September 7, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2(NRSV)
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens; and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith.
1 Thessalonians 3:2 refers to Timothy as a “co-worker of God.” Though we are certainly God’s servants who work under God’s authority and for God’s pleasure, there is a sense in which we are also God’s co-workers. That’s the way God set it up in the very beginning. God has chosen you as a partner in God’s good work in the world.
As you may recall, the Apostle Paul and his colleagues spent a relatively short time in Thessalonica before they were chased out of town by local hostility to the gospel. Yet these church planters continued to care deeply for the Christians they had left behind. In the beginning of 1 Thessalonians 3, for example, the letter writers use strong language to describe their yearning for their converts: “Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens” (3:1). In this case, “we” seems to refer to Paul in particular. He cared so much for the Thessalonians that he just couldn’t stand the thought of their trying to make it on their own. Paul goes on by saying, “and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith” (3:2). Later in this chapter, will learn that Paul also wanted Timothy to bring back a report on how the Thessalonians were doing.
If you were to read verse 3:2 in a critical Greek text, you’d discover that ancient manuscripts of this verse vary considerably when it comes to one particular phrase. (A critical Greek text includes technical apparatus that shows scholars what appears in the ancient manuscripts.) This is quite unusual. Though there are often minor differences between the ancient copies of the New Testament documents, for the most part they agree with striking consistency. However, in the case of 3:2, the ancient manuscripts show lots of variation when it comes to the phrase “co-worker for God.” Some manuscripts lack the phrase “for God.” Other manuscripts replace the word “co-worker” with “servant” (diakonos in Greek).
What are we to make of this variation? The copyists of ancient biblical manuscripts were as a rule extremely careful, always trying to pass on accurately the original text. So why are there so many differences when it comes to the phrase “co-worker for God”? Biblical scholars answer this question in a way I find quite convincing. First of all, they note that the Greek phrase behind “co-worker for God” is synergon tou theou, which should be translated as “co-worker of God.” Scholars suggest that the phrase “co-worker of God” was unsettling to many scribes. These deeply faithful Christians knew that human beings are not on par with God. In their view, a human being simply shouldn’t be described as God’s co-worker. Therefore, the scribes assumed that there must have been a mistake in the manuscript that included the words synergon tou theou. They solved the problem in a couple of ways. Some removed the Greek phrase meaning “of God,” leaving Timothy as the co-worker of Paul. Nothing scandalous there. Other scribes changed “co-worker” to “servant” (synergos to diakonos). Nothing scandalous in “servant of God” either.
Almost all Bible scholars and virtually all modern translations agree that the original letter included the phrase “co-worker for God,” with all of its puzzling implications. The NRSV, however, uses “co-worker for God,” no doubt because the translators found “co-worker of God” to be unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that Paul did in fact refer to Timothy as a “co-worker of God.”
Of course, Paul understood that being God’s coworker was not a matter of being equal to God. Everything in Paul’s letters points to the sovereignty of God, of whom we are called to be servants. But it’s clear that Paul also saw the profound worth of human agency. Though we exercise our gifts for God’s purposes and under God’s authority, there is a sense in which we are in fact working with God. God has chosen to use us and even in a sense to depend on us.
The phrase “coworker for God” reminds me of what we learn in the very first chapter of the Bible. As you will recall, in Genesis 1 God is revealed to us as a worker. Among God’s good works, God creates human beings in God’s own image as male and female. Then, astoundingly, God entrusts creation to the human beings he created. In Genesis 1:28 God says to the first humans, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” God could have chosen to fill the earth without any human collaboration. But, instead, God created the very good world in an unfinished state. God enlisted the human beings he had made to share in God’s work of making the world everything God intended it to be. Recognizing God’s sovereignty over all things, we can nevertheless say that human beings are in a sense God’s coworkers.
The truth of Genesis reminds us that it’s not only church planters and pastors who are God’s co-workers. If all we had to go on was 1 Thessalonians 3:2, we might be inclined to limit God’s co-workers to those who serve in the church. But the implications of Genesis show us otherwise. All human beings are to be God’s coworkers in all the work we do, whether paid or paid. If we are doing good work, not work that is obviously evil, then we are in some small way sharing in God’s work in the world. So, no matter what you do for work, whether you’re a teacher or a banker, a carpenter or a gardener, a nanny or a parent, a painter or a singer, you have been enlisted by God to share in God’s work. Yes, as many ancient scribes and the NRSV would want you to remember, you are God’s servant, one who serves for God’s pleasure and under God’s authority. But you are also God’s co-worker, God’s partner in the work of this world.
Have you ever before thought of yourself as a co-worker of God? How does this idea strike you?
Why do you think God chose to work with and through human beings?
In what ways does your work contribute to God’s work in the world?
Today, as you work, think of yourself as God’s co-worker. How does this idea affect the way you work? How does it impact your sense of identity?
Gracious God, were it not in Scripture, I don’t think I’d ever imagine myself as your co-worker. Certainly, we are not equals when it comes to work. You are my sovereign. I am your servant. But, given this framing, there is a sense in which I am also your co-worker. In your wisdom and grace you have chosen to work in and through me. You have invited me to work for your purposes and glory.
What an honor to be your co-worker! Help me, Lord, to do all my work in partnership with you. Keep me from dividing my life into “your part” and “the real world,” which includes the work I do. Help me to see everything in life as for your glory.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: How to Find a Mentor and Be a Mentor – Bill Hendricks
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.
When I have seen verse 3:2 use co-worker, I always read the phrase as “our brother and co-worker,” which was then qualified with “of God.” I then simplistically took this to mean that Timothy was Paul’s brother and co-worker, who was “of God.” So, I never saw any tension in the English. Is there no possibility that’s what Paul meant in the Greek?