The following is an excerpt from ‘One Forever: the transforming power of being in Christ’ by Rory Shiner.
‘When the New Testament describes what it means to be a Christian, it uses a phrase that is everywhere in Paul’s letters but almost nowhere in our churches. Overwhelmingly, when the Bible wants to describe being a Christian, it says that we are in Christ.
But what does it mean to be in Christ? And how does this important biblical idea help us understand what God has done for us through Jesus, and what it means to be a Christian?’
In particular, how does it help us think about the way we are freed to serve as Christians?
Death and all his friends
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2).
This message is repeated time and time again in the book of Ecclesiastes.
‘Vanity’ translates as ‘mist’ or ‘vapour’, and the main observation of Ecclesiastes is that life is just like that. Life is misty, vaporous, and it goes quickly. It is hard to hold on to and impossible to build on. While dignity can be found in a life that accepts grace and receives rather than grasps, in the end death swallows up everything.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul repeats what most people say in the face of life’s vaporous nature:
“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (v. 32).
The pattern is simple: life-then-death. It is the only lifestyle of a world without hope.
And it often looks like a whole lot of fun—whether it’s the more audacious expression in eating, drinking, dancing and partying with chemically enhanced moods and the pure pursuit of pleasure; or the more respectable life of accumulation, of diligently building a life of comfort, security, possessions, family and a killer superannuation.
Whichever it is, those lifestyles look like fun, but inside each hides a dark and dirty secret: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”.
Death is like a cruel mafia boss, always there getting a slice of the action. As the experiences roll on and the accumulation grows, death is right there reminding us who is really in charge.
Why do you have to party hard now?
Why do you have to grab that sex, that promotion, that money, that opportunity now?
Why are people in your workplace so willing to sacrifice other people for the sake of their careers?
Because death is in charge, always reminding us: “If you don’t grab it now, you never will”.
That is the pattern of a world without hope. It is joyful on the outside, but despairing at its core.
Death then Life
But in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul proclaims,
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (vv. 54-55).
Death tried to swallow Jesus, and it got swallowed in the process.
The sting of death is that we die as sinners and go to meet the one who cannot tolerate sin. But now the death of Jesus has taken away our sin. And so we will feel death, but like the bite of a scorpion without venom, there is no sting. All that is left is the victory of Jesus.
His resurrection, and the resurrection of the dead, brings online a new lifestyle with a new pattern.
Life-then-death is replaced with death-then-life.
Look how Paul describes his own life: he is in danger; he dies every day; he fought wild beasts in Ephesus (vv. 30-32). Compared to the pagan world, Paul’s life looks like death. It looks like denial and sacrifice, like risk and hardship, like labour and toil and frustration. Not stepping on people, but being stepped on. It’s a lifestyle of giving, and not grabbing.
Paul lives this way because he knows that he is united to Christ, and as such he expects his life to follow the V-shaped life of Jesus, who, though being in very nature God, made himself nothing, trusting that God would raise him up (cf. Phil 2:5-11). The firstfruits have appeared, and a world that looks like it’s dying is about to spring into radical new life. Christianity can look prickly on the outside, while paganism looks so happy. But on the inside of paganism is an unremitting despair, and at the heart of the Christian faith is an unbelievable and unstoppable joy, because Christ is risen—and we are united to him.
Paul expects his life to follow the V-shaped life of Jesus, who being in very nature God, made himself nothing, trusting that God would raise him up.
Therefore be steadfast…
“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 Cor 15:58).
Paul sees that what flows from the gospel’s teaching of the resurrection of the dead, and from our union with the risen Lord, is a steadfast immovability. He means both steadfastness in hope and steadfastness in practice. In hope, Paul wants to bridge this great disconnect in the Corinthians’ minds between Jesus’ resurrection and theirs. We already know (from verses 1-11) that they are steadfast in their belief in the resurrection of Jesus, but he wants to increase the territory captured in that thought.
As the whole world submits to the terms and conditions set by life-then-death, for Paul, steadfastness in practice means letting nothing move you from that great resurrection lifestyle of death-then-life.
For Paul, steadfastness in practice means letting nothing move you from that great resurrection lifestyle of death-then-life.
So where do you conform to that old pattern of life-then- death?
Perhaps in your working life—are you aware of situations where you are grabbing and grasping? Where you are stepping over people to get what you want?
And, honestly, on reflection, where have you fallen into thinking that if it’s not yours now, it will never be? Maybe in your personal life there are points where you are tempted to grab (or are actually grabbing) the sex that you can have now, rather than waiting in faithfulness. Maybe you can see it in your everyday life: in your approach to food; in the way you binge on DVDs; in the way you do the dishes—aggressively, resentfully, compulsively. Maybe there are patterns of accumulation and consumption that are clearly being played out on a life-then-death template.
…always abounding in the work of the Lord
Paul says the Corinthians are to remain steadfast. But secondly, they should be always abounding in the work of the Lord.
“The work of the Lord” is, in Paul, a phrase that refers specifically to the sort of work that contributes directly to the kingdom of God. Without overplaying or underplaying what verse 58 actually refers to (paid Christian ministry on the one hand, or any kind of labour at all on the other), it seems to me that Paul is talking about the work we do that is specifically, in the sense of the gospel, for the Lord.
If you are a Christian, you can point to that type of work in your life. It is the work of faithfully sharing the news of Jesus with work friends. It is the work of singing and teaching and encouraging in the body of Christ; the work of service in Sunday school or a Bible study. Paul is saying, “Take that and, in the light of the resurrection of Jesus and our future hope, give yourself fully to it”. That is, passionately, with your whole heart. With singleminded devotion. With everything you’ve got.
And why give yourself over so fully to the work of the Lord?
It is because “in the Lord your labour is not in vain” (v. 58).
Paul identifies something that bucks the trend. He names something in this creation, something in our experience, that cannot be described as vain, meaningless or intangible: our labour in the Lord. I think this is because our labour in the Lord is an investment in the new creation. It’s the work that we do to see others won to Christ and established in Christ. It is a work sowing seeds to be harvested in the new creation.
Back in verse 36, Paul says, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies”.
Jesus’ path to life was through death; our path to new life will also be through the door of death. And that is not only the macro story of our lives; it is also the micro story of Christian service.
A man gives up a Friday night of relaxation to lead a group of young people by teaching the gospel.
A woman goes to serve God in Jordan, and in doing so dies to all the things she might reasonably expect in Australia: security, a husband, a career path.
In all these things, the Christ-pattern is there: death-then-life.
In all these things, we are burying worldly ambitions in order to see life in others—because, as the parable tells us, we have found a treasure of great price (Matt 13:45-46).
Christ is risen; the orchard that looks dead in the cold of winter is about to spring to life.
The great resurrection hope means everything works in reverse.
We endure death, throwing ourselves fully into the work of the Lord, with the promise of life in the new creation. And the work is hard—but it has the inestimable advantage of being eternal. The work is sown in frustration, but will one day be raised in glory. Our union with Christ will see us through, safe and glorified into the new creation.
This material comes from Rory Shiner’s book One Forever: The Transforming Power of being in Christ, kindly reproduced here by permission of Matthias Media.
Wherever you are in the world, you can pick up a copy cheaply and easily (external links):