54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
Thanks be to God! What a fitting conclusion to this chapter on the resurrection of dead. Only this is not the conclusion as Paul, being the typical preacher that he is, goes on to say more. What more could he possibly have to say about it? Let’s take a look. . . .
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)
This is a deeply significant word that could easily be missed since it is a rather simple word. The significance lies in the fact it is a ‘therefore‘ and not an ‘if‘. It is not “the dead in Christ are raised if you excel in the Lord’s work,” but rather “the dead in Christ will be raised, therefore excel in the Lord’s work.” So often people think that God will love them if they work harder. God has already shown His love:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures . . . Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 20-22)
The cross and the promise of resurrection is evidence of God’s love. We do not excel in the Lord’s work to earn that love, we excel in the Lord’s work because He loves us.
While most English translations translate this as Paul’s expression of his love for the Corinthians, the Greek is a little more vague being something like “brothers of mine, loved ones.” Given the whole discussion of the resurrection of the dead in Christ in this chapter, perhaps we ought to be thinking of God’s love here and not just Paul’s?
Furthermore, the fact that he addresses the “brothers” (meaning brothers and sisters) is significant in that we ought not to think this chapter is saying all people will be raised to eternal life with Christ. This chapter only speaks about the dead in Christ. Those who die without Christ are spoken of elsewhere in the Bible, but not here. This promise of resurrection to eternal life is for sisters and brothers in Christ.
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)
“Be steadfast, immovable”
We might think these two words mean basically the same thing, however as one Bible teacher points out, being ‘steadfast’ means that you do not take the initiative to move, being ‘immovable’ refers to not allowing other people or circumstances to move you. In what are we to remain steadfast and immovable? The very things Paul has been teaching, the truth of the Gospel including the death and resurrection of Christ and the hope of resurrection of the dead in Christ.
“Always excelling in the work of the Lord”
To excel could be translated “work enthusiastically” as one translation puts it. But how do we define the work of the Lord? It is the work God wills. It is anything the Lord calls and enables us to do in answer to the prayer “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I once heard someone say that the work of the Church is much bigger than church work. It is the work of the Church to be available and willing for God’s call in everything; work, play, relationships, parenting, learning, teaching, following, leading, in anything and everything in life the Lord can use us for impact that has eternal significance. Which brings us to our next point about “the work of the Lord.” To define what Paul means by it, we need only see how Paul is working:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)
What was Paul working hard at doing? Helping people know Jesus! Anything that points people to Jesus is work that has eternal significance which is what the last part of the verse wants us to think about.
“Because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain”
We can tend to focus, as we often do, on ourselves here and think something to the effect that “oh good, my excelling in the work of the Lord will lead me to extra rewards for it is all about me.” Or we can remember that Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and that the apostle Paul was helping people know Jesus for their benefit, not his own. Our labour in the Lord is not in vain, because it has lasting impact for others.
Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)
I had a moment of rejoicing recently when I stood on the weigh scales and realized I had lost another pound. Will I be rejoicing over that fact five years from now? Or even five weeks from now? How long will the rejoicing in the presence of angels last when a sinner repents and becomes a child of God? For that sinner who becomes a son or daughter, that joy will be eternal. The dead in Christ will be raised to eternal life with God, therefore let us devote ourselves to helping people know Jesus, a work God calls and enables us to do, a work has lasting value and is never in vain.
A Concluding Thought
Since in verse 58 Paul adds a concluding thought to this chapter about the resurrection, perhaps I can add a concluding thought to this sermon series. Given how we normally use 1st Corinthians 15, and given where we normally hear it quoted, at the bedside of a dying person, or at a funeral for example, we might think Paul’s conclusion ought to be “the dead in Christ shall be raised to eternal life, therefore be comforted in the face of death.” While this is certainly a good conclusion, Paul does not go there. Instead he ends with something that could be summarized more like “in the face of life, be encouraged.” The Biblical teaching on the resurrection can give us comfort in the face of death, but let it also give us encouragement in the face of life, to carry on in the Lord’s work, to keep in step with His Spirit, to live as Kingdom people anticipating the coming Kingdom of God, and to keep reaching out to others with the love of Christ.
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
(All Bible references are taken from the NRSV)