In John 6 Jesus miraculously fed five thousand hungry mouths with five loaves and two fish. That same crowd hunted Jesus around the countryside and found him the next day. And in that second encounter, Jesus took the opportunity to teach them the distinction between bread that perishes (like they got the day before), and bread that never perishes (namely, Christ himself). He pled urgently with them, so strongly that he commanded them this in John 6:27: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” So the question is, Should we labor and work to buy bread? Should we work at all? Or should we trust God to supply all our bread needs supernaturally? The answer to this question actually sheds much light on how we work and labor each day, as Pastor John explains in a 2009 sermon.
What does the first clause in verse 27 mean? “Do not work for the food that perishes.” Now, this is mainly for you believers, you who have eaten, you who have tasted. And you’re wondering, “What’s the implication of this for my job, my 8–5, my 9–6, my 60-hour-a-week job, my homemaking, my mothering, my student life?” What does he mean by saying, “Don’t labor for the bread that perishes”? That’s what he says. “Don’t labor for the bread that perishes.” And clearly, he means ordinary food, because that’s what verse 26 says is the context: “You are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Don’t labor for that kind of food.
So, what does that mean for us practically, day to day? Let me give you two things it does not mean, and then what it does mean.
It does not mean “Quit your jobs.” Now we know that, and I could spend a lot of time proving this from virtually every book in the New Testament. We know that because the whole New Testament assumes and commends the dignity of work. Ephesians 4:28, just one example: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
Get to work; earn a living. That’s a straight, biblical understanding of what the lion’s share of our life should be devoted to. Do your work. So, it doesn’t mean you should quit your jobs.
Second, it doesn’t mean “Don’t bring home the bread” — like, “Go ahead and work, but don’t do it for the bread that perishes. Don’t bring home the bread; don’t bring home the check; don’t put it in the bank and then buy food. Don’t do that.” That’s not what it means. And we know that for the same reason. And the example that you would think of probably is from 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”
This implies that the ordinary way of eating (there are clearly exceptions) is to work, not mooch. That’s the ordinary way to get your food. And the Bible everywhere assumes that and teaches that.
So, two things: it doesn’t mean “Quit your job,” and it doesn’t mean “Don’t bring home the bread when you put in your hours.” Bring it home, buy the food, eat, stay alive so you can work. That’s biblical, normal life.
Well, what then does Jesus mean when he says, “Don’t labor for the bread that perishes”? Well, the question I asked myself, trying to get at the deeper meaning of this, is, What changes for this person who eats Jesus? You’ve got normal bread that I’ll eat in about two hours (a bowl of cereal, probably), and then there’s spiritual bread. If I don’t eat this, then I’ll die and won’t be able to preach anymore. I think it’s God’s will that I should live and preach, and the same thing for you.
And then we’ve got this other glorious, all-satisfying, eternal bread. What changes here when you eat this? That’s the question I asked myself, because that would help me know what changes once I approach my work as a believer. And two things are really clear here. This bread, it says, is “food that endures to eternal life” (John 6:27). So, the first thing that changes is that a new chapter is added to your work life: eternity. Mark that: a new chapter. It’s the last chapter, which means retirement isn’t — whatever that is. You’ve got a new chapter added to your life called eternity. Because if you eat this bread, your life doesn’t stop; it goes on, with joy, forever. That’s the first thing that changes.
The second thing that changes is that this bread becomes your supreme treasure. This bread, when you eat it and discover who he is and over a lifetime discover more and more of how deeply nutritional this is for souls that were made for God, all other values go down, down, down as he goes up, up, up. That’s a huge change. So, you’ve got a temporal change and a treasure change. A chapter is added to your life, and a treasure is added to your life. And the treasure is more valuable than anything. And the chapter lasts forever and brings infinite happiness.
Conversion goes like this. You wouldn’t have been able to put words on it like this, but that’s why you’re reading your Bibles: Your eyes are opened. You see Jesus Christ for who he is: crucified, Son of God, risen, bread from heaven, righteousness, forgiveness of sin. You see him. He starts to grow. Even a little 6-year-old can see, “That’s what I need.” And then you eat. You eat. You don’t work for him — you eat. Then you take him into your life, and he becomes your portion and your life.
So, what happens then? You stay in your job, most of you. First Corinthians 7:24: “In whatever condition [or job] each was called, there let him remain with God.” Staying where you are is ordinary, normal, steady-state Christianity, and something about everything in that job changes. That’s carefully said. I’m tempted to say everything changes. I will say that eventually. But what I mean when I say it is this: something about everything changes.
Christ dominates your mind as the supreme treasure. And if things look bleak in work or at home, you remember you’re going to live forever. So, you go to work not dominated by the desire for the bread that perishes or for the fear of losing it. You go to work knowing him, trusting him, treasuring him, being satisfied in him with your heart set on making much of him. That’s how you go to work now. He’s dominant in your mind. He’s dominant in your heart. And every aspect of your vocation becomes a way of magnifying him.
Keeping eternal life before you and snacking all day long on the bread of life will not make you a lazy worker; it will not make you a shoddy worker; it will not make you a gloomy worker. You will bring zeal and excellence and joy to your work because you know him, you trust him, you treasure him. You want to make much of him in all that you do.
You know that everything — everything — done in the name of Jesus and for the glory of Jesus, from the washing of the bathroom to the running of the boardroom, will be rewarded forever with ten-thousand-fold, undeserved joy.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Coronavirus and Christ.