1 Corinthians 15 is perhaps one of the most theologically rich chapters in the New Testament. Here Paul defends the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of believers. After holding out the wonderful hope that while we now bear the image of the first Adam, one day we will be conformed to the image of the last Adam—the Lord Jesus Christ—Paul gives a charge to his readers:
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)
The response to Christ’s victory and the hope of a future, glorified resurrection body is to stand firm and to abound in the work of the Lord. But what does Paul mean by “abound in the work of the Lord”? In this article I want us to simply do two things—work out what this phrase actually means, and then think through its implications.
Some have taken this phrase, coming as it does at the conclusion of Paul’s great defence of the bodily resurrection of believers, to refer to whatever we do in this creation motivated by the resurrection. This is not an uncommon interpretation—Christopher Wright,1 Paul Stevens,2 Tim Keller,3 and NT Wright have all argued for what we might call the ‘maximal’ interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:58: that the ‘work of the Lord’ is essentially anything that Christians do because of the resurrection. For example, Wright argues:
Every act of love, gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow non-human creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation which God will one day make.4
Wright and others essentially move from the fact that the resurrection affirms creation to the idea that ‘the work of the Lord’ is anything done in response to this fact.
The obvious strength of this maximal interpretation is that it recognizes the importance of the doctrines of creation and resurrection for Christian living. The fact that the Bible affirms creation must have an impact on how we live in the world.
But the problem comes when this ethical reflection doesn’t land in the specific commands and exhortation of Scripture. This is the opposite problem to proof texting—taking verses out of context—in that the context seems to determine everything without regard for the specific commands of Scripture. Thinking about the impact of the resurrection on the Christian life must go hand in hand with looking at the application that the New Testament itself makes. It is not enough to read a phrase such as ‘the work of the Lord’ in light of the doctrines of creation and resurrection: we have to carefully look at it in its own context.
I think that when we examine this phrase ‘the work of the Lord’ in its context, we get a much more specific picture appearing. Rather than general Christian living, ‘the work of the Lord’ refers to what believers do to advance the gospel among unbelievers and to establish believers in the gospel.
The doctrines of creation and resurrection in general are not what are shaping Paul’s ethic. Rather, the priority of God’s work in Christ is what produces a glorified, resurrected people who will bear the image of his Son (1 Cor 15:49). The command to abound in the work of the Lord doesn’t simply flow out of the relationship between the resurrection and creation—it is actually shaped by Christ.
In other words, ‘the work of the Lord’ is an activity with a particular goal: more people bearing the image of the Son.
Paul essentially makes this point negatively earlier in the chapter:
Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:30-32)
If men and women are not raised, what is the point of Paul’s suffering for proclaiming the gospel to them? Verse 58, then, is the positive side of this. Precisely because they will be raised, it is worth it for Paul and every Christian to be devoted to the ‘work of the Lord’.
To properly establish the point that the work of the Lord consists of edification and evangelism—because it’s an important point to make—I want us to briefly consider the context of 1 Corinthians, as well as some other letters of Paul, before we turn to some suggestions for how this work of the Lord might play out for us.5
The context of ‘the work of the Lord’
The second half of verse 15 draws a parallel between ‘work’ and ‘labour’ (“knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain”). The exertion required by the Corinthians in this ‘labour’ suggests that the ‘work of the Lord’ is strenuous work, and fits with the idea that the activity is specific Christian ministry rather than general Christian activity. Throughout Paul’s letters the goal of his labour is to proclaim the gospel and establish the churches. To parallel labour with ‘the work of the Lord’ suggests that Paul understands the latter phrase as the same sort of ‘gospel’ labour that he himself has been involved in, such as the work he reminds them of earlier:
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 [or ‘I laboured more abundantly than all 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. (1 Corinthians 15:10-11)
The similarities between verses 10 and 58—labour/abounding/God’s empowering—suggests that we understand the labour and work in which Paul wants the Corinthians to abound to parallel his own apostolic labour: it is labour with the goal of the gospel progressing, and Christians being built up in the gospel. That is, it consists of evangelism and edification.
Paul’s references to this idea elsewhere in 1 Corinthians strengthen this specific focus. In 1 Corinthians 3:9-15, Paul describes himself and others such as Apollos as ‘fellow workers’ who belong to God. Each one will have their work become manifest on the last day when the nature of each one’s work (v. 13) will be tested ‘by fire’, leading to the worker’s suffering, loss, or reward (vv. 14-15). Though Paul does not use the phrase ‘work of the Lord’, the description of Paul and Apollos as ‘God’s workers’ connects the two passages. The work that Paul and Apollos do as God’s workers is work directed to the Christian community, whom Paul describes as ‘God’s field’ and ‘God’s building’ (v. 9). Paul and Apollos do the work with the Corinthians as the object of the work: it is the work of building up the people of God (v. 10). Verses 11–15 further specify the nature of the work. Again, it is the work of building the people of God, a work that is carried out on the foundation of Jesus Christ (v. 11). God’s work that Paul and Apollos are engaged in is the work of building the church.
Then in 16:10, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to put Timothy at ease when he comes since ‘he is doing the work of the Lord’ just as Paul himself is. Again, this suggests that there is specific content to ‘the work of the Lord’—it is something that Paul can point to himself and Timothy doing, specifically, building the church (cf. 4:17). Rather than a general term, ‘the work of the Lord’ that Timothy is doing has a specific, identifiable goal. In applying it here to himself and to Timothy, Paul assumes that the term is concerned with ministry to other Christians.
A few verses later in 16:15–16, Paul commends the household of Stephanas and tells the Corinthians that they are to be ‘subject to such as these’ and to ‘every fellow worker and labourer’. As he continues he describes the household of Stephanas as ‘the first converts in Achaia’ and as having ‘set themselves in service to the saints’. It seems, then, that the nature of their work and labour is the service to the saints. In the immediate context of 1 Corinthians 15:58, therefore, Paul identifies his fellow ‘workers’ and those doing the ‘work of the Lord’ as those who are active in ministering to and serving the needs of others in the church. In 15:58 he is calling the Corinthians to participate in this ministry, to give themselves also to the work given by the Lord of serving and building his church.
Throughout 1 Corinthians, then, ‘the work of God ‘and ‘the work of the Lord’ is the particular work extending the gospel and establishing churches. Because of the resurrection, Paul gives himself to this work at great personal cost (15:30–31) and calls the Corinthians to be involved in this gospel work (15:58)—work directed at ensuring the gospel progresses, and ensuring the church is built up.
What then can we say about those other activities done in light of the resurrection—caring for physical needs, caring for creation, and so on? They are good things, and we should do them—they are clear examples of loving our neighbours—but they are not what 1 Corinthians 15:58 is about. Paul’s conclusion here is to talk of activity that has specific Christ-centred, gospel-advancing and gospel-establishing content. We must not dilute what God’s word says to us here: because of the resurrection we are to devote ourselves to the work of the Lord, and that means work that is focused on more people hearing the gospel and Christians being built up in the gospel.
The secular work/Christian work divide
It is very important to note that 1 Corinthians 15:58 is directed to the Corinthian church—not just to the elders and leaders. This abounding in the work of the Lord is for every Christian. It is a truth we all believe but that we need to be reminded of constantly—gospel ministry is for all believers.
I wonder if, in our right enthusiasm to encourage people into Bible colleges and seminaries to be trained and equipped in the most rigorous way possible, we have unintentionally sent the signal that those who remain in secular work are somehow less significant as Christians. And that—again, unintentional—signal has created an unhelpful Christian-versus-secular work divide.
So some Christians who have remained in secular work have (understandably) reacted against this idea that they are second-class Christians—and have attempted to argue that their work in and of itself has redemptive significance. Now, to track out the Bible’s view on work would be a set of articles in itself6—but I wonder if part of the answer is that we all need to once again feel the force of the New Testament’s teaching that gospel ministry is for all Christians—the Corinthians were all to give themselves to the work of the Lord. And so gospel ministry should not be put into competition with secular work. Someone in a secular job can honour God in how they do their job—they are not just wasting their time at work. The fact that their work can be done in a way that honours God indicates that it is not meaningless. But that person is also called by God through Paul to be always abounding in the work of the Lord—to give themselves as they are able to the work of the Lord. And that is work with specific Christian content—
it is not the same as the actual activity
of their secular job.
Now, I suspect we all know this—I am probably preaching to the choir here. But I want to just push us a bit and ask to what extent we actually put this into practice in our churches. Do our structures reflect the fact that ministry done by any believer—whether they are college trained or not—is equally significant?
Let me offer two diagnostics—a quick look at a familiar passage, and a brief case study.
Ephesians 4: The necessity that all Christians do gospel ministry
Paul’s explanation of the unity and diversity of the church in Ephesians 4 shows us that the Word-focused roles are for the equipping of God’s people:
And [Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-12)
Paul is saying that pastors equip God’s people—church members, if you like—so that they can do the work of ministry. So, ministry here is actually done not by clergy but by church members.
But that is not just a nice way of including everybody—so that everyone is involved and doesn’t feel left out—it is vital. The health of the church is at stake:
Until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ… (Ephesians 4:13)
Great faithful teaching ‘from the front’ is not enough. Unity, knowledge and maturity depend on every Christian doing the work of the ministry.
And in this context this is ‘ministry’ with teeth. It is not simply setting up chairs or serving morning tea (good things that these are)—the only ministry that Paul identifies in this context is “speaking the truth in love” (v. 15). Paul has already referred to the truth in 1:13—“the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation”—so the picture here is a church where everyone is speaking the truth of the gospel to one another, formally and informally. However they do it, their conversation is filled with the gospel. This is the work of ministry.
But again we need to feel the force and necessity of this. The aim here is not to affirm the pastor by speaking about his sermon after church. No, this simply must happen:
… so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:14)
Children are helpless. Without people to care for them they perish. But think of children on their own in the middle of the ocean, being buffeted by the wind and waves. And now think of them on their own, in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by crafty, cunning men who seek to destroy them. Totally hopeless. And yet that is the church without this gospel ministry done by each member.
The idea that all Christians should engage in gospel ministry is not a nice optional extra. It is not a hat-tip to the social egalitarianism of our age—it is vital. It is vital for the health of the church. This conviction is basic Protestant evangelicalism—this is our bread and butter, our DNA if you like.
And as we do it we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (v. 15).
The ultimate focus and motivating factor in both Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15 is not the goodness of creation but the glory of Christ. Earlier generations of evangelicals may have unhelpfully denied the goodness of creation, but the solution is not to over-correct that error. The New Testament affirms creation, but it doesn’t exalt creation. And often modern reflection on eschatology and the idea of the continuity of creation and new creation ends up exalting creation.
The New Testament affirms creation but it exalts Christ. So our activity is not primarily to be done in view of the fact that there will be a new creation, but that one day Christ will be seen for who he is.
A brief case study: St Helen Bishopsgate
I want to very briefly speak about one church that I have been part of that I think has put this idea of the priority of gospel ministry for every believer into practice very well. It’s not necessarily a template for how ministry must happen everywhere, but it is a wonderfully clear example of a church taking every member’s gospel ministry seriously.
One of the great strengths of the ministry at St Helen’s is their Bible study program Read Mark Learn (RML). More than anything else at St Helen’s, I think these RML Bible studies put God’s word at the centre of the ministry. 1000 people a week meeting centrally to study God’s word together over a three-year program—Mark or John, Romans and an overview of the Bible. The leaders of these Bible studies meet once a week in their own Bible study group, preparing the following week’s passage. There are three weekends away a year for Bible study members where they study doctrine, and an additional two weekends away for Bible study leaders. So if you are an RML Bible study leader—and you may be a teacher, a banker, an electrician, whatever—in term time you are leading or co-leading a Bible study every week, you are in your own training Bible study every week and you go on five weekends away a year.
So, you have people who are not in full-time ministry as such but nevertheless engaging in meaningful, significant and important gospel ministry. This creates a culture where people talk about God’s word—RML leaders talk about the passages they are leading, members talk about the passages they are studying. This is a significant ministry of a significant church in London and it is—if you like—lay ministry. And people take it seriously. One friend I knew would come from work in the city, lead his study, spend time with his group, and then head back to the office. Or my flat-mate who would come home from working in an office and would spend two evenings a week preparing his Bible study—he was in the word, wrestling with the text and praying for his group. He was doing gospel ministry—he was abounding in the work of the Lord.
Now, it is very much a big church in a big city—I know some of their structures could not work in many other churches. Nevertheless, St Helen’s is a church that has worked very hard at putting the idea of the priority for gospel ministry for every Christian into practice. It really is every member ministry with teeth.
What would it look like in your church? What would ministry look like if everyone took their responsibility to speak the truth in love seriously, and sought to abound in the work of the Lord?
We started in 1 Corinthians 15:58 and we have finished with Ephesians 4. Two passages that I think underline the importance of every Christian making gospel ministry a priority. And in both passages we have strong motivations. This is not a nice extra to our church lives so that everyone can feel involved—it is vital. The health of the church depends on everyone speaking the truth of the gospel to one another. Furthermore, we’re assured that as we put our shoulders to the plough together for the gospel our labour in the Lord is not in vain: one day we will be vindicated, transformed, and made like Jesus, with him forever.
Our work is to be done in light of the fact that one day Christ will be seen for who he is.
So, let’s press on—let’s not give ourselves to the things of this world, for we know that this world in its present form is passing away—let us, whoever we are, give ourselves wholeheartedly and abundantly to the work of the Lord.
- CJ Wright, The Mission of God’s People, Zondervan. Grand Rapids, 2010, p. 229. ↩
- RP Stevens, The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work and Ministry in Biblical Perspective, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1999, pp. 237–38. ↩
- T Keller, Every Good Endeavor, Dutton, New York, 2012, p. 29. ↩
- NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, Harper Collins, New York, 2008, p. 208. ↩
- This portion of this article is drawn from a much more detailed paper published in Themelios. If you’re interested in chasing down the details more thoroughly the paper is online at http://legacy.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/abounding_in_the_work_of_the_lord_1_cor_1558_everything_we_do (accessed 2 July 2014). ↩
- If you missed it in 2013 you might like to read Paul Grimmond’s series on work beginning in Briefing #406, or as a Brief Book and Minizine available from Matthias Media. See page 18 for details. ↩