The Resurrection Chapter: Concluding Thoughts on the New Beginning.

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)

“Therefore”

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.

“My beloved”

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)

Resurrection Facts: There is a Bigger and Better Picture

When we are being honest, we may be more easily identified as Canadians than Christians. The passion of the typcial Christian in Canada just does not seem to be of the same calibre as that of the apostles we meet in the pages of the New Testament. And if the Christians in Corinth in New Testament times were being honest, they would seem to be more easily identified as being Greek than Christian. As we learn in 1st Conrinthins 15 their theology was influenced by Greek thinking, especially with regards to the afterlife. Their lacking theology could and would cause a lack in living for Christ:

Do not be deceived:
“Bad company ruins good morals.”
Come to a sober and right mind, and sin no more; for some people have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame. (1 Corinthians 15:33-34)

In contrast, there is no doubt about Paul’s allegiance, passion, and priority: “And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? I die every day!” (1 Corinthians 15:30-31a) How is it Paul is so recognizably representing Christ than his birthplace,Tarsus, his religion, Jewish, or his citizenship, Roman, while the Christians at Corinth seem more Greek than anything? How is it Paul is passionate and we are often not? One reason is that he, and others like him, have a bigger and better picture of reality. They have a solid knowledge that Jesus is risen from the dead and that there will be a resurrection to life of anyone who is in Christ. That hope drives Paul to choose the dangerous and difficult path rather than an easier one:

32 If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:32)

Paul, the other apostles, and many, many Christians down through the centuries have risked their lives, given their lives, lived their lives for Jesus, and shared the Gospel everywhere they went because they had a bigger and better picture of the reality of God’s love and eternal life. Paul in 1st Corinthians 15 was encouraging the Christians at Corinth to see this bigger picture and if we feel more Canadian than Christian, perhaps we ought to see it also. Here are a few things to think about:

Our vision of the afterlife may not be clear enough, we may need a bigger and better picture of eternal life. Paul’s vision of eternal life put his experiences of life in perspective: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18) The notion of glory here is not to be missed. Paul speaks of this glory in what he says immediately before:

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)

Some people think the afterlife of the Christian consists of being a diembodied immortal soul sitting in clouds playing a harp, which of course sounds kind of boring and lacking in glory. That concept is not Biblical. The Bible points us to relationship. We are children of God, and remarkably co-heirs with Christ. We deserve to be neither. All attempts to describe what God has prepared for His children invariably fall short. We simply do not have the language yet to describe glory. Sadly most attempts to describe eternal life are missing God Himself, as if being home for Christmas is more about enjoying the view from the front porch than in enjoying the presence of loved ones.

Our vision of God with respect to the afterlife may not be clear enough, we may need a bigger and better picture of God Himself. The picture of disembodied souls flying around captures neither the capability nor desire of God. Indeed such a picture does not even require thinking of God’s presence, many people believing in their souls flying away to some sort of afterlife at death with no idea of God being a part of it. And it does not capture the grand span of Biblical theology. We can make it sound like God is on some sort of plan B, disembodied souls in eternity, because He could not pull off plan A spoken of in the first two chapters of Genesis. He is still on plan A and we look forward to bodily existence in the presence of God following our resurrection.

There is a wonderful thought of being reunited with loved ones in the afterlife. I once heard a pastor powerfully give an illustration of the death of a loved one being like a person taking a journey across a river. We are sad as we say our goodbyes, but upon arriving on the other shore, there is joy as loved ones are reunited. A beautiful illustration but with one problem. God was missing! And at funerals, even Christian ones, God is often is left out of the picture. We need a bigger and better picture of God Himself. To be in His presence will be astounding, more astounding, in fact, than being reunited with loved ones.

Our vision of Jesus with respect to the afterlife may not be clear enough, we may need a bigger and better picture of who Jesus is. Some who would call themselves Christian would qualify that by saying that Jesus was a great teacher, but just that, and being a Christian means being inspired by his great example and teaching. Jesus therefore has nothing to do with any kind of afterlife we might experience. The New Testament points to a far more divine picture of who Jesus is and what he accomplished. However, sceptics say this results from an evolving picture in the minds of Christians between the events of Easter and the writing of the New Testament documents. People’s memories would have changed they say. Indeed I recently heard a podcast where this was claimed along with appeals to an experiment where people had poor memories of the speeches of American Presidents. I was surprised at the comparison. There is no comparison! Jesus was unforgettable. His teaching astonished. His miracles astounded. His death and resurrection caused people, sinners and sceptics alike, to pick up their crosses and follow. He was unforgettable. The apostles were not changing their stories about Jesus, they were changing their lives for Jesus. They were willing to die, having a bigger and better picture of eternal life, having a bigger and better picture of Jesus and his role in the hope of eternal life.

Our vision of salvation may not be clear enough, we may need a bigger and better picture of God’s grace. Some think there will be no salvation. Some think that salvation can be earned, as if it is an easy thing for us to span the gulf that exists between a sinful creature and Holy Creator. Some think salvation is a right: “You created me, you owe eternal life to me.” Because of our sin, God does not owe us another minute of life either now or in the future. Salvation is God doing something for us we could never do for ourselves, something we do not deserve. There is far more to say about it, but when we truly understand God’s amazing grace, we sing the hymns of the faith with far more passion than than we can muster for our national anthem. When we grasp the depth of His grace, we will want to be known first as Christians, second as Canadians.

If we are lacking passion, it may be because we do not have a clear enough picture of eternal life, God, Jesus, and salvation. Like the Christians of Corinth we may want to trade in a theology shaped by society for the bigger and better picture we get in the Bible.