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The Death of Death

Original Date: 
Sunday, March 31, 2013

1 Corinthians 15:54-58 Victory! The Death of Death

I am so happy to be able to speak to you today. This is a day of good news. A day of celebration. Today, all over the world, Christians are celebrating the one who died, who was buried, and was raised again. This is good news, indeed.

But Easter is not just a time for celebration. It also serves as an annual reminder of the harsh reality of death. This is a weekend when those of us who would prefer to ignore death, to live like it is not a factor, are reminded that it is out there. A reality. A never far away certainty for us all.

I ran across an article in Christianity Today that was first printed the spring after 9/11. It was called: “Easter in an Age of Terror” by M. Craig Barnes. Here’s how it begins:

People flood churches on Easter because they know they are going to hear good news. But Easter is also terrifying news. According to Mark's Gospel, early on a Sunday morning Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome made their way to a tomb to anoint the dead body of Jesus. Mark also tells us that these women had earlier watched the crucifixion of Jesus "from a distance" (Mark 15:40). When it was all over, they saw Joseph of Arimathea pull the dead body off the cross, wrap it in a linen cloth, lay it in a tomb hewn out of a rock, and then roll the stone over the door of the tomb. They watched it all from a distance.

That is our favorite perspective on death—we do all we can to keep our distance from it. We try to stay healthy, work out, watch what we eat, and we're careful. So careful. It's all a way of keeping death at bay. But occasionally it catches up to someone you love, and then you know, like these women, that you have to go and see death up close. (

Easter forces us to see death up close. It forces us away from our comfortable perspective—at a distance—to contemplate the harsh reality that death is coming for us all.

I vaguely remember my first encounter with death. At least, the first encounter I have any memories of. I was six. It was a high school girl named Linda. She went to our church. She used to babysit us.

It was a February night and she was riding the school activity bus from Alton to Hospers after a basketball game. It so happened that she lived right on the highway between Alton and Hospers and the bus went right past her house. She didn’t want her parents to have to come and pick her up, so she begged the bus driver just to stop and let her off. He did. An oncoming vehicle didn’t see the bus’s flashing lights—and didn’t expect a school bus to be making drop-offs at 10:00 at night—and didn’t stop.

It hit her as she crossed in front of the bus toward her driveway.

And I vaguely remember getting ready to go to that funeral, and talking with my dad about what was going on. I was hung up on the idea that she was asleep. I was sure that meant she was going to wake up again soon. My dad had to help me understand that wasn’t going to happen. Linda was dead. She was gone forever.

I didn’t learn the word that day, but it was my first encounter with the concept. The word is irreversible. It’s an ugly, terrible word. It’s the idea that what has happened is permanent. There is no changing it. Death is an irreversible condition. It is a sleep from which we do not awake.

But, of course, the good news of Easter is that we believe one man has reversed the irreversible. Today is the day that we declare that one man has slipped free of the grave and come back to tell us about it. Today we celebrate that Jesus has taken the victory away from death. And we believe that what God did once in a graveyard in Jerusalem he can and will repeat on a grand scale. For Linda. For us. For the world.

Easter is the hope and the conviction that the irreversible will be reversed.

The Battle Cry
The passage I am going to speak from this morning comes from 1 Corinthians 15. Specifically 1 Corinthians 15:55. It goes like this:

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

My father died of cancer about 3 years ago. I used this verse when I spoke at his funeral. This is a verse that has been on my mind a lot since then.

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

To me, this is like a Christian battle cry. An act of defiance in the face of our greatest enemy. The Texans had “Remember the Alamo!” The English shout “God save the queen!” And Christians can say: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

This verse is the reason we’ve spent the last 7 weeks in 1 Corinthians 15. It’s the inspiration behind our series title. As bad as death is, Jesus has taken the victory away from death. Jesus has robbed our enemy of its sting.

So what I’d like to do today is put this verse in its context—I’d like to read 1 Corinthians 15:54-58—and then I’d like to make a few observations. So, 1 Corinthians 15:54-58:

54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “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! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

I have 3 observations and 2 points of application.

The Enemy
First observation: Death is an enemy. Death is THE enemy.

Look at verse 56:

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

This verse says a lot about where death comes from. Paul writes that the sting of death is sin. That is, the reason death exists is because of sin.

You know the story. Adam and Eve in the Garden. Enjoying life at its fullest. But then the serpent comes with temptation, Adam and Eve sin, and death enters the picture.

Paul says that the power of sin is the law. His point is that death is no accident. Death is God’s just punishment of our sins. God had established the ground rules early. He told them not to eat the fruit or they would surely die. He is our creator and He has every reasonable expectation that we would obey Him. And death is the result of our failure to keep His law.

Sin. That’s our problem. I’ve heard sin defined as a universal deformity found at every point in every person. Theologian J.I. Packer says that sin is “a spirit of fighting God in order to play God.”

Our problem is that we don’t want to play by God’s rules. We are arrogant. Thinking that we can do a better job of running the universe than God Himself. And so we do things our own way.

And death is the result. Death is God’s limit on creatures who want to be God. Death is God’s way of limiting our arrogance. Funerals are always humbling. A reminder that we are not God.

If you go back to the Adam and Eve story you see that death immediately began to spread after their sin. The fall happens in Genesis 3 and already by chapter 4 you have the story of Cain murdering Abel. Then, Genesis 5 is the first of the Bible’s genealogies. One of those sections that says “so and so” begat “so and so.” But the predominate theme in Genesis 5 is the phrase “and then he died.”

Name after name, a listing of his sons, an accounting of his years, and then the simple, stark statement “and then he died.” And then he died. And then he died. 8 times in Genesis chapter 5. It has a certain monotonous repetition to it. And then he died. And then he died. And then died. And one day, it will be written: and you died.

We will all eventually die. Sin is a universal deformity found in all people. All have sinned, all fall short of the glory of God, and all die. We have all inherited sin. And we have all committed sins. And we all will die. No exceptions.

But, understand this: death is the enemy. It is not the way things are supposed to be. You and I, we were made for life. God’s design, way back at the beginning of creation, was for us to live. These bodies of ours, they were built for life. Death is an intrusion on that good design. Yes, God decrees death as the punishment of sin. Yes, it is necessary in a fallen world. But it is only because of sin that death exists in the world and it is not the way things are supposed to be.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably say it again: when I was on my way home after receiving word that my Dad had passed away, I saw a car with a bumper sticker that said “Cancer Sucks.” And that resonated with me. I stood up at his funeral and I quoted that bumper sticker. I took it a step further. I said “Death Sucks.” Death sucks. It is a part of our existence that does not belong. We were made for life. Death is only here because of sin. And so it is an enemy that must be defeated.

And I think God feels that way about death as well. 1 Corinthians 15:26-- a verse we looked at a couple of weeks ago—says:

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

So that’s my first observation: death is an enemy. Death is THE enemy. The biggest enemy any of us will ever face, the biggest issue that exists in our world, is death. Because of sin, we will all die—unless Jesus comes again in our lifetimes.

The Victory
Now, some of you may be wondering what’s going on. You may be thinking: “This is not what I anticipated. I thought he said—didn’t he say?—at the outset that this was a day of celebration. I came to church on Easter looking for good news. I came for a spiritual pick-me-up. So why all this going on about death and sin and judgment?”

Maybe you have a friend who invited you to church today and promised that it would be encouraging. But now, you find yourself more than a little surprised at the tone of this sermon. You came expecting something more cheerful than this, that’s for sure. “So why is this guy so preoccupied with death? Doesn’t he know it’s Easter?”

Well, here’s why. We have to understand what a problem death is for us to truly appreciate what Jesus has done. Which brings me to my second observation: Jesus has defeated death. Jesus has won the victory.

Verse 54, the final part:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

From the very beginning, God has known that death was an enemy that needed to be defeated. Go back to Genesis 3 again. When God confronted Adam and Eve in the garden, He also confronted the serpent. He predicted that someday, the seed of the woman would crush death’s head (Genesis 3:15).

And then, in the fullness of time, He sent His Son to earth—a virgin-born, story-telling, miracle-working itinerant preacher named Jesus. And Jesus did a lot of great things while He was here on earth. He proclaimed the Kingdom of God. He confronted religious fanatics and lawless sinners alike. He demonstrated incredible love and mercy and justice. But all of those things were secondary to Jesus’ primary mission. God sent Jesus to earth to take on death.

And so, eventually Jesus was arrested, tried, and convicted. They beat Him and mocked Him and spit on Him. They goose-stepped him out to a barren bump of rock where they nailed His arms and legs to a hunk of wood and hung Him up in the hot sun until the breath was strangled right out of Him. The vilest, redneckiest people imaginable came down out of the hills to heckle Him and rip the beard out of His face and watch Him bleed out and die.

And on that cross, Jesus wrestled with death. He fought and struggled with it until the breath of life was gone and the blood was poured out and his broken body was taken down and laid in a cold, dark tomb.

Jesus gave Himself up to the enemy death.

And just when it looked like death had won the ultimate victory—even as the hosts of hell were still popping champagne bottles and cheering the death of God’s Son—Jesus did the incredible: He walked out of His own grave!

The cross was death’s Trojan horse, the gift it seized that undid Him. Death thought the death of Jesus was the weapon that would secure its power forever, instead it turned out to be God’s weapon to destroy death.

Jesus took on death and He defeated it.

I love the image of death being swallowed in victory. To me it seems as though death has swallowed Jesus, only to have Jesus turn the tables and swallow it. This verse is a quote from Isaiah chapter 25 that talks about God “destroying the shroud that enfolds all peoples” and “wiping away the tears from all faces.”

Death is an enemy that has long terrorized humanity. But Jesus took on death and won.

Verse 55 again, our key verse:

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

Paul can’t contain his excitement. You can almost picture him, up on the balls of his feet, fist in the air, taunting death.

You know, we teach our kids to practice good sportsmanship. We tell them to be good losers and gracious winners. You should never rub it in the face of someone you have beaten in an athletic contest. But here is one time where trash-talking is okay. Death is one opponent you can lay down the smack to.

Paul gets right in Death’s face and says, “Take that Death! Where’s your power now? What have you got? Take your best shot. You’ve been defanged death. Your stinger has been plucked. You’ve lost death. You suck. And you are a loser!”

Death is an enemy. Your enemy. My enemy. Jesus’ enemy. But Jesus took death on, and He won.

The Promise
Which brings me to my third observation: You and I are promised a share in Jesus’ victory. If you put your faith in Jesus—if you trust Him as your Lord and Savior—then His victory over death can be yours as well.

That’s what verse 57 is getting at when it says:

But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus has defeated the enemy for us. When He wrestled with death, He was standing in our place. When He walked out of His grave, He was giving a promise of what was in store for you and for me.

Even though we may yet face earthly death, Jesus promises there is a resurrection just like His in store for us. That’s what verse 54 is getting at when it says the mortal will be clothed with immortality. For those who trust in Jesus a day of new, imperishable life is promised.

But you have to accept His offer. You have to admit that death is an enemy that you cannot defeat on your own. You have to own up to your sins and seek His forgiveness. You have to believe that He truly is the Son of God who was slain for the sins of the world

It’s an offer that is available right now. You can be assured of victory over death if you will humble your heart and bow your knee and ask Jesus to be the Savior and Lord of your life.

This Easter morning we’re doing something a little different. We’re not the kind of church that has altar calls. I’m not the kind of preacher who’ll ask you to come forward and accept Jesus, like Billy Graham or something. Not that there is anything wrong with those kind of preachers, it’s just not our style.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t think it is important to make a decision for Jesus. It doesn’t mean that you never have to decide. Because death is an enemy for all of us, and we have to decide if we want a share in Jesus’ victory or not.

And so, Easter seems like a good time to take stock of where we are at. We did this a few years ago on Easter. I call it an Easter survey.

When you came into worship this morning, you all should have received a card. I want you to take those out now. It asks for your name and a phone number. I want to ask all of you to fill that out. And then you’ll see four choices—A, B, C, and D. And I want you to look at those choices and decide where you are with Jesus. And I want you to be honest as you fill it out.

Maybe you already know Jesus and believe that He is resurrected. If so, praise God for that.

Maybe today, for the first time, you’ve seen the need for Jesus in your life. If so, then maybe you’re ready to begin a relationship with Jesus today. I pray that some of you will be ready to cross that line of faith today, and there are a lot of us ready to celebrate with you.

Or maybe you’re here today because you’re considering the claims of Jesus, but you’re not completely convinced yet. It takes courage to be honest about that. But I believe if you will honestly keep looking Jesus will reveal Himself to you.

And the last option, the D option, is one that I hope is not true of anybody; but if it is honestly where you are at, then I think that’s what you should mark. If you don’t think you’ll ever be convinced that Jesus rose from the dead, then be honest about it.

I think Easter Sunday is a good day for us all to take stock of where we are with Jesus. I’d like you all to fill out a card, and then just put it in the hymnal holders in front of you. We’ll collect them. And if you are one of those who have indicated that you are ready to begin a relationship with Jesus or that you want to consider Him further, someone will be in contact with you this week. We want to help you grow in your relationship with Jesus. We want you all to be able to make this your battle cry: “Where, O death, is your Victory?” “Where, O death, is your sting?”

Finally, I have two points of application. And I draw them from the final verse. 1 Corinthians 15:58:

58 Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

First, take courage. Let nothing move you. Take heart.

I came across a story about a famous preacher named Donald Grey Barnhouse. His wife died young leaving him with several small children to raise.

As he drove his children to his wife's funeral Barnhouse stopped at a traffic crossing. Ahead of them was a huge truck. The sun was at such an angle that it cast the truck's shadow across the snow-covered field beside it. Dr. Barnhouse pointed to the shadow and spoke to his children. "Look at the shadow of that truck on the field, children. If you had to be run over, would you rather be run over by the truck or by its shadow?"

The youngest child responded first, "The shadow. It couldn't hurt anybody."

"That's right," said Barnhouse, "And remember children, Jesus let the truck of death strike him, so that it could never destroy us. Mother lives with Jesus now--only the shadow of death passed over her." (Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, p. 189)

For those of us who belong to Jesus, death has been reduced to a shadow. We can face it with confidence. So take courage. Stand firm. You can be confident in life because you know that your greatest enemy is already defeated. The irreversible will be reversed.

Second, we can live for Him. Because we are promised resurrection bodies, we need to see that we are living our lives now as an investment in our future.
“Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
Why should you live like a Christian?

Why should you invest in the church? Give your time, your money, your children?

Why should you go out of your way to share the gospel with someone, or visit someone in the hospital, or say something kind to someone who is hurting?

Because it is work in the Lord and you know it is not in vain. You are going to live forever. You are going to be raised imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual. That's your eternity, you might as well get started on it now.