From J. PAUL SAMPLEY, New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. X

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Dan Francis | Forum Activity | Posted: Wed, Oct 19 2011 10:08 PM

Here is a sample of what you will find in the NIB series.




COMMENTARY Typically in Paul’s time, speakers and writers who came to the end of such an eloquent address as this chapter would highlight and tie together various important themes and call for a response. So it is here. With a forceful “Therefore,” Paul addressed the Corinthians very affectionately as “Brothers and sisters, my beloved.” His one injunction to them is “Stand firm, immovable,” but he then unfolds just how they are to stand fast. Believers stand firm and immovable by “abounding in the work of the Lord always,” and they can throw themselves passionately and unreservedly into that work because they should understand the resurrection and what it tells us about life and work in this world: namely, that their labor (note the singular, see below) in the Lord is not in vain, not empty. Paul’s call to them to “be steadfast” (cf. also Col 1:23) is elaborated by three participles that describe how and what they are to do in order to be steadfast. First, they are to be “immovable” (ajmetakivnhtoi ametakine toi), which depicts their ability to stand against whatever winds or experiences buffet them, because of their confidence that God will bring to completion what God has begun in them through Christ (cf. Rom 4:21; Phil 1:6). That is how they can be steadfast. The first participle, “immovable,” if it were there alone, might suggest that to “be steadfast” is to hold tight or to stand still. Second, Paul describes what they do to stay steadfast–and interestingly it is not by hunkering down and holding tight. They stand fast by “abounding always in the work of the Lord” (15:58). And they can abound in the work of the Lord because they know, the third participle, “that their labor is not in vain in the Lord” (15:58). These claims are rich in content, dense in expression and significance, and profound in implication. All these affirmations undergird and explicate Paul’s final exhortation: “Stand fast.” When transposed to nautical imagery it would be “Stay the course.” Paul makes the same argument with the Galatians, there in athletic terminology: You were running well; don’t be distracted, lose your way, or turn back (Gal 5:7; 4:9). So this discourse has moved from its opening where Paul shockingly raised the specter that their faith and his labor might be in vain (15:2), to a clarification about life-in-this-world-in-light-of-the-expected-resurrection, which affirms that actions and struggles and work “in the Lord” are significant and vital. Special note should be taken that “the work [e[rgon ergon] of the Lord” and “your [uJmw`n hymo n, plural] labor [kovpo" kopos, singular] in the Lord” both employ the singular regarding the Lord’s work or labor (two different Greek terms meaning the same thing here) and the believers’ collective effort. We must ask why Paul uses the singular here. The answer lies in Paul’s fundamental commitment to the life of faith as a life in community. There is not a list of pre-approved “works” or “labors” of the Lord that individuals must go out and do as solo agents; Paul supposes a much more community-grounded and integrated effort in which all the deeds of the community, and indeed all the actions of all the individuals within it, are coordinated into a shared work and a common labor in the Lord. Surely, believers do different things; just as they have different gifts, so also their actions are distinctive. As believers’ faith is one and they are therefore united in it (cf. 1 Thess 1:8), so their work, their labor is one because God’s singular love is expressed in their varied work. This reference to labor/work is a critical matter for Paul, for his own thinking, for his actions in behalf of the gospel, and for his communities because it raises the most fundamental of human questions: What do we make of our strivings? What enduring significance do our actions have? Is there meaning to the struggles of our lives? Why does one do anything that one does? These questions are made most poignant by death, which threatens to erase not only the believers themselves but also what the believers have done. Paul’s letters show that he and his readers are not immune to such questions. Note how many times he raises the matter of whether he has been “running in vain,” a phrase that for him raises the question of the worth of his labor–and even of his life–in behalf of the gospel (Gal 2:2; 4:11; Phil 2:16; 1 Thess 3:5; these references represent rhetorical pressure on the readers of those letters, not self-doubt on Paul’s part). We must now examine the connection Paul sees between life in the present, with its moral dilemmas and choices, with its striving and its yearning, and the finishing up of God’s purposes, which still lies in the (imminent) future. The best clues of this interconnection in chapter 15 come in three verses that we now consider in sequence: “If in this life we have hoped in Christ only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (15:19); “If in the way people understand things, I wrestled wild beasts in Ephesus, what good does it do? ‘Eat and drink because tomorrow we die’!” (15:32); and the just-noted climax of the discourse, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, my beloved, be firm, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor in the Lord is not empty” (15:58). Has God’s decisive strike against sin and its power obviated any need for the believers to do anything? Clearly the ultimate power is God’s power, in Paul’s view. If 2 Thessalonians is any evidence, some of Paul’s followers have come to the conclusion that they need not work, that they simply stand idly by and await God’s powerful completion of what God has begun. At issue in 1 Corinthians 15 is the question of whether it matters what Paul or they do, whether their labor is in vain. For an insight, consider what Paul says about himself and his labor. He puts it in the most dramatic of forms, namely, his wrestling of wild beasts–no doubt a figurative reference to the great opposition he is encountering–in Ephesus from whence he writes this letter (16:8-9).157 Does his laboring in behalf of the gospel in the face of adversaries amount to anything? One answer could be to throw up one’s hands in despair at the meaninglessness of life and its struggles and embrace the libertine life because “tomorrow we die.” If death has the final word on the meaning of life, then why would one choose wrestling wild beasts over pleasure (eating and drinking)? Paul’s life shows that he has chosen the wrestling; his thought expressed in chapter 15 equally testifies that Paul has confidence that “the work of the Lord” and their “labor in the Lord” is not in vain. Why? Because death and its sting of defeat is not the last word. Death, sin’s sting and the last enemy, will ultimately be overcome for all believers. Christ’s resurrection as “first fruits” (15:20, 23) is the surety that the remainder of the resurrection harvest of believers will be made good. So what one does and what one is in Christ is ultimately valued, valuable, and preserved, beyond death’s futile grasp. Thus, one not only can wrestle beasts wherever one is, but one must be part of the great cosmic plan, the battle with evil, in which God is engaged. Engagement, struggle, labor, doing “the work of the Lord” are not an option that believers might choose; they are an obligation. Faith does not have works as simply an option that may or may not be exercised. Faith requires that works be done. Faith is incomplete–one might even say it is not truly faith–until it expresses itself in deeds. Unwritten in this chapter but supposed is that believers have to exercise moral judgment in the choices that they make, that being in Christ has obligated them, with renewed minds (Rom 12:2), to be responsible moral agents. In the terms of this chapter, moral discernment entails their figuring out what indeed is their proper “labor in the Lord,” and then abounding in it always, because they know that their “labor in the Lord is not in vain” (15:58; cf. Paul’s exemplary self-portraits in this respect in 3:8ff. and in 15:10). “If in this life we have hoped in Christ only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (15:19). As Paul has constructed it, this first clause has a certain ambiguity. At issue in its interpretation is what the term “only” modifies. (a) If one takes it to mean “if in this life we have only hoped in Christ,” then the question is whether this life, even in Christ, has significance in its own right, that is, whether the life of faith is realized only as a hope whose fulfillment is delayed until a later time. Though Paul does not address that issue directly in chapter 15, elsewhere Paul is clear that the present life in Christ is rich and vibrant; the life of faith is not simply an anticipated life, recognized in the present only or primarily as a hope (cf. 1 Cor 13:13; Rom 5:1). (b) If one takes it to mean “in this life only we have hoped in Christ,” then the question is what connection there is between this life and the life to come. Given the way 15:35 introduces a fictive character who asks about the kind of body the dead will have, and Paul’s response to the question in 15:36, we must say that Paul is concerned with the significance this bodily life has in light of the renewed and grander bodily life that awaits the believers at the parousia. The importance of chapter 15 in the letter. By its position as the last major item in the letter chapter 15 caps off the body of the letter. We have seen that it attempts to correct a mistaken assumption among some Corinthians that they already share in some spiritualized resurrection that moves them to what they consider a special plateau, where they deserve honor and where they are no longer bound by certain moral restraints. And, looking back from this point we have been able to see the several places in the letter where such a mistaken notion of the resurrection may actually have been operative. We must also note that chapter 15, while it deals with resurrection as a topic, nevertheless weaves together some of the themes of the preceding chapters: (1) The opening (15:1-2) has the same comprehensive sweep across the whole of the believing life that is captured in Paul’s traditions about the Lord’s supper where what one proclaims there is of equal scope: “the Lord’s death until he comes” (11:26). (2) The indissoluble linkage between Christ’s resurrection, already accomplished, and believers’ coming resurrection, which is affirmed in so many ways in chapter 15, was already declared in 6:14. (3) The cosmic portrayal of Christ and his role in God’s purpose has been a theme across the letter (3:23; 8:6; 11:3), a theme that is elaborated even more in 15:21-28. (4) The 15:38 claim that God gives a body to different seeds as God chooses is a direct restatement of divine prerogative asserted three times with regard to the distribution of charismata in the congregation (12:11, 18, 24). (5) The declaration that flesh and blood will not be able to inherit the kingdom of God, which provides the basis for the additional formula, “nor the perishable inherit the imperishable” (15:50b), is an echo of 6:9. (6) The reference to one’s labor in the Lord not being in vain should call to mind Paul’s own self-portrait as a laborer along with Apollos in 3:5-9. Resurrection is the premise on which all of life and all of one’s workings or deeds or accomplishments rest. All of one’s work in the Lord is not only necessary but also eternally significant. These thematic and behavioral ties of chapter 15 to the remainder of the letter emphasize the culminating and grounding role this major discussion plays not only in the structure of the letter but also in the understanding and discerning of the moral choices that believers face as they try to live a faithful life of love for one another in a broken world while they await the parousia of their Lord. As the Lord’s supper provided the framework within which the believers live the scope of their lives–from Christ’s death until he comes–so also the anticipated resurrection endorses, elevates, and sanctifies daily life as a mode of acceptable and thankful offering of themselves to the very God who will faithfully care for them before, in, and beyond death. REFLECTIONS 1. This grand section ends on a note about work and labor, but that is a theme that showed itself earlier in Paul’s comments about being in constant danger for his association with the gospel and about his so-called wrestling with wild beasts in Ephesus. Paul writes 1 Corinthians from Ephesus (16:8) where he notes appreciatively the “wide door” open for his work there. His evidence? Much opposition (16:9). So Paul is wrestling “wild beasts” at Ephesus because of his identification with and presentation of the gospel. The dangers and opposition raise a fundamental question: Why go to all that trouble, effort, and danger? If there is no resurrection, if life is to be lived simply for the value one can tease out of the moment, there is certainly no reason to work, much less to place oneself in harm’s way. But, on the other hand, if one’s life is truly secure with God, what does that suggest about anxiety brought about by opposition? As the Corinthians exemplify for us, one’s convictions about the resurrection are crucial to the way one handles one’s life. If one is convinced that one’s salvation is already accomplished, already secure in its fullness, then one might conclude that moral restraints no longer prevail, that one is free to eat, drink, and be merry in whatever way one sees fit, and that one has no need to labor or exert one’s self–especially if doing so might land one in difficult circumstances. Such persons, thinking they already had it made, would act as if they deny that Paul’s anticipated judgment day has any bearing on their decisions and actions, and might even assume that their works will not be considered at the judgment (cf. Rom 2:6-8; 2 Cor 5:10). Paul’s own life, filled to the brim as it was with work on behalf of the gospel and with that work’s attendant risks and opposition, is a resounding answer of another sort, based on his own understanding of the resurrection. (This ties back to the discussion of freedom in the reflections on chapter 9.) Because of Paul’s unshakable confidence that God will finish–by vanquishing the last enemy, death–the good work begun in Christ, Paul knows that God will not forsake him, no matter what others may do and no matter what may befall him. This confidence frees Paul from others and frees him for others. This confidence spurs Paul to work, to risk and to brook opposition on behalf of the gospel and his call. Granted, it would not warrant any and every risk; note well that even as Paul did not go right back to Thessalonica when it was apparent that he might be harmed or killed if he did, so we are not describing a blind, unthinking, foolhardy faith. But we would not expect foolhardy faith and unnecessary risk-taking from someone like Paul who insists that his reasonable worship of God (Rom 12:1) involves the regular and full employment of his mind as well as his spirit (14:14-15). When one knows oneself truly secure with God, one is free to serve God with a purity and openness of heart, despite the opposition such a service will surely generate. No Christian should expect to arrive at that confidence and certainty right away; it is a matter of growth and maturity in faith today, just as it was in Paul’s time. Instead of spending one’s energies lamenting over not already sharing Paul’s confidence, one would do far better to use those energies to build and practice one’s faith so that it might grow into such a relationship. It is an effort that other believers and God will support and nourish. A church convinced of its security in God’s grace can therefore be liberated from the social pressures to conform to the culture and can take a public stand where there are matters of justice and human well-being at stake. Such a church can represent the gospel by its public declarations about social issues and by its hands-on involvement with the problems that bedevil our communities. Then the church would be doing the “work” that it is called to do. 2. Note that Paul links one’s labors with the “work of God.” It is not all labor or work that Paul praises and assures of value, but those labors that attest to God’s work in and through one. So Paul’s is not a paean of work or busyness for its own sake, but only insofar as one’s own labors cohere with the work that God is up to. In fact, though Paul does not do so, one could suggest testing a contemplated action against what one understood about God’s work that we see in Christ. One’s labors in the Lord endure just as surely as does one’s love (1 Cor 13:13); so properly to labor in God’s work is at the same time to walk in love. Ours is a world where we seem to have construed our individual worth by reference to our busyness, as if to tell one another how busy we are is an index of our importance and goodness. Next time a friend tells you how busy they are, you might do them a favor to ask them, Why? and To what end? Of course, as surely as you do that work of friendship toward someone else, you should be ready to be asked the same questions. 3. The taunt “Death, where is your sting?” is an awesome one. This childlike standing unabashedly before death and shaking a defiant fist in its face is possible for believers only because they know the rest of the story, namely that death is the “final enemy,” yet to be destroyed, but which will be ultimately and finally overcome in God’s final triumph. To ask where death’s sting is now, as a friend or loved one dies, is not to deny that the person has died, it is not to deny that we have felt and do feel death’s sting, and it is not to deny that we feel grief and loss over that death. As Paul uses it, the taunt confidently looks at death and its sting in the present from beyond death, from the standpoint of God’s final and completed purposes. Then God’s power mercifully will have raised the dead; then God will have dealt death the sting-removing final blow; and then (and now already in confident hope) we may say with Paul that death is overcome by life. 4. We know the grand design of what God is doing in the overall scheme of things because the story moves from Christ’s death and resurrection toward the ultimate fulfillment of all of God’s promises, toward the redemption of God’s creatures and cosmos. We can be part of that story by God’s grace and if our lives are conduits for love. Not that we should think of ourselves as bringing God’s kingdom. It is God’s reign and God is bringing it. At issue for each of us is whether and how fully we will live our lives as a channel through which God’s love and mercy can flow to the world and to all of God’s creatures.

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