Called to work

You’ve probably heard the word “vocation” before, particularly when people are talking about their work. Many Christians intentionally use this word when they describe their occupation because it correctly acknowledges that God provided them with the job they hold. When you read the word “vocation” throughout this issue of Beacon Lights, you can understand that we are simply talking about God’s calling for us to work at a specific job or occupation in service to him. From this perspective, every one of God’s people truly has a vocation. 

The Bible specifically refers to the concept of work in many places throughout the Old and New Testaments. Like the English language, both Hebrew and Greek use a variety of words to describe work, each with a somewhat different meaning. The words “work,” “labor,” and “service” found in our English versions of the Bible are translations of these original words, though there isn’t a one-to-one correlation between the Greek or Hebrew words and those rendered in English. This can present a challenge for readers who don’t know the original languages of Scripture, but we can still decipher the meaning of a text by careful study of its surrounding context.  

Entire books have been written on the biblical theme of work and the different words used to describe it, but that depth of information is not really necessary here. What is important for our purposes is that both the Hebrew and Greek languages contain words that distinguish between occupational work and service work.1 The words used for occupational work mean to emphasize the day-to-day efforts that people do to earn a living. In contrast, the words used for service work are more diverse and can refer to worship (work in service to God), to willing service (to another person), or to forced labor (slavery). The question we need to answer about these different words is, “Which of these are connected to the idea of vocation?” 

To best answer this question, we can look at two key passages in the Bible. The first passage is taken directly out of the ten commandments in Exodus 20:9 and reads as follows: “Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work.”2 Though our emphasis on the fourth commandment should focus on keeping the sabbath day holy, we must acknowledge that God is also commanding us to work the other six days. This command carries the idea of service to God as the Creator in the first word translated as “labor,” and the idea of day-to-day occupational activities translated as “work.” To say this in another way, we must do our day-to-day work of providing for the needs of this life because it is a type of willing service to our Creator.  

The command to work in an occupational sense is also found in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. Paul’s concern with work was apparently because of a problem with laziness among members in the church at Thessalonica. While he gently reminded the church in his first letter that everyone should work for a living (1 Thess. 4:9–12), his second letter was very direct and stern. In it he says the following: 

For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. (2 Thess. 3:10–11) 

The word that we have translated as “work” or “working” refers to occupational labor. If anyone is able to work as a means to support their life, then they need to do so. Wasting time as a busybody or with excuses that Jesus could return at any time—which was another issue in Thessalonica—was no reason to stop working. Through the apostle the command of God is clear: we must work! 

The command to work in an occupational sense is very clear throughout Scripture, but how the command is connected to the idea of having a vocation is perhaps less obvious. Specific uses of the Greek word “calling” occur just a few times in the New Testament, mostly in Paul’s letters to various people and congregations. However, the same word in adjective form (“called”) is much more common throughout Scripture. Sorting through all these examples requires significant work, but the basic ideas they express can be fit into three separate categories. 

The first and most common way that the word “called” is used refers to the spiritual call of the gospel to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a calling that elect believers receive by the internal work of the Spirit in response to preaching. For example, the apostle Paul says the following in Ephesians 4:1–3: 

I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 

In this text it is clear that Paul is not talking about the jobs that the Ephesians held. He is talking about the way that a group of believers ought to treat each other because they share the common gift of faith after being called by the gospel of Jesus Christ.  

The second way that the word “called” can be used gets us a bit closer to the idea of a vocation. In the introduction to two of his letters (Romans and 1 Corinthians), Paul connects the idea of calling to his role as an apostle. For example: 

Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 1:1–3) 

In one sense we can say that Paul’s occupation was to be an apostle—an eyewitness to the words and works of Christ who was called to lead the church. This occupational calling for Paul (v. 1) is described in the same way as the spiritual calling to Corinthian believers (v. 2), both of which were by “the will of God” and not man.  

Using Paul’s claim to a specific calling from God to serve as an apostle, however, might not be enough to justify the idea that all kinds of occupations come with a calling. After all, the call of God for a man to serve in church office (Eph. 4:11–12) is not the same thing as his command for us to labor in occupational, day-to-day work. Paul himself is a good example of this difference. Though his primary calling was to be an apostle, he also labored as a tentmaker while he served as a missionary throughout the Roman world. One could argue from the passage above that Paul’s vocation was to be an apostle, while his occupation of tentmaking was “just a job.” 

This is where the third and final way that the word “called” is used becomes very important, because it helps us to understand that even tentmaking was a calling for Paul from God. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul was directed by the Holy Spirit to encourage the new believers in Corinth to live as Christians in the same roles that they had been given by God before their conversions. Paul’s summary statement regarding this command is found in verse 20 of the chapter:  

“Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.” 

The translation here is a bit awkward because it uses the same English word for two different ideas based on two distinct Greek words. When Paul tells the Corinthians to “abide in the same calling,” he is talking about their God-given roles in this world. When he says “wherein he was called,” his reference is to the spiritual calling to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Another way to restate what Paul is saying is as follows: “Keep doing the same things in life that God called you to do before you were converted.” 

It is critically important that Paul refers to the everyday life of Corinthian believers—including their occupational work—as their “calling” from God. It is clear that Paul includes occupational life in this command because the specific example he provides is for Christian servants (or slaves) to remain in their especially lowly form of work (7:21–24). Paul’s intent was for believers to realize that the place God has ordained for them in this world is not by accident—it is truly a calling! It is in this sense that we can properly call our work life a vocation. 

Knowing that the Bible talks about callings in three separate ways is incredibly important to the discussion of priorities because it emphasizes that all God’s children receive multiple callings from him. If you forget that your first and primary calling is to the office of believer, it is terribly easy to get confused about your calling to work in an occupational sense. I have known too many Christians who thought that their first priority was to follow a specific career path, and then defended their bad choices by insisting that they were following God’s call for them. The consequences of getting your priorities wrong can be devastating for you and your loved ones. If, however, you understand that your spiritual calling precedes your occupational calling, it is far more likely that you will make God-honoring choices regarding where, when, and how you will serve him with your day-to-day work.  

And that, child of God, is your goal: “Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).