Greek: 20 Νυνὶ δὲ Χριστὸς ἐγήγερται ἐκ νεκρῶν, ἀπαρχὴ τῶν κεκοιμημένων. 21 ἐπειδὴ γὰρ δι’ ἀνθρώπου θάνατος, καὶ δι’ ἀνθρώπου ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν· 22 ὥσπερ γὰρ ἐν τῷ Ἀδὰμ πάντες ἀποθνῄσκουσιν, οὕτως καὶ ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ πάντες ζῳοποιηθήσονται.
My Translation: 20 But now Christ rises out from the deads, [some manuscripts "he became"] the primal offering of the sleepers. 21 For because through a human death, likewise through a human resurrection of the dead. 22 For even as in Adam all perish, even so in Christ all will become alive.
KJV: 20 But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. 21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
My translations are purposefully stretched and should not be viewed as more accurate than the KJV translation unless I say so in the post. I'm trying to show the range lying between the original Greek text and the English.
Let's Spend Some Time In A Single Chapter
1 Corithians 15 is a rather meaty chapter. In it Paul attempts to re-summarize his main theological ideas to a group he had already taught once. So on the one hand, it's an interesting look into Paul's thought, but on the other hand it is not a complete view of his ideas. Paul relates how the root of his beliefs is centered in the resurrection of Jesus.
Paul the Apocalyptic
Paul was an apocalyptic Jew. We've talked about this theology before. Before becoming a Christian, Paul was a Pharisee, some of whom were also apparently apocalyptic in their viewpoint as well. For Paul, he says in chapter 15 that Jesus appeared to him, as well as a long list of other witnesses (this list doesn't exactly line up with the Gospels, it should be noted). For Paul, it seems that Jesus's resurrection was one of the main points of Paul's new theology. We can assume that as a Pharisee, Paul's main contention against the new Jewish sect of Christians was that they felt that Jesus was the Messiah. To regular Jews, this claim was bizarre: Jesus was executed as a criminal, according to Torah he was cursed because he was hung upon a tree, and nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures was there any indication that the Messiah would suffer and die (most of the areas usually viewed as prophecies of Jesus, such as Isaiah 53, were never viewed as prophecies of the Messiah before Jesus's death). To imply that Jesus was the Messiah, sent by God to Israel, was therefore an extreme mistake that some Jews, like Paul, felt needed to be actively corrected.
However, once Paul came to the conclusion that Jesus had risen from the dead, everything shifted. If Jesus had been raised from the dead, then he must have been the Messiah, and the Christians were right. But what was the purpose of Jesus's death in that case? From this point, Paul developed an extensive theology of Jesus's death and resurrection that was formed around Paul's apocalyptic beliefs. Part of those apocalyptic beliefs was that the coming Kingdom of God would also bring about the reversal of death. Jesus's rising from the tomb was the "first fruits" of this resurrection.
The term "first fruits" (or "primal offering" as I've rendered it) refers to the practice of sacrificing in the ancient world. The first fruits were the first produce sacrificed to the gods at the beginning of the harvest. The term implies a the first of many such offerings. For Paul, Jesus's rising is evidence of the Kingdom of God nearly arriving and that further resurrections should be expected. It's a little hard to view Paul's statement as referring to Jesus rising and then everyone else rising over two thousand years later. This term refers to a harvest and Jesus is simply the first to rise of everyone. The time is short.
One of Paul's biggest innovations for Christianity was his establishment of Adam and the expulsion from Eden as one of the reasons for Jesus's death. Remember that as an apocalyptic, Paul felt that the current world was ruled by the powers of darkness and sin. But how did the world that God created arrive at such a position where it was under the sway of evil? For Paul, the blame lay at the first disobedience of humans in the Hebrew creation myth. Ever since then, the world has been corrupted, but now that Jesus was risen from the dead the coming Kingdom is arriving to resolve the problems. For Paul, Christ is resurrected first, then all who are Christ's and then the end of the world occurs.
I hope I don't need to do any more summarizing to show what this verse means within its context. Paul is re-explaining his views to those who have heard them before. He explains the significance of Jesus's resurrection in terms of his apocalyptic view of the fallen world, which he blames upon Adam. The rest of the chapter (which leads to the next scripture mastery verse and the next post) is Paul waxing on about how this rapidly approaching resurrection will occur.
Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?
I think this verse was chosen because the Latter-day Saints make a big deal among themselves that all humans will be resurrected. While some other Christian faiths feel that only the righteous will be resurrected, a physical resurrection of the body is part of Christian orthodoxy. It is viewed as a curiosity of Christian doctrine, however. The Mormon focus on this scripture, while oddly emphasized within the theology, is completely in line with the scripture's context and their interpretation of it is an interpretation shared by the majority of Christian orthodoxy.