Monday, March 10, 2014

Significant Passages #2: John 6:28-29

Another one of my favorite passages of scripture—one that I discovered relatively late in my life—is John 6:28-29.  When I say "discovered," I really mean "was uncovered for me by the Holy Spirit," because I had certainly read that passage several times previously, without it having made the least impression on me.  Here it is:

Then they said to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?"  Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent."
Let me set the stage for you.  Earlier in John chapter six, Jesus had fed five thousand men (and their families, presumably) with five loaves of barley bread, and two small fish—a notable miracle.  Later that same evening, He had walked upon the sea—another notable miracle.  The next day, those who had been miraculously fed sought Him.  When they found Him, they asked, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?"

It's not totally clear to me exactly what they were asking.  Were they saying, "What can we do, so that we can work miracles like You do?"  It seems to be a faint possibility—that they thought that Jesus was just a man like them, and the "works of God" were something to which they could aspire.  But it seems much more likely to me that they were asking Him how they could satisfactorily obey the Law—a noble question, worthy to be asked: "What works can we do that will make us pleasing and acceptable to God?" (The famous Bible commentator Matthew Henry says that they were asking what works they could do to make them worthy to receive "the food which endures to everlasting life," which Jesus had just told them about (John 6:27 NKJV); this is of essentially the same substance as my conjecture.)

Jesus' answer is the answer to any and all who have tried to satisfy the holiness of God by a strenuous obedience to His Law.  "This is the work of God," He says.  "This is what you must do to satisfy the requirements of God Almighty: believe."  Not tithe; not give to the poor; not be patient with your wife or be a good father—believe.  Now, we understand that anyone who truly does believe in Jesus will want to tithe and give to the poor and be patient and everything else that he thinks will please the Father; but that's not where his salvation lies.  His salvation lies in his faith—in his belief in the Gospel, that Jesus died on the cross for his sins (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) and was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25).  Believe the Gospel—not trust in your own works.  Believe in Jesus—not believe in yourself.

There is another sense that can be given to the words, "This is the work of God," with which I once again find agreement with Matthew Henry: "This is the work that God must do; this is the work which Man cannot do."

The work of faith is the work of God. They enquire after the works of God (in the plural number), being careful about many things; but Christ directs them to one work, which includes all, the one thing needful: that you believe, which supersedes all the works of the ceremonial law; the work which is necessary to the acceptance of all the other works, and which produces them, for without faith you cannot please God. It is God's work, for it is of his working in us, it subjects the soul to his working on us, and quickens the soul in working for him (Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible).
I'm not sure which of the petals of Calvinism's tulip this would fall under: unconditional election or irresistible grace, but it informs us regarding both.  We do not work to obtain salvation; it is God Who provides.  And when God creates in us the faith of His working, we do believe indeed.  In any case, the glory belongs to Him.