April 4, 2010
Pastor Ricky Powell
The town of Le Lavandou on the French Riviera recently passed a law barring any more burials in the town cemetery. It's full. The law says, “It is forbidden without a cemetery plot to die on the territory of the commune.” The law hasn't stopped people from dying. Nineteen people have died without a plot and are temporarily housed in friends’ vaults.
There is only one law against dying that really works—the law of the Resurrection (Lee Eclov, Lake Forest, Illinois; from Chicago Tribune [9-22-00]).
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us the Ultimate Victory over death and the grave. Without Christ’s resurrection death would be the ultimate defeat. But thanks be to God who gives us the ultimate victory even over death! That is what I want to talk to you about on this Resurrection Sunday; The Ultimate Victory. Open your Bible please to 1 Corinthians 15:50-58.
Death so often seems like the ultimate defeat. When a loved one dies we may even tell our friends, “She lost her battle with cancer.” Or we say, “He fought diabetes most of his life but in the end it got the better of him.” Or we say, “His body just couldn’t fight off the infection. It was too much for him to overcome.”
We fear our own death and we fear the death of our loved ones because death seems like defeat.
I am sure that is how Jesus’ disciples felt on that Friday when their Lord was crucified on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem. After their Lord died on the cross the disciples hurriedly retrieved His body from the Romans. They carried the corpse to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where they quickly embalmed it with linen cloths and spices. The tomb was sealed shut, and in the failing light they made their way back to the upper room. Once there they locked themselves inside for fear that what had happened to Jesus might also happen to them.
One can only imagine the gloom of defeat that enveloped them over the weekend. All their hopes and dreams of a better day, of Jesus reigning victorious as the Messiah of Israel, and of freedom from Roman oppression were crucified and defeated on the cross with Jesus. Death so often seems like the ultimate defeat. It sure looked that way to the disciples after the Lord died on the cross. But looks can be deceiving.
Jesus truly did die on the cross. His lifeless body was placed in the tomb. But it is equally true that Jesus came out of the tomb alive on that Sunday morning! In this same chapter Paul told the Corinthians believers, “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 [NKJV]).
Jesus who died rose from the dead in a bodily resurrection! That is what Easter is all about. The tomb is empty. Death has been defeated!
But friend, the good news of Easter does not end with the bodily resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection guarantees that death will not ultimately defeat us! Death will be defeated when our earthly bodies are changed and made fit for our heavenly home! Believers will experience the ultimate victory over death and the grave when Jesus changes our bodies to be like His glorious resurrection body. One day we will have bodies that will never grow old, will never get sick, and will never die!
Does this sound too fanciful to be true? Perhaps you are thinking, “I can believe that Jesus rose from the dead, but I have a hard time believing that my body will escape the grave.” The Corinthians also had trouble believing in a bodily resurrection. That is why Paul wrote this part of his letter to them. Chapter fifteen begins with a declaration of Christ’s resurrection. It continues with the assurance of our resurrection based on Jesus’ resurrection. The chapter concludes with the verses that comprise our text today which celebrates the abolition of death because death has been swallowed up in victory. Paul presents four stages in his logic as he argues for our ultimate victory over death. First, he speaks of…
I. The Great Impossibility (15:50).
“Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50a [NKJV]).
What does Paul mean when he speaks of “flesh and blood.” The best way to understand this phrase is to look at how it has been used elsewhere in Scripture. For example, when Peter made his great confession that Jesus was the Christ Jesus responded by saying, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17 [NKJV]).
Or consider the words of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:12 when he wrote, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 [NKJV]).
So flesh and blood is a way of describing human life as it is here and now (Tyndale, p. 226). It describes human beings in all our mortal frailty and weakness. In fact, Paul elaborates on the phrase “flesh and blood” in the latter part of verse 50. “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption” (1 Corinthians 15:50 [NKJV]).
Paul tells us that there in an incompatibility between our human life as it is now and the Kingdom of God as it will be in the last day. Our bodies exist now in frailty, weakness, and corruption. The Kingdom of God on the other hand is eternal and incorruptible. We cannot inherit the Kingdom of God in these bodies as they now exist.
Please do not misunderstand what Paul is saying. He is not questioning your present salvation. If you have believed in Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior then there is a sense in which you are already in the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom broke into human history with the coming of Jesus Christ. He rules and reigns in your life. You have entered the Kingdom by faith in Christ. But we have not yet experienced the fullness of God’s Kingdom. We still wait for the day in which the Kingdom will fully come. Jesus taught us to pray, “Father, Thy Kingdom come…” So we live in between two great moments in God’s redemptive history. We live between the inauguration of the Kingdom which has already occurred at Jesus’ first coming and the consummation of the Kingdom which will occur at His second coming.
If we are to inherit the Kingdom of God in all its fullness, glory, perfection, and power then something radical has to happen to us. We cannot enter the Kingdom with these bodies of flesh and blood. We need to be changed. Our bodies need to be made fit for our heavenly home. Until our bodies are transformed there is a sense in which we are only half saved. Our souls have been saved from the moment we trusted Christ but our bodies have not been saved. Not yet. Listen to some Bible verses that illustrate the “already---not yet” status of believers. Paul declared in Ephesians 1:7, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins…” (Ephesians 1:7a [NKJV]). Already we possess redemption and forgiveness through the blood of Christ! But, Romans 8:23 says, “…we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23 [NKJV]).
So we are only half redeemed. Our souls are saved. But our bodies await the Second Coming of Christ for complete redemption where we will receive transformed bodies fit for the Kingdom of God. Until then flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. That is why the Bible says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Your spirit goes to God at death, but your body cannot. It is the great impossibility.
Why is it the great impossibility? Because, “corruption cannot inherit incorruption.” The word Paul uses for corruption means that our bodies are subject to deterioration and decay. The most obvious fact of human existence is that we live in corrupted, frail, and weak bodies. We live in bodies that are subject to decay. I am confronted with the corruption of the flesh every morning as I look in the mirror. I once had a head full of hair. Now I have a brush full of hair!
For twenty-one years of my pastoral ministry I have made visits to hospitals, nursing homes, and physical rehabilitation centers. And with each visit I am confronted with the reality of human frailty. From the virility of youth to the senility of old age our bodies conspire against us. Over time our steps are slowed, our eyes are dimmed, our minds are weakened, and our strength is depleted. You do not have to grow old, however, to experience the corruption of flesh and blood. We have all seen people struck down in the prime of life with some illness or accident. We are all in the same condition. We subject to deterioration and decay.
So Paul confronts us with the Great Impossibility: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption.
It would be depressing if we had to end on this note. But Paul continues with the declaration of…
II. The Great Mystery (15:51-53).
“Behold, I tell you a mystery…” (1 Corinthians 15:51a [NKJV]).
Paul does not speak of this mystery the same the way we speak of a mystery. Paul is not referring to a Sherlock Holmes mystery. When reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery novels you can often use human logic and reason to solve the mystery even before you reach the end of the book. The type of mystery Paul refers to, however, could never be detected by human reasoning. This type of mystery is only understood by divine revelation. Paul is saying, “What I am about to tell you is not something I came up with out of my own intellect. The mystery I am going to share with you was hidden in the past but is now revealed by God.”
So Paul bids us to listen to him, to give him our undivided attention because he has a truth from God to share. What is this mystery? “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed…” (1 Corinthians 15:51 [NKJV)].
The great mystery is that the radical transformation of our bodies that is required before we can enter into the Kingdom of God will take place on the last day when Jesus comes again. Moreover, the radical transformation will take place for the dead and the living equally. Both will share in this change! The bodies of those who have died in the Lord and the bodies of believers who are alive at His return will all be changed.
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. That sounds like a great motto for our church nursery today! What does Paul mean? Dr. John Phillips said it means rapture for some and renewal for all. I like that!
A. Rapture for some.
“We shall not all sleep…” Paul uses the euphemism of sleep as a way to describe death. He is saying that not everyone will die. There will be some who are alive at Christ’s Second Coming and they will have their bodies transformed without having to pass through death! That is the blessed hope of every believer. The Bible says we are to be, “looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…” (Titus 2:13 [NKJV]). I’ve got news for you. I am not looking for the under taker. I am looking for the Upper taker! I am looking for the Lord Jesus Christ to come back for His church at any moment and rapture us home to Heaven. No one knows what Christ will come again. We are told to look and to be ready. Rapture for some, and…
B. Renewal for all.
“Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we 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 incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 [NKJV]).
Not all will die before Christ returns, but all will be changed, transformed when He does. This is the event Paul described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
13 But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. 15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NKJV)
The great mystery revealed by God is not everyone will die before Jesus comes, but all will have their bodies gloriously changed when He does!
How long will it take for this transformation to take place? Evolutionists tell us that it took billions of years to go from goo to you by way of the zoo. Someone commented on the evolutionary process this way:
I once was a tadpole beginning to begin,
Then I was a frog with my tail tucked in.
Then I was a monkey swinging from a tree.
Now I am a professor with a Ph. D.
The transformation of our bodies will not be evolutionary, but revolutionary. It will not be incremental but instantaneous. Paul says, “we shall all be changed-- in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…” When Jesus returns He will change our bodies with a startling suddenness. It will happen in a moment, in a flash, in a fraction of a millisecond! It will happen as fast as it takes for you to cast a glance or to flutter your eyelids.
Paul also tells us that the trumpet will sound. In Roman days trumpets were used by the Army to announce orders. One type of trumpet blast told the soldiers it was time to strike their tents and to prepare to move out. Another type of trumpet blast told the soldiers to line up in formation. The last trumpet call signaled it was time to move out. One of these days the Church will hear the trumpet blast of God telling us it is time to move out! The bodies of believers will rise from wherever they have been deposited and reunited with their souls. Then living believers will be changed and will be caught up together with our loved ones and with the Lord!
“For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53 [NKJV]).
There is coming a day for believers when we will finally and fully be free of the tyranny of sin, sickness, and sorrow! No more beautiful and brilliant intellects stolen by Alzheimer’s disease. No more cancer and chemotherapy. No more heart disease and hospitals. We will be clothed in glorified bodies. We will exchange the old garment of corruption and mortality for the new garment of incorruption and immortality. What a day that will be!
There'll be no sorrow there, no more burdens to bear,
No more sickness, no pain, no more parting over there;
And forever I will be with the One who died for me,
What a day, glorious day that will be.
III. The Great Victory (15:54-57).
“So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’” (1 Corinthians 15:54 [NKJV]).
Paul says our new bodies will not be subject to decay and death. We will finally be incorruptible and immortal. Paul then quotes from Isaiah 25:8 when he writes, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” Isaiah 25 is a great song of celebration over the defeat of death. At the moment we receive our new bodies death will be swallowed up in victory for it will never again have power over us!
Paul then quotes from a second passage, this time from Hosea 13:14. This passage is a taunt against death. Paul mocks death. “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55 [NKJV]).
Paul likens death to a scorpion whose stinger has been plucked out and to a military leader who has been defeated. In verse 56 he explains what he means.
“The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56 [NKJV]).
Paul says that what gives death its sting is sin because death is the penalty of sin. Upon the news of a death we often ask, “How did he die? Was it a car accident? Was it cancer? Did he die of a heart attack? Did he die of old age?” Those are only the intermediate secondary causes of death. The primary cause of death in the world is sin. The Bible says that all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The Bible also says that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). And what gives sin its power is the Law of God. God’s Law stands in judgment of us by revealing and condemning our sins. How do I know I am a sinner? Because what God says in His Word that I should not do that is the very thing I want to do. What God says I should do I don’t do. It is like hanging a sign on a wall in the school classroom, “Wet paint. Do not touch.” The first thing we do is touch it! The Law of God reveals our sin and condemns us as sinners. But Jesus died on our behalf, taking our place under the condemnation of God.
I recently read about a 24-year-old Malaysian woman named Nur Malena Hassan. On August 21, 2004 she moved into a glass filled with 6,069 scorpions who quickly covered her body. She was trying to break the world record for living in a glass box. She was allowed to leave the box for 15 minutes each day. Hassan made the box home for 36 days. She emerged on September 25, 2004 with the new world record. Not surprisingly, Nur Malena Hassan suffered 17 stings. Citation: John Beukema, Western Springs, Illinois; sources: "Woman Moves in with Scorpions," Reuters (8-23-04) and "Malaysian Woman Reclaims 'Scorpion Queen' Title," CHINAdaily.com (9-28-04)
Jesus did something far greater. He moved into our world, took upon Himself human flesh, lived a perfect life and willingly took the deadly sting of sin in His own body on the cross! He died, was buried, and rose from the dead victorious over sin, death, and the grave!
No wonder Paul burst out in praise in verse 57: “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57 [NKJV]).
The power of death has been overcome by Christ! Friend, shouldn’t this truth affect the way Christians view death? There is nothing wrong with grieving the death of a loved one. Death is unnatural. It is a tragedy brought on by mankind’s fall into sin. But because of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection and because of His promise to redeem our bodies we do not have to sorrow like those who have no hope. We can look forward to the day when our loved one who have died will receive their brand new bodies. Right now their spirit is with the Lord as their body awaits the resurrection. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord the Bible says. And this knowledge ought to change how we view our own death. We may not die. Jesus may come back first. But if we do die we know that death will not have the last word. Christ’s resurrection proves that He will change our earthly bodies and make them fit for our heavenly home!
IV. The Great Priority (15:58).
“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58 [NKJV]).
The definition of a priority: a priority is “something given or meriting attention before competing alternatives” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/priority).
There are a lot of competing interests vying for your attention. Your job, your family, your hobby, your friends, etc. Most of these things are good things. There is nothing wrong with them until they take the wrong position on your list of priorities. The number one priority Paul called the Corinthian believers to was the priority of living for God. That is to be the great priority of life! Is living for God your number one priority in life? Or are you living for yourself? Are you living for your career? Are you living for your pleasures? Show me how you use your time and your money and I will show you what is the most important priority in your life. And I am afraid for many of you God is not at the top of the list. This is the first time in a long time some of you have been to church. I am thrilled you are here. But friend, if God is not more important to you than that then I question if He is really important at all. Look at how Paul minces no words when he calls us to make living for God our number one priority.
“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58 [NKJV]).
Only one life, it will soon be past; Only what's done for Christ will last.
This then is the Gospel of the Resurrection, the Ultimate Victory. Jesus was raised from the dead in a glorified body and we, too, will be raised and changed. Death will be defeated when our earthly bodies are changed and made fit for our heavenly home. Our bodies will no longer be liable to deterioration, decay, and death. Knowing this should then motivate us to stand firm and immovable in our faith in Jesus and it should compel us to a life of abounding in the work of the Lord.