John the Baptist on Integrating Faith and Work

For too long, people of faith have assumed that taking the gospel to work means living out a few biblical values on the job. If you’re kind, fair, honest, and you “share your faith” with someone every now and then, you’ve got the bases covered. What more could there be?

It’s not that this mindset is bad—it’s a good start. But biblical values and evangelism aren’t enough. Not nearly. It leaves large swaths of the canvas of life untouched by the brush of the gospel. Here’s a fresh way of looking at the subject that I want you to consider:

First, there’s a lowest-common-denominator application of the gospel that’s relevant to all workers and all workplaces. This is what I call the baseline. And then there are individualized applications of the gospel for each of us in our particular wiring and for our particular organizations. I call this the blue sky.

Let me share a slice of biblical narrative that illustrates these baseline and blue sky concepts well. It has captured my curiosity for years.

Down by the Jordan River

Doctor Luke tells the story of the rustic preacher John down by the Jordan River reacting to the crowds coming to him for baptism (Luke 3:7–14). Suddenly, words like these explode from John’s mouth:1

Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment?

Apparently, John hasn’t taken any classes in how to win friends, influence people, and boost social media likes. He goes on thundering at the fresh converts:

It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as “father.” Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.

A change of life. Real repentance. A message that all John’s listeners—young and old, male and female, rich and poor, rural and urban, workers of all types—needed to hear. It was a universal invitation that still applies across the board centuries later. In other words, here’s the baseline. A basic message to all humanity.

Extended Sermon

But notice what happens next: at the end of his sermon, people start raising their hands with questions.

Now, my guess is John felt good about his sermon. It had lots of volume, quotes from the Old Testament, even some colorful illustrations connected to real life. What could the people possibly have any questions about?

The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?”

They needed more specific application. They needed a “take-home,” as one of my pastor friends calls it. They were internalizing the message and needed an actionable item to go and do. So John answered their universal question:

“If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”

This should’ve applied to almost everyone in the crowd that day. The idea of taking care of those less fortunate was part of their tradition and heritage. Those who had more should share with those who had less. That is what I call the baseline. John offered a starting point or universal minimum for all listeners regardless of their personality, title, age, background, or other particulars.

Extended sermon over. Everyone should be clear and ready to depart now.

Questions from Tax Collectors

But then another subset shouts a question. And notice this subset is a particular work group.

Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”

Now, here is where we cannot miss the lane change. A particular group needed the message specifically shaped for their industry. John had already delivered a full bucket of truth and had even given the extended sermon where he broke down a personal application for his whole audience. But evidently that wasn’t good enough. The tax collectors wanted a more customized application of the message for their own career field.

So John told them. “No more extortion—collect only what is required by law.”

The answer was dead-on. Everyone knew a tax collector had a sliding scale of collections.  He must give Caesar his portion, but he could also bully people into paying more. Everything extra was his personal bonus system. That’s how he funded his new room addition, the college classes at Jerusalem University, and a beach vacation on the Mediterranean. And there was no ceiling to what he could collect.

Notice John didn’t just say, “Be honest and fair.” Instead, he told the people what honesty and fairness looked like in the work setting of a tax collector. And did you catch that no one followed up, asking for an explanation? They immediately knew it to be true. The blue-sky concept begins to emerge as the tax collectors personalized the truth and insight.

Second extended sermon over. Time to break and get a few baptisms done. Then lunch.

Questions from Soldiers

But another inquiry is heard above the chatter.

Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

The obvious question we should be asking is, why can’t the soldiers just do one of the two applications John had already rolled out? Because they were soldiers, not tax collectors.

He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations.”

Every soldier of Rome had clout. The uniform carried the power and authority of Caesar. When they knocked on the door and accused you, the jury was already in. They had the freedom to claim anything they wanted; your only response was “How much? How much will it cost our family to keep Dad out of jail?” What a dirty abuse of power and authority!

Integration of Faith and Work

In this Q&A session, we see the message going to work in different ways in different workplaces. For tax collectors, it was one thing. For soldiers, another. And we can be sure that the gospel applied in specific ways to fishermen, homemakers, woodworkers, scribes, and all other kinds of workers as well. There was a blue sky for each worker and each workplace to explore and apply the message.

It’s not that John was saying the message itself changes. He just knew it had to be applied and nuanced for the particulars of a job. Kudos to Preacher John for not being unsettled by the questions and for knowing the specific answer to give to each sector.

In the first application to share the gospel, John illustrated the idea of the gospel baseline—that is, the universal minimum for taking your faith to work. And in the two personalized applications to the soldiers and tax collectors, he opened up the idea of the gospel blue sky—that is, the boundless horizon for applying your faith in your particular work setting.

1 Dialogue throughout taken from The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible.

Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Steve Graves’s The Gospel Goes to Work: God’s Big Canvas of Calling and Renewal, which was selected as the runner-up for TGC Editors’ Picks: Top Books of 2015 in the faith and work category.

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