There’s always been an understanding in this country that work is what makes the economy go. The work ethic of the American laborer has taken this country to success in war, in prosperity, and success individually. A hard day’s work will always earn fair pay. People have to work to achieve the American dream. Apply their education and skills to something they can do or provide for someone else to get paid.
The people in the gospel likely understood work in the same way. Maybe even more because they had no safety net. If they didn’t work they literally wouldn’t eat. One notable exception was the night before the section we read. 5000 men gathered on a hillside listening to Jesus. Nearly 10,000 in all if women and children were counted. Jesus taught till late and there was no time to work for food. Miraculously Jesus took care of them, fed them, and did it with only five loaves and two fish.
This was why the crowd pursued him so vigorously. They were hungry again. But why work when Jesus could provide miraculously what they needed? After the crowd found Jesus he redirected them to the real reason why they looked for him. It wasn’t good. Jesus rebuked them for chasing him down just so they could get easy food. More food would always be their need. Instead, Jesus told them to put their efforts into work. “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Work for food that endures, eternal life food.
The Son of Man would give them this food. But the people missed it completely. “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Perhaps a noble thought. We recognize too we shouldn’t get free handouts. We recognize working for what we get is right. So they asked Jesus, “tell us what works God has lined up for us to complete so we might gain access to eternal life?” In their foolishness, the people figured there were some works, some deeds, God established that they could actually accomplish well enough to be praiseworthy before God. Doing some kind of works they could earn eternal life or good favor with God.
The mention of works certainly perks up our American ears. We already experience life that way. We demonstrate that attitude. When a husband has been harsh with his wife, said something mean, or done something insensitive, he knows what he has to do. Bring home flowers. Appear sorry. Work hard to be very attentive to her every need. Do these things to make up for such sin against her. When a student talks out of turn or misses an assignment there is going to be additional work to make up for it. Stay after school. Write an extra essay. Miss recess. These things must be done to make up for the sins against the teacher. We assume God needs us to be the very best people we can be and then he’ll accept us. Work hard, let others have a good impression of us, make it known we’re good people. We try to be nice to others. We put on a smiling face in public. We bite our tongues. We want it to look good. And we figure God rewards the effort. If not he’ll at least have a list of works we can do to make up for it.
There is a work needing to be done in order to be right with God. It’s just not yours. “Jesus answered, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” The Son of Man was already sent to do this work. To live on earth, working to pay back a debt that wasn’t his because he had no sin. Making up for every mean thing done to a spouse. Paying back and offsetting the student who sinned against a teacher. Jesus did the work for each one of you. He was perfect before God. Living a life where he wasn’t just trying to work to keep the rules, he actually kept them. It was hard work. It took him to his own death. A death that brought his work to a close. A death that was work done on your behalf so you would never have to die eternally.
Now the work of believing in the work of Christ isn’t even work. It’s not done in response to some sort of command, like believe in Jesus or else. It’s not work done by you at all. It’s a gift. God works in you a belief in Jesus. He gives you the faith to trust. Jesus works in you a new heart to believe, to trust him. No merit to achieve, only grace to receive. You don’t work to get the kind of food Jesus was talking about, food that lasts to eternal life, food that will make you right with God. Believing in Jesus is God’s work. He gives food that lasts.
That’s when Christians get to work. By the faith already in your heart you start doing good works. These are works of faith pleasing to God. Not done to earn, but to serve. Not to impress, but to invite. It could be a parent working hard to teach the Word of God to their children. Teaching and modeling for them how important eternal life is. Telling them the story of how God brought them to faith and showing where that faith can be strengthened. But good works aren’t just for spiritual things. Because faith is in your heart, it’s from God as a gift, and naturally comes out in good works, everything and anything you do can be a good work. Because you believe in Jesus, whether you serve another, help yourself, get close to someone, whatever work is done brings glory to God. You worship Christ in the work you do.
The crowd didn’t get it. They proceeded to blame Jesus for their lack of faith. “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?” As if feeding 5000 men wasn’t enough. Now they wanted more, something like what Moses did. A better miracle like when Moses fed the entire nation of the children of Israel in the desert with the manna for 40 years and made it appear without any prior ingredients. That would let this crowd believe Jesus.
Once again Jesus corrected them. They gave Moses far too much credit. “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” The Lord God provided bread that lasts. It was bread that gives life. Not nourishment for a day or two. Bread that comes from heaven from God gives life. Not bread for just a few, even if that number is over 5000. That’s small because the bread from heaven gives life to the world. It’s something more important than the bread they might bake. Something they should be noticing. Something right in front of them.
Our food from yesterday provided nourishment for a while. Because it’s worldly we think worldly. We thank our parents for providing us food. We rely on our jobs and the money from there for our next meal. We give money all the credit and wonder how we’ll get more. We get so worldly focused. Where will our Sunday lunch come from? When will we get air conditioning again? What job will we have once school starts? Where will we live? Good questions to ask, for this world. But terrible worries to have or misplaced credit to give when thinking of the something that lasts.
It was time for Jesus to reel them in, give them what they needed. Give you and me what we need. Jesus identified the bread from heaven. “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” That’s the powerful Word of God at work. Powerful enough to change your hearts, to increase your faith, to grow your desire to continue to hear more. The Holy Spirit points you to the bread from heaven that gives life. Its Jesus. He granted you eternal life. You won’t be hungry for it because you have it. No more working to achieve it. Believe it’s yours. Your sins are forgiven. That promise is from the bread of life who gave his life. He feeds you with the knowledge that he won eternal life for the whole world and for you. The bread he spoke of wasn’t a thing, it was a person. Bread that lasts isn’t something to work for. It’s the Son of Man. It’s Jesus.
Only here will it be okay to say to you, stop working just believe. If you stop working in the world you’ll be in the poor house eventually and in need rather quickly. But spiritually God wants you, needs you, to stop working. Because believing in Jesus is God’s work. God’s work he does in you. Work that he leads your heart to by the Holy Spirit. He gives you food that lasts. Jesus is the bread that lasts.