by Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes
This post is adapted from the BYU New Testament Commentary on 1 Corinthians, forthcoming.
Paul fully understood the doctrinal nuances and ramifications of the Lord’s resurrection and what it meant to all the Saints. In order to both bolster his position and assure the Saints he knew what he was talking about, the Apostle affirmed that what he was sharing with them was a “mystery” (1 Cor. 15:51). Since the Greek word (mysterion) connotes insights and understandings that only revelation can provide, Paul appears to be referencing a vision he had had that, at the time of the Second Coming, both the living and the dead would be transformed from mortal to immortal instantly (1 Cor. 15:52).
In understanding the joy the resurrection promised the righteous, the Apostle exalted, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor. 15:55). The Lord made it clear that “they that die not in me, wo to them, for their death is bitter.” On the other hand, “those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them” (D&C 42:46–47). Using the force of the vocative mood (“O death”), Paul presses home his point about mankind’s powerlessness in the face of death with the above words. The two phrases actually act as a taunt. The threatened sting holds no fear for the repentant precisely because Christ himself absorbed that sting.
Paul was very clear that the “the sting of death is sin” (v. 56). Deep sin is more than the deliberate turning away from God. It is the attempt to turn everything toward oneself. It manifests itself fully in those who seek to be a law unto themselves. Such sin disallows any sanctification by law, mercy, judgment, or justice (D&C 88:35). The price of such rebellion is death. It is this that gives sin its punishing power such that, like a slow acting deadly poison, it stings brutally before it kills.
The sting of death is largely due to the loss of the fullness of life, explicitly, in being godforsaken. It is of note that the death Jesus suffered was not the stingless death he promised others, but that of the horrifying godforsakenness justice required, “how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not,” but it did cause even a God to “tremble because of pain” and “suffer both body and spirit” (D&C 19:15, 18).
Though law acts as a moral indicator pointing out both sin and its gravity, it also acts as a principle of rule sustained by a cause and effect that applies to all. It, thereby, ties everyone to the consequences of their past actions from which they have no power, on their own, to escape (Alma 42:12, 14). This is what arms death with its lethal sting. It can claim the creature and impose the horrible penalty of eternal death (Alma 42:9–11). The Atonement, which includes the resurrection, not only frees the individual from his or her past deeds but also their consequences (Alma 42:15; 2 Ne. 9:10–12). That allowed the individual to live free and fearless so far as the future is concerned. Therefore, Paul could admonish his readers to “Thank God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57).