51 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised, incorruptible – and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on what is incorruptible, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 But when this corruptible puts on that which is incorruptible and this mortal puts on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. 55 Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, 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. (1Cor15:51-57)
The sting of death is sin
Still in 1Cor15, the featured text includes one of my favorite passages from Handel’s famous Christmas oratorio “Messiah”. That is because, with Paul I regard resurrection as the apotheosis of Christian salvation, rather than the spirit’s temporary abode in the spiritual realm when the body dies, which Paul again here refers to as being asleep (v51).
But the main point of this post is to observe carefully what the apostle writes concerning sin and death vv54-56: “The sting of death is sin and the strength of sin is the law”. The converse idea, namely that the sting of sin is death is better understood and Paul quotes as much from Hosea (25:8). But as I have often intimated, the apostle generally intends exactly what he writes (even in Rom11:11,12 & 15!) Here he is confirming among other things that when speaking of death it is not referring to a state of damnation for in Paul’s recapitulation of Hosea’s teaching, sin results from death as well as leading to it. Something being already spiritually dead has resulted in sin, that something being the mortal body and brain which Paul has elsewhere referred to as our vessel (1Thes4:4), tent (2Cor5:1+4) and most pointedly “the body of this death (Rom7:24).
For in responding to the body’s natural inclinations, the soul rebels against the divine light of conscience and so disrupts the relationship with the Source of its spiritual life. For what had been conceived in sin (Ps51:5) has “died” leading in turn to sin that destroys Life once the “law” (a sense of right and wrong) is perceived and invariably breached (Rom7:9). Hence “the sting of death is sin and the strength of sin is the law“. Hence also, the need for heavenly grace by which one can be spiritually purified, receiving ongoing cleansing of the soul so that those God has chosen for His Son (Jn17:6) may serve Him whilst in mortal flesh in preparation for their eternal Courtship (Rev19:7).
The apostle had further asserted that “death will be swallowed up in victory” (v54), yet even celestial grace does not fully resolve the problem of mortal embodiment. God intends to save our soul and body, but He does not do so simultaneously. So even the Christian is tempted to sin whilst in mortal flesh which is why it is his body that is to be offered as a living sacrifice “so that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk after the flesh but after the spirit” (Rom8:4); for it is the spirit that having been supplied by God loves His law and wishes to serve righteousness.
Not until “this corruptible” (body) has been transformed at resurrection will death (physical and spiritual) finally be swallowed up in victory when the body itself is redeemed (Rom8:23). The soul’s vessel in its current degenerative state is the cause of the human problem being the outworking of original sin – sin being the result of that death (Paul’s point). The final solution will not be for the soul to lose a body altogether and be eternally at rest in the spiritual realm (a spurious dualism), but to be re-clothed in a new body which is from heaven (2Cor5:2) and to be united to the Man who is God and actively participate within His realm; that will be joy unspeakable and full of glory.
All this and how it fits in with the rest of Scripture is worked out in detail in “The Little Book of Providence”:
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Related post: The body of this death