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, defanged, 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).
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.
55 In light of the swallowing up of death in the victory of the resurrection-transformation, Paul proceeds to taunt death in the language of Hosea (13:14, somewhat modified). Whether Paul intended to “cite” this passage as such, as part of the preceding “fulfilled” word, is moot. By a series of modifications, Paul seems to be taking over the text of Hosea so as to make it his own derision of death in light of the preceding affirmation (vv. 51–53) and the citation from Isaiah (v. 54). He does this in three ways: (1) by changing the LXX word dikē (“penalty”) to nikos (“victory”), thus bringing it into verbal agreement with the previous quotation from Isaiah; (2) by substituting in the second line the vocative “O Death!” for the “O Grave!” of the LXX, thus making both lines a derision of death itself; and (3) by bringing forward the possessive pronoun “your” to first position (after “where”), followed immediately by the vocative, thus emphasizing the personification (lit., “where your, O Death, Victory?” which replaces the LXX’s “where the penalty of you, O Death?”).
The net result is a powerful taunt of death that looks in two directions at once. First, it completes the argument of the paragraph as a whole as well as the citation from Isaiah. Even though Paul still lives in the “already,” and in his own body experiences both the perishability and mortality of the present age that is passing away, the apostle has also seen the risen Lord. Thus with a clear vision of what is to be he mocks the enemy, whose doom has been sealed through Christ’s own death and resurrection; and it is precisely because of Christ’s victory that the mockery obtains, even if in the meantime believers “fall asleep.” Thus this taunt is Paul’s way of looking forward to the triumph of the ages. Death’s victory has been overcome by Christ’s victory; and death’s deadly sting has been detoxicated—indeed, the stinger itself has been plucked—through Christ’s resurrection. Death, therefore, is “powerless over the dead”;398 God’s people will be raised and changed into the likeness of the risen and ever-living Christ himself.
Second, even though the taunt has to do with the future resurrection of believers, it is expressed in the present tense, precisely because the beginning of the End has “already” set in motion the final victory that for us is still “not yet.” The mention of the word “sting,” therefore, leads Paul from the future to the present; what is to be has in effect already begun. Thus, he concludes this exalted description of the “not yet” with an appropriate reminder of the victory that is “already” theirs in Christ (vv. 56–57). It has been well said, “Death is also powerless over the living.”
56 Anyone who has heard this paragraph read at a Christian funeral senses the dissonance these follow-up words seem to bring to the argument. For our present purposes the preceding taunt is climactic; but Paul is not quite finished. Granted that the argument per se is now over, much as in an earlier moment (vv. 33–34), however, the final word is one of application to the Corinthian believers’ present situation. That word will come partly by way of the exhortation (v. 58). Before that, however, the preceding words of taunt (v. 55) apparently touch off a theological chord that must be given a moment’s hearing. With a piece of step-parallelism, Paul moves from the final line of the Hosea “quotation” to a brief compendium of his own theology as to the relationship of sin and the law to death. Not only has death been overcome by resurrection; but mutatis mutandis so have the enemies that have brought death to all—sin and the law. Thus:
|“Where, O death,
|is your sting?”
|(1) the sting
|(2) the power
|is the law.
The first line requires little comment. In Pauline theology sin is the deadly poison that has led to death. Although this word group has not occurred frequently in the present letter to describe the Corinthian behavioral aberrations,404 there can be no question that Paul considered their actions sinful and in need of divine forgiveness. The word occurs with greater frequency in this chapter than anywhere else. The reason Christ died is “for our sins” (v. 3); and if he did not rise, the Corinthians are still in their sins (v. 17). In the exhortation that concludes the first section of the argument, they are urged to “stop sinning” (v. 34). For later readers the full explication of this sentence will emerge in the Epistle to the Romans; its appearance here in this fashion is the sure indication that this essential dictum of Pauline theology had long been in place. Although something of an aside, it is not difficult to see its relevance. Sin is the deadly sting that has led to death. Thus, Christ’s victory over the latter is evidence that he has overcome the former as well.
The second line is the puzzler, especially since in this Gentile community the relationship of sin to the law has not seemed to emerge as a problem. Nowhere do the issues that have arisen, either between him and them or between them internally, reflect concern over the law. This almost certainly means that the statement belongs to the first line as a theological construct, not as an issue in this church. If so, this also means that the essential matters that surface in a thoroughgoing way in Galatians and are spelled out at length in Romans had been essential to Paul’s theology long before the Judaizing controversy erupted—at least in the tangible form in which we know it from Galatians. Its point is simple, and will later be spelled out in detail in a later letter (Rom. 7: the relationship of law to sin is that the former is what gives the latter its power). In that same letter Paul will explain that “sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law” (5:13). That is, 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 (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6). 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 becomes death-dealing instead of life-giving.
Paul’s point in this theological aside is that death is not simply the result of decay through normal human processes. Rather, it is the result of the deadly poison, sin itself, which became all the more energized in our lives through acquaintance with the law. Hence, in exulting in Christ’s victory over death, Paul is reminded that that victory is the final triumph over the sin that brought death into the world, and over the law that has so frequently emboldened sin. But since both sin and the law have already been overcome in the cross, this compendium prefaces a final doxology that thanks God for present “victory” as well.
57 As just noted, this final doxology first of all expresses gratitude that God through “our Lord Jesus Christ” presently gives the people of God victory over sin and the law, which lead to death. At the same time, however, it embraces the entire argument, especially as it climaxes in this paragraph. Thus, Paul exults in God’s victory over death through resurrection (v. 55) and now in the conquest of the sin that leads to that death (v. 57). As at the beginning (vv. 3–5), so at the conclusion, Christ is the one through whom God has wrought this triumph.
15:54–55 / Paul looks to the time of the resurrection of the dead, and as he does so he offers a prooftext for his point from Isaiah 25:8. The victory is God’s, through Christ, and this divine victory has implications for Christian hope and life (v. 54). To amplify his position Paul adds the words in victory to Isaiah’s phrase death has been swallowed up. Then, Paul continues in verse 55 with a quotation from Hosea 13:14, which he again adapts, tailoring the language of the biblical material to suit the context.
One sees the intricacy of Paul’s logic throughout this chapter, but especially by noticing that Paul introduces both quotations from the lxx at this point in relation to the statement he made earlier in 15:26, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” In declaring the inevitable demise of death, Paul originally quotes the ot (see v. 27) to validate this message of hope. Here again he issues a scriptural warrant to assure the readers that God’s word is trustworthy.
15:56 / Verse 56 is Paul’s own exegesis of the quotations from the prophets in the previous verses. One sees his hand clearly in the mention of law at the end of the line. This concern of Paul’s, well-known from other letters and in other heated discussions, is not a concern for Paul in this conversation with the Corinthians. This mention of the law does not reveal the depth of Paul’s reflection on the topic that can be seen in Galatians or Romans, where Paul wrestles with the issues and implication of the law for Christian life. Here he only mentions the law somewhat unfavorably, associating it with death and the sting of death, which is sin; indeed, he says the power of sin is the law. To restate the declaration that Paul never elaborates or explains, the law is the power of sin, which is the sting of death, which is the final enemy of Christ. One may infer that Paul did not see a place for the law in the reality of the resurrection of the dead. In brief, however, verse 56 is a concise attempt to state the magnitude and reality of God’s future resurrection of the dead.
15:57 / Lest the readers become uneasy by the future cast of Paul’s discussion of the resurrection of the dead, in this verse he continues with a doxological declaration of the meaning of all that he has written, especially in relation to the present. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and in the establishment of his lordship in the context of earthly existence, God had already anticipated and actualized in an anticipatory form the ultimate victory that will come in the mysterious end about which Paul has been writing.
This energetic word of thanksgiving to God for the victory given through the Lord Jesus Christ recognizes the present significance of what God is already doing and mitigates against the misperception that what God is doing in Christ has little to do with life in this world. Yet, the dominant future bent of Paul’s reflections is an important corrective to the denial of the resurrection of the dead.
15:54–57 Death has been swallowed up in victory. Bringing lyrical force to the crescendo of his discourse, Paul connects two poetical prophetic sections that both announce death’s coming end (Isa. 25:8; Hosea 13:14). Although Paul’s quote does not align very precisely to the wording of the Septuagint, it is close enough to leave little doubt that these were the passages in his mind. The Isaiah passage comes from a section announcing God’s salvation to all nations or people groups (panta ta ethnē, “all nations” [Isa. 25:7 LXX]).
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. (Isa. 25:6–8)
The Hosea quote comes from a judgment passage where Israel faces the punishment of elimination and death unless God rescues them from the power of Sheol (“the grave”).
I will deliver this people from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction? “I will have no compassion, even though he thrives among his brothers.” (Hosea 13:14–15a)
Paul combines these two quotes and changes the Hosea text from “death, where is your dikē [‘judgment’]” to “death, where is your nikos [‘victory’].” Resurrection, then, is the event where believers are rescued from the power of death. Although death may sting like a scorpion, it has been “swallowed up” (15:54); death has become prey for immortality (2 Cor. 5:4; cf. 1 Pet. 5:8).
The connection between death, sin, and the law is a well-known theme in Paul. Sin is aroused by the law and results in death (Rom. 6:21; 7:5); death is the wage of sin (6:16, 23). Paul’s point in verses 56–57 is to stress that since the sting of death has been removed, sin has lost its power to remove believers from God’s presence. The resurrection that awaits gives evidence that Christ followers have died to the power of sin and been made alive to the presence of God (Rom. 6:11, 14; Gal. 3:21). The victory has already been won (cf. 1 John 5:4; Rev. 1:18), condemnation has been removed (Rom. 8:1), and new life from God’s Spirit has broken through (2 Cor. 3:6).
Ver. 55.—O death, where is thy sting? A triumphantly fervid exclamation of the apostle, loosely cited from Hos. 13:14, The apostles and evangelists, not holding the slavish and superstitious fetish-worship of the dead letter, often regard it as sufficient to give the general sense of the passages to which they refer. O grave, where is thy victory? In the best-attested reading (א, A, B, C, D, E, F, G), “death” is repeated, and in the best manuscripts this clause precedes the last. But if the reading, “O Hades,” were correct, our translators, since they held it here impossible in accordance with their views to render it by “hell,” ought to have taken warning, and seen the pernicious inapplicability of that rendering in other places where they have used it to express this same Greek word. Here “Hades” has probably been introduced into the Greek text from the LXX., which uses it for the Sheol of the original.
Ver. 56.—The sting of death is sin. Because death is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23). Death is represented as a venomous serpent. The strength of sin is the Law. The best comment on this expression is to be found in the Epistle to the Romans; see especially Rom. 4:15; 7:10–12. It must be admitted that this passing allusion to a distinct doctrine does not seem, at first sight, to harmonize with the glorious unity of the subject. No one can read it without a slight sense of jar, because it seems to introduce the element of dogmatic controversy. But this sense of incongruity is removed when we remember how intensely St. Paul felt that man is confronted with the horror of a broken Law, which at once reminds him of a Being infinitely holy, and of his own self-condemnation (Rom. 7; 2 Cor. 3). It is the sense that the Law in its deathful aspect is annulled, and the sinful soul delivered, which prompts the outburst of the next verse.
Ver. 57.—Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory. The victory consists in the defeat of death by the Resurrection, and the forgiveness of sin through Christ’s atonement, and the nailing to his cross of the torn and abrogated Law which made us slaves to sin and death (Col. 2:14). “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Who, by fulfilling the Law, has robbed it of its condemning power (Rom. 8:1), and by his death “hath destroyed him that had the power of death, that is the devil” (Heb. 2:14, 15).
56. The sting of death is sin. In other words, “Death has no dart with which to wound us except sin, since death proceeds from the anger of God. Now it is only with our sins that God is angry. Take away sin, therefore, and death will no more be able to harm us.” This agrees with what he said in Rom. 6:23, that the wages of sin is death. Here, however, he makes use of another metaphor, for he compared sin to a sting, with which alone death is armed for inflicting upon us a deadly wound. Let that be taken away, and death is disarmed, so as to be no longer hurtful. Now with what view Paul says this, will be explained by him ere long.
The strength of sin is the law. It is the law of God that imparts to that sting its deadly power, because it does not merely discover our guilt, but even increases it. A clearer exposition of this statement may be found in Rom. 7:9, where Paul teaches us that we are alive, so long as we are without the law, because in our own opinion it is well with us, and we do not feel our own misery, until the law summons us to the judgment of God, and wounds our conscience with an apprehension of eternal death. Farther, he teaches us that sin has been in a manner lulled asleep, but is kindled up by the law, so as to rage furiously. Meanwhile, however, he vindicates the law from calumnies, on the ground that it is holy, and good, and just, and is not of itself the parent of sin or the cause of death. Hence he concludes, that whatever there is of evil is to be reckoned to our own account, inasmuch as it manifestly proceeds from the depravity of our nature. Hence the law is but the occasion of injury. The true cause of ruin is in ourselves. Hence he speaks of the law here as the strength or power of sin, because it executes upon us the judgment of God. In the mean time he does not deny, that sin inflicts death even upon those that know not the law; but he speaks in this manner, because it exercises its tyranny upon them with less violence. For the law came that sin might abound, (Rom. 5:20,) or that it might become beyond measure sinful. (Rom. 7:13.)
57. But thanks be to God. From this it appears, why it it was that he made mention both of sin and of the law, when treating of death. Death has no sting with which to wound except sin, and the law imparts to this sting a deadly power. But Christ has conquered sin, and by conquering it has procured victory for us, and has redeemed us from the curse of the law. (Gal. 3:13.) Hence it follows, that we are no longer lying under the power of death. Hence, although we have not as yet a full discovery of those benefits, yet we may already with confidence glory in them, because it is necessary that what has been accomplished in the Head should be accomplished, also, in the members. We may, therefore, triumph over death as subdued, because Christ’s victory is ours.
When, therefore, he says, that victory has been given to us, you are to understand by this in the first place, that it is inasmuch as Christ has in his own person abolished sin, has satisfied the law, has endured the curse, has appeased the anger of God, and has procured life; and farther, because he has already begun to make us partakers of all those benefits. For though we still carry about with us the remains of sin, it, nevertheless, does not reign in us: though it still stings us, it does not do so fatally, because its edge is blunted, so that it does not penetrate into the vitals of the soul. Though the law still threatens, yet there is presented to us on the other hand, the liberty that was procured for us by Christ, which is an antidote to its terrors. Though the remains of sin still dwell in us, yet the Spirit who raised up Christ from the dead is life, because of righteousness. (Rom. 8:10.) Now follows the conclusion.
55. In language reminiscent of Scripture (Hos. 13:14), Paul sings of the triumph to come. He is not basing an argument on Scripture, but using scriptural language for his exultation over the total defeat of death. The word kentron (sting) may refer to a goad (as in Acts 26:14), but it is also used of the sting of bees, scorpions and the like (cf. Rev. 9:10). Death is a malignant adversary, torturing people. But Christ has drawn its sting, and it is harmless to those who are in him.
56. Moral issues are the serious ones. It is not death in itself that is harmful; it is that death that is ‘the wages of sin’ (Rom. 6:23) that matters. Death, considered simply as the passing out of this life into the immediate presence of the Lord, is a gain, not a loss (Phil. 1:21, 23). Where sin is pardoned, death has no sting. It is quite another matter where sin has not been dealt with. There death is a virulent antagonist. The sting is not in death; it is in sin. And sin has an unexpected ally and source of power, the law. The law is divine in origin, and Paul can speak of the commandment as ‘holy, righteous and good’ (Rom. 7:12). But it is quite unable to bring people to salvation (cf. Rom. 5:12ff.; 7:7ff.; 10:4). Indeed, by setting before us the standard we ought to reach and never do, it becomes sin’s stronghold. It makes sinners of us all. It condemns us all.
57. But, says Paul (Barrett speaks of ‘this great but’), introducing as it does the very opposite; the victory that defeats death and sin and law. Christ is victorious over death (Rom. 6:9); indeed he has abolished it (2 Tim. 1:10). He has satisfied the law’s claims, for he ‘redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us’ (Gal. 3:13). He has replaced the ‘reign’ of sin with that of grace (Rom. 5:20f.); he has drawn its sting. So Paul can say, thanks be to God! (cf. Rom. 7:25). The use of the present participle (niv gives) may convey the thought that it is God’s characteristic to give victory. There is also the implication that we participate in that victory now, and that we participate in it daily. Chrysostom asks, ‘For whence, after all this, is death to prevail?’ and answers, ‘Through the law? Nay, it is done away. Through sin? Nay, it is clean destroyed.’ The Christian life is characteristically a life of victory. The use of the full title our Lord Jesus Christ heightens the sense of the majesty of his Person. There is victory for the Christian, but it comes only through what Christ has done for him.
54–55. The day is coming when what is perishable and mortal will be clothed with what is imperishable and immortal (see Rom. 8:11). When that day arrives, the promises of Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14 will be realized. Isaiah 25 looks forward to the day when God will judge the wicked city and will prepare an end-time feast for his own people on the mountain of the Lord. The Lord will save his people, and they will be full of joy. The Lord ‘will swallow up death for ever’ and tears will be wiped away and shame expunged. Paul picks up on the words of Isaiah 25:8 and teaches that they will be fulfilled at the eschaton.
The words of Hosea 13:14 will be fulfilled at the same time. Paul’s use of the Old Testament here is a bit more difficult to grasp. Hosea promises that judgment will come upon Israel because of its idolatry and pride; the people had forgotten the Lord. In the midst of these words of judgment, words of great comfort suddenly appear:
I will deliver this people from the power of the grave;
I will redeem them from death.
Where, O death, are your plagues?
Where, O grave, is your destruction?
But the promise seems to be withdrawn in the next line:
I will have no compassion,
even though he thrives among his brothers.
Perhaps we can say, in the light of Hosea’s entire message, that judgment will certainly come, though it is also the case that the Lord will finally restore Israel (Hos. 14:7–9) and ‘heal their waywardness’ (14:4). Paul sees the promise of redemption in Hosea fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Thus he picks up on the words of Hosea and sees them as fulfilled ultimately in the lives of believers. The victory and sting of death have been removed, and therefore Paul rhapsodically celebrates the defeat of death. This victory, however, is not yet fully experienced. Believers still await the realization of what is promised.
56. Verse 56 is quite remarkable, for Paul reflects in a very compressed way on death, sin and the law. The references to sin and the law are particularly interesting since these matters have not been the focus of the discussion. Paul’s root convictions come to the surface but in a compressed fashion, and what Paul says elsewhere about these matters helps us to fill in his intention. In saying that the sting of death is sin, the nexus between sin and death, which goes back to Eden, is uncovered. Sin brings death—that is, it separates people from God (Gen. 2:17; 3:3–4; Rom. 5:12; 6:23; 1 Cor. 15:21–22). The sting in death, then, is that it separates people from God, and that separation is permanent if one does not have life in Christ (Rom. 2:8, 9; 2 Thess. 1:5–9). Paul comments further: the power of sin is the law. The law is not the subject of discussion and plays a rather insignificant role in 1 Corinthians; thus we uncover one of Paul’s root convictions here. We find in Jewish tradition that there was a saying, ‘the more study of the Law the more life’ (m. ’Abot 2:7; cf. Sir. 45:5; 4 Ezra 14:30). The law was considered to be the means by which evil would be lessened in the world and in human beings. It was needed to restrain human sin. Paul does not disagree that the law may restrain sin if it is accompanied by disciplinary punishment (1 Tim. 1:8–10). Astonishingly, however, he also teaches that the law becomes the bridge of operations for sin in the lives of unbelievers (Rom. 7:5, 7–25). The law does not restrain sin in the human heart but inflames it so that transgression multiplies (Rom. 5:20). The law does not give life but kills (2 Cor. 3:6), brings death (2 Cor. 3:7) and condemns (2 Cor. 3:9). Sin draws the law into its orbit, into its sphere of influence, so that the law becomes an ally of death rather than of life.
57The victory over sin and death is not a human accomplishment: thanks go to God for the triumph (Rom. 7:25; 2 Cor. 2:14). The victory over sin and death comes through the Lord Jesus Christ. As readers we must connect what Paul says here with the beginning of the chapter. Forgiveness of sins, and therefore victory over death, comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (15:1–4). Thanks are given to God because of the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Vers. 53–57. For this corruptible must put on incorruption.—
The great change:—The apostle presents this—
- As a contrast betwixt what man now is and what he will be. 1. Twice over the apostle affirms the change from corruptible to incorruption, and from mortal to immortality; first as a matter of necessity, then as a matter of fact. Four times over, also, he uses the same word, translated “put on,” which means, to “go into,” as into a place of covering or shelter; and hence to go into one’s clothes, to attire, to array one’s self or others in garments, ornaments, or the like (2 Cor. 5:2). 2. Death, then, is a mere “unclothing” of the man, and if there is any propriety in the analogy the “unclothing” leaves him in possession of the full integrity of his being: he has simply stripped off his garments, and for a season laid them aside. It is still competent for him to resume them, or to array himself in different attire; and on reinvestment he cannot be other than he was before. Very great may the change be betwixt the “clothing” before death and that which is “put on” at the resurrection, but the language of the apostle implies that its use and purpose in both cases are the same. 3. Then, again, the apostle informs us, twice over, that that which in the one state is corruptible and mortal, becomes in the other state incorruptible and immortal. The thing is the same in both states, but placed under different conditions. At present it is organised matter, liable to decay, injury, and dissolution; but that same organised matter will be found in a state of “incorruption” and “immortality.”
- As a victory over death and the grave. 1. The words mean properly “unto victory”; the idea being that the process of extermination goes on like a battle that is waged until a triumphant victory is secured—that is, “aye and until” death is totally abolished. Death at the resurrection is destined to be cast, like a stone, into an abyss, so profound that it never will be brought up or appear again. 2. Death is compared to a venomous reptile which has wounded its victims and introduced into their body its deadly poison. Dissolution, it is true, does not immediately follow the implanting of the sting, but there is pain and anguish, and death ensues in due course of time. And then comes the victory of the grave, or Hades. Like a resistless conqueror, it lays hold of those whom death has prostrated, consigns the body to the house appointed for all living, and the soul to the mysterious condition of disembodied consciousness. Well may this be called a victory, for nothing can be conceived of as a more complete overthrow of human hopes and desires; but introduce the idea of resurrection and it is plain the victory passes over to the other side. The conqueror is despoiled of his triumph; and from being a victim, sin-ruined and dying man, restored to that high standard of corporeal life for which he was originally designed, is in his turn a conqueror, all the more distinguished and glorious that his triumph lasts for ever.
III. As a boon for which gratitude ought to be felt and thanks returned. Gratitude is the appropriate sequel of benefits bestowed and appreciated. But to realise to the full the emotion of gratitude of which the apostle here speaks, we must actually close with and appropriate the glorious boon. This is the office of faith. None are excluded from the offers of the gospel: all are invited to partake of its blessed privileges; and however great and precious these privileges may be, so far as the present world is concerned, the actual consummation is the resurrection of the body and a portion in the kingdom of God. When the wilderness journey was over, and the wars of the settlement in Canaan at an end, how gladsome would every household be and every heart in Israel as they sat down each one under his vine and fig-tree, and none to make them afraid! But this was only a type of far more glorious things to come, when the epoch of sorrow and death is over, and the entire company of God’s redeemed enters upon the long-promised inheritance. (J. Cochrane, M.A.)
The celestial body of a Christian after the resurrection:—
- The grounds of the belief of a Christian concerning this change of a corruptible and mortal into an incorruptible and immortal body. I appeal to all sensible men whether that God, who is the Author of motion, by which all alterations in bodies are made, who brought this goodly frame of the world out of an heap of indigested matter, who formed the body of Adam out of the dust, who has so framed nature, that a spring of vegetables should succeed their death in winter; who caused even the dry rod of Aaron to bud, and blossom, and bring forth almonds; who has given skill and power to men, by fire and other natural causes, to open and refine the grossest bodies; whether that God who hath done these great things is not able to put together the parts of an humane body which He made, contrived, and formerly joined, and to advance the frame of it from grossness to purity. To think He is not is next to no thinking at all, and it is to reproach God’s power and knowledge and wisdom. It is more than barely credible, it is certain, that God who can do all this will at last do it because He has said He will.
- The consequence of this belief is very comfortable; for great and many are the advantages derived to Christians by being clothed with a celestial body. There is scarce a comparison to be admitted betwixt this earthly body and that which shall be at the ascension of Christians. They differ more than the least and dimmest star, and the brightest and greatest luminary in the firmament of heaven. The happiness derived from the change of a natural to a spiritual body consisteth in a deliverance—1. From the grossness of the former, as it is a body of this flesh and blood. 2. From the disorderly motions of it, as it is a corruptible body. 3. From the perishing nature, decay, and fall of it, as it is both a corruptible and mortal body.
III. What shall we do that we may come at these several great advantages of living at last in an heavenly body? The way to have better bodies is to have more virtuous souls. God hath put us into this body, as into the habit of a pilgrim on earth, as probationers for a more excellent clothing. And, according to our patience, our self-denial, our keeping the body in subjection to the mind, our governing the appetites and passions of it, so shall the resurrection and ascension of it be. (Abp. Tenison.) This mortal must put on immortality.—
The mortal immortalised:—Those who take thought for immortality are divided into two schools, the sensuous and the spiritual. The one picture to themselves a heaven of physical blessedness, a glorified earth—immortality only the state of the well-developed mortal! The other class regard heaven as a state utterly unlike the mortal—where the soul shall exist in the transcendental majesty of a risen spirit rather than as a redeemed and yet veritable man in Christ Jesus. Now both of these notions are alike unphilosophic and unscriptural. The text teaches not transubstantiation, but transfiguration—a change not of an essence, but only of aspects—and gives us twofold data for solving the problem of the after state.
- The identity of the immortal creature with the mortal. Though at death we are unquestionably to lose whatever belongs only to this rudimental life—as the chrysalis drops the exuviæ in developing the wings—yet all faculties and functions essentially human are to be ours for ever. 1. Even in regard of the body is this strictly true. Whatever may be the bliss of the intermediate state yet reason and revelation alike declare it to be unnatural, and so imperfect. Death, self-considered, cannot be a benefit. It is not a step in a progress—it is an interruption, a judicial infliction, God’s curse upon sin. Indeed, how the soul can act when divested of this body we cannot understand. And therefore from the dust, as a trophy of the mediatorship, is to be reconstructed a new body like Christ’s, to be part of the redeemed and immortal man. 2. This identity is more manifestly true in regard to the mind. Even as a philosophic inquiry there appears no reason why death should work any change in our rational nature. Accepting immortality as a simple matter of faith we should expect that, as the last enemy rocked its dwelling into dust, it would emerge from the ruins with all its peculiar habits of thought, and at precisely its attained point of progress. 3. And so with the affections. There is no stranger mistake than that which regards these as the specialities of the present life. The heart is among the most indestructible elements of our being. Pure intellect, unsoftened by affection, is simply monstrous. Entering heaven with our logic intensified and our love gone, our sympathies would be fiendish. In this respect “the mortal does put on immortality.” Said our Saviour, standing by the beloved dead with the sisters of Bethany, “He shall rise again ‘your brother’ still.” Death annihilates no pure affection wherein a Christian heart rejoices. “The water of life” is no Lethe of forgetfulness. Death, then, does not destroy nor mutilate the mortal. The immortal creature will be man with a human body, a human intellect, a human heart.
- The marvellous and all-glorious transfiguration of that nature. The word “immortality” is a simple negative. There are things for which human language can have no name. While we remain mortal, inspiration can only describe the future in negatives. 1. The body shall be the same with eye to see and tongue to speak, but as the seed is transfigured into the queenly flower, so great shall the change be. With what new senses and organs it may be furnished God hath not told us. In this very chapter Paul seems struggling under the burden of the magnificent description—“It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.” And what notion can we form of incorruptible matter? “It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory.” The body, a house of leprosy, with all its senses instruments of temptation, is to be reconstructed into a palace of the higher life—fashioned like Christ’s glorious body! “It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.” This poor, imperfect instrument of the intellect, requiring constant care lest it be injured by the using, shall be changed into a mighty and imperishable engine wherewith to work out unwearied the grand ministries of eternity! “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” Its material elements, no longer controlled by material inertia, impenetrability, and attraction, but (like Christ’s raised body, which could pass closed doors and float up to the firmament) shall be the equipment of the soul when it would explore the mysteries of creation and traverse immensity in adoring contemplation. 2. If the dwelling-place be thus glorified what a transfiguration must await the spirit-inhabitant! This intellect, how it sometimes towers and triumphs! What discoveries it hath made! Milton’s song! Newton’s march through the universe! Yet all this was the mortal; the doings of the cradled child with its playthings. And who shall tell us, then, of the child’s manhood? 3. But unto man’s heart rather than to his head shall be accorded the loftiest prizes of eternity! To think of that (while unchanged in all its gentle, blessed, earthly affections) putting on immortality, is the highest conception we can form of man’s kingship and priesthood in the city of God. (C. Wadsworth.)
Mortality and immortality:—I. We are mortal. As a simple statement of truth, this proposition needs neither proof nor illustration. If it did, the one might be found in the churchyard, the other in the sighs of the mourner. But while we all know and acknowledge the fact of our mortality, it is strange how seldom we consider it, how little we are affected by it. Those among us who are the most devoted to pleasure are universally found to be the most regardless of death. This can be accounted for only on the supposition that they think not at all, either of mortality or immortality, that sensual pleasure is an opiate powerful enough to lull every anxiety, to preclude every solemn reflection. And yet it seems incomprehensible how any thinking being should be able to shut his eyes to the fact that he is dying. The world is full of death, from the first and feeblest efforts of life, up to its most perfect examples.
- We are immortal; and it is from this second fact in our destinies that death derives most of its solemnity, and all its moral force. It is fearful to think that this very spirit, busied now with trifles, must continue to exist, busied with something, for ever and ever. Mere fatigue may lull the most wretched here into the repose of a little slumber; but when this mortal shall put on immortality, there shall be no opiate for ever and ever to soothe the spirit’s sorest anguish, not even a troubled dream to vary the uniformity of torture. The spirit may prey for ever on itself, but shall never be consumed—it may weep and wail for ever, without wailing itself to rest.
III. The change between the present and future conditions of man will not destroy the identity either of his person or character. There is no alchemy in death to distil charitable and holy dispositions from the gross elements of selfishness and malignity—in it there is no purgatorial fire to change our base metal into refiner’s gold. As the soul enters the troubled waters of dissolution, so must it pass out of them on the other side, bearing that very transcript of character which time and the world have written on it. Are we striving, then, day by day, incessantly, to lay the restraints of godliness on our naturally rampant corruption? Are we watching and praying to guard our hearts from temptation by all the defences of piety and devotion? (W. Stevenson.)
The mind exchanging the mortal for the immortal:—Paul uses this language in relation to the body, but it may be useful to apply it to the mental and moral part of human nature. To—
- Systems of thought. All errors of judgment are mortal and must perish. And what system of human thought is not intermixed with ideas not true? Look at systems—1. Of philosophy. Many have already died out because of their errors; and existing systems because they are often contradictory reveal their errability, and consequently must die. The sensational, idealistic, mystic, and eclectic schools are all shifting as the clouds. It will not be always so; the true must take the place of the false in the realm of thought. 2. Of theology. How contradictory are most of them to each other and to some of the most vital things embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus. Many have died; some are dying; and all will sooner or later die. Human souls will one day have the “truth as it is in Jesus.” “Our little systems have their day. They have their day and cease to be.”
- Elements of human character. Analyse the character of unrenewed men, and you will find moral principles that must die out if there be a God of justice and benevolence in the universe—e.g., avarice, envy, pride, malice, ambition, and selfishness. The human mind was never formed to be influenced by these. The fact that they are antagonistic to the moral constitution of the human soul, to the character of God, and to the order and well-being of all, show that they must sooner or later die. Human souls will one day put off this mortal and “put on” the immortal; “Righteousness, joy, and peace in the Holy Ghost,” &c.
III. Institutions of human life. 1. Our political institutions are mortal. Human governments are constantly dying. The unwisdom in their method of management, the unrighteousness of some of their laws, the haughtiness of those in power, and their constant fattening upon the overtaxed millions give mortality to governments. Man will one day put off these and put on the government of common sense, common justice, common benevolence. Men are craving not for the aristocratic or democratic, but for the theocratic, the reign of God, which is the reign of honesty and love. 2. Our ecclesiastical institutions are mortal. Whether they are Papal, Episcopal, Wesleyan, or Congregational, they are more or less mixed with error and must die.
- Types of human greatness. Some see the highest greatness in the millionaire, some in the triumphant conqueror, some in a monarch, some in ancestry and high-sounding titles. But such types of greatness agree neither with the reason nor the conscience of humanity. Because they are false they are mortal, and they will have to be exchanged for the immortal. The time will come when men will regard Christ as the only true type of greatness. Conclusion: What a glorious change awaits humanity! St. Paul speaks of the resurrection of the body. But there is a more glorious resurrection—a resurrection of the soul from the false, the unrighteous, the impure, to the true, the right, and the holy. (D. Thomas, D.D.) So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption.… Death is swallowed up in victory.—Death is contemplated:—
- As an enemy. Because it—1. Interferes with human happiness. 2. Divides us from our friends, &c. 3. Separates soul and body.
- As an enemy that must be fought. 1. All must die. 2. The struggle is often bitter and painful. 3. Must be maintained by faith, &c.
III. As an enemy that shall be utterly destroyed. 1. In the resurrection to eternal life. 2. By Jesus Christ. (J. Lyth, D.D.)
Death swallowed up:—1. The death of sin in the life of grace. 2. The death of the body in the hope of life. 3. The corruption of death in incorruption. (Ibid.)
Death swallowed up in victory:—The victory is—I. Glorious. 1. The body rises. 2. Is clothed with immortality.
- Is complete. There is no more sickness—pain—death.
III. Triumphant. 1. Christ celebrates the triumph of His grace. 2. Saints participate in it. (Ibid.)
Death swallowed up in victory:—It is a dreadful sight to see an army routed and flying. But in my text is a worse discomfiture. It seems that a black giant proposed to conquer the earth. He gathered for his host all the aches and pains and maladies of the ages. He threw up barricades of grave-mound. He pitched tent of charnel-house. Some of the troops marched with slow tread, commanded by consumptions: some in double-quick, commanded by pneumonias. Some he took by long besiegement of evil habit, and some by one stroke of the battle-axe of casualty. He won all the victories in all the battle-fields. Forward, march! the conqueror of conquerors; and all the generals, presidents, and kings, drop under the feet of his war charger. But one Christmas night his antagonist was born. As most of the plagues and sicknesses and despotisms came out of the East it was appropriate that the new conqueror should come out of the same quarter. Power is given Him to awaken all the fallen of all the centuries. Fields have already been won, but the last day will see the decisive battle. When Christ shall lead forth His two brigades, the risen dead and the celestial host, the black giant will fall back, and the brigade from the riven sepulchres will take him from beneath, and the brigade of the descending immortals will take him from above, and “death shall be swallowed up in victory.” (T. De Witt Talmage, D.D.)
Victory over death:—Here is—
- A formidable enemy. Death, “the last enemy.” Death is here personified and represented as a devouring being, swallowing up all the generations of men. “Death reigned from Adam to Moses”; witness its ravages! Death is an enemy—certain, solemn, universal, and sometimes sudden. See Rachels weeping for their children.
- A powerful conqueror. God the Saviour. Death could not be conquered but by death. Oh how costly was that victory! the Lord of life suffered and died, and ascended into heaven leading death captive and triumphing over it as our surety and representative.
III. A complete victory. “Death is swallowed up in victory,” or for ever swallowed, abolished, destroyed in victory, or into victory. Christ has secured the immortality of the body—delivered from death and the grave; an entire destruction of the empire of death (Rev. 20:14; John 11:25, 26). After you have died you never can have the conflict again. Remember it is the last enemy; the cup of trembling shall no more be put into the hand, for “there will be no more death”; the inhabitants shall no more say they are sick; all tears shall be wiped away (Isa. 25:8; Rev. 21:4). There shall exist nothing but eternal life. “Because I live ye shall live also.” Thus every enemy is put down. (J. Boyd.)
Triumph over death:—
- What is it to triumph over death? 1. Negatively. (1) Not to die as the brutes, without any appreciation of what death is. (2) Not to die as sceptics who do not believe in a future state. (3) Nor as the stoics who submit in silence to an unavoidable evil. 2. Positively it implies—2. Positively it implies—(1) An intelligent apprehension of what it is for a man to die. (2) A scriptural and well-founded persuasion that the power of death to injure us is destroyed. (3) A joyful assurance that to die is gain.
- The way in which the power of death is destroyed. 1. It is only so far as death is a final evil, and as it separates us from God, that it is to be dreaded. 2. Therefore it is only to sinners, and on account of sin, that death is the king of terrors. 3. Sin, however, derives its power from the law, which gives sin its power to condemn. 4. What, therefore, satisfies the law destroys the power of sin, and thus deprives death of its sting. 5. Christ having satisfied the demands of the law gives us the victory over death.
III. How are we to avail ourselves of this provision for our triumph? 1. We must be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. 2. We must know that we are in Him. 3. We must be prepared to give up the treasures and pleasures of this life for heaven. 4. We must therefore live near to God and elevated above the world.
- The experience of God’s people. 1. Some die in doubt. 2. Some in praise. 3. Some in triumph. It matters little, provided we are only in Christ. But it is of great moment that when death comes we shall have nothing to do but die. (C. Hodge, D.D.)
The believer’s triumph:—
- Our bodies, in the present state of existence, are characterised by attributes of degradation. Our bodies bear many circumstances of dignity and grandeur. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made”; and there is that in every man which may lead us to see that he bears the image of God. But we are—1. Corruptible. 2. Mortal. We are subject to innumerable diseases and accidents, to languor and decline. We wear down by slow degrees, or are snapped asunder in a moment. 3. What is the reason that we are subject to such an allotment? The answer is, sin (Rom. 5). We cannot look on one grave that was not opened by sin, nor on one body that was not laid low by sin.
- A period is ordained when our bodies are to be invested with principles of restoration. If we could look on no prospect but the tomb, then we might freely admit that human existence, with all its circumstances of joy, would yet be but misery. But by the gospel “life and immortality” are “brought to light.” Notice three things in reference to this change. 1. The agency by which it is to be effected. All those events which concern our acceptance and final salvation are committed to Christ. As He has made peace by the blood of atonement, and as He is the medium of all grace and blessing, so by Him is to be the great adjudication which shall fix our destiny. Divine must be His attributes at whose bidding all the graves shall uncharnel, and all their countless inhabitants stand before Him. 2. The attributes of which it is to consist. By connecting the attributes of incorruption and immortality with the resurrection, we may be furnished with two ideas respecting our future change. It is to consist—(1) Of an entire conformation to the image of Christ (ver. 49). (2) In an introduction to the perpetuity of perfect happiness. Eternal life is only another word for eternal happiness. 3. The certainty with which it is invested. “In Christ shall all be made alive.” “This corruptible must put on incorruption.”
III. The arrival of this period shall be known as one of splendid triumph. By a fine poetic figure death is set forth as a powerful foe; and all the pains, &c., which death has inflicted are to be regarded as so many victories achieved by him. But there is a counter foe; and there is a victory achieved over this formidable foe. Glorious will be that victory! (1) A sufficient payment for all the trials of mortality. (2) A complete and satisfactory explanation of all the dark passages in the moral government of God upon earth. When all the redeemed shall join in one loud melodious song—“Unto Him that loved us,” &c. Conclusion: The subject furnishes—1. A ground of substantial consolation while we contemplate the departure of our Christian friends. 2. A ground for solemn and serious examination as to our state in reference to the arrival of that solemn hour. (J. Parsons.)
The Christian’s triumph over death:—
- Death may naturally be considered as an enemy.
- True Christians shall obtain a complete victory over death. 1. The victory is in some measure obtained even in the present life. Death hath now, in effect, changed its nature, it only hurts the body, not the soul. It only puts an end to those pursuits, employments, and entertainments which are suited to the body and this present world, but not to those about which holy souls are engaged, and with which they are delighted and improved. Nay, it is become, on many accounts, a benefit; as it puts an end to their temptations and conflicts, doubts and fears. A present victory is obtained by the calmness with which the saints die; and that joy unspeakable and full of glory, with which the Spirit of Christ sometimes replenishes their hearts, when the flesh is sinking into the dust. 2. The victory shall be perfected in the future world. (1) All the faithful servants of Christ shall be raised again. (2) Their bodies shall be transformed into the image of Christ’s body. (3) They shall be fixed in a state of complete and everlasting happiness. Reflections: 1. Let us contemplate the power and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, so illustriously displayed in this triumph over death. 2. Let us reflect on the difference between good and bad men with regard to the consequences of death. 3. Lastly, let the servants of Christ be calm and resigned in the view of their own death, and when their pious friends are removed. (J. Orton.)
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:
56. 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.
57. 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.
 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.
 Fee, G. D. (2014). The First Epistle to the Corinthians. (N. B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, G. D. Fee, & J. B. Green, Eds.) (Revised Edition, pp. 889–892). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Vol. 2, pp. 64–66). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 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.