“‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father will set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘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 6:27-29).
I always read this as a clever play on words on the part of the Lord. He has just chided the groupies, accusing them of following Him not out of spiritual hunger but because they see Him as a free meal ticket (verse 26). Since they are obviously driven by the idea of food without toil, Jesus addresses the issue of work and bread head-on: The food you are wearing yourself out to chase me for is too small a prize; raise your sights heavenward and seek the food that nourishes everlastingly.
And so I thought that Jesus did not really mean the word “work” literally in his exhortation, but in a poetic or even ironic way, as a segue from one kind of “bread” to another kind of “bread,” and even to contrast the acquisition of the inferior by toil and the heavenly without toil. And true enough, we know that salvation is not by the principle of works:
“… now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law … by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. … By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:21-28).
There is definitely ceasing from striving here, in the sense that we no longer try to climb our way into God’s good graces but give up that impossible scheme and accept His forgiveness.
And yet, I no longer so quickly rule out that Jesus had a kind of “work” in mind. For one thing, He did use the word, so we must take that fact seriously. And consider your personal experience with God: If you are an inveterate couch potato and you hear the Spirit telling you to get up and serve the kingdom of God, you will recognize that command as work—if you had your druthers, you would stay on the couch with the remote in your hand.
And if you have had an argument with your husband and would just as soon sulk (which is no work but the easy way out) rather than “go first” to reconcile with him (which takes effort), you may recognize the element of work that is involved in faith. This is the “obedience of faith” Paul speaks of in Romans 16:26. Faith always requires response.
After all, on the day Jesus sat at a well and decided he would exert Himself to share the gospel with a woman of Samaria, Scripture notes that He was “wearied … from his journey.” She was the lowest of the low on the social wrung, and no one would have been the wiser if He had skipped the whole thing and just kept to Himself. But the tired man Jesus believed His Father wanted this woman’s soul for His own. And so He roused himself and did the work of God. And He found out, to his delight, that it was food for Him.