1 Corinthians 15:50-57
April 28, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 15:10 in the audio file.
Or, When Death Is Swallowed Up
Sometimes you might think that a preacher should realize he’s made his point already. Sometimes preachers think that the hearers should have grasped the point, but the hearers don’t, so maybe buzzing the tower again might finally get the proper attention. Then there are times when the subject requires more time, a profound subject, a difficult subject, a subject that means a lot.
Paul isn’t done talking about the resurrection of the dead, not just concerning Jesus as the firstfruits, but all those who are in Christ. 1 Corinthians 15 is the longest chapter in the letter, and Paul is still driving home the truth and the triumph of resurrection in Jesus.
Some of the Corinthians weren’t sure how the dead body would be raised and then participate in the eternal, heavenly kingdom. Certain mental images of roving yet rotting flesh don’t belong, and even at the start of this new paragraph in verse 50 Paul agrees with the Corinthians that something has to change. But God has no problems creating or recreating. He made us to bear the image of the man of dust, which seems amazing. And “we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (verse 49), which is no less amazing and no less possible to God.
This penultimate (second-to-last) paragraph in chapter 15 celebrates our upcoming change to immortality and celebrates the victory God gives us over death and sin and the law.
A couple things indicate that Paul starts a new section with this sentence. He uses the introduction, I tell you this, and he addresses them directly again as brothers. It’s more than a summary of what he’s said, it is an advance on the principle.
Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. The phrase flesh and blood highlights the frailty of man’s body. But we are getting better bodies to inherit the kingdom of God, not no bodies. The second part of verse 50 helps round out the parallel. The part of flesh and blood that’s the primary problem is the perishable part; keep in mind that organic does not equal heavenly (Ha!). So Paul agrees with the Corinthians, as he defines the terms. The resurrection isn’t bodiless, but those bodies will be genetically modified to handle all the glory (verse 43).
We’re going to inherit the kingdom, meaning that we’ll be brought to share in the King Jesus’ reign.
But how do we get to the imperishable state? As we considered in verse 42, this means more than never-ending, it means being brought to the perfection of what the body was meant for. It’s true that we can’t just walk through a celestial door and keep our current condition (who would want to?), let alone go to the grave and just wait for the heart to beat again in the broken body.
Which brings us to the celebration. Behold! I tell you a mystery. Paul wants them, wants us, to look. He wants Christians to join him in recognizing what has not always been known. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
This is a mystery, meaning that it couldn’t be figured out in the wisdom of men. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle…these guys couldn’t see it, and to the degree that the Corinthians were stuck with the categories of worldly philosophy, it’s no wonder that they had questions. Even in light of the Old Testament teaching on what happens after the death of the body, there is some puzzle. Paul says in effect, “Behold!, here’s the missing pages of the manual!”
The first part of the mystery is that not everyone is going to die. We shall not all sleep. Sleep is the metaphor for death, a metaphor that also suggests that death isn’t the endgame. But even those who are alive at Christ’s return (verse 23) aren’t ready for inhabiting the eternal kingdom. Their bodies are still in the seed form, still perishable, dishonorable, weak, and soul- rather than Spirit-driven.
Not everyone will die, but whether dead or alive, we shall all be changed. This is the second part of the mystery. I’m certain you’ve seen the church nursery signs: “We shall not sleep but we shall all be changed.” Cute, but there’s more to it than eternally unsoiled undergarments. We will be transformed (ἀλλαγησόμεθα), “made something other or different” (BAGD). Note that we’re not changing ourselves. This is done for us, to us, by God Himself. Everyone, dead or alive, will be changed. What is sown will be raised other; we will not be the same.
The third part of the mystery is the timing, not of when in history but how long. The change will happen suddenly, in a moment, from the Greek word ἄτομος, the smallest divisible piece of anything; “considered to be a particle too small to split” (Gardner). It’s more like a millisecond, and a millisecond may still be longer than this moment. It will happen in the twinkling of an eye, the fastest movement of the visible body. In the time it takes to catch a glimpse, we’ll be changed. We’ll be changed “in a flash” (NIV).
As for the time of when in history, the fourth part of the mystery of change is that it will happen at the last trumpet. The trumpet is less musical and more military, used for a signal more than a song. The last trumpet doesn’t necessarily refer to be the 7th and final trumpet mentioned in the series by John in the book of Revelation, but referring to it as the last mean this is the end of the battle. The way Paul talks about it means that could happen at any time.
Here’s what happens: 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.
At first read it might seem like verse 53 is merely a summary, adding nothing to the mystery that hasn’t just been said. Except there is a fifth part of the mystery that needs to be emphasized. The change is not into a different body but into a different kind of body. Twice in verse 53, and twice in verse 54 (though the ESV doesn’t translate it obviously in verse 54), Paul says this: this perishable (body) and this mortal (body).
Like the plant comes from its seed, so the imperishable and the immortality get applied to these, our bodies. There is a “clear continuity of identity” (Thiselton). We are not raised into a collective consciousness, some impersonal group-think. Being raised doesn’t mean having our minds transplanted into some other container. Our bodies are changed, but they are still our bodies. We must put on, a typical metaphor for being clothed, which will happen to the “naked” seed (verse 37). The change is deeper than the surface, but it will be you, it will be me, it will be all believers.
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:20–21, ESV)
At the right time we will not be bound by the laws of nature but raised according the laws of resurrection glory. We will be bound by the laws of super-nature.
So celebrate your understanding of this mystery. Celebrate your future, God-wrought, instantaneous change to a personal, imperishable, and glorious body like Christ’s.
Celebrate God who in Christ gives us this victory.
As I mentioned, the subtle emphasis in verse 54 repeats the focus of verse 53 on the this (body). We can help the ESV with the “thises”: **When [this] perishable puts on the imperishable, and [this] mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass that saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?**
“Where you at, death? What you got?”
It’s an interesting “quotation,” because Paul is apparently referencing two Old Testament verses, and he sort of changes both of them, which is not really how we do quotes.
The first line comes from Isaiah 25:8. In its context Isaiah is praising Yahweh for the future “feast of rich food…of well-aged wine, or rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well-refined” (verse 6). Yahweh is going to “swallow up…the covering” and “the veil” that is “over all peoples…over all nations” (verse 7).
And in the LORD’s deliverance “He will swallow up death forever” (verse 8). Paul turns it into a passive statement (“death is swallowed up”) in 1 Corinthians 15:54, and changes “forever” into victory. To be swallowed up is to be overwhelmed; it is completely devoured. It can’t hurt us, and the hurt it did will be undone. Richard Lenski illustrates “The tornado is not merely checked so that no additional homes are wrecked while those that were wrecked still lie in ruin.”
Then Paul references Hosea 13:14. In that context the prophet is announcing the judgment of the LORD on Ephraim’s sin, and the questions about the pull and power of death are threats requiring repentance and reliance on the Lord. Apart from the LORD, death and Sheol punish sinners. As Paul uses the questions they are clearly comforts of resurrection in the Lord. “Where is your triumph, Death? You are defeated. Where is your sting, Death? You can harm no more.” The questions are a taunting, not because the enemy is imaginary but because the enemy has been undone.
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. These truths are not mysterious; these are why we need the gospel.
There are at least three ways to understand the sting of death is sin. It could mean that (spiritual) death stings us into sinning, or it could mean that when others die it stings those who remain (the least likely fit for the context), or it could mean that what is really painful about death is (the guilt of) sin. I think it’s the third option, since the primary point of the chapter has been about physical death not spiritual death, and since the next phrase relates sin to disobedience according to the law.
What makes death hurt is sin. It’s not just leaving the ones we love, but knowing that we’ve sinned against the ones we love. It’s not just preparing to meet our Maker, but knowing that we’ve offended His standard. This is sting that Jesus bore on our behalf.
Hence, the power of sin is the law. The law makes it clear what is sin, and, because of our sinful souls, the law even provokes more sin (Romans 7:8-10). Paul wrote a lot about this process to the Romans, but he had never been among them. Perhaps he gives it in shorthand to the Corinthians because he had taught them about it in person.
Our enemies are death and sin. The law isn’t bad (Romans 7:7, 12), but because of sin we use it badly. Death and sin are personified as adversaries, and that’s why we need Jesus. (In Him we are dead to sin in Romans 6, in Him we are dead to the law in Romans 7). Also, the author of Hebrews says that the devil uses death to cause fear, and he causes fear because he accuses us with the truth of the law (see Hebrews 2:14-15).
Death STINGS because of sin. Death STICKS because of law. But now it is blunted, like a spoon. It can still do damage, but not nearly as much as it used to.
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. This is our reason to celebrate. It is not what we have done for God, not what we have given to Him, but what God gives to us. After the frustration and humiliation of dealing with “this body of death,” we look to Jesus as the deliverer (as in Romans 7:25).
He gives us the victory, and it comes through Jesus in His resurrection. We defeat death in Jesus because Jesus is risen. We defeat sin because Jesus died in the place of all who would ever believe so that they could be forgiven. Praise before exhortation in verse 58.
Why all this resurrection focus? Because, the Corinthian had problems. Even more why? Because worldly philosophy seeps in. And even more than that why? Because VICTORY!
This I know, that God is for me.
In God, whose word I praise,
in the LORD, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
What can man do to me?
While we are threatened to be overwhelmed by guilt and death, guilt and death are swallowed up, they are overwhelmed by the work of Jesus. In Jesus we are being saved and we will all be changed.
There is sting now, but it’s dulled. In the resurrection, when the perishable puts on the imperishable, the sting will be non-existent. Death will be swallowed up forever, and every tear wiped away (Isaiah 25:8).
A final exhortation based on resurrection truth in verse 58 next week.
None of us have seen the risen Christ. So how can you give thanks to God who gives you the victory through Christ? You’re going to have to take God’s Word for it. And when you take God’s Word, you are receiving the implanted word which is able to save your soul (James 1:21). That word is an imperishable seed, it is the living and abiding word of God. It is in you, and it will equip you for life, for death, and to inherit the kingdom of God.
And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:32, ESV)