Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
1 Corinthians 15:50-58
50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 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. 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?”
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 work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
In this section, Paul concludes the chapter and the topic, saying also that he will “tell us a mystery.” Who doesn’t love a good mystery? From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:
(50) Now this I say.—This is the phrase with which the Apostle is wont to introduce some statement of profound significance. (See 1 Corinthians 1:12; 1 Corinthians 7:29.) The statement so introduced here is that flesh and blood, being corruption, cannot enter into the heavenly state, which is incorruption. This is still part of the answer to the question, “With what bodies do they come?” but the reply is no longer based upon any analogy. It comes now as a revelation of what he had been taught by the Spirit of God. Flesh and blood are indeed corruption. Blood is everywhere the type of this lower animal life. Blood is the life of the flesh; and so, though Jews might eat the flesh, they might not eat the blood, which is the life thereof (Genesis 9:4). All offerings which typified the offering up and sacrifice of “self”—the lower sinful self—were sacrifices by shedding of blood, without which was no remission (Hebrews 9:22). When the supreme Sacrifice was made on Calvary the blood was shed—once for all. So when Christ showed His resurrection body to His disciples He did not say, “A spirit hath not flesh and blood, as ye see Me have;” but “A spirit hath not ‘flesh and bones,’ as ye see Me have.” The blood of Christ is never spoken of as existing after His crucifixion. That was the supreme sacrifice of Self to God. The blood—the type of the human self—was poured out for ever. It is to be noticed also that the phrase “of His flesh and of His bones” (not His “blood,” which the Eucharistic Feast would have suggested) was evidently in ordinary use, as it was interpolated in Ephesians 5:30.
The blood, as the type of our lower nature, is familiar in all popular phraseologies, as when we say, for example, that a “man’s blood is up,” meaning that his physical nature is asserting itself. One characteristic of the resurrection body, therefore, is that it shall be bloodless.
As the note says, verse 50 is an answer to the question that prompted this discussion. Spiritual bodies are unlike our bodies before death. Christ describes his own body, after the resurrection, as flesh and bone, rather than flesh and blood.
Luke 24:39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
Continuing to the mystery mentioned in the next verse, in The Pulpit Commentaries:
I show you a mystery. I make known to you a truth now made known to me by revelation. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. There is a great diversity of readings in this verse, noticed even by St. Jerome and St. Augustine. St. Jerome says that all the Latin manuscripts had “we shall all rise,” and that the Greek manuscripts wavered between “we shall all sleep” and “we shall not all sleep.” Some Greek manuscripts had “we shall all rise, but we shall not all be changed.” This reading cannot be right, for it contradicts the next verse. There is little doubt that the reading of the Authorized version is right. It accounts for all the variations. They arose from a desire to shelter St. Paul from an apparent mistake, since he and his readers did all sleep. But
(1) St. Paul may have written under that conception of the imminence of Christ’s personal return which he expresses in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, where he evidently imagines that the majority of those to whom he was writing would be of those who would be “alive, and remain unto the coming of the Lord;” or
(2) even if he no longer entertained that expectation, the “we” may naturally apply to the continuity of the Christian Church. For in 2 Corinthians 4:14 he uses “us” of those who shall die and be raised. The universal expectation of the immediate return of Christ in the first century rose
(1) from their non apprehension of the truth that the close of the old dispensation was the “coming” to which our Lord had primarily referred in his great eschatological discourse (Matthew 24:34), and
The meaning here seems to be that not everyone in the Church will die (this was a particularly strong view in the 1st century, within the living memory of Christ), but whether one dies or not, all must see their bodies transformed from a flesh and blood body to a spiritual body.
That returns us somewhat to the eschatological discussion from earlier in the chapter. Paul believed that at some point, Christ would return, that the dead in Christ would rise with new bodies, and the living in Christ would be transformed. This teaching can be found in the Gospels, also, particularly Matthew 24. Paul also certainly learned from the original Apostles who were still living and from divine revelation. Continuing on from The Pulpit Commentaries:
The trumpet shall sound. The Lord, he says, in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, “shall descend from heaven with… the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God.” The trumpet is, of course, only a natural symbol. It is also found in rabbinic writers, and in the Old Testament (Zechariah 9:14), as well as in Revelation 11:15. We shall be changed. The dead shall be changed by resurrection, the living by transition, into a glorified body. St. Paul, dealing with the essence of the question as it bore on the difficulties of his readers, says nothing here
(1) of those who will arise to judgment, or
(2) of any intermediate condition.
As to the former question, he scarcely ever alludes to it with any definiteness, but seems with deliberate choice to contemplate the final and absolute triumph of good (Romans 8:19-23; Romans 11:30-36). To the intermediate state he does not here allude. He is here only speaking of death and glorious resurrection. In 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 he says all that he has to say on this latter question. It was not prominent in the minds of the early Christians, who, as Calvin says, were awaiting the return of Christ “from hour to hour.”
Keeping in mind that Paul readily admits that what he is saying is a mystery, we learn that at some point, a trumpet will sound (real or metaphorical) and that all those in Christ, both the living and the dead, will be changed. There has been much study and effort to hone in on the details of these events, however, the continued disagreement as to those details points toward continued mystery. Continue next with Ellicott again in the next verse:
(53) For this corruptible must . . .—Here again is repeated the truth of 1 Corinthians 15:50, which shows the absolute necessity for a change in the nature of the resurrection body. There is, however, an additional thought introduced here. Not only must the resurrection body be suited to the condition but also to the duration of the new life. As a spiritual body, it will be adapted to the needs of a spiritual state; and as an immortal and incorruptible body, it will be adapted to a life which is everlasting.
(54) So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption.—The Apostle now transports himself in thought to the time when there shall be the actual accomplishment of that for which there then is this absolute and moral necessity. These words bring before us with vivid power the intensity of the Apostle’s own belief in what he is teaching.
Death is swallowed up in victory.—These words, originally referring to the Jewish people (Isaiah 25:8), are naturally applied here to the human race, of which they were the chosen type.
Whatever the when/where/how details might be, regarding the trumpet sound and the change, what follows that event is the defeat of death. Corruptible is replaced by incorruptible. Death is destroyed by the Resurrection.
Isaiah 25:8 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.
Verse 55 is one of the most famous verses in the New Testament. Paul is quoting here, though. From The Pulpit Commentaries:
O death, where is thy sting? A triumphantly fervid exclamation of the apostle, loosely cited from Hosea 13:14. The apostles and evangelists, not holding the slavish and superstitious fetish worship of the dead letter, often regard it as sufficient to give the general sense of the passages to which they refer. O grave, where is thy victory? In the best attested reading (A, B, C, D, E, F, G), “death” is repeated, and in the best manuscripts this clause precedes the last. But if the reading, “O Hades,” were correct, our translators, since they held it here impossible in accordance with their views to render it by “hell,” ought to have taken warning, and seen the pernicious inapplicability of that rendering in other places where they have used it to express this same Greek word. Here “Hades” has probably been introduced into the Greek text from the LXX., which uses it for the Sheol of the original.
Death = θάνατος thánatos, than’-at-os; from G2348; (properly, an adjective used as a noun) death (literally or figuratively):—X deadly, (be…) death.
The note addresses the proper translation, deciding that “death” is preferable than “Hades,” though noting that Paul is quoting from a passage wherein Hades is used. This does not mean Paul made a mistake. A modernist’s view of exating citation was not his point.
Hosea 13:14 I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol;
I shall redeem them from Death.
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your sting?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes.
As an aside, it is worth noting that Hades is occasionally a Greek stand-in for the Hebrew Sheol. They were viewed similarly. In Greek mythology, Hades is both a place and a god. In Christian theology, among the things accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrections is that he obtained the keys to Hades.
Revelation 1:17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
Hebrews 2:14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil,
We can read too much into it, and therefore must be careful, but it is implied that Hades/Sheol were under the power of the devil, but that Christ took that power from the devil.
There does seem to be a differentiation between the afterlife concepts of Hades/Sheol and Hell. In addition, much of this also gets muddled with John Milton’s work “Paradise Lost” which is occasionally treated even by religious teachers as though it is canonical. A lot of people develop strong opinions about Christianity on the basis of incomplete understandings of the underlying text. We must be careful there.
Returning to Ellicott:
(56) The sting of death is sin.—Death is pictured as a monster, and it is armed with a sting. Its sting is sin. If there were no sin, death would not be capable of inflicting pain, and the strength of sin springs from the fact that it is the violation of God’s law. (See this thought fully brought out, Romans 5:12; Romans 7:7.)
(57) But thanks be to God.—The future is so certain that the Apostle speaks of it as a subject for present thanksgiving; the victory is one which God gives now through Jesus Christ. His resurrection is the pledge of our resurrection. His death is the power by which we are enabled to conquer that lower self, from whose crucifixion and death we shall rise to the higher incorruptible life of the resurrection day. With this earnest and enthusiastic expression of praise to God the argument concludes. Through arguments historical, moral, philosophical; through explanations from the analogy of Nature, and from the theology of Old and New Testament history, the Apostle has led his readers, vindicating the truth and illustrating the manner of the Resurrection of the Dead. He projects his mind into the future, and, standing in thought with ransomed and raised Humanity after death has been vanquished and the grave been spoiled, he joins in the shout of triumphant praise which shall then ascend to Christ and God.
Death previously had victory due to the effects of sin. The law revealed sin and Christ fulfilled the law, overcame sin, and defeated death. By defeating death, Christ claimed authority over death. Thus, He was resurrected and thus, the Resurrection for all who believe is foundational. Remember, Paul is explaining to Corinthians that believing requires a belief in the Resurrections. That’s been the purpose of this chapter. He is correcting the false teaching that one can be a follower of Jesus without a belief in the broad and Churchwide Resurrection.
Finishing the chapter, we’ll return back to The Pulpit Commentaries:
Therefore. Seeing that you ought not to despair, but to share in this confidence of triumph. Steadfast. Firmly fixed in your own conviction (Colossians 1:23; 2 John 1:9). Unmoveable. By others (Ephesians 4:14). Abounding in the work of the Lord. Doing diligently and ungrudgingly the work of your lives, which is his work. That your labour is not in vain. The thought of the verse is the same as that of Galatians 6:9, “And let us not be weary in well doing; for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”
Some general facts are very observable in this glorious chapter. 1. One is that St. Paul does not meet doubt by angry denunciation, or by crushing it with the iron mace of impatient authority. What would now be thought of Christians who denied the resurrection? Doubtless they were not mere speculative deniers of the resurrection, like Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Timothy 2:17), but recent Gentile converts, who could not get over their pagan difficulties. Yet St. Paul meets them by personal appeals, by helpful analogies, by lofty reasoning, by the glowing force of inspiring convictions. Instead of taking refuge—more ecclesiastico—in anathema and excommunication, he meets error by the counter presentation of ennobling truth. 2. Another noteworthy fact is that St. Paul’s hope of the resurrection rests, like all his theology, on the thought that the life of the Christian is a life “in Christ.” 3. A third is his superiority to false analogies—like those of the butterfly and the phoenix—which sufficed many ancient reasoners. Even Christian writers like St. Clement of Rome continued to appeal to the phoenix as a proof of the resurrection. The greatest ancient thinkers—like Tacitus—believed in the existence of that fabulous bird, and even in the genuineness of a specimen of it which had been exhibited at Rome. Was there no “grace of superintendency” at work which prevented the sacred writers from adopting the universal error of their day? Had St. Paul appealed to the phoenix, centuries of Christian writers would have continued to maintain the existence of that creature; and science, laughing the belief to scorn, would (most unjustly) have made any allusion to it a proof of mental weakness, and of the falsity of the doctrine which it was supposed to Proverbs 4:0. A fourth point to be observed is the wisdom with which St. Paul holds himself aloof from speculative fancies, tie does not, like Plato, appeal to the doctrine of “reminiscence” (anamnesis), or of unfulfilled ideas. He does not, like Kant, build any argument on man’s failure to obey “the categorical imperative” of duty. He points to the sinless Man—to the fulfilled idea of Christ. His argument, which all could understand, is summed up in the words, “Ye are Christ’s, and Christ is risen.” Your resurrection from the death of sin to the life of righteousness is a pledge of your participation in Christ’s resurrection from the grave.
This note is interesting. It provides a lot of history from the early church and explains Paul’s efforts with this chapter.
The note might be of particular interest to Harry Potter fans, as this is the chapter author JK Rowling quotes repeatedly in her series. In addition the verse she quotes from this Chapter, pursuant to the books’ Christian themes, she also utilizes phoenix themes throughout her story. The note tells us that the early Church fathers (St. Clement) utilized phoenix themes in explaining the resurrection. Perhaps Rowling is familiar with St. Clement’s writings.
More seriously, and beyond the topic of young adult fiction, Paul finishes his chapter explaining the Resurrection here in verse 58. It’s thorough. He wants the Resurrection to be a source of encouragement for believers. Victory is assured. Eternity is assured.