All theology, obviously, needs to begin with God’s Word and God’s words. My theology of work is centered on the Hebrew word avodah. The noun עבדה (avodah), occurs 144 times in Scripture. The root verb עבד (avad) occurs 289 times in the Bible, mostly in the qal form. This does not include the substantive form, עבד (eved), which occurs an additional 780 times in the Old Testament. With over a thousand uses, clearly the avad word group is an important theme in the Word of God.
The עבד word group is translated throughout the English Old Testament primarily in 3 ways:
- Avad (עבד) is most frequently translated in English as service. The meaning refers to the submission of one person to another. We see this in relationships such as; a slave to a master (Exodus 21:6), a subject to a king (2 Samuel 16:19), and a son to a father (Malachi 3:17).
- Avad (עבד) is also often translated as work or a job. When translated to work the word refers to vocations both secular (Exodus 5:18, Ezekiel 29:18) and sacred (Exodus 13:5, Numbers 3:8, Joshua 22:27), and paid (Genesis 29:27) and unpaid (Jeremiah 22:13).
- Avad (עבד) finally, is also translated as worship referring directly to the worship of Yahweh (Joshua 24:14, Ezekiel 20:40) and also to the worship of idols (Exodus 20:5, Joshua 23:7, Psalm 97:7).
Os Hillman in his study on work in the Gospels points out “…that of Jesus’ 132 public appearances in the New Testament, 122 were in the workplace. Of the 52 parables Jesus told, 45 had a workplace context. Jesus never addressed the sacred and secular divide because such a divide never existed in Jewish thinking. The Jews understood that everything they did in work and in the synagogue was to be done to God’s glory. This is why quality is so important to Jewish workers. They are not working solely for themselves, but also as worship to God.
Paul refers to work, service and worship several times in his writings. My favorite text is where Paul is addressing the work of Christian slaves. He writes in Colossians 3:22-24:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
Jewish scholar, Rabbi Ira F. Stone clarifies this when he writes: “The Hebrew word for service, ‘avodah’, is the same word we use for both work and worship. This is not an accident… the true obligation is not merely to worship in words, but to do the difficult work of service.”1
So in summary, I believe work is worship in the eyes of God. God receives our work as worship done for Him. The understanding of facets of the word avodah clarifies that in God’s eyes our work is worship in that both work and worship is not done for our own benefit, but rather as an offering to Him. This means the workplace is God’s place. We are to interact with God and talk about God in our workplace just as we do at church or at home. The workplace is a place of worship where we should express the compassion of Jesus in both word and deed.
PATRICK LAI and his family have worked in SE Asia for over 37 years. His experience in doing business with Jesus has brought him to understand the meaning of work and worship in the marketplace. He started 14 businesses in four countries, six of which are still operating. Patrick and his wife, May, mentor and coach businesspeople working where there are few or no Christians. Check out Patrick’s latest book, Workship, now available in paperback and e-book.