Hard Work and Sacrifice.
There is a “natural” law that hard work yields good results. You can see examples in many people all around you. There are plenty of exceptions too, of course. Sometimes hard work doesn’t yield much and occasionally a slacker will get lucky. Generally, though, hard work pays off. I call this a “natural” law not because God is not involved in it, but because it is true of both Christians and non-Christians. It would seem that this is the way God ordered the world to work.
When it comes to Jesus and his followers, we know that God was at work in and through them in more than a “natural” way. We noted previously that Jesus’ trusting relationship with his Father was a key aspect of how he changed the world. Sometimes, however, we miss the fact that both Jesus and his followers also worked really hard. Their sincere belief that God worked in and through them did not cause them to slack off. They labored strenuously. I have no ability nor desire to try to distinguish between what resulted from God’s working in them and what resulted from the “natural” law of hard work yielding results. I only want to make the point that Jesus and his followers worked hard, and so must we. It is a part of how they changed the world.
For example, Jesus said he came not to be served but to serve, and serve he did (Mark 10:45). He understood the word “serve” in a less glamorous and spiritual-sounding sense than the way we sometimes think about it. Jesus thought he actually was a servant. And he said he must do the works of the One who sent him as long as it is day. So he kept on helping people with all the time he had available (John 9:4-5).
Jesus sometimes “worked evenings.” When the sun was setting, people brought all the sick to him and he “laid his hands on every one of them and healed them” (Luke 4:40). Afterward, when it was day again, Jesus went off to pray by himself, but the people found him and tried to keep him from leaving. Yet Jesus said he “must” preach the good news of the kingdom to other towns because that was his purpose. So he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea (Luke 4:42-44; cf. 8:1). Both travel and preaching may sometimes seem glamorous, especially when we think of them only as something done in big fashion once in a while. When you travel on foot and keep on preaching in all kinds of settings day in and day out, however, it turns out to be quite demanding work.
After what appears to have been a long day of teaching by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus told his disciples they should all cross over to the other side of the lake (Mark 4:35). A fierce storm arose and the waves were breaking over the boat, yet Jesus slept through it all. It would seem he had worked to the point of exhaustion and so was sleeping like a rock during a terrifying storm.
In John 4 we are told directly that Jesus was tired from his long journey from Judea to Sychar in Samaria (v. 6). Again, travelling was a part of his work, and most often this was done on foot. When he arrived, he was thirsty and was sitting by the well. So he asked the Samaritan woman for a drink. But as soon as he recognized the opportunity, he moved away from his own needs and “worked” for her salvation. When his disciples returned from town with food, Jesus didn’t eat because his nourishment was “to do the will of him who sent me and accomplish his work” (v. 34). He was so tuned in to doing God’s work that he forfeited physical food and water in order to pursue it.
In Mark 6 Jesus does something similar. After he and his disciples had already done a lot of hard work (vv. 7-12), he sought to get away with them for some rest (vv. 30-31). But a large crowd saw them leaving and managed to arrive at their destination before they did (v. 33). So Jesus again forfeited his own need for rest and taught and served the people (vv. 34-44). I doubt preaching looked very glamourous on that occasion. After meeting both their spiritual and physical needs, Jesus sent his discipes and the crowd away and withdrew to pray (vv. 45-46).
Speaking of prayer, it is work too—a very unique work. It combines our own human activity with trust in the working of God. Jesus did it a lot. “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Clearly praying was hard work when Jesus spent an entire night in prayer just before choosing the twelve (Luke 6:12).
This is a good segue into the hard work exemplified also by Jesus’. Do you remember Epaphras? He was the one who brought the good news to the Colossians (Colossians 1:3-7). When a troubling heresy arose at Colossae, Epaphras enlisted the help of Paul, but he himself did not stop working. Paul said of him, “He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (4:12). If the word “wrestling” didn’t already make it clear, Paul spells it out even more plainly in the next verse: “He is working hard for you” (v. 13). Like their Lord before them, Christ’s early followers labored in the unique work of trusting God in prayer.
They also followed their Lord’s example of working hard to spread the good news. The critics of the apostles unwittingly complimented them along these lines by accusing them of having “filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (Acts 5:28). Later Luke says the same: “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 5:42). Likewise Paul described his preaching of Christ and his efforts to present everyone mature in Christ as an end to which he strenuously contended. This is no casual ministry. Reflecting the same human-divine cooperation that we saw in connection with prayer, however, he also said his contending was done with “all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:28-29).
Reviewing his experiences at Ephesus, Paul said he served the Lord with humility, tears, tests, plots, hardships and prison. Through all that, however, he continued to preach publicly and from house to house. None of the difficulties mattered. Not even his own life mattered. All that mattered to him was that he complete the task the Lord had given him of testifying to the good news of God’s grace (Acts 20:17-24). Though he was clearly entitled to be supported financially, he was also willing to work a regular job in addition to his primary purpose of preaching. He included that in the “hard work” he did to enable the word to spread (vv. 34-35; cf. 1 Corinthians 4:12). Even some of us who are fully supported by the church don’t speak the word to others as much as Paul did while also working a secular job.
We often think of Paul as the champion of salvation by grace. He did indeed have much to say about it. It is extremely important for us to remember that we cannot save ourselves. Rather, salvation is offered to us by the mercy and grace of God and is paid for by the death and resurrection of Christ. It is “not from yourselves, it is a gift of God” and is “not by works” (Ephesians 2:8-9). When we grasp this remarkable news of God’s grace in Christ, we may be so relieved that we relax in a way we should not. There is a sense in which we should relax, of course. We should abandon any desperate, worrisome effort to be good enough to be saved, because we never will be. Those who are wearied and burdened by legalistic religion can find rest in Jesus.
We must not, however, relax in the wrong way. Grace does not mean that it doesn’t matter what we do. The apostle of God’s grace, who knew he could only be an apostle because of God’s grace, also said that God’s grace made him work harder than all the others (1 Corinthians 15:10). Elsewhere he told Titus that we “labor and strive” for godliness (1 Timothy 4:6-10). The apostle of grace worked hard at preaching, supporting himself, and striving to be godly. Not surprisingly, the followers of Christ followed Christ even in the matter of working hard.
I do believe there is a “natural” law that hard work (most often) leads to good results. This law seems to be a part of the reason that hard work yields kingdom results too, but it is definitely not the only reason. Rather, we work hard by the grace and power of God, and God uses us to change the world. This is what he did through Jesus. This is what he did through his early followers. And this is what he seeks to do through us as well. If we want to change the world like Jesus, we must be willing to work hard.