Twice in my life I’ve been face to face with death. Both times I’ve felt its sting.
Earlier this year I lost my mother-in-law when she suffered a massive stroke. Before passing, my family and I were able to care for her with hospice services at home. It was incredibly difficult to see her suffer as her body began to shut down and give way to death. We tried to make her as comfortable as possible; we gave her medicine for pain, held her hand when she was conscious, sang some of her favorite hymns, and repositioned her body every few hours to ensure she didn’t develop sores. She’d only been home from the hospital two nights. As I lay down on a mattress next to her to doze for a few minutes, I awoke abruptly. She had stopped breathing. She was gone.
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:55)
It was right there as my heart felt the pain of losing her.
Thoughts of eternity, both heaven and hell, and of God’s sovereignty ran through my mind in the following weeks. I sobbed and grieved deeply over her loss. The reality of death shook me to my core once again.
You see, I’d been face to face with death another time earlier in my life, when I was only 18.
The death of a parent was harder than I’d ever imagined. Yet losing a child to death’s grip was unfathomable. Barely an adult, I sat in a sterile hospital room holding my 1-year-old daughter’s bruised little body after the doctors had informed me she’d been sexually assaulted and shaken until brain dead. The perpetrator was my boyfriend. He wasn’t her biological father.
The decision was made to take her off life support, which was merely keeping her heart beating and lungs breathing. Tears streamed down my face as I watched her chest stop moving. I heard the final flatline on the monitor. My little girl was gone.
Where was death’s sting? It was right there in my arms where life had been only seconds before.
Defeated By Death?
When death has darkened your doorstep, especially more than once, you can think you know exactly where death’s sting lies. It feels forever fixed in your heart and mind.
I wonder if Jesus’s family and followers felt the same way about death’s sting. Think about it.
They’d experienced daily life with Jesus. They’d heard and believed his wonderful promises of eternal life (John 6:68). Is it any wonder they were also deeply grieved and bewildered when they saw the Giver of Life hanging dead on a tree, crucified by human hands right before their eyes?
Before sundown they took Jesus’s lifeless body and prepared it for burial (John 19:31–42). The hope of eternal life seemed defeated, conquered, buried in the grave.
The Funeral of Death
Yet the apostle Paul insists death no longer has a sting, nor is it victorious. A deeper look at the Greek word thanatos (“death”) in 1 Corinthians 15 helps us understand this, since it reveals two ways we can look at death’s power or lack thereof.
1. Death of the body: That separation (whether natural or violent) of the soul from the body by which life on earth is ended.
2. Death in the widest sense: Death comprising all the miseries arising from sin—including evil, suffering, physical death, the loss of a life consecrated to God, and the threat of hell.
It doesn’t matter whether you bury your aged parent or your newborn baby, a loved one’s funeral is one of the darkest hours in this life. That’s when death’s strong sting lands and lodges in your heart. That’s when death seems to gloat.
And that’s why 1 Corinthians 15:55 is such a glorious passage.
The wages of sin is eternal death (Rom. 6:23). But before the beginning, the eternal God had a plan. His Son would be sent into the world to pay the penalty for our sins, snatching away death’s victory and removing its sting. As Paul goes on to proclaim, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:56–57).
You and I will continue to face the effects of sin as long as we live on this fallen earth. Because of our King’s resurrection, however, we are more than conquerers. The funeral we’ve all been waiting for—the funeral of death—is coming. In the meantime, we can choose to hope, to rejoice, and to the victory shout: Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?