Victory in Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:50-57)
During World War II, Great Britain saw many dark days. Between September 7, 1940, and May 10, 1941, the Germans bombed Great Britain repeatedly. The Germans began their campaign against Great Britain by bombing London for 57 nights in a row. By the end of “The Blitz,” more than 43,000 civilians had been killed by the German campaign. During such national calamities, the people often look to their leaders for comfort and hope. About halfway through the attacks upon Great Britain, Winston Churchill began making his famous “V for Victory” sign. Even in darkness and calamity, Churchill believed that his nation would be victorious over the Germans, as—thankfully—they were.
As we face mortality, we see many dark hours. Who among us hasn’t shed tears enough to fill the ocean because we were heartbroken over the death of a loved one? We find many in Scripture who knew the heartache of death. When Mary encounters Jesus after her brother Lazarus has died, we read, “She fell at his feet, saying to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (Jn 11:32-33). Mary, falling at Jesus’ feet, says, “If only.” Have more piercing words ever been spoken at a death? “If only he had gone for that physical.” “If only she hadn’t picked up her cell phone in that curve.” “If only he had looked both ways before darting into the road.” Mary says, “Jesus, you could have healed my brother. Why weren’t you here to do so?”
Mary and those with her are so overcome with grief that emotions even overcome the Creator of life. Jesus saw the heartache these loved ones were facing and “he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” It is then that we read, “Jesus wept” (Jn 11:35). A better translation would likely be: “Jesus began to weep.” The idea isn’t that Jesus shed a tear or two, but Jesus broke down and wept. It’s not very “macho” to break down and weep is it? We guys are supposed to be able to take anything that comes our way and take it with “a stiff upper lip.” But, here is the ultimate Man and he breaks down and weeps. The amazing thing about Jesus’ tears is that he knew Lazarus was coming out of that tomb in a matter of minutes. Jesus weeps when he sees the sorrow that Mary, Martha, and their loved ones are enduring. I have no doubt but that he continues to hurt when he sees the pain death causes us.
We see Jesus facing heartache as his own death approaches. In the Garden, he says to Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me” (Matt 26:38). He then went away from them and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt 26:39). From the cross, the Lord cried, “‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matt 27:46).
However, three days after Jesus died, he flashed the “V is for Victory” sign, if you will, when he came from the tomb. Jesus flashed the V sign in dark days, for he is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:20-22). In this morning’s text, Paul tells us about our “Victory in Jesus.”
Victory is Coming, v 50
Throughout Scripture, there is a tension concerning victory over death. On the one hand, Scripture envisions that victory has a present reality. “Our Savior Jesus Christ . . . abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10). Paul doesn’t write as though that victory over death is in the future, but it’s in the past: Jesus “abolished death,” not that he will abolish it.
On the other hand, victory over death has not yet occurred, but it will only occur at the final Resurrection. Here in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul declares that Jesus “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:25-26). Victory over death has not yet occurred, but it will only occur when Jesus comes again.
What should we make of this tension? The best way to illustrate it at the moment is probably with the Presidential election at hand. On Tuesday, one candidate will claim victory and the other will acknowledge defeat. However, victory will not be official until January when the Congress meets to validate the Electoral College vote. Victory will be assured come Tuesday, but it will not be final for another couple of months. Likewise, with the resurrection of the dead. We have the assurance of victory now; however, the victory will not be final until Jesus comes again and raises the dead. Unless the Lord comes first, we are going to die, but we know without doubt that we shall have victory.
Paul speaks of the resurrection as a coming victory in verse 50 when he says, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” “Flesh and blood” was a common idiom for mortals in Paul’s day. Paul is saying that we cannot in our present state have victory over death. Flesh and blood get sick; flesh and blood die.
In 1846, former President John Quincy Adams suffered a stroke. Although he returned to Congress the following year, his health was clearly failing. Daniel Webster described his last meeting with Adams like this: Someone, a friend of his, came in and made particular inquiry of his health. Adams answered, “I inhabit a weak, frail, decayed tenement; battered by the winds and broken in upon by the storms, and from all I can learn, the landlord does not intend to repair.” Why is it that the landlord did not intend to repair Adams’ body? “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Victory over death is assured, but it has not yet fully come.
However, as Paul makes clear throughout this text, that victory is coming.
Victory is Changing, vv 51-53
Victory often brings lasting change. On Tuesday, some lives are going to be altered forever. Whether Obama or McCain is elected, one family is never going to be the same. Nations are often drastically altered because of victory in warfare. Because the Colonists run the Revolutionary War, we are not subjects to the British Crown.
Likewise, our coming victory over death will drastically alter us. We must be altered, because “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. It is not a given that we shall die, for it is certainly possible that the Lord Jesus could return before death takes us. But, it is a given that we shall all be changed. Our victory over death will change us so that we can inherit the kingdom of God.
How will this change take place? This change will take place “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” The change victory over death will bring will be instantaneous. There will not be enough time to make things right before God, as many plan on doing. The Second Coming will overtake so many. “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Pet 3:10). We have no idea when a thief is coming and might break into our home, so we must always take precaution. Likewise, we do not know when the Lord is coming, so we must take precautions! Let us not be overcome by the Second Coming!
This change will take place at the last trumpet. Old Testament prophets often used the image of a trumpet blast to call people to gather for prayer or for war. Jesus mentioned the trumpet’s call as a sign for his people to gather: “He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matt 24:31). Notice that Paul refers to this as “the last trumpet.” This will be the final gathering of the people of God, for they shall be gathered together never to be separated again! That trumpet shall be a sign to all saints—living and dead—that’s it’s time for the Bride of Christ to be gathered to her Bridegroom!
We shall at the last trumpet put on our new bodies. Whether we are living in the flesh or sleeping in the dust, our bodies shall be changed from mortal to immortal from perishable to imperishable. Then, we shall be able to inherit the kingdom of God.
Change, as we all know, can be extremely difficult. A man had gone to his physician for his annual physical. The physician informed him: Sir, you are in terrible shape. You’ve got to do something about it. First, tell your wife to cook more nutritious meals. Stop working like a dog. Also, inform your wife you’re going to make a budget, and she has to stick to it. And have her keep the kids off your back so you can relax. Unless there are some changes like that in your life, you’ll probably be dead in a month.” “Doc,” said the patient, “this would sound more official coming from you. Could you please call my wife and give her those instructions?” When the fellow got home, his wife rushed to him. “I talked to your doctor,” she wailed. “Poor man, you’ve only got thirty days to live.” Because change is so difficult, this lady was unwilling to make even necessary changes. But, oh, the glorious change that is coming at the last trumpet sound!
Victory is Chugging, vv 54-56
It is not at all unusual for victors in a sporting event to have a drink in victory. After winning the 1936 Indianapolis 500, Louis Meyer asked for a glass of buttermilk, which his mother encouraged him to drink on hot days. It soon became a tradition for the winner to chug a bottle of milk after the Indy 500. In fact, the American Dairy Association now pays $10,000 to have the winner drink milk in victory lane.
In this passage, Paul declares that death is going to be chugged, swallowed up in victory. Death will be swallowed up in victory when the mortal is no more. At that point, we will no longer have these bodies of flesh and blood, sickness and death, and morality and perishability.
“Death is swallowed up in victory.” These words come from Isaiah 25 where the prophet speaks of a new day: God “will swallow up death forever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken” (Is 25:8). It is the Lord himself who will chug death. It is he who will take the victory lap! It is he who will declare death vanquished forever!
Where is the victory and sting of death? These words come from Hosea 13:14: “Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion is hidden from my eyes.” Interestingly, these words come from a passage about judgment upon Israel. Notice Hosea 13:15-16: “Though he may flourish among his brothers, the east wind, the wind of the LORD, shall come, rising from the wilderness, and his fountain shall dry up; his spring shall be parched; it shall strip his reassure of every precious thing. Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword; their little one shall be dashed to pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.” Let’s not allow this point to be lost on us: The Spirit has Paul take words of judgment to provide comfort to the Christian. God is a God of judgment for those who live far from him, but he is a God of comfort for those who live in him. Are you living faithfully in God?
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. Death would not be were it not for sin: “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). Sin has power because of the law: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead” (Rom 7:7-8). Yet, when death is forever vanquished, there will be no sting of death and no power of sin!
Our late brother Burton Coffman aptly wrote on this text: “Nearly two thousand years have passed since this apostolic lightning split the midnight darkness surrounding the tomb; and even yet there is never a day passes in any city anywhere which fails to shout this message over the dead. In Houston, where these lines are being written, it is certain that a hundred times this very week these words have echoed in the chapels and cemeteries where people gather to bury the dead; and so it is all over the world when Christ is known. Victory in the presence of death! If people wonder why the holy faith in Jesus Christ continues from age to age, let them find at least a part of the answer in these immortal words before us.”
Victory is Christ, v 57
Imagine standing beside the grave of a loved one just before the body is lowered into the ground. As we stand there, we know that everyone dies, we know that bodies decay, we know that bodies die and decay because of sin, but death has never been conquered! Jesus has never been raised! Can you imagine the hurt and sorrow we’d face? Death hurts even though we know victory is coming. Can you even fathom the hurt we’d have without that coming victory!
Is it any wonder that Paul breaks into praise at the end of this passage? “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We have come to that time of the year where people pause to give “thanks.” In a few weeks, we’ll gather with family and friends to overeat, tell stories, and watch football. However, there is no greater blessing for which we can give thanks than the victory Jesus has brought over death!
It is God who gives us the victory. We could never have gained the victory ourselves. No matter how hard we worked; no matter how hard we tried, we cannot have victory over death. Ponce de Leon came to Florida looking for the Fountain of Youth. The legend was that if you drank from the Fountain of Youth, you would have your youth restored. Ponce de Leon was looking for a way to overcome death, to undo the ravages time brings to bodies. Ponce de Leon never found that fountain, nor a way to outsmart death. He couldn’t. Only God can have victory over death, and God has brought victory over death.
God brought victory over death through our Lord Jesus Christ. When Jesus Christ came from the tomb, the shackles of death were broken once and for all! While death still hurts us to the core, we look beyond the tomb in hope, knowing that our Victory is Christ!
It is reported that Martin Luther’s final words were these: “Our God is the God from whom cometh salvation: God is the Lord by whom we escape death.” How glorious it is to know that our God is the God by whom we escape death!
There is a quite strong implication here that unless Jesus is our Lord we shall not have victory over death. Notice that Paul declares: “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Unless we claim Jesus Christ as Lord, we cannot claim the victory. Do you need to come and claim Jesus as your Lord this morning and claim the victory?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.