Happy Monday. Today is Labor Day for many of us, a day when we rest from our work and think of just about anything but work. But here we are, talking about work, and we’re doing it because a number of you have emailed over the years wanting to know about work in eternity. Here’s one version of that email, from a listener named Steve.
“Pastor John, hello and thank you for this podcast! I have a question about work in heaven — or work in the new creation, to be more exact. First, will we work in the new creation? If so, what types of vocations will be needed? Does the Bible give us any hints here? And if we work, do you think this future vocation will resonate with or consummate some gifting that we always felt drawn to express here on earth, whether or not we could make money doing it here? And if you answer yes to all of this, put on your hat of prediction: What will you be doing in eternity?”
Let’s start with what we know for sure about the eternal future that all of us who are in Christ will definitely enjoy.
Jesus said that we will be with him. We will see his glory. We will have the capacity to love him with the very love that the Father has for him (John 17:24–26). The apostle John tells us “we shall see him” and “we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). That includes both sinless purity of heart and the glory of our new resurrection bodies, according to Philippians 3:21. And then in Revelation 21:4, John tells us that God “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore.” And then Psalm 16:11 twists that around and makes it positive: in God’s presence, we will have “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore.” Now that is for sure.
Six Pointers for Work in Eternity
Now, the question is, Will work be part of our experience of that eternal joy in God’s presence? I think the answer is yes. But I say that not because the Bible has decisive statements to that effect, but because there are significant pointers in that direction. So, I wouldn’t elevate this conviction that I’m going to argue for here to a top-level doctrine, but rather call it a reasonable, probable hope. And if not this, then something way better. I mean, if it turns out that it’s not what you thought it was, it’s going to be better, because we know there will be no sorrow there, no regret, no frustration, no disappointment with God’s decisions about what our happiness should look like.
So, here are my six pointers, and then I’ll end with a caution. These are pointers for why we can be relatively confident there will be work for us to do in the age to come, in our eternity with God.
1. God is a worker.
God himself is a worker, and we will be more like him then, not less than we are now. Genesis 2:2: “On the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.” And Jesus said in John 5:17, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” So, God is a worker.
2. God created us to work.
God created man to be a worker before the fall into sin. The curse that fell on man after the fall was not work, but futile work, miserable work, sweaty work that makes us hate it, that makes us want to play instead of working. But God made man from the beginning to work the world, to shape the world.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)
And then, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).
3. Parables point toward future responsibility.
The parable that describes how Jesus settles accounts with his servants at the second coming suggests that, now that Jesus has come, they will have work given them to do. In Luke 19:17, the master says, “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.” Now, whether that’s parabolic or metaphorical, it may well point to the fact that we will be given responsibility in the age to come.
4. We are born again for good works.
According to Ephesians 2:10, “We are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” When Paul identified a purpose for the new creature in Christ — us — he said the purpose was work, “good works.”
5. Prophecies of the new creation include work.
Isaiah 65:17–25 describes the new heavens and the new earth to include work.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. . . .
My chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity. (Isaiah 65:21–23)
Now, the reason I say this is only a pointer, not a decisive statement — even though it may look like that — about work in the final state, is that there is serious disagreement about whether this passage in Isaiah 65 is a description of our final state, because it speaks of bearing children, and Jesus said that in the final state there would be no marriage and, presumably, no bearing of children (Matthew 22:30). And in the age to come, we’re not going to experience death. And yet Isaiah 65:20 says, “The young man shall die a hundred years old” in the new creation.
We know there is no death in the age to come. So, the disagreement is whether these kinds of statements here in Isaiah 65 are somehow metaphorical for eternal life in the age to come — I have never been able to understand how death is a symbol for life — or whether this is a description of a millennial period after the second coming, which is much higher in its blessing than now but not yet the final stage of the new heavens and the new earth. And that would be my view.
“Work itself will be so profoundly satisfying and sweet and enjoyable that nobody will say, ‘I need a weekend.’”
But in either case — whether those are metaphorical statements and we will be working in the final state, or whether this is a next stage of redemptive history in which, yes, there will be work, and maybe pointing to the fact that there’s work in the final state — it seems to me that we can’t settle that with enough certainty to persuade all the evangelicals who love the Bible. I mean, I’ve got a lot of good friends that disagree with me on this. So, I don’t call those verses in Isaiah 65 a decisive, precise statement that there will be work in the final state, but it seems to me it points in that direction.
6. All futility will be gone.
When you take sin out of the heart and out of the world, which will happen in the age to come, the line between work and play becomes almost invisible. What is play when all our work will be totally enjoyable? I mean totally. There is no work now that is totally enjoyable. All work has some element to it we find frustrating or disappointing or futile or discouraging.
Perhaps (this is speculation) there will be sweet weariness of mind and body, the new body getting weary in the age to come such that it needs something different from its usual occupation — namely, rest and play. I don’t know, because work itself will be so profoundly satisfying and sweet and enjoyable that nobody will say, “I need a weekend. I’ve got to have some play time,” because everything will be as happy and satisfying as play. But there may be a difference.
Future Beyond Disappointment
And that word perhaps — I mean, I’ve been using the word perhaps all along — leads me to wrap up with a caution about making more precise statements about the age to come than the Bible gives us warrant to make. There are cautions in the Bible that remind us that the glories of the age to come are going to be beyond our present comprehension and imagination.
In 2 Corinthians 12:4, Paul said he saw things in heaven that no man can utter. In 1 Corinthians 2:9, Paul says that “God has prepared [things] for those who love him” that are beyond human imagination. They’ve never entered into the heart of man. He tells us that our resurrection bodies will be spiritual bodies (1 Corinthians 15:42–49). Well, who can say all that is involved in a spiritual body?
John speaks in Revelation 21:23 of a world in which there will be “no need of sun or moon . . . [because] the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” Well, who can imagine a world with no sources of created light, but only God’s light? And in Revelation 21:18, John says the city, New Jerusalem, “was pure gold, like clear glass.” What’s that — gold that is clear as glass? Jonathan Edwards wrote an entire sermon on that text, Revelation 21:18, and here’s the title: “Nothing on Earth Can Represent the Glories of Heaven” — because there is no such thing on earth as gold that is clear as glass, and that’s the way it’s going to be like.
So yes, I think we will work in the final age to come. Whether we will do what we were gifted for here, or whether we will have wholly new giftings, a thousand times greater, or what kind of work John Piper will be doing, I leave in the hands of God, who planned the universe for the happiness of his people in himself. We will not be disappointed.