Jesus was asked by the crowd, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” They were not starting from the same place we start from. They were Jews; they were already the people of God – or so they thought. They had not realized that the presence of Messiah Jesus meant that things had changed, completely and dramatically. The reply of Jesus relates to that huge change. John did not tell us what Jesus had been talking about on the other side of the lake but we can easily guess. Mark reports his words on another occasion as, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” And we may safely assume he did not say anything very different this time.
They thought they would be automatically transferred into his Kingdom. “No!” says Jesus. You need to do something - you need to take a positive step into the Kingdom by following me, so his answer was, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
But we need to be careful here. It sounds almost as though Jesus is saying ‘believing in me, that is that I am the Messiah and the Son of God, is all you have to do step into the Kingdom’; or, as he said to Nicodemus, ‘be sure you are born again’ and that is all that matters. But it is not so. You cannot just step into the Kingdom and find a nice seat on a wall or something and watch what happens. You cannot just be born again and stay in the cradle, drink your milk and get your diaper changed for you. You must grow. You don’t have a choice; once you are born you have to grow. If you don’t you are severely retarded – and who wants to be that. If you are born again you are also equally born from above; the power of the Spirit has entered your life and you must grow – just as you cannot opt out of growing physically once you are born you cannot opt out of growing spiritually. And a major part of that is that if you are in the Kingdom you must participate in the work of the Kingdom.
All too often people assume, and are often told, that the first steps: being born again, making a decision for Jesus, giving your heart to Jesus, setting out to follow Jesus; is all that matters and they can now boast of what they have done and they will be ‘all right’ at the last day or when they die. It isn’t quite like that. Only the last way of talking about that first step ‘setting out to follow Jesus’ carries any suggestion that there is work to be done. But there is! Paul says (in Philippians 2: 12, 13), “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”
And that is just a bit fuller than what Jesus says here, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
What Paul says is both a promise and a challenge. It is the great promise that God will be in us and undertake the work. The challenge is that we are to work hard ourselves – to be better people, to relate better to and help other people, to spread the Good News of the Kingdom to other people, etc. And we need to be careful about how we do it – particularly that last one about how we handle the Good News. Paul says, referring to the work that he was doing in spreading the Good News and teaching people in the young churches about it, “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder. Each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” If we do anything about the Good News, as we all should and must, we must realize our responsibility in making sure it is the real Good News and not some distorted version of it.
We are in the Lord’s army. Not to fight, but to build. Work hard, work well, build straight and high and we shall meet in that grand final day when all is revealed and we will receive the great reward of all our work – being ushered into the immediate presence of the Lord Jesus to hear his ‘well done, good and faithful servant’.