The Gospel and Authentic Hope

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 15:58

Therefore, my beloved brethren, 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, rsv

In our series of messages entitled “Life in the Light of the Gospel,” this verse, 1 Corinthians 15:58, forms a kind of climax to everything. “Therefore, my beloved brethren,” Paul writes, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Notice that the sentence begins with a “therefore.” In other words, it’s looking back to what has just been affirmed. What precedes is Paul’s ringing chapter on the resurrection. His triumphant confession ends with these words: “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Think with me about that for a moment: the glorious victory that God has given to us through Jesus Christ. The note of victory calls to mind a contest, a struggle, even a warfare. The apostle has been reminding us of the enemies that threaten God’s people. Listen to his words, “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law.”

First, there is the law. The law of God is intended for blessing. It is the revelation of His holy will. It directs us in a good way. But because we are sinful people, because by our transgressions we have broken it, the law becomes for us a menace. It threatens to condemn us. It exposes our wrongs and holds us responsible.

Sin is our worst enemy, a dreadful foe with whom we have to contend. Sin is more than an omission or a mistake. When we break God’s law, when we rebel against Him, sin becomes a power in our lives. The more we yield to it, the more it masters us. Sin threatens to make us its slaves.

The final enemy is death. Death means separation from God, banishment from Him who is our source of life. The law, once broken, condemns us to death. Sin, once it has gained the mastery in our lives, pays death as its wage. Death as the final enemy threatens to destroy us utterly.

But, says the apostle, “thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” We have in ourselves no power to overcome in this struggle. We can’t cancel out the effects of a broken law ourselves. We can’t break free by our own resources from the grip of evil. And we surely are no match for the grim reaper called death. God must give us the victory. It comes purely from His love. He bestows it freely as His gift. And He does it through Christ.

Christ Himself has won the victory, and it becomes ours through faith in Him. Though we are all law breakers, Jesus has fulfilled for us perfectly the law of God. Though all of us are sinners, He has taken upon Himself the full weight of our guilt, dying for all our sins. And though we deserve only death, He has died in our place and has been raised to endless life. Now He has conquered sin, death and hell and given to His people a wonderful victory. Christ crucified and risen gives to those who believe in Him authentic, wonderful hope.

That’s why we can be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. God’s great work in Christ in giving Him for us and raising Him from the dead is the rock on which we build. The word translated here steadfast means “stable in purpose, not easily disturbed or turned aside.” To be steadfast is to be established on a firm foundation. Without genuine hope for the future, people build their lives on the sand. They scurry here and there seeking security. They search frantically for present satisfaction. They drift from one dried-up gully to another, craving refreshment.

The believers in Corinth had been exposed to teaching that undermined their faith in Jesus’ resurrection. Hence they were tossed on asea of doubt and confusion. Many of their ethical problems and moral lapses were related to that. Cut loose from their moorings in the hope of the gospel, they were helplessly adrift. That’s why Paul proclaims to them again the certainty of Christ’s resurrection and our resurrection in Him. With a firm grip on this essential truth, they will find stability. They won’t be turned aside by every wind of doctrine. They will be firmly anchored by their faith in Jesus Christ.

But the gospel is meant to produce in us more than certainty, more than assurance, more even than comfort in a great hope. Christians who know the gospel, who are rooted and grounded in Christ, are to be “abounding always in the work of the Lord.”

What is this “work of the Lord”? Jesus said once that “this is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He hath sent.” That’s where it starts: trusting in Christ. But then it means doing what He calls us to do, obeying His commands, serving others in love, and bearing witness to His salvation. When Paul uses the term, it almost always means the work of the gospel. Here’s how the apostle describes that work in his letter to the Colossians: “Him [that is, Christ] we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom that we may present every man mature in Christ.” “For this I toil,” he goes on, “striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires in me.” That’s it: so sharing the gospel, so backing it up with our prayers and toils and caring that people are not only brought to faith in Christ but also led to maturity in Him.

Now according to Paul, it is faith in the crucified and risen Jesus that provides the dynamism for that work. It’s because we believe, because we have the victory through Jesus Christ that we can not only labor but labor abundantly, untiringly. Hopefulness is the key, the condition for all action. As Samuel Johnson once put it, “Where there is no hope, there can be no endeavor. Those who are gripped with the truth of the Resurrection, whose hearts flame with an authentic hope, have what someone has called a “boundless and endless power for work.” They strive according to God’s working, which works in them, as Paul says, “mightily.” With them it’s not a matter merely of talent and human energy. They are quickened by the Spirit of God, alive with His life, full of His power. For them youth’s dreams and visions do not die with the passing of the years. Their energy is again and again renewed and they keep abounding in service to their risen Lord. They go from strength to strength. They still bring forth fruit in old age.

You see, these people know something wonderful. They have been given to see a great and luminous truth. This tremendous conviction keeps them going in the work of the Lord. Listen to Paul’s last word: “knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”

He’s been saying a good deal in this chapter about how vain everything would be if Christ had not been raised from the dead. Listen: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is vain.” You can see why that would be true. The heart of Christian preaching is Jesus Christ, crucified for our sins and risen from the dead. That’s the central theme of every authentic Christian preacher. From the very beginning of the faith of the gospel, preachers have been saying of God that He raised Jesus from the dead. If Christ has not been raised, then that enormous mass of testimony is nothing more than a lie. We all would be found false witnesses, saying that God did something He never did. If Christ were not raised, we who preach Him would be proclaiming not a living Savior but a dead pretender. Our preaching would be in vain.

And then our faith would be vain too. The important thing about faith is the One in whom we believe. What matters is not our subjective feelings but the object of our faith. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, we Christians have nothing to believe in. Our faith, without a risen Savior, is an empty, pathetic wish. It’s a hand reaching out into the void, closing again and again upon nothing.

Further, if Christ has not been raised, Paul says the sufferings he has endured and the work he has done are all vain. Listen: “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.” Paul is enduring afflictions and laboring tirelessly because he has a great hope. Without that hope his work has no profit. He might just as well follow the world’s pattern, pursuing his own pleasure. Paul doesn’t say that all who deny the Resurrection must come to this conclusion. He simply says it would be reasonable to do so. Maybe some people in Corinth did. Maybe some of us do. Maybe our endless pursuit of personal pleasure and our apathy toward the work of God root in the fact that our lives have never been gripped by an authentic hope. We’ve never realized in the depths of our being that Christ is alive and that it is our future to be raised in Him to endless life. When we do know that, it makes an enormous difference.

What would it mean for your work or for mine to be in vain? Paul seems to picture a piece of work being rejected, perhaps for its alleged bad finish. Our project is handed back to us. It’s not accepted, not paid for.

Some of us know what it is to send away to a publisher a book over which we’ve labored long and hard. We’ve invested so much of ourselves in that manuscript. It represents more than our time and effort; it’s almost like our heart’s blood. It’s at the mercy of the publisher now. Maybe no one will even take the trouble to read it there. Maybe it will be glanced at and then tossed aside and forgotten. Maybe we’ll get a brief note in the mail that says “thanks, but no thanks.” Maybe they’ll mail that precious manuscript back to us unwanted, rejected.

Paul wants us all to know it will never be that way in the work of the Lord. For one thing, the work of the Lord has more in it than our toil and talent. It has God’s living breath in it, the energy of the Almighty. Whatever is done by faith in Christ, in reliance upon the power of His Spirit, has eternity about it. It cannot ultimately fail. It cannot die. It will last when everything in the world has crumbled into dust.

But more than that, when we labor in the Lord, we never toil for a thoughtless, uncaring Master. He does not forget our work of faith and our labor of love. He will not only breathe life into it and make it effectual, He will also acknowledge it as His, accept it from our hands with approval and reward it at the last.

Sometimes we sing in mission conferences the last stanza of “O Zion Haste.” Some of you will remember that it goes like this:

Give of thy sons to bear the message glorious
Give of thy wealth to speed them on their way
Pour out thy soul for them in prayer victorious
and all thou spendest Jesus will repay.

That’s it. No toil wasted here, no effort ignored, no prayers and tears discarded, nothing done in Christ, with Christ, for Christ will ever fail of fruition. Nothing will be sent back unappreciated. In all of His servants He will find something to praise. For all who toil in the service of this gracious Master, there is waiting a word of acceptance that will make everything worthwhile. “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Lord.”