Two weeks ago we began to look at the contentious issue of “the work of the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58), and I laid out two main positions: one that affirms that “the work of the Lord” is Christian ministry—that it is “not in vain,” while non-ministry work therefore is in vain. The other position sees all work performed by the Christian as “work in the Lord,” seeing no inherent difference between Christian ministry and all other work in terms of value or meaning.
Last week I argued for the first part of a mediating position. The “work of the Lord” and “labor in the Lord” is, in fact, Christian ministry. The second part—arguing that this does not mean that other work is in vain—is the burden of this week’s post.
Different kinds of good work
If 1 Corinthians 15:58 is indeed referring to Christian ministry, then we know that such labor in the Lord is not in vain, and the body of believers are to give themselves to it. As argued last week, there is something special about Christian ministry that flows out of the resurrection of the dead—namely, that people who receive this ministry are resurrected to eternal life. (But it is to be remembered that 15:58 does not only refer to full-time, vocational ministry, as it were. It includes the full range of activities that the body of Christ, with all its parts, is engaged in for the purpose of Christian ministry.)
This means that Christian ministry is not just any other type of work a Christian may do, putting all work on a level playing field in terms of importance and significance. Work is good. It produces valuable fruit. Work matters.This simply doesn’t fit the evidence. But nor is it right to downplay “other” work as meaningless, unimportant, or without eternal consequences.
In fact, all that we have seen so far about work (through the lens of achievement) affirms its dignity and significance. It is part of the creation mandate for humanity (Genesis 2). It is affirmed as a blessing from God (Proverbs). The one who works faithfully with what is entrusted to him or her is praised by God, while the one who squanders it is judged (Parable of the Talents). Work is a basic responsibility for the purpose of provision (2 Thessalonians 3). Work is good. It produces valuable fruit. Work matters.
The meaningfulness of perishable work
But, it will be asked, if the fruit of our work is not eternal (compare Christian ministry), what’s the point of it all?
It seems this question comes out of an unfair comparison with Christian ministry (the fruit of which is eternal). As already argued, ministry is special. But its special status should not be used to downgrade other work. This is a bit like saying that, because a Ferrari is a special car, every other car is therefore equivalent to a bicycle. The picture we get from the Bible, however, is that work is more like a BMW. OK, so ministry is a Ferrari—it’s special—but a BMW is still a very nice car! It is certainly no bicycle. I can tell you that if I owned a BMW, I would not think it was a piece of junk just because it was not a Ferrari.
There are two further points to be made about work and this “eternal” issue. First, there is a sense in which all work has eternal consequences. As the Parable of the Talents indicates, we will all be held accountable for the way in which we steward the resources God has given us. In Colossians 3:23–24, Paul instructs slaves to work “for the Lord and not for men, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ.”
Even if the fruit of your work does not last for eternity, the important thing is whether or not your work pleases the Lord. In Heaven, what could be more valuable than hearing the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” from the Lord of all? Does it really matter if that bridge you built is not needed in the new creation, when the Lord of creation praises you for faithfully building it anyway?
Second, certain things do not need to be eternal in order to be very important. Take marriage, for example. We know that human marriage does not last for eternity—it is “till death do we part.” But this does not mean that marriage is meaningless, unimportant, or in vain! The Bible teaches just the opposite. While the marriage itself will not last beyond death, God cares deeply about our marriages, and so should we.
By the same token, our work matters to God. And if it matters to him, it should matter to us, whether or not its fruit will last into eternity. If we have pleased him in our work, that is what matters for eternity.