“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
Death is an ancient concept. It is something we all have to go through, it is the wages of sin [Rom 6:23]. We all have to die once [Heb 9:27], and we know that we have to die [Ecc 9:5]. It is our final enemy, last to be destroyed [1 Cor 15:26]. Death is also in the hands of God – The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up [1 Sam 2:6]. We all know death. It is part and parcel of life that we have to deal with death. Death of our friends, our families, and eventually, coming face to face with our own deaths. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks at length about resurrection, and if anything – the one pre-requisite of resurrection is death. Ending the chapter, Paul declares the victory in death that Christ has established for us. In today’s study, we will examine the Christian concept of Death, and how we have been taught to see this ancient concept.
Where, O death, is your sting? – Should death, sting? Should death not hurt? It probably will, unless you or your heart is made out of rock. When Death bares its fangs, we as mortals are powerless against it. Death can be instant and painless when it comes, but to the people around, death surely will sting? Even if a random stranger passed away two streets away from you, hearing about it would probably sting – in lesser fashion – but indeed, death have always had a sting to it. The fear of death, the uncertainty over how we die, when we die, where will we go after our deaths – these will add to the sting. The unwillingness to leave behind the things we loved, the ones we loved, the things we had; the pain of causing them pain; the helplessness and at times, hopelessness in death – oh yes, surely, death has a sting, no? It is powerful, ferocious beyond our means. We fear death. Christian or not, when it comes to dying, we’re hesitant. Because once we die, we die. No restart. No try again. No reload from save point.
Where, O death, is your victory? – At the end of life, is death, isn’t it? It’s a universal statement that all nations, all tribes, all tongues, all colours – everybody understands, because it stands true for everybody. Throughout human history, there has not been a single person who has fought death and won. If death is a battle, then all of us will lose this battle. Death always wins. Oh, of course we know Enoch – By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” [Heb 11:5] – and Elijah even better, taken up in a whirlwind [2 Kings 2:11]. The general idea is that they did not have to experience death, but I would think that they did not have to fight death – they were elevated before they had to face that battle. Oh, we know about Lazarus, that famous man whom Jesus raised from the dead. He won against death, did he not? But the thing is, he still died, eventually. He still died. When he was revived, he wasn’t given immortality along with his new life, and he doesn’t still live today to retell the tale again and again. No, even in all these unique cases, Death won the battle.
So why did Paul say this in 1 Corinthians 15? Well, he didn’t exactly say it, he quoted it from the book of Hosea – “I will deliver this people from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction? [Hosea 13:14]. Hosea was a minor prophet, and those were Messianic prophecies that he made. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul mocks death, not because he has won over it, and certainly not because death doesn’t have a sting to it, but because Christ has overcome it. Paul answers his own question, as quoted from the prophets, in the next verse: The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law [1 Cor 15:56]. The sting of death – the fears, the uncertainties, the pain, the hurts – they all originate from sin. Basically, what he is saying is probably what he has said in simpler terms before – for the wages of sin is death [Rom 6:23] – Sin is the cause of death. And, while the law of God forbids sin and does not encourage sin, if there is no law, there is no sin. Sin is only made known by the existence of law. Because the law is strict, it makes sin more heinous and detestable, and the strength of sin is drawn out through the law due to the corruption of men. But Paul doesn’t end there – he brings us back to Christ, who has overcome death. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ [1 Cor 15:57]. Jesus, the only one who has fought against Death and won an eternal victory, bearing for us the curse that the law should have brought us [Gal 3:13].
Because Jesus Christ has won against Death, when we believe in his name, we will win against death, too – not physically, unfortunately, but spiritual so. Our bodies may die, but our souls will be home with the Lord [2 Cor 5:8]. Death can claim our physical bodies, but our spiritual souls will never be lost to it. What then, is that victory? What then, is that sting, or power to inflict pain? Paul mocks it, rightly so. It’s like invading a country, fighting a war, winning it – but losing your homeland and all your soldiers in that process. It’s a victory in name, but has no eternal value. It is a temporal victory, that has no value in the spiritual realm. It snarls at us, threatening to bite, but in fact, it has no fangs.
Death has no victory. Death has no sting. Its sting was neutralised by the blood of Christ. Its victory has been reclaimed by Christ.
In recent days death – and the humanly right and authority to decide one’s own death – has been a hot topic. Euthanasia, or medically-assisted suicide, has long been a cruel question that contemporary Christians have to face. It is a cruel question, indeed. If only we can learn how to mock death – not the person who is dying, oh no – but death indeed, as Paul does. If only we can see the victory that Christ has over death. If only we can see beyond the temporal and look at the eternal, the spiritual. Then perhaps on our own deathbeds, as we’re losing the physical wars to the sting of death, perhaps then, we will be able to say, Death has been swallowed up in victory [1 Cor 15:54]. Perhaps when our loved ones pass away, and despite the pain that we surely will feel, we can truly rejoice and declare Romans 14:8 – If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord – and truly be comforted.
I am 24. I am not, physically, anywhere near death yet (barring an accident). I have not been through many deaths. But surely, the time and the season will come. And I just pray, for myself and for you, then when the season comes, we will truly be able to look in the face of death and mock, O death! Where is your sting? O death! Where is your victory?