The Great Mystery

Mystery, Second Coming

A couple of years ago a  movie came out called Stranger than  Fiction. The movie was about an IRS auditor named Harold Crick who one day  began hearing a voice narrating his life. He seemed perplexed by the fact that  this female voice was both remarkably accurate and had a better vocabulary than  him. During the course of the movie, he discovered that the voice actually belonged  to an author writing a story in which he was the main character. Whatever she  said ended up happening to him. He later found out that in all of her stories,  the main character died at the end. He tracked her down and expressed to her  that he didn’t want to die. When she finished the manuscript, before she sent  it to the publisher (thus cementing his fate) she let him read the now finished  book. After reading the whole thing in one sitting, he returned to her to tell  her that it was perfect, and that now that he saw the whole picture, he  wouldn’t change a thing. The ending of the story was a mystery, but when it was  revealed, it was found to be perfect.

In our text this morning,  Paul says he tells us a mystery. Like someone engaged in a good mystery book,  we should eagerly follow the information given. Some things may surprise us and  others may confuse us, but in the end, we will, like Harold Crick, find the  conclusion quite satisfying.

For the last several weeks,  we’ve seen Paul talk about different aspects of the resurrection. We’ve seen  him emphasize the importance of believing in the resurrection and we’ve seen  him describe what the resurrection is going to be like for Christians. Now Paul  turns his attention to telling us a little more about the events surrounding  the resurrection and he concludes by telling us what the proper response is to  these facts.

What Will Happen?

Paul begins,

    50  I declare to you, brothers, that  flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom   of God, nor does the  perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a  mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a  flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will  sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For  the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with  immortality. (1 Corinthians 15:50–53, NIV)

You have probably heard  these words before. Perhaps when you heard them it sounded like double talk.  Paul’s primary point as he talks about the perishable and the imperishable is  that a real change will have to take place before we are fit for eternal life  in Heaven. We can’t go to Heaven in our current bodies; we will have to be  changed.

Verse 51 says we “will not  all sleep”. Paul uses sleep as a euphemism for death. He is saying not everyone  will physically die. Some will still be alive when Jesus returns . . . but even  they will have to be changed!

Because Paul used the term  “sleep” some people look at this passage as evidence for a doctrine known as “soul  sleep”. This doctrine states that since we will not receive our resurrection  bodies until Christ’s return, our souls, upon death go into kind of a  “sleeplike” state while we wait for Christ to return. I don’t think the rest of  scripture bears out this position. I explained last week that I believe we go  into the Lord’s presence, fellowship with Him and perhaps even see what is  happening on earth. I think that we are still very much “awake” after our death  here on earth.

Paul tells us,

…we  will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last  trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and  we will be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51b–52, NIV)

Many people have debated  what this means and exactly how the resurrection is going to take place. Like  people reading a good mystery, there are lots of theories as to how it will all  happen, but we won’t really know until the end is revealed. The truth is, I  don’t think it is incredibly important that we have it all figured out. So let’s  focus on what we know this passage does mean.

Paul says that when Christ  returns, our change will be instantaneous. The phrase “twinkling of an eye”  would be akin to saying that we will be changed in a split second. We don’t  know exactly what that will be like, but we know that God’s power will be  revealed by instantly changing all Christians, both those who have died and  those who are still living, at once.

Paul also says that there  will be a trumpet that will sound to signal the end of all things. I don’t know  whether there will be a literal trumpet call or whether this is describing a  loud sound or something else. What is clear is that when Christ comes, there  will be no question about it—we aren’t going to miss it.

Victory Over Death

In verses 53–57 Paul gets to  his conclusion. He says because of the Resurrection we no longer need to fear  death.

Paul explains that ever since  sin entered the world, death has essentially been the most powerful thing in  our lives. Death is an inescapable part of a life tainted by sin—it is more  powerful than any of us. Even today, as technologically advanced as we are, we  can’t stop death from taking whomever it wants. Paul’s point is that ever since  Jesus died and rose again, death is not the most powerful force in our lives,  Jesus is.

This whole line of reasoning  flows from Paul’s emphasis on the resurrection. Because Jesus conquered death  for himself, he is able to do it for us as well. So Paul begins to question  death, asking, where is your victory now? Show me what I should be afraid of!

Notice where Paul’s  confidence is though—it is not in himself, but rather in Christ’s ability to  conquer death once and for all. He explains in verse 56 that the only reason  death had power in the first place was because of sin, and the only reason  there is sin is because we have broken the law. God created the law, and he  knows its requirements. He sent Jesus to fulfill the demands of justice—which  is why death no longer holds power over us.

Paul reaches his conclusion  in verse 57 and it is a perfect example of the kind of attitude that we should  have:

    But  thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1  Corinthians 15:57, NIV)

The victory is not because  of anything that we have done—it is entirely due to God’s work on our behalf.  The proper response to the destruction of death is one of praise to God. We  must always keep that perspective.

How Then Shall We Live?

As Paul wraps up his  argument, he tells us how that should change the way we live. In other words,  he give us the “So What?” to this entire discussion of the Resurrection of  Jesus. He gives us two commands.

First, we are to stand firm and let nothing move us. In  the first century, being a Christian had the potential to be a very difficult  proposition. If you came from a Jewish family, it was not uncommon for your  family to disown you for becoming a Christian. For example, when a father was  asked about his child, he might respond that his child was dead or that he had  no child. At the same time, governments were not always tolerant of  Christianity. Believers could be imprisoned, beaten, kicked out of the country,  or even killed for their faith in Christ. It might have been tempting to  compromise on some of Christianity’s more unpopular doctrines.

Even with the great threats  that his audience was facing, Paul told them not to compromise, because they  ultimately had nothing to fear. He encouraged them to stand on the truths of  the faith rather than give in to the threats of the world. We look at the  challenges these believers faced, and we can hardly begin to imagine them. But  don’t think that just because we may not be disowned by our families or that we  probably won’t be killed for our faith that we are not tempted to compromise our  beliefs.

We compromise on our faith almost daily. It comes in  many forms. We compromise when we:

  • Condone behavior that God calls sin
  • Parrot the idea that “we each have to find our own path to God”
  • Water down the truth to make it more acceptable to others
  • Stand by as others misquote or seek to discredit the Bible
  • Engage in sinful behavior with our friends rather than taking a stand against it
  • Keep silent when presented with an opportunity to tell people about Christ

A.W. Tozer wrote,

We have developed in recent times a peace-loving,  soft-spoken, tame and harmless brand of Christian of whom the world has no fear  and for whom it has little respect. We are careful, for instance, never to  speak in public against any of the false cults lest we be thought intolerant.  We fear to talk against the destructive sins of modern civilization for fear  someone will brand us as bigoted and narrow….

There are all sorts of ways that  we may be tempted to compromise our beliefs. Paul reminds us that there is  never a valid reason to compromise what we know to be true. If we have our eyes  fixed on eternity, if we recognize what lies ahead for us and that God has done  it all on our behalf, then we should not fear what the world can do to us—for  Christ has already won the victory!

The second thing Paul tells  us to do is to always give ourselves  fully to the work of the Lord. Since we know what God has done for us,  since we know what he is preparing for us, we should serve Him gladly—and Paul  says, fully. An obvious question is what is “the work of the Lord”?

The answer is that the work  of the Lord should be everything we do in our lives as Christians. No matter  where you are at in your life, God has called you to serve him there. He has  also given every believer spiritual gifts that are to be used to bring Him  glory. So, we should commit to do everything we do as though we are doing it  for the Lord—because frankly, we are.

I think it’s interesting  that Paul tells us to give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord. It’s easy to completely miss that word, but it’s very  important. There is a distinct difference between giving ourselves fully to  God’s work and doing His work half-heartedly.

Think about an athlete on a  sports team. Everyone is expected to do certain work in order to be on the  team, but some do the bare minimum and others are devoted to making themselves  better. Which athlete is the coach going to be more pleased with? Of course it  is the one who devoted himself to the work. They may not necessarily be the  most talented person on the team, but their coach is proud because they have  given it their all. Their coach knows that they are playing at their maximum  potential—and that’s all he can ask for.

The same thing is true with  our spiritual lives. We sometimes do what we think we have to do to “get by”.  We have a tendency not to be devoted to Christ. We have a tendency to serve Him  only when it is convenient to us, or when we don’t have anything better to do.  Paul tells us that we should make the work of the Lord a priority in our lives. Take a moment and think about your own  life for a moment. Think about something that you are devoted to—whether it’s  your kids, a sports program, a hobby, your job, or something else. Now, ask  yourself, do I have that same kind of commitment to doing the work of the Lord?  If your answer isn’t yes, then you are probably not fully devoted to the work  of the Lord.

If that’s the case with you  (and if I’m honest, it’s sometimes the case with me), let me encourage you to  change your priorities and do more than just get by. Devote yourself fully to  serving our Lord in all aspects of your life—He demands excellence, and He  deserves our best.

Conclusion

The resurrection and the  transformation of the body is in many respects a great mystery to us. We can’t  fully understand it, but we can understand bits and pieces. I suppose I could  tell you how I think everything will play out in the end. There are many people  happy to do just that. However, to do so would be no different than someone trying  to guess the end of a good mystery. The fact is we won’t know how it all fits  together until we see how it all fits together. What we do know is this: when  life reaches its conclusion and Jesus comes back and we are transformed for  eternity, I am confident that we will all smile and say, “It is the perfect  ending.”

Jesus told his disciples  that no one knows the day or the hour of his return. That means it could be  today or it could be hundreds of years away. Your life may be demanded of you  this very day, or Jesus may return tomorrow. We don’t know how much more time  we have in this life. Since we don’t know when our lives are going to end, we  should live each day as though today is the day we will see Christ face to  face.

So, we should take Paul’s  advice and live confidently today. Don’t put off until tomorrow what needs to  be done today. Have you been compromising on the essentials of your faith?  Commit to stand firm starting today. Have you been giving less than your best  to God? Devote yourself fully to the work of the Lord and don’t look back.

Paul says that we can follow  these commands because we know that our labor isn’t in vain. If this world was  all there is, then it would seem pointless to try to serve God. But we know  this world is not all there is, so we should live our lives in the light of  eternity. We know that one day we will stand before the Lord and be judged for  the way we lived on this earth—so we need to live like that is the case.

Much of what we do in this  life is meaningless in the light of eternity. Much of the effort that we exert  is just like a dog chasing its tail. The accomplishments of this world are all  going to pass away. The work that we do for the Lord will last forever. The  people that we serve and the lives that are changed are changed for all of  eternity.

Paul tells us that when we  live our lives with our eyes fixed on what lies ahead we will live differently.  Our labor isn’t in vain, because if we have given everything to the work of the  Lord, He will be pleased with our efforts. He can do great things through  people who are fully devoted to him. We will be judged according to the effort  we’ve put in to following the orders of our Heavenly Coach. I know that my  greatest desire is to arrive in Heaven, see Jesus, and hear the words, “Well  done.” Let’s live our lives with that as our goal—it will literally change your  life, both in this world and the next.

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Scripture:

1 Corinthians 15:50-58