1 Corinthians 15-16 (3)
Malcolm Horlock, Cardiff, Wales
The previous two articles offered: (i) an outline of 1 Corinthians 15; and (ii) some expository comments on verses 1-49. The present article provides expository comments on verses 50-58.
For ease of reference, the outline of the chapter is reproduced below.
Verses 1-34 deal with the denial of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. The section ends with the practical implication of believing that this life is all that there is, v. 32.
Verses 35-58 deal with the main intellectual objection to the doctrine. The section ends with the practical implication of believing that this life is not all that there is, v. 58.
As we have seen, verse 35 records two questions posed by the false teachers – first, ‘How are the dead raised up?’ and second, ‘With what body do they come?’ We noted that although these weren’t genuine, serious questions, Paul provides genuine, serious answers to them. In the previous article, we considered the answer he gave in verses 36-49 to the second question. Now, in verses 50- 57, Paul returns to answer the first question, ‘How are the dead raised up?’ and deals with the ‘mechanics’ of the great resurrection change.
Verse 50. The opening expression, ‘Now this I say’, is introduced for the sake of emphasis.1 In verse 49, Paul had stated the certainty of the great physical change that all Christians are to undergo – ‘as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven’. But our section stresses, not so much the certainty of the change, as the absolute necessity for that change – for both living and dead believers. Note in particular the words ‘cannot’, v. 50, and ‘must’, v. 53. The resurrection isn’t only necessary (a) because it is an essential part of God’s programme, vv. 20-28, (b) because it is consistent with the pattern set by nature, vv. 36-44a, and (c) because it flows inevitably from our links with Adam and Christ, vv. 44b-49, but (d) because it is altogether essential if we are to enter heaven physically.
At the outset, Paul impresses on the Corinthians that neither the living nor the dead are physically suited and equipped to enter (that is, to inherit) the heavenly realm – the kingdom of God. In Chapter 6, Paul had twice warned the Corinthians that the unrighteous ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’ – and had listed the kind of specific sins which exclude men from that kingdom, vv. 9 -10. Some of the Corinthian Christians had in fact once practised these very sins but Paul bears them record that they are no longer what they had been then, v. 11. Yet, although they are now accounted righteous (justified) ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus’ – and are therefore fit for heaven spiritually and morally – they are still not fit for heaven physically – and neither are we.
The expression, ‘flesh and blood’ describes a living person – as in ‘I conferred not with flesh and blood’, Gal. 1. 16 – and in particular the kind of mortal body we occupy here and now. ‘Corruption’ (related to the word ‘corrupt’, v. 33) describes the state of the bodies of those who have died in Christ. The point is that neither those who will be alive when Jesus comes, nor those who have died in Him, have bodies adapted for the kingdom of God. The apostle John notes that ‘it does not yet appear what we shall be’, 1 John 3. 2; that is, I don’t possess the faculties now to grasp what my new body will be like. But I do know that I must have one if I am to enter heaven physically. This change is not an optional extra in the programme.
Verse 51. It isn’t necessary that we die. Some won’t and – because they are alive when Jesus returns – will bypass death completely. But it’s absolutely necessary that we be changed. ‘Behold, I tell you a mystery’, Paul says. That is, ‘I tell you something which could never have been discovered by human reason – something which has been hidden in the past – but is now openly disclosed – revealed to the favoured few’. The resurrection of men at the end of human history was no mystery. It was part and parcel of orthodox Jewish belief – as witness the teaching of the Pharisees, Acts 23. 8, and the words of Martha, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day’, John 11. 24. But nothing had been revealed previously about the resurrection ‘out of the dead’ which Paul has in mind here – still less revealed about the details of what will happen then. By using the word ‘mystery’, Paul alerts us to the fact that he is appealing to a special revelation from the Lord – just as he does when, in a similar context, he uses the expression, ‘by the word of the Lord’, 1 Thess. 4. 15. ‘We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed’. I once came across this text printed on a birth congratulation card! My memory of nights when my children were very young endorses the application of the text to such events! More seriously, ‘sleep’ is a lovely euphemism for the condition of the body of the Christian following his or her death. For the believer, Jesus has transformed the grim, cold fact of death and burial into a peaceful slumber. Indeed, our word ‘cemetery’ derives from a Greek word meaning ‘a sleeping place, or dormitory’. But we shall not all sleep. Some time ago. I came across a humorous ditty: ‘There once was a pious young priest Who lived almost wholly on yeast. For he said, It is plain, we must all rise again, So I thought I’d get started at least’. But both priest and ditty are wrong! It simply isn’t true that ‘we must all rise again’ – for the obvious reason that we shall not all die. ‘But we shall all be changed’ – whether still alive; still ‘flesh and blood’ – or having died; having experienced corruption.
Verse 52. The opening of the verse introduces two very different details of timing. First there is the speed at which the change will take place, and second there is the occasion on which the change will take place. First, it will be over ‘in a moment’ – literally ‘in an atom’. ‘Atom’ meant to the ancient world that which couldn’t be cut or divided – long before the discovery of electrons, protons and quarks. An atom was the shortest measurement of time that could be imagined. Paul underlines the point by adding ‘in the twinkling of an eye’. This expression was equated by the Jews with an atom of time – one of their sayings was ‘a moment is as the twinkling of an eye’.2 The Greeks used the word translated ‘twinkling’ to describe many things – from the buzzing of a gnat to the twinkling of a star. But the expression ‘the twinkling of an eye’ refers to the jerk of an eye, the casting of a glance, the movement of an eyelid. The ‘change’ will then be more or less instantaneous. Paul wants the Corinthians to know that God won’t find it at all difficult to raise the dead and to change living believers; it will all be over in a split second. When the time comes, omnipotence will encounter no problem in effecting the great change.
Second, the change will take place at the blast of the last trumpet. As has often been pointed out, 1 Corinthians 15 is the chapter of ‘last’ things – towards the beginning of the chapter, we read of the last witness, v. 8; later in the chapter of the last enemy, v. 26; and the last Adam, v. 45; now we have the last trumpet, v. 52. It is possible that Paul is referring to the well-known Roman war trumpet – as he certainly did back in 14. 8 when he spoke of the need for a clear trumpet call if men are to be summoned to battle. I am no authority on such matters, but I understand that the Roman army employed three distinct trumpet calls to get their troops moving. At the first trumpet, the soldiers would dismantle their tents; at the second, they would assemble in proper order; and at the third – the last trumpet – they would move out and march off. It was case of ‘forward’. Paul may therefore be saying then that this will be the signal for us all to ‘move out’. Whether this is so or not, ‘the last trumpet’ is unquestionably ‘the trumpet of God’, which is to accompany the Lord’s commanding shout and the archangel’s voice, 1 Thess. 4. 16. It sounds like being quite a noisy (even deafening) event to me!
It seems then that God’s programme for the church down here will be terminated by the sounding of a last trumpet – much as will be His programme for Israel, Rev. 11. 15, when the Lord God Almighty takes His great power and reigns, signalled by an angel sounding the last of the seven trumpets of Revelation 8. 2.
We note that here in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul makes no mention – as he does in 1 Thessalonians 4 – of the Lord’s coming. He makes no mention of the Lord descending Himself from heaven or of believers being seized and plucked away, of their being caught up ‘to meet the Lord in the air’. What a glorious prospect that is – of meeting the Lord personally! But, wonderful as these themes are – and loaded with encouragement and comfort (especially for those whose loved ones have gone on before) – they are in no way relevant to Paul’s point here. For here the issue is not where we are going to be – or with whom we are going to be – but what we are going to be. There must be a change!
But, although Paul doesn’t involve us here as in the programme he sets out in 1 Thessalonians 4, he adheres strictly to the sequence of events outlined there – clearly distinguishing the dead believers (who are to be raised incorruptible) – from the ‘we’ who will remain alive when the Lord returns (whose bodies are to undergo the great transformation from their present lowly state to become like the Saviour’s own glorious body, Phil. 3. 21).
For the dead in Christ will rise ‘first’, 1 Thess. 4. 16. As Paul was at pains to point out to the Thessalonians, the fact some have died will not put them at any disadvantage when the Lord returns. Indeed, not only will they share in the benefit of that return, but they will actually be the first to benefit. Although, as our verse assures us, everything is going to be over mighty fast, there will indeed be an order – a sequence – with the dead raised before the living are changed. But there will be no perceptible interval! Now God’s longsuffering waits – as it did in the days of Noah – but, when His clock strikes, things will really move!
We must be careful not to read too much into Paul’s words, ‘we shall be changed’. Paul wasn’t claiming to know that he would necessarily be among those who will be alive when the Lord comes. Back in Chapter 6, he spoke as if he expected the very opposite; ‘God both raised up the Lord, and will also raise us up by His power’, v. 14. And he says much the same in his second letter; ‘knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up’, 2 Cor. 4. 14. As we noted when considering ‘that which is perfect’ in Chapter 13, the truth was that Paul didn’t know into which category he would fall – those who would still be alive when the Lord came or those who would have died by then. But he did know that, if he died before the Lord came, he would be covered by 1 Corinthians 6. 14, and, if he was still alive when the Lord came, he would be covered by 1 Corinthians 15. 52. As far as Paul was concerned, the Lord could have returned at any time – and Paul lived and watched accordingly.
Verse 53 opens with ‘For’. That is, verse 53 explains the reason for verse 52. Continuing the note struck in verse 50, both the dead (‘this corruption’) and the living (‘this mortal’; those who haven’t died but who are subject and liable to death) must be changed. They must be radically, fundamentally changed. This corruption must put off its rags of corruptibility, to be arrayed in the splendid robes of incorruption. And this mortal must put off its rags of mortality, to be arrayed in the splendid robes of immortality. Here lies the proper hope of the Christian – not death but the coming of the Lord. ‘But, Lord, ‘tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait. The sky, not the grave, is our goal’, Horatio Spafford.
The apostle explains this more fully in his second letter; ‘we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven; since indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent (remember the time Paul had spent making tents at Corinth!) groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, so that that which is mortal may be swallowed up by life’, 2 Cor. 5. 2-4 lit.
In that very context, Paul spoke of believers who die – of those who are absent from the body and at home with the Lord, 2 Cor. 5. 6-8. And, yes, most certainly to depart and be with Christ is ‘far better’ than to stay here as we are, Phil. 1. 23. But Paul speaks of something far better still – of that which is the very best of all. For the victory isn’t really complete while the great enemy Death retains even one hair of a believer’s head. We groan, Paul told the Romans, as we eagerly await the redemption of our bodies, 8. 23. And when the Lord Jesus comes, He isn’t going to leave the smallest particle of redeemed dust for sin, death or Satan to hold up as a trophy of what they had once accomplished.
Note that ‘this’ corruptible shall put on (shall clothe itself with) incorruption, altogether consistent with the point Paul had made back in verses 42-44; namely, that, while the body which comes out of the ground is not the same in form and appearance as that which went in, it continues to be in identity the same body. ‘It is sown in corruption – it is raised in incorruption’.
Verse 54. When this happens, death will be well and truly defeated. As far as those Christians whose bodies lie asleep in the grave are concerned, death will be compelled to release his hold on all his victims and spoils. As far as living Christians are concerned, death will be compelled to yield up any future claim to their bodies – they will never die physically. With an eye to Isaiah 25. 8 (from which very verse John extracted the promise that God will one day wipe away tears from the faces and eyes of His people, Rev. 7. 17; 21. 4), Paul exclaims, ‘then death is swallowed up (is overwhelmed, engulfed, drowned – being the word of Hebrews 11. 29) in victory‘. Death will then be engulfed ‘into victory’ lit. That is, death will then be engulfed so as to result in complete victory. The death sentence pronounced in Genesis 3 will then be reversed! And so, having spoken before of both the necessity for the great change and the mystery of the great change, Paul now introduces us to the victory represented by the great change.
Verses 55-57. The prophet Hosea had sung joyfully about the resurrection of Israel as a nation, Hos. 13. 14. Adapting Hosea’s words, Paul personifies the great enemy Death and flings down the gauntlet. Paul issues the defiant double challenge, ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting’, v. 55 lit.
As I understand it, verses 55-57 refer in their entirety to that final and ultimate victory which lies in the future – when the Lord comes. The wording of verse 54 seems conclusive. ‘When’ the corruptible and mortal have put on incorruption and immortality, ‘then shall be brought to pass (‘then will be’, lit.) the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’. Note the ‘when . . . then’. Final victory comes only ‘then’.
Quite possibly, verse 55 continues with the same order which Paul has observed throughout verses 52-54; namely, the dead first and then the living. (i) ‘O death, where is your victory?’ That is, ‘Now that you have been robbed of your prey – now that you have been forced to yield up every victim you have ever claimed – now that you have been well and truly spoiled – O death – where is your empty victory now?’ And then (ii) ‘O death, where is your sting’. That is, ‘Now that you have no power to hurt or injure – now that your sting has been drawn and you are unable to inflict injury on those who still live – O death – where is your fearful sting?’
The basic meaning of the word rendered ‘sting’ is ‘anything which pierces’.3 The idea here is almost certainly that of the venomous sting of a snake, or, just possibly, as in Revelation 9. 10, of a scorpion. But, sin having been overcome, death is like a snake which has had its poisonous fang removed, or a scorpion which has had its tail-sting removed. It is altogether helpless.
In verse 56 Paul links death to sin, and sin to the law. He does much the same in Romans 6 and 7. And, to some extent, verse 56 is a summary of his argument in Romans 6 and 7. Paul argues in Romans 6 that, because of his links with Christ, the believer is no longer under sin – and in Romans 7 that, because of his links with Christ, the believer is no longer under the law.4 In dying with Christ, the Christian has been set free from both sin and the law. He is set free from the law because the law not only condemned sin (and the sinner), but, as Paul had found true in his own case, indwelling sin took advantage of the law, using it as a base of operations – a bridgehead – to attack him. He had found in experience that his sinful nature was stirred up by the law; it was roused the more to sin. He had found that the law, which was holy, just and good in itself, served to incite and empower sin. And so, just as the sting of death is sin, so the power of sin is the law, v. 56.
At the end of Romans 7, having spoken at length of men’s bondage to both sin and the law, and having cried out, ‘Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ (for Paul knew that sin, provoked by the law, brings death), Paul bursts out jubilantly, ‘I thank God - through Jesus Christ our Lord’, Rom. 7. 24-25. Here in 1 Corinthians 15 also the apostle bursts out with thanks to God. This time, however, because the final victory lies – not with death, sin or the law – nor with all three – but with God – and that through our Lord Jesus Christ – who has both deprived sin of its power and death of its sting, v. 57.
God be thanked, Paul says to the Romans, that we now enjoy freedom from sin and the law. But God be thanked too, Paul says to the Corinthians, that we will enjoy final and eternal victory over death when the Lord comes – for God gives that victory to us – through our Lord Jesus Christ. Small wonder then that just a few words from the end of his letter, Paul cannot restrain himself and exclaims ‘Maranatha’ (‘Our Lord, come’), 16. 22.
Verse 58. Note in passing Paul’s fond address, ‘my beloved brethren’ and compare the very last words of the letter, ‘My love be with you all in Christ Jesus’. Notwithstanding the many failings, follies and errors of the Corinthian saints, the apostle’s affection for them is undiminished.
Paul ends on an intensely practical note. ‘But if there is such a thing as resurrection’, he is saying, ‘if there is such a thing as life after death . . . if there is such a thing as another world . . . if there is such a thing as a time of review and recompense (as he had claimed in chapters 3 and 4) then‘.
Paul had assured the Corinthians, back in verse 10, that in his own case, God’s grace had not been ‘in vain’ because he had laboured and toiled to the point of weariness. Now he assures the Corinthians that such labour itself is not ‘in vain’ – because there is indeed another world for the Christian to live in. We live in the present but ought not live for the present.
And in the light of that world, he says, we should be:
(i) Steadfast – a word derived from that for ‘a seat’ – requiring us to be of settled and fixed purpose in the face of any enticements to evil;
(ii) Immovable – so as not to be turned aside or shaken by any outward assault;
(iii) Always abounding – always excelling, overflowing in the work of the Lord.
Such labour, Paul insists, isn’t wasted. It is not as if you are going to die, he is saying, and never live again. Your work and labour for the Lord is far from futile.
In his commentary on 2 Corinthians, Warren Wiersbe tells of a faithful missionary couple who returned to the United States on the same ship that brought the then President, Mr. Roosevelt, home from a safari in Africa. Many reporters and photographers lined the New York dockside, waiting to see the President and interview him and, of course, take lots of pictures. But nobody turned up to welcome the veteran missionaries who had spent their lives serving the Lord in Africa. That evening in a modest hotel room the couple reviewed the events of the day. The husband tended to be somewhat bitter. ‘It isn’t fair’, he complained to his wife. ‘Mr Roosevelt comes home from a hunting trip, and the whole country is out to meet him. We get home after years of service, and nobody is there to greet us.’ His wife had the perfect answer: ‘Honey, we aren’t home yet’.6 The writer to the Hebrews would have agreed with that missionary lady; ‘God is not unjust to forget your work’, 6. 10.
Chapter 16 directs our attention to many shining examples of those whose lives provide us with a commentary on Paul’s exhortation:
1. Paul himself, 16. 5-9;
2. Timothy, 16. 10-11;
3. Apollos, 16. 12;
4. The household of Stephanas, 16. 15-16;
5. Stephanas, Fortunatas and Achaichus, 16. 17; and
6. Aquila and Priscilla, 16. 19.
First, there is Paul himself, vv. 5-9. Paul spoke in detail of his change of plans – mainly his deferring of the visit he had originally planned to make to the Corinthians, because of his reluctance to come and read the riot act to them. Instead therefore of paying them a passing visit on the way to Macedonia, he now planned to visit Macedonia first – but only briefly – and then subsequently to remain some time with them, v. 7. His journey through Macedonia would allow time for his letter (hopefully) to produce its desired effect. We know that, in the event, Paul did spend three months in Greece following his journey through Macedonia – no doubt mainly in Corinth, Acts 20. 2-3.
The reference to ‘tarrying’ with them, v. 7, leads him to make known his present intention of ‘tarrying’ a while in Ephesus, v. 8. Paul explains his two-fold reason for remaining at Ephesus. First, he had found there a great and effective door opened to him – a wide field of usefulness opened, not by him, but to him – by Him who has the key of David, that opens, and no man shuts. There were abundant opportunities of usefulness that presented themselves. But, second, there were the adversaries. There were, we have learned, many wild beasts for him to fight – for example, the mob at Ephesus which was bitterly antagonistic to the faith. For most of us the existence of fierce opposition would have been reason enough to have packed our bags and beat a hasty retreat – but not to Paul. This worker, this labourer, was undeterred by the opposition – he was ‘steadfast and immovable’.
Second, there is Timothy, vv. 10-11. The apostle had earlier sent him from Ephesus to Corinth, 4. 17. Luke tells us in Acts 19 that Paul ‘sent into Macedonia two of those who ministered to him, Timothy and Erastus, but he himself stayed in Asia for a time’, v. 22. Timothy was, therefore, at this moment, travelling through Macedonia, on course for Corinth. The bearers of Paul’s letter had no doubt gone by sea direct from Ephesus to Corinth and had reached there before Timothy. Timothy had been sent to remind them of Paul’s ways, as he taught in all the churches, 4. 17 – not an entirely welcome message. And Timothy was a young man; even eight years later, Paul still speaks of him as young, 1 Tim. 4. 12. Paul was concerned that Timothy would be intimidated and ‘despised’ by some at Corinth. He gave his reason for requiring the Corinthians to receive and respect Timothy – that ‘he does (‘works’, lit.) the work of the Lord as I also do’. Now that is some commendation indeed. Here then is another who abounded ‘in the work of the Lord’, 15. 58.
Third, there is Apollos, v. 12. ‘Now concerning’ – probably the last of six references in this letter to items raised in the letter which Paul had received from them.7 It seems that the assembly wanted Apollos to visit them again and had asked Paul to nudge Apollos in their direction. Paul made it clear that, as requested, he had done everything he could to encourage Apollos to come to them. Luke paints a small pen portrait of Apollos before Apollos had first gone to Corinth. Apollos was, Luke says, ‘eloquent in speech, powerful in the scriptures and fervent – boiling hot – in spirit’, Acts 18. 24-25. And, when, at the beginning, Apollos had wished to leave Ephesus for Achaia (that is, Corinth), the brethren at Ephesus wrote asking that he be received up. When he came he had been a great help to the Corinthians, Acts 18. 27 – he had contributed much to them. Paul bore him witness that he had ‘laboured’8 at Corinth – ‘watering’ the church which Paul had planted there, 3. 6. It wasn’t Apollos’s ‘will’ to come back to them now – but, Paul assured them, he would come when he had opportunity. Clearly he was just too busy at the time. Apollos was no sluggard!
Then there was the household of Stephanas, vv. 15-16. These were among the first converts in Achaia – the firstfruits - and among the very few Paul had baptized personally at Corinth, 1. 16. They had since devoted themselves unselfishly to the service of the saints – with all that that involved – and are bracketed by Paul with all who worked and laboured with him, v. 16 – using the very words of 15. 58.
Then there were Stephanas, Fortunatas and Achaicus, vv. 17-18. These were members of the church in Corinth, who visited Paul at Ephesus – quite possibly the bearers of the letter which the Corinthians had written to Paul. The lack of the fellowship and presence of the Corinthian church itself was supplied – was compensated for – by that of their three representatives. They refreshed, revived, ‘rested’9 Paul’s spirit. And, in the face of his many adversaries, Paul certainly needed it at the time, v. 9. But what a wonderful ministry this was - a lovely and most valuable work.
Interestingly, Clement, an elder in one of the churches of Rome, wrote to Corinth about AD 95 and requested that ‘Fortunatus’ come to Rome with others to report on the Corinthians’ response to his (Clement’s) letter – in which he had pleaded for unity and peace. This was about forty years after Paul wrote – so, if it was the same brother, he must have been quite young at this time.
And finally, there were Aquila and Priscilla, v. 19. This great couple are always mentioned together in the New Testament. Paul and they had much in common. They shared the same nationality, trade, faith and service. Paul had first met them at Corinth – following an edict of Emperor Claudius, expelling all Jews from Rome on account of Jewish riots there. The time spent by Aquila and Priscilla at Corinth no doubt explains why their greetings here are said to be particularly warm – ‘greet you much’, lit. Paul and they had worked together as tentmakers at Corinth. At some time they had risked their very lives for him - and had occasioned thanks not only from Paul himself but from all the churches of the gentiles, Rom.16. 3. They had, metaphorically speaking, ‘placed their neck’ on the executioner’s block under the axe or sword. More than likely this happened while Paul was at Ephesus, where, as we have seen, he had an exceedingly rough time – ‘burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life’, as he put it, 2 Cor. 1. 8. Paul described them well – when he called them his fellow-workers, Rom. 16. 3 – using again the same word as in 1 Corinthians 15. 58.
Let us take then such folk as our models and examples, and determine, whatever the discouragements of the way, to ‘be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that our labour is not in vain in the Lord’, 1 Cor. 15. 58.
1 Compare its use in 1 Corinthians 7. 29.
2 John Gill on 1 Corinthians 15. 52.
3 It denotes a goad in Acts 26. 14.
4 See also the expression ‘not being myself under the law’ in the older manuscripts of 1 Corinthians 9. 20.
5 1 Corinthians 3. 9a-15; 4. 5.
6 Page 126 of ‘Be Encouraged’, Scripture Press.
7 Compare its use in 1. Corinthians 7. 1, 15; 8. 1; 12. 1; 16. 1.
8 Paul uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 3. 8 of himself and Apollos as he does in 15. 58.
9 The word of Matt. 11. 28.