When I was a boy I used to catch bees in my handkerchief. Naturally, I was afraid to catch them in my bare hand because of their stings.
With the cloth spread over my palm, I would creep up on a bee as it buried its head in a flower, then grab it. In its fury and confusion, the bee would thrust its sting into the hanky instead of my hand. Once that small barb was drawn from the bee and snagged in the cloth, I lost all fear. I pitied the creature, and let it crawl over my fingers like a pet.
I doubt that the apostle Paul ever fooled around with bees in his boyhood as I did. But I presume he had an acquaintance with them, because in 1 Corinthians 15:55-56 he likens death to a bee. He imagines death as an insect with a terrible sting, a sting that is called sin. He says, “The sting of death is sin”.
Sin is death’s sting. Or to put it another way, sin is the means by which death hurts us. Think about it for a moment and you will see why this is so.
To begin with, death entered the world and the human race through sin. So death depends upon sin for its existence. Paul declares that “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Romans 5:12). If Adam had not sinned, death could not have injected its poison into us. Sin is death’s sting because it is death’s source.
Furthermore, death is God’s judgment on sin. So death depends upon sin for its application. God warned Adam, “in the day that you eat [of the forbidden fruit] you shall die” (Genesis 2:17). If Adam had not disobeyed, he would not have been punished. The same is true for us. If we were sinless, we would also be deathless: the grave is fair payment for our guilt. Sin is death’s sting because death is sin’s due. Sin brings death into operation.
In fact, sin is death’s means of transmission. Just as venom passes from a bee to its victim through its sting, so destruction passes from death to its victim through sin. Apart from sin, death has no access, no power to puncture. Sin is the barb by which death inflicts its fatal injury.
The only way to render death harmless is to remove its sting. And if sin is death’s sting, then it is sin that must be removed. To escape death’s sting, we need to be delivered from our sins.
The Lord Jesus Christ came to meet that need. He appeared on earth to put away our sins by the sacrifice of himself (Hebrews 9:26). By doing this, he broke death’s harmful connection to us. Once our sins are forgiven, death no longer has dominion over us (Romans 6:9). Death cannot operate against us because, finding no sin in us, it has no sting for us.
Once a bee has used its sting, it cannot use it again. In the process of attack, it leaves its barb behind in its victim. So it cannot sting repeatedly: it can only sting once. After that, it is harmless.
The same is true of death. It used up its sting on our Saviour. By bearing our sins on the cross, Jesus suffered death’s sting on our behalf. Incited by our sins, death plunged its barb into him! Now it has no venom left for us. Jesus our Lord drew death’s sting and rendered death harmless. No wonder Paul exclaims triumphantly, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Thanks to Jesus, death has lost its sting!
And as if that were not remarkable enough, consider this: A bee cannot live long after it has used its sting. Having stung, it soon dies. Its sting is vitally connected to its existence. In fact, I have heard it said that a bee’s sting is attached to its heart, so that it pulls out its own heart when it plunges its sting into its victim.
This is exactly how it is with death. It cannot exist without sin, which is attached to its heart. So when death plunged its sting into our Saviour, it wrenched out its own heart. And now it is going to die. What a paradox, what an irony—death is dying! Thanks to Jesus, a day is coming when “death shall be no more” (Revelation 21:4). By drawing death’s sting once and for all, our Saviour has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). Death is still crawling around, certainly. But it is on its last legs. It is a bee without a sting.
Apart from sin, death would not exist and could not operate. In doing away with sin, our Saviour has done away with death’s destructive power. He has drawn death’s sting so that when at last it crawls upon us it will not hurt us.
And yes, short of the Lord’s return, death will crawl upon us. For in both the believer’s personal life and God’s grand design, death is the last enemy to be completely destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26). Its power over our bodies remains temporarily, but its power over our souls is broken forever.
Once our sins have been forgiven, death has no sting, no power to hurt us. So we can say with Paul, “to die is gain” because to be “away from the body” means to be “at home with the Lord” (Philippians 1:21; 2 Corinthians 5:8).
If we are trusting in Jesus, when death at last alights upon us, it will come not with a sting but with a staff. It will come not as an executioner but as an usher. It will come not with our wages but with our fares. It will come not with punishment but with safe passage. It will come not as an end to life but as an entry to eternal life.
Then we will see Jesus, and we will weep at his scarred feet until he lifts us up and dries our tears. Then death and dying, sin and sinning, tears and crying, will be no more, and we will shout for joy, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”