1 Corinthians 15:51–58
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.
There are two reasons why I chose this text for today. One is that today is the last Sunday of prayer week. And it has been our custom for some years to sandwich this week with a message on prayer and a message on the word. Our hope is that we as a church would pray in 2006 as never before and read and memorize and enjoy and obey Scripture as never before. So in keeping with that custom I chose this passage because, though it may not look like it, there is a very powerful incentive in it to read and memorize the Scripture for the sake of your soul.
The other reason that I chose this text is that it is the one I used when I shared the news of my prostate cancer with the staff and elders Tuesday a week ago. Most of you have received that news in the congregational letter, I presume, and if you haven’t you can read it online. So my second aim is to illustrate how God works by the word in the face of cancer.
Why Talk About One’s Own Sickness?
I want you to know that I am aware that there are dangers in talking about one’s own sickness in the pulpit. Let me mention three of these so that you can pray with me that they don’t come true.
The first danger is melodrama—that is, talking about one’s condition in an overblown or sensationalizing way. So please know, I am aware that many of you are dealing with things that make my situation look like chicken pox. I don’t’ want to make light of anyone’s illness by overstating my own.
The second danger would be to forget that I am pain free right now and have not dealt with the discouragements of long, drawn out suffering. So my faith has not been tested nearly as much as it will be some day, and to put myself forward as rising above extended suffering with triumphant faith would be untrue. By the grace of God my faith is strong. God has been good. But my test is still small—smaller than many of yours.
The third danger would be indulgence in self-pity. How pleasant it would be for the sinful ego to exploit this moment to try to awaken sympathy or admiration. You may recall from Desiring God that self-pity and boasting are both forms of pride. Self-pity is pride posing in the demeanor of weakness. And boasting is pride posing in the demeanor of strength. Both are pride and both are sinful.
So you should ask: In view of all these dangers, why did you choose to talk about this cancer in a sermon? There are two answers, one from experience, and one from the Scripture.
From experience I would say there is something terribly dysfunctional in a family when dad has cancer and nobody is talking about it. Dad’s not talking, and nobody knows how he feels about it, and everyone is afraid to ask him. So everyone is tiptoeing around the issue and everybody knows there is an elephant in the room, but no one can name it. A church is a kind of family. I, with the other elders, am a kind of father. And I want us to handle our sicknesses and our struggles in a healthy way. I hope I can set an example for how to do that—even if not a perfect one. (Incidentally, we had a deep and sweet time on Christmas evening when I shared this news with the family.)
The biblical reason for talking about it is the word of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8, “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8 So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” I think Paul is setting us an example here for how to be good shepherds, good fathers. We are eager to share with you both the gospel of God and our own selves. That’s the plan. So here we go.
The Transformation of Our Bodies
Let’s walk through this text and see the stupendous reality Paul has in view. And then how it encourages us to read and memorize the Scriptures, and how God works through it in the face of cancer.
Verse 51. The “mystery” that Paul speaks of in this verse is that at the second coming of Christ some Christians will have never died, and others will have died, but that the bodies of both will be changed. “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep [that is, die], but we shall all be changed.” Those whose bodies have decomposed in the ground will be changed, and those who have healthy living bodies will be changed.
Then he tells us how this will be. Verse 52. The first thing he says is that it will happen “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” There will be no process or development. Our change will be instantaneous, whether we are dead or alive.
Then he focuses on two things that will be changed about our bodies: their perishable condition and their mortal condition. Verses 53, “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” Perishable means that our bodies decay, wear out, run down. Mortal means that our bodies die. There is very great difference. You can die in the prime of your youth when the body is only increasing in strength and vigor. So Paul says that in the kingdom of God, when Jesus returns to establish it on the earth, our bodies will be changed so that there is no decay, no wearing, no running down, and no death. We will have new bodies—different from these so that they live forever and are capable of vastly greater joys (1 Corinthians 15:44), and yet like these so that we will know each other (as the disciples recognized Jesus in his resurrection body).
Victory Over Death: What it Is and How it Happens
Then Paul says in verses 54-55 that when this happens, when in the twinkling of an eye our bodies become imperishable and immortal, then the sayings from Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14 will come to pass. “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’”
There are two images here: swallowing and getting stung, perhaps by a scorpion (see Revelation 9:10). Paul says that at the second coming our death will be swallowed up in victory. And there will be no destructive sting in it. The swallowing image is helpful. It means that, even though death is a kind of defeat for us. It is an enemy Paul says: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). And this enemy gets an apparent victory. Just the way that death got an apparent victory over Jesus. But then Jesus rose from the dead, and what seemed like a defeat—and was a kind of defeat—proved to be the greatest victory of all. His death was swallowed up in victory. Indeed his death became part of the victory over death.
The other image—the sting—implies that there is a sharp, painful thrust against our soul when we die. And Paul says that it will be gone. It will not poison and it will not destroy. There will be no death in death. I say it paradoxically like that because it seems that’s what the absence of the lethal poison in a scorpion means. It stings you and tries to kill you and it can’t. I also say it this paradoxical way because Jesus spoke this way in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” There is no death in death for those who believe in Christ. The sting is gone.
Now Paul tells us how this can be. Verses 56-57, “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.” The sting of death is sin. What does that mean? It means that death is terrible because of sin. Death is death because of sin. Death is damnation and hell and gnashing of teeth and outer darkness because of sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Because of sin, death is punishment. It is the final sentence: away from God and away from joy into misery that never ends. That’s the sting. And that’s because of sin.
And then he says in verse 56b, “The power of sin is the law.” This punishment, this legal sentence of misery, has force and validity and authority and binding power because the law of God tells us what to do and renders God’s curse if we rebel—which we all have done. So what makes death terrifying is our sin, and what gives that terror such force is that the entire law of God stands behind it.
Then Paul says in verse 57, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Death is swallowed up in victory and the sting of death is gone because God did something—“thanks be to God!” And what he did was send Christ to satisfy all the demands of the law and bear all the penalty of our sin. Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” The curse of the law is satisfied, the sins are carried away. And therefore death is swallowed up in victory and the sting of death is gone.
For those who are in Christ, by faith, what remains for us at death is expressed by Paul in two ways: 2 Corinthians 5:8, “Away from the body and at home with the Lord.” And Philippians 1:21, “To die is gain.”
Now the way all this relates to reading and memorizing Scripture is contained in the word “therefore” at the beginning of verse 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.”
Paul intends—God intends—that there be a practical effect of what he has said. He intends for the effect to be verse 58. And the word “therefore” shows that he intends for verse 58 to happen because we know and remember verses 51-57. Christ has come. He has died for you. He took all your sins on himself. He satisfied the demands of the law for you. The sting of death is removed. There is no condemnation. No hell. No fear. Though your body be laid in the grave, Christ will come and the trumpet will sound, and this mortal body will put on immortality and this decomposing, decaying body will become imperishable. Death is swallowed up in a great, blood-bought, Christ-wrought victory. To die is gain. Away from the body, at home with the Lord. THEREFORE . . . .
Verse 58 is God’s will for my life—and yours. And Paul says, it happens THEREFORE, that is, because you know and remember what is in verses 51-57. Therefore our obedience to verse 58 rests largely on our reading and memorizing these verses. If you know it and you believe and you meditate on it and memorize it and remember it, it will fill your mind and your heart in such a way that verse 58 happens.
Three words describe the obedience of verse 58. Therefore, 1) be steadfast, 2) be immovable, 3) abound in the work of the Lord.
“Steadfast” means steady as you move forward. Keep on going and don’t let up. Don’t be given to fits and starts. Put your hand on the plow and don’t take it off till your work is done. Steady movement forward till your work is done.
“Immovable” means don’t get knocked over by sudden blows. Keep your balance. Stand strong and unshaken when the rains come down and the floods come up and the winds blow and beat against your house. Be like a boulder that can’t get washed away. Be like a tree that can’t get blown down.
“Abounding in the work of the Lord” means do lots of it. “Abound in” means “overflow with.” Fill your days with things that count for Christ. Pray and dream and plan and then work, work . . . work while it is day.
This happens, Paul says, because you have heard and believe verses 51-57. You have read and memorized and meditated on and believed deep in your soul that death is swallowed up in victory. O Bethlehem, read and memorize the Scriptures this year. How many mighty therefores will come true in your life, if you give yourself to the reading and knowing and remembering the great truth of Scripture!
Word, Prayer, Peace
On December 21 when the urologist said, “Your prostate feels irregular, we need to do a biopsy,” and left me in the room alone to get ready, a stab of fear went through my heart. I had no Bible with me, but I had my memory. I prayed and called to mind the promises of God. And Christ came by his word with the sweetest peace, and I almost fell asleep on the table before the doctor came back.
And that’s the way we have walked together since then. Word, prayer, peace. He has come to me in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” Among the thousands of good things God is doing through this cancer, I know one of them beyond the shadow of a doubt: it is to make me rely less upon myself and more upon God. That is crystal clear. I thank God for this mercy.
He has come to me in 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” John Piper is not destined for wrath, Christ died so whether I died or live, I live with him. What a great salvation we have! Do you have this?
He has come to me in Psalm 4:7-8, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” I thank God for the gift of peace and sleep. It has come every night.
Finally, he has come to me in today’s text: Death is swallowed up in victory because of Christ. Therefore, be steadfast, immovable, and work your fanny off for Christ and his kingdom. I said to the elders, “Settling it in your mind and heart by grace that Christ is real is a wonderfully energizing thing.”
That’s what the “therefore” of verse 58 means. Know the Christ who conquered your death, and know how he did it—read that, memorize that—and then pray, and God will give you peace and strength and a passion for his cause in the world. I am deeply thankful for your prayers.