“There is a preacher of the old school, but he speaks as boldly as ever. He is not popular, though the world is his parish, and he travels every part of the globe and speaks in every language. He visits the poor, calls upon the rich, preaches to people of every religion and no religion. And the subject of his sermon is always the same.
He is an eloquent preacher, often stirring feelings which no other preacher could and bringing tears to eyes that never weep. His arguments none are able to refute, nor is there any heart that has remained unmoved by the force of his appeals. He shatters life with his message. Most people hate him, everyone fears him. His name? Death. Every tombstone is his pulpit. Every newspaper prints his text. And some day, every one of you will be his sermon.”
Those words were penned by an old preacher, and they speak to the issue before us in our text.
Good morning. Please open your copies of God’s word to 1 Corinthians 15. 1 Corinthians 15.
On Sunday Evenings we have been working through Paul’s letter to the church of God in the ancient Greek city of Corinth. This church body was quite dysfunctional, as we have seen. They squabbled over leadership, over ethics, over food, over the Lord’s Supper, over what worship should look like. In fact, in those regards, the church in Corinth sounds a lot like the church in America.
Then we get to chapter 15. Paul’s finished addressing secondary things, and moves onto matters of first importance. Specifically, he addresses their flawed views on the resurrection. There were some people in Corinth who were teaching that there is no resurrection from the dead. It is impossible. It doesn’t make sense. Dead, and certainly dead people, don’t come back to life.
And so Paul has spent this entire chapter refuting their error. Today we will conclude Paul’s teaching on the doctrine of the resurrection. We get to see his crescendo, the climax, the conclusion, and as we will see, it is a glorious conclusion indeed.
Let’s begin by reading our text, 1 Corinthians 15, starting in verse 50 and going through the end:
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.
We’ll work our way through our text this morning by noticing 4 points, which you can remember with these 4 words. First , we will see a tragedy, then a mystery, then victory, and then our duty. Tragedy, mystery, victory, duty.
First, let’s look at verse 50 and see the tragedy of man’s condition. The tragedy of Man’s condition.
50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
Paul in this verse is making a transitional statement from the preceding section into the new one. He’s concluding what he was saying before, which was that the bodies that we have, our flesh and blood, cannot inherit the kingdom of God.
The fleshly bodies cannot go to the spiritual realm. Earthly frames, made from the dust, cannot dwell in the heavenly kingdom.
And why is that? Well therein we see the tragedy. It’s not because all physical bodies are inherently wicked or polluted. God made man and woman in Genesis, and declared his creation good, very good.
The tragedy lies in what mankind decided to do with their bodies. Even though we were made in God’s image, man decided to imitate someone else instead. Through temptation and deception, Man chose to image the serpent, rather than image God.
He ignored the blessings that God had given him, and instead chose to take what didn’t belong to him. He stole from God, sinning against the holy creator, and earning death as his sentence.
He also became a murder. By sentencing himself and all of his children to death, he murdered himself and his offspring. But not only that; who else is called a murderer in scripture?
Jesus says that Satan is a murderer and has been so from the beginning. So, when Adam chose murder instead of life, he chose to act in the image of Satan, rather than in the image of God.
And so man was sentenced to death; him and all his children.
Thus, each of us are born Sons of Adam. We carry his sinful image. We bear his fallen likeness. Just like Paul says in verse 48, “As was the man of dust (that’s adam), so also are those who are of the dust (that’s us).”
That means that in this age we have bodies that are limited. They’re simply from the dust. But they’re not merely limited by capacity. They are also limited because of sin.
Each of us inherits a sinful frame, and then chooses to act according to that sinful frame. We whine and complain, rather than being content. We murder people like our father did, maybe not with our hands, but certainly with our thoughts and our words.
We steal from people, just like our father did, maybe not fruit like Adam, but we steal from God by not giving him what is due to him, and steal from others by withholding what is due them, or being stingy or being greedy, or we steal from our employer when we don’t work as faithfully as we should.
Whatever our sin, scripture makes clear that the wages of sin is death. Death and the grave is where we end up. The dust will return to the dust. Earthly people cannot get into heaven. That’s the major point: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.
You need to be re-made. You’re not fit to enter into the spiritual realm. You need to be saved from the grave, saved from Sin, and then re-formed into a being that is fit for the heavenly places.
How do I do that? Jesus speaks of needing to be re-born, born again, born of the Spirit, born of the kingdom, born of heaven. That’s what we need.
If you want the kingdom, if you want heaven, if you want hope beyond the grave, if you want peace and rest, if you want to avoid eternal judgment and death, then you need to be reborn, not in the image of the man of dust, but in the image of the man of heaven.
And scripture is clear, you don’t get that new image by flesh and blood. You can’t muscle your way into the kingdom. You can’t try to work yourself into heaven. Your striving and your vows and your duties and your penance and even your prayers are in and of themselves powerless to affect such a re-birth.
What you need is divine action. You need a savior, a liberator, a conqueror. Christ has done that. He’s lived the perfect life, fulfilling all righteousness, so that the grave could be defeated. His perfection allows his people to be liberated from the power of sin. And his resurrection means that he has conquered death and the grave, the ultimate enemy of all mankind.
And so I ask you: Do you have Christ as your savior? Do you know him, and do you love him? This is the most important question in all of your life. You must have an answer. Each of us will face death and the grave, if the Lord tarries.
They say in sports that Father Time is the only undefeated champ, which is quite a biblical notion. Death approaches us all, and you are one day closer to your own death today than you were yesterday. That’s why Paul describes us as perishable in verse 50. We have an expiration date, just like your jug of milk in the fridge.
We don’t know our dates, but we know there is one.
Man likes to try and hide death. We talk about it with nice sounding terms like “he passed away” or “he’s finally at rest.” But that doesn’t fool anyone. Death is stark and cold and brutal. No matter how we butter up the language, it is still there, looming ahead of each of us.
Changing the language doesn’t change the reality. It’s just like the bodies we see in the casket at the funeral, caked with makeup to try and make the body look like it did when the person was alive, but it never really works, not in my experience anyway. It doesn’t matter how much makeup you put on death, it will never mask the true reality.
Death is inevitable, and terrible. So, what is your response to it? Do you fear your death? Does it concern you at all? Do you run from it or distract yourself from the idea of it?
Do you recognize that your death, without Christ, means that you cannot inherit the kingdom? You’re unfit, unwelcome to enter the heavenly realm. You’re covered in sin, your still in the image of the man of dust.
You will be as unwelcome in heaven as Adam was in the garden after he stole from God. Holiness cannot dwell with unholiness. Light has no company with darkness.
So, to you unbelievers present, what will your fate be? Tragic as your condition is, it is not insolvable. God has provided a way. And that way is to learn of Jesus Christ, the perfect substitute sent to die in the place of his people. He bore the punishment earned by their sin.
He died a gruesome death, that we might be forgiven. And he was raised, so that we might have life, eternal life, heavenly life, spiritual life.
Trust in that Christ, and you too can be changed. You can be born again. You can be re-made, not in the image of dust, but in the image of the man of heaven. That’s the promise that Paul makes in verse 49. And that promise is open to every one of you today. Trust in that, and have your tragic situation transformed into something glorious.
And that transformation is the focus of our next point, seen in verses 51-53: the mystery of transformation. The mystery of transformation.
Verse 51 begins:
51 Behold! I tell you a mystery.
Paul says: Behold. Head’s up. Pay attention. “I tell you a mystery.” Paul’s not talking here about some puzzle, or a riddle. When he speaks of mystery in the New Testament, he’s talking about something that was previously unknown, but now known. Something previously concealed, but now revealed.
For example, He uses that same word “mystery” to refer to the plan of God to bring the gentiles into salvation in Romans 11:25. That was cloudy in the Old Testament, but now made clear with the coming of the gospel.
Likewise, in Ephesians 5, Paul is talking about marriage, about a husband and a wife, and then Paul makes a wonderful statement: “32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” Marriage, from the beginning with Adam and Eve, was meant to be a picture of Christ and the church.
But that picture wasn’t made clear to us until after Christ had come and shown us what marriage was intended to be from the beginning. It was a mystery: first concealed but now revealed.
So back to our text. What is the mystery? The mystery is our transformation. We will be changed, Paul says. We will be changed.
Changed here doesn’t mean what it means down in the nursery hallway. Changed is used elsewhere in the new testament for the putting on of a new garment. The dead will put on something new, they will be put on immortality, Paul said in the previous section.
That raises a question though. But Paul, what about those people that are alive when Jesus comes back? Will they be changed too?
Yes. We all will, Paul says. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
Paul’s addressing here the opposite question to that he addresses in 1 Thessalonians 4. In that letter he’s addressing people worried about those who had already died. What about them? What will God do for them at the end? Will they miss the coming of Jesus because they are in the grave? Paul says no.
Here in Corinth, Paul addresses the other side of the question. What about the people alive when Christ returns? If the dead are transformed, what about those who are alive when Jesus comes back?
Paul says very clearly, we shall not all sleep, which means sleep in the grave, we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed. Everybody that has trusted in Christ, whether 1 minute ago or a thousand years ago, will be changed. Whether they are alive at the coming of Christ, or whether their body was lost at sea or has decayed in a grave centuries ago, all will be raised and changed.
I imagine it will be like Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament. They were the only two people in the old testament not to experience death. And yet, on the basis of this passage, we can firmly believe that they were changed.
At some point between their departure from earth and their arrival in heaven, they were transformed. They were changed. And those who are alive at the moment of Christ’s return will experience something similar.
What will this change be like? Will it be some sort of process? No, Paul says, it will be in a moment. in a twinkling of an eye. Instantaneous. We’d say it in English like in a split second.
The word Paul uses for moment is actually the word from which we get our word Atom (ATOM). It was the Greek idea of an indivisible unit. Something that could not be reduced any further; can’t get any smaller. And so the point is that the amount of time it will take for us to be changed is the smallest unit of time possible.
In the blink of an eye. And when will it happen? At the sound of the last trumpet, Paul says. A trumpet will coincide with the return of Christ, and the whole world, all of creation will know.
Trumpets are mentioned several times in scripture. In Exodus 19 God calls for a trumpet to be blown to bring Israel to Mount Sinai to meet with him. Trumpets are also used to sound the last battle cry in Jeremiah 51, to warn of an approaching day of judgment in Joel 2, to announce the coming of the Lord in Zechariah 9, and to summon God’s people from the four corners of the earth in Isaiah 27.
We won’t go into it, but I think that each of those is filling in the background of this text. When Christ returns, the trumpet will be blown, signaling for his people to meet with him on His Holy Mountain.
Likewise, the trumpet will simultaneously signal the judgment for unbelievers, and victory for God’s people. Further, the trumpet blast will also summon God’s people from across the globe and throughout the ages, to rise unto glory.
And that’s where Paul goes next. 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.
That’s the mystery of the transformation. An instantaneous, global, resurrection that comes when Christ returns, and that results in glorious change.
The language Paul uses in 53 is interesting to me. He says the perishable body must put on the imperishable, and the mortal must put on immortality. The word for PUT ON is the ordinary word for getting dressed. For putting on clothes.
We’re given renewed garments, and shedding the old, dusty garments, and putting on new, glorious, heavenly garments. It makes me think of the parable of the wedding feast. We’re given the new clothes, proper for the occasion. We’re made fit for entry into the celebration. And our old grubby clothes are gone.
That’s a glorious mystery, that was previously unclear, but has been made clear with the coming of the gospel.
And it is that mystery that leads to clear victory. That’s our third point for us to see in verses 54-57. Victory over death. Christ’s Victory over death.
Look at verse 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.”
When Christ returns and this moment of change happens, the body is transformed. Death is no longer victorious. I love the language that Paul uses. The verb is powerful: Death is swallowed up.
In Hebrews 11:29, the same word used to describe the Egyptian armies of Pharaoh who were consumed, or swallowed up, by the Red Sea. The enemy army was defeated so thoroughly that they will never be able to harass the people of God again.
The same will be true of Death. Death is swallowed up, consumed into oblivion by the glorious victory of Jesus Christ.
And this victory is so certain to Paul, that he can go on to even taunt death. He’s mocking death, because he is so confident in Christ’s victory:
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
He’s alluding here to a couple of passages in the Old Testament, the first is in Isaiah 25, and the second is Hosea 13:14. The word sting can refer to the stinger and venom found within a scorpion or other kind of insects.
It is as if Paul is saying we all are born with death’s sting, death’s venom in us. Some of us are affected quickly by the venom, and die young. Others are more resilient, and live longer. But all of us will succumb to the fatal venom of death.
But, because of Christ, we’ve been given the antidote. Death’s venom no longer has the final word. Death is a defeated foe. He may still have his effects now, but he will not have the final word. He’s lost his victory. Christ has become the victor, the champion over death.
Now the next verse is interesting, and it might feel a little jarring to us. If we have heard this passage read at a funeral, and we transition to the glorious, lyrical style of verse 55 into 56 which reads like a theology textbook, we may be wondering what Paul is doing.
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.
What I think Paul is doing is showing that when death is defeated, so too are all the enemies that have brought death to all, namely: sin and the law.
The first half of 56 is plain enough: the sting of death is sin. In the bible, sin is like a deadly poison that spreads, and it inevitably leads to death. Sin always leads to death. But, in Paul’s logic, since death has been defeated by Christ, then so too has sin been defeated.
The second half of the verse is a little more complicated, especially since Paul hasn’t really been dealing with the law explicitly very much in this letter. He certainly does in Romans and Galatians, but he doesn’t get much into law in talking to the Corinthians.
But with a little thought, we can figure out the connection. The law is that which makes sin known. It tells us what is wrong, what is unrighteous, what is wicked.
Further, the law also pronounces punishment. The wages of sin is death. The law reveals who are the sinners, and then it proclaims that those sinners must die. The law itself isn’t something wicked. In fact, Paul writes elsewhere that the law is good if one uses it lawfully.
But in a world full of sinful people, the law is our enemy because it ONLY can pronounce us as sinners deserving of death. We experience God’s good law as our enemy because as sinners we are powerless against it. The law can and must condemn us, because it is good and holy and we are not.
But, when Christ has defeated death, thereby removing the consequences of the law for believers, we no longer have the law as our prosecuting attorney. It’s no longer there, calling us out as GUILTY. GUILTY. SINNER. PUT HIM TO DEATH.
Because of Christ, the law goes from simply condemning us, to being what it really is, a good standard of holiness.
The power of sin is the law, meaning that as long as the law condemns us, sin holds us in its power, and we are condemned to death. But when death is defeated, sin no longer has power, and we are liberated from the law’s curse.
That’s good news. And that good news leads Paul to praise God in the next verse
57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Victory in Jesus. That’s the inheritance of every believer. Death has had its stinger removed. He’s a toothless nuisance. Henry says that for a believer: death may hiss, but it cannot hurt.
All because of Christ’s work. He was made sin, so that we might be freed from it. He was condemned by the law in our place, so that we might be freed from the curses of the law. And he experienced death, so that through his death, we might have eternal life.
Thanks be to God, indeed.
Lastly, we’ve seen the tragedy, the mystery, the victory, and now let’s look at the final verse of the chapter and see our duty. Our duty.
Paul has spent 57 verses explaining and defending the biblical doctrine of the resurrection. And now he gives them 1 verse of practical application. 57 to 1. Do you think Paul would say that Doctrine is important? I think so.
Especially this doctrine, the resurrection. It is a matter of first importance, Paul says.
OK Paul. What would you have us do with this doctrine? Verse 58:
58 Therefore, In light of everything I’ve just said, the past 57 verses on the resurrection, therefore
my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable,
Be steadfast and immovable. We might translate them: be fixed, do not allow yourself to be moved. These are the same ideas we get in Colossians 1:23, when he says, “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard,”
Don’t move. Stand firm. Don’t be tossed about on every wind and wave of doctrine. Specifically, don’t move from this doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. I think he’s connecting specifically to verse 2 at the beginning of the chapter when he says:
Now I would remind you, brothers,[a] of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you
There is a danger. A danger of drifting. A danger of shifting. A danger of caving to pressure, or being distracted by novelty, or of trying to appear cool and relevant and intellectually reputable in the eyes of the world.
Don’t do that. Stand here, on the doctrine. That’s a simple enough application. Each of us will face various temptations to shift on our doctrine. To nip and tuck the parts of the bible are a little offensive to the world.
Paul would say, don’t do it. Stand firm. Don’t budge. The doctrines of the gospel are too important, they’re of first importance, and so don’t give them up. This gospel is the thing in which you stand and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast. So be fixed. Immovable.
Then Paul says something that sounds counter intuitive. Be steadfast, immovable,
always abounding in the work of the Lord,
It seems backwards: Be steadfast, but don’t just stand there. Be fixed, but don’t be stationary. Be immovable, and get a move on.
But that’s the Christian life. Fixed on doctrine, and busy doing the Lord’s work. Take note how good doctrine should always lead to good works.
A pagan might have the opposite logic. They might say, “if I’m going to be raised to glory no matter what, who cares what I do here and now. Let’s party it up. I’m not going to strain myself here, if the heavenly realm is already secure.”
But that’s the opposite of what a believer ought to feel. The believer instead has experienced Divine love in such a way that they are never content to just sit back and try and coast into the kingdom.
No, we love because He first loved us, John says in his first letter. And because we have experienced divine love in the work of Christ, and because we know what forgiveness and satisfaction are found in Christ, we can’t help but pursuing our good works.
We know that Christ will return, and he will reward according to faithfulness, and we want to be found to be faithful in Christ’s appearing.
Lastly, take note of perhaps the most encouraging motivation for perseverance in good works:
Always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
In the Lord, your labor is not in vain. How many of us have ever gotten tired of doing something in the Christian life? Tired of the same conversations with our children or with our spouse or with our employee?
Tired of the same old battles, the same routine, or even tired of saying the same old prayers? It can seem like this life is hopeless. That there will never be any change. And so we can give up. We can despair. We can succumb to apathy or laziness or depression and just give in and give up.
But Paul would have you remember that your work in the Lord is never in vain. What you do for the kingdom is never lost.
The same power that resurrected Jesus on Easter Sunday is also listening to each and every one of your prayers, and he’s working right now in a million more ways than you could ever imagine. He can’t not hear you. And he will answer you, in this life or the next.
When you’re tired of the same old battles, remember that sin does not have the victory. That Christ is the victor. And that he has promised you victory over sin and death.
And when you feel like death might be closer to you than ever before, strengthen yourself for the journey by remembering the sweet promises of this passage.
Christ has overcome the grave, defeated death, pulled the venom out of sin, and transformed death into simply a porter, who takes you through your journey into everlasting glory, in to the heavenly realm, where the earthly puts on the spiritual, and the mortal puts on immortality.
That’s the best news we could ever ask for. And it is yours if you’re trusting in Christ.
 Quoted by John MacArthur, without attribution: https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/1882/victory-over-death (accessed 7/16/23).