Do please take a copy of the Scriptures in hand and turn with me to 1 Corinthians chapter 15; 1 Corinthians chapter 15, page 962 in the church Bibles. As you may be aware, we have been working our way now, for some months, through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. We’ve come to the last section of the penultimate chapter of the book; the last section of chapter 15. And it is, of course, the great apostolic summary of the Biblical teaching on the subject of the resurrection – first of the Lord Jesus Christ from the grave, and then of believers into a resurrection glory like His, like the Savior’s.
And in verses 50 through 58, which is our passage this morning, as Paul draws his argument about the resurrection to a conclusion, we’re going to watch him transition. There are three types of argument that he makes here. That is, a word of explanation in verses 50 through 53 where he urges the Corinthians to comprehend the truth at last. Then, there’s a word of celebration in 54 through 57; celebrate the victory. Comprehend the truth. Celebrate the victory. Then there’s a word, finally, of exhortation in verse 58 as he explains the enormous implications for life here and now of the great doctrine of the resurrection and the dawning of the age that is to come. You see, the Corinthians were struggling to credit the very concept or idea of resurrection. They just did not believe that dead men came to life. And Paul has been trying to show them how the truth of the resurrection, founded on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the anchor and foundation of all Christian truth and the very heart of our faith. And we are going to watch him labor patiently with the Corinthians as he brings this part of his discussion to its climactic end.
Before we dive in then, to verses 50 through 58 and work through that outline together, we’re going to pause first and ask God to help us as we pray yet again. Let’s pray together.
O Lord, we are holding in our hands Your Word. What a thing that is – that the voice of God, the voice that said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, speaks to us in this book. Would You speak light into our darkness by this portion of Your holy Word this morning, for the glory of the name of Jesus. Amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 15 at verse 50. This is God’s holy and inerrant Word:
“I tell you this, brothers: 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.’
‘O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy Word.
When I was in school, I really struggled with math. I was hopeless at math. I couldn’t do it. You know, I like to say as someone who trained to be an artist, I can tell you what color numbers make me feel, but that’s about all I can do with numbers! And so when I had math homework, it was an agony for me. My father spent many long hours patiently working math problems with me and I wouldn’t get it. And we’d do the problem again and I still wouldn’t get it, and I still wouldn’t get it, and I wouldn’t get it. And he would be patient, and, “Okay, let’s try it again.” And eventually, eventually, after many attempts, I would finally get it.
A Word of Explanation
I think that’s a bit like the apostle Paul in verse 50. Would you look at verse 50 with me? He’s like a patient dad who has been trying to explain the truth, work the problem, with his children; they’re just not getting the math problem. He’s trying to help them understand. And in verse 50, he sort of anticipates, though he’s been laboring the point about the nature of the resurrection throughout this chapter, the Corinthians likely still don’t quite get it. And so he says, “I tell you this, brothers.” Do you see that phrase at the beginning of verse 50? Better translated, “What I mean is, this, brothers.” He senses that even though he’s worked hard at explaining the truth, some more explanation may be in order. “What I mean is this, brothers.” So there’s a word here of explanation, right? This is the first thing I want you to see. He’s urging them, he’s urging us, to comprehend the truth. A word of explanation.
The Nature of the Resurrection
And look at the explanation that he gives as he tries to show them the nature of the resurrection that is to come. Remember, that is where the Corinthians were really struggling. They didn’t really believe that bodies might have an eternal destiny. That seemed to them illogical – that the material body might survive into glory that is to come somehow. How is resurrection even feasible? And Paul uses metaphorical language in two places. Two slightly different metaphors to explain the nature of the resurrection. The first you’ll see in verse 50. “I tell you this, brothers, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” He uses language of heirs; inheriting and inheritance that is to come.
When we were, I think, shortly after we first moved to the United States, my wife received a letter from a law firm in the UK informing us that she had a distant relative whose death had resulted in an inheritance. We got kind of excited about that until we realized how many heirs there were that the inheritance had to be split among and then it wasn’t quite so exciting! But the law firm had to do some research and try to track down, trace the family and then track down all the relevant surviving heirs. Because of course, only the heirs, by law, can inherit what has been left to them. There’s an inheritance that comes only to the heirs. “So Paul, how will we inherit the kingdom? To whom will the kingdom of God that is to come finally belong?” “Well,” Paul says, “that’s easy. The heirs are those to whom God will give a new body. Not flesh and blood. Not mortal, not perishable, but immortal, imperishable, that will match the world that is to come.”
Right Clothing for the Environment
Then he uses the same language, a slightly different metaphor. If you’ll look down at verse 53, this time he’s thinking not so much about heirs and inheritances as he is about having the right clothing on for the environment. You know, when we shoot astronauts into orbit, they have to wear a protective suit that can withstand the pressures and the challenges of life in the hard vacuum of space. In verse 53 Paul says something like that. He says, this perishable body must “put on the imperishable” and this mortal body must “put on immortality.” So there’s a new world to come, he says. And if we are to live there, we must be clothed no longer with mortality but with immortality. A great change, a transformation will take place in us. You see, the Corinthians, what’s interesting to notice here, this was actually the Corinthians’ own argument they were using against the idea of the resurrection. Paul is a great rhetorician and he takes their own argument and flips it around, turns it on them. You see, they were saying, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom, Paul! Bodies, the material world, surely will not survive into the age to come! Doesn’t that make resurrection ridiculous?” Paul says, “You know, you’re right. Flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom. Mortal bodies will not survive into the world to come. But you’re wrong in assuming that resurrection means resuscitation of the dead; revivification of the dead. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the radical transformation of our bodies from flesh and blood to something else. From mortal to immortal. From perishable to imperishability. A great change will come. And then, we will fit in the new creation.”
And if you’ll look down at verses 51 and 52, Paul even goes on to tell us a little of how it will happen. He calls it a mystery. “Behold, I tell you, a mystery.” A mystery in the New Testament is something otherwise hidden but now revealed, and yet not fully comprehended. So it’s a revealed truth that we do not fully comprehend, yet we truly comprehend. This is a mystery. We see some of it. We know some of how it will be. But how exactly this is all going to play out remains mysterious. He’s like the apostle John in 1 John chapter 3. “Beloved, we are God’s children now,” he says, “but what we shall be, does not yet appear.” So we don’t really know. There’s mystery. “What we shall be, does not yet appear.” And yet there’s some things we do know. What we know, he says, is that “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” It’s a mystery. It’s mysterious. Still a little murky. It will be a glorious surprise when the day dawns and all the pieces finally fit together and we see everything that the Scriptures have been teaching us, happening right before our eyes. What a day it will be. We don’t know it all yet.
But Paul does tell us some things. Three things in particular, if you'll look at verses 51 and 52, about how this great change will come. He says, first, it will be a universal change for every Christian, for the dead as well as the living. We will not all sleep, he says, but we will all be changed. Some, some will survive, will be alive when Jesus returns. Others will have been dead many years when the Savior comes. But whether dead or alive, we will all be marvelously transformed on that day. It will be a universal change.
Secondly, he says it will be an immediate change, an instantaneous change. The word he uses it “atomos” – “in a moment.” The atom was thought to be the smallest particle of matter. He’s saying the smallest conceivable unit of time imaginable is all it will take for the change. There will be no process, no gradual morphing from one thing to another. The time it takes for a blink, for one eyelid to meet the other, is all it will take for us to be utterly, thoroughly, gloriously transformed to be like our Savior in His glorified body. It will be a universal change; an immediate change.
A Final Change
He also says it will be a climactic or a final change. It will take place, he says, “at the last trumpet.” It’s not the last trumpet because there will be no other trumpets in heaven. It’s the last trumpet because it’s the trumpet at the last. The trumpet blast that will sound on that day is the author’s period at the end of the book of human history. There will be no further opportunities afforded to humanity on that day. Those who belong in the new creation will be taken into the new creation having themselves been made new. And those who belong in the outer darkness will be dispatched to the blackness of darkness forever. When the trumpet sounds, every clock will cease to register earth’s passing moments. When the trumpet sounds, the lies we tell ourselves to keep the witness of our Christian friends at bay, will all be exposed. “Oh, there’s still time yet. There’s time to settle the great question of my eternal destiny yet. I can delay. I can wait. I can put it off yet. There’s plenty of time yet.” And as we turn back to our drink or our money or our lovers or our pleasures, the trumpet sounds and the dead in Christ are raised and every Christian undergoes this glorious change – “We shall be like Him, for we will see Him as He is” – the reflection, the mirror image of our glorious Savior. But you, you who have delayed and delayed and delayed, telling yourself there’s time yet, when the trumpet sounds, you will be left to perish.
“Well,” Paul says, “comprehend truth. Here’s what I really mean. I want you to see it. In fact, more than that, I want you to settle the great issue of eternity right now. No longer any delay, before the trumpet sounds.” Well, suppose I want to settle the matter today. Suppose I’m resolved to face eternity knowing I will join that glorious company of the transformed and the changed who are made like Jesus. Suppose I want to settle the matter today. How do I do that?
Word of Celebration
Look with me at verses 54 through 57. Paul starts by calling us to understanding. There’s a word of explanation – comprehend the truth. Now, he actually moves on with a word of celebration. He’s celebrating victory; 54 through 57. When the great final moment comes, the perishable at last puts on the imperishable, the mortal puts on immortality, what a moment of victory that will be, he says. “Death, swallowed up in victory!” Back in verse 26 of this chapter, he actually called death “the last enemy.” And we know what he means by that title. What a terrible opponent death has been. Every time he’s entered the ring against us, death has won. Our loved ones have fallen and he still stands. Our friends, our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters; our children have fallen and death has defeated them. To be sure, sometimes we seem to prevail for a round or two. The treatment worked; we went into remission. The doctors were able to repair the artery; treat the infection. We did our tour of duty, and while others around us fell to the bullets of the enemy, we survived. And we feel the relief of it. Death, death swung at us and we dodged the blow for a time. But we know, eventually, don’t we, eventually death will win the fight. Death will get the victory.
Death Has Met Its Match
But not for long, Paul says. Not for long. Death has already met his match. One has come at whose feet death has fallen already in defeat. Death has already been swallowed up in victory. Very early in the morning on the first day of the week, when the stone was rolled away and Jesus Christ, who was crucified, dead, and buried, broke the bonds of death forever and rose in glorious victory. And when the trumpet sounds and He comes back for all of us who believe in Him, the victory of Christ in His resurrection will swallow up death for you and me too as we join Him in a resurrection of our own. So that even now, the apostle Paul can sing, “Oh death, where is your victory?”
Paul Barnett, one of the commentators, says that "Death is like a schoolyard bully before whom other children cowered until a stronger one came along and defeated him, giving all others freedom and hope. He's been a bully, but you need never fear him again. He has been defeated. There's freedom and hope for all who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ." And so Paul can say, “Oh death, where is your sting? Where is your victory and where is your sting?” The sting there, don’t think of a bee sting. Think of the sting of a scorpion or the bite of a venomous snake. It’s death’s terrible agony that Paul has in mind, but not physical agony that many of us so much dread. That’s not what Paul is talking about. What is the “sting of death” according to Paul?
Sting of Death
Verse 56; look at verse 56, would you? The sting of death is what? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. The real sting of death is unforgiven sin. It's standing before God at last with a life utterly unrepentant, under the sanction, under the penalty of the law of God that we, all of us, have broken. We worshiped ourselves and not our Creator. We filled our eyes with the idols of success. We used the name of Jesus to curse others while we sought to make a name only for ourselves. We thought Sunday a day for our pleasure. If and when we came to church it was simply to network and to reinforce our business partnerships. We dishonored our parents. We were hateful and violent and held grudges. We lusted after others. Our phones and our laptops were filled with filth. We wanted to take shortcuts to wealth. We cheated on our taxes. We were involved in shady deals. We took what did not belong to us. We told lies. We were dreadful gossips. We could never stop trying to have what other people have. Always driven to keep up with the neighbors; show ourselves successful by the accumulation of stuff, as if a man’s life really did consist in the abundance of things.
And we never saw the offense our sins truly were in the sight of a holy God. We never saw it. We never knew we’d have to stand before Him one day and give an account. Until the trumpet sounds, and we did. And then, Paul says, then if that’s us, we will feel the sting of death. Then we’ll feel the sting of death. The weight of our sin, the terrible weight, condemning us in the sight of God. What a sting death holds. And as we contemplate the language, we feel the gravity of it. Notice, Paul isn’t trembling. Paul is rejoicing. He’s thrilling. “Thanks be to God!” he sings. How can you sing and celebrate as the dreadful shadow of death is cast over you as we contemplate this sting, the poison of death, the horror of it? What is there to be thankful for?
Look at what he says. Here’s how he can sing. “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Through Jesus, He gives it to us so that death might be defeated and we might triumph. It’s a gift in Jesus and He just gives it to us! No wonder he sings, “Thanks be to God! Death is swallowed up in victory! Where is your victory? Where is your sting now?” Jesus has triumphed and His victory becomes mine for free. All I need do is ask. Just ask and pardon is yours. Just ask and the one who bore the wrath and curse of God, the one who bore the sting of death, He will bear, He will bear your sin away and His victory will become your victory. Just ask. It’s free! Thanks be to God. He gives us, He bestows it on us for nothing, by His grace. It’s a gift! How can you settle the matter today and know that when the trumpet sounds you will be ready and you will join the great company of those transformed to bear the glorified likeness of the risen Christ? How can you know? You just ask. You take Christ at His word. You put your faith in Him. “Save me. Save me. I can’t live without You. I can’t make it without You. I’m a guilty sinner. Save me!” And He will! Settle the matter today.
Comprehend the truth. Celebrate the victory. You will be able to sing – we’ve sung it here many times – you’ll be able to sing it with new joy and new meaning. “There in the ground His body lay. Light of the world by darkness slain. Then bursting forth, in glorious day, up from the grave He rose again! And as He stands in victory, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me. For I am His and He is mine. Bought with the precious blood of Christ!” And you sing that song, really? “Bought with the precious blood of Christ. Sin’s curse has lost its grip because He stands in victory and He’s mine.” Comprehend the truth. Celebrate the victory.
A Word of Exhortation
Finally, look at verse 58. For those of us who have come to trust in Jesus, to live in light of the resurrection of our Savior in hope of the resurrection of our own that is to come, there is a life to live. Everything changes in light of the destiny that awaits us. Here's a word of exhortation. Verse 58, "Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord." Steadfast, immoveable does not mean unyielding and obstinate, stuck in the mud, hard as granite and equally cold. It means steadfast, immovable, never straying from one agenda. "I want to please my Savior who gave Himself for me. Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. In light of all He's done for me, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all." Always abounding in the work of the Lord. Steadfast, immovable. "From this one agenda, I want to please my Savior in light of all that He has done to rescue me and secure a glorious inheritance for me."
You can do it. We can stick at it, Paul is saying, when it’s tough and sore and long. Because we know now the tomb is empty. We know death is defeated. We know, he says, “our labor in the Lord is not in vain.” Think about that for a moment. Maybe nobody sees what you do for Jesus. Maybe nobody appreciates how hard you work to serve Him. Nobody sees it. Nobody ever says anything about it. How costly your service is for Him. No one notices the price you’ve paid, the sacrifices you’ve made to put Him first. The relationships that have crumbled. The opportunities you’ve had to pass by to put Christ first in your life. Paul says He knows and understands. None of it’s in vain, he says. None of it is in vain. Your labor in the Lord is not in vain. Death won’t be the final insult at the end of a long, sore, wasted life. Not for you. Dear faithful Christian, death will be swallowed up in victory one day soon and you’ll stand before the glorified Christ, you will see Him face to face, and He will say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord.”
You remember C.T. Studd’s little rhyme? You remember it? It's exactly what Paul is saying here. "Only one life 'twill soon be past. Only what's done for Christ will last." But what's done for Christ will last. It's not in vain! You will reap a reward if you do not give up. Be steadfast, immovable. The day is coming! The trumpet will soon sound. Press on and you will hear your glorious Savior say to you one day, "Well done. Well done. Well done."
Let’s pray together.
O Lord, we pray for those who may be here who have not settled the matter. Who have been telling themselves, "Oh, there's time yet." They've been fending off Christian friends. They've closed their ears to the cries and prayers of Christian parents. O Lord, show them that time is short. The day is nearer now. We do not know the day or the hour, and so to settle the matter today. To take the gift that You offer for free, by faith – pardon, cleansing, mercy, new life in Jesus. And those of us who have been walking with the Savior for years, those of us who have taken the gift, would You reignite a song of joy in our hearts – "Thanks be to God who have given us this victory! Where, O death, is your victory? Where is your sting? Jesus has triumphed and we praise Your great name!" And then as we sing, strengthen our hearts to live for Your praise, steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord; staying on the Master's agenda, never straying from it, because we know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain. For we ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
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