Carefully Studying The Baptism Texts Of The New Testament (Nineteen)
It is written:
Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:29)
Of all of the New Testament passages which discuss baptism, this is perhaps the most difficult to interpret.
Let’s start by studying the context.
Between 1 Corinthians 10-16, Paul deals specifically with problems in the church at Corinth regarding their public worship assemblies. In chapters 10 and 11, the Apostle addresses abuses taking place during the Lord’s Supper and regarding the women in the church who were casting aside their veils (a custom borrowed from the ritual prostitutes in Corinth). In chapters 12-14, Paul discusses the ways that the Corinthians were misusing their miraculous gifts. In chapter 15, Paul turns his attention to the problem of false teachers in the church who were publicly proclaiming that there is no resurrection of the dead.
It is at this point that the Apostle lays down much of the evidence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1-8), showing that indeed the dead DO rise from death!
Furthermore, thanks to Jesus’ resurrection from the grave, there are several consequences that follow for His people (1 Corinthians 15:13-19). In a brilliant logical argument, the Apostle decisively demonstrates how the resurrection of Christ from the dead is an absolute cornerstone of Christianity. If we deny that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead occurred, then we are indeed of all men most miserable (1 Corinthians 15:19)!
At this point, the Apostle makes it clear that Christ’s resurrection serves as a promise that we will also rise from death when Jesus returns:
1 Corinthians 15:23-30-But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. 24 Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. 27 For “HE HAS PUT ALL THINGS UNDER HIS FEET.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. 28 Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. 29 Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead? 30 And why do we stand in jeopardy every hour?
With this context in mind, let’s take a careful look at verse 29.
First, Paul is making the point that if Christ had not actually risen from the dead, then those who are being baptized for the dead are doing so in vain. In fact, if Christ has not truly risen from the dead, then there is really no benefit in Christians being put in jeopardy every hour! Clearly, there is a connection here between this “baptism” and the resurrection from the dead.
Second, when Paul says that there are some who are baptized for “the dead,” who are “the dead” that he is talking about? Some teach that the reference is to Jesus, so that if Jesus actually did not rise from death He is still dead, and baptism is therefore pointless. After all, part of what makes baptism effective in the Gospel is the fact that Jesus Christ arose from the dead, and His resurrection power is imputed to believers when they are immersed into Him (cf. Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12-13; 1 Peter 3:20-21). So if we deny that Jesus arose from the dead, we automatically rob the Gospel plan of salvation of its’ power!
While it is true that there is a connection between baptism and the resurrection of Christ, this identification of “the dead” with Jesus fails because of the fact that the text actually uses the plural when describing “the dead.” Notice how this is brought forth in other Bible translations:
1 Corinthians 15:29 (CEV)-If the dead are not going to be raised to life, what will people do who are being baptized for THEM? Why are they being baptized for THOSE DEAD PEOPLE?
1 Corinthians 15:29 (ERV)-If no one will ever be raised from death, then what will the people do who are baptized for THOSE who have died? If the dead are never raised, then why are people baptized for THEM?
So the phrase “the dead” in 1 Corinthians 15:29 has reference to more persons than Jesus. Somehow, people in Corinth were being baptized on behalf of dead “persons.”
Third, this raises the question, “who are these dead persons?”
Some believe that the dead persons here being referenced were non-Christians at the time of death, and therefore there were some in Corinth who were being baptized in their place, to try and secure their salvation. (This is the basis for the teaching and practice of the members of church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, i.e., the Mormon). It is believed that by their being baptized on behalf of dead people who were not Christians, Mormons may save the lost from eternal damnation.)
However, the context of 1 Corinthians 15:29 demonstrates that the “dead ones” were in fact Christians who had died in the faith!
Notice that the “dead” throughout 1 Corinthians 15 are referencing either Christ Jesus or Christians who have died:
1 Corinthians 15:12-Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
1 Corinthians 15:13-But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen.
1 Corinthians 15:15-Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise.
1 Corinthians 15:16-For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen.
1 Corinthians 15:20-But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
1 Corinthians 15:21-For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.
1 Corinthians 15:32-If, in the manner of men, I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantage is it to me? If the dead do not rise, “LET US EAT AND DRINK, FOR TOMORROW WE DIE!”
1 Corinthians 15:35-But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?”
1 Corinthians 15:42-So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.
1 Corinthians 15:52-in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
The “dead ones” are not the unsaved dead: they are dead Christians!
Fourth, this helps us better understand what Paul is saying about those who are baptized “for the dead ones.” The preposition “for” in this verse is the Greek word huper, which carries the meaning of “on account of.” Somehow, there were people in Corinth were being baptized “on account of” Christians who had died.
They were being baptized into Christ in order to be with their loved ones again (who had died as faithful Christians) when Christ returns!
“We also note that while the two verses in the last category are ambiguous, the other usages, and the discussion as a whole, make it quite clear that Paul is not interested in all dead people, but in those who will benefit from being raised to glory. That is, his references to “the dead” have the righteous dead (i.e., dead who will be raised to glory) in mind. Paul is concerned with the resurrection of those “who have fallen asleep in Christ” (v. 18), those who “belong to” Christ and will be raised “when he comes” (v. 23). Those are the “all” who “will be made alive” (v. 22) that are his concern here. Paul is not concerned with the dead in general, but with the dead who will “bear the image of the heavenly man” (v. 49) and “inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 50), the ones who “will be raised imperishable” (v. 52). “The dead” Paul has in mind are those who will be “raised imperishable”; “raised in glory”; and “raised in power” (vv. 42-43). When he says that people are “baptized on account of the dead,” we may assume that he means that they are baptized on account of the righteous dead, those who will be raised in power and glory. This, then, is more specific than dead people in general, but it does not suggest something as specific as living or deceased apostles or specific loved ones who have recently passed away. We suggest that for believers to be baptized on account of the dead who will be raised in glory means that they have heard about these dead being raised up (to new life and glory) and that they want to be part of that group. 174 As Keener puts it, this may be Paul’s “roundabout way of saying ‘baptized so as to be able to participate in eternal life with Christians who have already died,’ hence baptized in the light of their own mortality as well.” 175”. (Roy E. Ciampa & Brian Risner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC), 783-784 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
The ones in Corinth who were being baptized were doing so that they could be with their family members who had died in Christ. This powerfully ties in with the context for, if there is no resurrection of the dead, then those who are being baptized to be with their loved ones who have died as faithful Christians are wasting their time, since the dead perish (as some in Corinth were advocating).
Despite the contextual evidence noticed above, some argue that the “dead ones” must be a reference to the unsaved dead because Paul switches to the third person in this verse (i.e., he refers to the ‘dead ones’ as “they”). So, it is claimed, this means that Paul must be referring to non-Christians since when Paul writes about Christians in Corinth, he refers to them as “you.” Therefore, when he references the “dead ones” as “they,” then “they” must be non-Christians!
However, understanding “the dead ones” as being dead Christians explains the reason why Paul switches to the third person. Gardner explains:
“One of the more persuasive suggestions, followed by a number of commentators, is that the purpose is to be reunited at the time of the resurrection with relatives who have died. Perhaps for some at Corinth, the death of those of faith had become a motivation for their relatives to be baptized. To see their relatives again, people take up the Christian faith that alone teaches of one who has risen from the dead. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then this whole exercise is pointless. One disadvantage of this suggestion is that it makes the desire to see relatives after death a motivation for coming to faith in Christ. But there are various motivations to faith in Scripture, and being faced with death among friends or family is surely a reminder of one’s own mortality that can be used by God as he calls people to himself. This suggestion as to the meaning of this rhetorical question also has the advantage of fitting well with the next couple of verses. There Paul offers himself by way of example. He is prepared to be thrown to the beasts so that he may be raised (vv. 30–32). Furthermore, it adequately explains the use of the third person, the future tense (ποιήσουσιν), and the middle voice (βαπτιζόμενοι): what will they gain from it, those who “have themselves baptized for the sake of the dead”? 7 It is not that this “baptism” has been an issue for many at Corinth. It simply provides an easily understood illustration that is not controversial (as opposed to a vicarious baptism, which surely would have been controversial, at least for the apostle). People have come to faith because of their appreciation of the wonder of the resurrection and the possibility of seeing their relatives again. This would be all to no avail if there is no resurrection of the dead.” (Paul D. Gardner, 1 Corinthians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 693 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)
Once carefully studied, this passage teaches us some very important lessons about baptism.
First, the ones who were being baptized were choosing to do so themselves. This is made clear by the use of the middle voice. Since infants and small children are not able to choose to be baptized, then this is another passage of Scripture which clearly refutes the practice of baptizing infants and small children.
Second, there is a clear connection between baptism and the resurrection of the dead. Clearly, the resurrection plays an important part in the believer’s baptism. Since the Gospel includes the information of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-8), the believer must understand these fundamental facts for baptism to be efficacious. Indeed, this is what we noticed when we studied the minimum knowledge requirement located in Acts 8:37.
Third, this passage clearly demonstrates that baptism was connected with the promise of eternal life. If these in Corinth wanted to be with their loved ones again in eternity, then they needed to be baptized. This first perfectly with everything we have seen so far about baptism, that baptism precedes salvation (cf. Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 12:13).
Fourth, we also learn from this there may be several scriptural motivations for a person to be baptized into Christ. Limiting baptism to one “purpose” or end goes against the tenor of this passage. Indeed, we will notice that in the New Testament, there are over thirty blessings and motivations attached to baptism.
Fifth, it is also important to emphasize that this passage teaches us that there may be elements of baptism which may be misunderstood, but which a Christians will continue to grasp as he grows as a child of God. The Corinthians had not made the connection between the futility of being baptized to be with their dead loved ones and the claim that Jesus had not risen from the dead. Their failure to perfectly understand did not render their obedience null and void; it simply indicated that they needed to continue growing in their knowledge and understanding.
Furthermore, in our day and age, there are many interpretations of this passage of Scripture. A different interpretation does not necessarily entail a matter of fellowship and division.
In the final analysis, this passage of God’s Word provides incredible encouragement in the promise of the Lord’s plan of salvation. Death is not the end for the Christian-and how wise we would be to submit ourselves to God’s Gospel today and prepare for that great Day of Christ’s return!
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.