Mark Twain said that it wasn’t the parts of the Bible that he didn’t understand that bothered him. It was the parts that he thought he did understand that got to him. Those troublesome parts, I gather, were the one where he thought God was acting unfairly. Our v. 29 presents this complaint in a different way as, for the believer, it presents a bazaar practice that is nowhere else taught in Scripture. What does Paul mean by “baptizing the dead”? Interpretations abound. It is one of Scripture’s most enigmatic verses.
Like it or not, if we’re going to be a truly Christ-centered, biblical church, we can’t edit those verses for our convenience. Moreover, all Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit and profitable for knowing His truth (2 Tim. 3:16). Fine, but things must be understood within the context they are given. While Scripture is more than a mere book, it is never less than one. I mean, the Bible as words on a page have proper meaning, grammar and context. The context of Paul’s argument for the resurrection is key here. He may be just using an odd but non endorsed practice of the Corinthian congregation to further make his case that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Why would they be baptizing stand-in’s for those who died (if this is what he’s alluding to) if there is no resurrection? He would be using irony, doing something that is contradictory to a believed and expected outcome. Baptism is about a real, bodily resurrection, not some cute, symbolic gesture of washing that in the end offers nothing.
Literally we have in this verse: “What will the ones being baptized do over the dead?” Some think this meant that early Christians did baptisms in cemeteries as a celebration of the resurrection to one day follow. Others think this meant that there were converts through baptism because of the example of those who died in the faith. They were inspired by their faithfulness. Still others think Paul means those who are now dead but baptized while living. If Paul means baptismal proxies, he alludes to it only in this context of defending the resurrection. It is spoken of nowhere else. Gnostics believed this as they aggressively separated the body and soul. More modernly, Mormons do the same to cover all the spirit children in this world while there is time. Neither of these groups is considered orthodox by mainstream Christians by their denial of the Holy Trinity, including then Christ’s own divinity, amongst other things. So either Paul’s language is simply open to nuances that we can’t pin down or he is using a practice unique to the Corinthian church to point out their inconsistency to what Christians all must believe: Christ has been raised from the dead. Fortunately for us, what the Bible elsewhere says of baptism is as clear as the water we use to do it. Jesus commanded it as a means to make disciples of all people. It joins us with Him in the death to sin and promised resurrection. It is for us and our children. We receive the gift of the Holy Spirit by it. It saves.
Paul continues his line of reasoning as in vv. 12-19 with another conditional, a personal one. He asks what his life and ministry has been for if there is no resurrection. It would kind of like be like a Lutheran pastor saying, “Why did I spend eight years in higher education, spend all that money on seminary and all those years in the trenches with my congregation if there is no resurrection?” Not that I wanted to be a doctor or a rock star or something when God called me into ministry, but I get where Paul is going with this. He loves his people. He’s invested in them. What does it mean ultimately if the love in Christ he proclaims can’t accomplish all things, even resurrection over death and everlasting life for them? No resurrection; this is all we got. Not just butterflies and pretty sunsets; genocide and the ugliness of disease, poverty and suffering, too.
Paul wraps up with a quotation from the Greek poet Menander, whom the Corinthians would surely know, to counterbalance the Greek philosophical belief of Hedonism- “Eat and drink, tomorrow we die” which held that only the pleasures of this present life mattered as there was no afterlife. Those who hold such thinking are the “bad company” that ruins good morals. False teachers can’t be taken lightly. They have an undermining effect over time. Those people have no knowledge of God nor respect for sacred truths. Paul says “wake up”! He compares the Corinthians’ present denial of the resurrection all of a sudden to a drunken stupor. Time to sober up to what is true.
For Our Further Discussion:
- What do you think about the Bible quoting secular sources? How about using false practices to make its point?
- How would you explain to someone that baptizing a person after death does no good? How would such practice make baptism out to only be a pointless ritual?
- Why don’t Lutherans even rebaptize the living once baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit?