“We must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” (John 9:4).
It is perhaps one of the greatest of the divine mysteries: God has summoned us sinful, weak humans to participate in His work and to advance His purposes.
The Bible makes known the great things which God has done in order to save us and to advance His purposes in His creation. He created the universe and all that is in it (Genesis 1:1-2:4); He sent His Son to live, die, and be raised again in power so that we could be delivered from our sins and overcome death (John 3:16, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58, 1 John 4:7-11). The pages of Scripture abundantly attest to God’s love and covenant loyalty powerfully demonstrated by His power.
Meanwhile God has expected people to labor for His purposes. God had a particular type of tent, the Tabernacle, where He intended to manifest His presence to Israel; He even had plans for it, and yet He expected the Israelites to build that Tabernacle themselves, and that according to the pattern He would show them (Exodus 25:9). In Christ God has maintained His power for salvation in the message of the Gospel (Romans 1:16); in Acts there are examples of the great efforts made by the Holy Spirit and angels so that people could hear, believe, and obey the Gospel, and yet it was to be preached by God’s people, not by the Holy Spirit or the angels directly (e.g. Acts 10:1-47).
Jesus explains the importance of work in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30. He envisions the time between His ascension and before His return in terms of servants given differing amounts of talents, a very large sum of money; they are expected to go and make more money by trading them (Matthew 25:14-18). Jesus’ returned is envisioned in terms of settling accounts with these servants (Matthew 25:19). In this story the one given five talents makes five more talents, and the one who was given two made two more, and they both were welcomed into the joy of their master (Matthew 25:16-17, 20-23). A third servant was given one talent, but he buried it in fear; the master was angry with this servant for his lack of effort, and he is cast out into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:18, 24-30).
The message of the parable might be jarring but it is evident: the followers of Jesus are expected to work to advance Jesus’ purposes until He returns. While everyone has equal value in God’s sight, not everyone is equally talented; how many abilities one has is not a basis of boasting but a stewardship of responsibility. Each is to use the abilities (or talents; the word derives from the form of money in the parable and on the basis of the parable) God has given him or her to serve (1 Peter 4:10-11). One with few talents need not despair when seeing another with more talents; one with many talents has no right to slack off because others have fewer talents. Our reward comes from how effectively we have used those talents for God’s purposes. If we bring others to Jesus, well and good; if we “obtain interest” by growing and exercising in our own faith, that is also sufficient (2 Peter 3:18). But any servant of Jesus who does nothing with his talents out of fear or insolence will be cast into the outer darkness, another way of speaking about hell!
Serving the Lord Jesus, therefore, is not to be taken lightly. What Jesus has said in Matthew 25:14-30 may not sit well with some of the doctrinal positions of man but makes complete sense when we understand the true nature of faith. Those who believe in Jesus are not merely to accept the reality of His existence, but to believe that He is Lord and Christ (John 3:16, Acts 2:36). If He is Lord, we are not; we cannot continue to walk in our ways and really believe that Jesus is Lord. To believe that Jesus is Lord demands that we put our trust in Him, and the only way our trust can be manifest is in what we do. So it is that Jesus considers believing in Him the work of God which He would have us to do (John 6:29): faith without works is dead, for faith must be manifest in how we think, feel, and act (James 2:14-26). One who claims to believe that Jesus is the Christ of God, the Lord, but does not get busy in His Kingdom is not really trusting Jesus, not really seeking His purposes, and without repentance will be cast into the outer darkness as an unprofitable servant!
God has done great and mighty things to save us; we do not deserve any of it. Our salvation and standing before God is entirely dependent on the love, grace, and mercy He has extended toward us through His Son Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:1-9, Titus 3:3-7). And yet God has made us and saved us for good works that we might walk in them (Ephesians 2:10); we remind ourselves of the salvation Jesus obtained on our behalf so we may devote ourselves to good works (Titus 3:8). Thus, while we are not saved by our works, we have been saved to work and glorify God in Christ. God does not want to cast any of His children out; He wants us to serve Him as His children and servants of the Lord, and if we do so, we will obtain the same rest as He enjoyed once He created the world (Hebrews 4:1-11). God is Sovereign, omnipotent, sufficient to do all things, and yet in His purposes He has given it to us to work in His Kingdom, entrusted us with the Gospel of His Son, the message of salvation, and expects us to grow in His grace and knowledge through actively serving and obeying Him. May we participate in God’s work so as to participate in His rest to His glory and honor!
Ethan R. Longhenry