The Last Battle
February 12th, 1956 @ 7:30 PM
1 Corinthians 15:50-57
THE LAST BATTLE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Corinthians 15:50-57
2-12-56 7:30 p.m.
This is the last sermon on the fifteenth chapter of the first Corinthian letter. I’ve been preaching that chapter for about three or four Sundays now. This is the last sermon. It’s entitled The Last Battle: Victory.
Now turn to it, and let’s read it together: the fifteenth chapter of the first Corinthian letter. We’ll begin at the fiftieth verse and read to the end of the chapter.
Uh, Marion, one of the men with your quartet got his Bible here tonight. You got one Christian and three heathen in the group. Huh? Yeah. He says the only one got his Bible is the Baptist in the quartet, all of which goes to say if the other three’d get ’em a Bible, they’d be Baptists, wouldn’t they? Wouldn’t they? That’s right. Yeah. I’ll tell you, somethin’ about this Book that makes Baptists out of people. It just does.
All right, now, let’s read it together – everybody – beginning at the fiftieth verse. This is the last and triumphant message, and what a glory it is. All right, together:
Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.
Behold, I show you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed
– everybody –
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump. For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory."
"O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?"
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not vain in the Lord.
[1 Corinthians 15:50-58]
Pessimism, skepticism is not the unusual in the philosophical and intellectual world. It’s the usual. It’s what you’d expect to find. When a man tries to think himself to an ultimate victory, he falls in the grave. While he’s trying to seize some ray of light in his own thinking and by his own ingenuity, he gets sick and dies. While he’s trying to spin out of himself some world-conquering philosophy, why, he goes blind, or he loses his mind, or he decays and goes back to the dust. That’s what I’d expect.
When a man tries to work out his own salvation, when he tries to seize great truths that are to transport him to heaven, why, he falls down into the ground and becomes a part of the soil. Consequently, I say, when you read these men, the tone of skepticism and pessimism is what you would expect to find. Listen to these typical men.
I don’t suppose there’s anybody in this world that hasn’t heard of Tolstoy [Leo Tolstoy, 1828-1910], the great marvelous Russian author and novelist. But here’s Tolstoy. He’s writing his confessions [A Confession, by Leo Tolstoy, 1882] and his religion, and he summarizes the various attitudes of men toward life, and he classifies them unto four categories.
Here’s the first one: there are those who view life as all bad and get drunk to forget it. Then his second category: there are those who possess a stoical attitude. Life is bad, but they struggle against it. Then there’s a third group, he says. There are those who see life as bad and by suicide remove themselves from it. Then there’s a last group, he says, and in that group Tolstoy puts himself. There are those who see life as bad but who live on irrationally accepting it as it comes. Now, that’s his four categories of living. Brother, wouldn’t that thrill you so? Isn’t that a victorious mandate for a man to face all that life holds?
Now, let’s take another one. One of the great, great, great German minds and authors and philosophers was Jean Paul Richter [1763-1825]. This is what he looked at life and said. Now I quote from him:
I have traversed the worlds. I have risen to the suns. I have pressed athwart the great waste places of the sky. I have descended to the place where the very shadow cast by being dies out and ends. We are orphans, you and I. Every soul in this vast corpse trench of a universe is utterly alone.
[From "Speech of the Dead Christ from the Universe that There is No God," by Jean Paul Richter, 1796]
Isn’t that a magnificent philosophy? This world a corpse trench, and we orphans in it and absolutely forgotten alone.
One of the most famous sentences, I suppose, of the Victorian Age is that of Benjamin Disraeli [1804-1881], the great empire builder of Britain. He said, "Youth is a blunder, manhood is a struggle, and old age a regret" [Coningsby or the New Generation, by Benjamin Disraeli, 1844]. And you could take that on endlessly, hour by hour, just pouring over the pages of those philosophers and skeptics and critics and authors and great ones of their day and of ours.
Now, when you turn to the Bible, when you turn to the New Testament, when you turn to Paul, and when you turn to this passage here, you’ll find that there’s no inclination or disposition on the part of the apostle Paul to minimize that loathsome and terrible triad that were ever present: sin and law and death. His very figures implement his horror and terror of the visage of the pale horseman [Revelation 6:8]. He refers to him as a dragon here with an awful sting – a super scorpion that has the power of death in him. And by the side of death with that awful sting, there’s the law egging him on, siccing him on [1 Corinthians 15:56]. There’s the law pointing us out like a pilot fish underneath the great shark.
Saw those sharks – I saw a picture of one weighed over 70 tons, and underneath was a group of little pilot fish, and they guide that enormous shark to the prey. That’s what the law does. The law points us out. "There he is. There he is. Get him. We condemn him! Kill him! Slay him," says the law [Romans 7:9-13].
Listen, there’s no mercy in it. There’s no gospel in it. It’s impersonal. It’s – it’s inexorable. The law points us out and death comes [Romans 7:7-8], the great monster, and takes us away [Romans 7:9-13]. Now, that’s Paul. There’s no inclination, I say, or disposition on his part to minimize the dread and terrible visage of our last and our final enemy.
But there’s something else in Paul. There’s looking beyond the facts, beyond the funeral, beyond the grave, beyond death, beyond corruption, beyond this life. Paul lifts up his eyes and sees something else, and that something is Somebody. It’s a victor. It’s a conqueror. It’s the reigning King! [Romans 7:24-25; 1 Corinthians 15:56-57] It’s the Lord Jesus Christ who has in His hands the keys of death, of hell, and of the grave [Revelation 1:18].
How does Paul treat death? How does Paul look at death? How does Paul meet death? He does it with Christ on his lips and with triumph in his soul and in his heart. You see, Christ to Paul is not just an incidental thing. He doesn’t refer to Him just when the mood occasions. He’s not an adventitious philosophy. He’s not just a personage to whom he relies now and then and to whom he takes a problem once in a while. No, sir. The heart of a message and the world outlook of the apostle Paul is found in one word: Christ [Galatians 2:20]. In Christ Himself, in that cross, is his message [1 Corinthians 2:2]. It’s his gospel [1 Corinthians 15:3-4]. It’s his hope. It’s his preaching. No Christ, no cross, no forgiveness of sin, no message, no gospel and no faith [1 Corinthians 15:12-19]. No Christ, no resurrection, no hope, no heaven. The very heart of the message of Paul as he faces the world and its inevitable exigencies lies in Jesus.
All right, may I make a comment there? Ultimately, if a man faces life with any degree of realism, ultimately – and isn’t this true? – it’s rhetorical, it’s a furor, it’s oratory, it’s sound, it’s a multiplication of sentences to refer in any wise to a victory over death except by a resurrection. I don’t care how a man states it or how fearlessly he speaks of it or with what courage he faces it, death is a final conqueror. It is a final victor – I don’t care how a man is or how he faces it – unless finally somewhere and ultimately, there is a resurrection, there is a living again.
Well, may I illustrate that? Is this victory over death? Is it? There are men who with sullen indifference face death. It is nothing. "Here," he says, and they’re strapping one arm to the electric chair. And while that arm is free, he says, "Here. Give me a cigarette. Give me a cigarette."
There are felons and malefactors and criminals and murderers who face death with absolute indifference. It’s nothing to ’em at all. You couldn’t see any fear in their faces. You couldn’t see any repentance in their hearts. You couldn’t see any cringing in their souls. They are unafraid! Is that victory over death? Is it?
Is this victory over death? Haven’t you been reading in your newspapers the death of H. L. Mencken? [Henry Louis Mencken, 1880-1956] Ah, we’ve never had in America as sarcastic a critic as Mencken. He had a razor-sharp tongue, and he dipped his pen in vitriol. And brother, what he couldn’t say about anybody and everything and especially about Christians and religion and the faith and the church and the people of God – H. L. Mencken.
Well, he died about two weeks ago, within two weeks, and you saw all through this paper – lived in Baltimore, Maryland. All right, this is what he’d said. He said, "Now, there’ll be no service." There couldn’t be any service, for, he said, "There’s not any ritual for the damned." So he said when he dies, burn him up: cremate him, fling his ashes away. And that’s the way he died. That’s the way he died. Is that victory over death – contemptuously, skeptically facing it? Is that victory? Is it?
All right, another way to face death: there are many, many who face death like a great patriotic and courageous soldier. There he is facing an enemy; and the enemy fights, and the soldier fights against him. But is this in any wise the conqueror when death seizes the man and he cuts his throat and his blood pours out on the field and the ground drinks it up? With his last stare, there’s defiance in his face, and with his last effort, there’s a struggle against the enemy. But who’s the victor? Does anybody rise up and say, "That soldier is the victor"? No, sir. He’s dead!
If you were to see a whole army of men charging up like Pickett’s Brigade there at Gettysburg to that Little Round Top: there they go up, and the rattling of the gunfire and the booming of the cannon, and the slaughter of the bayonets, and the men are forced back; and there in trenches, they die in their own blood. Who’s the victor? Does anybody doubt? Do you have any doubt about who’s the victor in our war against death? Brother, he is, not we.
"Oh, but, Preacher, you don’t understand. When I face that last and awful enemy, I’m going to stand up to him like a man, and I’m going to war against him like a true soldier." That’s good. And pretty soon you’d be cut down, and you’d be back there in the grave out of which you came.
"But, Preacher, you don’t understand. When that pale horseman comes with his scythe [Revelation 6:8], I’m going to double up my fist, and I’m going to resist. Yes, sir. I’m going to double up my fist." And that very fist decays, and the skin falls off, and my joints come apart, and my very hand decays and falls down into the ground. That’s what I’m going to do when I face death.
"Yes, but I’ll search him out and I’ll find him in the gloom, and I’ll slay him!" And my very eyes go out. My mind is gone. My hands are feeble. I’m in the dust of the ground. Does anybody have any idea other than who’s the victor when we face death? He is, not we.
"Then, what kind of a victory are you looking for, Preacher? Why, I thought we were to have courage and we were to be fearless. We were to be indifferent about it." No, sir. That’s not a victory.
Then what is a victory? This is a victory. Victory over death is a resurrection. Victory over death is a living again. Victory is a standing out: out of the valley of the dry bones [Ezekiel 37:1-14], out of the depths of this earth, out of the bottom of the pit, out of the hollowness and darkness of the grave. Living again: that’s victory!
Well, where does it come from? I can’t do it myself. And that’s the message of Paul. You listen to him here. You look at Paul. Paul doesn’t say, "Now, we are going to change ourselves." No, sir. Paul says Christ is going to change us. Paul doesn’t say, "Now we will resurrect ourselves." No, sir. He says Christ is going to resurrect us. He doesn’t say here, "We who are corrupting, we are going to put on incorruption. We’re going to do it." No, sir. It is something that God does for us [1 Corinthians 15:52-53]. Our victory is in Christ [1 Corinthians 15:57]. Our resurrection is in Him [1 Corinthians 6:14; 2 Corinthians 4:14]. Our conquest is in the Lord Jesus Christ [Romans 8:35-37].
And He speaks of it, and look how he does it. When God does that for us: "O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?" The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law" [1 Corinthians 15:55-56].
What kind of a victory is it that Christ is going to give us when we face this last enemy, death, and fight this last battle? What kind of a victory is it?
All right, the first. It has something to do with sin. What makes death terrible is sin [Genesis 2:16-17; Romans 6:23]. There are many things about death that are horrible. Just the fact of not being: our soul recoils. The fact of decay: our flesh shudders. These who hold our hands, they can’t go with us. Our best friends, we leave ’em behind, and we go out into that black dark beyond alone. Alone.
But that’s not the horror of death. The sting of death is sin [1 Corinthians 15:56]. That’s the damnation of it. That it is the hell of it. That’s the wrath of it! That’s the judgment of it! When a man dies, that’s not the end. When a man dies, that’s not the done for. When a man dies, he’s got God to face and the judgment to face [Hebrews 9:27]. And it isn’t so much what we have done, it’s what we are. We are sinners. The Lord God said, "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" [Genesis 2:17]. And He just said here, "In Adam all die" [1 Corinthians 15:22].
Death is a horror because of sin. It’s the judgment and wrath of Almighty God. What’re you going to do? "All of us have sinned. All of us have come short of the expectation of God" [Romans 3:23]. All of us see the judgment of wrath upon our souls [Romans 6:23]. That’s why death is a horror! But that’s not all.
"The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law" [1 Corinthians 15:56] – the law. The strength of sin is the law. Law is impersonal. Law is inexorable. Law just says: "This man has sinned, and this is the judgment of sin: ‘The soul that sins shall die’" [Ezekiel 18:20]. That’s the law. That’s the law.
Let me show you what I mean by an impersonal, inexorable exhibition of the law. I was a fellow – a kid, a boy. I was a teenager, and I was beyond our home just a little way. They were building some kind of a house out of concrete. I can’t remember what the house was. And there was a boy that was working for the construction company. Oh, he looked to be nineteen or twenty years old. And that boy working around that enormous concrete mixer – great big machine, you’ve seen them – that boy, working around that concrete mixer, got his hand caught in the cogs of that concrete mixer.
And I stood there and watched that boy. I can never to my dying day forget that sight nor that sound. That boy cried and cried and lamented. Oh, his sobs, his cries: they ripped the heavens, and they were like daggers in my heart. And I looked there, and those awful cogs were grinding and grinding and grinding that boy’s hand. And he tried to pull it out, and he couldn’t extricate it. It was caught in those cogs, and it ground and ground and ground, and that boy cried and cried and cried. Finally, they got the thing stopped, and finally they extricated the mangled piece that was left.
Law says when you put gasoline in the engine, when you light it with an electric spark, law says it grinds and it grinds and it grinds and it goes and it goes and it goes. There’s no mercy in it. There’s no heart in it. There’s no compassion in it. There’s no crying in it. There’s no weeping in it.
Law is impersonal and inexorable. When the man sins, the law says he dies [Romans 6:23]. That’s the law. That’s justice! Mercy, forgiveness, the gospel, Christ: that’s something else. But the law is a damnation. The law condemns us. The law says, "That’s the man" – judges us. The wrath falls upon us. That’s what Paul’s talking about here. "The sting of death is sin" – that damns us – "and the strength of sin is the law" [1 Corinthians 15:56].
The law’s like this. If I had a black something up here, black writing, the law puts something white behind it, says: "Look at that. Look at that. This beautiful white background, this is what purity, holiness, godliness, glory is. And this is the man’s life" [Romans 7:7]. That’s law. That’s the law. The law says, "This is what a man ought to be. That is what he ought to do. This is what the man has done. Look at him!" [Romans 7:8-12] And the law condemns him, and the strength of sin is the law [1 Corinthians 15:56]. Then what’re you going to do? What’re you going to do? That’s death, and that’s that triad: sin and the law and death.
All right. This is the gospel. That’s mercy. That’s sympathy. That’s love. That’s compassion. That’s the outpouring of the Spirit of God. That’s the message of Christ. Listen to it. Listen to it – what Christ has done with sin and what Christ has done with the law. Listen to it. "He has abolished in his flesh, the enmity, even the law . . . for to make in himself of twain a new man" [Ephesians 2:15]. Listen again. Listen again. You. Oh, he’s not saying, "You and not you." You! He’s not saying, "You and not you." You! You: dead in sins [Ephesians 2:1], damned in iniquity [Isaiah 59:2; Romans 1:18, 2:5] – you!
All of us in the presence of a holy and righteous God: "The soul that sins shall die" [Ezekiel 18:20]. You, dead in sins, you hath He quickened with Christ [Ephesians 2:5]: "Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us. And took it out of the way, nailing it to the cross." [Colossians 2:14]
Jesus Christ took the law – the law that condemned us and damned us and pointed out our sins [Romans 7:7-11] – Jesus took the law, and He took our sins, and He nailed them to the cross [Colossians 2:14]. There they were dying with Jesus. "Having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them" [Colossians 2:15] – triumphing over sin, triumphing over law, triumphing over death.
Now listen to the gospel. Listen to the word of the Book:
There is therefore now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus . . . For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ hath made me free from the law of sin and of death.
Listen to him in the eighth of Romans:
Who shall lay anything now to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifies.
Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is at the right hand of the throne of God,
to see us through,
to make intercession for us."
That’s what Christ has done for us. That’s true victory. That’s the reason that the Lord can write in His Book:
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
And when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then
– that’s the great word "then" –
then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory."
[1 Corinthians 15:53-54]
Then that’s his cry, "O Death, now where’s your sting?" Jesus took it away. "O Grave, now where’s your victory?" [1 Corinthians 15:55] Jesus hath broken the power of the grave. "Thanks be unto God, thanks be unto God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." [1 Corinthians 15:57]
That’s the gospel. That’s the message from the throne of heaven. That’s true victory: my sins all washed away [Acts 22:16; 1 John 1:7]; law that’s against me nailed to the cross [Colossians 2:13-14]; death that faces me broken in two and forever [1 Corinthians 15:54-57]; and beyond, nothing but resurrection, immortality, incorruption, glory, life forever with Jesus our Lord [Revelation 21:1-22:5].
Are you saved, fellow, are you? Are you under the blood? Are you? Are you in Christ? Are you? Have you accepted His mercy and His pardon, are you? When you face that inevitable and last battle, the enemy death, is He, Christ, your victor and your conquest? Are you saved? Are you safe? Is it all right with you?
What about your sins? Has God for Christ’s sake forgiven you? Have you put your trust in Him? Have you taken Him as your Savior? Can you face life, death? Can you face judgment forever? Can you face it unafraid? Are you in Him? Is it right with you? Have you taken Jesus? Are you saved? Are you saved? That’s why we’re here tonight preaching the gospel of the Son of God. That’s the only and true victory [Mark 8:34-38]. It’s in Him. It’s in Him.
While we sing this song tonight, somebody you into this aisle and down here to the front: "Here I come, Preacher, and here I am, taking Jesus as my Savior." Would you make it now? Would you trust Him now? Would you give your heart to Him now? Would you now? Would you tonight, this minute? "Here I am and here I come, Preacher, trusting Jesus, looking to Jesus, not trusting myself. I can’t. Not trusting the church. They can’t. Not trusting ordinances. They can’t. But looking to Jesus, trusting Jesus." Would you give your life to Him? Would you look to Him? Would you tonight? Into that aisle and down here by my side here: "Here I come, Preacher. I give you my hand. I’m giving God my heart." Or into the fellowship of this church, as the Lord shall make the appeal, as our people pray and sing, while we wait for this all-eternally, forever-important decision that you make for God or against Him, would you make it, for Him, would you tonight? Cast your soul at His blessed feet: "Lord, I’m unequal. I can’t face – not death and hell. I’m unequal. Lord, I’m looking to You. I’m trusting You." Would you tonight while we stand and while we sing?
I. The harsh realities of this life with
its ultimate death
does not minimize terrible triad of sin, law and death
His figures implement horror, terror of visage of the pale horseman
Paul says there is something beyond the facts, the funeral, the grave
That something is Somebody – Christ who gives us the victory over sin, death
and the grave
Paul meets death with Christ on his lips, triumph in his soul
Very heart of the message of Paul is Jesus
II. The true victory in Christ Jesus
indifference of death is not victory
Skeptical sarcasm is not victory
patriotic courage is not victory
Victory over death is a resurrection
A battle we cannot win for ourselves, but something Christ does for us
a. He takes away the
terrible sting of sin(Genesis 2:17, 1
b. He takes away the
laws condemning us(Ezekiel 18:20)
What Christ has done with sin and the law (Ephesians
2:15, Colossians 2:14-15)
Delivered us from condemnation of the law (Romans