1 Corinthians 15:50-58
Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. 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 incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O Death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?”
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.
In the past few weeks, we’ve heard that 30,000 Americans are killed by guns every year. But it is actually worse than that. Just under 35,000 Americans were killed by automobiles last year. Even worse, a total of 2.5 mil. Americans died last year. And the worst statistic of of all: 100 in 100 human beings, worldwide, will die at some point.
Putting such a basic truth in the form of statistics is not meant to mock statistics or the various calls to protect life and address meaningful problems in society. What I am trying to do is to put all of our life in perspective, to remind us of our fate and to encourage us all to consign ourselves to reality. We will, each one of us in this room, die one day. We fear and despise that fact because it goes against our very nature. It brings to mind suffering, pain, and separation from loved ones, and we long for a solution. But there is no earthly way to avoid this fate. There is no medicine, no exercise or nutritional approach, no legislation that can save us. We need something else. We need the One who has conquered death. And this is Paul’s gospel message this morning. Death is swallowed up in victory through our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of His resurrection.
All Men Die
Paul begins this section by reminding us that the resurrection is not natural. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption” (1 Cor. 15:50). Death is real, and all men must face it. This is the universal human dilemma, as the Bible tells us in many other places:
“All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away, But the word of the Lord endures forever.” (Is. 40:6-8)
“In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19)
There is no way to avoid this fate until Christ returns. Any belief that death can be escaped or warded off by our efforts is a mistake. We should never fool ourselves into thinking that if we just plan carefully enough and far enough in advance, if we just cover every boundary, we can live forever. There is no fountain of life. We must come to terms with our destiny, and we must consider what this means for our lives and for the one to come.
Why We Die
Whenever we are confronted with death, we want to know why. While we shouldn’t assume that something has gone wrong with the normal state of affairs as we know it, as if only the death of someone close to us is a big deal, it is true that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. It’s just that it went wrong quite a long time ago, and the “wrong” of death is now a universal feature of our world. Still, we want to know why because we feel, deep down, that this is not how things are supposed to be. The Bible answers this question for us, even if the answer may make us uncomfortable. Death now afflicts us because of human sin and the reality of cosmic justice.
Paul says that “The sting of death is sin” (1 Cor. 15:56a). Death is able to hurt us because of sin, and not simply one particular sin here or there. It isn’t the case that every disaster has its specific cause in our action. Jesus contradicted that when he referred to the tower in Siloam (Luke 13:1-5). Death and affliction don’t only come upon the bad sinners. They come upon all sinners, and that means they come upon us all. “In Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22). As Paul teaches us in Romans chapter 5, “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12) and also. We know that “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23), and of course, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
That last quote also makes the point which is most difficult to bear. Death is not unfair. It is unmercifully just. This is why Paul says, “The strength of sin is the law” (1 Cor. 15:56b). Sin is a violation of that law. It deserves death, and, in the deepest realms of conscience, all men know this is true (Rom. 1:32).
The law is also sin’s strength because it is the instrument of judgment. It is what identifies sin as sin and as something worthy of condemnation. Still worse, sin manipulates the law and aggravates the flesh in order to spread even more condemnation. Paul even says, “The law entered that the offense might abound” (Rom. 5:20). This truth is so explosive and so potentially offensive that Paul has to defend the law, even while emphasizing its role as sin’s executioner:
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. (Rom. 7:7-13)
This dilemma is very “bad news” for the sinner. More law does not help his condition. It makes it worse. The more that sinners attempt self-righteousness and self-justification, the more they sin. And of course, we always attempt to acquit ourselves when we are accused. The problem is that in God’s law-court, we are always guilty.
And so this means that even while we mourn over sin and death, we can never say that it is not deserved. We must confess our sins and not deny them. We must accept our sentence and not try to get out of it. And then, at that point, we must cry out for deliverance, through God’s mercy by His saving hand.
How We Overcome Death
Having said all of this, it is not my intent to drive you to despair. You should desire to avoid death, and you should hold out hope that this is possible, in some way. But let’s be clear, the only way to overcome death is to find a solution to the problem of sin and the law. There’s no going around it. The New Testament says that death must be conquered through death. “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15). It is through Christ’s death that death itself is defeated. And it is through his resurrection that there is new life.
“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57). The good news is that the death and resurrection of Christ gives us the victory over sin and over death. It is a victory which wins us new life. Our savior Jesus Christ has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).
All of this gives us new hope and new boldness, so much so that Paul can even mock death as a defeated power. “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” (1 Cor. 15:55). We need no longer fear the grave because, “death is swallowed up in victory” (1Cor. 15:54). We have hope and joy because Jesus has done it.
We’re now at the point where the preacher is supposed to give some “practical application.” I have to admit, I hate doing this. Most of the time the applications are nothing more than the pastor’s half-informed opinions and prejudices, and they almost never live up to the glorious work of the gospel set out earlier. On this occasion, happily, the Bible gives the application for me. Paul says, “so therefore” (1 Cor. 15:58), and he gives three instructions. This is what the glory of the resurrection should do for your life now.
- Be steadfast and immovable. If Christ has solved your most threatening problem, then what is there left to fear? May your faith be strengthened, and never be ashamed of what you believe. This should also be an incentive to resist sin more and more. The instrument of your death has been disarmed by Jesus. Don’t return to it.
- Always abound in the work of the Lord. This does not mean that you have to always be engaged in “churchy” work. There’s no value in slapping some sort of Christian “name brand” on things, nor do you have to spend all of your time carrying out special church programs. But this does mean that everything that you do—your vocation, your leisure, your works—must be given to God. You must now be a living sacrifice, and you must abound joyfully and enthusiastically, making the most of your time and your opportunities in this life, dedicating your labors to the Lord.
- Know that your labor is not in vain. Your work matters. God has ensured that our lives have lasting meaning, and we spread the gospel in order to spread this message. We want to share this salvation with the whole world, and we know that God is able to perform this. The gospel truly is the power of salvation for all who believe.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, who through thy only begotten son Jesus Christ has overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life; we humbly beseech thee, that, as by thy special grace, preserving us, put in our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring those desires to good effect unto righteousness; through Jesus Christ our Lord who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit. Amen.