Our Work Is Not in Vain (1 Corinthians 15:58)
In chapter 15, Paul conducts a lengthy discussion of the resurrection, and he applies his conclusions directly to work. “[Excel] in the work in the Lord because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). How does a correct understanding of the resurrection— that believers will be raised bodily—ground the conclusion that our labor for the Lord is of lasting significance (“not in vain”)?
First of all, we must recognize that if life in the fallen world around us were all there were to life, our labor would be in vain (1 Cor. 15:14–19). Paul’s use of the word vain brings to mind Ecclesiastes’ extended meditation on the vanity of work under the conditions of the Fall. (See Ecclesiastes and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.) Even if there is life beyond the fallen state of the present world, our work would be in vain if the new world were completely disconnected from the present one. At most, it would launch us (and perhaps others) into the new world. But we have already seen that work done according to God’s ways survives into eternity (1 Cor. 3:10–15). In the second half of chapter 15, Paul develops this matter further by stressing a fundamental continuity between pre- and post-resurrection bodily existence, in spite of vast differences in their respective substances. “This perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53). Our soul does not change out of the old body into a new body—as if donning a new suit of clothes—but our present body “puts on immortality.” The old continues into the new, though radically transformed. It is precisely this continuity that lends meaning to our present existence and guarantees that our labor for God is of lasting value.
N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, vol. 3 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2003), 359–60.