Alexa – what is the meaning of life? Eleanor Roosevelt says, "The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience." Interesting! How would you answer that question? What is the meaning of life? What is its purpose? We’ve heard one answer. Here’s another possible one: 'All living things have two purposes. First to survive. And second to pass life onto the next generation – to have babies. I think there is nothing beyond death for us as individual people.'
But our Lord, Jesus Christ – who died for our sins, was buried and was then raised on the third day – makes it clear that death is not the end. And that fact means life has both meaning and purpose.
I know that many think that heaven is a fairy tale told to help those are scared of the darkness beyond. Or a picture full of ghostly spirits floating or bouncing around on clouds, playing harps and singing hymns.
But that is not the Christian faith. In the Apostles Creed we say, "I believe in … the resurrection of the body and life everlasting." And we’ve been learning all about that these past few weeks as we have worked our way through 1 Corinthians chapter 15. Those who have received and believed the message that Jesus was raised from the dead have a confident hope that we will live forever with God when we die. That’s what ‘life everlasting’ means. But we will still have bodies – it’s not just the resurrection of our souls. New, physical, resurrection bodies in a new, physical recreated world that is no longer full of sin, or death or disease. It’s going to be incredible!
Listen to how Paul put that earlier in the letter: "…no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him." Can you imagine something you've never seen? Can you imagine what snow is like if you’ve only lived in a desert? Not fully, but the final verses of 1 Corinthians chapter 15 show us two incredible things about the resurrection of the body.
1. In An Instant We'll Be Changed
I don’t think I need to say too much about what our bodies are like now do I? We are created by God and so are incredible. Did you know that if they were laid end to end, all of the blood vessels in your body would be long enough to go right the way round the Earth four times! Our bodies are amazing. But we also know that we are weak and fragile – we sin and hurt ourselves and others, we grow old and we get sick. We are like dust. We are perishable (we don’t last) and we are mortal (we die). And that means we don’t fit into a God’s Kingdom which is pure and perfect and eternal. Sinful, perishable, mortal bodies cannot be a part of it.
One of our favourite books as a family is The Garden, the Curtain and the Cross by Carl Laferton. And that explains this problem in a really helpful way: God’s Kingdom, it says, is "…wonderful. There is nothing bad ever and there is no one sad, ever and best of all God is there. It is wonderful to live with him". But "because of your sin – you can’t come in."
The wonderful news is that a day is coming when our perishable, mortal bodies will be changed. In an instant. And then we will be like Jesus. And we'll be with him forever. Look at verse 50 to 54:
"I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable 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 body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality"
Paul has already used the analogy of a seed that is buried and then transforms into a plant to help us understand what happens to us when we die. Our bodies will be changed – not replaced. The bodies we have now will be made perfect – this body will changed beyond my wildest dreams. God isn’t creating something new out of nothing, he is re-creating something new out of the old. We see that in the language of "putting on". "For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality."
It’s a bit like the coronation of a prince. When he becomes King he still has the same body, but now – wearing new robes – he is a new man. In the same way – we will be the same – and yet different. Those already dead and any who are here when Jesus comes to bring this world to an end – all of us will be changed in the same way.
That change will Instant. It will happen "in a moment" – a split second. In the blink of an eye. Swift, unmissable. God’s chosen moment is now here, his work announced to the whole of creation with a trumpet blast. Our experience as Christians now is that growing as a Christian – become more like Jesus – is a slow, halting journey that lasts a lifetime. But in that final moment change will happen instantly.
Notice that this is God’s work. We are not able to change ourselves in this way – for us, it is impossible. "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God." But we do not change ourselves – we shall all be changed by God. There is no reason to doubt that the one who created a world from nothing, who turned water into wine and who raised Jesus from the dead can, in an instant, change us.
2. Death Has Been Swallowed Up In Victory
Verses 54 to 57:
"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?'
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."
We don’t like to think about it, but unless Jesus returns, we are all going to die. That’s one of the things this coronavirus has brought home to us. None of us knows how long we have left. The culture around us deals with the fear of death by either joking about it, or trying to ignore the reality of death. Many are fearful. Which is not surprising, because death is awful.
It is entirely unnatural. We weren’t made to die. Death only came into the world because of our sin. And death is awful. That’s why Jesus mourned over Lazarus' death and why being sad when someone dies is an entirely right reaction. But this passage gives believers solid hope and comfort in the face of death.
As I was preparing this talk, I heard of a conversation a pastor had with a young woman in his church, called Stephanie. Her eighteen-year-old sister had been killed in a car accident. All the members of her family were saying things like 'Lisa is so much happier now in heaven' or 'God must have wanted her to be with him' or 'I just know that Lisa is watching us now and telling us not to be sad.' Stephanie found herself getting angry when she heard that. It seemed to deny both the reality of Lisa’s death and its tragedy. Yet Stephanie felt guilty, because as a Christian she thought those are the things Christians ought to believe. So it came as a relief for her to discover that Paul speaks of death as a destructive "enemy" but yet also an enemy that will be conquered at the end of this age. She mourned because death had separated her from the one she loved. But she also had hope that she would hold Lisa in her arms again, in the resurrection.
It’s not always easy to know how to support someone in the grief. I often worry that by saying the wrong thing I will make things worse. But for what it’s worth – just being there and not ignoring them goes a long way. Talk about the person who has died and give time and space for people to be sad.
But the good news is that Jesus has dealt with our sin by his death on the cross. And he rose again, showing he defeated death. We need have nothing to fear from death.
The story goes that a boy and his father were travelling in a car when a bee flew through the open window. The boy was so allergic to bee stings that both he and his father knew that his life was in danger. As the boy frantically jumped around and tried to avoid the agitated bee, the father calmly reached out and grabbed the bee. When he opened his hand, the bee began to fly again, terrorising the boy once more. The father then said, 'look son, and he showed him the stinger in his hand. His stinger is gone, he can’t hurt you any longer.' As a bee loses its stinger when it stings, so death has lost its sting.
"Death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered; And we shall reign with Him, For He lives: Christ is risen from the dead!"
Knowing what our bodies will be resurrected shows us what life everlasting will be like. The world will be transformed, not abandoned. It is not another world, but this world that, like us, will be more truly itself than we have even known. A world where death is no more – a world – as it says in verse 54 – where death has been swallowed up in victory.
That phrase is a quote from Isaiah 25:6-9.
"On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death for ever;
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.
It will be said on that day,
'Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the LORD; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.'"
That is what God has prepared for those who love him. So every time you experience something that is good – remember this is just a small glimpse of what that will be like when he has swallowed up death forever. Think as you experience something that is horrendous – remember that one day this will be no more. Death will be destroyed.
To see death as an occasion for victorious rejoicing may strike some of us as inappropriate or insensitive in the face of grief. But in the midst of our very real and appropriate grief, we can know that death does not have the final word. In an instant we will be changed and death has been swallowed up in victory. And in response we are to "give thanks to God, who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (v.57)
As we end just a word or two more on the difference this makes to our lives now. Paul could have ended this chapter with something like this: 'Therefore let us wait with patience as we look to the future with hope, confidence and joy anticipating these great final events.' But for Paul, the resurrection and all that it means for the future, rightly understood, empowers believers to serve the risen Lord in the present and brings comfort to Christians mourning loss of loved ones, or struggle with sin or facing intense suffering. Believers in Jesus as Lord were not part of a movement quietly awaiting its end. The gospel of the resurrection was not an escape mechanism from this life that left people passively anticipating the next.
"Hope is hearing the music of the future,
Faith is dancing to that music today."
And so he ends with these words:
"Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain."
1) We are to be "steadfast, immovable". That takes us back to his instruction in verse 2 of this chapter to "hold fast to the word I preached to you". They are to believe Jesus died, and rose again and keep on believing it! Even surrounded by people who don’t share this hope. Stand Firm.
2) We are to be "always abounding in the work of the Lord". Our lives are not without purpose – and as we get involved in what God is doing now it will matter for all of eternity. Life is not just about survival or getting as many experiences as we can. It is not just about eating and drinking for tomorrow we die as we say in verse 32. No, we are to give ourselves joyfully to the work of the Lord in this present world. That means living with Jesus as king – trusting him, obeying him. It also means sharing his gospel message as a priority. No sacrifice for Jesus and his gospel will be too great. It will mean holding lightly to the things of this world, because we know what is to come.
"Hope is hearing the music of the future,
Faith is dancing to that music today."