Where, O Death, is Your Victory?
There comes a time when we are all confronted by the reality of death. Perhaps we have to say farewell to a grandparent or parent, a brother or sister, a friend, or even to one of our own children. At such times, we understand from personal experience what Paul meant when he called death the “last enemy.” In a word, death is not normal or natural. Death is an enemy. When God created Adam and Even in Paradise, He intended for them to live in fellowship with Himself and with each other. Death had no place in a perfect creation which God Himself called good. It goes completely against the beauty and perfection of God’s creation for a person to be serving God, enjoying his family, listening to the singing of birds, smelling flowers, and then suddenly to be cut off from all these things. This is not how God intended his creation to be. Death truly is an enemy. It is an enemy that we feel very deeply. It is an enemy that really hurts us. When this enemy draws near and attacks our loved one, then our tears flow freely, our hearts feel like they are breaking, and the sense of loss and loneliness roll over us like the billows of a raging sea.
However, a Christian does not grieve as one who has no hope. The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:26: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” He is quoting here from Isaiah 25:8: “He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken.” This is powerful and comforting language: God will swallow up death, pulverizing it and crushing it so that it has no power anymore. God will swallow up death so that it cannot be an enemy which hurts us. He will wipe away every tear from our eyes so that our joy and hope may be in the Lord God forever.
Knowing that God has swallowed up death, Paul can look that terrible, unnatural enemy in the face and cry out: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Who has not heard these words of Paul and felt the rousing battle cry which challenges that miserable and hurtful enemy called death? But the question is this: is it really possible? Can the power and influence of death and the grave be overcome just like that? Certainly when we are present at the death bed of our loved one, or we go to the funeral and burial of our loved one, it does not readily appear that death has been swallowed up. It does not look as if its victory and sting are overcome. On the contrary, it does not look good or hopeful at all!
Paul explains the basis for saying that the victory and sting of death have been overcome in these words: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here Paul explains that the sting of death is sin. We are reminded here of what we said above: God did not create man as his image with the purpose of seeing him die. How then did death come about in God’s perfect and life-filled creation? Death came because of the fall into sin. The wages of sin is death. Because Adam and Eve sinned against God and incurred the justice and wrath of God, they and their offspring came under the penalty of death. Here is the hurt and the pain of death: knowing that we have rebelled against God and alienated ourselves from Him to the point that we have brought death on ourselves. To make this painful subject even more clear, we note that Paul calls the law “the power of sin.” We understand what Paul meant by this, particularly when we think of what he wrote in Romans 7: it is through the knowledge of the law that he learns what a sinner he is and how deserving of God’s wrath. The law convicts us of our sin and guilt. It shows us plainly how deserving we are of death and of being cut off from fellowship with God.
It is when we understand our sin and misery that we hear the wondrous comfort of the gospel: the good news of God’s gracious gift in his own Son Jesus Christ. Paul says: “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” God sent his own Son to be born of a woman, to take the sins of his people as the surety of the covenant, and to pay for our sins by bearing our curse, our shame, our God-forsakenness, our agony of hell, and finally our death as penalty for sin. Jesus Christ faced the enemy and felt the sting, crying out on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Since He did all this in full and perfect obedience to God, He was rewarded with a resurrection from the death and an ascension into heaven where He was crowned with all power and authority in heaven and on earth. The consequences of all of this are overwhelming, as Paul outlines in 1 Corinthians 15. Christ is the first fruits of all those who have fallen asleep. He has removed the sting of death by making full satisfaction for our sins. He is victorious over death and has swallowed it up so that our death is no longer a satisfaction for sin but an entrance into everlasting glory. We confess this in Lord’s Day 16 of our Heidelberg Catechism.
How important it is that we do not see this simply as some fine words which are meant to act as salve on grieving and aching hearts. This is the truth which sets us free from the crippling hurt of that which longs to separate us from our only comfort for body and soul, in life and death. Let us take an example. At the death of Lazarus, the Lord Jesus said to Martha in John 11:25, 26: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” We see here also that the basis of any hope in the face of death is the fact of Jesus Christ’s resurrection and life. Now what happens to the believer who dies? In a certain way it can be said that such a believer does not die but goes on living, only now with Jesus Christ in heaven. Death becomes a door which the resurrected and victorious Christ opens to let a believer leave this world which is no more than a constant death and enter with Christ into the glory of heaven. It is as Paul says, “Where, O death, is your victory?” Another example may be taken from Philippians 1:23 where Paul is discussing whether it is better to live or die: “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” How can Paul say this except for the fact that he rests with unwavering confidence on the knowledge of Christ’s death and resurrection? How can he say death is better unless he knows for sure that the sting and victory of death has been swallowed up by God? He knows that death will be the door to being with Christ in heaven. And as for his body which will return to the grave, this will be raised up in glory on the last day. We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us! Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!
We know from experience that it is not easy to see a loved one die. Our minds and hearts are flooded with so many thoughts and emotions: there was so much that I still wanted to say to him or her, so much to do, so much to share. But thanks be to God, there bursts through our tears the incredible and unsurpassable joy in Jesus Christ who is the resurrection and the life. Death cannot hurt us anymore. Christ has conquered death and now uses it to take us from here to be with Him in heaven. Thus a child of God can say, even in the face of death: there is nothing to worry about because the Lord is so good. He has swallowed up death and wipes away the tears from my eyes.