This article looks at the fact that our labour in the Lord Jesus Christ is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1982. 3 pages.

1 Corinthians 15:58 - Not in Vain

It is the beginning of another year which history will know as 1982. We recognize, of course, that God is not subject, as we are, to the passing of the years. He is not a prisoner of his own creation. But the year — summer and winter, seed-time and harvest, day and night, week, month and year — comes to us from his providential hand. It is in the recognition that our times are in his hands that we mark the opening of another period in our lives.

With what spirit do we stand at the door of 1982? The apostle Paul gives us these words of encouragement:

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.1 Corinthians 15:58

Your labour is not in vain in the Lord. Paul was able to speak like this out of deep personal experience. His correspondence reveals that one of his own spiritual burdens was the prospect that his own life and ministry might be 'in vain' (the word, used also in 1 Corinthians 15:10, 14, as well as Galatians 2:2; Philippians 2:16; 1 Thessalonians 2:1; 3:5, means empty or hollow). The assurance that nothing done in the service of Christ is ever in vain was something which he had learned slowly and in the face of many discouragements. He was therefore well qualified to give such a categorical assurance to the Corinthians.

But these pages will probably be read by some servants of God who are dispirited, who feel the temptations which Paul also felt, to become so discouraged that they lose heart altogether.

It may be that God has placed you in some small and remote cause, numerically and geographically. Little seems to be happening, and you are beginning to wonder whether your labour has been all in vain. Or, you may be engaged in the work of the ministry in some great city, but your situation, your sense of failure, the little fruit you have borne all conspire to bring a cloud over your heart as you contemplate another year of labour. Is it really worth it? Are you really getting anywhere? Why should you labour on when you feel you cannot even see the direction in which you are heading? To crown your problems, you have found much discouragement even among the Lord's people.

Or, perhaps your Christian service is teaching the young. You see some of them who succumb to the enormous pressures of the world into which they have been born. Maybe your discouragement is within your own family circle, in the son or daughter who is your own flesh and blood. To be discouraged about their spiritual condition is tantamount to being discouraged about yourself and your labours in the Lord.

Or, you may be old and alone. Life holds memories rather than prospects. Do you still have a place in the Lord's service? Are you discouraged that now, when your energy is sapped, there is nothing left for you to do for Christ?

Jesus tells us what happens when a man fails to see that his labour in the Lord is never wasted. He hides his talent in the ground until his Master returns. He secretly begins to believe that the Master is a 'hard man', he mistrusts him and withdraws his labour and his energies. He reasons that it is not worth the effort (Matthew 25:14-30). That is a temptation many of us know: 'Is it really worth the labour and toil?'

But Paul gives us this great affirmation: Our labour is never in vain; it is never hollow and empty, in the Lord.

What is his basis for such a dogmatic affirmation? After all, Paul could see the same discouragements and problems as we do. It was no easier for him to persevere than it is for ourselves. It is interesting to notice his characteristic use of the word 'therefore' in this verse. It is on the basis of what he has already expounded in this great resurrection chapter that he is able to speak with such confidence about Christian labour. But what had he said? In brief he had outlined three great principles of the gospel which assure God's people that their labours will never ultimately prove to be ineffectual.

1. The Triumph of Christ🔗

'He must reign' (v 25). This simple fact stands at the heart of all Paul says. It is a fixed principle in the universe that 'Jesus shall reign'. It is so because he is the Son of God, because he has already defeated his and our last enemy, death, and because God has promised in Holy Scripture that thus it shall be. We do not yet see everything subjugated to Christ (Hebrews 2:8). But the invisibility of his power in its exercise is no argument against the certainty of his ultimate conquest. That is guaranteed since he has already overwhelmed the devil and triumphed over him in the cross (Colossians 2:15). Our labours, toils, battles and efforts are but a small part of his overall strategy. We are part of his army, members of one small regiment in the spiritual war. In many ways we are engaged in no more than painful 'mopping-up' operations, the extensive and frustrating work of guerrilla warfare. But if we focus attention on ourselves and our own circumstances, and see the battle only from the perspective of the little advance we seem to be making, we shall undoubtedly draw the wrong conclusions. So, Paul tells us: See this as the fixed principle: Christ must reign.

2. The Certainty of the Resurrection🔗

The great issue in this chapter is the question of the reality and nature of the resurrection. But how does this theological debate influence our personal discouragements? Paul answers that it is the certainty of the resurrection which makes sense of the sufferings, the setbacks, the causes of discouragement in the Christian's life. It alone makes sense of Paul's willingness to 'stand in jeopardy very hour', to 'die daily', to 'fight with wild beasts at Ephesus' (vv 30-32).

But how does the certainty of the resurrection make these discouraging experiences yield sense for the believer? Paul's answer would be two-fold.

  • Firstly, he recognized that the discouragements of this world are but a prelude to the glory of the world to come. His standard of comparison made his present sufferings seem to be but 'light affliction' (2 Corinthians 4:17).
  • Secondly, he saw that through his fellowship with Christ, trials in this world are part of the raw material out of which God creates the glory of the world to come. The teaching of the New Testament is not just that glory follows suffering, but that it is produced out of suffering: 'For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.' (2 Corinthians 4:17) What to the eye of the flesh is destructive of faith, in the purpose of God is creative for glory! The certainty we have of the resurrection then is meant to give us strength to face discouragements now.

3. The Manner of God's Working🔗

It is noteworthy that one of the analogies Paul employs in his exposition of the resurrection is the agricultural one of sowing and reaping. He is, of course, focussing attention on the idea of death and resurrection. But that is a principle which he is able to trace back into the entire experience of the Christian, as indeed he does elsewhere. What is important for us to grasp in that principle is that sowing is a work which by its very nature raises the risk of discouragement and demands patience. The lesson we should learn is this: If God's work in us can be paralleled to sowing and reaping, we ought to see our work for God in similar terms. After all, we are engaged in spiritual labour (1 Corinthians 15:50). Spiritual labour is often in invisible realms where the fruit is not immediately discernible. In the case of our individual labour, its fruit may never be manifest to us. It may only be seen by other people, or by other generations, or in other places.

When we forget God's style of labour and consequently lose sight of the pattern of our own, we inevitably lose heart. But when we see the essential nature of the work, and are persuaded that it is God himself who gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:7), we shall be able to see our discouragements as partly due to our own spiritual short-sightedness. Having seen God's ways more clearly in what Calvin liked to call the 'spectacles' of Scripture's teaching, we shall be able to persevere with joy.

How then are we to make use of these great spiritual encouragements as we face the coming year? Paul has three words of exhortation.

Stand Firmly. 'Be Steadfast'.🔗

He charges the Corinthians to hold fast to the faith once delivered to the saints, to the great verities of the gospel. There will always be influences (as there were in Corinth) to dislodge us from the strong foundations of the gospel and the doctrines of God's grace. We must stand firm, our hearts secured in the anchor of biblical truth.

What a timely word this was for the Corinthians! They were being told that in order to be really 'free' they needed to jettison some of the old truths which Paul had taught them. On the contrary, Paul affirmed, it is only holding firmly to such truths that will secure you for the future. The man or woman who is able to see the long-term principles which God employs will therefore not be willing to be diverted to a different gospel which promises more immediate results.

Remain Unmoveable. 'Be ... Unmoveable'.🔗

Paul does not mean: Be intractable and unteachable. Rather he calls us to perseverance in our labours. Of course there are discouragements; and the world, the flesh and the devil will all be quick to tell you that you must `move on' in some sense or another. But do not be diverted. How often discouragement leads to diversion! We try this or that instead of applying all our resources to the true work of God. But when we grasp the encouragements Paul holds out to us, and return to them for refreshment and strength, we shall make it our settled aim to continue. Is that perhaps the word of the Lord for you?

Labour Abundantly. 'Always Abounding in the Work of the Lord'.🔗

Paul himself laboured more abundantly (1 Corinthians 15:10). He does not exhort us to something outside his own experience. Abundant labour is always the result of solid encouragements. It is those who have grasped the ways of God in his harvest field who will be prepared to go forth weeping bearing precious seed. They shall undoubtedly return again with rejoicing in the harvest time (Psalm 126:6).

Let us therefore set out on this year with our eyes and hearts fixed on the harvest, and with the principles of the Lord of the harvest and the encouragements of his word in mind. Then we shall have this confidence that our labour is not in vain in the Lord.

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