1 Corinthians 15:58
May 5, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 17:05 in the audio file.
Or, A Pre-resurrection Bucket List
After winning a race a runner might take a victory lap around the track. The event is complete, the blood and sweat are spent, and what’s left is an easy jog in front of the fans to bask in their cheers and applause.
Paul used the race analogy at the end of 1 Corinthians 9, urging all Christians to run to win the prize. In order to do that they would need to discipline their bodies and exercise self-control in all things in order to receive the imperishable goal. The way he wrote in chapter 9 there’s uncertainty about the final outcome. If we don’t run, or if we run the wrong way, we face disqualification and even worse, defeat.
At the end of 1 Corinthians 15 the imperishable is not just a prize received but a body resurrected. The victory here isn’t won by our self-control but by Christ who is the firstfruits from the dead. We don’t run to win resurrection, we receive the gift of “victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 57). Sin lost. Death is dead. Thank God! What is sown perishable will be raised imperishable, what is sown in dishonor will be raised in glory, what is sown in weakness will be raised in power. When the mortal puts on immortality at the return of Christ we will put the final touches on our taunting of death (verses 54-55).
The climax of the chapter, the peak of resurrection truth and glory, comes in verse 57. It is the celebration of grace in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus for our sins. We shall bear the image of the man of heaven (verse 49), God will be all in all (verse 28), and again, thank God!
The subject switches abruptly from raising the dead to raising funds at the start of chapter 16. But between the celebratory high note in 15:57 and the instructions about collecting money in 16:1 is one verse. Grammatically it is connected to verses 1-57 with a “therefore,” and the idea of “vain” connects with a couple comments earlier in the chapter. But what is the good of this verse? Isn’t it kind of a let down after verse 57? And most curiously, how does Paul tie this exhortation with the previous explanation?
In Paul’s mind this is what you do based on the logic and reality of God-given victory over death’s sting. As if he said, “Do you get all that about the dead being raised? Good. So here’s what’s next. Hold my Bible.“
But isn’t what’s next after being told about victory in Jesus to go to Jesus? If life on earth right now is the seed form, wouldn’t the obvious aim be to get to the plant form as soon as possible? These dumb dust bodies are dying; they are sown in weakness (verse 43). There’s so many things we can’t do, so many limits. Why not just bide our time until we’re raised in power? Why not ride out the difficulties of our dust-life now until Jesus returns and let Him subdue all His enemies and we can inherit the kingdom?
What would make more sense is an exhortation to wait, to be patient, to persevere. And those are required attitudes, good things, but not what Paul says.
At its worst this is the (hyper-Dispensational) bunker mentality. Stash some water and cans of beans in the underground shelter and wait for the rapture, or death, or the second coming. At best this is weak, but still disobedient to the Therefore. In light of the certain victory we have work to do; it’s victory labor. In light of Christ’s resurrection and our guaranteed resurrection in Him we have a bucket list to complete; use the bucket until you kick the bucket.
One more thing before we see the exhortation itself. Paul addresses them as my beloved brothers. There were “some” (verse 12) of them who had issues with the resurrection, and “someone” (verse 35) had questions about the kind of resurrection body, but Paul was writing to the entire church. They were spiritual family, brothers, set to share an eternal inheritance together. They were beloved by him. And so the rest of verse 58 is not to the resurrection trouble-makers. “If you guys are going to doubt, then you have certain things to do.” He’s making an affectionate appeal to all the body based on the argument in the whole chapter.
There are three parts. First the charge/station/posture. Second the habitude/proclivity. Third the incentive/grounds. It’s the who we are to be, the what we are to do, and the remembrance of why.
The command is to be the right sort of adjective with substance, which has a kind of grammatical awkwardness; embody a concept. Be steadfast. Be resolute, firm, unwavering. The second adjective is synonymous; it mostly overlaps in meaning with steadfast: immovable. Be the post where the boat is moored, not going anywhere.
These do not mean that you don’t need to repent or to change your mind when you’re wrong or that you should be ubiquitously stubborn. These do mean that you MUST NOT give ground when it comes to the truth of Christ’s resurrection, or when it comes to our resurrection in Christ when He returns, or when it comes to His victory over sin and death and all His enemies until God is all in all. Do not back down when others are doubting, let alone denying, these glories.
The context argues that these adjectives require more than just our commitment to the gospel in principle, but also to our commitment to living in light of the gospel in practice. Verse 58 isn’t just for theology professors and institutions tending toward liberalism. As Paul pointed out in verses 29-34, there are some life choices that don’t make sense apart from the resurrection hope, and in verse 58 he affirms it. Do not melt into a puddle. Do not be blown about like a dry leaf on an Ohio parking lot during a tornado. He ends the chapter similar to how he began, “hold fast,” beloved brothers. This is your station, your assignment. Stand firm (cf. Ephesians 6:13-14).
Attitude refers to your posture, habitude refers to your proclivity. Habitude is your habitual tendency or way of behaving. Your attitude is your usual way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, your habitude is your customary actions.
It is not a second or separate command. The verb is in the participle form, meaning that it modifies the main clause, here the command to be steadfast, immovable. One of the ways you obey that is by always abounding in the work of the Lord.
The verb is abounding. As I said, it modifies what believers are supposed to be, and here is part of what we do when we are being steadfast. In one sense we aren’t moving at all, and in another sense we are always moving. We don’t give ground, we do cover a lot of ground.
The word refers to being in abundance, of having more than enough. If it applied to money you would be filthy in the dinero. It’s not an abounding in money that Paul calls for, it’s an excessive excelling still more and more effort in the work of the Lord. And always abounding is habitually overflowing.
It is important to define this work right, what Paul meant, what God means.
There is no doubt that Paul included the work of ministry, as in, his apostolic travels and preaching and healing and planting churches and debating philosophers in Jesus’ name. In the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians he criticized their petty divisions according to their favorite preacher, but Paul didn’t say that preaching and church planting wasn’t important work. “Each one’s work will become manifest,” “if the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward” (1 Corinthians 3:13-14).
When Paul wrote to the Ephesians he said that God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12), which certainly fits with Paul’s emphasis to the Corinthians in chapters 12-14. The work of the Lord flies in a church body orbit.
But the work of the Lord should not be limited to preaching the gospel or teaching the Bible. It should not be limited to any one spiritual gift, and certainly not just the word-focused gifts. We should not narrowly limit what this work is to just churchy work because Paul doesn’t limit it here to the more obvious ministry activities.
If Paul was thinking about preaching (and prophecy and such) then you had better wake up to how much of your “other” work is in vain. It is pointless. And there are Bible teachers who unbiblically will tell you that all that other work is just going to burn. But if Paul did not limit work to preaching and such, then you had better wake up to how much work you have to do.
What are you doing, or how are you doing what you’re doing, that only makes sense because Jesus is Lord, raised from the dead?
This isn’t a call for no sleep, and no rest, no breaks. And it’s usually the case that those who are already always abounding are the ones who are sensitive to the exhortation, while the ones who are barely doing anything ever work of/for the Lord are the least easily edified by the exhortation. When you feel overwhelmed by this, keep in mind why you feel overwhelmed…because you are failing or because you’re already full.
As The Message translates, “throw yourselves into the work of the Master.” How can you tell when you are overflowing too much? It’s not only for those with certain gifts, or for those who know their gift. It’s not for those with a perfect past. It’s for all those who will be resurrected. You should have a pre-resurrection bucket list, and it should be a big bucket.
This incentive for always excessively working it in Jesus’ name is connected to the “therefore,” to the entire resurrection, but Paul focuses on one particular piece of truth that should get us going. Be steadfast, working, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
Labor is a different Greek word than work in the previous phrase, possibly chosen for the alliteration with the Greek word for vain (κόπος – labor and κενὸς – vain), and possibly with the additional nuance of “activity that is burdensome,” with a wearying, struggling, straining, hard work. In English the word “toil” means “work extremely hard or incessantly”; that works.
Your [extremely hard] labor in the Lord does not come up empty. It it not vain. Turned around, this means your labor will be full-fruited, well-rewarded, “wonderfully productive” (Lenski).
How do you know this? You have come to know (perfect tense participle) because this is the way God made the world to work. The seed never sees its fruit, because by the time the fruit comes the seed has transformed, by death, into a plant. The analogy doesn’t completely overlap since God is gracious to allow us to see some fruit of His grace at work through us. We are to pay attention to how we’re working, but we still will not know the fulness, rather than the emptiness, of what our work accomplished until the resurrection. Even then we’re not promised that we’ll get to see it all, though I suspect we’ll see more so that we can give more glory to God.
Being steadfast, abounding in work, knowing that the reaping follows sowing, are all important because it is not always possible to see what’s happening. It is one of the reasons I like mowing so much; every swath shows progress. But our labor for the Lord will have just as certain return, He will see to it.
A few things before nailing the coffin door shut on the series through chapter 15.
All of the effort in verse 58 is built on all of God’s sovereignty and power and victory-giving in the first 57 verses. The exhortation to a habitude of work comes after the praise. We work from a position of celebration. This is gospel grounds for good works. Believe the God raised Jesus from the dead, believe that God gives us victory in Jesus, and then adorn that doctrine (cf. Titus 2:10).
This chapter has also not been about what happens to those who do not believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. Believers are raised with Him, and their work is not in vain. But those who reject the gospel and deny Christ will die in body, and according to other Scriptures, they will also be raised to eternal judgment in hell. They will be given bodies of the kind that consciously experience God’s wrath. There is hope of a better resurrection, and that hope is in the gospel of Christ.
For us who have been baptized into Christ’s death and raised to walk in newness of life, who await His return and the defeat of all His enemies, we must be indefatigable. Don’t be a puddle, don’t be a sluggard—always barely working just enough to maybe feel a little less guilty before the Lord, and don’t be a doubter of what fruit follows from buried seeds.
Don’t be floppy (or fussy), be full of faith. Don’t be wishy-washy, be washed with God’s Word. Don’t burn out like a meteor, but do burn bright like a star. This isn’t rah-rah, self-help rhetoric, it is a Spirit-revealed, resurrection requirement.
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:57-58, ESV)