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During the months that Paul spent in Corinth, “many of the Corinthians hearing [him] believed, and were baptized” (Acts 18:8). So it must have been heartbreaking for Paul to hear, just a few years later, that there were “divisions” and “contentions” among the Corinthian Saints and that in his absence they began to heed the “wisdom of this world” (1 Corinthians 1:10–11, 20). In response, Paul wrote the letter we now call 1 Corinthians. It is full of profound doctrine, and yet at the same time, Paul seemed disappointed that the Saints were not ready to receive all the doctrine he wanted to give them. “I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual,” he lamented, “for ye are yet carnal” (1 Corinthians 3:1–3).

What was the “wisdom of this world” that Paul spoke about in 1 Corinthians 1:20? 

Being a prosperous port city, Corinth was especially susceptible to the influence Greek philosophy its concepts.  Greek culture had so permeated Jewish thought, especially among the Sadducees, who had been appointed by the governing powers. 

The Influence of Greek Philosophy on Christian Theology

When I was younger, I was taught the difference between Pharisees and Sadducees. “The Pharisees believe in the resurrection, but the Sadducees do not.  That is why they are “sad you see.” They, like many Greeks, do not even believe in any form of existence after death.  Sadly, many moderns feel the same way.  

I noted this fact, but didn’t understand why anyone would NOT believe in the resurrection, when they knew about it, because it is such wonderful news – we don’t have to stay dead forever!  Then I read a book called How Greek Philosophy Corrupted the Christian Concept of God by Richard Hopkins.  Then I understood.  Here are some quotes from that work:

The Greek philosopher Plato suggested “that the ideal world of immaterial and eternal essences included Forms for everything that exists in the material world . . . the world of bodies.” (p. 42)  In other words, every physical thing in the world is only an imperfect manifestation of the perfect “Form” in the ideal world.  Tables in the physical world might have scratches and dents, but the “Form” tables are forever flawless.  The Greeks slowly developed an “antipathy toward the physical world.” (p. 43) Early Christianity believed that God was corporeal (physical), but later writers clearly adopted the “Greek distaste for the flesh” and attributed to God “a purely spiritual form.” (p. 97)  It is difficult for our Western minds to comprehend such beliefs, but, nevertheless, Plato’s ideas were well accepted.  He claimed that “this world is not real, but only seems to exist.” Man’s knowledge of the world is “mere illusion, not the truth” (Hopkins, p. 264). No wonder people stopped believing in the physical resurrection. Plato and Greek thought tried to distance themselves from the physical world! Plato could not imagine God having a body because, in his mind, “God would have been consigned, with Man, to the lesser realm where nothing is real and nothing can actually be known” (Hopkins, p. 318).

Now we can finally understand the answer to the question, “Where did the Corinthians get the idea there is no resurrection?” 1 Cor 15:12  Paul himself asked the Corinthians,“… how say some of you that there is no resurrection of the dead?”  It is clear that the Corinthians had rewired the gospel, redefined to fit Greek ideas.  As we have seen from the quotations from Plato, it is the pre-disposition of Greek culture to say the physical world is an illusion, that only the spirit exists in truth.  By the 3rd and 4th century of Christian history, this idea takes over.  The physical resurrection is denied.

Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times

The question,“What shall become of the righteous dead who have never been baptized?”  greatly perplexed the doctors of the medieval church.  They were forced to choose between a weak law that allowed the unbaptized to enter heaven and a cruel God who damned the innocent.

Scholars who know Greek have interpreted 1 Cor 15:29, “baptized for the dead,” as one person representing  another in baptism for two reasons: 

  1. hundreds of business documents in papyri exist to show that the language Paul uses is the legal language of agency, performing an act in the name of another.
  2. the same construction is used over a hundred times in the New Testament to show Christ’s vicarious sacrifice “for us”  (John 10:15, 15:13).

Of 1 Cor 15:29, Jerome (the translator of the Bible into Latin) says:  “This is evidently a practice of the early Christian Church which we no longer practice.”  (Jerome, Biblical Commentary)  Scholars like Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmeyer, Roland Murphy also agree with this idea.  Paul uses this practice as an argument for the resurrection.  In order to substantiate this truth about the reality of resurrection, he refers sideways to the practice of baptism for the dead, with which the Corinthians would have been familiar.  In Paul’s mind, the kingdom of God is physical and those who enter it must be baptized in water.

On my mission in Hong Kong in the early 1970’s, we were teaching a young British woman about baptism for the dead.  When we asked her what she thought about what we had said, she said, “If what you say is true, then you are the only Christian religion that really believes the Bible!”

According to Hugh Nibley, in his article entitled, “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times,” in Mormonism and Early Christianity, this ordinance was practiced by the saints in the early Church of Jesus Christ.  “In 1895, there was found in Egypt a Coptic papyrus purporting to contain an account of the teaching of Christ to his apostles after the resurrection. . . The subject of this epistle was salvation for the dead, a doctrine which . . .  was believed in the early church to have been the main theme of Christ’s teaching after the resurrection.”  (p. 100)  As early texts were compared with the each other and with the testimony of the oldest church writers, it became apparent the main weight of early Christian doctrine was not on the cross but on the work of the Lord as a teacher, marking the way of eternal progress for the living and the dead” (Nibley, p. 101).

“One of the first questions that Clement, the ardent investigator, put to Peter is, ‘shall those be wholly deprived of the kingdom of heaven who died before Christ’s coming?’ To this the apostle gives the most significant answer: he assures Clement that the people in question are not damned and never will be, and explains that provision has been made for their salvation, but this, he says, is ‘as far as we are allowed to declare these things,’ excusing himself from telling more: ‘you compel me, O Clement, to touch upon things which we are forbidden to discuss’” (Nibley, p. 103 quoting from Clementine Recognitions I, 52, in 1:1236).

Hugh Nibley asks, “Why was Peter forbidden to discuss salvation for the dead with an investigator?” (p. 103)  Nibley cites a “special doctrine” revealed to the twelve and hinted at in three short verses in Matthew 16:17-19, and passed over in complete silence by Mark and Luke.  You will recall that in these well-known verses, the Lord asks his disciples, “Whom say ye that I am?” Peter replies, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus tells him that he is blessed, that “flesh and blood” has not revealed this knowledge to him, “but my Father which is in heaven.”  Jesus says, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church; and the gates of hell will not prevail against it,” and promises that he will give Peter the “keys of the kingdom.”  After these three verses, verse 20 reads, “Then charged he the disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ.”  Later, at his ascension, he would tell his apostles to “go ye therefore, and teach all nations,” so why all the secrecy now?  That we are dealing with a “very special doctrine indeed” is indicated by the associations of “the keys,” the sealing, and the “gates of hell” (Nibley, p. 105).

In Luke 9:21, which rendered literally  reads:  “But he, having pronounced a penalty (epitimesas), instructed them not to tell it to any man.” That word for “instructed” used here is a military term meaning ‘to give a watchword’ and has an air of great solemnity and secrecy.  (p. 104)  Nibley continues:

To the Jews “the gates of hell” meant something very specific. Both Jews and Christians thought of the world of the dead as a prison – carcer, phylake, phroura – in which the dead were detained but not necessarily made to suffer any other discomfort.  In the Jewish tradition, the righteous dead are described as sitting impatiently in their place of detention awaiting their final release and reunion with their resurrected bodies and asking, “How much longer must we stay here?” The Christians talked of “the prison of death” to which baptism held the key release – a significant thought as we shall see.

It is the proper function of a gate to shut creatures in or out of a place; when a gate “prevails,” it succeeds in this purpose; when it does not “prevail,” someone succeeds in getting past it.  But prevail is a rather free English rendering of the far more specific Greek katischyo, meaning to overpower in the sense of holding back, holding down, detaining, suppressing, etc.  . . . Since all have fallen, all are confined in death which it is the Savior’s mission to overcome; their release is to be accomplished through the work of the church, to which the Lord promises that at some future time he will give the apostles the keys. In one of the very earliest Christian poems Christ is described as going to the underworld to preach to the dead, “ And the dead say to him, . . . ‘Open the gate to us!’” whereupon the Lord, ‘heeding their faith,” gives them the seal of baptism.  Baptism for the dead, then, was the key to the gates of hell which no church claimed to possess until the nineteenth century, the gates remaining inexorably closed against those very dead of whose salvation the early Christians had been so morally certain (Nibley, p. 105-106).

Thus, we can see that the “gates of hell” have nothing to do with the devil at all, but refer to the gates which “hold back” those who are in the spirit world from attaining the object of their desire. . . There are early oriental traditions about a divine hero who smashes the door of the underworld. . . “The early Christians never connect the two traditions: there is no fight when Christ goes to open the way for the release of the dead; he made absolutely no opposition, and does not have to smash the gates, since he has the key.” (See Nibley, p.108)

In my Easter article for Meridian, I wrote extensively on the doctrine of baptism for the dead, and how it strengthens my testimony of the universality of the love of our Father in Heaven for all his children.  In case you missed it, I am sharing a link here.  I speak about the Savior’s visit to the world of spirits while his body lay in the tomb. In fact, it was Peter’s words about this in 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6, that President Joseph F. Smith was contemplating when he received a vision explaining how Christ organized the righteous spirits to teach those who had not heard and accepted the gospel on earth (see D&C 138:10).

Restoration of Ordinances for the dead: “A shaft of light from the throne of God.”

On August 15, 1840, shortly after the Saints moved to the future site of Nauvoo, Illinois, Joseph Smith preached a sermon at the funeral of Church member Seymour Brunson. Noticing a woman in attendance who had lost her son before he could be baptized, Joseph revealed that the Saints “could now act for their friends who had departed this life” by being baptized in their behalf. The Saints received word of this practice with enthusiasm and began to perform baptisms in nearby rivers and streams in behalf of relatives, friends, and prominent people.

Elder Wilford Woodruff said that when he learned that living members of the Church could receive saving ordinances in behalf of their ancestors who had passed away, “It was like a shaft of light from the throne of God to our hearts. It opened a field wide as eternity to our minds.” He also commented: “It appeared to me that the God who revealed that principle unto man was wise, just and true, possessed both the best of attributes and good sense and knowledge. I felt he was consistent with both love, mercy, justice and judgment, and I felt to love the Lord more than ever before in my life. … I felt to say hallelujah when the revelation came forth revealing to us baptism for the dead. …”

“The first thing that entered into my mind,” he said, “was that I had a mother in the spirit world. She died when I was 14 months old. …” Later on, he spoke of the time when he had the opportunity to have his mother sealed to his father: “She will have a part in the first resurrection; and this alone would pay me for all the labors of my life” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, [2011], 185–86).

As a young man, Wilford Woodruff was taught by a remarkable man named Robert Mason. He believed in the tenets of the gospel of Jesus Christ learned through personal revelation that the true Church of Jesus Christ would soon be restored to the earth. He had an amazing vision in 1800, in which he was told more about this restoration, but that he would not be a part of it.  He told Wilford Woodruff that he would be a “conspicuous actor in the new kingdom.” After Robert Mason’s death, Wilford Woodruff was baptized on his behalf in the Mississippi River. To read the full story click here.  A video version is also available.

I would strongly suggest watching “Glad Tidings: The History of Baptisms for the Dead,” (6:55) available on the Gospel Media library.  It is very inspirational, and documents the history of how baptisms for the dead were introduced in this dispensation.

1 Corinthians 15:1–34, 53–58

Jesus Christ gained victory over death.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is so fundamental to Christianity, one might say that without it there is no Christianity—to use Paul’s words, “then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).  In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul preaches the oldest account of the resurrection – even older than the gospels.

These were not vague rumors, but virtual challenges to ask available people about their personal experiences.  The early church knew firsthand of the reality of the resurrection from living witnesses. Verse 5 testifies that the risen Christ was seen by Peter, and then by the twelve apostles. The next verse testifies that he was see by more than five hundred people at once, most of whom were still alive at the time that Paul wrote the epistle. We have no record of this anywhere in the scriptures but here.  Apparently, the four gospels don’t tell the whole story. Verse 7 of 1 Corinthians 15 tells of Christ’s appearance to his brother James, who, according to John 7:5, was not a believer.  We are not told of what caused him to make the change – he must have had an experience like Alma the Younger or Paul. (I would like to hear about that someday . . .)  Lastly, he refers to his own miraculous experience on the road to Damascus.

Chapter 15 is one of the most explicit and complete doctrinal expositions of resurrection found anywhere in the New Testament. The victory over death is universal, “for as in Adam all die, in Christ shall all be made alive.  1 Cor 15:21, 22  Jesus is the second Adam.  Two men in two gardens chose to die so that man might live.

1 Corinthians 15:35–54

What kind of bodies will we have in the resurrection?

Have you ever wondered what a resurrected body is like? According to 1 Corinthians 15:35, some of the Corinthians wondered the same thing. Apparently, his point is that the different kinds of resurrected bodies will be as different as bird flesh is from fish flesh. The glory each different body possesses depends on the quality of the spirit that quickens it.  For instance, verses 40–42 teach that resurrected bodies will shine in glory in varying degrees, just as the sun, moon, and stars differ in brightness (see also Joseph Smith Translation, 1 Corinthians 15:40D&C 76:50–112). Further light is shed on the quality of these resurrected bodies in D&C 88:20-32.  The glory each resurrected body possess will be determined by the law by which that person was willing to abide, because they are “sanctified” by that law. Otherwise, the person could not “abide,” or be comfortable in that degree of glory. For example, verse 22 reads, “he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory.” 

These three glories must of course be correlated with the three heavens spoken of in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4.  In verse 2, when Paul says “a man,” he is speaking of himself.  This is a very spiritual experience to him, too sacred to relate, and he guards it closely. (It must have been very powerful and sacred, for he speaks of Christ appearing to him on the road to Damascus repeatedly.)  He was “caught up to the third heaven” (v. 2) and heard “unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” (v.4)  Whether he experienced this “in the body, or out of the body” he cannot tell, only “God knoweth.” (v. 3)

Joseph Smith received the revelation on the three degrees of glory (Section 76) after he worked on the translation of John 5:29, which speaks of the “resurrection of the just” and the resurrection of the unjust.” He and Sidney Rigdon first reasoned that since the works of men were different, their rewards must be different. Not by reasoning from these biblical verses, but by an overwhelming vision, the prophet and his secretary saw three kingdoms of glory which they called, the celestial, the terrestrial, and the telestial.  (In the last kingdom were those who had done wickedly, but who had prepared in the spirit world for a degree of glory.) 

Joseph was confident that “anyone who read the vision would realize its truth:  The sublimity of ideas, the purity of language, the scope for action, the continued duration for completeness in order that the heirs of salvation may confess the Lord and bow the knee, the rewards for faithfulness, and the punishments for sins are so much beyond the narrow-mindedness of men –  that every honest man is constrained to exclaim: ‘It came from God.’”  History of the Church 1:252-253.

Paul named two of these kingdoms  – the celestial and the terrestrial glories.  Some writers ridiculed Joseph Smith for inventing the word “telestial,” but they speak ignorantly.  Those in the third degree of glory are they who are liars, adulterers, whoremongers, and chose wickedness, suffered the wrath of God on earth, and had to wait for the final resurrection (D&C 76:103-106).  In Paul’s words, “they that are Christ’s” are raised at his coming, with the remainder resurrected at “the end.” (1 Cor. 15:23-24)  “End” is the Greek telos – thus “telestial” glory refers to those coming at the end, in the last resurrection.

This problem had concerned the early church because we have an early Christian teaching from Irenaeus in the 2nd century concerning three heavenly types of glory.  Irenaeus, Christian bishop of what is now Lyons, France, wrote his long book, Against Heresies about 180 AD.  He was raised in Asia Minor, where as a young man he had known the Christian bishop Polycarp, who had known the apostle John.  Thus, “through Polycarp, Irenaeus was in touch with the apostolic age.”  Quasten, Patrology, 1:287.  The following quotation teaches three degrees of glory, and attributes it to those who knew the apostles.  This does not mean that its details were all handed down accurately, but there is striking agreement on two main points with Joseph Smith’s revelation – that there are three basic divisions of glory in the hereafter, and they arise from the fact that men’s works differ.

As the Elders say, then also shall they which have been deemed worthy of the abode of heaven go there, while others shall enjoy the delight of paradise, and others shall possess the brightness of the city; for in every place the Savior shall be seen, according as they shall be worthy who see him.  They [“the Elders”] say moreover, that this is the distinction between the habitation of them that bring forth a hundred-fold and them that bring forth sixty-fold, and them that bring forth thirty-fold. (Alluding to the parable of the sower – Mt. 13:3-23); of whom the first shall be taken up into the heavens, and the second shall dwell in paradise, and the third shall inhabit the city; and that therefore our Lord has said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.36.1-2. Lightfoot translation.

In 1 Cor 15:50, “flesh and blood” is simply a metaphor for mortality.  Paul answered Corinthian scoffers by saying that a flesh and blood body would not come up in the resurrection.  But as a body, it retains its physical properties.  Jesus contrasted his resurrected body to a spirit:  “A spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see me have.” (Luke 24:39)  Paul told the Corinthians that Christ was not the exception, but was the example of the resurrection for all mankind. (1 Cor 15:49)  Modern revelation gives many insights into the resurrection.  A “spiritual body” (v. 44) would be better called a “glorified body.”  It will be a flesh and bone body but not a flesh and blood body.  “When our flesh is quickened by the spirit, there will be no blood in the tabernacles.”  All will “raise by the power of God, having the spirit of God in their bodies and not blood.” (Ehat & Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, pp. 368, 370-71) See also Alma 11:43–45.

1 Corinthians 14

I can seek the gift of prophecy.

As I conclude this article, I want to focus on an invitation given to the Corinthians to “covet to prophesy”? (1 Corinthians 14:39).  What might Paul have meant by this? The Guide to the Scriptures defines prophecy as “divinely inspired words or writings, which a person receives through revelation from the Holy Ghost. . .  When a person prophesies, he speaks or writes that which God wants him to know, for his own good or the good of others” (Guide to the Scriptures, “Prophecy,”; see also D&C 100:5–8). Revelation 19:10 also defines the spirit of prophecy as the “testimony of Jesus.”

We, too, can have the spirit of prophecy.  Whenever we bear testimony of Jesus by the Spirit of the Holy Ghost, we are using this gift of prophecy Who knew? In Numbers 11:4, Moses says to Joshua, “would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!” 

President Nelson has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Latter-day Gathering of Israel. On June 3, 2018, he and his wife, Wendy W. Nelson, invited every single youth in the Church to “enlist in the youth battalion of the Lord and take part in “the greatest challenge, the greatest cause, and the greatest work on the earth.” He has encouraged us all to join in this work. We can “prophesy” to others by sharing our testimonies of Jesus Christ with them.  We will be aided in this effort, because the Lord will be with us as we have faith to open our mouths to those around us. As we “lift up [our] voices unto this people, and speak the thoughts that [the Lord] shall put into [our] hearts, it shall be given [us] in the very hour, yea, in the very moment, what [we] shall say” D&C 100:5-6). 

We can also help to gather Israel on the other side of the veil.  Primary children love to sing the song “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus.”  The Lord Jesus Christ performed a vicarious sacrifice on behalf of each one of us.  He did something for us that we could not do for ourselves.  In “trying to be like Jesus,” the restoration of proxy baptisms on behalf of our dead relatives provides us a unique opportunity to do just that.  We have the opportunity to do something for someone else that s/he cannot do for him/herself.