Monday, May 7, 2018

The Sting of Death

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The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. (1 Corinthians 15:56)
Last time, we looked at the question of what Paul meant in Romans 5:12, on whether universal sin resulted in universal death, or conversely, it was universal death that resulted in universal sin (see Whereupon All Sinned). That brief study brought to mind another passage where Paul speaks of the relationship between death and sin. It is at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s extended discussion of Christ and the resurrection. In verses 55-56, Paul taunts death, the defeated foe: “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).

The Greek word for “sting” is kentron and refers literally to the sting of creatures such as bees or scorpions. This sting of death is sin, Paul says (metaphorically, of course). Commentary on this verse usually seems to have the sting, sin, as the cause of death. But would that not be like saying that the sting of a bee is what causes the bee? Is it not rather the bee that causes the sting? So when Paul says, “The sting of death is sin,” is he not saying that it is death that causes sin rather than sin that causes death?

Besides this passage, kentron appears two other times in the New Testament. In Revelation 9:10, it is used of the sting of scorpions. “They had tails with stingers [kentra], like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months.” Again, should we suppose that the sting was what caused the scorpion to be? Rather, it is the scorpion that produces the sting. But what the sting does produce is a temporary torment.

The other occurrence of kentron is in Acts 9:5, where Saul (Paul), heading to Damascus to hound the Christians there, encounters the risen Christ. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Jesus says. Saul asks him, “Who are you, Lord?” and receives the answer: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (NKJV). The word for “goad” is kentron. A goad was used for prodding oxen or other beasts of burden. In this case, something was prodding Saul, trying to move him in the right direction, but Saul was resisting, and it was painful for him. (This bit about kicking “against the goads” does not appear in the oldest manuscripts of this passage but it does show up in later ones, and so is instructive for us about what kentron means.)

If we translate kentron as “goad” in 1 Corinthians 15:55-56, we have: “Where, O death, is your goad. The goad of death is sin.” The direction of causality should become apparent: it is not the kentron that produces death, but death that produces the kentron. What is the kentron death produced, and toward what does it prod? Sin.

So, it is not our sin that causes our mortality; it is our mortality that prods us or stings us with sin. Sin is brokenness of relationship, the alienation we experience toward God, each other, the rest of creation and even within our own selves. Death took full advantage, revealing itself as sin.

Next time, we will look at an important clue to how that happens — and how Christ delivers us from it.