The stinger of death

Con Campbell contemplates a pointed little part of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

“The sting of death is sin”: that’s what 1 Corinthians 15:56 tells us. Appearing at the end of a wonderful discussion about the resurrection of Christ and the hope of resurrection for those who trust in him, this little phrase can cause Christians much confusion. In what sense is the sting of death sin?

Many people read this phrase and think, “Shouldn’t it say ‘The sting of sin is death’?” We want to swap ‘sin’ for ‘death’ so that the phrase reads the way we think it should—that is, that death is the inevitable result of sin. Because we have all sinned, we will all die. Death follows sin. Death is the sting we are left with because of our sin.

This logic is right, of course. We learn it in the first instance in Genesis 2 and 3. In Genesis 2:16-17, God told the man that if he disobeyed God’s instruction by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would surely die. And when Adam and Eve dideat from this tree in Genesis 3, they were barred from the tree of life and their mortality was sealed. Death is the consequence of sin. We also learn this truth from Romans 6:23a: “For the wages of sin is death”. In other words, death is our ‘reward’ for sin. Death follows sin. It is the inescapable consequence of rejecting God.

Therefore it is understandable that, when we come to 1 Corinthians 15:56, we want to read the verse as “The sting of sin is death” instead of “The sting of death is sin”. After all, we have learned from the Bible that this is true: if you sin, you will be stung by death. Death is the painful result that flows from our sin.

However, 1 Corinthians 15:56 does not say that the sting of sin is death; it says that the sting of death is sin. What does this mean?

First, we should note the preceding verse:

“O death, where is your victory?

O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)

This verse implies that death’s sting has been removed somehow. “Where is your sting?” is a rhetorical question that draws attention to the fact that death’s sting is missing. It is gone. As such, the phrase “The sting of death is sin” (v. 56) is making a statement about the way things were. But now because of Jesus’ work on the cross, sin has been dealt with, and so death has lost its sting.

But even so, in what sense is sin the sting of death? Some have suggested that sin is the sting of death in that when we die, we are confronted with the reality and consequence of our sin. Death has finally come. It is the ultimate proof that we are, in fact, sinners. Sin, then, is the ‘sting’ that we experience as we approach the judgement seat of God after death. Since we have died, we already stand condemned because our death has been brought about by our sin and is tangible proof that we are guilty. Paul’s overall point in 1 Corinthians 15, then, is that this is no longer the case because we are forgiven in Christ: sin no longer ‘stings’ in a judgement-seat scenario for our sin has been washed away.

However, this solution seems like a bit of a stretch to me. I think a simpler and more robust explanation is possible. Our starting point is to think about the word ‘sting’. It is a translation of the Greek word kentron. In Greek (as in English), this word is capable of at least two different meanings. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘sting’ can refer to “a sharp tingling sensation or hurtful effect” or it can refer to “a small sharp-pointed organ of an insect, capable of inflicting a painful wound by injecting poison”. In English, then, we can use the word ‘sting’ in a subjective sense—that is, “I’m suffering from a bee sting”. In this sentence, I have been stung and now have a bee sting. But we can also use the word ‘sting’ in an objective sense—for example, “A bee’s sting”. In this phrase, ‘sting’ does not refer to what I experience, but refers instead to the bee’s stinger. This use of ‘sting’ in English seems less common these days than it once was, but it is nevertheless an acceptable use of the word. So ‘sting’ can actually refer to a ‘stinger’—the pointy bit that a bee can stab you with. The sting belongs to the bee, regardless of whether or not the bee has attacked anyone.

I think most of us read “The sting of death is sin” with the first sense of ‘sting’ in mind—that is, “I’m suffering from a sting”. The sting is something experienced by me after I have been stung. As such, Paul’s phrase becomes difficult to understand: is sin the painful experience that follows death? Sure, death hurts, but why is this painful sensation called ‘sin’? I thought sin led to death, but with this reading, it seems like death leads to sin somehow.

On the contrary, I am convinced that “The sting of death is sin” should be read with the second sense of ‘sting’ in mind—that is, sin is death’s stinger. The phrase does not, then, speak about our experience of having been stung; rather, it refers to death’s fangs. Sin is death’s dangerous weapon. The way death gets you is by stabbing you with sin. Once you sin, you die. The reason that death is the consequence of sin (Rom 6:23) is that sin is the instrument—the stinger—by which death claims human beings.

Death is like a funnel-web spider. If it gets its fangs into you, it will claim you and you will die. (Okay, so a funnel-web bite is not necessarily fatal, but you get the point.) The funnel-web can only claim you if it gets its fangs into you. The same goes for death: it can only claim you if you sin. But if you chop the fangs off a funnel-web, it cannot claim you. It cannot bite you. And if it cannot bite you, its venom cannot affect you, and the funnel-web spider just becomes a furry plaything. It’s the same for death: if you cut off its fangs—that is, if you cut off sin—death holds no threat. It can’t bite you and its lethal venom cannot affect you.

This is exactly the point that Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 15. The logic goes like this: sin has been dealt with by Christ on the cross. He has paid the penalty for sin. With the problem of sin gone, death has lost its power. Death has lost its stinger. Without its stinger, death can no longer claim human lives. This is why resurrection is so important: resurrection from the dead, among other things, means that sin has been conquered. By removing death’s stinger, Christ conquered death. Without sin, death is nothing but a furry plaything.

This is why Paul can say that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). For sin to have been truly dealt with, resurrection must follow. If sin has really been conquered, so has death. Death’s fangs have been snapped off. But if resurrection does not occur, this means that sin has not been truly dealt with. Death remains powerful because sin is still potent.

In conclusion, the phrase “The sting of death is sin” can easily be understood once we read ‘sting’ the right way. Sin is the stinger of death. It is the instrument that death uses to overpower us. But through the crushing of sin in Jesus’ death, the power of death has been broken. Death’s stinger has been blunted, and death can no longer overpower us. Resurrection follows for all who have had their sin washed away.

Thanks be to God for giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who took the stinger of death upon himself—and broke it!

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