1 Corinthians 15:55-58
O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?…
I. THE AWFULNESS WHICH HANGS ROUND THE DYING HOUR. It is no mark of courage to speak lightly of dying. We may do it in bravado, or in wantonness; but no man who thinks can call it a trifling thing to die. He has been waiting for death all his life, and now it is come; and through. out all eternity that sensation can come but once.
1. Now what in general makes it a solemn thing to die?
(1) The instinctive cleaving of everything that lives to its own existence. It is the first and the intensest desire of living things to be. What are war, trade, labour, and professions but the result of struggling to be? Now it is with this the idea of death clashes. When we die, we are surrendering all with which we have associated existence.
(2) The parting with all round which the heart's best affections have twined themselves.
(3) The sensation of loneliness. If we have ever seen a ship with its load of emigrants, we know what that desolation is which comes from feeling unfriended on a new and untried excursion. This is but a feeble image of death. We die alone. Friends are beside our bed, they must stay behind.
2. But none of these ideas the apostle selected as the crowning bitterness of dying. "The sting of death is sin."(1) There is something that appals in death when separate acts of guilt rest on the memory. All these are sins which you can count up and number, and the recollection of them is remorse.
(2) But with most men it is not guilty acts, but guiltiness of heart that weighs the heaviest. This is the sting of sinfulness, the feeling, "God is not my friend; I am going on to the grave, and no man can say aught against me, but my heart is not right. It is not so much what I have done; it is what I am. Who shall save me from myself?"
3. All this power of sin to agonise is traced by the apostle to the law, by which he means to say that sin would not be so violent if it were not for the attempt of God's law to restrain it. Law is what forbids and threatens; law bears gallingly on those who want to break it. And St. Paul declares this, that no law, not even God's law, can make men righteous in heart, unless the Spirit has taught men's hearts to acquiesce in the law. It can only force out into rebellion the sin that is in them.
II. FAITH CONQUERING IN DEATH
1. Before we enter upon this topic, note —
(1) The elevating power of faith. Nothing ever led man on to real victory but faith. Even in this life he is a greater man who is steadily pursuing a plan that requires some years to accomplish, than he who is living by the day. And therefore it is, that nothing but faith gives victory in death. It is that elevation of character which we get from looking forward, till eternity becomes a real home to us, that enables us to look down upon the last struggle, and only as something that stands between us and the end.
(2) Ours is not merely to be victory, it is to be victory through Christ. Mere victory over death is no unearthly thing.
(a) Only let a man sin long and desperately enough to shut judgment altogether out of his creed, and then you have a man who can bid defiance to the grave.
(b) Mere manhood may give us a victory. We have steel and nerve enough in our hearts to dare anything. Felons died on the scaffold like men; soldiers can be hired by tens of thousands, for a few pence a day, to front death in its worst form.
(c) Necessity can make man conqueror over death. We can make up our minds to anything when it once becomes inevitable. Death is more dreadful in the distance than in the reality:
2. It is quite another thing from all this that Paul meant by victory. It is the prerogative of a Christian to be conqueror over —
(1) Doubt. We pray till we begin to ask, Is there one who hears, or am I whispering to myself? We see the coffin lowered into the grave, and the thought comes, What if all this doctrine of a life to come be but a dream? Now Christ gives us victory over that terrible suspicion.
(a) By His own resurrection. We have got a fact there that all the metaphysics about impossibility cannot rob us of.
(b) By living in Christ. All doubt comes from living out of habits of affectionate obedience to God. By idleness, by neglected prayer, we lose our power of realising things not seen. Doubts can only be dispelled by that kind of active life that realises Christ. When such a man comes near the opening of a vault, be is only going to see things that he has felt, for he has been living in heaven.
(2) The fear of death. It may be rapture or it may not. All that depends very much on temperament. Generally a Christian conqueror dies calmly. Brave men in battle do not boast that they are not afraid. There are more triumphant death-beds than we count, if we only remember this — true fearlessness makes no parade.
(3) Death itself by the resurrection. This is chiefly what the apostle means. And it is a rhetorical expression rather than a sober truth when we call anything, except the resurrection, victory over death. We may conquer doubt and fear when we are dying, but that is not conquering death. It is like a warrior crushed by a superior antagonist bearing the glance of defiance to the last. You feel that he is an unconquerable spirit, but he is not the conqueror. And when you see flesh melting away, etc., the victory is on the side of death, not on the side of the dying. And if we would enter into the full feeling of triumph here, we imagine what this world would be without the thought of a resurrection — the sons of man mounting into a bright existence, and one after another falling back into nothingness, like soldiers trying to mount an impracticable breach, and falling back crushed and mangled into the ditch before the fire of their conquerors. Misery and guilt, look which way you will, till the heart gets sick with looking at it. Until a man looks on evil till it seems almost a real personal enemy, he can scarcely conceive the deep rapture which rushed into the mind of Paul. A day was coming when this sad world was to put off for ever its misery, and the grave was to be robbed of its victory. Conclusion: If we would be conquerors, we must realise God's love in Christ. Take care not to be under the law. Constraint never yet made a conqueror; the utmost it can do is to make either a rebel or a slave. Never shall we conquer self till we have learned to love.
(F. W. Robertson, M.A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?