What on earth is 'the work of the Lord'?

Paul and Apollos  Tate

I recently received an invitation to a conference at which one of the speakers described himself as someone who was,

“passionate about combining parish-based ministry and urban agriculture as platform for integrating personal discipleship, community, and eco-mission.”

How our understanding of mission has changed over the last hundred years. At least in the West.

Mission has become everything we do in the name of Christ. There are no priorities.

In 1 Cor 15:58, Paul concludes his great defence of the resurrection of believers by drawing the ethical implications. Given the resurrection, the Corinthians can and should devote themselves ‘to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord [their] labour is not in vain’. But what exactly does Paul mean by the phrase ‘the work of the Lord’? 

In Surprised by Hope, NT Wright represents a new generation of evangelicals who have broadened their understanding of mission. Regarding 1 Cor 15:58 he says,

What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbour as yourself—all these things will last into God’s future.

Paul Stephens agrees that 1 Cor 15:58, “brings new meaning to those whose toil is in so-called secular work: the arts, education, business and politics."

But is that what Paul meant by “the work of the Lord”?

Not according to Peter Orr who argues that 'the work of the Lord’ refers to what believers do to advance the gospel among unbelievers and to establish believers in the gospel.

In exhorting the Corinthians to abound in ‘the work of the Lord’, Paul is calling on them to give themselves to the specific work of proclaiming the gospel and building the church (i.e., evangelism and edification). Throughout this letter to the Corinthians, this is precisely what Paul has exhorted them to do (1 Cor 10:31–11:1; 14:12). What this looks like in practice will, of course, vary. It could mean risking their lives like Epaphroditus (Phil 2:30); it could be serving the needs of other believers like Stephanus (1 Cor 16:15); and it could be speaking the truth in love like the Ephesians (Eph 4:12).

But crucially the goal of this work is building the church, and it is this that the Corinthians are to prioritise. Because there is a resurrection and those who are ‘dead in Christ’ will be raised to bear glorious bodies like Christ, believers must give themselves to the work of calling men and women to faith in Christ and to the work of ensuring they remain in Christ.

You have one life to live. There is nothing more important than understanding and obeying Christ’s call to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything he has commanded. So, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.