May 19, 2017: Verse of the day

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The Great Triumph

But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. (15:54–56)

Christ’s resurrection broke the power of death for those who believe in Him, and death is no longer master over them because “death no longer is master over Him” (Rom. 6:9). But death is still the enemy of man. Even for Christians it violates our dominion of God’s creation, it breaks love relationships, it disrupts families, and causes great grief in the loss of those dear to us. We no longer need fear death, but it still invades and torments us while we are mortal.

But one day, when Christ returns, the perishable that “must put on the imperishable” (v. 53) will have put on the imperishable, and the mortal that “must put on immortality” will have put on immortality. Then will come the great triumph that Isaiah predicted, when death is swallowed up in victory. The Isaiah text reads, “He [the Lord of Hosts] will swallow up death for all time” (Isa. 25:8; cf. v. 6). When the great transformation comes, the great victory will come.

The well–known commentator R. C. H. Lenski writes,

Death is not merely destroyed so that it cannot do further harm while all of the harm which it has wrought on God’s children remains. The tornado is not merely checked so that no additional homes are wrecked while those that were wrecked still lie in ruin. … Death and all of its apparent victories are undone for God’s children. What looks like a victory for death and like a defeat for us when our bodies die and decay shall be utterly reversed so that death dies in absolute defeat and our bodies live again in absolute victory (The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1963], pp. 744–45).

Quoting another prophet (Hos. 13:14), Paul taunts death: O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? To continue with that metaphor, Paul implies that death left its sting in Christ, as a bee leaves its stinger in its victim. Christ bore the whole of death’s sting in order that we would have to bear none of it.

To make his point, the apostle reminds his readers that the sting of death is sin. The harm in death is caused by sin; in fact, death itself is caused by sin. “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Only where there is sin can death deal a fatal blow. Where sin has been removed death can only interrupt the earthly life and usher in the heavenly. That is what Christ has done for those who trust in Him. Our “sins are forgiven for His name’s sake” (1 John 2:12). Death is not gone, but its sting, sin, is gone. “For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17).

It is not, of course, that Christians no longer sin, but that the sins we commit are already covered by Christ’s atoning death, so that sin’s effect is not permanently fatal. “The blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). But for those who do not believe, death’s sting tragically remains forever.

Paul continues to explain the sequence leading to death by mentioning that the power of sin is the law. God’s law reveals God’s standards, and when they are broken they reveal man’s sin. If there were no law, obviously there could be no transgression. “Where there is no law neither is there violation” (Rom. 4:15). But men die because they break that law.

What about those who do not know God’s law, who have never even heard of, much less read, His Word? Paul tells us in Romans that when “Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (2:14–15). Anyone, therefore, who goes against his conscience goes against God’s law just as surely as anyone who knowingly breaks one of the Ten Commandments. That is the reason men are doomed to die (Rom. 3:23; 6:23).

The Great Thanksgiving

But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (15:57)

Because of Jesus’ perfect obedience to the law (Rom. 5:19) and the satisfaction He made for its victims, those who trust in Him “are not under law, but under grace,” having “been released from the Law” (Rom. 6:14; 7:6). Jesus has both fulfilled the law and fulfilled righteousness. Because His life was sinless and therefore fulfilled the law, His death conquered sin.

Paul gives thanks to the One who will give us the great transformation of our bodies and who has made the great triumph over sin and death. That which we could never do for ourselves God has done for us through our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot live sinlessly and thereby fulfill the law, nor can we remove sin once we have committed it, or remove its consequence, which is death But on our behalf Jesus Christ lived a sinless life, fulfilling the law; removed our sin by Himself paying the penalty for it, satisfying God with a perfect sacrifice; and conquered death by being raised from the dead. All of that great victory He accomplished for us and gives to us. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). He took our curse and our condemnation and gives us victory in their place.

How can we do anything but thank and praise God for what He has done for us? He has promised us an imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual body for one that is perishable, dishonorable, weak, and natural. He promises us the heavenly in exchange for the earthly, the immortal in exchange for the mortal. We know these promises are assured because He has already given us victory over sin and death.

For Christians death has no more power (Heb. 2:14–15), because God has taken away our sin. For Christians death is but the passing of our spirits from this life to the next, the leaving of earth and going to be with Christ Paul had only one reason for wanting to remain on earth: to continue his ministry for Christ on behalf of others. But for his own benefit and joy he had but one desire: “to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better” (Phil. 1:23–24).

In Christ’s victory over death, death’s sting is removed; it is declawed, deranged, disarmed, destroyed. “And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire, … and He shall wipe away every, tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 20:14; 21:4).

The Great Exhortation

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord. (15:58)

If we really believe and if we are truly thankful that our resurrection is sure, that we will be transformed from the perishable, dishonorable, weak, natural, mortal, and earthy to the imperishable, glorious, powerful, spiritual, immortal, and heavenly—we should therefore prove our assurance and our thankfulness by being steadfast, immovable [negative] and always abounding [positive] in the work of the Lord.

Hedraios (steadfast) literally refers to being seated, and therefore to being settled and firmly situated. Ametakinētos (immovable) carries the same basic idea but with more intensity. It denotes being totally immobile and motionless. Obviously Paul is talking about our being moved away from God’s will, not to our being moved within it. Within His will we are to be always abounding in the work of the Lord. But we should not move a hairbreadth away from His will, continually being careful not to be “tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14).

Gordon Clark gives a helpful paraphrase of this verse: “Therefore we should mortify emotion, be steadfast, unchangeable, not erratic and scatterbrained, easily discouraged, and should multiply our good works in the knowledge that the Lord will make them profitable.”

If our confident hope in the resurrection wavers, we are sure to abandon ourselves to the ways and standards of the world. If there are no eternal ramifications or consequences of what we do in this life, the motivation for self-less service and holy living is gone.

On the other hand, when our hope in the resurrection is clear and certain we will have great motivation to be abounding in the work of the Lord. Perisseuō (abounding) carries the idea of exceeding the requirements, of overflowing or overdoing. In Ephesians 1:7–8 the word is used of God’s lavishing on us “the riches of His grace.” Because God has so abundantly overdone Himself for us who deserve nothing from Him, we should determine to overdo ourselves (if that were possible) in service to Him, to whom we owe everything.

What a word Paul gives to the countless Christians who work and pray and give and suffer as little as they can! How can we be satisfied with the trivial, insignificant, short–lived things of the world? How can we “take it easy” when so many around us are dead spiritually and so many fellow believers are in need of edification, encouragement, and help of every sort? When can a Christian say, “I’ve served my time, I’ve done my part; let others do the work now”?

Reasonable rest is important and necessary. But if we err, Paul is saying, it should be on the side of doing more work for the Lord, not less. Leisure and relaxation are two great modern idols, to which many Christians seem quite willing to bow down. In proper proportion recreation and diversions can help restore our energy and increase our effectiveness. But they also can easily become ends in themselves, demanding more and more of our attention, concern, time, and energy. More than one believer has relaxed and hobbled himself completely out of the work of the Lord.

Some of God’s most faithful and fruitful saints have lived to old age and been active and productive in His service to the end. Many others, however, have seen their lives shortened for the very reason that they were abounding, overflowing and untiring, in service to Christ. Henry Martyn, the British missionary to India and Persia, determined “to burn out for God,” which he did before he was thirty–five. David Brainerd, one of the earliest missionaries to American Indians, died before he was thirty. We know very little of Epaphroditus, except that he was a “brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier” of Paul’s who “came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life” (Phil. 2:25, 30). He became so lost in godly service that he literally became sick unto death because of it.

Until the Lord returns there are souls to reach and ministries of every sort to be accomplished. Every Christian should work uncompromisingly as the Lord has gifted and leads. Our money, time, energy, talents, gifts, bodies, minds, and spirits should be invested in nothing that does not in some way contribute to the work of the Lord. Our praise and thanksgiving must be given hands and feet. James tells us, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).

Our work for the Lord, if it is truly for Him and done in His power, cannot fail to accomplish what He wants accomplished. Every good work believers do in this life has eternal benefits that the Lord Himself guarantees. “Behold, I am coming quickly,” Jesus says, “and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12). We have God’s own promise that our toil [labor to the point of exhaustion] is not in vain in the Lord.[1]


Celebration

15:54–57

  1. But when this corruptible has put on incorruption and this mortal has put on immortality, then the saying that is written will be realized:

Death is swallowed up in victory.

  1. Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?

Verse 54a is a continuation and a verbal repetition of verse 53. By adding two time references, when and then, and changing the tense of the verb to put on to the past, Paul speaks as if a future event has already occurred. To be precise, the fulfillment of Paul’s words took place when Jesus rose from the dead. And with that resurrection, all believers know that also they will rise from the grave. This text is a vivid illustration of the constant tension in the New Testament of the now and the not yet. Through Jesus Christ, we acknowledge the reality of the resurrection, and through his promise to us we shall appropriate it at the consummation.

For the last time in this epistle, Paul quotes prophetic passages from the Old Testament Scriptures (Isa. 25:8; Hos. 13:14). He puts the fulfillment of the first prophecy in the future with these introductory words, “Then the saying that is written will be realized.” He quotes from the prophecy of Isaiah, but follows neither the Hebrew text nor the Septuagint. This is the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures: “He will swallow up death forever” (Isa. 25:8). And the Greek translation reads, “Death forcefully has swallowed [them] up.” According to the Hebrew text, the subject is God and death the object. But notice that Paul makes death the subject with the verb to swallow up in the passive. He adopts the Semitic style of writing the passive to circumvent the use of the divine name; he implies that God has eliminated death, that is, the power of death (refer to Heb. 2:14). And last, Paul changes the Hebrew translation forever to “in victory.” His wording accords with readings in other Greek translations of the Hebrew text.

“Death is swallowed up in victory.” Looking back at Jesus’ triumph over death and forward to the resurrection of all believers, Paul bursts out in jubilation. He understands the demise of life’s mortal enemy: death. Even though death continues to wield power as Christ’s last enemy (v. 26), Paul knows that God will destroy it. Death’s days are numbered.

Paul taunts death and asks mockingly: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” He borrows this second prophecy from Hosea, who writes that God will ransom the children of Israel from the grave and will deliver them from death. The prophet queries, “Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?” (Hos. 13:14). The Greek translation reads: “Where, O death, is your penalty? Where, O grave, is your sting?” Paul has changed the word penalty into “victory” to suit the flow of his presentation. And in the second question he has substituted the word death for “grave,” which in the Septuagint is Hades. But Paul never uses Hades in all his epistles. Perhaps he feared being misunderstood by those Greek readers who were acquainted with ancient mythology in which Hades was a Greek god and the underworld was called “the house of Hades.” This word, then, could not be part of Paul’s vocabulary.

A last comment on this verse. When Jesus stopped Paul on the way to Damascus, he said that it was hard for Paul to kick against the goads (Acts 26:14). Paul had to cope with the scars of these goads the rest of his life. Now Paul sees that death no longer has a goad and is, in a sense, powerless. Other scholars refer to the word sting as that of a scorpion. Both a goad and a sting strike fear into the heart of man. But those who are in Christ do not fear death with its goad or sting, for they know that Jesus indeed has conquered death. Therefore, Paul can boldly say:

  1. The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

In a single verse Paul expresses the doctrine of sin, the law, and death. What is this sting of death? Paul answers: sin. And what is the power of sin? Paul says: the law. So, what is the relation of sin, the law, and death? Sin is the cause of death, and knowledge of sin comes through the law. In brief, the law has a causative function. It brings to light sin committed against God. It gives sin its power, that without the law is dead (Rom. 7:8). The law, which is good, arouses sinful passions (Rom. 7:5), and as such empowers sin. The law convicts and condemns the sinner to death. Thus the law is an instrument of death because the sinner is unable to fulfill its demands. John Calvin observes, “Death has no other weapon except sin, with which to wound us, since death comes from the wrath of God. But God is angry only with our sins; do away with sin then, and death will not be able to harm us any more.… It is the Law of God that gives that sting its deadly power.”

Is there no hope? Yes, in response to Paul’s cry, “Who will rescue me from this body of death,” he answers, “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24b–25). Paul proclaims the good news that Jesus Christ has fulfilled the law for his people.

  1. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s jubilation is an appropriate climax to his lengthy discourse on the resurrection. In this climax he expresses his gratitude to God for the victory obtained through Jesus Christ. The key word in this verse is the term victory, which echoes the Old Testament quotations in the previous verses (v. 54–55).

What is this victory? Jesus died because of our sins and conquered death for us by rising from the grave. Through his death, he set us free from the bondage of sin and declared us righteous before God. On the basis of his resurrection and glorification, we look forward to being like him. By faith in Christ, we share his victory over Satan, death, hell, and the grave (compare 1 John 5:4). Conclusively, our risen Lord triumphantly holds the keys of death and Hades (Rev. 1:18).

While serving Christ, Paul repeatedly faced death. Even though he knows that death is still a powerful force on earth, he is absolutely certain that Jesus Christ has conquered death. Hence, he writes “God … gives us the victory.” Paul uses the present tense; that is, God keeps on giving us the victory in Christ. We may appropriate Jesus’ triumph and rejoice in the riches of salvation that are ours.

Paul clearly states that God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. He notes first the work that Christ performed to set us free; next, he identifies Jesus as our Lord. We acknowledge him as our Lord and in gratitude serve him without distraction by doing his will. Christ is our victorious Lord and we are his grateful servants.[2]


15:55 This verse may well be a taunt song which believers sing as they rise to meet the Lord in the air. It is as if they mock Death because for them it has lost its sting. They also mock Hades because for them it has lost the battle to keep them as its own. Death holds no terror for them because they know their sins have been forgiven and they stand before God in all the acceptability of His beloved Son.

15:56 Death would have no sting for anyone if it were not for sin. It is the consciousness of sins unconfessed and unforgiven that makes men afraid to die. If we know our sins are forgiven, we can face death with confidence. If, on the other hand, sin is on the conscience, death is terrible—the beginning of eternal punishment.

The strength of sin is the law, that is, the law condemns the sinner. It pronounces the doom of all who have failed to obey God’s holy precepts. It has been well said that if there were no sin, there would be no death. And if there were no law, there would be no condemnation.

The throne of death rests on two bases: sin, which calls for condemnation, and the law which pronounces it. Consequently, it is on these two powers that the work of the Deliverer bore.

15:57 Through faith in Him, we have victory over death and the grave. Death is robbed of its sting. It is a known fact that when certain insects sting a person, they leave their stinger imbedded in the person’s flesh, and being thus robbed of their “sting,” they die. In a very real sense death stung itself to death at the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and now the King of Terrors is robbed of his terror as far as the believer is concerned.[3]


55 Because God’s last word is resurrection, glorified and imperishable bodies, and the abolishment of death, Paul cries out in the words of Hosea, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (cf. Hos 13:14). Right now death does have a sting. Right now it appears as though death does have the victory, for there is not a single human being alive who will escape death if the Lord tarries. But what appears to be victory for “the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek, Apollyon” (Rev 9:11), will ultimately end in his defeat, for death itself will be vanquished along with its angel (20:10, 14–15).

56 Paul digresses before he writes his grand conclusion. He wants to identify more closely what the “sting” (kentron, GK 3034) is that will be conquered through the resurrection. That sting is “sin.” As Paul wrote in Romans 5:12, death entered into the human world as a result of Adam’s sin. Otherwise put, “the wages of sin is death” (Ro 6:23). But when Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for sin on the cross, died, and then rose again as the firstfruits (1 Co 15:20–23), the power of that sting was gone. Death remains an enemy, of course, but only temporarily. When the resurrection of the body occurs, the sting will be gone permanently (v. 26).

Paul follows this phrase up with one more teaser, which reflects a lifetime of theological thinking about the relationship of sin and the law: “The power of sin is the law.” According to Paul’s thinking in Romans, the law (though in itself holy, righteous, and good, Ro 7:12) generates in us a knowledge of sin (3:20; 5:13; 7:7). In fact, the law can even increase our sin (5:20), perhaps by provoking us to do precisely what it forbids. But Christ, through his sacrifice on the cross, “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13).

57 Thus, not only has the sting of death (sin) been removed, but also the power of sin (the law) has lost its grip—all through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the message that Paul triumphs in v. 57: “Thanks be to God,” who has given us the victory through what he accomplished in Jesus Christ. It is Christ, and Christ alone, who has achieved the victory.[4]


[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1984). 1 Corinthians (pp. 444–448). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 18, pp. 584–586). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1811). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 404–405). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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