Chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians 15 concludes with what has become in my life, one of the most paradigm shifting verses I have encountered in Scripture. Having just concluded an exposition on the concept of resurrection, in verse 58, Paul says, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
Have you ever felt like your daily work is pointless — that it doesn’t matter for anything in the big picture of life — that you do it in vain? Well, apparently some in the Apostle Paul’s day thought the same. But, you may be saying, Paul isn’t speaking about my job or my vocation. He is speaking of ministry work. Isn’t that what laboring in the Lord is?
In our 21st century thinking, I can see how many would understand Paul’s words in that way. In our compartmentalized world of religious and secular sectors, we have been conditioned to see laboring in the Lord as specialized church jobs such as: pastors, priest, monk, nun, etc. That is, those jobs and vocations that we think are specifically dedicated to living as Jesus did, and sharing the gospel message. And, to a degree, that is correct. Those engaged in these jobs and vocations do strive to share the gospel and live as Jesus did. But, that is not all that it means to labor in the Lord. And, laboring in the Lord is far more encompassing than the vocation of a pastor or a nun.
As far back as the account of Adam and Eve, we can see that their was an understanding that humans were created to work (labor); and not just to work, but work in the Lord. Now, in all fairness, before the eruption of sin in the world, the concept of work and working in the Lord were essentially synonymous. For, the work that Adam and Eve were called to was the work of the Lord. But, oddly to our compartmentalized and sin-tainted mindset, their work in the Lord seems oddly similar to our everyday vocations: establishing families, and caring for creation and developing it’s potential. Essentially, Adam and Eve’s original work was a way of living as God instructed them. There was nothing heavenly (other-worldly) or religious minded about it (as we have been conditioned to think of work in the Lord).
As noted earlier, laboring/working in the Lord can include vocational ministry roles, but scripturally, working in the Lord is not distinctly a clerical (clergy) type of work. Rather, scripturally (especially through the lens of Jesus), working in the Lord is a way of working. We encounter of preview of this in the preaching/teaching of John the Baptist,
“[In response to John’s preaching/teaching, the people ask,] What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. (Luke 3:10-15)
This way becomes even further clarified through Jesus’ preaching/teaching, in what we refer to as The Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus emphasizes a way of living: loving enemies; being generous; not retreating from those that mistreat us (turning the other cheek), but doing good to them; and, blessing others and having mercy on them rather than judging them (and there are many other ways which Jesus taught how to live). The impact of Jesus’ life and teaching has a direct impact on one’s daily work. We see this poignantly in the life of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9). After Zacchaeus encounters Jesus, we see him blessing and being generous to, and having mercy toward those he had mistreated through corrupt taxation. Zacchaeus’ encounter with the way of Jesus transforms his daily work.
The way of Jesus — the way adopted by Zacchaeus’ work as a tax collector — is work done in the Lord. The same applies to all of us today with the jobs and vocations that we have. If we follow after Jesus, we are called to do our jobs in the ways that Jesus teaches us (see above). To work according to the ways of Jesus is to work/labor in the Lord.
The problem is that we live in a world that is held in bondage to law of sin and death (see Rom. 8:2 and 1 Cor. 15:56). And out of fear of this bondage, we live as if there is no possibility of sin and death being overcome. We live as if there is no future. We live as those who do not beleif in resurrection. We live as Paul references earlier in 1 Corinthians 15, verse 32, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” What Paul is saying is that, if there is no resurrection, why live generously, lovingly, self-sacrificially, humbly, mercifully, etc. If death is all that awaits us, why live that way. If death is all that awaits us, then live it up now — do everything for ourselves — get whatever we can for ourselves while we can. And we see how we live in a world that is held in bondage to this way of thinking — this bondage to sin and death. We can be as self-consumed as we want, but it doesn’t satisfy our hunger for meaningfulness.
Now, because we all have been complicit in sin, death is a reality for all of us (see Rom. 6:23). But, Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 15 is that human existence, beyond death, is a very real possibility — through Jesus’ resurrection from death. When we encounter the living, resurrected Jesus, our whole mindset about life and work changes. No longer do we live in fear of death. And because we no longer fear death, our existence and work no longer need be focused on being self-serving. Because of the hope of a resurrected life that Jesus offers to us, we are now free to live in the way of Jesus — a way that is for the good of others: loving and serving. We can love and serve others, even self-sacrificially (even if to the point of death, like Jesus), because existence in this reality is not all there is. We can radically love and serve because we have hope of a resurrected reality with Jesus, the one who was first resurrected from death (1 Cor. 15:20-22).
And, not just an existence in a heavenly dis-embodied sense. Rather, Paul gives us a vision that resurrected existence is embodied. Bible scholar and historian, N.T. Wright, in his book Surprised by Hope, notes, “The contrast [that Paul is making throughout 1 Corinthians 15]… is not between what we call physical and what we call nonphysical but between corruptible physicality, on the one hand, and incorruptible physicality, on the other.” Wright goes on to say that Paul gives this comparison to debunk any thinking that people may have that Jesus came to take his followers away to some dis-embodied heavenly realm. Rather, Wright understands Paul to be stating quite the opposite. The resurrection is God’s renewal of embodied human existence — a magnified embodied existence: incorruptible (not subject to death). Or put another way, the resurrection is when, in an eventual future, God will bring the same glory of Christ’s resurrected existence to bear on embodied human existence on earth (heaven meeting earth, see the Lord’s prayer: “...let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and Rev. 21:1-4). Resurrection is an existence in which heaven meets earth. So much so, that Paul has the understanding that what we do now — how we live and work on the earth now — carries over into this future resurrected existence. Further, Wright puts it this way, ““Belief in the bodily resurrection includes the belief that what is done in the present in the body, by the power of the Spirit, will be reaffirmed in the eventual future, in ways at which we can presently only guess.”
This is real-life good new for us today. What we spend our time doing in our lives now, does not have to be done in vain — if submitted to and done in the way of Jesus. And, when Jesus comes to translate us into resurrected bodies, so also our work is somehow translated into that same resurrected existence. How that will concretely look, I do not know. But, it is makes living now that much more bearable and worth the effort. In a sense, what we do now — and how we live now — will be part of the construction of the new heavens and new earth that Jesus will one day bring.
The question is, are we submitted to and living and working in the way of Jesus. It is not the easiest way, but it is the way that is worth it.