Sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:51-57 for the Easter Day, April 21, 2019
- Do you know what a rhetorical question is? It’s a question you ask without really expecting an answer. Public speakers ask them to try to get people thinking about the implied answer. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul has two rhetorical questions as the conclusion to everything he had said before: “Death, where is your sting? Grave where is your victory?”
- “Look, I tell you a mystery.” “Mystery” really means something hidden or secret, something that no one could figure out on their own. Now Paul is going to reveal it. “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet.” “Sleep.” Remember when Jesus was called to the bed of the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus? Friends and family had gathered at the house and they were mourning and wailing. Jesus told them, “Stop weeping, because she is not dead, but sleeping” (Luke 8:52). When Stephen was being stoned to death, St. Luke says that he looked up to heaven, said, “Lord Jesus, do not hold this against them,” and then he fell asleep. (Acts 7:60). In the New Testament, the holy writers often follow Jesus in calling the death of believers “sleep.” It hints that the person is going to wake up again. For those who are not “asleep,” Paul tells what will happen at the last trumpet. That means “at the end of the world.’ The Jews had a “Feast of Trumpets.” It was the New Year festival—just as we observe the New Year with noisemakers and fireworks, the Jews would welcome the new year with a blast of trumpets. “We will all be changed, in a moment, in the blink of an eye.” In Philippians, Paul says, “he will transform our humble bodies to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). Compare the picture on the left of the risen Christ to the picture that was here on the right during the weeks of Lent. Jesus’ body, beaten, whipped, pierced, bruised, bloody and dead, now raised healed, restored and new. St. John says the same thing, “Dear friends, we are children of God now, but what wewill be has not yet been revealed. We know that when he is revealed we will be like him, and we will see him as he really is” (1 John 3:2). I think of what we often bury. Bodies ravaged by disease or age. Sometimes we bury a box of ashes. In our earthly tragedy, we have eternal, heavenly hope. “We will all be chaned, in a moment, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet.”
- “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Paul says those words, again and again in the next verses. “Perishable,” “imperishable.” You know what “perishable” is. You experience it when you reach in the back of your refrigerator and you find the remains of the cucumber you bought six weeks ago. It’s nothing but a pile of squishy slime. It has perished. This resurrection is not like the kind of rising of the dead you would see in a zombie movie. That is really depicting “” Imperishable means “fresh,” “not able to decay,” “here for good and here forever.”
- There is some “perishability” we deal with every day. Aches and pains. New ailments. We have a promise for that, too. “This perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” Imagine all the problems that come with age… gone. Imagine all the other problems that arise… allergy, stomach problems, chronic pain, mental illness, dark moods that just don’t lift… all of that gone. “This perishable body must put on immortality.”
- “Once this perishable body has put on imperishability, and this mortal body has put on immortality, then what is written will be fulfilled: Death is swallowed up in victory.” 800 years earlier, Isaiah wrote, “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” (Isaiah 25:8). The people of Judah were going to be sad because the Babylonians conquered their land. God gave a promise above and beyond getting back what they lost. “He will swallow up death forever.”
- Now we get back to those rhetorical questions. “Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?” “Sting” means something like a bee. A bee’s sting is its weapon. It’s the thing that hurts. But Paul asks, “Death, where is your sting?” It’s gone. Jesus took it away. Everything that death does and can do will be undone by Jesus at the resurrection. And so that means that the sting death still has is only a temporary one. That changes the spirit of a Christian funeral completely, doesn’t it. Instead of weeping over a tragic end, our tears are less bitter. “We will miss you, but we will see you again!” That’s the promise our Savior, Jesus, has given us.
- “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” This is very much like what Paul wrote in Romans: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Death is what we deserve for sin. All die. All have sinned. But one rose. Paul also wrote, “The undeserved gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). And here he writes “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” Easter is not just Jesus’ victory, it is our victory. It is our victory when we are baptized, baptized into his death and clothed in his righteousness. It is our victory at every Christian funeral we attend, because we are leaving with a promise. It is our victory when we suffer, because we know one day Jesus will wipe away every tear from our eyes. It is our victory when we face the end of life… the last days, hours and moments, because then we are about to go to the place he has prepared for us, that where he is, we will be also. “Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?” In Morning Praise we sing, “You overcame the sting of death and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers” (Te deum laudamus). The victory is ours. Always. In good days and bad, all because of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:51-57 (EHV)
51Look, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54But once this perishable body has put on imperishability, and this mortal body has put on immortality, then what is written will be fulfilled: Death is swallowed up in victory. 55Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory? 56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!