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?
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.
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.