Ordinary People, Lifelong Labourers

By Bruce Clarke, first published in Compass, Summer 2020

There are only two examples in the New Testament when Jesus specifically told his disciples what to pray. The best known of these is often called the Lord’s Prayer, which includes God’s holiness, His kingdom, daily needs, forgiveness, and protection. But, surprisingly, the second example is in Matt 9:36-38:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Matt 9:36-38

This prayer request for workers (“labourers”) shows the missional heart of God which is also emphasised by Jesus before his ascension: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matt 28:18-20

But this call for Jesus’ disciples, his labourers, to make disciples was not something that only applied to an elite few, after all Jesus’ disciples were just ordinary people: “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” Acts 4:13

As Paul looks back at his 30 years of lifelong labouring for the gospel of Christ, he is able to say that he has fought the good fight and finished the race (2 Tim 4:7). In this remarkable letter, Paul is confident in Christ and there is no hint of self-pity, even though he had experienced many years of suffering for the sake of the gospel, he was now facing certain execution, heresy was rife and he was abandoned by the believers at this time of great personal need. Indeed, he sees his experiences are what Timothy will also face (1 Tim 3:12). In charging Timothy, Paul reminds him of the grand story of the Scriptures, Timothy’s place in it and that this story extends to future spiritual generations for which Timothy must labour (2 Tim 2:2).

…when we think about those who nurtured our faith, we are reminded of the value of labourers.

A central focus of the Navigators is making and sustaining generational labourers, and this includes people who are in “regular” occupations, who are “ordinary” people. However, the workplace, our families, and the neighbourhood can be unfruitful places. For example, the constraints within workplaces, the apathy of colleagues, the busyness and focus of work contribute to the difficulty. If you value labouring, then this can be discouraging, and we can easily conclude that labouring is unrealistic in this context. Our desire to labour can wane, no longer having significance – and yet when we think about those who nurtured our faith, we are reminded of the value of labourers.

Timothy, too, needed to be spurred on to continue labouring, and there are three aspects to Paul’s encouragement we should highlight.

First, the way we interpret life’s circumstances depends on the story that we see ourselves in. Paul reminded Timothy of the great redemptive story of God that Timothy was a part of (1 Tim 1:3-10, 3:14-17). Peter also states: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” 1 Pet 2:9,10. Firmly seeing ourselves in this story affects how we view everything.

Second, an important aspect of our faith is doing all the good we can (Gal 6:10, Eph 6:5-9, 1 Tim 3:17). For many, our efforts at work, in the neighbourhood, and in our family are our primary contribution to the good of all. As we identify with Christ both verbally and by our actions, we are helping people to know God’s goodness. Fruitfulness is not our responsibility, but we can sow and plant with words and actions as we live our holy calling.

Third, Paul wants Timothy to hold fast to the Scriptures as the sure revelation of Christ and salvation (2 Tim 2:15, 3:14-17). Diligently preserving the good news and avoiding Gospel corruption is foundational for fruitful labouring.

While our circumstances may be difficult, we are encouraged that, during his difficulties, Paul endured: “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.” 2 Tim 2:10

Wherever we are in life, as ordinary people, let us continue to identify with God’s story, do all the good we can, and hold fast to Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. With these foundations, lifelong labourers, reflecting God’s missional heart, can labour to establish spiritual generations. Perhaps this was once a value that needs to be re-established. Start again to pray for people you can invest in – pray at least for one specific person to know Christ and a believer who you can help grow.

Finally, consider connecting to a community who value and practice labouring as this is important to sustain labouring for a lifetime.

May Christ strengthen your labouring with all the energy he provides for the glory of God and the salvation of souls (Col 1:29).

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