(Note: I wrote this article and posted it on my blog before my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession was published by WestBow Press in February 2018. This critical topic was later included in the book. I invite you to check it out.)
Last time, we discussed the power of the Holy Spirit, and how He worked on the Day of Pentecost. This third member of the Trinity worked directly in and through Peter to deliver a powerful sermon and in the hearts of 3,000 men and women who heard Peter’s message, enabling them to respond in repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. These new believers, joined with the early church in the power of this same Holy Spirit and strengthened by biblical teaching and fellowship, effectively spread the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth, which includes the places where you and I are residing right now.
Let me reflect on God’s partnership with Paul and the church in the proclamation of the gospel, which illustrates well the concept of Immanuel labor, God’s presence in our work.
In Acts 14:21-28, we read that at the end of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch to continue their ministry. Verse 26 says they were committed to God’s grace “for the work they had now completed.” However, in verse 27, we see that they “reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.”
Luke emphasizes that Paul gave credit where it was due, stating that it was God who truly did the work. But not all by Himself. God had worked through Paul and his associates as His co-workers to spread the good news. Paul refers to himself and his team of ministers as “God’s fellow workers” (2 Cor. 6:1). This dual partnership was both vertical (God and Paul) and horizontal (Paul and the church).
On the vertical side, God working in Paul, Paul readily acknowledges that his competence to fulfill his calling as an apostle came not from himself, but his competence was given directly by the Spirit of God (2 Cor. 3:5-6). (See also Paul’s conversion in Acts 9:15, where the Lord told Ananias that Paul was His chosen instrument to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles.) Later in this same letter, we read that in Paul’s weakness, God gave His all-sufficient grace and strength (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul was fully confident that God, who began a good work to recreate Him in Christ, would continue to sanctify him to complete that work until Jesus returned (Phil. 1:6). (See also Phil. 2:13). God must first do a work in us so that we are fully prepared for Him to work through us.
Looking now at the horizontal level, we see a clear picture of Paul’s partnership with the church in his epistles. He was thankful, prayerful, and joyful for his “partnership in the gospel” with the church in Philippi (Phil. 1:5). In Phil. 2:22 and 25, Paul mentions two of his co-workers: Timothy, who served with him “in the work of the gospel”, and Epaphroditus, his “fellow worker”. (See also 1 Thes. 3:2, where Paul refers to Timothy as “God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ.”) At the end of the book, he lists a few other “fellow workers”, such as Euodia, Syntyche, and Clement (Phil. 4:2-3). These were mutually beneficial relationships. Paul needed them and they needed him.
In a similar manner, in 1 Thes. 1:2-3, we read that Paul thanks God for the church in Thessalonica, specifically remembering their faithful work and loving labor, which he described in verse 8: “The Lord’s message rang out from you . . . your faith in God has become known everywhere.” His relationship is so tight with this local Body of Christ that he gets a little emotional, as a father would his own children: “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thes. 3:9-10).
What I want to leave you with is that Paul illustrated well the concept of God’s presence in his work. God worked in and through Paul individually, but did not leave him there. Paul worked with others, who also had that same relationship with God, Who worked in and through them as well. Horizontal divine work combined with vertical human work.
This ties in well with God’s plan of redemption to work in and through His covenant people:
- As articulated in the Creation Mandate to Adam to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it (Gen. 1:26-28)
- As found in the promise of the Abrahamic Covenant to bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3)
- As given by Jesus to His disciples prior to His ascension in the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20)
Just like Peter, Paul, and the early church, God has chosen to work powerfully in us and through us to accomplish His work, the expansion of His Kingdom. We are a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:9). When we work with God individually as His co-workers, with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we make a powerful team!
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.