Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Identifying the "Work of the Lord" in I Cor. 15:58

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. (1 Corinthians 15:58 ESV)
This sentence concludes the famous "resurrection chapter." It shows that Paul's teaching on the resurrection is to have immediate impact on the way the readers live their lives. The value of the teaching is not merely that we can "not grieve as those who have no hope." The resurrection, both ours and Christs, is to have a motivating and causal role in every Christian's immediate, this-side-of-eternity-work in and for the Kingdom of God.  

The phrase "work of the Lord" is broad and vague--almost too broad to be helpful at first glance. Can we define it more specifically in order to determine whether or not we are doing the "work of the Lord?" Several points can be made from the passage that helps us to examine our lives for our spiritual benefit.

What is the work of the Lord?

  1. It must be something motivated by the hope of the resurrection and the truth of the Gospel--"Therefore"
  2. It requires constant active resistance to forces that would seek to undermine this motivation or prevent the work's occurrence--"be steadfast, immovable"
  3. It should occur constantly in the life of the Christian--"always"
  4. It can be characterized by its overflowing, abundant, increasing quantity and quality--"abounding"
  5. It is identifiably unique compared to other types of work, commissioned and empowered by the Lord--"work of the Lord," "in the Lord"
  6. It has eternal value and impact.--"not in vain"  
  7. Would seem to be ludicrous in the eyes of the those who do not embrace the truth of the Gospel.--"in vain"
Considering each of these allows us to ask several identifying questions about what "work" is or is not present in our lives. 

Are we engaged in Christian work has been commissioned by Christ and is therefore unique from all other types of work in our lives?  We cannot, for instance, just take something that the world already does apart from Christ, slap a Christian label on it, and then call it the work of the Lord.  Does what we count to be our "work of the Lord" face the real possibility of not occurring apart from our active resistance to the forces that oppose its occurrence?  Or is it easy to do?  Too easy to do and to fit in to our lives?  Does it require the unique motivation of the Gospel, particularly of the hope of the resurrection and eternal life? Is it ubiquitous and overflowing in our lives? Or is it merely scheduled between 3 and 4 pm on Thursdays?   Does it have, not merely temporal, but eternal impact?  Would the world look at it and mock the performance of it? Does it make no sense in the eyes of the world? 

These questions are enough to establish whether we are engaged in anything, regardless of what Paul specifically had in mind, that could be called the "work of the Lord" according to Paul's criteria.  Whatever it is, it is not some small part of our lives.  It is not just one among many other things.  It is unique and ubiquitous.  

However, without erasing the conviction that may occur from engaging in the broad exercise described above, I would like to suggest that Paul does have in mind a rather specific referent for the "work of the Lord."  It is provided in the earlier context of the chapter:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not 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. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. . . . And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.(1 Corinthians 15:10-11, 14 ESV)
I believe that this context is sufficient to establish that the "work of the Lord" at the least contains the task of evangelism through the verbal proclamation of the Gospel.

This is consistent with the use of the phrase in the next chapter:
When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. (1 Corinthians 16:10 ESV)
While the broad and vague use of the term "work of the Lord" may allow for broader application and self-examination, I believe he expects his readers to be communicators of the Gospel in imitation of his own communication of the Gospel.  After all, he began the chapter reminding him of the Gospel he had proclaimed to them, and reminds them through the course of the chapter that they did not believe in vain:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:1-2 ESV) 

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