IMPERISHABLE, IMMORTAL, VICTORIOUS
by Steve Zeisler
"The Surgeon-General has determined that cigarette smoking is hazardous
to your health," declares the warning on every packet of cigarettes
sold in this country. I have at times wanted to suggest to the Surgeon-General
that 1 Corinthians 15:50, "...flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom
of God," be imprinted as a warning on make-up, deodorants, baldness
cures, and perhaps even in the offices of plastic surgeons who do face-lifts!
All of our efforts to halt or even retard the aging process-the sagging
flesh, the balding pate, the wrinkled face-are doomed to failure. The sure
word of Scripture is that we are destined either to be raised imperishable
in the resurrection, or that we will suffer eternal death.
THE FINAL DRAMA
This is the word which the apostle brings before us this morning in the
resurrection chapter, the magnificent closing verses of 1 Corinthians 15:
Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit
the kingdom of God; nor does the imperishable inherit the imperishable.
Behold, I tell you a mystery; 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 must put on the imperishable, and
the mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put
on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then
will come about the saying which is written, "Death is swallowed up
in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?"
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be
to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore,
my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work
of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.
Have you ever seen performed on stage a play which you had previously read?
The words, ideas and concepts really come to life when they are acted out
in a dramatic presentation. I had this experience in junior high school
when our school put on the musical 'The Wizard of Oz.' As the actors recited
their lines, sang the lyrics of the well known songs, and the beautiful
stage settings became life-like in the hands of the director and the stage
crew, I was caught up in the adventure of those seekers on the "yellow
First Corinthians 15:50-58 is filled with sight, sound, and action. The
truths of the resurrection are portrayed vividly, with dramatic effect.
Paul has been arguing a certain viewpoint, using Scripture from the Old
Testament, analogy, logic and other devices, to demonstrate that because
of our uniting with Christ, the doctrine of the resurrection of believers
is of critical importance to our faith. If we lose this, he warns, we are
in danger of losing everything.
Having presented his argument, Paul now goes on to accentuate his words
in these dramatic verses, 50 through 58. "...flesh and blood cannot
inherit the kingdom of God," he declares. He continues, "Behold,
I tell you a mystery..." With these arresting words, the apostle goes
on to state in very dramatic fashion what will happen at the resurrection.
I picture him as an actor onstage, his voice alternately rising to a shout
and falling to a whisper as he unfolds the last great drama in phrases like
"the twinkling of an eye," "the last trumpet," "death
is swallowed up," etc. Death is addressed as a personal adversary.
Noise, brightness, surprise and triumph reach a crescendo at the instant
that the universe is transformed.
This is a "mystery," according to Paul, a revelation given him
from God himself. "O death," he says, "where is your victory,
your sting?" Death, man's great enemy, will lose in the end. In these
words, the apostle sings of the final death of death. What a dramatic ending
to this resurrection chapter!
THE LAST GENERATION
"in the twinkling of an eye,...the dead will be raised imperishable,
and we shall be changed." Paul has already illustrated, using the analogy
of seeds, that what is planted in the ground looks very different when it
germinates and begins to grow. By analogy, he points out that in the same
way, resurrection bodies are very different than the original bodies which
were buried in the ground at death. But here he adds another category, saying
that one generation of believers will be changed from life to eternal life.
Not every one will die, in other words. The final generation of believers
living on earth at the time of Christ's return will be caught up with our
Lord into heaven. This last generation will be raised with those who have
died throughout the generations, changed utterly "in a moment."
Every believer, dating from the time of Adam and his children, will then
be raised, to be joined by believers who are living on earth. Thus it is
true to say that "we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed."
This is the "mystery" which Paul speaks of so dramatically in
verse 51. This word is used in Scripture to describe an event or circumstance
which cannot be known other than by God's unveiling of it. It is not discoverable
by normal research. Having already argued by the methods which we have already
referred to, the apostle now confronts with a "mystery" those
who would disagree with the dramatic announcement of what is to come. These
are not merely ideas which are open to argument, but truth from God himself.
Not everyone will die "at the last trumpet," but all will be changed,
given resurrection bodies and accompany the Lord, to live in heaven forever.
The implications of this are given in verse 53: "...this perishable
must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality."
Because we are destined to die, as human beings we face two dilemmas: 1)
our lives will end (we are mortal), and 2) our bodies deteriorate (we are
Let us consider first the effects of knowing our mortality apart from the
hope of the resurrection. Very soon after we are born we are confronted
with the reality that we are going to die. Thus we are, in a sense, dominated
by death even while we are yet alive. As he surveyed life, the Preacher
in the book of Ecclesiastes put it this way:
Everything is wearisome. Man is not able to tell if the eye is not satisfied
with seeing nor is the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is that
which would be, and that which has been done is that which will be done.
So there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one might
say, "See, this is new." Already it has existed for ages which
were before us. There is no remembrance of earlier things and also of the
later things which will occur. There will be for them no remembrance among
those who come later still. (Eccl.1:8-11)
We are destined to die and to be forgotten, says this observer of life.
The fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same.
As one dies, so dies the other. Indeed they all have the same breath and
there is no advantage for man over beast. For all is vanity. All go to the
same place. All come from the dust, and all return to the dust. (Eccl.3:19-21)
It seems that throughout the generations, despair is the grey background
to everything man does in life. There is no remembrance of what we have
done. There is no point to what we do. In the same way that ripples caused
by casting a stone in a lake soon dissipate and fade, things return to where
they were before we ever arrived on the scene. We all must die and depart
this world forever.
Without the insight of faith which we possess, the inescapable fact of our
mortality colors everything we do. It robs us of strength and hope. Some
develop phobias about death and deny themselves certain experiences-flying,
for instance-because of their fears. They live in prisons which they have
built themselves because they know that death will finally catch up with
Further, knowing that we are mortal leads to wickedness of all kinds. We
hear much these days about fetal research. Cells are being taken from aborted
fetuses to be used in medical research. The research is discovering that
fetal cell transplants can medically benefit the already born who suffer
from various life-limiting diseases. Surely the day is coming when some
will advocate that human lives be sacrificed in utero-babies harvested-deliberately
to prolong the lives of those whose resistance to their own mortality has
no limits. If we have surrogate mothers offering their services today, certainly
there are some who will be willing to have abortions for money. Our fear
of death will drive us to deny life to others in order to hold on to our
own. The only answer to the fact of our mortality is not grasping this life,
but union with Christ in his resurrection. "This mortal will have put
"Perishability" is the second concept which the apostle raises
of in this section. "Mortal" speaks of the fact that we are certain
to die, but "perishable" indicates that humans deteriorate. Our
bodies begin to sag and smell; our hair greys and falls out; we degenerate.
We fear this, too. But the writer of Hebrews says that "Christ will
deliver those who through fear of death are subject to slavery all their
lives." Fear of death makes us liable to slavery. We will act foolishly,
committing ourselves to self-destructive habits, enslaving ourselves, because
we see that our bodies are deteriorating. We anaesthetize ourselves with
drugs and alcohol. We try to act younger than we are and make fools of ourselves,
sometimes even destroying our families in the process of trying to reverse
the irreversible process of aging. Because we are perishable, we try all
kinds of potions and products, we even become involved in sexual misconduct
to try and escape the inevitable. But we cannot prevent our bodies from
deteriorating as we grow older. Christians, however, have the certain hope
that one day they will be given new bodies that will respond to their spirits
and express the glory of God. Believers therefore are not to be partakers
in fending off the process of immortality and perishability, trying to thwart
an inevitable process. Our hope is in the Lord.
The apostle continues, "The sting of death is sin, and the power of
sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our
Lord Jesus Christ." How was it that we once were under the domination
of death? Death possessed a "sting" which dominated us and made
us act foolishly, enslaving us to wickedness and phobia. Here, Paul identifies
that sting as sin (verse 56). In our heart of hearts we know that we are
sinful. Every person who has ever lived is aware of this fact. Apart from
God's intervention, our lives consist of various efforts to conquer, transcend,
or explain away our fatal disease-sin. The wages of sin is death, and it
is ultimately to be faced if it announces that we have lost the battle.
Death is either the door to life eternal or a terrible judgment. If we die
in our sins we are sinners forever. Death stands as a threat to seal us
in our sins. We will do anything to avoid this sting. We will dance to any
tune, we will buy any philosophy to help us escape it.
Paul goes on to say that "the power of sin is the law." In Romans,
he declares that there is a law, the certain, righteous character of God
as it is revealed in Scripture and in creation, against which we have to
measure ourselves. And this law will not bend. We are helpless in the face
of it. We are like men in wheelchairs who are told we must run the 100-yard
dash in 10 seconds. We may make a certain amount of progress, but the 10-second
mark is something forever beyond our ability to accomplish. But the law
offers no praise for good or even improving effort. It always demands absolute
obedience and always condemns anything that falls short of that. This is
why sin is so powerful, and why we fear death so much.
But all of the power of sin and death is rendered powerless in the death
of Christ. This is why Paul can cry, "O death, where is your victory?"
We have been released from the twin powers of sin and death and set free
to live in Christ. The bonds of death had no hold over him, and we find
our destiny in him. We will be raised immortal; we are not doomed to eternal
death; and we will be raised imperishable; we are not doomed to waste away.
Therefore, glory of glories, we no longer need to fear what is coming; the
power of evil has been broken. We do not need to run for our lives anymore;
we have been given life. "Thanks be to God who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ."
ROOTS, GROWTH, AND PURPOSE
Jesus has triumphed over the enemy; our destiny is life, not death; and,
not fearing death, we need no longer be slaves to that fear. If all of this
is true, how should we live? The apostle tells us in the closing verse,
giving us three exhortations in the process: "Therefore, my beloved
brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,
knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord."
First, "be steadfast, immovable." Paul is talking about being
firmly rooted. In the book of James, we read of those who are forever being
blown about by every doctrine that comes down. They are always open to every
new idea on how to live; whatever guru comes along finds in them a ready
audience. They are always moving from one thing to another and never finding
what is truly satisfying. But Christians have at last a place where they
can stand, a steadfast, immovable place. They know who they are, what they
are about, why they are here, and where they are going. Thus they can stand
Secondly, says Paul, we should be "always abounding in the work of
the Lord." We should not only be rooted, but be growing, too. There
is no plateau which we can reach and then stop. We need not fear that aging
will bring about an end to our usefulness. Even the physically restricted
can "abound" in the work of prayer and as counselors to the young.
And thirdly, knowing that opportunities for ministry abound, we should be
aware that "our toil is not in vain in the Lord." Our service
is eternally valued by the Lord and creates in us character we will take
ASSURED OR ASHAMED
Last week, the mailman delivered two magazines to our home. One was the
Christian Service Brigade Leaders Magazine, which featured the Brigade Post
from Peninsula Bible Church, and it included a photograph of my eight year-old
son and me. To my son's delight, this was not a make-believe, but a real
magazine which the mailman himself delivered. The other magazine was Sports
Illustrated, with a photograph of the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson on the
cover. As these two magazines lay on my desk, I thought about the ministry
of Boys Brigade and Pioneer Girls in this church, of the long years of service
by Roy and Maxine Bradford in this work. I thought about the boys and girls
who have come to know Jesus through this ministry, about the boys and girls
who have been discipled and taught. This is not a high-profile group, but
those who serve there know and love a Savior who has disarmed sin and death.
Therefore it is not vain but purposeful to be in his service-"steadfast,
immovable, abounding in the work of the Lord."
Then I looked at Ben Johnson's photograph on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
He looks so impressive, his powerful muscles and veins almost bursting through
his skin. He is the fastest man in the world, but he is a cheat. He accomplished
his records by taking steroids, which may yet kill him. He sold his body
for an Olympic gold medal and for the wealth and fame that accrue to that.
He sought glory in this life, but lost everything, even his good name, in
This is a profound parable of what the apostle is saying here in this section.
"Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God." It will not
work. Our bodies will deteriorate and die. They cannot win for us anything
that we can hold on to. There are no exceptions, no beating the system.
We can live lives of Christian service in anticipation of resurrection or
we can live lives of lies and failure.
"Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God," says Paul.
But in a moment, "in the twinkling of an eye," everything will
change and Christ will return. He will raise the dead and we will be clothed
in immortality and imperishability. Therefore, because this drama will be
staged before the watching universe one day, we are faced with an opportunity
today. We can be "steadfast, immovable," not blown about the place,
"abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your work is not in
vain in the Lord," aware that what we are doing in his service is valuable.
The English writer Malcolm Muggeridge was standing by his father's grave
once, beside which was his own future grave. As he mused about death, here
are the words he wrote on this occasion; may they serve to encourage us:
Death is a beginning, not an end. The darkness falls, and the
sky is a distant glow, the lights of St. Augustine's City of God. Looking
towards them, I say over to myself John Donne's splendid words, 'Death,
thou shalt die.' In the graveyard the dust settles. In the City of God,
Catalog No. 4081
October 2, 1988
Copyright © 1988 Discovery
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