Sermon: The Empty Threat of Death, Part VIII, I Corinthians 15:58

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our nearest Kinsman, the Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

Text: 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.

People of God, this is our last sermon on I Corinthians 15. It is never easy to concentrate too long on one subject, but certain subjects like the Resurrection of Jesus and our future resurrection are worth meditating for a longer period of time. The resurrection is the center of our hope. Without the resurrection we are of all people to be most pitied. Without the resurrection Christian funerals are nothing more than a big joke.

But Paul has labored to make the point not only that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, but that we too shall be raised at the last day with an imperishable body.

Some Corinthians struggled greatly to grasp the reality that their physical bodies would not be destroyed or disposed of at the end of history, but actually transformed into an imperishable, never-aging body. They had bought into some of the myths that many people embrace even in our own day. Many evangelicals believe firmly in this myth that our bodies do not matter to God, and that the only reason we have a flesh is because we are earthly people. But when Jesus returns at his Second Coming we will all be transformed into souls that will float away and enjoy the glories of heaven forever and ever.

Paul challenges this idea head on. In fact, he says this idea is absolutely despicable. It does not do justice to the resurrection of Jesus. We have bodies now, and we will have bodies in the New Heavens and Earth. Furthermore, Paul says that this world is created good. This world in which we live is not headed towards destruction, but towards renovation. Contrary to the old hymn, this is world is our home, and we are doing more than just passing through, we are actually making earth to be more like heaven; we are setting up eternal residence.

This is why the final verse of this chapter is so significant. If we were pietists we would expect Paul to say something like this in verse 58: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, look forward eagerly to the hope that is set before you!”[1] Instead Paul redirects “their gaze to the present time, to the tasks awaiting attention, and the call to be steadfast and immovable in them.”[2] Screwtape says it best when with demonic zeal he encourages the young Christian to keep your gaze at the future.[3] Why? Because if our attention is on the future we will cease to care for the present.

Paul is saying that even though there is a discontinuity between our present physical bodies and our future physicality, there is also a continuity between present bodily life and future bodily life, and that gives meaning and direction to present Christian living.”[4] In other words, if you become a Christian simply because you now have a ticket to a better world, you need to re-analyze your rationale. To be a Christian does imply the joy of living forever in the presence of Christ at the end of history, but also—as Paul says—it implies laboring for our Lord now.

Paul concludes with these words:

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.

On the negative side Paul is saying: “Let nothing move you.”[5] Don’t be misled by these false interpretations of the resurrection. Do not abandon your loyalty to the gospel.

On the positive side Paul is saying: “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord.”[6]  In whatever you do, give yourself fully to the work of the kingdom.

In the Lord “your labor—your work for God’s kingdom in the present—is not in vain.”[7] For Paul, all Christian work and proclamation must be grounded in the resurrection. The “resurrection is the foundation for faithful action in the world.[8] Those who affirm the truth of Christ’s resurrection  will be given the moral confidence to live in a way that shows that their hope is not in vain.”[9]

How Now Shall We Then Live?

Let me take the rest of this sermon and elaborate what the effects of this one verse are to our labors.

Anyone of you who has perused through Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship knows that grace is not cheap. It is costly. It took the Son of Man to a horrific cross. Discipleship is needed in every corner of our Christian society, and most significantly in the Church of our Lord. Since the Church is the foundation and cornerstone of civilization, then she must be presenting a gospel that is comprehensive. We need a commitment to whole-life discipleship.[10] Discipleship is rooted in worship, but then it abounds to all of life. This is what the Reformation taught us.

Many of us are familiar with Luther’s perspective on work:

Martin Luther was once approached by a man who enthusiastically announced that he’d recently become a Christian. Wanting desperately to serve the Lord, he asked Luther, “What should I do now?” As if to say, should he become a minister or perhaps a traveling evangelist. A monk, perhaps.

Luther asked him, “What is your work now?”

“I’m a shoemaker.”

Much to the cobbler’s surprise, Luther replied, “Then make a good shoe, and sell it at a fair price.”[11]

Paul says that your labors are to abound. Literally, to “excel.” In what ways are our labors excelling? And that question implies that all work is sacred, whether it is church work or non-church work. Whether you mow yards for a living, catch fish, fix printers, teach, care for the home, change diapers, or make shoes, these are all kingdom endeavors.

To believe in the resurrection means that we view our labor with different eyes. It means that we no longer view our work as drudgery, but as a particular aspect of the redemption of the world. All legitimate work is a calling from God. Work is a mode of human participation in God’s creative and redemptive activities.[12]

In what ways:

First, it manifests the image of God. When you work you are exercising the authority God has given you over all things (Gen. 1:26-28). You are a master over fish, over tools, over technology, over the piano, over architecture, etc. By working you are exercising that authority.

Second, our work is a participation in the redemption of the world, because we are using the talents God gives us. God has given us certain gifts that when they are used appropriately they are shaping and beautifying the world. No matter in what field it may be, exercising these gifts are essential to living out our resurrection calling.

Third, when we work we are obeying God’s direct command. In Exodus 20, Yahweh says “six days you shall labor and do all your work. In II Thessalonians 3, Paul offers an even bolder declaration when he says: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

Finally, work is a central aspect of discipleship and complete formation. What do I mean? Discipleship is not merely a mental exercise, it is a bodily exercise. There was a fascinating article recently that observed that those who stop working increase their likelihood of death.[13] We are made for work. In fact, consider that the idea of retirement is merely a 19th century innovation.[14]  There is nothing inherently wrong with slowing down as one ages, but the idea that we are done with work at a certain age is ultimately unbiblical. There are certainly circumstances—due to health or other matters—where working is no longer possible, but God made us to work. Discipleship includes work. At work we learn discipline, we perfect our art, we learn to live in a community, sometimes with people that are difficult to deal with, and we receive the fruits of our labor. Further, we learn to be thankful. We acknowledge that in this day and age many people do not have jobs.

How can anyone grow in maturity if he is not exercising what he was created to do? This is part of the complete man or woman God intended.

The sixteenth century Reformation blasted “medieval asceticism—especially its claim that church work was morally superior to other kinds of work.”[15] It is hard to believe that evangelicals today have lost this sense of work and calling. How many times have you heard people speak or imply that being a pastor or missionary is a more noble calling than a carpenter or technician? The Bible says not many should be teachers/pastors, why?  because there is a specific calling for each one of us. “All legitimate work done by any Christian is equally service to God and his kingdom.”[16]

Paul says we are to abound in the work of the Lord, whether that be ecclesiastical or non-ecclesiastical. To abound means to prosper in your labors. It has the implications of productivity and satisfaction, and delight.

But what if someone does not like his job? Naturally, if you do not like your job you will fail to abound, to prosper, to serve effectively. It is possible that someone may be at a job for years doing his best, in “survival mode,” as one economist puts it. At that stage, an individual has the choice to change his job, and if that is not an option, everyone has the choice to either change your attitude about your present job, or increase your options.[17] If someone is not able to reconcile himself to his current condition, then in order to avoid bitterness, to avoid being a frustration to your employer and others around you, and to avoid disobeying Paul’s words to abound in your labor, it is best for you to increase your options. This may mean getting a part-time job in addition to your current job as a way of investigating another field of work, or perhaps going back to school and getting a degree in a field of interest, or move somewhere else where a preferred career is available. There are many options, and you ought to seek counsel from pastors and trusted people in and outside the congregation. Remember Paul’s words to abound in the work of the Lord.

Finally, it is hard to speak of work without discussing briefly the frustration of seeing the fruits of our labor being taken away.[18] There is a vast disconnect when the Government demands more from us than God himself. When the State requires more than the 10% required by God from his people we know that there is something fundamentally wrong in this process. But at the same time, with the recent news concerning Health Care, and with the conspicuous over-reach of this Federal Government, it is still our duty to be faithful to our civil leaders. Anarchy did not work in the days of Israel, and it will not work today. Let us be faithful by paying our taxes, while on the other hand fighting to change policy actively and through our direct access to God in prayer. It is said that a country that only prays when it needs to will never know the joys of freedom.

People of God, let us remember that the God who raised Jesus from the dead, who triumphed over death has also promised to be our provider, and to never leave us in want. He is our hope, and in him our labors are not in vain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In The Name of God the Father, and God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 359.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Screwtape Letters.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gordon Fee, 807. Commentary on I Corinthians.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Wright, 360.

[8] Hays, 277.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lester DeKoster, Work, The Meaningof our Life: A Christian Perspective, 63

[12] Ibid.

[14] In 1883, Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck of Germany had a problem. Marxists were threatening to take control of Europe. To help his countrymen resist their blandishments, Bismarck announced that he would pay a pension to any nonworking German over age 65. Bismarck was no dummy. Hardly anyone lived to be 65 at the time, given that penicillin would not be available for another half century. Bismarck not only co-opted the Marxists, but set the arbitrary world standard for the exact year at which old age begins and established the precedent that government should pay people for growing old.

[15] Work: The Meaning of Your Life.

[16] Ibid,

[17] A few of these thoughts from Doug Wilson’s observations on Word, see canonwired.com

[18] I Samuel 8 is a great example of how God desires a small government.

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About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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