Does God really need us to do work for him? No, not really. He has accomplished huge things without us, and there are times when I think he’d get a lot more done if we would simply get out of his way. I’d hate to see the list of times when I’ve chucked money or effort at a project that I thought was helpful and God really would have preferred to shut it down.
Nevertheless, works are good for us. We aren’t saved by our works, but rather by our faith1. There’s no way you can be cool enough to get to heaven. If you can, then Jesus died for no purpose. He pleaded three times for some solution to our predicament other than the cross. If you can be saved any other way than the sacrifice of Christ, God didn’t answer Jesus’ prayer2. So, if God doesn’t need us to do the work and if works don’t save us, what good are they?
For the importance of good works, consider James 2:14-26. Faith without works is dead. Good work you do to further the kingdom of God is the exercise you do to keep your faith healthy. Furthermore, God doesn’t need us to get done what needs doing, but he gives us the privilege of participating in what he has planned. In fact, you were in his mind when he put his plan together3. His plans are to your benefit4, and going contrary to them is only hurting yourself.
Is it possible to get focused too narrowly on the work God would have of you? I think so. Let’s consider the case of Ephesus. The church of Ephesus was started by Paul on one of his adventures through Asia Minor5 (read that Turkey … no, not the big, fat bird you eat in November. That’s different). On a later trip to Jerusalem, Paul stopped at a nearby city called Miletus and asked the elders of the church at Ephesus to drop by for a visit. During this discussion, he warned them to watch over their flock carefully, particularly in regard to false teaching6.
Okay, now fast-forward a few decades to the book of Revelation where Jesus dictated a letter to John to send to the 7 churches in Asia Minor (That’s still Turkey). Ephesus is the first of those churches. Here, check this out.
“Write this letter to the angel of the church in Ephesus. This is the message from the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand, the one who walks among the seven gold lampstands:
“I know all the things you do. I have seen your hard work and your patient endurance. I know you don’t tolerate evil people. You have examined the claims of those who say they are apostles but are not. You have discovered they are liars. You have patiently suffered for me without quitting. But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen from your first love! Turn back to me again and work as you did at first. If you don’t, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place among the churches. But there is this about you that is good: You hate the deeds of the immoral Nicolaitans, just as I do.
“Anyone who is willing to hear should listen to the Spirit and understand what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Everyone who is victorious will eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God. 7”
Jesus’ letters to the 7 churches reflected the history of the church, but they also had relevant bits for the local church at that time. Some day we may take the opportunity to analyze all 7 parts of each letter, but for now, look at what this is saying to Ephesus.
The good news is that they did indeed do a fabulous job about ferreting out false teachers8. They even refused to fall into the trap of a church heirarchy9. (Nicolaitan = “Nico” means rule or dominion and “laitan” means people, y’know, like laity?)
Unfortunately, Ephesus developed a bad case of tunnel vision. Verses 4 and 5 detail this problem. The church at Ephesus forgot their first love: Christ and other Christians. Remember the most two important commandments? Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love thy neighbor as thyself10?
The Ephesians ran afoul of a problem that threatens most of us. We substitute doing the work of the King for spending quality time with the King. This is particularly dangerous. Jesus promised Ephesus that if they failed to remedy the problem, he’d remove their lampstand. (We figure out what the lampstands are in Revelation 1:20. They represent the churches themselves.) Did they figure it out? Apparently not. Where’s the church of Ephesus today? Learn from Ephesus’ mistake, and remember this other very crucial command: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you11.”
1 Habakkuk 2:4, Galatians 2:16
2 Matthew 26:36-46
3 Ephesians 2:10
4 Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 8:28
5 Acts 18 and 19
6 Acts 20:28-30
7 Revelation 2:1-7
8 Revelation 2:2
9 Revelation 2:6
10 Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37-40, Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:27
11 Matthew 6:33