The last words of the Old Testament state, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to the fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse" (Malachi 4:5,6).
Most Christians don't have any real understanding of what these verses of scriptures mean. Although various biblical scholars have offered their own private interpretations, none of them fully agree with one another. Some have said that the turning of the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers is referring to a time when God will restore harmony in the family unit by establishing a proper parent-child relationship. Others have stated that it is a time when there will be a reconciliation between the unbelieving disobedient children of Israel and the believing ancestors of Jacob. Still others say it is a time of healing that comes from giving heed to God's teachings. Yet another biblical commentator states this refers to a return of later generations to the faith of the patriarchs, while another commentator states that Elijah will be an instrument in God's hand for turning many to the Lord their God in righteousness, and so making ready a people prepared for him.
However, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has received revelation from God which explains this mysterious prophecy (see D&C 110:13-16; 128:18; 138:47,48). It's correct interpretation is that our deceased ancestors will seek after their living descendants to have their saving ordinance work done for them, and that the living will become interested in seeking out their deceased relatives through genealogical research and have a desire to perform the necessary work that will help them become saved as well as us.
But that still doesn't explain why the earth will be smitten with a curse if this doesn't happen.
To gain a better appreciation of this scripture, we need to take a closer look at the mission of our Savior, Jesus Christ. During His last meal in mortality, Jesus met in an upper room with eleven of His apostles. Before leaving there Jesus prayed to His Father in heaven, and part of what He said in that prayer was, "I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do" (John 17:4). From there He went to the garden of Gethsemane where He was arrested. The next day, He was condemned to be nailed upon a cross where, for nearly eight long, excruciatingly hours, He hung. When at last He had paid the full penalty of our sins, He said, "It is finished, and he bowed down his head and gave up the ghost" (John 19:30).
But the Lord's work was not finished. The apostle Peter wrote that after Christ had been "put to death in the flesh, [He was] quickened (made alive) by the Spirit by which he went and preached to the spirits in prison." The people He preached to were those "which sometimes were disobedient when once the long suffering of God waited in the days of Noah." And the reason why "the gospel [was] preached also to them that are dead [is so that] they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit [world where people go when they die]" (2 Peter 3:13-20; 4:6). Furthermore, when Christ died, the central core of the gospel message had not yet happened - the resurrection of the dead. And even after Christ was resurrected, He continued to give revelations to guide the church (Acts 10:9-16; Galatians 2:2; Rev. 1:1,4). As Christians, we believe that God is still active in guiding His church. More than that, we frequently talk about how God is still working in the lives of His people and reaching out to bring unsaved souls to salvation. So it is obvious that Christ's work is not finished.
Then what did Jesus mean when, just before He was crucified, He declared that He had "finished the work" which His Father had given him to perform? In the 19th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, when speaking about the agony He endured to pay the penalty for our sins, the Lord stated, "Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men" (D&C 19:19, emphasis added). When Jesus died on the cross, that wasn't the end of His work. It was merely the end of the preparation for His work! His death on the cross actually marked the beginning of the work of salvation.
Perhaps we can help put this in perspective by use of an illustration. When someone decides they want to build a house, they don't go out the very next day and begin construction. Before that can happen, a number of other things must be done first. The land has to be bought, a zoning permit and a building permit might need to be obtained, architectural plans need to be designed, material has to be bought, and, possibly, arrangements with contractors need to be made. Also, the land has to be cleared first before the foundation can be dug. It is only after all these preparations have been completed, that the work of building a house can begin.
The same applies to saving the souls of men. God didn't build the earth one day and the very next day began saving people. A period of preparation was needed before the actual work could begin. Consider this: After Christ was resurrected, He commanded His apostles to go "teach all nations [the gospel], baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever [He] had commanded [them]" (Matthew 28:19,20). As we just read, Peter said that after Christ had died on the cross, He went and preached the gospel to those who were dead. But why wasn't the gospel preached to every nation before that time, and why did the spirits who had died as far back as the time of Noah have to wait to hear the gospel message until the crucified Christ came and preached it to them?
It should also be noted that, although the nation of Israel was God's chosen people, not once did He instruct them to teach their neighbors the Philistines, the Canaanites, the Amalekites, the Ammonites, or any of the other heathen tribes of that area to believe in and become converted to the Lord God, Jehovah. More than that, the Israelites themselves did not have a real understanding of the plan of salvation. Although there were many prophecies relating to the mission of Christ, and the ordinances of the temple were designed to teach them gospel principles, yet they still lacked the clarity of understanding which Jesus imparted to them during His mortal ministry.
It is evident that the four thousand years leading up to Jesus being born in Bethlehem was a time of preparation needed for the world to be made ready before the work of the gospel could begin. That means that the work of saving souls couldn't really begin until all the preparation work had first been completed. And the last thing that was needed to complete the preparation was Christ dying on the cross and then being resurrected. What that infers is that even the righteous who had lived on earth during those four thousand years of preparation - such as Adam, Able, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the prophets - had to wait until Christ died before they could be saved. Those who had been born outside of God's covenant people during that time of preparation had to wait until Christ died just to have the gospel preached to them.
But, if the saving work of the gospel didn't begin until after Christ was resurrected, then when will it be finished?
The apostle Paul explained it this way: "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. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith, All things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?" (1 Cor. 15:24-29)
According to Paul, the end will come (i.e., the mission of Christ will be completely finished) "when [Christ] shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, the Father." But that time won't happen until Christ "shall [first] have put down all rule (i.e., governments, laws, decrees, etc.), and all authority and power." Why? Because it is necessary for him to "reign till he hath put all enemies under his feet. [And] the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." In other words, Christ must first conquer and subdue (i.e. put down) all other rule, all other authorities, all other powers, and all other enemies and bring them under His control. When He has fully completed that job, then His work will finally be finished.
When Paul talks about "enemies" this doesn't just mean people or other kinds of "beings." Every act of unrighteousness is an enemy to God. Even death is an enemy because it separates us from God. Therefore, Christ's work of redemption cannot end until all unrighteousness has been to be put down, subdued, and conquered. Interestingly, the scriptures fittingly refers to that time as "the last day." (see John 6:39; 11:24; 12:48)
In the New International Version, verse 27 reads, "For he has put everything under his (Christ's) feet. (Psalm 8:6) Now when it says that everything has been put under him (Christ), it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ." In other words, God, the Father, who is over everything, has placed, or given Christ authority also to be over everything, (with the exception of being over God, the Father).
To illustrate this concept, imagine there is a king whose kingdom is attacked by his enemies. Although the king devises a strategy to defeat his enemies, he chooses his son to be in charge of the army which will wage the battle against the king's enemies. The son would then become the supreme commander of the army. His responsibility would be to oversee the implementation of the overall war campaign strategy. But every army also has to have what is known as a "central command center" where the day-to-day operations are coordinated and supervised. Below them are field commanders who direct the troops fighting the war.
In this illustration, the king is God, the Father. The Supreme Commander is Jesus Christ. His "central command center" is known as "the Church" and the President of the Church is the person charged with the responsibility of coordinating and supervising the day-to-day operations of the war against the enemies of righteousness. The field commanders are the Area presidents, Stake Presidents, and Bishops, and we, as individual members, are the troops doing the actual fighting. As stated before, the objective of this war is to overcome all other rule, all other authorities, all other powers and all enemies of God and bring them into subjection and under the control of Jesus Christ, the Supreme Commander.
Verse 28 states, "And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all." Once Jesus has secured total control over everything and has achieved final victory in this battle by overcoming all the enemies of godliness, then He will submit Himself to God, the Father, and deliver up the redeemed kingdom to Him who put all things under His control. Thus, in the end God, the Father ultimately becomes the supreme ruler over all things.
It is in this context that Paul next asks the question, "If this isn't so, then what point is there in people being baptized for those who are dead? Why do it unless the dead will someday rise again?" (see the New Living Translation)
Many people (including Latter-day Saints) quote this verse all by itself as though it has no relationship to the verses preceding it, but just the opposite is true. Paul asked this question for the purpose of supporting the doctrine he had just stated. In other words, the reason why Paul talks about the practice of baptizing the dead is to confirm the doctrine that Christ must conquer all things, including death. Furthermore, this explanation of Paul's concerning the mission of Christ which we have just analyzed, is part of a larger discussion on the subject of the resurrection. Therefore, when we put this verse in its proper context, we see that the doctrine of baptism for the dead is an important part of Christ's strategy to conquer the enemies of God, including death. "Else" (i.e., otherwise, if not, if this isn't so) then what is the point in baptizing the dead if the dead will not rise from the grave? The very fact that Paul asks this question in reference to Christ's mission of overcoming death clearly indicates that the practice of performing baptism for the dead is closely related to the purpose and reason for the resurrection of the dead.
There are those of other faiths who claim that Paul is not talking about Christians performing baptism for the dead, but is merely making reference to a pagan practice of his day. But, if this is the case, as they claim, then such an interpretation doesn't fit the context of what Paul is trying to explain. Either that, or Paul is agreeing with, endorsing, and advocating the performance of this heathen ceremony. In which case, it is still an approved practice.
But what does baptism for the dead have to do with destroying death?
Man is composed of two parts - his spirit and his earthly body. While alive on earth, these two parts are found united together in one form. But at death, the body is laid in the grave and the spirit lives on in another realm. "The resurrection" is defined as the spirit and the earthly body being reunited, never more to be separated. If Christ is to overcome all the enemies of God, then both the spirit and the body must be saved. It does no good to save just one part of man. In order for the victory to be complete, then the complete man must be saved.
To illustrate this, imagine a person who is invited to be part of a presidential inaugural procession. To prepare himself to participate, he has his hair immaculately styled, has his shoes spit-shined, and dresses himself in a custom tailored tuxedo. But then he gets into a car that if filthy dirty, has bald tires, the engine coughs and sputters and thick smoke belches out of the tailpipe. No matter how clean and spotless the driver is, the car is unfit to be part of the inaugural procession, but the car and the man must go together.
Our earthly body is the vehicle which our spirit operates. It's true that the spirit can be taught and accept the gospel message in the spirit world, but that is only one part of man. In order to stand in the presence of God after the resurrection, both the body and the spirit must be made clean and whole. Yet, when a man dies, their body lays in the grave, but the spirit has no access to its body. Therefore, some other way must be found to sanctify and cleanse the earthly body once it has been placed in the grave in an unsaved condition. That is the reason why there is the need for baptizing the dead. (The opposite situation is just as true. It does little good to sanctify the body if the spirit hasn't been saved.) If the work of saving the body wasn't performed, then only half the job of redeeming mankind would be accomplished. And if that is the case, then the reason for why the earth was created in the first place (for the redemption of the soul of man) would have been in vain. In that case, the earth would justly be deserving of being smitten with a curse.
Another way to illustrate this is to imagine a beautiful glass goblet that had been broken and shattered, which the owner asked a skilled craftsman to restore back to its original splendor. But, if instead of properly repairing the goblet, imagine that the craftsman merely glued as many of the pieces back together as he could, leaving clearly visible cracks with missing pieces, a jagged rim and only half a base. It's not hard to imagine what the owner would say when the craftsman returned the goblet in this condition. He would be angry and disappointed. Rather than keeping the goblet, he would throw it away because it would be worthless to him.
The same situation exists with man's salvation. The enemy of God has broken man's relationship with God, but Christ has been assigned the task of restoring that precious creation back to its original condition. If Christ does not redeem all that God has created - both the body and the spirit - then, when he presents man back to God, there will be parts missing, man will be incomplete, and therefore unfit to be worthy of God's presence. And if that were to be the case, the whole reason for creating the earth for man's salvation would have been utterly wasted (D&C 2:2-3).
But it is worse than that. Joseph Smith revealed that the reason why the earth would be smitten with a curse is because there must be a welding link between the fathers and the children. And the reason for this is because "we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect. Neither can they nor we be made perfect without those who have died in the gospel." There must be "a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories" that needs to take place (see D&C 128:18).
Before coming to the earth, we belonged to the family of God. He is our Father and we are his children. Together we formed a united family unit. Our Father's desire is for us to return to Him after our life on this earth is over as a complete and perfect family unit. To do that we must all somehow be linked, or united or joined together in some manner. In marriage the linking of two individuals into one unit is performed by a special ceremony. The linking or joining of God's children to each other and to Him is likewise done by a special ceremony. If we could not be joined to our ancestors, nor they to us, then the family of God would be incomplete and imperfect. In that case, Christ would not be victorious over the enemies of God because the damage done by death would still exist. And if that were to happen, then the reason for placing man on the earth would have been frustrated and the earth would become a curse to us rather than a blessing.
When will Christ's work be finished? When he has subdued all rule, all authority, all power, and has destroyed all enemies. And the work of redeeming the dead is an essential and critical part of what Christ needs to do. The longer it takes for that work to be accomplished, the longer it will take before the end will come. As followers of Christ, it is our duty, which we willingly took upon ourselves when we were baptized, to assist the Savior in His efforts to redeem all of mankind. The more diligent we are in helping Christ complete His work, the sooner we hasten the time when He can deliver up the kingdom to His Father.
When we become engaged in doing God's work here on earth, we too become "saviors" for those whom we help return to the family of God. And an important part of that work is to turn our hearts to our forefathers, and assist Christ in redeeming the dead, for, without this work being done, neither we nor they will be able to escape the curse of God.
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