Passage: 1 Corinthians 15:50–15:58
What a difference a year makes. This time a year ago, I was speaking to you on a recording. On Resurrection Sunday 2020, we were in our homes, still unsure of the course of the pandemic and therefore praying for how best to proceed in faithfulness to God’s Word. What a difference a year makes.
And yet, while the circumstances look different from this year to last, what impresses me the most this morning is what has not changed – namely, the reality that our confidence rests on the rock-solid truth that the tomb is empty. The tomb was empty 2,000 years ago, the tomb is empty today, and the tomb will be empty when the eastern sky splits and Jesus our Lord returns on the clouds, bodily and gloriously, to gather his people. Pandemic or not, that resurrection reality never changes. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
And that explains, in part, why I chose 1 Corinthians 15 for this morning. Here in this chapter, Paul proclaims both the reality and the necessity of Christ’s resurrection. It appears some believers in Corinth were being misled to think there was no physical resurrection, so Paul points them back to the resurrection of Christ. If the dead are not raised, Paul says, then Christ is not raised. And if Christ is not raised, then we are still in our sins and most to be pitied.
But, in reality, Christ has been raised, and therefore believers will be raised to new life with him as well. In other words, 1 Corinthians 15 is the apostle’s declaration that our confidence – indeed our very lives as Christians – rests on this central truth – that Jesus Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day.
In fact, if you are visiting this morning and you are not a Christian, this is the one thing I would urge to consider. Before you probe any other part of the Bible, consider this – is the tomb empty or not? That’s actually not an open question, but you must reckon with it nonetheless. Is the tomb empty or not? Scripture is very clear, and the historical record backs it up that there was no body in the tomb on that Sunday morning. What’s more, Scripture is very clear and the historical record confirms that upwards of 500 people saw Jesus alive after his death. An empty tomb, a resurrected body, so many eyewitnesses it’s impossible to fake – if you’re not a Christian, that’s the one thing you ought to consider this morning – will you believe and submit to what the Bible very clearly proclaims – that Jesus Christ died for sins and rose again on the third day?
Here in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul has been proclaiming the central importance of the resurrection, and now at the end of the chapter, he comes to the climax of his argument. And what he urges the Corinthians to see is that the resurrection is the foundation for all of our confidence as Christians. Think of a great mansion, gloriously constructed and richly furnished. No matter how stunning that mansion is, without a solid foundation, it cannot stand. You can’t enjoy the richness of the mansion unless it rests on an immovable bedrock of support.
So, it is with the Christian life. The gospel is a great mansion of promises, richly furnished beyond what we can imagine. Forgiveness, justification, adoption, loved forever by God in Christ – the gospel is a great mansion of promises. But that mansion only stands if the foundation is sure.
And our foundation is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is Paul’s point in this chapter. Because Christ is raised, all the promises of God are yes and amen in Jesus. Because Christ is raised, we have the confidence of entering the Father’s great mansion of grace and glory, where we will enjoy eternal fellowship in the presence of the Triune God.
So, here is what I’d like us to do this morning. In order to encourage our confidence in God, I’d like us to consider three ways the resurrection upholds our hearts in Christ. To continue the imagery of a great mansion, think of these ways as the stones that make up the foundation of our resurrection confidence. Let’s consider them together.
The Resurrection Fits Us for Flory with Christ
The first foundation of our confidence is this – Resurrection fits us for glory with Christ. Paul opens this climactic section with a bit of gospel logic, we might say. He’s building on the reality of Christ’s resurrection, but he begins in an interesting way. Notice the negative statement in v50 – “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” Now, the kingdom of God is God’s redemptive rule in Jesus Christ. And that kingdom is a spiritual reality. On this side of Christ’s return, there is not a geographic center of God’s kingdom. Rather, God’s kingdom is revealed in the rule of Christ, through his Word, applied by his Spirit, in the presence of his people, the church. The kingdom, in other words, is a spiritual reality, and that reality will be realized one day in the new creation.
And Paul’s point is that our bodies, in their present form, are not fit to enter that kingdom. At this moment, we live in bodies that are prone to decay, corruption, and ultimately death. But God’s kingdom is the realm of life and immortality. These decaying bodies – what Paul calls the perishable – cannot possibly exist in the world that is to come. We need a change in nature, or else we cannot enter glory.
Now, you might think, “That’s a rather depressing point for Paul to make. I thought Easter was about good news and eternal life. This sounds very negative.” Perhaps, if we stopped here, but Paul is not finished. Notice he keeps building his gospel logic. Look at v51, where Paul introduces the reality that overcomes v50’s impossibility. Paul says, v51, “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”
In the NT, the word mystery is not something that we have to figure out. It is, rather, something that God reveals. And the mystery is here is that our decaying, perishable bodies will be changed. On the last day, God will suddenly change his people, both the living and the dead, transforming them in such a way that they are fit to inherit the kingdom of God.
In fact, notice how Paul uses the language of necessity in v53 – “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” Resurrection is a non-negotiable in God’s economy. Death will not hold God’s people in the prison of decaying, corruptible bodies. On the last day, God will raise his people to new life, and in doing so, God will fit his people for glory. If the flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, then God will transform his people in order to bring them in. Resurrection, then, is a divine necessity for redemption.
Now, there’s a question here that we ought to answer because it’s essential for understanding Paul’s point. The question is this – How does Paul know these things are true? Think about it. Death continues all around him, and even Paul himself will soon die. So, what is the source of the apostle’s confidence that believers will be fit for glory?
The answer is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because Christ has been raised in a body fit for glory, so also will Christ’s people be raised fit for glory as well. Paul is thinking of Christ’s resurrection from two perspectives here. One is the historical perspective. The resurrection of Christ is a historical fact, having occurred in time and space, fulfilled in the flesh and blood existence of Jesus of Nazareth. The resurrection is a historical fact.
But the second perspective is just as key. Paul also sees the resurrection a gospel promise. The resurrection of Christ proclaims to us that glory is our future as well – because we are united to Christ the Risen One. To believe on the Risen Christ is to believe that your future is already revealed and secure in him. The resurrection is both fact and promise. Indeed, the fact of Christ’s resurrection makes the promise true.
Brothers and Sisters, this is why it is so essential to believe and proclaim that Christ rose bodily from the grave. This is why we must never waver in declaring that Jesus’ body was stone-cold dead, but then suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, breath rushed backed into his lungs, his eyes opened, and his veins flooded with the blood of resurrection life. We must not waver in that truth. A mere spiritual resurrection just won’t do. Christ rose bodily, and in the reality of his glorified physical body, we see the promise – indeed, the guarantee – that we will be fit for glory as well.
I wonder sometimes if we think about the resurrection too much in terms of apologetics and not enough in terms of discipleship. The resurrection is not simply a truth that Christians ought to defend. It’s not primarily an apologetic concern. Rather, the resurrection is a truth that ought to help Christians grow. It’s a discipleship concern, one of the truths that God intends to sustain us in our faith, to strengthen us when we’re afraid, and to infuse us with confidence for what lies ahead. I guess that’s what I’m aiming to do in this first point – to remind us how the reality of Christ’s resurrection increases our confidence in the hope of glory. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, but through Christ, resurrection fits us for glory with God.
The Resurrection Assures Us of Victory through Christ
As we come to v54, we find a second source of confidence for believers – the Resurrection assures us of victory through Christ. Paul has already established that believers will be raised, and he has grounded that confidence in the resurrection of Christ. Beginning in v54, Paul shifts in a slightly different direction, as he explains how Christ’s resurrection brings God’s promises to their final fulfillment. Notice how Paul does this, beginning in v54 – “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’”
The key here is Paul’s use of the Old Testament. In Isaiah 25, which Paul cites in v54, God’s salvation is pictured as a great feast, spread on the mountain of God. We looked at this same passage just a few weeks ago in the Gospel of Luke. On that day, Isaiah prophesied, death would be swallowed up forever. In fact, that is the main course of the feast in Isaiah 25. God swallows up death, every tear is wiped away, and God’s people enter into the joy of God’s presence forever. No more pain, no more death, no more decay, no more futility and heartache and inexplicable suffering that seemingly sucks the life right from your soul – none of that, God says! Death will be swallowed up – forever defeated – and in the light of God’s presence, we will feast forever. That is what the OT promised.
And here in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul reminds us that this promise is fulfilled only in Jesus Christ. By rising from the dead, Jesus demonstrated the power of his victory at the cross. Death itself died in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this victory is so certain that Paul can taunt death at the end of v55. Look again – “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Make no mistake, that is what we might call an apostolic taunt. Paul is echoing the words of Hosea, and it’s as if he’s saying, “Where are you now, Death? Where is power, since Christ is risen from the dead?” Paul celebrates the end of death. Death no longer has the final word. For the Christian, resurrection is the final word, and that final word has already been spoken in Jesus Christ. Christ’s resurrection fulfills the OT promise of death’s defeat.
But then notice where Paul goes in v56. He’s been triumphing in death’s defeat, but that leads Paul to go one step deeper. Death is the great enemy of humanity, but death, as the Bible tells us, is the result of sin. So, if Christ has defeated death, then that must mean Christ has also defeated sin. And that is where Paul goes in v56. I love this about the apostle Paul. He can scarcely write a few chapters without coming back to the cross. Notice v56 – “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.”
Now, there is a lot of theology to unpack in that short verse, but I want us to note one simple point. It’s in the first phrase – the sting of death is sin. Paul’s point is that death is not the root cause of our trouble with God. Death is simply the fruit. The real root of our trouble with God is sin. Sin is the defiance of God, the act by which we choose to live in open rebellion against him. Death reigns because sin exists – Romans 6.23, “For the wages of sin is death.”.
But follow Paul’s thinking at this point. If Christ’s resurrection has swallowed up death, then what does that mean for sin? It means Christ has defeated sin as well. Christ has broken sin’s power, which is why death had no hold over the Lord Jesus.
And this, brothers and sisters, gets to the very heart of the gospel message. What happened at the cross of Jesus Christ? The biblical answer is both incredibly shocking and unthinkably wonderful – Christ took sin upon himself. As he hung on that cursed tree, Jesus, the Son of God, bore in his body the sin of his people. Every commandment broken, every angry word spoken, every vile thought entertained, every sinister motive plotted, every despicable deed done – Christ took each and every one upon himself. And there – as darkness fell upon the earth – Christ paid, in full, for the sins of his people. He endured God’s punishment against our sin.
And that is why death is swallowed up forever. To get the resurrection, you must have the cross. To defeat death, you must deal with sin. That’s the glory of the gospel. The resurrection is not merely a miracle of divine power. The resurrection is the climax of the redemption’s drama that began at the cross. Death is swallowed up because sin is defeated.
This is almost too wonderful to be true. And yet, it is true – more true than anything else in the world. But would you believe me if I told you this good news went one step further? Don’t take my word for it – look at v57. It’s a small but astounding point from the apostle, v57 – “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The only appropriate response to the gospel is worship. When we think of the cross, we ought to praise God. That’s why we gather on the Lord’s Day, brothers and sisters – because thanks be to God, death has been swallowed up!
But that’s not the only thing I want you to see in v57. Notice that Paul says thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ. To whom does God give this victory? To us, Paul says. We receive the promise of death swallowed up. We embrace, by faith, the reality of sin forgiven. We inherit eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. We do – us sinners who are prone to wander; us rebels who find that our love for God is often far too low – we receive the victory.
Oh friends, if you don’t know Jesus Christ today, why would you delay? Why would you wait one moment more? Jesus is the friend of sinners. He is the Savior of sinners. You may have done things in your life that you can’t even dare to say out loud, and yet Jesus would say, “Bring them to my cross, where my blood is powerful to save.” Why would you delay? Come to Christ this morning, friend, and receive the victory that he has won.
And for those who are Christians this morning – for those who are repenting of their sin and trusting in Christ alone – do you believe that this victory is yours in Christ Jesus? I know the fight against sin is hard, and I know that there are many days where you are convinced it’s a fight you’re going to lose. But brothers and sisters, that’s not your future. Thanks be to God, there is victory for you in Christ Jesus. That doesn’t mean that instantly today or tomorrow, all of your struggle against sin will magically go away. We will fight against sin until we see Jesus face to face. So, v57 doesn’t magically erase your struggle.
But brothers and sisters, v57 does remind you of the end, and that end is victory. Indeed, the war is won. Sin is defeated in Christ, and therefore, by God’s grace, you too will one day enter fully into Christ’s victory. Let the reality of that victory spur you on in the present. Far too often, we get focused on how hard the struggle is, and we lose sight of how complete the victory is. Let the reality of Christ’s victory spur you on and sustain you in the present. For the Christian, there is no battle against sin that will not end in the victory of glory. That’s not because you’re strong enough to win in the end. It’s because – thanks be to God – we have victory in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is part of our confidence as we live the Christian life. In fact, it is foundational – the resurrection assures us of victory through Christ.
The Resurrection Sustains Us in Service to Christ
Let’s finish our reflections this morning with v58, where we see a final way toward confidence before God. V58 – the Resurrection sustains us in service to Christ. Another thing I love about Paul’s letters is his consistent connection of doctrine with everyday life. For Paul, theology is always meant to work, to impact the way we think and love and live. If that’s not how our theology works, then there’s probably something wrong with our theology. Theology is meant to work.
And that’s true here at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. Paul concludes these resurrection reflections with a takeaway for everyday life. Look again at v58 – “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Those descriptions at the start of the verse mean just what it sounds like they mean. As believers, we can be steadfast in the work God has given us to do. We can be immovable – not shifting when the winds of culture blow against us, not despairing when opposition arises, not shrinking back when challenges come. We can abound in those seasons, Paul says.
Why? Or even better, how can we have that kind of attitude? How can we abound in steadfast confidence? The answer is that final line – knowing that in the Lord, our labor is not in vain. In the last year, I’m not sure there is a truth that has kept me going more than this one. Nearly every sermon you’ve heard me preach in the last year, certainly the last six months, comes out of this one verse. “In the Lord, our labor is not in vain.” Since Christ defeated death, then surely no hardship will derail the work God has called us to do. Since Christ defeated death, then certainly nothing can stand against the church as she lives out her mission in the world. The resurrection is the great sustaining reality of all Christian faithfulness.
And let’s be clear, brothers and sisters. It is the resurrection that sustains us. When Paul says, “Be steadfast, immovable,” he’s not saying, “Pull yourself up by your Christian bootstraps.” He’s not saying, “Buck up and find the inner strength you need to keep going.” That’s not the point at all. In fact, that’s a view that would go against the gospel’s message.
Paul’s point is that the resurrection of Christ, embraced by faith, is so powerfully true, it will sustain us in whatever God has given us to do. Discipleship, evangelism, marriage, parenting, your vocation, your service to the church – the resurrection of Christ, embraced by faith, will bear you up in that work. It’s the ultimate promise of victory applied to everyday life. God’s work in and through his people will not fail because Christ has been raised from the dead.
So, train yourself to think in terms of the resurrection. Instead of listening to yourself in moments of trial, learn to talk to yourself with the truth of the gospel. When your parenting seems to be hitting a brick wall, remind yourself, “This is not in vain. Christ himself has been raised from the dead, and therefore, God will bear fruit in his time. My calling is be steadfast in the work.” When your desire to share the gospel with your lost friends seems to go nowhere, tell yourself, “Christ is risen from the dead, therefore, no amount of spiritual darkness will prevail in those whom God has destined to save. I can be steadfast in the work because the tomb is empty.” When you pour your heart and soul into the work of the Lord – whether in your workplace or your church – and it just seems to go nowhere, tell yourself, “This is not in vain. Christ is risen from the dead. God bears fruit in his time, and therefore, I will labor in faith for what God alone can do.”
That kind of thinking is the exercise of faith. Faith does not happen by accident in the Christian life. Faith is exercised through meditating on the truth, and there is no truth so powerful as the truth of Christ’s resurrection. So, let’s listen to the apostle Paul in v58, and let’s learn to put the reality of the resurrection to practice in whatever God has given us to do. The resurrection sustains us in service to Christ.
What a difference a year makes. Or perhaps we should say, “What a difference a day makes” – the day of Christ’s resurrection, the day we celebrate today and every Lord’s Day. The resurrection fits us for glory. The resurrection assures us of victory. And the resurrection sustains us in service. Praise God that the foundation of our faith is this immovable, unchangeable truth – Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed.