Interview with James M. Hamilton, Jr., author of WORK AND OUR LABOR IN THE LORD

Published on April 4, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

Crossway, 2017 | 128 pages

 

“Work” is a large part of what shapes our everyday lives, and so we might expect that Scripture has something to say about it.

Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, executive editor here at Books At a Glance, and we’re talking today to Dr. Jim Hamilton about his new book, Work and Our Labor in the Lord – a Biblical Theology of work.

Jim, great to talk to you again, and congratulations on your new book!

Hamilton:
Thanks a lot. Glad to be here, thanks for having me.

 

Zaspel:
Tell us about this book – what is the contribution you are hoping to make?

Hamilton:
I don’t know if everyone’s experience is like mine, but I grew up in a tradition that seemed to foster the impression that the really important stuff, the really significant way to serve the Lord was either to go to the mission field or be a full-time pastor, be a full-time vocational minister. I don’t think they intended to communicate this, and if we questioned these pastors they would probably say that was not my intention, of course I believe that all vocations are important. At least I hope they would say that. But the impression that you got from them was that the brightest people that they encountered, and the really zealous Christians that they encountered, they were really hungry to get those guys into the ministry. As an anecdote, Lewis Sperry Chafer, who was the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, would apparently communicate that it was his hope and desire that a whole graduating class would go to the mission field. These kinds of perspectives engender the idea that these are the important jobs, and the other jobs are of a lower order and they’re not really where people are genuinely able to serve the Lord. What I am trying to do is look at what the whole Bible says about work and get at the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors on this question of the work that we do.

 

Zaspel:
A biblical understanding of work should not be thought of just negatively, right? Talk to us about work both before and after the Fall.

Hamilton:
Naturally, before the Fall, nobody needed to be a missionary, and God gave work to Adam and the woman, Eve, to do in the Garden of Eden. The work that he gave them to do entailed them, first, rightly relating to one another. The first command in the Bible, is for the man and the woman to be fruitful and multiply. They’re not going to be able to do that apart from each other. They’re going to have to work together to bring that about. And then they’re to be so fruitful, and multiply so much, that they actually fill the earth. Then, once they have filled the earth, or in the process of filling it, they are to subdue it and have dominion over the animals. The picture that this string of commands generates, particularly when you put that string of commands next to, say, the blessings of the covenant and some of the Psalms and other statements in the Bible about what the good life looks like, the picture that is generated is one of a happy marriage where the parents are taking care of their children and then they are doing what the Lord has called them to do. Marriage and family and work are all presented as a harmonious picture, a harmonious unit where the man and his wife are working together to have children and then to raise those children. Because, if Adam and Eve are fruitful and multiply, and they don’t disciple their kids, even if they fill the earth, they are not going to be able to subdue it, and they’re not going to reflect God’s character in the process of subduing the earth. So, every piece of the process, every step of the process is significant. And I would say that marriage and family are vital to the work that God gave Adam to do in the pre-Fall situation.

Now, after the Fall, the Lord mercifully allows Adam and Eve to go on living. In spite of the warning that in the day they ate of the tree, they would surely die, they get to keep living. And yet, the work that was given to them to do is made more difficult. The woman is going to have pain in childbearing and she’s going to have difficulty in relating to the man; and the man is going to deal with the situation where he is driven out of the garden and the ground is going to be cursed. So, they get to keep doing their jobs, their jobs are just made more difficult.

 

Zaspel:
I think it’s difficult for us to think of work as a blessed state and think of work apart from the sweat and the difficulty involved after the curse, but, yet, it is a blessed thing; that creation mandate is there before sin.

Hamilton:
Yes, and you know, I think we get glimpses of it. If we can think of a time (and I trust that most people have had this experience) when we feel like this is exactly what I want to be doing, this is so rewarding to get to be engaged in this task. That’s something, I think, of a glimmer of lost glory of that pre-Fall situation.

 

Zaspel:
How should a Christian view work? How ought our redemption in Christ shape our understanding here?

Hamilton:
I think one of the things that we get from the biblical authors, is the broad metanarrative, or the big story in which work is situated. And this is an important reality for us to grasp in thinking about God’s law, and in thinking about the instructions that we have in the New Testament. Paul saying things like, “if a man will not work, let him not eat,” is couched in a broader understanding of what Christ has done to accomplish redemption and what Christ has done to live out what the first Adam was supposed to be and then to model for us, to leave us an example that we should follow in his steps as we are renewed into the same image. We want to think of our work in the context of this whole creation/fall/redemption/restoration narrative and live in light of these realities and know that when Paul says things like, “your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (he says this in context of a chapter on the resurrection), what he is communicating to us (and to the Corinthians) is that there is going to be a lasting value to the work that we do and the way that we work now, shapes and informs the situation that we will enjoy in the restoration of all things.

So, the first thing I would want to say, to bring this all around, is we want to work in light of the big story of the whole Bible.

 

Zaspel:
How does that work together to inform what we call the Protestant doctrine of vocation?

Hamilton:
This idea of vocation boils down to the idea that God has built us and called us to certain activities, whether we are a street sweeper or a garbage collector or somebody that owns a lawn business or somebody that is doing brain surgery or rocket science or whatever. Each one of these vocations is something that God has called us to. That big story of the Bible that I was talking about a second ago, helps us to build out our identity as God’s people in God’s world participating in God’s story. And then that identity also helps us to find our meaning and our significance, even in what, at times, may feel like menial or insignificant jobs. These seemingly insignificant tasks take on great significance as we, who are made in the image of God, engage in them and as we do them for, ultimately, this audience of one, the Lord whom we’re seeking to serve and please.

There’s a great illustration of this idea of meaning and purpose in Tim Keller’s book, Making Sense of God, where he gives an anecdote from a book written by a physician who related how, at a nursing home, one of the doctors convinced the staff to bring in pets. They brought in birds, they brought in dogs, cats, rabbits. And what they found was that when they began to entrust the care of these animals to the residents of this nursing home, these people who had stopped talking started talking again. People who weren’t getting out of their wheelchairs started coming to the nurses’ station and volunteering to take a dog for a walk. All of these animals were adopted, and these people found a reason to live and something to do. I think that communicates the significance that work has, that we are all looking for meaning, we’re all looking for something significant to do.

There’s another thing that Keller points out, and that is that we don’t give ourselves meaning and dignity. We come to understand that we are people who are significant and who have dignity from the way that others treat us, and the more dignified the one bestowing honor on us is, the more significant we understand ourselves to be.

 

Zaspel:
Do the biblical authors understand work to symbolize something beyond itself, beyond mere labor?

Hamilton:
Yes. Ultimately, I think this gets back to the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God. God makes man in his image and then he gives to man this responsibility to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, then subdue it and reign – and all of that, I think, is meant to bring God’s character and God’s authority and God’s presence into all of God’s created realm, through his image-bearers. Jesus says in the Gospel of John, in John 10 he says, “my father is working until now and I am working.” This is in the context of them challenging him about doing something on the Sabbath. So, God is a worker and he makes those who bear his image as workers. I think work points beyond itself, to the fact that in our work, we are godlike in our carrying out of these responsibilities and tasks. One of the most striking things about the work that we see God doing in the Bible is that he doesn’t just do this for himself. God doesn’t need the world. All the work that God does, he does to benefit other people. To make a world in which they can live and then to provide for them and to care for them. I think there’s something really significant there for us as well, that we are to work as God works, which is for the benefit of others.

 

Zaspel:
Is it right to say we are in our work imaging God and carrying out the creation mandate of exercising dominion over our little corner of the earth?

Hamilton:
I like that language very much and I do think there’s a lot to that.

 

Zaspel:
What does “work” look like in the new heaven and new earth?

Hamilton:
From the hints and glimpses that we get – maybe we would prefer it if we had a full and detailed description, which we’re not really given – we pick up little insights into what things might be like from things that are said here and there. I think we can put these building blocks together and come to the conclusion that what we’re going to do is inherit, and then steward, and then reign, and judge. Jesus indicates that we will inherit. And from the pattern of the biblical narrative, Israel, when they came out of Egypt and came into the land of promise they conquered it. Then they allotted these portions of grounds to the tribes. Peter and others speak of this inheritance that is being prepared for us, and I think that’s language that is presenting the typological fulfillment of the land of promise, pointing to the new heavens and the new earth as the fulfillment of the land of promise, in which people will inherit plots of ground, for which we are responsible to steward well, for God’s glory. That will entail reigning over this place that has been entrusted to us and rightly judging what needs to happen and how things need to be dealt with and various other decisions that would need to be made in the process of bringing God’s character to bear in this place that has been allotted to us. That’s a thumbnail sketch of how I would see that playing itself out in the new heavens and earth. In many ways, I think it’s like a redo of the opportunity that Adam was given, only this time we’re not going to blow it and get thrown out of Eden.

 

Zaspel:
Before I sign off, give us a brief overview of your book. It’s a brief book. Tell us how you’ve pitched it, who is your audience, just a bit about the book itself.

Hamilton:
It’s just over 100 pages; it’s in a series from Crossway called Short Studies in Biblical Theology. There’s a book on the Son of God from Graham Goldsworthy, and a book on marriage from Ray Ortlund, Tom Shreiner has a book coming out in the series, on the covenants, and there are other volumes slated to appear. When Miles Van Pelt and Dane Ortlund started putting the series together, they approached me and asked me if I would like to contribute to the series, I enthusiastically responded that I would. I first proposed the topic of rest, but I think Graham Goldsworthy is slated to write on rest, and when they told me that, I said okay, how about work? And they said perfect, we’ll let the retired guy do rest and we’ll let the young working guy do work. So that’s the way that fell out.

There are parameters. I think the word count given to us was like 40,000 words, so they want these to be short and readable. They want them to be pitched at a level where they won’t be accessed merely by seminary students or other academics, but they’ll be read, hopefully, by the ordinary Christian who is doing work. He is serving the Lord as he works as an engineer or software programmer or whatever, and he wants to understand how the Bible indicates he should carry out his tasks. So that’s who the book is aimed at – the layman, we might say, who is seeking to serve the Lord in everything that he does.

 

Zaspel:
We’re talking to Dr. Jim Hamilton about his new book, Work and Our Labor in the Lord. It’s a book that needed to happen and fills a void on a subject that needed addressing. It’s helpful for every Christian to shape a right understanding of what they do, and I expect many a pastor will find this a valuable resource in preparing sermons for Labor Day Sunday!

Jim, always great to talk to you – thanks so much.

Hamilton:
Thanks a lot for having me, Fred, great to talk with you.

Buy the books

Work and Our Labor in the Lord

Crossway, 2017 | 128 pages