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Our Work is Not in Vain

A Study of 1 Corinthians 15

Construction Worker

by Dennis Pollock

Certain verses in the Bible seem to stand out as being foundational, critical, and just plain special. The final verse of 1st Corinthians 15 is such a verse. Practically from my Christian infancy I have admired and been impressed with Paul’s declaration to believers to stand firm in the faith, as he writes:

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58).

When Paul writes, “Therefore be steadfast…” he is basing this charge on all the previous things he has been saying. In other words, because of all that has been said in all the previous verses in 1 Corinthians 15, we must be steadfast and immoveable in our Christian faith.

The fifteenth chapter of 1st Corinthians, with its fifty-eight verses, is the longest chapter to be found in Paul’s epistles. Of course he didn’t write these theological letters in chapter and verse, but the fact that the translators found it necessary to make this chapter so long indicates that this is one of the longest passages of continuous thought among Paul’s writings. This section of Scripture centers around the idea of the resurrection of the dead. Paul is targeting an error which has been circulating among certain groups, which declared that Christians will not be raised from the dead.

“The Gospel I Preached”

It would seem that the teachers of this false doctrine believed, like the Sadducees, that God blesses His people in this life, and that is all that we can or should expect. There will be nothing further. When we take our final breath, it is truly the end – the end of all our plans, all our dreams, all our relationships… the end of us. This doctrine was a radical departure from the gospel which Paul had embraced and which he preached wherever he went. And so, to refute this terrible error, Paul starts by saying: “Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you–unless you believed in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:1, 2).

Paul wants his readers to know that his gospel is the true gospel. It is the gospel which initially brought these Corinthian believers into the family of God, and the means by which they are saved. He gives a chilling warning – to depart from this gospel would be to demonstrate that they had believed in vain. Paul clearly was upset about this heretical teaching and wanted his readers to know that this was serious business.

He then outlines the essence of the gospel – that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose from the dead the third day. Then he strikes at the heart of this false doctrine: “Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15:12). Paul goes on to make two major points: if there is no resurrection from the dead, 1) Christ has not been raised, and 2) their faith was futile – the Christians, with all the persecutions and hardships that those early believers were forced to endure, were the most miserable among all men. In other words: “If this absurd doctrine you are spouting were really true, you and all the rest of us are wasting our time with all we are doing in the name of Jesus. Rather than try so diligently to live uprightly, rather than facing persecution and ridicule for our faith in Jesus, we would be far smarter to just take it easy. ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ ”

Jesus, the Firstfruits

But of course Paul does not believe this for a second. The master logician is simply revealing the natural and logical outworking of such a foolish and unbiblical doctrine. After powerfully making his case that apart from the resurrection, Christianity is both senseless and useless, he then goes on to state emphatically:

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20).

Paul declares that not only has Jesus Christ been raised from the dead (physically and literally), but He is the firstfruits, the premiere showing of that great day when all believers will likewise be resurrected. Jesus is the prototype of the resurrected believer.

Jesus raisedNothing seems more final than death. There is nothing more heart wrenching, no sight more certain to bring tears to the eyes, than to see a parent or other loved one lying dead in their casket. Their eyes are sightless, their limbs are still, their mouths are quiet. They do not laugh, they do not cry, they do not feel. Despite the finest work of the mortician they look strangely unnatural. And they give every indication that they will be this way tomorrow, when their casket is placed in the earth, and next year, and a thousand years from now, and millions of years hence. They are gone forever. The days when they worked and laughed and loved and worried and planned and cried are now only a historical footnote. The world will never see them again.

This is what we think and feel, and the evidence certainly seems to confirm it. Where is Paul, or Martin Luther, or George Washington, or Abraham Lincoln? Why can we not interview them and ask them questions about their incredible lives? Death has silenced them, we suppose forever. But the inspired apostle says, “Not so!” The permanence of death is but an illusion. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and He promises that all who trust in Him will likewise be raised, never to die again.

The Veil is Destroyed

This is not exactly a new piece of information. Many centuries before Paul came along, Job declared, “And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God…” (Job 19:26). The prophet Isaiah wrote: “And He will destroy on this mountain the surface of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces (Isaiah 25:7, 8).

Having established the truth of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and that of our own eventual resurrection, Paul then goes into a few details about just how and when the believers will be raised. He writes:

We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52).

One question might be asked from this statement, and that is, who is the we? Who are the people who will be raised and changed? The answer is that the we Paul speaks of are the Christians – those who have put their faith in Jesus and been born again. We must keep in mind that when we read this epistle we are reading a letter from a Christian to Christians. It is those who are in Christ who will be raised by Christ on the Day of Christ – that incredible Day when the trumpet will sound and those who have died trusting in Jesus will be raised and given bodies which are no longer susceptible to aging, decay, sickness, or death. How quick will this happen – will it be a gradual process? No, Paul declares that it will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye.

This is not to suggest that when Christians die they go into some kind of “soul sleep” until their bodies are raised. Paul clearly states that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Upon death the spirit of the believer goes to be with Jesus in heaven, but at the resurrection, the body is perfectly renewed and once again clothes the spirit, which is already in heaven. Thus we shall live throughout eternity in a perfected and glorified spirit, soul, and body. Or as Job put it, “In my flesh I shall see God.”

It is after all of this teaching on the resurrection that we have that famous declaration by Paul:

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Paul is telling the Corinthian Christians, and every Christian today: “Be steady in your walk with God. Don’t let anything move you. You are not wasting your time as you pour your life out in service to Jesus Christ.” All that you do, every prayer that you pray, every financial gift that you make toward the work of Christ, every person to whom you share Jesus, every gift you make to help the poor, every time you give an encouraging word to the disheartened and point them to Jesus, you are being observed, your efforts are being recorded, and you will be rewarded on that special Day when we shall all stand before Jesus and have our lives reviewed.

A Painful Loss (and Waste)

shed

Many years ago I bought a house in Burleson, Texas. We moved in during the hottest time of the year, and if you know Texas you know that season can get mighty hot! Our house sat on about an acre of land and I determined to put a metal shed in the backyard, to house our riding lawn mower and some of my tools. I bought a kit from a hardware store, which came in an enormous box. When I opened it, instant depression overwhelmed me, as I saw the hundreds of pieces that needed to be put together, and what seemed to be thousands of nuts, bolts, and screws, which all needed to be put in their proper place. Not being exactly the mechanical type, it was a daunting task, but I determined to persevere and see the job through.

Thankfully, the kit came with excellent step-by-step instructions, and I began the long, arduous process of assembling a metal shed out of all these parts. The heat was so intense that once morning had passed, I could only work about an hour before I was forced to come into the house and cool off with a cold drink. But hour by hour and step by step I made progress, and in about four days I had fully assembled the shed. It was gorgeous! I was so proud of my work that I came outside frequently just to look at my beautiful creation.

About a week later I went out shopping with my family. The weather was rainy, and strong winds had been predicted. When we returned home something looked strange in the backyard. Actually it was not what I saw, but what I didn’t see. My riding lawnmower was right where it was supposed to be along with several other items I had stored in the shed, but the shed was nowhere to be found! It was bizarre to say the least! My shed had literally disappeared! In truth, it hadn’t really disappeared. It simply had been transported by the fierce winds that had descended upon our area and upon my little shed, which sadly, I had not yet anchored to the ground. I found the shed across the street up against a neighbor’s fence, crumpled like a used soda can, utterly useless and worthless.

All my labor, all my sweat, all my careful reading of the instructions had been for nothing. Without a foundation and the necessary anchors, my little shed was destroyed instantly and my hours and days of labor, along with the money I had spent for the kit, was entirely wasted. As I thought it over, I realized that this was a near-perfect illustration of the lives of those who spend their years working and worrying, and planning and dreaming without the foundation of Jesus Christ. Earlier in this same book of 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote: “For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).

But for those who do base their lives on the foundation of Jesus, we can be assured that our work and our lives are not a waste. And this is why Paul writes that we should always be abounding in the work of the Lord, “knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” Be immovable in Christ!


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