The Sting of Death and our Hope in Christ

A sixth century mosaic in the church of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy depicting the women arriving at the empty tomb and receiving a message from the angel. Photo by Flickr user Lawrence OP

If you went to church yesterday, Easter Sunday, it is quite likely that you heard a sermon that referenced 1 Corinthians chapter 15 – unless, of course, your pastor is one of those who doesn’t break from textual order for hell or high water. This is a wonderful passage of scripture, which not only establishes the truth and doctrinal centrality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also covers many of its practical implications in the life of the believer. Most people tend to focus on the first portion of the chapter, but Paul also has some great things to say at the end.

But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’”

1 Corinthians 15:54-55

What a beautiful picture this is of death being utterly defeated and the curse that lies upon humanity being broken! Those who belong to Christ no longer have to fear death, for it is not the end.

Yet, there is more to what is being said here than meets the eye. You may have noticed that Paul is actually quoting from the Old Testament. The phrase he is referencing appears in the book of Hosea. When you see it in context, you will realize that it is anything but cheery.

The prophetic writings of Hosea present us with one of the most searing indictments of God’s people in scripture. Near the beginning of the book, the Lord speaks of Israel as an unfaithful wife.

Contend with your mother, contend,

For she is not my wife, and I am not her husband;

And let her put away her harlotry from her face

And her adultery from between her breasts,

Or I will strip her naked

And expose her on the day when she was born.

I will also make her like a wilderness,

Make her like desert land

And slay her with thirst.

Hosea 2:2-3

Yikes! That is not the kind of thing you want to hear from God. Moving on to chapter 13, the Lord speaks of the idolatry of the nation of Israel, then reminds them how He brought them out of Egypt and cared for them in the wilderness. He says, “It is your destruction, O Israel, / That you are against Me, against your help.” (v. 9) He then adds the following.

The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up;

His sin is stored up.

The pains of childbirth come upon him;

He is not a wise son,

For it is not the time that he should delay at the opening of the womb.

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?

Shall I redeem them from death?

O Death, where are your thorns?

O Sheol, where is your sting?

Compassion will be hidden from My sight.

Hosea 13:12-14

That last part is the closest thing we have to Paul’s phrase, “O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” As you can see, it was not a hopeful phrase when God used it in the book of Hosea. He refers to the fact that Israel desires to be saved from the power of Sheol (the grave or underworld), and He somewhat sarcastically uses the words, “O Death, where are your thorns? O Sheol, where is your sting?” (v. 14) This was either meant to mimic Israel’s desire to avoid death, or it represents God actively calling upon death and Sheol to apply their thorns and sting. Either way, the Lord concludes that He will not spare the people from the destruction their sins have earned. “Compassion will be hidden from My sight.” (v. 14) He then goes on to say,

Though he flourishes among the reeds,

An east wind will come,

The wind of the Lord coming up from the wilderness;

And his fountain will become dry

And his spring will be dried up;

It will plunder his treasury of every precious article.

Samaria will be held guilty,

For she has rebelled against her God.

They will fall by the sword,

Their little ones will be dashed to pieces,

And their pregnant women will be ripped open.

Hosea 13:15-16

These are harsh words, but that is the reality of sin. Now, we must note that at the time this book was written, Samaria did not have the same connotation that it carried in the time of Christ, when it referred to a region populated by the descendants of both Jews and Gentiles. In Hosea’s era, Samaria was the name of the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel. Therefore, God is saying that the sins of Israel have gone on so long and they have been so unrepentant that He is about to destroy them. How terrible it is to read that, “Their little ones will be dashed to pieces, / And their pregnant women will be ripped open”! (v. 16) Death is not being swallowed up here. Rather, it is swallowing up Israel.

The “Garden Tomb” in Jerusalem was most likely not Christ’s resting place for one weekend, but it is representative of tombs of that period. Photo by Wikipedia user Djampa

So why does Paul use this phrase in 1 Corinthians 15? Was he unaware of the original context? Hardly! The Apostle Paul was trained by some of the greatest Jewish religious leaders of the day. He knew the Old Testament far better than you or I. Therefore, he was also aware of what comes after that terrible passage in Hosea: the promise of restoration.

I will heal their apostasy,

I will love them freely,

For My anger has turned away from them.

I will be like the dew to Israel;

He will blossom like the lily,

And he will take root like the cedars of Lebanon.

Hosea 14:4-5

This is a prophecy regarding a future time when the nation of Israel will be restored. Now, it is difficult to say what exactly is meant here: the restoration of some Jews from the Exile (notably not including the northern kingdom of Israel), a future era in which all Israel will be restored either politically or spiritually (more likely the latter), or if indeed the author has in mind the entirely of the people of God (whether Jews or Gentiles) being spiritually restored through the work of Jesus Christ. Whatever was meant in the original context, it is clear that all of those things are only possible in light of divine forgiveness, and that is only possible because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

If you look just before and after Paul’s quote in 1 Corinthians 15:55, you see references to all of salvation history. He makes a comparison between the disobedience of Adam and the obedience of Christ (v. 22) and concludes, “So also it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living soul.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (v. 45) He then tell us, “Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” (v. 50) Here we see how necessary the work of Christ was in order to free us from the curse of death and bring us back to life spiritually.

For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this 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 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.

1 Corinthians 15:53-57

The people of Israel knew what it meant to feel the sting of death, for they were under the law, which was for them the power of sin. Adam’s sin had caused all his descendants to fall under the curse of death, but the Mosaic Law to which Israel was bound was another kind of death. When they failed to keep it, they lost their nation and their communion with God. They felt that sting of death time and again, and there was no one to free them from the power of the grave…until Jesus Christ.

The work of Christ is what takes us from the hopelessness of Hosea chapter 14 to the hopefulness of Hosea chapter 15. Paul tells us that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17) Yes, if Christ has not been raised, we are still subject to the curse of death. “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.” (v. 20) Thus, Paul can proclaim that, “The last enemy that will be abolished is death.” (v. 26) The curse of the law and the power of death have been broken, and now we can say in all sincerity, “O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” (v. 55)

Paul did not misunderstand Hosea. Rather, he showed how a former prophecy of doom was now a prophecy of hope for believers: the promise of a future resurrection. Thank God for that!