Although it is acknowledged by Christian scholars that they don't really know with any certainty what Paul meant by these words, yet all of them are unanimous in their disagreement with the interpretation given by the LDS Church. The most common explanation given for what Paul said is that he was probably referring to a heathen ritual. But, even if there was such a heathen practice, it doesn't make sense for Paul to point to a false doctrine to support his argument about the resurrection.
One thing that nearly all biblical scholars are in agreement with is that to understand any verse of scripture we must view it in the context of the point the author was making. And to do that we must read what comes before and what comes after the verse in question and see how it relates to the message as a whole. Therefore, to better understand why Paul said what he did, we must first determine what his entire message was and then, secondly, see how this one verse fits into the point Paul was trying to make.
Since the King James Version of the Bible is sometimes a little difficult to understand because of the way it is written and the language it uses, it might be helpful to read a faithful paraphrase of the first thirty-four verses of the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians so we can get a clearer understanding of what he wrote:
My brethren, I have brought the gospel to you by my preaching and you have received my word and even unto this day you remain steadfast in keeping it. 2. And it is because you have accepted this gospel which I have preached unto you, that you are saved but only if you keep in your memory the things I have taught you. But, if you do not remember to remain true to those things then my preaching to you will have been for nothing.
3. The gospel I taught you is what I had been taught myself, how that Christ died for our sins as the scriptures say, 4. how he was buried and that he rose again the third day, just as the scriptures say. 5. And after he rose from the dead he was first seen by Cephas (Peter) and then the twelve apostles saw Him. 6. After that there were 500 believers who saw him all at the same time, of whom the greater number of them are still alive to this day, although some of them have since died. 7. After that, James saw Him and then, after that all of the apostles saw Him again.
8. Last of all, I also saw him, but not when I was part of the twelve. 9. It is true that I am now an apostle, but, as far as I'm concerned, I am inferior to all the other apostles because, unlike them, who remained faithful to Jesus from the very beginning, I despised Jesus, so much so that I actively fought against the church of God and persecuted those who belonged to it.
10. It is only because of God's grace towards me that I am now an apostle. But God didn't bestow that honor upon me in vain because I have labored more diligently than all the rest of the apostles in proclaiming the gospel. 11. But that makes no difference because whether it was they or I who preached the gospel to you, you have believed us and have accepted our word.
12. Now, what is it that we have preached to you? Is it not that Christ rose from the dead? Then how come there are some among you who say that there is no such thing as the resurrection of the dead? 13. Stop and think about this. If, as they say, there is no resurrection of the dead, then that means that Christ didn't rise from the grave. 14. And if Christ did not rise from the grave, then everything we've been telling you is not true, and if that's the case, then your faith in Christ means nothing.
15. But, we have testified to you that God did indeed raise Christ up from the dead. But, if the dead don't rise, then God didn't raise Christ from the grave, in which case we are false ministers and witnesses of God. 16. Again, if the dead don't rise, then Christ could not have risen from the grave, 17. And if Christ didn't rise from the grave then your faith that He is able to take away your sins is worth nothing because you are still in your sins and will die in your sins. 18. And if the dead don't rise, then all those who have died believing that Christ was able to take away their sins and save them from hell will all perish in hell.
19. If our hope for salvation pertains only to this life then we are the most miserable people in the world. 20. But we testify that Christ did rise from the dead and is actually the first to rise from the grave. 21. But this shouldn't surprise us because since death came into the world because of the actions of one man then it only makes sense that the resurrection of the dead should come about because of the actions of one man. 22. Just like death has come upon all of us because of what Adam did, so likewise, because of what Jesus did, everyone will come forth from the grave alive.
23. But not everyone will rise from the dead at the same time. There is a specific order to who will rise and when they will rise. The first to come forth from the grave was Christ. The next in order to rise from the grave will be those who believe in Christ at the time of His second coming. 24. When Christ comes a second time that will be the end of the way things currently are because it is at that time when Christ will then deliver up the kingdom to God, the Father. But, in order for Him to do that, He must first have put down and subjugated all rulers, authorities, and powers under Him. 25. For that to happen Jesus must reign here on the earth until He has put all of His enemies under his authority and rules over them. 26. And the last enemy that He must destroy is death.
27. And once he has done that then He will have truly put all things under His power. Now, when He (God, the Father) says that all things are under his [Son's] authority, it is obvious that God, the Father, is exempted from this because it was God, the Father, who told Jesus (the Son), that everything should be put under His (the Son's) authority. 28. And then, when Jesus (the Son) has subdued all things under Him, then shall the Son (Jesus) subject Himself to that Being who ordered that all things should be subjected to Jesus.
29. If this is not so, then why are there people being baptizing for the dead if the dead aren't going to rise? If the dead aren't going to rise, then why are people being baptized for the dead?
30. Not only that, but by baptizing the dead we are putting ourselves in danger every hour. Why are we doing that if it isn't important? If I have risked my life for the sake of Christ by allowing them to toss me to the wild beasts in the theaters at Ephesus, what advantage is that to me if the dead don't rise? I might as well say, Let's eat and drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. 33. But don't be deceived. Evil speaking corrupts us. Whenever you do anything that is evil, it corrupts you. 34. Therefore, wake up to what is right and do not sin. Some people do not have the knowledge of God that you do. Therefore, when they sin, they are like little children who don't know any better. But you who walk in the truth, do know better, therefore, when you sin it is to your shame."
There are quite a number of things we learn from these verses. The first is that at the very beginning Paul clearly states that he was the one who had taught them the gospel and it was his words they had believed. His point is that he knows what he is talking about and that they should continue to trust his words as they had done before. However, in relationship to his knowledge of the gospel, he then makes a very interesting comment when he says, "By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain" (verse 2).
It is true that we are saved by accepting the gospel message but Paul then adds that it only saves us as long as we "keep in [our] memory what [has been] preached unto you." That means our salvation is assured only as long as we don't forget what we've been taught. The clear implication here is that if we don't always remember to keep the teachings of the gospel that has been delivered to us then we can lose our salvation. Paul then adds that if that were to happen then their belief in Christ would have been in vain. That is just the opposite of the commonly held belief among many Christians that once a person is saved there is nothing they can do to lose their salvation.
The next thing we learn is that Paul says that what he has taught them is "that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures" (verse 3,4). What makes this statement so significant is that the New Testament had not been written yet when Paul wrote these words. Furthermore, at the time when Paul wrote his letters they were not viewed as scriptures. Therefore, when Paul talks about "the scriptures" he can only be referring to the Old Testament. Therefore, when Paul says that Christ died, was buried and rose again the third day "according to the scriptures" what he is doing is referring to Old Testament scriptures to prove that the death and resurrection of Jesus was foretold by the Old Testament prophets. However, what is most significant about this statement is that in our current Bible we have no such Old Testament scriptures that says what Paul claims. Either Paul is citing scripture much differently than the way it was written or he had access to scripture that is no longer available to us.
The next thing we learn is that after Christ rose from the grave, "he was seen of Cephas (Peter), then of the twelve" (verse5). This statement raises two interesting questions. First of all, when did Jesus appear to Peter before He appeared to the rest of the apostles? According to the gospel accounts Peter and John raced each other to the tomb to see for themselves that Jesus had risen but neither one of them actually saw Jesus. According to the gospel accounts, the first time Peter saw the resurrected Christ was later that night when Jesus appeared to him along with nine other apostles. Again, either Paul is mistaken in what he says or there is information missing in our present-day Bible that was available to Paul.
The second interesting point about this comment is that Paul says that Jesus appeared before "the twelve." But the first night Jesus appeared to His apostles after His resurrection Thomas was not present and neither was Judas, thereby leaving only ten apostles, yet Paul still refers to them as "the twelve." According to the teachings of the LDS Church, the number of apostles was meant to remain at twelve. That means, when one apostle died, another person was chosen to take his place (see Acts 1:15-26).
Paul was not an apostle at the time when Jesus appeared to "the twelve" after His resurrection but he later dud became one so it is very possible that he was chosen to fill a vacancy in "the twelve." And there is ample evidence to show that this was the practice of the early church. That fact that Paul refers to the apostles as "the twelve" seems to indicate that this is how they were known back in his day. (For a more in-depth look at this subject read "The Succession of the Apostles" ).
The next interesting thing Paul says is "After that, he (Jesus) was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles." (verse 6,7). There is no record in our current Bible showing that Jesus appeared to five hundred believers all at the same time, nor is there any record of James having had a private visit by the resurrected Christ. Once more, either Paul is making things up or he has knowledge of things that are not found in our Bible. As Christians, if we believe that what Paul wrote is the truth, then we are forced to conclude that our Bible is incomplete compared with the scriptures the ancient saints had available to them.
Next Paul again but humbly states his authority as an apostle and affirms that he was called to that position "by the grace of God," then states that even though he has "laboured more abundantly than they all" yet all of them teach the same gospel (verse 11). So, before declaring his message, Paul cites his credentials to show that what he is about to tell them is what is preached by all the apostles.
Apparently, there were people who called themselves Christians in Corinth who did not believe in the resurrection, therefore Paul decided to address this heresy head on. Using logic, he points out that if there is no resurrection then we would have to conclude that Christ did not rise from the grave. Yet that is the core of the Christian faith. As a result, Paul sounds almost astonished that anyone could not believe in the resurrection and yet believe in Christ.
He pointed out that Christ not only died for our sins but was resurrected to remove our sins as well. He declares, "And if Christ be not raised, [then] your faith [in Him] is [in] vain; [because] ye are yet (still) in your sins" (verse 17). What Paul is saying is that even though Christ died on the cross to atone for our sins, if He hadn't risen from the grave then we would all still be lost sunners, despite our belief in Jesus. Most Christians miss this point. It takes both the death of Jesus on the cross and His resurrection from the grave to have our sins removed. One without the other makes salvation impossible. Thus, the resurrection of Christ is just as important to our salvation as was the death of Christ.
But Paul continued by explaining that because Christ did rise from the grave everyone will also rise from the dead, not just the believers in Christ. Christ's resurrection not only has the power to remove our sins but it also has the power to raise every person back to life from the dead, whether they are a saint or a sinner. Thus, when the resurrection occurs, it will be universal. Since every man, woman, and child who has ever lived on earth will come forth from the grave and be made alive again, the resurrection of Christ completely overcomes the power of death, leaving no one in the grave. That is why Paul later exclaimed "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (verses 54,55). As a side note, this is what Paul was referring to when he talked about God's free gift of grace which grace "came upon all men unto justification of life" (Romans 5:151-8).
However, Paul next explained that not everyone will come forth from the grave at the same time. There is a specific order to the resurrection. The first Person to come forth was Jesus Christ because it was His resurrection that made it possible for the rest of us to live again. Had He not risen then all of us would remain in the grave forever. After that, the next group of people to be made alive again are those who have believed in Christ and have remained faithful to him. But this event will not happen until Christ returns to earth in glory, which Christians refer to as the second coming. This is what Paul meant when He said, "But every man [will come forth] in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming" (verse 23).
Paul next states, "Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet" (verse 24,25).
Right now there are many rulers who have authority and power over many things, but when Christ comes again He will reign over all of them and they will all become subject to His authority and power. He will be the Supreme Ruler of the earth and all others will have to obey His commands.
But what is most interesting about this comment is that Paul clearly states it was God, the Father, who ordered His Son to subdue all things. He states it this way: "For he (God, the Father) hath put all things under his (the Son's) feet. But when he (the Father) saith [that] all things are put under him (the Son), it is manifest (obvious) that he (God, the Father) is excepted (exempted, or all things come under Christ's power except God, the Father), [because it was God, the Father] which did put all things under him (Jesus)" (verse 27). There are those who believe that Paul is referring exclusively to Jesus, not to God, the Father, but if that were so then this statement wouldn't make sense. However, as we shall shortly see, Paul clarifies that this is the correct interpretation.
One of the things that has power and authority over us is death itself. No one can escape its grasp. Therefore, if Christ is to subdue all things and bring them under His control, then that would have to include death as well. Paul verifies this when he said, "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" (verse 26). That is what the resurrection is all about - overcoming the power of death. And if it is not universal then Christ will not have completely subdued this enemy to God. Therefore, it is essential that everyone rise from the grave and be made alive again.
As we have already seen, it was God the Father that "put" (ordered, commanded) Christ in charge of subduing all things. "And when all things shall be subdued unto him (the Son), then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him (God, the Father) [who] put all things under him (Jesus), [so] that God [the Father] may be all in all (supreme over all things)" (verse 28).
According to the doctrine of the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are all one God rather than three persons who are each God. As such, it is believed that these three equally share or possess the same power, authority, and glory. That means no member of the godhead is superior to the others. However, this statement by Paul directly contradicts that idea. What Paul taught was that the Father gave an order that Christ should subdue all things under His control, with the exception of the Father, thereby showing that the Father has greater authority than the Son. But Paul also taught that after Christ has done this then He will deliver all things to the Father and then subject Himself to the Father. And the reason He will do this is so that the Father will then have full control over everything and be supreme over everything, including the Son. But if that is true then that clearly means the Son becomes subordinate to the Father, rather than equal to Him.
It is immediately after making this statement that Paul then says, "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all?" (verse 29). When read in context, what Paul is saying is that Christ was resurrected from the grave so that He could resurrect everyone, thereby completely conquering death. And when He has done this then He will be able to deliver the completed kingdom to His Father. If this is not so, then what is the point in baptizing the dead if the dead don't rise again, as some say?
Paul's entire message is aimed at disproving the false doctrine that there is no such thing as the resurrection and, as part of his logic, he points to the need for baptizing the dead. This wasn't just some odd practice that some obscure heathen group or apostate Christian sect was performing. When read in context it becomes clear that Paul is trying to show the importance of baptizing the dead because if this isn't done then Christ cannot complete His assignment to subdue all things under His authority. This is the link Paul makes between baptizing the dead and the resurrection. Just as the resurrection is absolutely essential to our salvation, so is baptizing the dead.
When this point is understood, it helps clarify a puzzling statement Peter made when he said that after his death Christ went and "preached unto the spirits in prison who were sometimes disobedient when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah… For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh". (1 Peter 3:19,20; 4:6). If baptism is a requirement for salvation and the dead have had the gospel preached to them, then it is only reasonable to conclude that they too must be baptized. Therefore, it becomes clearer that when Paul talked about baptism for the dead he was referring to a valid Christian ordinance rather than to a heathen practice. However, the fact that he didn't elaborate on this ordinance infers that it was so well known and understood by the early saints that he didn't feel the need to make any further clarification on the subject.
Most people stop reading at this point, but Paul does go on make one more comment about the resurrection that pertains to our subject. Paul says, "And why stand we in jeopardy every hour?" (verse 30). When read by itself that statement is not clear as to its meaning but if we read just a little further we see Paul saying, "If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantage [is] it [to] me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die" (verse 32).
What Paul is saying is that if the dead don't rise then why is he and other Christians putting themselves in danger by proclaiming their belief in Christ when such people are being thrown before wild beasts in the arenas of the city of Ephesus? If the dead don't rise then there is no advantage to remaining steadfast in our belief in Christ. In that case, we might as well eat whatever we want, drink all we want, and behave anyway we want because it won't matter after we're dead. But, if we all rise from the dead to be judge for our deeds then it does matter what we do. That is why Paul then said, "Do not be so deceived and misled! Evil companionships (communion, associations) corrupt and deprave good manners and morals and character. Awake and return to [your] sober sense and your right minds, and sin no more" (verses 33,34, Amplified Bible).
It was after His resurrection that Jesus instructed His apostles to "go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19,20). Since all of us have sinned and the purpose of baptism is for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 2:38), then the dead must likewise have the same opportunity to hear the gospel and repent of their sins so when they are resurrected they too can be judged by the same standard as the living. But if the dead do not have the opportunity to be baptized then they are left out of Christ's grace and cannot be gathered to Him.
When viewed in its full context it's easy to understand the message that Paul gave to the Corinthians about baptism for the dead.
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