1 Corinthians 15:45-58 (O, Death, where is your victory?)

deathPaul next returns to an earlier theme, the comparison of Adam and Jesus.

(1Co 15:45 ESV) 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.

Paul quotes Gen 2:7 to show the superiority of Jesus (the last Adam or last human being) as the giver of life (through the Spirit) rather than a mere recipient of life.

[Jesus] is not just a soma pneumatikon [Spiritual body] in his own right, so to speak, the first example of the large number of such beings the creator intends to make through resurrection, but he is also the one through whom the creator will accomplish this—because he is the one who, as ‘life-giving Spirit’, will perform the work of raising the dead. Genesis 2:7 is thus not so much a proof-text, more a part of the larger story which the Christian, looking at Jesus’ resurrection, can now tell; and the good news which emerges from this is that Jesus has pioneered the way into the long-awaited future, the new age which the creator has planned (verse 46). The pneumatikos [Spirit-empowered] state is not simply an original idea in the mind of the creator, from which the human race fell sadly away; this model of humanity is the future reality, the reality which will swallow up and replace merely psychikos [mortal] life.

N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 355.

(1Co 15:46-47 ESV)  46 But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual.  47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.

Dust first and then Spirit-empowered. Adam was made from the dust of the ground (Gen 2:7), and death is a return to dust (Gen 3:19). But Jesus, although fully human while on earth, went from mere dust to “spiritual,” that is, Spirit-empowered. There is more to Jesus than mere dust, and the same is true of his followers.

(1Co 15:48-49 ESV)  48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.  49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

We are born in the image of Adam, and when we die, we turn to dust. But followers of Jesus “bear the image of the man of heaven,” and so we, like Jesus, overcome our dusty roots. The decay of the grave is no defeat — just preparation for something far greater.

(1Co 15:50 ESV) 50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 

It’s a Hebraic parallel; “flesh and blood” is parallel with “perishable.” As we covered in the last post, “flesh and blood” is a reference to our perishability, not our physicality. The comparison Paul makes is between mortal and immortal, not physical and disembodied.

(1Co 15:51-52 ESV) Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall 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 imperishable, and we shall be changed.

Leon Morris works out some of the implications.

Some will not die, but whether we are among that number, or whether we die before that day, we will all be changed. This obviously means difference, but we should not miss the fact that it also means identity. This body will not be destroyed or abandoned; it will be changed.

Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 7; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), n.p.

(1Co 15:53-55 ESV)  53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”  55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 

Paul powerfully evokes two OT prophecies —

(Isa 25:6-8 ESV) On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.  7 And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.  8 He 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. 

(Hos 13:14 ESV)  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. 

Paul is not quoting, and his language is inexact, although there is evidence for lost versions of the LXX that match Paul’s language more closely.

(1Co 15:56-57 ESV)  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.

Paul seems to change the subject yet again, but Paul’s gospel is never far removed from ethics. How we live matters! Death comes, ultimately, not from the innate nature of humanity but from humanity’s sinfulness. Had Adam never sinned, there’d be no death.

But he did, and we do, and so we rely on the grace provided us through Jesus Messiah and Lord.

Where sin is pardoned, death has no sting. It is quite another matter where sin has not been dealt with. There death is a virulent antagonist. The sting is not in death; it is in sin. And sin has an unexpected ally and source of power, the law. The law is divine in origin, and Paul can speak of the commandment as ‘holy, righteous and good’ (Rom. 7:12). But it is quite unable to bring people to salvation (cf. Rom. 5:12ff.; 7:7ff.; 10:4). Indeed, by setting before us the standard we ought to reach and never do, it becomes sin’s stronghold. It makes sinners of us all. It condemns us all.

Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 7; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), n.p.

(1Co 15:58 ESV) Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Again, Paul returns to Christian ethics. Just where we might expect a comment on the perseverance of the saints, Paul makes the point that our labor in this life is “not in vain.” It will be rewarded in the resurrection.

The point of continuity that I want to emphasize here, because it is so central to our task of shaping God’s world, our world, is found at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. The chapter, as we saw earlier, is a massive, detailed and complex account of the final resurrection and the nature of our future embodiment. Right at the end in verse 58 Paul says something that could seem like an anticlimax. You or I, writing a chapter on the resurrection, would probably finish with a shout of praise at the glorious future that awaits us. That would be appropriate too. But Paul finishes like this: “Therefore, my beloved family, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, inasmuch as you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” What is he saying? Just this: that part of the point of bodily resurrection is that there is vital and important continuity as well as discontinuity between this world and that which is to be, precisely because the new world has already begun with Easter and Pentecost, and because everything done on the basis of Jesus’ resurrection and in the power of the Spirit already belongs to that new world. It is already part of the kingdom-building that God is now setting forward in this new week of new creation.

N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 180.

What we do in this life has continuity with what happens in the next. We labor for the Lord in this life because we’ll be rewarded in the next. What we do well may even survive into the next —

(1Co 3:12-15 ESV)  12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.  14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.  15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Paul seems to clearly speak in terms of grace: even if we work ineffectively, we at least worked and we’ll not be damned. But if we work well, then not only are we saved, but our work survives into the next age.

Paul may have nothing more in mind than the salvation of others. Or perhaps he sees any work that brings the world more into conformity with the will of God as surviving.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to 1 Corinthians 15:45-58 (O, Death, where is your victory?)

  1. R.J. says:

    The pneumatikos [Spirit-empowered] state is not simply an original idea in the mind of the creator, from which the human race fell sadly away; this model of humanity is the future reality, the reality which will swallow up and replace merely psychikos [mortal] life“.

    God did indeed breath into Adam and Eve the breath of life(Spirit animation) so I think this verse speaks of Christ as the Climatic Adam!

  2. R.J. says:

    “Just where we might expect a comment on the perseverance of the saints”

    Indeed the idea that if I accept Jesus in my heart, I can sin all I want and go to Heaven is hogwash!

    “Paul makes the point that our labor in this life is ‘not in vain.’ It will be rewarded in the resurrection”.

    Indeed! Although labor has nothing to do with salvation. It certainly will secure us better rewards in the economy of the hereafter.

    “Paul may have nothing more in mind than the salvation of others”.

    Then wouldn’t he be contradicting his preaching elsewhere?

  3. Jay Guin says:

    RJ asked,

    “Paul may have nothing more in mind than the salvation of others”.

    Then wouldn’t he be contradicting his preaching elsewhere?

    Paul’s metaphor is not entirely transparent — at least not to me:

    (1Co 3:10-15 ESV) According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw– 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

    What is being built? I think a temple as a metaphor for a congregation of Christ’s church. As a missionary, that’s bound to be Paul’s idea, and temples were often built with the most costly materials — but I’m sure their were deities who rated less marble than others. The wooden temples wouldn’t be found by the archaeologists. Just the the marble ones.

    So for “the work anyone has built” to survive a fire, what is the “fire”? Surely the fire that comes when God executes his judgment against all ungodliness at the Second Coming. So what “survives” the fire?

    It seems likely to me that it’s saved people and the congregations that they’re parts of.

    That’s a pretty conventional interpretation.

    NT Wright thinks Paul is speaking of anything that is “redeemed” or that doesn’t need to be consumed by the wrath of God – perhaps more by analogy than actual exegesis. I think the passage plainly is not addressing anything other than saved people and congregations — but the argument Paul makes may well have wider application.

    If I help clean a creek or write a beautiful hymn to God (neither is really likely given my present talent set), will these things survive the Second Coming? Well, I just don’t know. Perhaps I’ve overlooked a passage that speaks to the question other than this one, but this is the one Wright cites to when he is discussing the ethical implications of the creation surviving the Second Coming.

    Oh, I should add —

    (Rom 8:18-25 ESV) For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

    This pretty plainly teaches the survival of the creation — the original creation and not the futility it was subjected to. So to the extent we Christians can help cleanse the creation of the futility of the curse of Gen 3, what we do survives the wrath of God and Second Coming. Right? I’d be hesitant to be very precise as Paul isn’t. But clearly there is something about the Second Coming that is the creation being freed of the results of the curse on creation.

    So the New Heavens and New Earth aren’t the original creation exactly because this creation is subject to entropy and otherwise not suited to last forever. But there is something about it that survives forever. (Hopefully, mosquitos are burned in hell forever and ever, however. Some parts of nature are clearly on the curse side of the ledger.)

  4. R.J. says:

    Personally, I feel the building here Paul describes is the effect and result of man’s work. Not so much the people themselves(but I could be off).

    “Hopefully, mosquitos are burned in hell forever and ever…”

    lol

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