The apostle Paul was knocked off his feet by the voice of Jesus, was taken blind into the nearby city to be healed at Jesus’ direction, surrendered his life to Jesus, and then got clear marching orders to tell gentiles (people who were not Jewish, because the Jews already knew) how Jesus loved them and saved them. Without a doubt — Paul knew his life purpose. However, Paul knew something else about meaningful work that applies to all of us, whether we get a supernatural job description or not. Look with me at Philippians 1:20-26.
20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.
Paul says quite matter-of-factly, if I’m alive, I’m to be doing “fruitful labor.” (Phil. 1:22) He doesn’t say, “If I’m alive, I’ll be sleeping in everyday, lounging on the couch, and eating bon bons.” Nor does he say, “I’ll be fishing, golfing, and drinking beer all day.” Instead, Paul assumes that if he’s alive, he’ll be working at “fruitful labor,” at things that matter, at things that make a difference.
Our modern mentality tends to focus on getting out of work, finding reasons to leave early or coming up with excuses not to go in at all. We are prone to tread water through work days and work years, looking forward to the mystical utopia called “retirement,” where we’ll have no commitments and can finally enjoy unlimited free time. The thing is, so often, empty schedules leave us feeling, well… empty. That takes us full circle to Paul’s assumption — we were made for fruitful labor as long as we live.
What is fruitful labor? As if Paul knew we’d be scratching our heads as to what that is, he kindly defines it for us. First, fruitful labor is “other focused.” Peek back up at verse 1:24. “but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” That’s Paul’s way of saying that while he’d love to be in Heaven with Jesus, he feels compelled to stay and keep encouraging his churches. (Staying or going is not actually his choice, by the way. Life belongs in the hands of God and, as Paul writes this, he is under guard at the mercy of a fickle Roman justice system.) Regardless, Paul has his mind set on continuing to be there for the people in his churches. He is determined to guide, teach and encourage them to understand Jesus’ teaching and live like Jesus says. By the way, living like Jesus says is (to borrow a contemporary phrase) your best life because Jesus created you and knows exactly what you need to thrive. Verse 25 tells us that Paul has discerned from Jesus that he will remain in this world a while longer and that he will “continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith.” There it is! Fruitful labor is coming alongside people — wherever God has planted you — and supporting their progress and joy in faith in Jesus Christ. And what follows seems like the crown jewel of Paul’s ministry. He says in verse 26, “so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.
The big, fat, juicy fruit for Paul is seeing people he cares about, people he has poured teaching, training, truth and encouragement into, be overjoyed because they are living in relationship with Jesus. I felt what Paul describes when I led a Bible study for about 300 women and heard different women year after year see for the first time how much Jesus loves them. I could not help but smile when a woman would share how Jesus’ Words in the Bible revealed an exciting realization of His personal care or provision for her. Now I’m working with children and the joy I experience as they get excited about Jesus is no less. The highlight of our recent study for me was hearing that one of our little boys had declared His belief in Jesus to his parents and asked to be baptized. Oh, the thrill of being part of THAT!
Of course, not everyone is called to the labor of teaching or preaching, but every believer in Jesus is created and gifted for some kind of fruitful work that has value reaching into eternity. Perhaps you are a believing caregiver, lawyer, builder or (you fill in the blank). How can you use your gifts and training for fruitful labor? If you diligently seek out that understanding from God, He will show you. And if you are not a believer, you were still created and gifted for meaningful work, but you will have a difficult time finding your way into it without the freeing, empowering, soul-saving relationship with Jesus. THAT is the main point of life and the starting point for fruitful work.
So what steps do you need to take to enter into the fruitful labor God has planned in advance for you? To what questions do you need answers? What obstacle or barrier between you and God do you need to lay down or break down? If you’re reading this, you’re alive. And if you’re alive, you are to be engaged in fruitful labor…helping others experience an overflow of joy in Jesus. Want the joy that comes from living a life that matters? Point others to the Only One who matters — eternally. Jesus.