The Great Exhortation
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord. (15:58)
If we really believe and if we are truly thankful that our resurrection is sure, that we will be transformed from the perishable, dishonorable, weak, natural, mortal, and earthy to the imperishable, glorious, powerful, spiritual, immortal, and heavenly—we should therefore prove our assurance and our thankfulness by being steadfast, immovable [negative] and always abounding [positive] in the work of the Lord.
Hedraios (steadfast) literally refers to being seated, and therefore to being settled and firmly situated. Ametakinētos (immovable) carries the same basic idea but with more intensity. It denotes being totally immobile and motionless. Obviously Paul is talking about our being moved away from God’s will, not to our being moved within it. Within His will we are to be always abounding in the work of the Lord. But we should not move a hairbreadth away from His will, continually being careful not to be “tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14).
Gordon Clark gives a helpful paraphrase of this verse: “Therefore we should mortify emotion, be steadfast, unchangeable, not erratic and scatterbrained, easily discouraged, and should multiply our good works in the knowledge that the Lord will make them profitable.”
If our confident hope in the resurrection wavers, we are sure to abandon ourselves to the ways and standards of the world. If there are no eternal ramifications or consequences of what we do in this life, the motivation for selfless service and holy living is gone.
On the other hand, when our hope in the resurrection is clear and certain we will have great motivation to be abounding in the work of the Lord. Perisseuō (abounding) carries the idea of exceeding the requirements, of overflowing or overdoing. In Ephesians 1:7–8 the word is used of God’s lavishing on us “the riches of His grace.” Because God has so abundantly overdone Himself for us who deserve nothing from Him, we should determine to overdo ourselves (if that were possible) in service to Him, to whom we owe everything.
What a word Paul gives to the countless Christians who work and pray and give and suffer as little as they can! How can we be satisfied with the trivial, insignificant, short-lived things of the world? How can we “take it easy” when so many around us are dead spiritually and so many fellow believers are in need of edification, encouragement, and help of every sort? When can a Christian say, “I’ve served my time, I’ve done my part; let others do the work now”?
Reasonable rest is important and necessary. But if we err, Paul is saying, it should be on the side of doing more work for the Lord, not less. Leisure and relaxation are two great modern idols, to which many Christians seem quite willing to bow down. In proper proportion recreation and diversions can help restore our energy and increase our effectiveness. But they also can easily become ends in themselves, demanding more and more of our attention, concern, time, and energy. More than one believer has relaxed and hobbied himself completely out of the work of the Lord.
Some of God’s most faithful and fruitful saints have lived to old age and been active and productive in His service to the end. Many others, however, have seen their lives shortened for the very reason that they were abounding, overflowing and untiring, in service to Christ. Henry Martyn, the British missionary to India and Persia, determined “to burn out for God,” which he did before he was thirty-five. David Brainerd, one of the earliest missionaries to American Indians, died before he was thirty. We know very little of Epaphroditus, except that he was a “brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier” of Paul’s who “came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life” (Phil. 2:25, 30). He became so lost in godly service that he literally became sick unto death because of it.
Until the Lord returns there are souls to reach and ministries of every sort to be accomplished. Every Christian should work uncompromisingly as the Lord has gifted and leads. Our money, time, energy, talents, gifts, bodies, minds, and spirits should be invested in nothing that does not in some way contribute to the work of the Lord. Our praise and thanksgiving must be given hands and feet. James tells us, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).
Our work for the Lord, if it is truly for Him and done in His power, cannot fail to accomplish what He wants accomplished. Every good work believers do in this life has eternal benefits that the Lord Himself guarantees. “Behold, I am coming quickly,” Jesus says, “and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12). We have God’s own promise that our toil [labor to the point of exhaustion] is not in vain in the Lord.
58 Paul concludes this triumphant chapter with a moral message—one that all of us ought to apply to our lives daily. Earlier he had shown how lack of belief in the doctrine of the resurrection led to the Epicurean lifestyle of finding pleasure in eating and drinking and in immoral behavior (see comments at vv. 33–34). The converse is that belief in the resurrection leads to a “purpose-driven life” of service for the Lord. We know that our service for him will not be in vain because we are on the winning side in the battle of life. Though we all struggle at times, the battle against sin and Satan is worthwhile because in the end, they will be defeated.
Paul’s use of “in vain” (kenos, GK 3031) picks up his use of that adjective in v. 14, where he indicated that if Christ has not been raised, then Paul’s preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain. But because of the resurrection of Christ and the assurance of our future final victory over death, life even with all its difficulties is never in vain.
It is no wonder, then, that Paul encourages believers to “stand firm” and “let nothing move [them].” He began this section on the resurrection by reminding the Corinthians that they had stood firm in the apostolic doctrine preached to them about the death and resurrection of Christ; now he closes with an exhortation to remain firm in that knowledge and to let it shape their everyday lives. May it do so for us as well!
58 In light of the sure hope of resurrection, and now especially in light of Christ’s triumph over sin and the law as well, Paul concludes, as is his wont, on a strong word of exhortation. The opening “so then” (NIV, “therefore”) is the last of the long series of these inferential conjunctions in this letter.408 For its use with this vocative see two earlier moments (11:33 and 14:39). The vocative in this case is accompanied by the term of endearment, “my dear [= beloved] brothers and sisters.”410 Despite Paul’s misgivings over their theology and behavior, and despite their generally anti-Paul stance on so many issues, from his own point of view they are ever his “dear brothers and sisters,” and that because, even though in one sense they are his dear children in the Lord (4:15), in the much greater sense predicated on the theology of the preceding doxology he and they are brothers and sisters, because they have the same divine parent.
The surprising feature of this exhortation is that, unlike before (vv. 33–34), it is not directed toward ethical behavior as such, but toward the work of the gospel. Probably, therefore, it is to be understood as a word to the congregation as a whole vis-à-vis those who are leading them astray by denying the “resurrection of the dead” (v. 12). On the contrary, Paul urges, not only must they not go that route because of what Christ has effected (vv. 20–28, 45–49, 54–57), but they must in general remain loyal to the gospel as he preached it among them. He makes this point in two ways.
First, on the negative side, “Let nothing move you.” This translation combines two Greek words, “steadfast” and “immovable,”412 which together urge that they not “move from the hope held out in the gospel … that you heard” (Col. 1:23). This urgency is almost certainly in direct response to the denial of the resurrection by some. It urges by way of exhortation what was affirmed at the beginning of the present issue (vv. 1–2), that the gospel of Christ is that on which they have in fact taken their stand.
Second, on the positive side, “Always give yourselves fully414 to the work of the Lord.” It is not absolutely certain what kind of activity Paul had in mind by the phrase “the work of the Lord.” Minimally, it may refer more broadly to whatever one does as a believer, both toward outsiders and fellow believers. But along with the next word, “labor,” Paul frequently uses “work” to refer to the actual ministry of the gospel. Probably in their case it covers the range but leans more toward the former. That is, there are those kinds of activities in which believers engage that are specifically Christian, or specifically in the interest of the gospel. This seems to be what Paul has in mind here.
Finally, with a marvelous stroke of genius, whether intentional or not, Paul concludes on the same note with which he began this whole “reminder” (vv. 1–2). There he was concerned, because of the denial of the resurrection by some, whether his own “labor”—namely their own existence in Christ—was in vain. Now, after the strong evidence for the resurrection presented throughout, he concludes with such faith as the ground for their continued labor: “because you know that your (own) labor in the Lord is not in vain.” Thus with this language the entire chapter is tied together. The implication in all this, of course, is that if they continue their present route, they have good grounds for lacking any confidence that what they do as believers has any meaning (vv. 14–19). But Christ has been raised from the dead, and they too shall be raised to share his likeness; therefore they may not only abound in his service, but know assuredly that what they do is not in vain.
It is of some interest that Paul’s own moment of hesitation at the very beginning (vv. 1–2) is answered for him by his own arguments, so that this concluding paragraph exudes with confidence and triumph. There is little doubt as to why it is read regularly at Christian funerals. Read without comment, it has its own power. Here the Word has its own regenerative power because it expresses the truth of Christ himself. But here, too, it is a word for all seasons. Our present existence in Christ, and our present labors, are not in vain. Standing beneath them is the sure word of Christ’s own triumph over death, which guarantees that we shall likewise conquer. Victory in the present begins when one can, with Paul, sing the taunt of death even now, in light of Christ’s resurrection, knowing that death’s doom is “already/not yet.” Because “death could not hold its prey, Jesus our Savior,” neither will it be able to hold its further prey when the final eschatological trumpet is blown that summons the Christian dead unto the resurrection and immortality. What a hope is this. No wonder Paul concluded on a note of exhortation that we may confidently continue on our way in the Lord.
15:58 / At last, verse 58 follows, issuing a final admonition (therefore) that Paul appears to base on the traditional materials he presents throughout this chapter. The command is not a mere work ethic. Rather, Paul once again calls for action and issues an assurance of the Lord’s preserving of vital Christian efforts (cf. 3:10–15). Thus, Paul argues for the reality of resurrection, basing his argument on God’s work in Christ and calling for the Corinthians to embrace his teaching as the basis for their future hope and current living. Paul’s use of eschatological materials is remarkably similar in 1 Thessalonians. There, in two dramatic segments of apocalyptic teaching, Paul informs the readers about the truth of God’s future and directs them to action. Here he says, Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord; and he explains that the Corinthians are able to do so, because they know that their labor in the Lord is not in vain. They have such knowledge from what Paul has told them about God’s resurrection of the dead. Similarly, in 1 Thessalonians 4:18, Paul admonishes, “Therefore encourage each other with these words”; and in 1 Thessalonians 5:11, he advises, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” Paul consistently moves from eschatological teaching to ethics, from instruction about God’s future and its meaning for believers to directions for the shape and substance of life in the Christian community.
15:58 Therefore … Let nothing move you. The inferential conjunction “therefore” (hōste) draws Paul’s discussion to a conclusion that places Christ’s resurrection as the central theological motivation for Christian life and worship. Since believers will be raised, their present struggles as faithful clients in the Christ community are not in vain (15:10, 14 and 3:8; 4:12; cf. Heb. 6:10). They have cause for standing firm in their faith (cf. Col. 1:23; 1 Pet. 5:9), being unwavering (ametakinētos; NIV: “let nothing move you”) in their commitment, and consistently overflowing in their work for Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 6:4–10; 1 Thess. 1:3).
Ver. 58.—Therefore. Seeing that you ought not to despair, but to share in this confidence of triumph. Steadfast. Firmly fixed in your own conviction (Col. 1:23; 2 John 9). Unmoveable. By others (Eph. 4:14). Abounding in the work of the Lord. Doing diligently and ungrudgingly the work of your lives, which is his work. That your labour is not in vain. The thought of the verse is the same as that of Gal. 6:9, “And let us not be weary in well doing; for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”
Some general facts are very observable in this glorious chapter. 1. One is that St. Paul does not meet doubt by angry denunciation, or by crushing it with the iron mace of impatient authority. What would now be thought of Christians who denied the resurrection? Doubtless they were not mere speculative deniers of the resurrection, like Hymenæus and Philetus (2 Tim. 2:17), but recent Gentile converts, who could not get over their pagan difficulties. Yet St. Paul meets them by personal appeals, by helpful analogies, by lofty reasoning, by the glowing force of inspiring convictions. Instead of taking refuge—more ecclesiastico—in Anathema and excommunication, he meets error by the counter-presentation of ennobling truth. 2. Another noteworthy fact is that St. Paul’s hope of the resurrection rests, like all his theology, on the thought that the life of the Christian is a life “in Christ.” 3. A third is his superiority to false analogies—like those of the butterfly and the phœnix—which sufficed many ancient reasoners. Even Christian writers like St. Clement of Rome continued to appeal to the phœnix as a proof of the resurrection. The greatest ancient thinkers—like Tacitus—believed in the existence of that fabulous bird, and even in the genuineness of a specimen of it which had been exhibited at Rome. Was there no “grace of superintendency” at work which prevented the sacred writers from adopting the universal error of their day? Had St. Paul appealed to the phœnix, centuries of Christian writers would have continued to maintain the existence of that creature; and science, laughing the belief to scorn, would (most unjustly) have made any allusion to it a proof of mental weakness, and of the falsity of the doctrine which it was supposed to prove. 4. A fourth point to be observed is the wisdom with which St. Paul holds himself aloof from speculative fancies. He does not, like Plato, appeal to the doctrine of “reminiscence” (anamnesis), or of unfulfilled ideas. He does not, like Kant, build any argument on man’s failure to obey “the categorical imperative” of duty. He points to the sinless Man—to the fulfilled idea of Christ. His argument, which all could understand, is summed up in the words, “Ye are Christ’s, and Christ is risen.” Your resurrection from the death of sin to the life of righteousness is a pledge of your participation in Christ’s resurrection from the grave.
58. Wherefore, my brethren. Having satisfied himself that he had sufficiently proved the doctrine of the resurrection, he now closes his discussion with an exhortation; and this has much more force, than if he had made use of a simple conclusion with an affirmation. Since your labour, says he, is not in vain in the Lord, be steadfast, and abound in good works. Now he says that their labour is not in vain, for this reason, that there is a reward laid up for them with God. This is that exclusive hope which, in the first instance, encourages believers, and afterwards sustains them, so that they do not stop short in the race. Hence he exhorts them to remain steadfast, because they rest on a firm foundation, as they know that a better life is prepared for them in heaven.
He adds—abounding in the work of the Lord; for the hope of a resurrection makes us not be weary in well-doing, as he teaches in Col. 1:10. For amidst so many occasions of offence as constantly present themselves to us, who is there that would not despond, or turn aside from the way, were it not that, by thinking of a better life he is by this means kept in the fear of God? Now, on the other hand, he intimates, that if the hope of a resurrection is taken away, then, the foundation (as it were) being rooted up, the whole structure of piety falls to the ground. Unquestionably, if the hope of reward is taken away and extinguished, alacrity in running will not merely grow cold, but will be altogether destroyed.
58. Arising out of all this comes an exhortation to Christian stability. Hedraioi (firm) was used in 7:37 of having ‘settled the matter’; there is the thought of stable purpose, something that will not easily be disturbed, for the person’s whole bent is behind it (cf. Col. 1:23). Let nothing move you underlines this thought. The Corinthians were prone to fickleness, shifting without reason from one position to another. Let them get a firm grip on the truth of the resurrection, on God’s final plan for all people and all things, and they will not be so readily shaken. The imperative ginesthe, ‘be’ (niv stand), might be translated ‘become’. Paul sets before his readers a state from which they were as yet all too far, and urges them to continue in it. They should be ‘always abounding in the work of the Lord’ (av, rsv). The Christian life is an abundant life. There is nothing cramped or narrow in the genuine Christian experience. Edwards speaks of faith in the resurrection as producing ‘a consciousness of boundless and endless power for work’, and adds, ‘In the case of a believer, youth’s large dreams never contract into commonplace achievement.’ Because you know is probably not the right way to translate the participle ‘knowing’; it introduces the accompaniment of the foregoing, not the reason for it (the reason is surely the resurrection truth that Paul has been expounding). Because of the resurrection with all that it means of God’s final triumph, and of the survival of the believer through death, Christian labour (kopos, labour to the point of weariness) is not in vain (kenos, ‘empty’; Moffatt, ‘never thrown away’). Deissmann sees in these words ‘a trembling echo of the discouragement resulting from a piece of work being rejected for alleged bad finish and therefore not paid for’ (LAE, p. 314). The Christian faces no such discouragement. His labour is in the Lord. And what is done in the Lord is never done in vain.
Final exhortation (15:58)
58. A conclusion is drawn (Therefore) from the entire chapter. Since sins are forgiven through Christ, since death has been conquered and since believers have an indestructible hope of a future resurrection, they are encouraged to stand firm in the gospel and to not move away from the hope they have (Col. 1:23). They are to give themselves gladly and fully to the Lord’s work since nothing done on earth is futile or useless (cf. 2 Chr. 15:7; Isa. 65:23). For Paul, the hope of the resurrection does not lead to earthly lassitude or disconnection from life in this world, but should propel believers to perseverance and labour in what is good.
Those who doubt a future resurrection body should consider the power of God. The God who makes plants from seeds and has created a world with such a dazzling array of variety in bodies, from humans to animals, fish and birds, certainly has the ability to raise the dead. Since he has created both earthly and heavenly bodies (the sun, moon and stars), there is no reason to doubt a future resurrection body. Perhaps some doubted the resurrection because of the corruption and weakness of human bodies in the present age, but there is also discontinuity between present and future bodies. The body that is raised will be imperishable, full of splendour and power, and animated by the Holy Spirit. The resurrection body is physical but incorruptible and imperishable. Corruptible flesh and blood cannot enter the kingdom. When Jesus returns, the believing dead will be raised with imperishable and immortal bodies, and the believing living will be instantaneously transformed and given imperishable and immortal bodies as well. Final victory over sin and death will be realized. Such hope should motivate believers to endurance, perseverance and labour in the present age, for they know that their work makes a difference and has eternal consequences.
Because this is the glorious hope in front of the Christian, Paul urges the Corinthians (with a particularly warm form of address, my beloved brethren) to be steady and unshakeable in pressing on with the Lord. There can be little doubt that ‘the hope of glory’ is the strongest incentive for abounding in the work of the Lord, especially when the going is tough or simply unexciting. One of the inevitable and common results of a false triumphalism—as distinct from authentic victory in Christ in all circumstances—is later disillusionment, and even disappearance from Christian fellowship.
In the instant mood of modern society there are many switched-off Christians who, having been led to believe that complete victory in Christ was to be expected now rather than later, have an inbuilt cynicism towards any authentic experience of the risen Christ. We need a sober realism (as Jesus himself provides in the parable of the sower), imbued with a fervent hope in resurrection. Such a combination will tackle the Lord’s work with unswerving dedication, recognizing that it involves real labour, or toil (kopos): the word talks of ‘the fatigue involved in hard work’. Modern Christians need that kind of ‘stick-ability’ and Paul states the incentive with typical understatement: in the Lord your labour is not in vain.
This final clause is, in fact, a summary of the whole chapter and contains two specific phrases which recall key arguments concerning resurrection: in vain and in the Lord. If resurrection is ruled out of court altogether, Christian preaching and even faith in Christ are in vain, i.e. empty (15:14). But if resurrection is real and certain, the whole of a Christian’s life and work are full of purpose and hope. The other phrase, in the Lord, recapitulates the major theme of this chapter: those who are in Christ will be resurrected in the same way and with the same body as Christ himself was raised from the dead. Indeed, the Greek text ends with the phrase in the Lord, thus adding even further emphasis to the significance of being in Christ.
- So then, my dear brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.
The exhortation has little to do with the immediately preceding verses on the victory the believers share with Jesus Christ. It is an entreaty that arises from the entire chapter if not the whole epistle. The last instructions and final greetings aside, Paul has come to the end of his epistle and now admonishes his readers to do the work of the Lord.
- “So then, my dear brothers.” The first two words introduce a concluding statement. Paul frequently uses this expression in his epistles. For the last time in this letter he addresses the recipients in a personal manner by calling them “dear brothers [and sisters].” At two other places, Paul addresses the readers as “my dear children” (4:14) and “my dear friends” (10:14). Each time he speaks to the Corinthians as a father to his children. He remains the spiritual father of the Corinthians, who through the preaching of the gospel are his offspring (4:15). Paul is their pastor who loves them despite the numerous difficulties in the church.
- “Be steadfast, immovable.” Paul commends the believers for their steadfastness and exhorts them to continue their dedication to the Lord (compare Col. 1:23). Amid the onslaught of diverse teaching in a pagan culture, he urges them to remain firm in the Lord and not to waver. Paul tells the Corinthians to be immovable. This last word is a compound that signifies an inability to move from their spiritual moorings. Paul is not talking about retaining the status quo in the church. He wants the people to grow in their love for the Lord and to communicate this in their deeds.
- “Always abounding in the work of the Lord.” After telling his readers not to be moved in any way, Paul encourages them to excel in the Lord’s work. To express constancy and emphasis he adds the word always which, in the original, he places last in the clause for emphasis. What is the work of the Lord? The work entails preaching and teaching Christ’s gospel, applying the contents of Scripture to our lives, edifying one another, and loving our neighbor as ourselves (compare 16:10). It consists of an earnest desire to keep God’s commandments and to do so out of gratitude for our salvation provided through his Son. As his love extends to us without measure, so our selfless deeds are done for him without measure.
- “Knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” The faithful Corinthians have a sure knowledge that the deeds done out of love and thankfulness to God will not be forgotten (see Heb. 6:10). The word labor is often used by Paul in a missionary setting and means working with his own hands for his own support (4:12) “and for activity in the Christian community as a whole.” Such labor given freely in service to the Lord is never in vain because the Lord himself blesses his servants (Matt. 19:29).
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