“Do not labor for the food which perishes” John 6:27

by Steven Chan

Does the above statement by Jesus mean that we should not work in order to put food on our table?  Read in isolation, one could misunderstand the statement. But if read within its immediate context and that of the total context of the Scriptures – for the sum of God’s Word is truth (Psa 119:160 – NASB) – then it is evident that Jesus was highlighting that we ought to put greater emphasis and effort on doing the things/work that will yield results lasting through eternity – and not that it is forbidden for one to be gainfully employed.

Working to put food on the table is temporal as we cannot bring this food with us when we transition to our life beyond the grave. But it is a necessary work that we must do – bit not to the extent of neglecting our obligations to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.

In the immediate context, Jesus had just demonstrated His care for the physical needs of the people who had come to see the miracles He performed and to listen to His teachings:

“Then Jesus lifted up His eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward Him, He said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” But this He said to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do…One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?”

10 Then Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. 11 And Jesus took the loaves, and when He had given thanks He distributed them to the disciples, and the disciples[a] to those sitting down; and likewise of the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 So when they were filled, He said to His disciples, “Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost.” 13 Therefore they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves which were left over by those who had eaten. 14 Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” (John 6:5-14)

Jesus fed the 5,000 men with five barley loaves and two small fish. He showed them that God is able to provide for their needs. But He wanted them to learn to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt 6:33). “All these things” being our earthly needs ought to be of secondary importance (Matt 6:25-34) relative to the need to seek God and to please Him in all things. But He did not teach them that physical needs were unimportant or unnecessary.

Let’s consider the broader context of the Scriptures on this subject matter of the necessity to work for our daily needs: –

  1. Paul worked as a “tentmaker”: “After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them. So, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and worked; for by occupation they were tentmakersAnd he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 18:1-5)
  2. Paul gave himself as an example of the need to work to provide for one’s own needs – as well as for those who were with him (i.e. his fellow-workers) and also to support the weak.

“Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. 35 I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:34-35)

It is sad that some work only for themselves and do not share with those who labor with them in the preaching of the gospel, or only grudgingly and sparingly give their “left-overs” or “pocket change” for the support of preachers of the gospel (1 Cor 9:1-18; Gal 6:6-10)

It is also necessary to remember poor brethren and to share with them (Gal 2:10)

  1. Paul explained that working to have an income is not just to meet our own needs but also to help others:

“Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.” (Eph 4:28)

Someone once told me that he refused to accept salary increments because he had more than enough for his own needs! Sadly, he failed to realize that all of our blessings of higher income and multiplying of wealth from our investments are not meant to be exclusively for our own use! We are merely stewards of the manifold grace of God and as such we are obligated to use these blessings to support preachers and to help those in need (1 Pet 4:10-11; 1 Cor 4:1-2). “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:48)

Likewise, the Bible teaches the right attitude we should have towards how we ought to spend our wealth:

“Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. 18 Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.” (1 Tim 6:17-19)

  1. Paul declared that one who refuses to work is “walking disorderly” and ought not to be given food:

“But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he[a] received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you; 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, 9 not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us. 10 For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. 11 For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. 12 Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread. 13 But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary in doing good.” (2 Thess 3:6-13)

  1. Paul warned that those who failed to work to provide for their own needs and those of their own family or household have in fact denied the faith and are in a worse condition than unbelievers:

“But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God… But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Tim 5:4, 8)

Children have an obligation to honor their parents as well as their grandparents by “repaying” them through giving them all that they need including financial support (especially when they are old and/or are unable to take care of themselves).

So, it would not be acceptable for grown up children to expect their parents to continue to provide for them even when they have the ability to work. Likewise, it would not be acceptable for grown up children not to work so that they can give to their parents/grandparents – a means by which they show their “honor” to them (Matt 15:3-6)

Brethren, let’s seek to have a clear understanding of God’s will for us all so that we may please Him and glorify His Name. Let us abound in doing God’s work as it will bring reward throughout eternity: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” (1 Cor 15:58). But at the same time, let’s have an accurate perspective of our obligation to work to provide for our own needs as well as for those who are preaching the gospel and our needy brethren.