This passage forms part of Paul's teaching on the resurrection of believers at the return of Christ found in Chapter fifteen. In v50-58 Paul concludes his argument for a bodily resurrection of the dead and assures his readers of the coming triumph.
v50. Paul, in answering the question concerning the type of body that will be raised in the day of resurrection, v35, tells us that the resurrection body evidences both continuity and transformation. He now reinforces this truth by stating that a terrestrial body cannot relocate from this word to the heavenly realm - it must be transformed.
v51-53. Paul now lets us into a secret, once hidden, but now revealed. There are those who will be transformed - those who are asleep in the arms of Jesus. In a moment of time, at the sound of the trumpet, the dead in Christ will rise imperishable, cf. 1Thess.4:16, Zech.9:14. The mortal will become immortal.
v54-55. Paul goes on to proclaim the consequence of the resurrection, namely, victory over death. In the transformation of the living and dead in the day of Christ's return, there will no longer be any way death can tyrannize us or hold us in fear. Paul makes this point by quoting Isaiah.25:8 "God will swallow up death forever." In a rewrite of Hosea 13:4, Paul mocks the enemy whose doom is sealed by Christ's own death and resurrection.
v56. In a statement of high theology Paul explains that the "sting" of death is sin; it is the venom which secures death's victory. Thankfully Christ has vanquished death and its sting on the cross. Christ has also dealt with that which empowers sin, namely, the Law. On behalf of broken humanity Christ has fulfilled the Law with his perfect obedience such that those in Christ are covered by his righteousness and are thus freed from the Law's condemnation.
v57. Paul moves to a doxology of praise. God is victorious over death through the resurrection of Christ, praise be to God.
v58. Paul concludes with an exhortation: "Stand firm" - let nothing move you. Paul is probably referring to gospel truth - to good teaching. "Give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord". He is probably thinking here of gospel ministry, both in building up God's people and reaching out to the lost.
Although crematoriums were originally designed to display the coffin moving away at the committal, these days there are curtains, fading lights, dimming glass... anything to hide the reality of what's going on. Out of sight, out of mind.
We fear death. It debilitates us. Our lives slowly slip away before our eyes with little achieved. Our dreams are great, but the limitations of our shell seem to undermine all we ever hoped for. Unrealized dreams, shattered expectations, compounded by the inevitable decline in energy and the ever gathering cloud of death. Always a powerful victor with the sting of a deadly serpent. Always driving us to possess life, as though the passing of time was something that could be possessed. Like grasping at the wind, we deny our mortality in the flitting fancies of a fading light. But says the Lord, "Death has been swallowed up in victory". No longer victorious, now death is stingless.
If dying is no longer for us the cessation of our being, if death is but a stage, a passing through, a moving on, then no longer are we faced with the need to "get it all in" now. Life becomes but a moment in eternity, a first stage, a schooling for the age to come. Our expectations may be great, but there is no importance in what we have not achieved, rather in what we have achieved within our little moment - small though that may be. It is then that our perspective need not be shaped by what we have not done, or achieved, of all the lost opportunities, rather our vision becomes focused on the moment that remains. There always lies before us new lessons to be learned. This is particularly so in that we are always changing and our environment is always changing. We grow older, we feel differently, see differently. Shapes about us change, the cycle of life moves on. Given that death is not the end, then every moment has purpose, every day an eternal shape.
The substance of victory over death is experienced in the present through our victory over death's cause. Sin is no longer victorious over us. We are forgiven, no longer condemned, rather we have risen with Christ and experience his renewing work within. We sense the mercy of God in our forgiveness; we know his acceptance and love; we experience his inworking renewal as we are remade into the likeness of Christ. All this confirms that death is now no longer the end, it is but a momentary rest in our journey to Christ.
So then, every moment has purpose, every day an eternal shape.
1. Why must the body be transformed to enter heaven?
2. Why would the Corinthians find the "mystery" of v51 a little offensive?
3. Why has death lost its sting?