Exposition of 1 Corinthians 15:53-58 Different views about death

1 Corinthians 15:53-58

53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 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 and sisters, 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.

Greco-Roman culture inherited the views of Plato (429-327 B.C.) and Socrates (469-399 B.C.) about the body and death. Anthony Thiselton[1] reports that Plato and Socrates held an optimistic view about death as a release of the soul from the prison of the body, thus also revealing a negative view of the body. Socrates and other Greeks held that death was a harmless portal to a higher order of being. Shortly after tasting hemlock poison, Socrates probably changed his mind!

But that is not how Jesus viewed death. Oscar Cullman argues that the agony of Gethsemane as Jesus faces the prospect of death as a cruel God-forsakenness, as a sacrament of the wrath of God, should be kept before our eyes as a reminder of what deaths sting entails apart from the victory won by Christ.[2] We have already seen that the Bible reveals a positive view of the body as something created and endowed with life by God; at our resurrection we receive a transformed body, not some sort of bodiless existence.

The radical transformation of the body

Paul is trying to solve a particular problem in Roman Corinth and within other churches (1 Cor. 1:2) as well. So, while he writes about theology, he does so in a way that is intensely practical. Unfortunately, some English versions of the Bible make Pauls words more abstract, perhaps to make them feel more universally applicable. Here are two examples to compare:

(NIV) 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 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.

(HCSB) 53 Because this corruptible must be clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal must be clothed with immortality. 54 Now when this corruptible is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place: Death has been swallowed up in victory.

We have bolded the important words to demonstrate the difference between abstraction (NIV) something worded as a general principle to apply to everyone in general — and concrete application (HCSB) — something worded to point to each Corinthian to whom Paul is writing, and then applicable to Christians like us who are similarly situated. The Greek text of the New Testament uses four identical demonstrative pronouns (Greek touto meaning this) because Paul is drawing attention to his own physical body and that specific body possessed by each of the Corinthians. But, why should you care about such details?

Thiselton explains: [It] is entirely correct to underline the importance of the fourfold use of touto, this (twice in v. 53, twice in v. 54), as indicating clear continuity of identity (this body) even in the midst of radical transformation. The same identifiable, recognizable, and accountable identity is transfigured into a radically different form, but remains this created being in its wholeness.

During the resurrection of those in Christ, we do not become just anyone in general; we are still ourselves in a radically transformed condition, including our own changed bodies. This corruptible, mortal body becomes this incorruptible, immortal body. That is Pauls answer to the question of many as to whether we will recognize one another after the resurrection. We will!

We can further clarify these verses by saying that mortal means able to die, while immortal means incapable of dying. So, when Paul says, do not let sin reign in your mortal body (Rom. 6:12), he is speaking to a person who has trusted Christ but has not yet died. Similarly, Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit will also give life to your mortal bodies (Rom. 8:11). The Holy Spirit enables us believers, who are still able to die, to resist sin and to live for God.

When we who are in Christ receive our resurrection, death has finally been swallowed up in the victory Christ won through his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:54b). Death cannot be victorious over us because we share the resurrection and victory of Christ. Accordingly, Paul taunts personified death in verse 55.

Verse 56 covers a lot of territory with a few words. David Garland explains, in part: Death gains power over humans through sin because sin demands capital punishment as its moral penalty (Rom. 6:23). The law, not only unable to arrest sin, spurs it on and pronounces death as its sentence.[3]

Verse 57 declares the only solution to the deathsinlaw triad of tragedy: the victory won on our behalf by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In 1 Cor. 15:58, Paul concludes his argument about the resurrection by giving commands to the Christians in Roman Corinth. These commands rest upon the certainty of their future resurrection: You know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). Knowing this, they can give themselves fully to the work of the Lord. Because Jesus has won the victory and ensured their resurrection, they must stand firm while that victory takes its final form.

Copyright 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 1300.

[2] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1300, quoting O. Cullman.

[3] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 746.

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