One human life in all the Scriptures towers above the others. All who came before anticipated him, and all who follow after orient to him. And thanks to the biographical sketches found in the four Gospels of the New Testament, we know more details about Jesus’s everyday life than any other biblical figure.
Moses and David, and Peter and Paul, who all both wrote much and had much written about them, are not unveiled with the same richness, depth, and detail as Christ. And for good reason. None compares to God himself dwelling among us in fully human soul and body. And no one accomplished the work that he accomplished.
“The Gospels not only show us a man who worked, but also one who didn’t only work.”
All four accounts are Gospels, driving toward his final week, his arrest, his trial, his death, the long pause of Holy Saturday, and then, at last, his resurrection. And so, as careful readers of the Gospels, we beware gathering up details about Jesus’s life and unhitching them from where his whole life was going. Still, we do have more to learn from the life of Christ than the events of his final week (which comprise less than half the Gospels). One theme, especially pronounced in the Gospel of John, is what we might see as the “work ethic” of Christ.
Observe, first, that Jesus did work — and consider what he meant by work rather than what we might assume. The night before he died, he prayed to his Father, as his men listened, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). In a sense, his whole life had been a single work — a “life’s work” we might say. He had a calling and commission. His Father gave him work to do. And this was good — a blessing, not a curse.
Jesus did not begrudge this work. Instead, he experienced a kind of satisfaction in doing the work his Father had assigned him. In fact, his soul fed on accomplishing his Father’s work, as he testified standing by the well in Samaria. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).
Jesus also speaks in John 9 about stewarding time in such a life. Here he sounds like Moses’s prayer to “teach us to number our days” (Psalm 90:12) and Paul’s exhortation to “[make] the best use of the time” (Ephesians 5:15–16). “Night is coming, when no one can work,” he says, and knowing that, “we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day” (John 9:4). He had an appointed season of earthly life. Eternity would come, but for now, he was on the clock. He had work to accomplish. “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). He even “worked” on the Sabbath, or at least was accused of it. And he answered the charge not by saying he wasn’t working, but that “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17).
He Didn’t Only Work
The Gospels not only show us a man who worked, but also one who didn’t only work. His life was more than his work. He rested and retreated, and called his weary disciples away to rest with him. When they had returned from their commission, and “told him all that they had done and taught” (and teaching, done well, can be really hard work), he said to them,
“Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. (Mark 6:30–32)
Jesus also slept. He may have stayed up all night to pray before choosing his twelve, and eschewed sleep to pray in the garden, but those were unusual circumstances. He slept in peace on a storm-tossed ship until his disciples frantically woke him, and as the great personal fulfillment of the Psalms, he did not despise Solomon’s wisdom in Psalm 127:2,
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
What His Work Accomplished
That Jesus worked (and didn’t only work) is plain enough, but what did his work mean?
Much of what we have from the Gospels about his work is from his own mouth. First, he was conscious that his work bore witness to his Father. Indeed, his life-work was to glorify his Father, to make him known truly and admired duly (John 17:4, 6, 26).
“Every indication we have of Jesus’s life and ministry is that he was (and was known as) a worker, not an idler.”
And Jesus’s works demonstrated that the Father had sent him. “The works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me” (John 5:36; also John 10:25, 32). Not just that he was sent as a mere man. The way he taught (with authority, Matthew 7:29; Mark 1:22, 27; Luke 4:32; John 7:17), and the miracles he performed, pointed to his being more than a prophet — to the almost unspeakable truth that this is God himself.
Even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father. (John 10:38)
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. (John 14:10–11)
His works, performed in the world with human words and hands, showed who he was, and whose he was — just as those who rejected him showed through their works who was their father (John 8:38–41).