Many of the parables that Jesus used to teach his disciples were focused on work or labor of some sort. Jesus used the example of wise and foolish builders to teach his disciples the importance of using their minds in a skillful manner (Matthew 7:24-27). In the parable of the sower, Jesus emphasized the importance of being open to the influence of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 13:3-8, 18-23). Jesus used the example of the unmerciful servant to teach his disciples about forgiveness (Matthew 18:23-34) and laborers in a vineyard about the goodness of God (Matthew 20:1-16). The emphasis that Jesus placed on work and productivity indicate that the spiritual realm has some of the same characteristics as the material world that we live in. Jesus told his followers:
“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” (John 4:34-38)
The Greek word that is translated work, ergon (erˊ-gon) means to “toil (as an effort or occupation)” (G2041). The Greek word kopiao (kop-ee-ahˊ-o), which is translated labor, means “to feel fatigue; by implication to work hard” (G2872). Jesus told his disciples, “I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor” (John 4:38). The others that Jesus was referring to in this statement is not clear, but he may have been talking about the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ final instruction to his disciples had to do with their dependence upon the Holy Spirit to accomplish the mission that he gave them before he ascended to heaven (Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The Apostle Paul elaborated on Jesus teaching about spiritual work in his first letter to the Corinthians. Paul said:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:5-9)
Paul referred to the Corinthian believers as both God’s field and God’s building, linking Jesus’ parables to his work of preaching the gospel. Paul said that “each will receive his wages according to his labor” (1 Corinthians 3:8). Jesus talked about wages in his parable about laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:8). In this parable, Jesus said the laborers were hired at different times of the day, but they all received the same wages. When the ones who were hired first grumbled about it, Jesus said, “Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal with us who have borne the burden of the day, and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go, I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:10-16).
The idea that God treats all of his spiritual workers the same and rewards them equally was acknowledged by Paul (1 Corinthians 3:7), but Paul also indicated that the result or output of our work is what really matters. Paul said, “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:12-17). Paul clarified which Day he was referring to when he said, “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (1 Corinthians 4:5). The purposes of the heart are the decisions believers make that identify them as being either for or against Christ (G1012). Paul pointed out that the purposes of the heart would be disclosed and implied that it had something to do with the evidence of one’s spiritual intake. The Greek word phaneroo (fan-er-oˊ-o) means “to render apparent” (G5319). The English Standard Version of the Bible uses the word phagos (fagˊ-os), which means “a glutton” (G5314), instead of phaneroo in 1 Corinthians 4:5, and translates it as discloses. This seems to suggest that Paul was talking about a believer’s spiritual weight being the output or perhaps the gauge of how successful his spiritual work was.
The Old Testament of the Bible links weight with God’s glory. The Hebrew word kabowd (kaw-bodeˊ) is properly translated as weight, but as a masculine singular noun, its meaning is “honour, glory, majesty, wealth” (H3519). Kabowd is derived from the word kabad (kaw-bad), which means “to be heavy…The hands of both humans and God were described metaphorically as heavy, that is, powerful” (H3513). The effectiveness of one’s spiritual work may be gauged in terms of weight in the Bible because of the fact that wealth was associated with gold and silver which is measured in weight. A talent was about 75 pounds or 34 kilograms. When the Temple of God was constructed, many of the temple furnishings were made from gold and silver. It says in Exodus 25:39 that the golden lampstand was made “out of a talent of pure gold.” In today’s prices, the golden lampstand itself would be worth about 2.3 million dollars. Paul said of his work in the ministry, “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest” (1 Corinthians 3:12). The Greek word that is translated builds on, epoikodomeo (ep-oy-kod-om-ehˊ) is only used figuratively. To build upon is “spoken of the Christian faith and Christian life, both the whole church and its individual members as built upon the only foundation, Christ, and implying the constant internal development of the kingdom of God and the visible church, like a holy temple progressively and increasingly built up from the foundation (1 Corinthians 3:10, 12, 14; Ephesians 2:20; Colossians 2:7).
Peter’s first letter looked at spiritual work from the standpoint of intense persecution. Peter said, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:6-9). Peter indicated that faith is more precious than gold and said that it is what will be tested when Jesus judges the world (1 Corinthians 3:13). Peter’s viewpoint was that believing in Jesus was the outcome or product of faith and said that it would result in the salvation of your souls. When Jesus was asked, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’” (John 6:28-29). The reason why Jesus identified believing as work was probably because it took a great deal of effort from a human standpoint. Jesus told his disciples, “if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20-21). The fact that faith can move a mountain makes it a very effective instrument for spiritual work. Jesus said that nothing is impossible, if you use faith to accomplish it.
Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow was intended to convey the point that it was not God’s unwillingness to answer prayers that was the problem with regard to accomplishing spiritual work. Luke opened the story with the comment, “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). And then stated:
He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 2:2-8)
Jesus’ question, “will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 2:8) was a rebuke to those who prayed constantly, but got no results.
Hebrews 11, which highlights the accomplishments of Old Testaments believers, begins with the statement, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation” (Hebrews 11:1). The Greek word that is translated conviction, elegchos (elˊ-eng-khos) means to have a certain persuasion, “in the sense of refutation of adversaries” (G1650). In other words, faith presupposes that there is a contradicting opinion about the things that we believe. Paul went on to say, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Paul identified two requirements for drawing near or worshipping God. First, a person must believe that God exists. There needs to be an awareness of his presence in the world. In addition to that, a person must believe that God rewards those who worship him. The Greek word misthapodotes (mis-thap-od-otˊ-ace), which is translated reward, is derived from the words misthoo (mis-thoˊ-o) which means “to let out for wages, i.e. (middle) to hire” (G3409) and apodidomi (ap-od-eedˊ-o-mee), which means “to give away” or pay (-ment) (591). In that sense, a worshipper of God has to believe that not only does he exist; but also, that seeking God is a form of work, and God pays those who do it.