Studies in First Corinthiansby Bob Burridge ©2019
Lesson 47: 1 Corinthians 15:51-58 (ESV)
The Final Victory
Some of you might remember the old A-Team show on television back in the 80’s. George Peppard’s character Hannibal, would always say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”
Whenever we work hard on something it’s rewarding to see our plans completed. I remember when my dad made our pontoon boat in our little basement in Buffalo. It took months to put it all together. Each of the two huge plywood pontoons was like a boat in itself. There was a frame to build that formed the hull. Then it was covered with marine plywood. The seams were sealed with fiberglass, and finally the finished pontoons were painted.
Next the deck was built with a railing around it and a frame to support an awning. A helm was made for steering, and motor mounts and cables were installed. It all had to be taken outside piece by piece to assemble it for the custom welded trailer.
Finally the day came to launch it. All that work paid off as we cruised along the Erie Canal lounging on the deck under the awning, charcoal grill going, and waiving to other boaters going by. The work on that boat was all well worth it — when the plan came together.
It’s rewarding when something we’ve planned out and worked hard for is actually finished. We work hard in school to finally finish each grade level, and finally get a diploma. When we learn to drive we have to study all those detailed rules of the road, and learn how to operate a vehicle. It’s worth all that work when we finally can drive on our own.
Our time here on earth is challenging too while God’s plan for us and for his world isn’t yet complete. We have to deal with the consequences of violating God’s ways. We struggle with our weaknesses and temptations, the grief of poor judgments — those of others as well as our own. We battle against stress, sickness, injury, hatred, apathy, crime, and war.
One day, God’s great plan for us
will reach its ultimate goal.
1 Corinthians 15:51-54
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.”
When Paul tells us that this is a mystery, he doesn’t mean it the way we use the word today. This isn’t some obscure problem where the answer has to be figured out by deduction. The word here means a “truth” [“mustaerion” (μυστήριον)] that must be made known from someone who knows it. In the mystery religions at that time there were secrets passed on to new initiates. Paul used the word to mean that God knows things he makes known to us. It’s our duty to learn them, and tell others about these wonderful things God passes on to us by revelation.
Next Paul lists the most amazing set of promises imaginable:
First: we shall not all sleep.
Sleep is a common word often used in the Bible for death. We know from the context that that’s what it means here.
Paul isn’t telling those at Corinth that some of those alive when he wrote this letter then will never die. He’s making a general statement that applies to all Christians as a group. Some who are redeemed by Christ will still be alive here on earth when our Lord returns. In 1 Thessalonians 4:15 Paul said it this way, “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.”
Paul’s telling us something that applies to all of us: we will all be changed.
What we will one day be is beyond anything we are now or can even imagine. Believers will all be transformed into something far greater at the resurrection. Their bodies will be reconstituted and joined again with their souls. Their new form will be suited for their life in heavenly glory with the Lord forever.
It will happen in but “a moment”, instantly!
Literally, we shall all be changed “in an atom” [“atomos” (ἄτομος)] – an indivisible piece of time, instantaneously. When the time comes, it won’t be a drawn out process. God will do it all at once. There won’t be advanced announcements like there were when God judged Jerusalem in 70 AD. Some day, when things are as if nothing beyond the usual is going to happen, Jesus Christ will appear in a way far more dramatic than his first coming. It will be openly visible everywhere, not like his humble birth in that simple room in Bethlehem.
But when will it happen? The Bible makes it clear that God doesn’t tell us when. We need to always be ready.
Matthew 24:36, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”
Most translations and ancient Greek texts of this verse in Matthew eliminate the words translated “nor the Son”. It only appears in a some old manuscripts which are not consistent with other copies in circulation at that time. Certainly, as God the Son, Jesus was aware of the general plan in his divine nature. If these words were in the original text it would be limited to our Savior’s human nature.
There have always been date-setters and would-be prophets who think they know when the end will come. They write books, hold rallys, and make movies which later become evidence of their mistakes. They predict, it doesn’t happen, so they get to write a new edition of the book. The amazing thing is that people keep buying their books and attending their conferences. The facts of Scripture are completely distorted into something God never said.
Ever since the earliest days of the church, as far back as the end of the first century, through the middle ages, and still today, there have been movements based on predicting the final day of Judgment. Some have been more cautious and instead of setting a specific date they predict a certain range of dates for the end — but up to now they’ve always been wrong.
I remember as a teenager working in my garage listening to a radio preacher on short wave radio. He talked about the Beast, the signs of the times and the certain soon return of the Lord. He said it was within just a few years or months. That was back in the 1960s. People like that take the signs of the times and make them into signs of the end times.
That’s just the opposite of what Jesus said that day to his disciples. In Matthew 24:6 Jesus said, “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.”
Usually, when a person interprets these passages of Scripture that badly, they usually confuse other teachings of the Bible too. Don’t take anything they say about the Bible seriously. There are far better sources of information.
Rather than get distracted by end-times scenarios, we have serious living and work to do here. We should always be prepared for our Lord’s return: prepared for the Lord’s coming at any moment, and prepared that we may have to wait for many generations to come. As we wait, in every age of human history, our basic duties here are the same.
Paul mentions a last trumpet sound.
The trumpet was used by the Jews at that time to announce specific things.
God commanded two silver trumpets to be made. (Numbers 10 tells about it.)
– One sound sent them to war. It was a reminder that God sends them out as his people. They should battle the way God tells them to fight, not as power driven pagans. It promised victory for those who stood with God as his covenant children.
– Another sound announced each religious feast. Some of them had special trumpet sounds. The feasts centered on God providing a payment for sin, and care for his people. The trumpet announced salvation and restoration for God’s covenant children.
– Another sound called Israel together for worship. It announced the times when they came together as a corporate body. Worship unites us as something more than we are individually. Those united as the covenant body of Christ (before and after his birth) are powerfully constituted for a special duty at that moment in time.
Here, just like the prediction of Jesus in Matthew 24, the trumpet sound includes all three meanings.
– It announces the sending out into battle, the final battle . It means that God is about to strike down his enemy with the final killing blow. The final gathering of God’s people from among his enemies will take place. The gospel will complete its work — the church of God will be assembled.
– It will announce the completion of the work of redemption. There will be no more sin. God’s children will all be fully set free from the power of sin forever.
– It will announce the great gathering of the covenant people into heaven. The resurrection of the redeemed will be the biggest worship service ever constituted.
Since the trumpets of Israel were to represent what God was preparing them for, we don’t know if there will be a literal trumpet sound at the resurrection, or if it’s the effect of a trumpet sound, some type of grand announcement that the time had come. But whatever the case, everyone will know that something wonderful is about to happen.
At that moment, both the living and the dead in Christ will be transformed. Bodies that up to that time become diseased, injured, and deteriorated will be corrupt no more. They will be made imperishable, and immortal — they will never die. When this change takes place at the great resurrection, death will be swallowed up in victory.
Paul then summarizes this with
a dramatic and unforgettable question
for death itself.
1 Corinthians 15:55-57
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.
The second time the word “death” appears in verse 55 in the English Standard Version is the “grave” or “Hades” in some other translations. The Greek word is “haidaes” (ᾅδης), It had many uses at the time Paul wrote this. It was sometimes used for the grave where the body is buried, sometimes for hell where unredeemed souls suffer for their sins, or more generally just the unseen realm where the dead go after this life, or of death itself. Since this passage is about the body being raised up to rejoin the soul at the resurrection, here it probably has the meaning of grave or the death that puts us there, but it’s a different Greek word than the more common word for “death” mentioned first in verse 55.
Paul is probably using the language of Hosea 13:14, but not quoting the verse directly. There is says, “Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion is hidden from my eyes.”
The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the Jews at the time Paul wrote this. “Sheol” (שׁאול). is the Hebrew word in Hosea 13:14. It had very similar uses as the Greek word “haidaes” (ᾅδης).
The point is this: When something stings us, it gives us pain. But now that Christ paid the debt of sin, and is raised up showing that death’s grip was overcome, and the promise of the resurrection of his children is assured, so the pain that terrorizes people about death is taken away. It’s not pain anymore. Its venom is taken away. We will be with the Lord at death, in a life far better than the best of lives here.
And how do we know what pleases God and what offends him as sin? His law tells us. God’s moral law sets the boundaries so we know what’s right and wrong. Question 14 of the Shorter Catechism summarizes what the Bible calls sin, “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”
Without God’s law, sin would have no meaning. We wouldn’t know what was wrong. But now that Jesus paid sin’s penalty for his people, and obeyed the law in their place, the law no longer condemns the redeemed. Sin isn’t just weakened, its strength is entirely drained away. It’s utterly destroyed.
But all the honor for this victory goes to God who provided the atonement that saves us.
Finally, Paul brings all this together with a challenge.
1 Corinthians 15:58
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.
Considering this great victory and the certain triumph that’s coming for us, we should be steadfast and immovable — not giving in to the pressures and power of evil. We should be always abounding in the Lord’s work — doing what’s good in the eyes of God.
When we’re doing the Lord’s work, our labor is never in vain. There is, in fact, great reward. Nobody wants to work hard for his regular pay check, then not get paid, or find out that he’s getting paid a lot less than he thought his work deserved. That can’t happen in our labor for Christ and his Kingdom. When it comes to our work here on earth, this side of the resurrection, all that we do for God’s glory will abound to greater blessing both now and after this life is over.
It’s so sad that people sometimes forget the values and priorities God built into this world.
They sometimes put their own entertainment over their devotion to Christ and his church. They violate the Sabbath by paying others to work or serve them when it’s not necessary. They skip called times of worship just to watch TV, go to a game or a family outing. They fill their memories with immoral entertainment in disobedience to Philippians 4:8 which commands us to fill our heads and hearts with things moral and good. They withhold the tithe, and fail to speak out about the Gospel and to promote God’s principles. They don’t volunteer to help meet the real needs of others in the church.
And what are the little fleeting rewards for these self-serving sins? By making God less important and by neglecting our labor for him, we dishonor and offend the only real source of blessing.
Are those stolen moments, those neglected opportunities really worth that?
It could come at any moment, any hour of any day.
It will be more sudden and more devastating than earthly disasters that catch some unprepared. There will be some who are already with the Lord in glory when that day comes. Others will still be alive here on earth going about their daily routines and plans.
Then the trumpet of the Lord will sound, pay day will come, graduation day, the day of reckoning. God’s amazing plan will come together. All the pieces will fit, and the whole puzzling picture will become clear.
There’s no exception. Each one of us will be there at the dawn of forever.
Either we will have already died, or we will be alive then — it won’t matter. What we have done in our lives for the glory of Christ will be greatly rewarded. We will fall before him humbly thankful that we were used by our Creator in our service to him. But it will be too late for the things we neglected to do for the honor or our Savior.
What if he came this afternoon? tonight? What if he doesn’t come for another 500 years?
What matters in that great plan is this are we showing evidence of our love for our Savior by obeying him today? Are we busy doing what advances God’s kingdom which is here right now as we wait for that day?
Our hard and often painful labor is not in vain. There will come a day when the plan comes together. God’s people will all love it.
(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)