1 Corinthians 15:51-58
Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent eighteen months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.
At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.
Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems. These included:
- Questions about Paul’s apostolic authority (chapters 1, 4)
- Divisions in the church (chapters 3-4)
- Sexual immorality (chapter 5)
- Lawsuits among believers (chapter 6)
- Questions about marriage and sexuality (chapter 7)
- Questions about eating food sacrificed to idols (chapters 8-10)
- Abuses at the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11)
- Issues regarding spiritual gifts (chapters 12-14)
These were (with the exception of questions regarding Paul’s authority) moral and ethical issues –– issues related to how the Corinthian Christians behave. However, now in chapter 15, Paul begins to deal with a doctrinal issue –– and issue related to what these Corinthian Christians believe. The doctrinal issue is the resurrection of Christ –– and how that belief undergirds the belief in the resurrection of deceased believers.
In chapter 2, Paul dealt with Christ’s crucifixion. Now, in chapter 15, he deals with the resurrection, both Christ’s resurrection (15:1-11) and our own (15:12-58). Chapters 2 and 15, then, serve as bookends around the parts of this letter that deal with ethical issues.
Some Corinthian Christians have questioned the resurrection of believers. Their doubts arose from two sources:
First, some of them are Jewish, and Judaism was divided regarding the issue of resurrection. The Old Testament speaks of Sheol as the abode of the dead –– a place where those who have died are separated from the living and from God. In their early history, Jewish people tended to think of Sheol only as the grave. As time progressed, their belief system progressed in the direction of resurrection. While the Old Testament doesn’t use the word resurrection, it does include several allusions to resurrection:
- “I kill, and I make alive” (Deuteronomy 32:39).
- “Yahweh kills, and makes alive. He brings down to Sheol, and brings up” (1 Samuel 2:6).
- “But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives. In the end, he will stand upon the earth. After my skin is destroyed, then in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26).
- “He has swallowed up death forever [and] will wipe away tears from off all faces” (Isaiah 25:7-8).
- “Your dead shall live. My dead bodies shall arise” (Isaiah 26:19).
- “Behold, I will open your graves, my people… You shall know that I am Yahweh, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, my people. I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:12-14). However, these words from Ezekiel were intended to portray the rebirth of Israel as a community of faith rather than the resurrection of faithful people as individuals.
- “After two days he will revive us. On the third day he will raise us up, and we will live before him” (Hosea 6:2).
By New Testament times, some Jews (such as the Sadducees) denied any possibility of resurrection or life after death, while other Jews (such as the Pharisees) did believe in the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18).
Second, Corinth is a Greek city, and Greeks have been heavily influenced by Platonic dualism. Dualism divides things into two parts, such as good and evil or matter and non-matter. Many dualists considered matter (such as our bodies) as unimportant and/or evil and non-matter (such as our souls) as good. Plato taught that our physical bodies are imperfect copies of ideal Forms that exist in a spiritual realm. He taught that our bodies are mortal but our souls existed prior to our life on earth –– and will continue to exist beyond this life. Greeks (including these Corinthian Christians), raised in a dualistic environment, found it difficult to believe in the resurrection of the body. For them, the body was something to leave behind gladly –– good riddance. Their focus was the preservation of the soul.
Judaism, however, emphasized the wholeness of the person –– body and soul. That emphasis continued in the Christian church. Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to know that belief in the resurrection –– both Christ’s resurrection and the general resurrection of believers in the last days –– is foundational to the Christian faith.
Later in this chapter, Paul will explain that the resurrected body is different from the body as we know it now. He says, “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (15:42-44).
As noted above, in this chapter Paul deals both with Christ’s resurrection (15:1-11) and with our own (15:12-58).
1 CORINTHIANS 15:51-54. A MYSTERY
51Behold, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 52 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 will be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 But when this corruptible will have put on incorruption, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then what is written will happen: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“Behold (Greek: idou), I tell you a mystery” (Greek: mysterion) (v. 51a). Paul uses the word idou (lo, behold) to emphasize what follows.
We need to be careful with this word, “mystery,” because we use it today in ways that mean something quite different than what Paul meant. We often use mystery to mean something beyond our understanding.
Paul uses this word, “mystery” (or “mysteries”) frequently (Romans 11:25; 16:25; 1 Corinthians 13:2; 14:2; 15:51; Ephesians 1:9; 3:3-5, 9; 5:32; 6:19; Colossians 1:26-27; 4:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:7; 1 Timothy 3:9, 16).
While Paul was surely aware of the Greek mystery religions, which emphasized secret teachings and rituals, his understanding is derived from his Jewish roots, where God revealed his mysteries to accomplish his purposes (Daniel 2:18-19, 27, 30, 47; 4:9).
- He talks about “the proclamation of the Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mysterion that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed” (Romans 16:25-26).
- He says, “the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:3-5).
- He talks about “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints” (Colossians 1:26).
So, for Paul, a mysterion (mystery) is not something that can’t be known. In fact, it is quite the opposite. For Paul, a mystery is spiritual knowledge that God has revealed to those who can see through eyes of faith.
“We will not all sleep” (v. 51b). Paul uses sleep here as a euphemism for physical death––a common usage in both Old and New Testaments (Psalm 13:3; 76:5; Jeremiah 51:57; Daniel 12:2; John 11:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:10). In this verse, then, he is saying that we believers will not all die a physical death before Christ comes.
The Christian faith transformed our understanding of death. For most people in Paul’s day, death was the end. That was also the understanding of most of the Old Testament, although that was beginning to change by the time Paul came onto the scene. Pharisees believed in the resurrection, but Sadducees did not (Mark 12:18). But Christ’s resurrection, which Christians understood as the first fruits of those who have died (15:23)––gave them great hope that death would not be the end, but would rather be the beginning of a new journey in the presence of God.
“but we will all be changed” (Greek: allasso––changed or transformed) (v. 51c). Paul has just said, “flesh and blood can’t inherit the Kingdom of God” (15:50). That sounds like bad news for those of us who are flesh and blood. Are we doomed? Paul reassures us that we will be changed somehow, which will fit us for the Kingdom of God.
“in a moment” (Greek: atomos) (v. 52a). The word atomos means “without division” or “indivisible.” We get our word atom, the indivisible building block of all creation, from this Greek word. When used with regard to time, as it is here, it means a point of time so small that it is indivisible––an instant.
“in the twinkling (Greek: rhipe) of an eye” (v. 52b). The Greek word rhipe means to throw, as in a quick motion. The emphasis is quickness. This portion of the verse might be better translated, “in the blink of an eye.”
“at the last trumpet” (v. 52c). In the New Testament, trumpets were used to draw attention to an important event. Jesus warned his disciples not to sound a trumpet to draw attention to their generosity, lest they lose their heavenly reward (Matthew 6:2).
But, for the most part in the New Testament, trumpets were used (as here) to signal eschatological events––events having to do with the last times––Christ’s Second Coming.
- Jesus said, “(The Son of Man) will send out his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together his chosen ones from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other” (Matthew 24:31).
- The book of Revelation spells out in considerable detail the seven trumpets that will sound in the last days to announce a number of cataclysmic eschatological events (Revelation 8:2 – 11:15).
In this verse, “the last trumpet” refers to the trumpet blast announcing the end of time.
For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed” (v. 52b). When the last trumpet announces the end of time, “the dead will be raised incorruptible”––no longer subject to the ravages of time and decay. Then “we will be changed”––for specifics, see the next verse.
“For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (Greek: athanasian) (v. 53). These are the changes announced in the previous verse.
Elsewhere, Paul says that God is incorruptible (Romans 1:23), meaning that he is not subject to the various forms of wear and tear, illness, and death to which humans are subject. The same will become true of believers at the end of time.
The Greek word athanasian combines a (not or without) and thanatos (death), and so means without death. Paul uses this word here to describe that transformation that will take place for believers at the end of time.
“But when this corruptible will have put on incorruption, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then what is written will happen: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.'” (v. 54). Paul alludes to Isaiah 25:8, which says, “Yahweh has swallowed up death forever!” Paul says that victory will triumph over death so that death will never have the opportunity to prevail again.
1 CORINTHIANS 15:55. DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY?
55“Death, where is your sting? Hades, where is your victory?”
“Death, where is your sting?” (v. 55a). Paul alludes to Hosea 13:14, which says, “Death, where are your plagues? Sheol, where is your destruction?”
“Hades, where is your victory?” (v. 55b). In Jewish thought, Hades or Sheol is the abode of the dead, a place of torment where one would feel abandoned by God (Acts 2:27). It is associated with death, but Jesus holds the key to its door (Revelation 1:18).
1 CORINTHIANS 15:56-58. GOD GIVES US THE VICTORY!
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord’s work, because you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.
“The sting of death is sin” (Greek: hamartia) (v. 56a). The word hamartia means sin––an offense––missing the mark with regard to truth or duty––failure to meet the standard. Our sins are by their nature sins against God, but they are also sins against our neighbors or fellow-believers.
We tend to think of death as the enemy––the ultimate sting. However, it is not death that imparts the sting, but sin. For believers whose sins Christ has forgiven, death is not the end, but is instead the beginning of a new journey in the presence of God. The process of dying can still be terrible, but the sting of death has been removed.
“and the power of sin is the law” (v. 56b). This seems counter-intuitive. God gave Moses the law, so the law must be good. However, God gave the law as a schoolmaster or tutor (Greek: paidagogos––literally, a leader of children) until such time as God’s will could be more completely revealed in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:24). It served a purpose, but one that was incomplete.
There were a number of problems with the law. It couldn’t cover every circumstance, which left interpretation in the hands of fallible human authorities. It lent itself to rote observance, which often failed to meet the spirit behind the law. It was the legal authorities (scribes, Pharisees, and priests) who successfully plotted Jesus’ death.
“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 57). With Jesus’ death and resurrection, the emphasis shifted from law to grace––the free gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Elsewhere, Paul promises that we who have been united with the likeness of Jesus’ death in our baptism will be united also with him in his resurrection. This frees us from sin, because sin no longer controls a person who has died (Romans 6:5-7). Paul says, “Consider yourselves also to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:9-11).
“who gives us the victory” (v. 57). The word “gives” is present tense, suggesting that the victory is ongoing––something we enjoy now. This is closely related to Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom of God, which “is at hand” or “has come near” (Greek: engizo) (Mark 1:15)
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast (Greek: hedraios), immovable” (ametakinetos) (v. 58a). Paul concludes this chapter with an exhortation.
- Hedraios (steadfast) suggests a kind of secure, settled life that is not easily distracted from the journey on which it has embarked.
- Ametakinetos (immovable) suggests something that is strongly rooted to its location (or, in this case, faith) so that it cannot easily be moved.
“always abounding in the Lord’s work, because you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (v. 58b). This suggests purposeful living that seeks to share the faith that has changed the believer’s life.
We might be tempted to think that work is a curse and retirement is the goal of life. Indeed, some kinds of work are a curse, such as those that are mind-numbingly repetitive.
But purposeful work is a blessing. Some years ago, I became acquainted with a man who had been a successful Naval officer. After retirement, he made lots of money working as a consultant. At the point that I became acquainted with him, his primary work was monitoring his investments. When he asked what I planned to do when I retired from the Army chaplaincy, I told him about my plans for SermonWriter. He said, “You’re lucky.” He said that wistfully, as if he would have traded me places. He yearned for purposeful work––something that would make the last decade or two of his life worth living.
That was a quarter-century ago, which has given me time to validate my plan to help preachers with their understanding of scripture and their preaching. I still find it deeply purposeful. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t do what I am now doing. I am convinced that my “labor is not in vain in the Lord.”
HYMNS FOR THIS TEXT:
Come, We That Love the Lord (BH #525; ELW #625; LSB #669; TH #392; TNCH #379; UMH #732; VU #715; WR #67)
Also known as Marching to Zion
Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain (CH #215; CO #279; CP #215; ELW #363; GC #441; JS #304; LBW #132; LSB #487; LW #141; PH #114-115; TH #199-200; TNCH #230; UMH #315; VU #165)
Also known as Come You Faithful, Raise the Strain
Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken (BH #398; CH #709; CP #388; ELW #647; LBW #358; LSB #648; LW #294; PH #446; TH #522-523; TNCH #307; UMH #731; VU #772; WR #598)
Lead On, O King Eternal (BH #621; CH #632; ELW #805; LBW #495; PH #447-448; TH #555; TNCH #573; UMH #580; VU #421; WR #508)
Also known as “Lead On, O Cloud of Presence”
Christ is Alive (BH #173; CO #269; ELW #389; LBW #363; PH #108; TH #182; UMH #318; VU #158; WR #312)
I Know That My Redeemer Lives (CO #293; CH #225; ELW #619; GC #430, 857; JS #416, 594; LBW #352; LSB #461; LW #264; WR #414)
In the Very Midst of Life (LBW #350; LSB #755; LW #265)
Also known as Even as We Live Each Day
Thine Be the Glory (BH #163; CH #218; CP #210; ELW #376; LBW #145; PH #122; TNCH #253; UMH #308; VU #173; WR #310)
Also known as Thine Is the Glory
Also known as Yours Be the Glory
Unless a Grain of Wheat (GC #697; JS 660, 685)
For All the Saints (BH #355; CH #637; CO #336; CP #276; ELW #422; GC #793; JS #471; LBW #174; LSB #677; LW #191; PH #526; TH #287; TNCH #299; UMH #711; WR #529)
He Lives (BH #533; CH #226; UMH #310; WR #302)
Lord, I Lift Your Name on High (ELW #857; TFWS #2088; WR #88)
The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done (BH #172; CH #221; CO #276; CP #212; ELW #366; GC #446; JS #451; LBW #135; LSB #464; LW #143; PH #119; TH #208; TNCH #242; UMH #306; VU #159; WR #290)
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Barrett, C.K., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993)
Chafin, Kenneth L., The Preacher’s Commentary: 1-2 Corinthians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985)
Fee, Gordon D., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
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Hayes, Richard B., Interpretation: First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997)
Holladay, Carl R., in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994)
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Nash, Robert Scott, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2009)
Price, Daniel J., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Sampley, J. Paul, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Soards, Marion, New International Biblical Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999)
Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan