Victory Over Death
Topic: Resurrection Passage: 1 Corinthians 15:50–15:58
“VICTORY OVER DEATH”
1 Corinthians 15:50-58
On May 13, 1940, with his nation involved in the early days of the Second World War, Winston Churchill stood before the British House of Commons and delivered a stirring address that later became known as his “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech. For anyone doubting the Prime Minister’s commitment to the war effort, speaking on behalf of the nation, he responded in the following manner:
You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, and with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, What is our aim? I can answer with one word: Victory—victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.
Like so many things, the concept of “victory” seems to have cheapened in our day. The nobleness of “victory” has been reduced to “winning” at far less serious things. We “win” a bet or an argument, or our team “wins” a game. We have elevated the importance “winning” trivial rewards, but then find that the “win” that brought us feelings of invincibility one day have faded by the next. Certainly, there has to be more to “victory” than that.
Just ask the Apostle Paul, who has something of far greater consequence in mind when he speaks of “victory” in the concluding section of 1 Corinthians 15. There he writes, beginning with verse 50:
50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 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. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 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.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 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.
What a grand ending to a triumphal chapter, the subject of which has been the resurrection of the dead. As Paul has explained, the resurrection of Jesus is the confirmation that “the gospel” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1) is true. And as he further has affirmed, because Christ has been raised, so too will all who belong to Him through repentance and faith.
“Victory” is defined in many ways. Some people consider “success” to be a synonym for “victory.” In other words, if you think yourself to be “successful”—and, I suppose, that can be based on any number of criteria—then you may be “winning” at “the game of life.” But life is not a game, no matter what poets and songwriters may say. And, while there are many things with which to laugh and enjoy in brief these days we have been granted, life is to be lived seriously and with purpose in mind.
Furthermore, finding “purpose” or meaning to life is neither random nor subjective. As Augustine expressed it, “God has made us for Himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him.” Because we are not our own—we had nothing to do with being conceived and born—we come into this world with a “purpose” having been stamped upon us by our Creator.
“Purpose” and “victory” meet at the empty grave. Because of the resurrection, the followers of Jesus Christ can be assured that “...all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
By its very nature, “victory” presumes an adversary or an enemy. Back in verse 26 of this chapter, we were reminded that our “last enemy...is death.” It is crucial for us to realize that death is not only an intrusion into our lives, but an unnatural part of God’s creation. It entered the world as a result of one man’s sin and has been passed along to every generation since (cf. Romans 5:12). We are born under its curse, and we remain under that curse until we admit our sin, repent of it, and entrust ourselves to the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. And when we do, His “It is finished” (John 19:30) becomes our cry of “victory” as we look into His open tomb.
As we consider the “victory” Christ has won for us, especially in light of the Lord’s Supper which we will be observing in a few minutes, let’s spend some time reflecting upon the verses we read a moment ago. From this passage we learn three essential things about the resurrection and the “victory” to Christians that it brings.
In the first place, we learn...
Why victory is needed (verse 50).
If we are to “inherit the kingdom of God,” we are told, we will not do so wearing these bodies of “flesh and blood.” In other words, they must be transformed... metamorphosed, if you will. Butterflies are never able to gently flit from one plant to another as long as they remain in the cocoon or crawl around with the legs of a caterpillar. They must be set free and given wings to fly, if they are to become what they were created to be. And so must we.
Paul has referred to “the kingdom of God” twice already in this epistle. In chapter 4 and verse 20, he reminded these Corinthians that “the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.” Ability must be possessed as well as professed. People can say they are able to do something, but if they do not have the ability to do it their words are null and void.
The writer also spoke of “the kingdom of God” in chapter 6, verses 9 and 10. There he listed a number of sexual sins which characterized those who would not “inherit the kingdom of God.” In each case, the reader is served notice that a change must take place before a person is made fit for “the kingdom.”
That is because, as Paul continues and will expand upon in the next section, “the perishable (cannot) inherit the imperishable.” The word “perishable” (“φθορα”), which is used throughout this section refers to that which is “subject to ruin, spoilage, decay, or aging”...in other words, “mortal.” It is the condition that is completely antithetical to “the kingdom of God.”
Since all things in our present life are subject to death, one of our greatest desires is to have “victory” over that which is “imperishable.” Thus, we strive to be younger, stronger, smarter, richer, and more beautiful in order to assure ourselves of our permanence. But as we all know, we are only buying time. None of those things make us any less “perishable.” What we ultimately desire is victory over death.
That is normal and natural desire, because death is abnormal and unnatural. We fight against death because it is an intrusion. In fact, it is the ultimate enemy! As one writer expresses it, “Death is always traumatic. Death is obscene. It is counter to everything that is living. Death is ugly, painful, sad, brutal, and terrible. It is an aberration. It is terrifying. Death is absolutely not natural. It is monstrous. It doesn’t give you any options. Death is immutable.”
Everyone of us must personally and individually decide whether death will win out in the end or if it will be defeated. Until we face the reality that death has a stated claim on us all—without exception—we will never fully experience the greatness of the “victory” that Christ won for those who are His. Apart from what Jesus has accomplished, through His death, not a single one of us will “inherit the kingdom of God.”
As if anticipating the question, Paul moves from why victory is needed to...
How victory is attained (verses 51-57).
In verse 51, Paul expresses a shout of astonishment at what he is about to reveal: “Behold! I tell you a mystery.” As we have noted before, when the Scriptures speak of a “mystery,” the term speaks of something unknowable apart from divine revelation, but which is now being revealed by God to man. In other words, what the apostle is about to reveal was previously unrevealed knowledge about the plan of God.
So, what is the “mystery” that the Lord has given him to make known? It is that “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” Because “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” a “change” must occur. Not everyone will die before this change occurs. Some believers will be living when Jesus returns. The word “change” can also be translated “exchange.” It was used of replacing inferior or crumbling stones in a building with better ones. These present bodies, which may serve us quite well in this life, must be modified and made ready for eternity.
This “change” or transformation will take place quickly...in an instant of time. A “moment” (“ατομοs”) represents the smallest unit of measurable time, and “the twinkling of an eye” is equivalent to a “blink.” In less than a heartbeat this “change” will take place.
Not only will departed saints be “changed,” but living believers as well, the “flesh and blood” bodies instantly transformed into ones fit for heaven.
All of this will take place at what the writer calls “the last trumpet.” The sounding of a “trumpet” recalls the Old Testament prophecies of Isaiah (27:13), Joel (2:1), and Zephaniah (1:14-16), and is frequently linked with biblical texts concerning “the Day of the LORD.” In our passage we are told that “The trumpet will sound, and the dead in Christ will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”
As verse 53 says, it is absolutely necessary (“δει”) for “this perishable...(to) put on the imperishable, and this mortal...(to) put on immortality.” Even as “perishable” speaks of being “subject to decay,” so “mortal” means being “subject to dying.” Since neither finds place in “the kingdom of God,” both must be “changed” into what is “imperishable” and “immortal,” respectively.
Such will most certainly occur, and when it does, verses 54 and 55 assure us that at least two Old Testament prophecies will find fulfillment. When Paul writes, “Death is swallowed up in victory,” he is citing Isaiah 25:8, which reads, “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.”
The metaphor of “swallowing up” (“καταπινω”) creates the mental image of something being “completely consumed, leaving no trace of its existence behind.” Once the resurrection takes place, no longer will there be the slightest thought or remembrance of death. All of its vestiges will have been permanently removed.
We can imagine the apostle standing toe-to-toe with death itself and taunting it...not in his own strength and ability, but in the power of the resurrection. It is only the resurrection that makes the death of death possible. That taunt continues is verse 55, where Paul references the Word of the Lord as recorded in Hosea 13:14. There, in speaking of how He planned to redeem His people, God says, “Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?” With Paul, you and I can rejoice that where sin is pardoned, death is made irrelevant.
The word “sting” (“κεντρον”) might actually be better understood to mean “stinger.” Like the stinger of a bee, it refers to something that must be removed rather than healed. That’s what the resurrection does...it “extracts” death completely because Christ, through His death, has “removed” sin’s poison from our mortally wounded souls.
Paul goes on to explain in verse 56 why this is theologically so. He writes, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” From as far back as the Garden of Eden, man has had to learn that disobedience to the Lord’s commands leaves upon him sin’s deep imprint. The impression of sin is affixed to us all and it remains an indelible mark until it is washed away by the blood of Christ.
But not even His blood can avail for us until we first recognize the depth and depravity of our sinful state and how it keeps us separated from God. When, by His grace, our eyes are opened to see our need and we cry out for His mercy to forgive us, we are then made clean and received as members of His family of faith. We are thus transformed, having been “spiritually resurrected” so to speak, and assured of a “physical resurrection” when Christ returns. The 17th-century British poet and pastor John Donne, in one of his more memorable sonnets, wrote:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so...
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
I wonder at times why it is so hard for unbelievers to accept testimonies like this about the resurrection. Do they not express the deepest longings of men’s hearts? That longing which we all feel is not there by chance...it was placed there by God in order to remind us that our ultimate purpose and satisfaction are not to be found in this life, but rather in the next. Christ is able to fill that void if you are willing to open yourself to Him.
One who did this was Saul of Tarsus, and when the risen Christ his life was forever changed. In fact, we might say that Saul died that day, and the Apostle Paul was born. And truth be known, the Lord is still changing lives today...maybe not as suddenly and dramatically as he did for Paul...but perhaps so. In order to “come to life,”—spiritually now and physically later—we must be willing to die to ourselves.
Paul understood this better than most, which is why he could exclaim in verse 57, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The brand name “Nike” is derived from the Greek word for “victory” (“νικη”). In 1971 the well-known “swoosh” logo was created by a college student, who was paid $35 by Nike for the design. Today it is worth millions of dollars and is one of the most widely-recognizable advertising symbols in the world. Still, it pales in comparison and recognition to the symbol of the cross upon which the Lord Jesus died. Whereas the Nike “swoosh” says, “Just do it,” the empty cross proclaims, “Jesus did it!”
Christ drank the full measure of death for us so that we might escape its damning consequences. It has been appropriately said, “Born once, die twice. Born twice, die once!” Because of the “victory” over sin that Jesus won on the cross and demonstration of that “victory” because of His resurrection from the grave, we also are able to experience “victory” over death. It is God’s most emphatic triumph...His eternal “swoosh,” if you will.
Sir Walter Raleigh said that “Death alone can make a man suddenly know himself.” I wonder, have you ever met the “real you,” the one with whom you must one day be completely honest. Have you recognized your vulnerability and your most pressing need? You need a Savior, and until you have met Him there is no hope for you beyond the grave. It is through Jesus Christ—and only Him—that “victory” is assured.
The apostle has explained why “victory” is needed and how it is attained. As he brings this great chapter on the resurrection to a close, he also wants us to be aware of...
What victory looks like (verse 58).
Verse 58 begins with “Therefore,” which not only draws this discussion to a conclusion, but introduces a word of command. The “beloved brothers” are, of course, Christians, so what follows can be taken as the “marching orders” for the Church in light of the great resurrection promises that are expounded throughout this chapter.
This verse serves to remind us that our physical resurrection one day has personal and practical implications for the here and now. Although we should yearn for the future—suspended, as we are, between Christ’s resurrection and our own—let us not forget that we are engaged in an ongoing conflict and faced with daily responsibilities.
There are actually two imperatives found here. The first may be taken as a negative, when Paul writes, “be steadfast, immovable.” Those two words are nearly synonymous, and the writer brings them together to urge his fellow believers to not turn away from “the gospel” they had been “received” and “believed” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-2). To deny the resurrection—no matter how unlikely it may appear to be to skeptical minds—was to deny the very foundation of “the gospel” one professes to believe.
On the positive side, Paul exhorts them to be “always abounding in the work of the Lord.” To put it another way, doctrine and duty belong together. Correct theology always leads to proper behavior. The command is in the present tense, suggesting that it is to be ongoing service...not sporadic with pauses and stops. “Always”...continually be giving yourself to “the work of the Lord.” Whatever else Paul may have had in mind, that phrase certainly implies living consistently as a follower of Christ. It means realizing that “the kingdom of God,” and not this present world, is our true and lasting home.
I believe what Paul is saying is that we must “occupy until He comes” (cf. Luke 19:13, KJV). Our present existence in Christ and our present labors are not “in vain” or meaningless. That means that what we do each day and every week has an eternal purpose.
I read a blog post this past week reminding readers that Sunday worship begins on Saturday, meaning that we should prepare well in advance to meet with the Lord and His people when we gather. There should be an eager anticipation on our part to hear a fresh Word from God. We should show up ready to give every bit as much as to receive. And we should show up on time and not rush off as soon as the service ends. I say that not to chastise anyone or to stroke the pastor’s ego, but in order that we all receive the full benefit of what He has been preparing for us throughout the week to feast upon and from which to benefit.
Sometimes we tend to forget who we are and that we have been destined for better things. May Paul’s words found in this amazing chapter call us back to what is real.
There is an oft-repeated story about the eagle who thought he was a chicken. When the eagle was very young, he fell from the safety of his nest. A chicken farmer found the baby eagle, brought him to his farm, and raised him in a chicken coop along with his many chickens. The eagle grew up doing what chickens do, strutting about all day and scratching for food on the ground. Then one day as a majestic bird flew effortlessly over the barnyard, the eagle looked up and wondered aloud, “What kind of creature is that? It is so graceful, and powerful, and free.” A nearby chicken replied, “Oh, that’s an eagle. Don’t even think about it, because you’ll never be able to fly like that.” So, the eagle went back to scratching the ground and continuing to behave like the chicken he thought he was. Finally he died, without ever experiencing the life he had been created for.
Perhaps you have been with us these past four Sundays, having listened politely to the expositions of this chapter on the resurrection, and yet you remain unconvinced that life beyond the grave is possible or real. It is not my job to persuade you or to get you to change your mind...only God Himself can do that. My job is to present to you what the Scriptures say, and to do that as clearly as I can. Many times Jesus said, “He who has ears, let him ear” (cf. Matthew 11:15, et al).
It may interest you to know that not even Jesus’ disciples expected Him to rise again. Each of the four Gospels makes that clear. Christ had predicted His death and resurrection on a number of occasions and yet the disciples had not believed Him. Think about it. Where were they on Easter morning? Outside the tomb? No, they were hiding, terrified that the next knock on the door might be the authorities rounding up the last dregs of “the Jesus movement” so that could finish this thing once and for all. When the first women to see the risen Jesus told the disciples, it was “news” to them. They assumed it was all over. Any hopes they had of seeing Him again had died when He was crucified. But then Jesus appeared to them, and it was a transforming experience.
The testimony of those same disciples has not been successfully refuted in two thousand years. Today we stand in their train and declare without fear or embarrassment, “He is alive!” And because He lives, we too shall live (cf. John 14:19).
And that is why we come to the Table this morning...to celebrate and to declare that we serve a risen Savior.