One night, a thief broke into the single-room apartment of French novelist Honore de Balzac. Trying to avoid waking Balzac, the intruder quietly picked the lock on the writer’s desk. Suddenly the silence was broken by a sardonic laugh from the bed, where Balzac lay watching the thief.
“ ‘Why do you laugh?’ asked the thief.
“ ‘I am laughing to think what risks you take to try to find money in a desk by night where the legal owner can never find any by day.’ ”1 Futility!
Solomon summarized his insights into life by saying: “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 1:14).2
Occasionally we may look back at what we have done so far in our life and ministry for the Lord—maybe even during this difficult time of the COVID-19 pandemic—and ask ourselves, “Was our work as a community of pastors, scholars, and theologians worthwhile and effective, or was it—at least in some respect—in vain?” What difference did our individual ministry make? I am not talking about our calling but about the results of our efforts. While we might report many good things, even miracles, we must acknowledge the other side of the coin:
- On the church level, we deal with both numerical gains in church membership and enormous losses. Although we rejoice about those involved in ministry, at the same time, we feel concerned about those who are biblically illiterate and not fellowshipping with other believers. We confront congregations splitting into the kinds of fragments we observe in the political landscape, and it becomes constantly more difficult to communicate with each group. Conspiracy theories and strange teachings, including much time setting, make it more challenging to get people’s attention.
- On the personal level, we may have asked ourselves what our sermons, lectures, writings, and personal contacts with people could have possibly achieved. Men and women whom we pastored and counseled make wrong decisions. Only about 3 theology majors out of 12 of my graduating class in college retired from a lifetime ministry as pastors. Some not only abandoned the ministry but also left Christianity, even becoming agnostics or atheists. All too frequently, we have watched those whom we baptized drift away from the church, couples whom we married later divorce, and churches that we once pastored be forced to disband. We are disturbed not only by the numbers but also by the spiritual condition in which God’s people find themselves.
It is possible to regard all of this as just a natural occurrence—people come and go, and they alone are responsible for their actions—but that would mean becoming indifferent and cold, ceasing to care with a pastoral heart.
The fear that our outreach, preaching and teaching, and pastoral care could be in vain may frustrate us, burden us to the breaking point, and paralyze us in our ministry.
Futility of the ministry
It seems that the apostles asked themselves similar questions about their ministry. John wrote: “I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth” (2 John 1:4). Very good! But he may also be implying that some church members have given up on what he calls “the truth” and that it saddened and hurt him.
Paul decided to consult with the other apostles “in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain” (Gal. 2:2; emphasis added). He admonished the Philippian believers to hold “fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain” (Phil. 2:16, NKJV; emphasis added). To the Christians in Thessalonica, he declared, “For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain” (1 Thess. 3:5; emphasis added). On the other hand, he was confident “that our coming to you was not in vain” (1 Thess. 2:1; emphasis added). And he even stated that the believers in Corinth must know “that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58, NKJV; emphasis added).
The church in Corinth
While the church in Corinth struggled with all kinds of problems, including serious divisions, Paul still addressed its members as those sanctified by Christ (1 Cor. 1:2). His salutatory address shows his respect and willingness to help them as a brother aids fellow brothers and sisters. A special issue for the Christians in that city was the teaching of the resurrection. Was there a resurrection or not? In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul sets out to review the resurrection of Jesus, that of the believers, and what he calls “the end.” The term “in vain”—kenos—appears four times in the chapter. In addition, the apostle uses a synonym (eikē; v. 2). First, he states that by the grace of God, he has become what he is and that the grace of God toward him was not in vain (v. 10). After having provided evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, he addresses the Corinthian believers: “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain (v. 14; emphasis added). He argues that Christ’s resurrection determines not only their fate but also their life in this world and, by implication, our own fate and life in the here and now. Without the resurrection, everything is in vain. The futility of human life is quite a devastating concept.
But Paul does not linger with the negative perspective. Instead, he outlines the resurrection sequence, the manner of the resurrection, and the ultimate victory over death:
“I tell you this, brothers [and sisters]: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“ ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ . . .
“. . . Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 50–57).
The outcome of the resurrection
Paul sums up his discourse by saying: “Therefore, my beloved brothers [and sisters], be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (v. 58; emphasis added). His statement consists of three parts: a twofold admonition and a promise.
First, Paul begins with the firmness and determination of the believers. They are not to give up their faith in the resurrection but must be solid as a rock. Paul here alludes to verses 1 and 2, in which he reminds the believers of the gospel—which they received, in which they now stand, and by which they are saved—to continue to hold fast to it. Otherwise—if they cease believing in Christ’s resurrection and their own—they will have believed in vain (eikē; vv. 1, 2). The concepts of stability and the danger of futility dominate 1 Corinthians 15.
Second, Paul moves from the domain of belief to that of ministry. Faith must advance into action. The work that God summons believers to abound in has to do with whatever builds up the church. It may even include toil, hardship, and “life-threatening peril”3 as Paul himself experienced (vv. 31, 32). Nevertheless, Paul calls upon believers to “excel” (v. 58, NRSV), “work enthusiastically” for Him (NLT), be “fully devoted” to the work (NAB), and be productive in the Lord’s work.4
Third, Paul has here come to the conviction that—in spite of all problems—the work for the Lord is not in vain. Why? Because there exists a resurrection. This part connects to verses 10 and 14: God’s grace toward Paul was not in vain because he not only believed in Christ but also labored for Him. However, if there were no resurrection, all preaching would be in vain. Fortunately, that is not the case. There is no doubt about Christ’s resurrection and no question about the resurrection of His followers. Therefore, “what is done in the Lord is never done in vain.”5
As we consider ourselves as believers, pastors, and theologians, what about our personal ministry? What about the effort we have put in, the disappointments that we may have experienced? The fear that our outreach, preaching and teaching, and pastoral care could be in vain may frustrate us, burden us to the breaking point, and paralyze us in our ministry. We may not see the results that we desire, and some of the positive results that we witnessed may begin crumbling at our fingertips. A good beginning does not always come to a good end. The success of our ministry cannot be easily measured here and now. Therefore, we need to hear the voice of Scripture again and again:
“Therefore [because of the guarantee of our resurrection], my beloved brothers [and sisters], be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (v. 58). Be of good courage! Continue the good work to which you are called—both in your personal field of influence and within the wider community of believers.
I still remember a faithful elderly church member, the only Adventist in a town of about 12,000 inhabitants in Germany. Wanting to find someone interested in Bible studies, for years he went from door to door and talked to people, but without success. Then one day, he met a young couple with two children. They agreed to have Bible studies, but by now he was quite feeble and not able to continue. I stepped in and this faithful church member passed away. He didn’t know that the couple accepted Jesus as Savior. He didn’t see that the couple accepted Jesus as Lord and got baptized. Was his work in vain? Certainly not. Though for him it may have appeared to be a failure, the resurrection will tell a different story.
When I studied at Andrews University, I had to take counseling classes from Dr. Garth Thompson. He was also my dissertation adviser. One sentence of his especially stuck in my mind and influenced my entire ministry. He said something like this: “Because I believe in the resurrection of Jesus, I also believe that He can bring new life to any marriage, no matter how dead it may be.” I believe that too. Though he passed away soon after my doctoral defense, his ministry was not in vain.
Gordon Fee states that Paul’s “concluding paragraph exudes with confidence and triumph. . . . Our present existence in Christ, and our present labors, are not in vain. Standing beneath them is the sure word of Christ’s own triumph over death, which guarantees that we shall likewise conquer.”6 Christ’s resurrection makes our life meaningful and our work worthwhile.
- “The Thief,” Bible.org, https://bible.org/illustration/thief.
- Unless otherwise noted, Scripture is from the English Standard Version.
- David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 747.
- Cf. 1 Cor. 15:58, MacDonald Idiomatic Translations, Bibleworks 8.
- Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 224, 225.
- Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 809.