A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on April 10, 2022.

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, 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. 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 (1 Cor. 15:50–58).[1]

Within creation, human beings really are quite remarkable. We are, as a species, not only created by God but created in his image. Of nothing else in all of creation did God say, “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26). Of nothing else animate or inanimate could it be said, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). We are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14).

Not only are we created in God’s image, but we have also been given “dominion” or “rule” (Gen. 1:26 NET) as vice regents over our Creator’s world. Like a bountiful garden, we are charged to “care for” and “maintain” creation on our Creator’s behalf (Gen. 2:15 NET) for his glory and as good ancestors of those who follow. Not concerned merely with ourselves, we are to be “fruitful and multiply,” filling the earth with other image-bearing progeny.

If all of this sounds a bit idyllic, it’s because we know the fallen reality of our obedience to the creation ordinances. When Adam fell in sin, every child after him inherited his seed, perpetuating the genetic line of sinners fallen from grace. It is true that we are all made in the image of God, although we have successfully distorted such glory sometimes seemingly beyond recognition. We are indeed given dominion over creation, but we have selfishly retranslated dominion as domination, not for God’s glory but our own. Rather than caring for and maintaining creation, we have manipulated it for our own selfish preservation with no regard for those who follow. We have been fruitful but only as it fits our pleasure. At is suits us, we have multiplied, or if inconvenient we have aborted, considering life at our disposal.

Yet despite our rebellion against God, he has chosen not to annihilate us but to allow us to continue to live and enjoy his creation, sustained by his common grace. We are, every one, fallen but continuing image-bearers of God. We continue as vice regents over this earthly kingdom. And against all odds, we continue to perpetuate our species.

But there will be an end one day, when life as we know it will cease, a day when we will be judged by our Creator, a day when the heavenly kingdom will reign on earth. And on that day, the inferiority of our mortality will be revealed. Our suit of sin will be proven perishable, unfit for eternity. It will be clear to every man, woman, and child: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the             imperishable” (15:50).

Victorious Inheritance

On that day, the human experiment of self-preservation by self-righteousness will be proven false, a verified vanity, chasing after the wind (Eccl. 1:14). Cheers of human superiority will be silenced by the world-circumferencing blast of a heavenly trumpet, heard not secretly by few but publicly by all on every square inch of the earth. And when that solitary blast rings out, it will be heard with distinction. Some will hear it with dread, like an ominous dirge of defeat. Others will hear it with joy, like a call to come home…forever.

As Christians, we live in the here and now, of course, but we live as sojourners, even exiles, looking toward our heavenly home. It is true that the kingdom of God reigns in the heart of every believer, but Paul’s reference here is to a specific place, where we are going. Prior to our Lord’s return, all who die in Christ, or “sleep” as Paul puts it, are spiritually present with the Lord, for to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). But here Paul is describing something else yet to come, not an intermediate state after death but a resurrected life, one for which we must all be changed.

In Revelation, John says that in his vision,

[he] saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first earth had passed away, and the sea     was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Rev. 21:1-4).

The former things that John describes characterize this mortal life we know, things not to be carried into eternity, including our mortal bodies. So, change must occur, a transformation of the perishable to the imperishable.

Victorious Transformation

The heavenly trumpet serves as an announcement of the kingdom of God, the promised inheritance of all who trust in Christ. But it is not an inheritance to be received apart from transformation. All who are made in the image of God, justified as righteous by faith, and adopted as children of God must be conformed to the image of God’s Son, transformed from dust to glory. The flesh and blood of this life cannot inherit the kingdom of God in the next. By virtue of our fallen nature, our flesh and blood, the suit of our soul, is perishable, and the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable: The sinful and corrupt must become redeemed and incorruptible.

How this will happen was a mystery but now is revealed: “the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (15:52). Since Paul did not know the timing of Christ’s return, by “we” he means every Christian alive at the time of Christ’s return. But others, such as all the saints before us, “sleep” awaiting the resurrection to come. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul explains,

since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. …For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thess. 4:14,16).

Of course, the problem is the bodies of those “who have fallen asleep,” meaning those who died and continued with Christ in heaven prior to his return; they are to be reunited with their bodies, a big problem for bodies long since returned to the dust of the earth.

Thankfully, Paul helps us understand this transformation, explaining, “this perishable body must put on immortality” (15:53). This transformation is a reality for the living and the dead. Whether scattered dust or in the prime of life, our bodies are not fit for eternity; as is, they are destined for duration. Time is not on the side of the mortal. A change must occur, and so it will. From perishable to imperishable and mortal to immortal, our glorified bodies will be given for a world without end.

As extraordinary as this is to imagine in the future, there is deep truth that it teaches today. Death is defeat if there is no life after death. Consider the cross of Christ, upon which a beautiful life was crucified, ending the greatest earthly ministry the world has ever known. In time and space, it felt like defeat. But it wasn’t. Because “God raised [our Lord Jesus Christ] up, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24 NIV), likewise the death of our mortal bodies is not the last word on our lives.

The fact that Jesus resurrected from the dead proves and secures that our resurrection awaits us unto glory: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first born among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:29-30). Our perfect conformation to Christ our brother is sure, for “when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). And this reality gives us confidence in the face of death. We do not fear mortal death.

Yes, death is the enemy of every child of Adam, the result (or “sting”) of sin, proof positive we are all lawbreakers. But “Death is swallowed up in victory,” the victory of Christ’s life over death, the victory of our life in his through faith. While there is certainly a sobriety to mortal death, those predestined to immortality can say not crassly but confidently, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? (15:55).

Victorious Living

In the sixth chapter of Romans, Paul writes, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:9). Christ’s victory over death and sin certainly secured our salvation, and ceased death’s reign (2 Tim. 1:10), and satisfied the law’s claims (Gal. 3:13), replacing it with grace (Rom. 5:20) in which we live as “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” The reality of the reign of grace in us leads us not to boasting but thanksgiving “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:57).

The thanks that we give is of course for the promise of what is to come but also for the victory we enjoy today.As Leon Morris says, “The Christian life is characteristically a life of victory.”[2]And this victorious life has practical implications: We are to be “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord [our] labor is not in vain” (15:58).

In an age where Christians are characterized more fickle than firm, we need this admonition more than ever. The reality of the resurrection is a firm foundation rooted in the sovereign grace of God. The winds of cultural change don’t sway the Christian who stands upon it. But such a firm foundation must never lead us to retreat to our homestead but to labor as sojourners, looking toward our heavenly home.

We who are momentarily mortal serve as imperfect yet redeemed instruments in our Redeemer’s hands, reaching outward as those being conformed to the image of God’s son in love to all who are made in God’s image. How lovely are the hands of those who serve for Christ’s sake! “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom. 10:15). And as the hands and feet of Christ, we abound in good works, knowing that we labor not in vain.

To encourage this, we must develop and encourage an eternity-focused perspective, preparation and perseverance. The resurrection gives us a daily perspective of victory. As Paul explains to the Colossians, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4). Nothing robs us of a sense of victory like worldly-mindedness. Nothing lifts us to the peak of triumph like heavenly-mindedness. Such a perspective does not lead to a preoccupation with the worthless but of the worthy.

The resurrection also prepares us for daily victory over sin. As John writes, “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:16-17). The vestiges of the Fall are most apparent in us when we succumb to temptation, but eternity shines brightest for those who obey.

And, the resurrection enables us to persevere amidst daily trials, tribulations, and temptations. As John asks rhetorically, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5). We do not persevere amidst the maelstrom of life alone but by God’s grace through faith in the one who said, “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39). For, on the day of our Lord’s “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem, he knew the praise would change to jeers as the agony of the cross awaited, as did the glory of his resurrection. As so he endured the cross for the joy that awaited him, and the life that is his is ours too.

The victorious Christian life then is one of perspective, preparation, and perseverance, “always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord [our] labor is not in vain” (15:58). Ask yourself, how could our work be in vain knowing that we are not yet what we will be? How could our work be in vain knowing that our inheritance is not confined to the temporal vaults of this present darkness but is the very kingdom of God? For, a life lived unto the Lord is never in vain but a life of triumph, because God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1985), 244.

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