Will the Christian Ever Stop Working?
What is our blessed hope? To what do we look as we anticipate this life giving way to the next? Paul asks a similar question in 1 Thessalonians 2:19, “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing?” His answer is stunningly brief, “Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming?” Paul shifts our attention to the presence of God at the great coming of God, in which we ought to rejoice. He does not labor to characterize the world to come in similar terms to what we now experience. Instead, he understands the world to come to consist in the greatest good, the summum bonum, or the beatific presence of God.
Because of modern assumptions, many are not satisfied that the only object of our attention in glory will be God Himself. We’ve been taught to make this present world a template for understanding the next. Instead, we ought to understand the world to come as that upon which this present is based. The present world is but a type of the one to come. The world to come, not the world that is, is the pattern. Moses didn’t see the tabernacle on Mt. Sinai. He saw the ultimate pattern (τύπος) upon which it was based and the end to which it aimed. The tabernacle itself is but a shadow pointing to the end, a construct vaguely approximating what Moses saw on the mountain. (Heb. 8:5)
Understanding the Initial Goal of Man’s Work
Unwittingly, Christians often make the assumption, implicitly or explicitly, that the work of redemption was intended to restore man to a Garden of Eden situation, and that nearly everything about the pre-lapse life will characterize life in glory. Another assumption is that a man’s material body is only good for exercising leadership and work—two situational principles related to the cares of this present order. There simply can be no other end for man, it is thought, but to live like we live now, albeit with some accidental changes between our present condition and the state of glory, e.g. we will rule and work without sin.
Both of these assumptions, however, seem to fall short of a robust biblical understanding of individual eschatology. But how did we arrive here? Why have most of us come to assume that glory will not consist in rest, but in a continuance of labor similar to what we currently experience? As Dr. Richard Barcellos might say, We got the garden wrong. So, how might getting the Garden right inform our understanding of work in relation to man’s blessed end?
Most importantly, it is the Garden-narrative that first introduces the purpose of man’s work. Genesis 2:15 says, “Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden to tend and keep it.” Man’s work (tending) is his maintenance and expansion of the garden to the four-corners of the earth. Barcellos writes, “[Adam] started his task in the garden of Eden, which, as we have seen, was the earth’s first localized temple. Adam was commissioned to expand that Edenic temple to the four corners of the earth.”
Sometimes the toil of our present work is associated with the effects of sin following the fall. However, even before the fall there was a certain toil associated with man’s labor as the term for “tend” (עָבַד) indicates. This is not a sinful toil, nor a toil caused by sin. This toil is not associated with a curse. But it is associated with the expectation of a goal to be met through work—the anticipation of something other and greater than a life characterized by labor. In other words, there is something more desirable than work to which work tends. And in this case, Adam’s work served Adam’s eschatology. So, to suggest man’s present work is a necessary feature of man as man is inaccurate. Work was instituted for a definite end. It has a final cause or goal. It presupposes completion, and it begs the prospect of rest. For the first Adam, the goal of his work was the attainment of a secure situation with God—a security no longer available through our work, but only through the work of the second Adam.
Some dispute the notion that the first Adam had an eschatology at all. However, the two trees in the middle of the garden, the charge to tend and keep the garden, and the raw materials covering the earth (presumably for the first Adam’s use) beg to differ. The tree of life is associated with man’s bliss and security in a state of incorruption, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” (Rev. 2:7) And, “In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev. 22:2) And once more, “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city.” (Rev. 22:14)
Given the purpose of the tree of life, we may conclude that the first Adam’s eating of the tree of life would have resulted in a similar situation to that of the saints seen in Revelation. Implied in Genesis 1-2 is Adam’s task to tend (work) and guard (keep) the Garden. Given the resources available beyond the Garden and his charge to “fill the earth,” Adam was tasked with not only caring for but also expanding the Garden. (Gen. 1:28; 2:10-14)
Adam’s task to “keep” the garden was one of guardianship, presumably from the serpent—a task he failed to complete. All indicators point toward the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as a judgment tree at which Adam should have judged and executed Satan, i.e. it does not appear on the new earth since judgment is completed at the consummation. It was the tree upon which Satan should have been crucified. Instead, we formed allegiance with Satan and now deserve to be crucified on that same tree. However, Christ is crucified or cursed on our behalf, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree…” (Gal. 3:13)
Work, as a creational principle, was intended for the attainment of an eschatological end. And whereas Genesis 3 introduces man’s fall and the curse, the initial purpose of man’s work necessarily changes. No longer can it attain an eschatological end. The covenant of works has been broken. Work remains, but it is ineffectual to reach its initial purpose described by the state of innocence. For Christians, this work is no longer eschatological in the sense of obtaining some end. But it is both dutiful and helpful—it is commanded and it is instrumental in our sanctification. (Rom. 8:13) It characterizes the pilgrim’s way.
The Present Goal of Man’s Work & Whether That Goal Is Ever Reached
Work, for it to be meaningful, must continue to have a purpose. This purpose must be both proximate and remote. There are numerous goals we have in our work. These numerous goals are proximate, because each is immediately achieved by the completion of a task. I might boil an egg so as to enjoy eating it afterwards. But what is the remote purpose of work as a concept? What is the ultimate purpose of work per se? Most basically, our work no longer procures our eschatology. Christ alone is efficient and sufficient for this. Instead, our present work is an expression of the grace of God in our lives. For the Christian, work is an outworking of his gratis toward God for God’s unilateral accomplishment and application of redemption. For the Christian, this is true for both secular and sacred work (worship). Secular work consists in natural tasks common to all men. Sacred work consists in positively commanded tasks unique to the Christian faith. Both are performed to the glory of God as an outworking of the grace of God, not as an effort on man’s part to attain glory.
To qualify, we might say our grace-given work leads to glory only in a consequential sense. That is, upon the hypothesis of God’s grace, the necessary consequence is man’s work which characterizes man’s path to glory. A man who does not work does not reach glory. But that is not because he failed to work. It’s because he evidently does not possess the grace of God necessary for glory which inevitably produces work in the believer to one extent or another. Thus, work continues to be eschatologically significant but not eschatologically efficient. Hence, Paul writes, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.” (Rom. 3:27) Can we boast in our works in the end? Of course not. Why? Because the justification that explains our arrival at glory at long last isn’t conditioned at all upon our works, “for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” (Gal. 2:16)
Work, then, is now an expression of Christ in us. But what stage of Christ’s incarnate life is currently shown through us? It would obviously have to be the stage where He dwelt amongst us and demonstrated for us how to live unto the Father of lights. Peter seems to place the example of Christ concomitantly with His humiliation when he writes, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps…” (1 Pet. 2:21) But if Christ’s incarnate work is our template, then it should follow that Christ’s incarnate rest, which He received upon the completion of His work, will also be ours. In other words, if Christ is our pattern, His earthly life is to be our earthly life, and His heavenly rest is to be our heavenly rest. So, the author of Hebrews writes, “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience.” (Heb. 4:11)
The present goal of our work, then, is to imitate Christ by the grace of God in us. And this means we shall also imitate the end of Christ’s work which is His rest.
The End of Work?
We’ve all heard the popular phrase “mission accomplished.”
A mission is a work with a definite goal. When that goal is reached, the mission concludes. If we view all present Christian work in this way, it becomes clear to us that work should have a definite goal, and therefore a point at which it concludes. This goal is rest. As seen in Hebrews 4:11, diligence (work) ends in rest (glory). Rest is the opposite of work, as is demonstrated throughout the Scripture repletely.
First, in Genesis 2:2, God rests from all His works. There, rest is seen as the opposite of work. In some sense, God continued to work because that first rest was but typical of the finished work of the new creation, which ended in the Son’s incarnation and sufferings, and His entering into glory through resurrection and ascension. (Jn. 5:17)
Second, in Matthew 11:28, our Lord says, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Again, rest is here the opposite of labor. In this text, labor should be understood as work per se. And though it is affected by sin, the first mention of labor is not particularly negative, but refers to man’s creational task. The second mention, “heavy laden” refers to the effects of sin upon us—both our own sin and the sins of others, along with our misery.
Third, in Matthew 26:45, Jesus rebukes His disciples for “resting” at an improper time. Their time of rest had not yet come, the Son of Man was being betrayed. He says, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners.” Again, diligence, which the disciples ought to have had, is seen as opposite to rest. The term for “rest” (ἀναπαύω) used in this text is the same as that which is used in Matthew 11:28, where our Lord speaks of rest eschatologically and positively.
Fourth, if by “rest” was only meant relief from the effects of sin such that work would go on infinitely into future glory, then the term for “relief” (ἄνεσις) would probably be employed instead of ἀναπαύω, as in 2 Thessalonians 1:7, where “rest” is put for “relief” from affliction in the English—“and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels…”
Fifth, in Revelation 14:13, we read, “Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, ‘Write: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them.’” Here, the term for “rest” is that proper term for “rest,” or the peace and solace we receive when our works are finished (ἀναπαύω). And it should be noticed that these works and labors are good works and labors, the nature of which began in the garden. But they are concluded when we “die in the Lord.”
Some have ventured to suggest that creational work is a necessary property of man’s nature. Work is a necessity of man’s nature. Since he was created with it he must do it, or so it is sometimes assumed. As the sun must shine to be the sun, so too must the man work to be a man. However, seeing as how work is always an operation explained by man’s will, it cannot be a necessity of nature. A man may still be a man, though he does not work—or though he rests. Work is an accident of man’s nature instituted in the beginning for a positive purpose. It does not make man man. It is a potency in man. But a potency need not be necessarily actualized.
Furthermore, some would like to suggest that man’s work does not have a definite end, but that work proceeds ad infinitum cycling through countless different goals indefinitely. This is absurd. As Thomas Aquinas says, “if there were no last end, nothing would be desired, nor would any action have its term, nor would the intention of the agent be at rest; while if there is no first thing among those that are ordained to the end, none would begin to work at anything, and counsel would have no term, but would continue indefinitely.” (ST.I-II.Q1.A4.Obj2)
In other words, a linear progress of work meeting goals ad infinitum would not allow any one goal to be reached. Consider an infinite succession of moments. How could we ever reach this moment if an infinite number of moments preceded it? Furthermore, there would be no such thing as a superior goal, or a goal that is more desirable than the others.
Work and rest is a staple of the biblical-redemptive narrative. Work must be understood as that which leads to rest, and rest must be understood as the final end of work to which we look. If this was not the case, Christ’s work is never complete, our work is never complete, and true rest is never reached. Furthermore, if work is a necessity of man’s nature from man’s creational constitution, then it loses all its eschatological significance. The parallelism between the two Adams falls into question. Does the second Adam bring to an end what the first Adam did not and then some? If work doesn’t lead to rest, then how are we to understand the finished work of Christ as it typologically parallels the work that the first Adam was initially charged to complete but yet fell short of that completion?
Instead, I suggest we understand glory to consist in beatitude, where we behold God without sin. This beatitude is sufficient for us. God is enough for us. And thus, we rest. There is no more working for an end. For the end has been reached. Paul understands the world to come to consist in the greatest good, the summum bonum, or the beatific presence of God. In this consists our rest, our happiness, and the consummation of our ultimate end, “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” (Cf. Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1)
 Richard Barcellos, Getting the Garden Right, (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2017), 155.
 Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 712.