Resurrection and Transformation Spell Ultimate Defeat - 1 Corinthians 15:50-58
Sermon Series: Confused?
This week I want to begin by asking you to think about a very sad and terrible time in human history – I want you to think about the time when Nazi Germany was exerting its power and influence over parts of Europe. It is one of the darkest times in human history as one party of people sought to destroy and eliminate an entire people group. We’ve heard the stories of the atrocities that took place in the Jewish concentration camps and we’ve seen some of the pictures. And yet those stories and pictures will never be able to communicate to us just how terrible and frightening it must have been to have been separated from your family and placed in such a torturous environment.
Now I want you to think about the way in which America and its allies chose to deal with Hitler and the rest of the Nazi party. There was no negotiating or compromise – the only option was to completely and totally destroy the Nazi party. Just imagine if America and its allies had Skyped Hitler one afternoon and said, “We’re coming in to fight against you. If you want to survive this invasion we demand that you release all the Jews who are currently in your concentration camps to us. If you do that, then we will end the invasion and go home – taking those Jews who had been incarcerated with us. What you do after we leave is up to you and what you do with the Jews who are not presently in your concentration camps is up to you. But we are coming in to fight and to set those held captive free. When we do, then we will return to our countries.” OR what if America and its allies said this: “We’re coming in to fight against you. If you want to survive this invasion we demand that you allow all the Jews who are not presently imprisoned in concentration camps to be brought safely into our countries. We realize that there are many whom you have already imprisoned and that they are presently under your control. Our intention is not to do anything with them and to leave them under your control. But we are coming to take away your claim on those Jews whom you have yet to capture, imprison, and kill. When we have all of them in our possession then we will call off the invasion and return to our countries and our homes.”
It’s hard to imagine America and its allies saying something like that to such an evil and wicked individual and party. Hitler and the Nazi party needed to be rendered completely powerless – not negotiated with. Had America and its allies negotiated with Hitler and the Nazis in either of the ways imagined above, then the man and the party would still have possessed power. In one scenario, while those imprisoned would have been freed, the Nazis still would have had a claim on the Jews who had managed to (for the time) escape capture. They still would have had the opportunity to hunt them down and to place them in their concentration camps. In the other scenario, while those who had not been captured would have been permitted to leave Europe and permitted to take up residency in another country, those who had been incarcerated would have remained imprisoned. In both of those scenarios both Hitler and the Nazi party would have been left with some of their power and influence in place. While they may have suffered a partial defeat – losing either the Jews who had already been imprisoned or their claim on the ones who were still hiding away – the power and influence they had been left with would have made it clear that they had not suffered ultimate defeat. America and its allies had to invade and both set free those who had been imprisoned and remove any claim that Hitler and the Nazis had on those who were in hiding. Only then would the Nazi party be rendered powerless and be dealt ultimate defeat.
In much the same way death is presently exerting his power and influence on all of humanity. The good news is that God sent His only Son, Jesus, to invade the world where sin, Satan, and death were ruling. And Jesus’ mission was to destroy those enemies. But death’s ultimate defeat will not come until he is rendered completely powerless. That means those presently held in his grasp must be set free and that those on which he has laid his claim must be transformed so that he no longer has any claim on their lives. When that happens death will be left completely powerless and ultimately destroyed. And the great news is that Jesus’ resurrection assures us that that time is coming!
In the verses we examined last week (vs. 35-49) we saw that the future resurrection of believers involved a bodily transformation. Paul taught that the body individuals possess while residing on earth was a natural body that had been crafted and designed for life on earth. He also taught that our natural bodies are perishable bodies which daily experience the consequences that sin has brought upon them (ultimately leading to death). But those aren’t the bodies that are going to be raised when Jesus returns to earth. When Jesus returns to earth, Paul said that our dead, natural bodies would be transformed and that a new spiritual body would be raised – one which will be crafted and designed for an eternal existence and which no longer has to experience sin and its consequences. Paul also taught that our hope for a future resurrection and a bodily transformation was grounded in the work of Jesus and His resurrection. Because we are (by birth) descendants of Adam we are united with him in sin and death. But the unbelievable news of the gospel is that through faith we can become united to Jesus and we can know the salvation He offers and the resurrection which He has already experienced.
In the text we are going to examine this week (verses 50-58) Paul concluded the portion of his letter in which he dealt with the topic of the future resurrection of believers in Christ. We begin this week in verse 50 where Paul stated a foundational truth about heaven, “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” Those believers in Corinth (as well as present day believers) had only known and experienced an earthly existence - none of them had ever experienced any time in heaven. As a result, all they could know about heaven was what Jesus and the Holy Spirit had revealed to them through the apostles. So here Paul clarified part of the instruction which he had received: earthly bodies (i.e. flesh and blood) which are perishable (i.e. moving towards death) are incapable of a heavenly existence where sin is not present and where all things are eternal. This was (and is) a foundational truth and building block upon which we must build our understanding of heaven.
Whenever we begin to build our understanding of heaven there are certain foundational building blocks which we have to have in place. Heaven is the dwelling place of God the Father, where He is seated on His throne ruling and reigning over all things (see for example Isaiah 6:1). Additionally, scripture teaches us that God’s greatest character attribute is His holiness (see for example Isaiah 6:2 and Revelation 4:8) – which means that He is set apart in perfect righteousness. So in the dwelling place of the holy, eternal God (Genesis 1:1; John 1:1-2; and Revelation 4:8) there can be no sin. And if there is no sin then there are none of sin’s consequences – there is no hurt, no sadness, no pain, and no death. Therefore, bodies which have been marred by sin and which are moving towards death cannot enter a place where there is no sin and no death. These things have no place in the presence of God the Father or in His dwelling place.
So in the next verses (verses 51-52) Paul unpacked the significance of what he had declared in verse 50. “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 imperishable, and we [those who are alive when Jesus returns] shall be changed.” The ‘mystery’ Paul was about to share with the Corinthians wasn’t something that was still hidden at the time he was sharing it. Paul called it a mystery because it once had been hidden – but now, through Jesus’ own resurrection, it had become known. So what was the mystery? Up to this point, Paul’s emphasis had been on the future resurrection and transformation that those believers in Christ who had died would experience. But in verses 51-52 Paul said that there would be some believers in Christ who would not die before Jesus returned a second time (i.e. “we shall not all sleep”). So what about those individuals? In last week’s text, using the illustration of the seed to argue against the belief held by some that there would be no resurrection for believers in Christ who had died , Paul had said, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (15:36). Paul argued beautifully that God had already demonstrated in nature that He could take one body (i.e. a seed) which had died and give it new life and a new body (i.e. a plant). And if God had already demonstrated his ability to do that in nature why was it so difficult to believe that He could do the same to a believer in Christ who had passed away. Furthermore, Jesus’ resurrection had served as (a) an example that God was able to do that and (b) certainty that God was going to do that (see 15:20). So Paul had made the case for the future resurrection and transformation of believers who had died, assuring them of their eternity in heaven. But what about those who will still be alive when Jesus returns? If “what you sow does not come to life unless it dies” what will Jesus’ return mean for those who are believers in Christ but are still alive? Paul’s answer was “we shall all be changed.” Yes, it is true that when Jesus returns those who were believers in Him and who have died “will be raised imperishable.” But it isn’t only the dead who will be transformed and who will inherit the kingdom of God. Paul said all (including those who will still be alive when Jesus returns) will be changed.
Why will those who are believers in Christ and who are still alive at Jesus’ second coming also be transformed? Because they too are promised an eternity with God, and if they are going to be living in a new environment they have to have a body suited for that environment. “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (verse 53). It goes back to Paul’s illustration of the seed from last week. A seed possesses a body crafted and designed by God to be submerged in soil, but in order to live and to thrive outside of the soil it must take on a new body designed and crafted for that purpose (e.g. a plant, flower, or tree). If “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom,” and if the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable, then the perishable and mortal bodies of the believers in Jesus who are still living when He returns must also experience a transformation.
Paul then moved on to declare what this would mean – when both the dead in Christ are raised with imperishable bodies and the living are transformed and put on a body that is imperishable. “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.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting’” (verses 54-55). When Jesus returns, not only will death lose its grip on the believers who have died, but he will lose his claim on believers who are still alive, as they are transformed never to experience death. At that time death will be rendered completely powerless. Paul reminded the believers in Corinth that the prophet Isaiah had foreseen this time and had already written about it. In Isaiah 25:8 the prophet Isaiah had written, “He [i.e. God] will swallow up death forever.” Isaiah had foreseen a time in which death experienced an ultimate defeat – where death would literally be swallowed up forever. And Paul declared that that time would come when Jesus returns again. When Jesus returns again then the believers who have died will be given new life and transformed bodies and the believers who are still alive will be transformed and will never experience death’s power and grip on their lives. Their transformation will usher them into an eternal existence and death will be known no more. So in a taunt that sounds very much like what the prophet Hosea wrote in Hosea 13:14 Paul rejoiced in that coming day, asking death where his victory and sting were. Paul knew that while that ultimate defeat had not yet been realized, death’s fate had already been sealed in Jesus’ own resurrection, and so he rejoiced and celebrated in what was to come.
In verse 56 Paul made a couple of theological statements about sin and death before exhorting the church at Corinth to live out some of the implications of these truths. Paul wrote, “The sting of death is sin.” Paul was reminding the church at Corinth that death wasn’t the result of a normal process of decay that all humans go through. He was reminding them that sin was (and is) the deadly sting that has led every individual to death. Then he continued, “and the power of sin is the law.” This was a note on the role that the law has played in the death we are all deserving of. One commentator expressed it well when he wrote, “. . . the law not only makes sin observable as sin, but also, and more significantly, demonstrates that one’s actions are finally over against God, and thus leads to condemnation. The law, which is good, functions as the agent of sin because it either leads to pride of achievement, on the one hand, or reveals the depth of one’s depravity and rebellion against God, on the other. In either case, it (i.e. the law) becomes death-dealing instead of life-giving.” That’s the tragic reality of where the law leads us. The law opens the eyes of some to see the depth of their depravity and the extent of their sin against a holy God, and causes them to realize their separation from God. To others the law becomes a source of pride (like it was for the Pharisees). They (in their limited understanding) see the law as a to-do list and keep it (in their opinion) perfectly. As a result it becomes their certificate of guarantee, demonstrating that they have lived a right life and are deserving of God’s favor. But the reality is that either way sin still prevails and death still comes to all. So Paul rejoiced in verse 57, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus.” Paul understood that it wasn’t the law which had granted him salvation, forgiveness of sin, and the assurance of eternal life with God the Father. It was God who had made those things available to him through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Paul was unable to live a perfect life, but Jesus had. Paul was unable to atone for the sins in his life, but Jesus had by shedding His own blood. Paul was unable to endure the wrath of God and the death that his sin deserved, but Jesus had - enduring a brutal scourging, a horrific crucifixion, and three days of death. Paul was unable to overpower death and escape his grip, but Jesus had, proving His victory by rising again and showing Himself to many eyewitnesses. When there was no law he could keep to earn God’s forgiveness and favor, no good works he could do to earn God’s forgiveness and favor, and he was both helpless and hopeless of being forgiven and reconciled, God did for Paul what he could not do for himself. God sent the prefect substitute – His only Son, Jesus, who (through His perfect life, substitutionary death, and resurrection) purchased Paul’s forgiveness and salvation for him. It was in realization of these truths (i.e. death’s defeat and his [Paul’s] future resurrection, which are solely a result of God’s work through Jesus) that Paul was rejoicing.
So Paul concluded with an exhortation to the church at Corinth in light of death’s ultimate defeat. “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” (verse 58). The gospel that they were to remember and reflect on was not only news that their sins have been forgiven and their penalty paid in full. The gospel also assured them that they will be resurrected and transformed to spend an eternity in the presence of God the Father and their Savior, Jesus. Because that was true Paul exhorted the Corinthians, here at the end of the letter, to more than simply ethical or moral behavior. Paul exhorted the Corinthians to the daily and life-long commitment to and service of proclaiming the gospel! We have seen throughout this letter that some in the church at Corinth had waivered from the true gospel and the implications of that gospel upon their lives. They had not remained steadfast and immovable. So Paul exhorted them to fix that – to be a people who remained steadfastly committed to the gospel as it had been proclaimed to them and not to move from it. Additionally, they were always to be abounding in the work of the Lord. This was a reference to the work of proclaiming the gospel and to faithfully living out the implications of the gospel that he had sought to correct in the church at Corinth through this letter. Death’s ultimate defeat didn’t mean that they were to live life pursuing their own wants, desires, and longings, and then occasionally (when it was easy, convenient, or comfortable) sprinkle in a little Jesus. They were to be abounding in the work of the Lord. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines ‘abound’ as “to be present in large numbers or in great quantity.” The believers in Corinth, because of death’s ultimate defeat, were to be doing the work of the Lord in large numbers and quantity. But to do this on occasion wasn’t enough! They were to be “always abounding in the work of the Lord.” So at home, in the office, at school, during practice, in the sorority house, at the grocery store, at the restaurant, or wherever they were, they were to always be abounding in the work of the Lord.
Paul wasn’t just saying this! Paul modeled this every day of his own life. And because he did he was ridiculed, beaten, imprisoned, and stoned. But every day he got up with the resolve to always be abounding in the work of the Lord. How could he do that? Because he knew that his future resurrection, made certain by Jesus’, meant that laboring in this way would not be in vain. Brothers and sisters in Christ – we have to reflect daily on all of the gospel! We have to remember the hope of the resurrection! And then we have to resolve to live lives which are always abounding in the work of the gospel! Christ is coming back! When he does every knee will bow in recognition and worship! And when He comes – whether we are dead or alive – if we are believers in Christ we will be transformed and ushered into the presence of God the Father for all eternity. And regardless of the fruitfulness which you experienced in this life, you will know that your time on earth was spent being poured out in the service of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords doing what He called you to do. That is not work that is done in vain! That is work that is done to His great glory!