesus requires work ethic

Series: Following Jesus

How are we supposed to feel about our occupations? How do Jesus and the gospel shape our perspective and approach to work?

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We began this series in Mark chapter 1. That is where Peter, Andrew, John, and James are fishing when Jesus approaches them and says, Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men (Mk 1:17). They were simply working their day jobs when Jesus approached. They were fishermen by trade. But Jesus calls them out of that life. We’re told, Immediately they left their nets and followed him (Mk 1:18). They walked away from their jobs. For the most part, they left their homes. Jesus was calling them out of their ordinary occupations into a much greater vocation.

Now, maybe we should ask, is that true? Is fishing for men a greater vocation, a higher calling, than fishing for fish?

I believe the answer is yes. Jesus was calling these men to become apostles. Paul said the entire church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20). He also told the church to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work (1Th 5:12, 13). Paul tells the church to esteem pastors and ministers of the word very highly, specifically because of the work they do. He tells Timothy, Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching (1Ti 5:17).

Last week, we talked about making disciples, and I tried to stress how important that work is. Can there be anything more important than leading people to Christ for the salvation of their eternal souls to the glory of God? I don’t think fishing compares with that. Yes, fishing provided Peter and the others a livelihood. It probably fed a lot of people. There are many occupations that do a tremendous amount of good in this world. But fishing will not save sinners.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Peter and the others were given a greater vocation. They had a higher calling.

Dissatisfied with work?

But what about us? If what I said was true for those first disciples, what about us? I mean, we read about these men walking away from their ordinary lives to become preachers, and evangelists, and missionaries, and we may think to ourselves, What am I doing with my life? Or, maybe we hear the testimonies of missionaries in other parts of the world and think, This person left home and country for the sake of God’s kingdom. They’re preaching the gospel in a dangerous place, risking their life, and what am I doing? I’m an accountant. I’m a barista at Starbucks. I sell insurance. I teach algebra to high school students. I’m a stay-at-home mom. I work my nine-to-five, then spend my evenings watching TV and my Saturdays playing golf. What am I really doing with my life?

Have you ever felt that way? Now, some of us may be thankful that God has not called us into that life. But there are probably several of us who have felt just a little guilty about not doing more to advance the kingdom. Maybe we’ve thought, Why would I spend every day fishing for fish when I know how important it is to fish for men? My job seems so trivial compared to the work others are doing.

By the way, you can be doing that other work—ministry work, that is—and still feel that way. Soon after I was ordained for ministry, I read The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson. I don’t know whether you’re familiar with that book, but David Wilkerson was a simple, country preacher who felt called to minister among the gangs and prostitutes of New York City. And I remember thinking to myself, What am I doing? I’m not trusting the Lord like him. I’m certainly not risking my life like him. I’m not laboring like him. I’m not evangelizing the lost like him. So, even people working in the ministry may feel that way. For all we know, Peter felt that way toward Paul or vice versa. The grass usually seems greener on the other side.

So, how are we supposed to feel about our occupations? Are we supposed to feel a measure of dissatisfaction, longing for something more meaningful? Maybe we should quit our jobs tomorrow and head to the inner city or a foreign country to begin missionary work.

Well, I wouldn’t advise it.

Called to remain

First of all, consider the practical implications. Someone has to keep fishing to support the work of the ministry. When Jesus sent out his twelve apostles, he told them, Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food (Mt 10:9, 10). In other words, he told them to go without first securing financial stability. Well, obviously, they needed food and clothing, so where would they get it? Presumably, it would be provided for them. Specifically, there would be people to support them. But if everyone were involved in the work of ministry to the same degree they were, there would be no one to provide. Someone has to keep fishing.

Second, the kind of calling the apostles received, or even the kind of calling today’s ministers and missionaries receive, is not a calling everyone receives. In fact, listen to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians chapter 7. Now, this is a section of the Bible we typically think of as a section about marriage because that’s Paul’s primary concern here. But as he’s addressing whether believers should remain married to unbelievers, he kind of interrupts himself to say this. This is 1 Corinthians 7, starting at verse 17. He says:

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (1 Corinthians 7:17-24)

So, Paul recognizes that people are in all kinds of positions and circumstances when they’re saved. Some people are free. Some people are slaves. Some people are Jews. Some people are Gentiles. Some people are married. Some are unmarried. Some are married to an unbeliever. And Paul says, In whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God (1Co 7:24). I think verse 17 is even stronger. He says, Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him (1Co 7:17). It’s not an accident that you are where you are. It’s not an accident that you were saved when you were saved.

Now, of course, Paul is not suggesting that you’re forever stuck in your current job or position in life. In fact, he tells the slaves among them, If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity (1Co 7:21). But what he is saying is that you don’t have to make some radical change now that you’re a Christian. You don’t have to get circumcised. You don’t have to divorce your unbelieving spouse. You don’t have to sell everything you have, so you can move to Africa, or Asia, or the Middle East to begin missionary work. Remain where you are,” he says. Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him (1Co 7:17).

We all have a calling

So, what can we learn from this? Well, first of all, most people are not led into a formal ministry position. In Ephesians 4, Paul says, God gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph 4:11, 12). So, every saint has ministry work to do, but not every saint is led into a formal ministry position. And I have to choose my words carefully because there’s a sense in which we are all evangelists and teachers, but we’re not all in a formal role of evangelist or teacher.

And the second thing we can learn from Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 is that we all, in fact, have a calling, but that calling doesn’t necessarily require that we leave our current positions. So, we might say to the young, zealous Christian who became a believer yesterday and wants to start his missionary work as soon as tomorrow, Okay, slow down. God is not necessarily telling you to abandon your fishing nets just yet. You certainly have work to do, but you can do that work right where you are.”

You see, following Jesus does not mean we need to make a dramatic change in our lives. And again, I have to be careful how I word this because salvation does mean a dramatic change. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2Co 5:17). That change will take place on the inside and certainly work its way out through our devotion and obedience to Christ, but if there’s nothing sinful about being a salesperson, a teacher, a student, a stay-at-home mom, or a barista at the coffee shop, then the Lord is not calling you out of that position. Instead, he’s calling you to serve him in that position.

Following Jesus at work

If you want to follow along, turn with me in your Bible to Ephesians chapter 6. Ephesians chapter 6. I’ll read verses 5 through 9.

Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. (Ephesians 6:5-9)

At some point in this series, I knew we had to talk about our work lives. We had to talk about our jobs because that is where we spend most of our waking hours. If we are going to follow Jesus, it stands to reason that we should know how to follow him at work.

But I also want you to know that most of these principles related to work are true for other positions in life. Maybe you are a stay-at-home mom. Maybe you’re retired. We’re not merely considering how to follow Jesus in a paid occupation. No, how do we follow Jesus in whatever we do?

And here’s the first thing I want to really stress. We’ll come back to this in a moment, but I would love for us to stop thinking of our jobs as secular.” When we use that word, we’re typically trying to make a distinction between a ministry role within the church versus what we might call an ordinary occupation outside of the church. But unfortunately, we’re also suggesting that our occupations outside of the church have no spiritual component. We’re saying it’s worldly. It’s altogether nonreligious. There’s nothing sacred about it. But I hope to show you that that’s not the case at all.

Slavery in the Bible

Now, looking at this passage in Ephesians 6, I suppose the first thing to do is address the elephant in the text. Clearly, Paul is not writing to professionals in the workplace. The first word of verse 5 is doulos, which is translated either into bondservant or slave.

Yes, the apostle Paul is writing here to slaves. Slavery was prominent within the 1st-century Roman Empire. And this passage, among others, has become a sticky point for Christians trying to defend the Bible. One of the most common accusations hurled at the Bible these days is that it condones slavery. Well, to that, I say, look again.

Slavery existed well before the Bible ever addressed it. It’s not as though God intervened in human history and said, Thou shalt have slaves.” No, human beings developed the practice of slavery, and it was God who came along and gave us rules to govern it. Of course, there are different kinds of slavery as well. Not all forms of slavery are the result of forced kidnapping. And to that, the Bible explicitly says, Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death (Ex 21:16). Does that sound like the Bible condones slavery?

So, we often hear people making accusations about the Bible that are completely inaccurate. These people are ignorant of what the Bible actually says, and they also fail to acknowledge a vital and relevant piece of history. It was not atheists who fought to end the chattel slavery of Europe and America. It was Christians with strong biblical convictions. So, these accusations are shallow and woefully uninformed.

But regarding another point that people often make about slavery in the Bible, they will say, Maybe the Bible doesn’t condone slavery, but why doesn’t it direct Christians to put an end to it?” Here in Ephesians 6, for example, Paul doesn’t go on a rant about the evils of slavery. He doesn’t tell Christian masters to let their slaves go free. But why not?

Well, let’s not forget that Paul does see freedom as ideal. That’s what he said in 1 Corinthians 7. If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity (1Co 7:21). Obviously, freedom would be better than slavery. That’s a significant theme throughout the Bible. But at the same time, neither Jesus nor his apostles ever engaged in any kind of cultural or political social justice. In fact, one of the apostles was a former political Zealot, but Jesus called him out of that.

I know this can be a hard balance to find, but the reason Jesus and his apostles were not engaged in social justice movements is because they had more important things to do. Paul says, Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Col 3:2). Christ was more concerned about redeeming slaves of sin than slaves of human masters. But that’s the challenge for us. We should care about people, especially oppressed people, but there are also more important things than transforming society.

So, Paul’s primary mission is to win people to Christ, which is undeniably more important than temporal freedom in this life. I have no doubt that Paul would have loved to see Rome become a thoroughly Christian nation and abolish all slavery, but that’s not the world in which he lived. And as a pilgrim merely passing through this fading world, he went about the business of preaching the gospel and leading people to eternal life rather than taking up the mantle of a social cause that would have likely impeded his much more important mission.

I need to move on—I’m not really here to talk about slavery—but let me add one more thing. Jesus suffered and died for this mission of saving souls. Most of the apostles were beaten and killed. Paul was imprisoned more than once and executed. These men who show us and teach us how to live did not themselves live in ivory towers far removed from all trials. If Paul, for instance, seems callous in the way he speaks about slavery because he treats it as such an ordinary thing, well, let’s not forget who Paul is.

Paul subjected himself to violent beatings on multiple occasions and eventually died as a prisoner for the sake of the gospel. He may not have been a slave, but he speaks as one who suffered for the cause of Christ. He’s not writing from his ivory tower, telling slaves how to be good slaves while he sips champagne and eats caviar. He understands that we all live in a broken world. The point is that only Christ can redeem this place, so preaching Christ has to be our priority. God willing, Christians can have influence in matters of social justice, but that can’t be our priority.

Tim Chester, author of the book Total Church, says:

If we do not keep people’s eternal plight in mind, then immediate needs will force their way to the top of our agenda, and we will betray the gospel and the people we profess to love. The most loving thing we can do for the poor is to proclaim the good news of eternal salvation through Christ.

I probably spent too much time on that, so let’s move on.

Work is fulfilling and frustrating

I think, before all else, any discussion about work needs to begin with a recognition that work is a good thing. It’s not a punishment. It’s not the result of man’s fall into sin. It is a blessing. It is a gift. God gave us work before sin ever entered the world. On the sixth day of creation, he created Adam, and Genesis 2 says, The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it (Ge 2:15).

Now, here’s where we can get confused. We all know that work can be very hard. It can be very stressful. For some of us, it’s physically demanding. For others, it’s mentally demanding. If you’re a stay-at-home mom, it’s both. (God bless you, mothers. I pray for you.) But if work is a pre-curse blessing, then why is it so hard?

Well, that’s the consequence of sin. Once Adam sinned against God, God said:

Cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread. (Genesis 3:17-19)

From this day forward,” God says, life will not be easy for you, Adam, or your descendants. Your work will be hard. It will be stressful. It will be demanding. It’s still good. It will still be rewarding. But it will be hard.”

Andrew Randall says says:

The result is a strange mixture of great fulfillment and great frustration. There are still traces of the goodness of work’s original design, but it has been badly spoiled and no longer perfectly fulfills the purposes which God intended for it.

So, work began as a good and perfectly satisfying thing. Then, sin entered and made it very difficult. But, of course, we’re talking about what it means to follow Jesus, specifically, in the workplace. So, how do Jesus and the gospel shape our perspective and approach to work? I’ll give you four points to consider.

Work isn’t everything

First, the gospel shows us that work is not everything.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a member of the Rotary Club. We meet for lunch once a week, and inevitably, I’m introduced to people I’ve never met nearly every week. And the typical introduction goes something like this: Hi, my name is Jeremy. I’m the chaplain and pre-need advisor for Billings Funeral Home.” You know, I tell people my name and my occupation. But recently, I thought I’d try something a little different. When someone asked who I was, I said, I’m Jeremy. I’m a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Unsurprisingly, this gentleman was taken aback. He didn’t know what to say at first. He finally said, Oh, well, that’s good.” But then he couldn’t help himself. He asked, And what do you do for a living?”

I said the gospel shows us that work is not everything. It shows us this in two ways. (1) It shows us that this world, including our occupations, is transient. It’s temporary. It can’t last. Eventually, Christ is coming to make all things new. (2) It shows us—specifically, believers united to Christ—are much more than our occupations. In fact, our occupations cease when we leave this world to be with the Lord. We won’t cease to be the redeemed people of God, but I’ll cease to be a chaplain.

So, why do we talk about ourselves as though our occupations are the sum of who we are? Our jobs certainly matter, but we are more than our jobs. Furthermore, why are we often tempted to make idols of our jobs? A good work ethic is great—and we’ll talk about that—but our jobs are not the most important things. The gospel frees us from that way of thinking.

Work isn’t meaningless

Second, the gospel shows us that our work is not meaningless. You see, we want to avoid both extremes. We don’t want to make our work everything, and we don’t want to treat it as utterly futile. Our work matters.

The very first command of the Bible is found in Genesis 1. It says, Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion (Ge 1:28). This is God giving the earth to humanity to be faithful stewards of it. And by fulfilling this command, we are doing meaningful work. We are using God’s creation to further create. We are supplying our needs. We are making ways for us to not only survive but flourish. And this is all to God’s glory, not to mention our good.

Work is not self-serving

Third, the gospel shows us that work is not (or should not be) self-serving. It reorients the way we work and the way we think about work. Consider what Paul says here in Ephesians 6.

Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man. (Ephesians 6:5-7)

Paul tells slaves that they should do their work sincerely as though they are working for Christ himself. He essentially says the same to masters. He says, Masters, do the same to them (Eph 6:9). Do your work sincerely. Don’t do it for attention. Certainly, don’t pretend to do it. Do it sincerely with goodwill.

Following Christ is always a life of humble service, so of course, we’re expected to live that way at work, where we spend most of our waking time. And this brings up a great point. We often have a bad habit of compartmentalizing our discipleship. We have the Christian, religious areas of our lives. Then, we have the secular parts of our lives. But that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. If we’re called to be honest, we should be honest everywhere. If we’re called to do good for others, we should do good everywhere. If we’re called to serve, we should serve everywhere.

More to the point, Paul says we are to treat our jobs as though we are working for the Lord himself. Now, think about the implications of that. Think about all those times we maybe rolled our eyes or grumbled at the boss. Think about those times we’ve been late to work or called off sick when we weren’t really sick. Think about those times we slacked off when we should have been working. Think about those times we walked around the office all mopey like Eeyore, or those times we sat around gossiping about our colleagues.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The gospel changes our perspective on work. Believe it or not, we are not primarily working for ourselves. In fact, we’re not primarily working for the paycheck. I don’t know whether Paul is writing here to paid servants or unpaid servants, but if they are Christians, that’s a moot point. What may seem to them as a purely secular obligation to an earthly master is actually a spiritual obligation to God himself.

Work is for God’s glory

And that leads me to the fourth and final point. The gospel shows us that work is for the glory of God.

Again, Paul says— Actually, let me read the parallel passage in Colossians chapter 3. Paul says, 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 (Col 3:23, 24).

To be clear, this is not figurative language. This is not Paul saying, Well, when you work heartily for your employer, it’s kind of like working for the Lord. It’s not the same, but think of it that way.” No, he says very plainly, You are serving the Lord Christ (Col 3:24). There’s nothing figurative about this. If we want to gauge how well we are serving the Lord, we can judge ourselves, in part, by how well we are serving our employers.

Andrew Randall says, Christian discipleship is about following Jesus every day, every where, in everything. That means that our work will always be a central part of our Christian life, and never separated off as if God doesn’t reign there.”

The Protestant work ethic

You know, we sometimes make reference to the Protestant work ethic. This is one of those precious gifts of the Reformation that we don’t often think about. There was a sociologist named Max Weber back in the early 20th century who was probably the first to really identify and articulate this phenomenon that emerged from the Reformation. He published a book called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1904, wherein he talks about a very robust and productive work ethic coming out of the Reformation. In fact, he goes as far as to credit the Reformers with the rise of capitalism.

Now, Weber gets a number of things wrong about why this happened. He seemed to think the Reformers were motivated to do good works in all areas of life to—I don’t know—build up their standing before God. But obviously, he didn’t understand their theology at all. That’s what they were protesting against. But he was right about the Reformers’ beliefs regarding vocation.

In Medieval Catholicism, very few people were believed to have had a true vocation—that is, a position they were called into by God. Political rulers qualified. Popes and priests qualified. But according to tradition, your average person working nine to five did not have a true calling. They had occupations, not vocations. The Reformers, on the other hand, believed everyone had a vocation. In fact, they believed everyone had multiple vocations. If you’re married, that’s a vocation. If you’re a parent, that’s a vocation. If you have a job—it doesn’t matter what job it is—you’ve been called into that work. You have a cultural vocation as a citizen of a particular town or nation. You have spiritual callings in the church. In short, no one escapes having a vocation.

Isn’t that what Paul said? Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him (1Co 7:17). As I argued in the beginning, I think there’s a sense in which some people have a higher calling, a calling that is distinctly kingdom-oriented, but everyone has a calling.

Here’s what one author says about it. I believe I originally copied this from an issue of Tabletalk magazine. He says:

The doctrine of vocation charges our everyday lives and our mundane activities with spiritual significance, and it is indeed a powerful motivator to perform them with excellence. But there is another dimension to vocation, one that is often left out. Yes, we fulfill our callings to the glory of God. But how, exactly, do we glorify God? That is to say, how does God command us to glorify Him?

And that’s precisely what we have in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3. 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 (Col 3:23, 24). Or, Paul says in Ephesians:

Obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man. (Ephesians 6:5-7)

Obey your earthly masters. Be sincere. Don’t be a people-pleaser. Do the will of God from the heart. Serve. And do it all with goodwill. Work heartily. That’s how we glorify God in our work.

And that’s what the Reformers taught, which led to very productive, thriving communities of people. I mean, John Calvin’s Geneva was a bright spot of prosperity in a dark, impoverished world. You see, the medieval church taught that poverty was essentially a virtue. Jesus was poor. The apostles were poor. Poverty is good. Poverty is godly. And as a consequence, work ethic was completely lost.

People didn’t see themselves as called by God. They were merely working a secular job. Plus, they thought it was more godly to be poor, so there was no incentive to work for the glory of God. The Reformers, however, opened up the Scriptures. They read Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3. And they said, Yes, you can glorify God in poverty, but God does not mandate that we be poor. He doesn’t mandate that we be rich either, but he does mandate that we recognize our divine calling and do our so-called secular work as though we are working for him.” And this teaching, this thing we call the Protestant work ethic, produced prosperity wherever it spread.

To be clear, gaining more prosperity is not our primary goal, but it should be a goal nonetheless. This is what Paul says in Ephesians 4:28: Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. We don’t strive for wealth to enrich ourselves, but we do strive for more wealth when possible to have more resources to help others.

And this takes us all the way back to what I was saying in the beginning. We can’t all be professional fishers of men. Most of us are called into other roles. We’ve got to drag our nets out day after day and fish for fish. But that should never make you feel dissatisfied. You have as much of a calling as anyone else. Furthermore, pastors, evangelists, and missionaries can’t do their work without your work. They will always need your help and support. So, rejoice and be thankful. And whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1Co 10:31).