Put on the Imperishable
Putting on the Imperishable
1 Corinthians 15:50-58
This morning we come to the end of 1 Corinthians 15 – this great chapter on the necessity, and the nature, and the certainty of the resurrection of all those who are in Jesus Christ. As we’ve seen throughout Paul’s first letter to them, and especially here in Chapter 15, one of the biggest problems at Corinth was that these men and women had picked up some very messed up ideas on what it meant to “spiritual.” In fact, “spiritual” was the name they picked for themselves, almost as today we use labels like “Protestant,” “Catholic,” “Reformed,” or “Charismatic.” They thought they had already experienced the resurrection. They thought the body was bad – that it was opposed to the spirit – and all they were waiting for now was the body to die so that they could be pure spirit. And so we’ve seen Paul attacking this idea from every conceivable angle and assuring the Corinthians that not only is the bodily resurrection of believers certain, but that belief in it is crucial to living the Christian life here and now.
With that in mind, I want to start this morning with St. Paul’s application at the very end of the chapter – with verse 58. If you’ve got your Bibles (and I really do encourage you always to bring them with you), look with me at verse 58:
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.
Do you ever feel like your labour is in vain? That seems to be one of the major problems we face in life. Does what I do matter? Is there any point to it? There are a lot of people in this world who are frustrated as they work and they raise their families because they don’t like what they’re doing or they don’t feel that it matters. About a decade ago I worked with a fellow technician who would start every day with a loud groan and an expletive, and then he’d plod through the day as if everything were a chore he had to do. Some people get excited about the work they do. They live to work. This guy strictly worked to live. He wasn’t a Christian. He didn’t have an eternal perspective or kingdom perspective in his life and that explains a lot of his problem, but the fact is that even Christians get caught up in this cycle – and we get caught in it because we too lose our eternal perspective. Remember that in last week’s passage Paul called the Corinthians fools because they were living without God in view – as if he had nothing to do with life. We’re fools too if, as we go about our daily lives, we forget that God is involved and that we have eternity to look forward too – if we forget that we really are kingdom people and that we have something greater to look forward to than what’s here and now.
With that in mind, look at how St. Paul begins this final section of his teaching on the resurrection. Look at verse 50:
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
There’s some deep theology there. In fact, this whole chapter has been deeply theological, but I hope that you’ve also seen that “deeply theological” and “profoundly practical” aren’t incompatible. A lot of people don’t like getting into theology or doctrine, but the fact is that we have to, because that’s where we find the foundation. We build all the practicalities – all the things useful to daily life as a Christian – we build all that on the solid doctrinal foundation we find in the deep theological passages like this. What Paul’s saying here in practical terms is that if God is God, if Jesus is Jesus, if he came to as one of us, if he died for our sins, and if he rose in triumph over death and sin, then there’s more to your life and my life than flesh and blood. There’s more to life than your job, your car, your house or any of your “stuff.” In fact, if you add up everything there is to your life – your family, your job, your stuff, what you like and dislike, your hobbies and recreational activities, and on and on – add up all of that, and there’s still more to real life than that total. When you have eternal perspective – when you live with the understanding that God is involved in your life and has greater plans for you – then the sum total of your life here and now is like a tiny dot. A friend of mine in college had a poster on his wall. It was a giant picture of the Milky Way galaxy with an arrow pointing to a tiny speck out on the fringe with a caption saying, “You are here.” That kind of perspective begins to come close to the reality of what Paul is describing here. This unimaginably vast “thing” is your life in eternity and “this” tiny speck is the sum total of your life here and now.
If you have eternal perspective you realise that flesh and blood – earthly stuff – can never inherit God’s kingdom. We have to let him make more of us. When you and I became Christians the Holy Spirit moved into our lives and renovated our souls. That was the first step. Even though we’re still clothed in flesh and blood, we’re no longer enemies of God. The Spirit has changed us and empowered us to work for God – to enhance and build and grow his kingdom.
Think of Nicodemus. He was a wealthy man who was a respected and a very successful leader in Jewish society – or so he thought. But when he asked Jesus how to find life, Jesus told him those famous words: “You have to start all over. You must be born again” (John 3:7). Paul’s getting at the same idea. How can you make your life worthwhile? How can you achieve anything that will truly last? Look at verse 51. Paul says it’s a mystery.
Behold! I tell you a mystery.
Now, Paul isn’t talking about a mystery in terms of something we can’t understand or a problem we have to solve. In Greek “mystery” is used to describe the Sacraments – Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Mysteries are incomprehensible to those who don’t know Christ, but for those who are “in Christ” the mystery becomes something plain – something we do understand now that Jesus has shone his light into our lives. A fool can’t understand these things, but for the man or woman with eternal and God-given perspective and understanding it should be clear. And the mystery is this — continuing with verse 51:
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 imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
For the last month we’ve been seeing Paul argue that our own bodily resurrection must happen if there’s anything at all to the Gospel, and this is his final argument. Jesus promised that those who are in him will inherit the kingdom, but if flesh and blood can’t and won’t inherit it, then at some point God has to change us – to make us more than flesh and blood. Because Jesus was resurrected so must we.
Paul says that there will be a generation of believers who will not experience death – not in the sense that we know it – but who will instantly be changed. They’ll probably be going about their usual daily routines and suddenly – in “the twinkling of an eye”, as fast as you can blink – God will change them and make them more than “flesh and blood.”
Some will never taste death, but the fact is that the other 99.99% of believers who have lived before that time will die. But regardless of whether you died thousands of yours before that time or you’re alive on that day, the great “mystery” is that “we shall all be changed.” And it’s an amazing change. As Paul’s been telling us, when God changes us our bodies will become polar opposites of what they are now. Today we’re all subject to sin, decay, and death. But in that instant that will all change. Paul says, “This perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” Sin, decay, and death will be gone – and with them will go every reason we’ve ever had to complain, grumble, and whine or to be discontent or become depressed. In that instant, everything about our fallen nature that has kept us from fully experiencing and realising God’s kingdom will be taken away – but it’s not just the negative being taken away. Something positive will be added. Scripture is never clear on exactly what our new bodies will be like other than to compare them to Jesus’ own resurrected body. Whatever the specifics, I’m sure it’ll be amazing.
So of course the next question is “When? When’s it going to happen?” I think the more we understand and appreciate what all this means the more eagerly we anticipate it. Paul’s answer is that it’ll happen “at the last trumpet.” And of course then we ask, “Well, when is that?” Scripture’s answer is that the last trumpet is what signals the return of Jesus – that time at some point in the future when Jesus has conquered every one of his enemies and is ready to hand the kingdom back to his Father. When will that be? We don’t know. It seems unlikely, but it could be tomorrow or next year. It could be in a hundred years, a thousand, or ten thousand years from now. We don’t know, but we do know that it will take place when the kingdom – when the Church – is ready and when Jesus has crushed his enemies. The only enemy left will be death itself and on that day as we are resurrected as he was, that last enemy will be crushed too. As Revelation 20:13 tells us, on that day “death and hades” will be thrown into the lake of fire never to trouble God’s people again.
Paul describes that same day in First Thessalonians 4:16:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice ofan archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.
It’s the last trumpet fanfare anyone will ever hear – the trump of God – and with it the dead in Christ will be raised. There’s the consolation for all of us who didn’t make it to that Last Day – you and I get to be raised first. Paul goes on in verse 17:
Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
That’s what Paul’s referring to in First Corinthians and as much as we may get discouraged in this life, we need to be reminded of that Last Day. That’s our future hope – and it gives us hope precisely because it’s a sure thing. If Jesus was raised then it necessarily follows that all of us who are in him will be raised too. It can’t and doesn’t work out any other way. Why? Paul answers that in verses 54 and 55:
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.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
A lot of us probably have the King James memorized:
O, death, where is thy sting?
O grave [literally hades] where is they victory?
It think most, if not all of us have stood at the grave of a someone we’ve loved and felt the sting of death – felt that it’s had its victory. It’s a hard time, and yet that’s precisely why this verse is appointed for reading at funerals. It reminds us of our hope. At the very point when we feel that death has come closest to victory, Paul steps in and proclaims our victory in Jesus and taunts death and hades themselves: “Ha, ha! Where’s your sting now, O Death? Where’s your victory now, Hades?” In my reading this week I came across one minister who wrote that he thought the best closing hymn for a funeral is actually Handel’s Halleluhah Chorus – and why not at a time when we need that strong reminder that while things look bad today, the victory really has already been won.
Brothers and sisters, it really is a sure thing. The change has to happen because it’s already started in our hearts if we have faith in Jesus. Already, the Spirit has been at work in our hearts, swallowing up death in victory. The fear is gone. The natural man or woman is always going to fear death. I was reading some interviews this week with people who were on that Christmas flight to Detroit that was almost blown up. They described their fear and the fear of others around them. That’s normal. Why? Look at verse 56:
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
We fear death because it’s the great unknown – because in death we’re no longer in control. And yet we all know something about death. I’m convinced that every man or woman knows, deep-down and inside, that death plunges each of us into accountability. On the other side of death is a settling of accounts – a time when we’re each going to have answer for everything we’ve thought and said and done. That’s why death is such a scary thing. Scripture tells us that the Law is written on the heart of every man. Even if we’ve never held a Bible in our hands or heard a sermon preached form it, we all still have a sense of right and wrong and no matter how much we may suppress it, we all know that there will be a day of judgement. No one can escape it and so we fear death.
The good news is in the resurrection of Jesus. He was crucified, he was dead and buried, but he rose again and broke the power of sin. You and I are no longer helpless. We’re no longer slaves to sin. Slaves is exactly what that natural man or woman is when it comes to sin. Every one of us struggles with sin. I remember when I was a teenager and they first started advertising on TV for nicotine gum as an aid for people trying to quit smoking. There was a commercial with a man standing there smoking with a big gorilla wrapped around him. They were comparing his cigarette addiction to the gorilla. There was no way to pry those giant arms from around him. Of course, once he started chewing the gum the gorilla changed to a chimp and them to some little rodent-like monkey that finally jumped off his shoulder and ran away. Sin is like that gorilla with his arms wrapped around us. While it’s possible to give up a bad habit or physical addiction, it’s impossible for the natural man to pry off the arms of sin. And so the natural man lives with the guilt of those sins he can’t get rid of and can’t stop doing. Why is death scary? Because you’re going to have to answer for something you can’t fix.
The good news is that there is a solution. Sin’s power has been broken. If we’re willing to accept the solution, there is a way to say “No” to sin even when we feel the pressure to give in. And even when we do fail, there’s a way to have that failure washed away. It doesn’t need to haunt us anymore. Paul tells us the way in verse 57:
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Notice that that’s in the present active tense. It’s not past tense: “who gave us the victory.” We could just as easily translate it: “Thanks be to God, who keeps on giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” I don’t think there’s anything more encouraging for the Christian than that every day (and every minute and hour of every day) we can take hold of the grace of Jesus Christ. He’s not a distant Saviour who lived two thousand years ago. He’s alive today. He indwells each and every one of his children with by Spirit and empowers us with his own life – with his own resurrection. And he’s here for us every time we stumble and fall back into sin. We can come again and again and receive the cleansing that he won for us on the cross. Through his blood, our sins are washed away. He forgives and he continues to forgive and each time lets us start over afresh. And in that we should be finding the power to say “No” to sin and to all the things that drag us down or pressure us in life. The Christian knows that Jesus has already dealt with that evil. It has no victory over us today and it has no victory over us in future – we won’t have to account for it on the Last Day, because Jesus already has. Instead we can live a new life devoted to him and taking his good news of healing to others so that they can find relief from sorrow and fear and guilt. That’s why Paul ends his argument in verse 58 saying:
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.
Brothers and sisters, this is the practical application of the knowledge of our resurrection. It gives us hope and that hope makes us steadfast and immovable as we abound in doing the work of the Lord. We hold firmly to Christ and we fear nothing in this world. Remember that for the Christian, everything in this life is an opportunity for that ministry – for witnessing and demonstrating a changed life, a heart that is at peace, a joy that radiates from fellowship with our living Lord, and a love that pours out of your heart to others, who just like you, have struggled and lost, who live under the weight of guilt and who fear the Last Day. That’s the vocation God gives each of us. Your worldly vocation might be totally different. You might be a teacher or student, you might be a homemaker or in the military, you might build houses or operate heavy equipment, but God hasn’t put you there for the purpose of making worldly achievements that men will applaud or to make a name for yourself or to accumulate as many material possessions as you can. God has put you there to be faithful in your earthly vocation in such a way that you make it a gospel ministry. He’s concerned with how you behave toward others; whether or not you show a loving spirit, a gracious and forgiving attitude, a willingness to return good for evil, and an ability to shine the light of Christ into he dark lives of the people around you. That’s God’s work and it’s what he’s called you to do and it’s why he’s put you where you are.
Please pray with me: Father, in the collect this morning we acknowledged that through Jesus Christ you have poured your light on us and we asked that your light would be so kindled in our hearts that it would shine brightly to all those around us. We ask that again Father. Let the joy of our future hope and the love of Christ in our hearts shine forth in everything we do and say in such a way that we draw those around us to you. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.