Last week Pastor Stephen started us off on our series about work, building a foundation for us. We read the story of creation, of Adam and Eve, and how “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” We learned that work was created good, and that our work glorifies God. But, we also learned that all work is fallen. After Adam and Eve’s disobedience, work became toil. “Through painful toil you will eat food from it [the ground] all the days of your life.”
Lastly, we were left with hope. All work is redeemed. We heard a quote from Abraham Kuyper, who once said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Every square inch is God’s, and he is reclaiming it for his glory.
Today we’re going to look at two stories. One story emphasizes the fallen-ness of work. The other shows us God’s redemption of work, how he redirects our work back to what it was supposed to be. We’ll look at these passages one after the other and compare the two stories. You can find the first in Exodus 1:1-14. Please turn with me there if you have a bible with you, or feel free to grab one from the pew. Exodus 1, beginning in verse 1.
Before we read God’s word together, let’s open with a word of prayer.
Father, may your Word be our rule,
Your Holy Spirit our teacher,
and the glory of Jesus Christ, our single concern. Amen.
These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher. The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt.
Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.
Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.
Work under Pharaoh was toil. It was oppressive. Work was not good. Pharaoh dealt shrewdly with the Israelites. He put slave masters over them. He oppressed them, and worked them ruthlessly. Pharaoh made the lives of the Israelites bitter.
Work under Pharaoh is bondage. It is dehumanizing. Under Pharaoh’s rule the Israelites became less. Life became bitter. The people experienced anguish and pain.
Later, when Moses asked Pharaoh to let the people go so that they could worship the Lord in the wilderness, his response to the slave masters was this:
“You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.” (Exodus 5:7-9)
You asked, and resources were taken away. Life was made even more difficult.
Work for Pharaoh was all about his glory and about his name; and Pharaoh’s glory was all about taking. He didn’t care for those under him. He oppressed them and worked them ruthlessly.
I’m guessing many of us know what it’s like to enter into a place of work and not be seen for who we are, but for what someone else can get out of us – to be simply a number, a unit of work, a cog. That’s bitter life — bondage.
There are people today who live in literal economic slavery. It may even be a bigger reality today than ever before in history. More are taken for what others can get out of them — particularly sexually. These people live under Pharaoh’s rule – or at least those who represent his rule today. They know the life of oppression and ruthless work. They know very deeply how life can be bitter.
But life under Pharaoh was not the end of the story for Israel. They were eventually freed from that life, and given a new life. They were given a new master, and over time, learned what redeemed work could be.
I invite you to turn with me now to Exodus 31, as we hear what life is like under the Lord our God.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given ability to all the skilled workers to make everything I have commanded you: the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law with the atonement cover on it, and all the other furnishings of the tent— the table and its articles, the pure gold lampstand and all its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, the basin with its stand— and also the woven garments, both the sacred garments for Aaron the priest and the garments for his sons when they serve as priests, and the anointing oil and fragrant incense for the Holy Place. They are to make them just as I commanded you.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy.
“‘Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it is to be put to death; those who do any work on that day must be cut off from their people. For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’”
When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.
Wow. Isn’t this such a different picture?
Pharaoh was all about taking — oppressive and ruthless work, making life bitter.
God, is all about equipping, filling, and giving. God chose Bezalel, and gave him everything he would need in order to do the task God had prepared for him to do. He filled him with the Holy Spirit, with wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and all kinds of skills. He appointed Oholiab as helper. He gave abilities to all skilled workers in order to help with the task set before them.
Pharaoh takes and takes. He makes those under him less, squeezes everything he can out of them. God gives and gives. He makes those under him more, more human, more gifted, more rested, more eager to work.
And whereas Pharaoh worked the Israelites to exhaustion, God commands his people to rest. You must observe my Sabbaths. Further, those who do any work on that day must be cut off from their people. Sabbath rest is required. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed. God wants us to be refreshed. He doesn’t want us to work ourselves so hard that we live a life of bitterness.
God commands rest for our good.
For God too, work is for His glory, and for His name. But, God’s glory is giving — and gives in abundance. Whereas Pharaoh took away from Israel and expected the same amount of work to be completed, God gives his people everything they need, including the rest to be refreshed.
While Pastor Stephen and I were talking about the differences between these two passages we noticed something interesting. Life under pharaoh was bitter. Egypt is associated with bitterness. But, what is the land called that God gave to Israel? It is a land flowing with milk and… honey. It’s sweet.
Further, I also noticed that appearances can be deceiving. In Egypt, Israel was given the best land in the whole of the country — Goshen. Goshen was absolutely beautiful. It was the most fertile land of Egypt, with topsoil reaching down up to 70 feet. But, despite the beauty and abundance of the land they lived in, life was bitter.
Egypt, for all its productivity, was a land of bondage.
Israel, the land of milk and honey, lacks arable land and potable water. It takes years of care to build up the topsoil. If left untended, it becomes barren and rocky in no time. While in Israel, we were shown this beautiful garden. It took years to build the terraces, and build up the topsoil enough for it to become fertile. Generations. Yet, left untended, it will look like the rocks we were sitting on, after only a few short years. But, this land was sweet like honey.
Appearances can be deceiving. The area we work in may look beautiful and good, but in reality it’s bitter. On the other hand, we may work somewhere that requires a lot of work to look beautiful, but that work is sweet, like honey.
So what does this have to say to us today in our work?
We still have pharaohs in our world, who deal shrewdly, oppress, and work people ruthlessly, making life bitter. But that does not need to be our story. We have a God who is redeeming our work. Israel didn’t stay in bondage. They were brought out by God’s mighty hand, and He then laid claim to their lives. The story of the Exodus is a beautiful foreshadowing of what Jesus would later do on the cross for us.
Paul wrote to church church in Colossae, with these words for slaves who may not have had masters who knew Christ. He said,
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. (Colossians 3:22-24)
Paul’s words are for us too. No matter what we do, or where we work, we work for the Lord, not for human masters, employers, or teachers. We no longer work for Pharaoh. Just as our hearts have been released from the bondage of sin, so have we been freed to work for God’s kingdom, even if our bosses are more like Pharaoh. God has given us the abilities and gifts we need to be able to do our work well. And unlike pharaoh, who takes away when we ask for more, God will give us what we need, provide for us, when we ask.
So I ask you, whose story are you going to believe? What Pharaoh tells you about who you are and what you’re worth? Or what God tells you about who you are and what you’re worth?
Who really has a claim on your life? Who do you really work for?
I want to leave you with these words — a prayer for the church in Colossae, but one Pastor Stephen and I pray for you as well.
We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:9b-14)