In Isaiah 49:4 we read these words: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and in vain….” Note that these are not the words of Isaiah, who was called by God at a mature age. No, they are Christ’s own words, spoken by One “called…from the womb; from the matrix of my mother…The Lord…formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, so that Israel is gathered to Him” (49:1, 5).
When I came upon this passage, one that I’d read many times before, my heart was in wonder. I could hardly believe what I was reading. Jesus’ words here about “laboring in vain” were a response to the Father who had just declared, “You are My servant … in whom I will be glorified” (49:3). We read Jesus’ surprising response in the next verse: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing” (49:4).
Reading those words made me love Jesus all the more. I realized Hebrews 4:15 is not just a cliché: our Savior truly is touched with the feelings of our infirmities, and was tempted in all ways as we are, yet without sin. He’d known this very same temptation from Satan, hearing the same accusing voice: “Your mission is not accomplished. Your life has been a failure. You’ve got nothing to show for all your labors.”
Christ came into the world to fulfill the will of God by reviving Israel. And he did just as he was commanded. But Israel rejected him: “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).
Why would Jesus, or any man or woman of God, speak such despairing words as these: “I have labored in vain”? How could the Son of God make such a statement? And why have generations of faithful believers been reduced to such despondent words? It is all the result of measuring little results against high expectations.
The truth is, we’re all called to one grand, common purpose, and to one ministry: that is, to be like Jesus. We are called to grow in his likeness, to be changed into his express image.