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FAQ: Difficult Passages Blog #1

FAQ: Difficult Passages
Part 1
1 Corinthians 15:20-34
Jeremy Light

Before I get to this passage, I want to say thank you and to commend you! We received more “difficult passages” questions than there are weeks in the summer. This means we won’t get to them all in our Sunday services. So, we will address the ones we miss through this blog. I want to commend you because I think that if we are reading the Bible carefully, we should always find things that challenge our understanding of God and the Scripture. Your response indicates that you are reading the Bible carefully and not glossing over those passages and verses that are difficult and challenging. This is good! Keep it up!

Ok, let’s get to the actual passage. The particular question was about 1 Corinthians 15:29 – “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?”

To help us wrestle through these difficult passages, we’ve be using the CAPTOR acronym from Getting the Message by Dr. Daniel Doriani:
C – context
A – analysis
P – problem
T – themes
O – obligations
R – reflections

We’ve already identified the problem: what does Paul mean when he talks about receiving baptism for the dead? Is it something we should be practicing? To help us answer the question, we need to look at the context.

Context: Paul is writing to a group of Christians in Corinth. Paul founded the church during an eighteen month stay (recorded in Acts 18). From the time he left to the time he wrote the letter, their personal social interests have caused conflict and division. In his letter, Paul calls them to think like servants rather than pursuing their personal social agendas.

Analysis: In the letter, Paul addresses particular causes of division that have been reported to him. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul addresses the resurrection from the dead. Apparently some were preaching that there was no bodily resurrection from the dead.
Paul begins his counter argument by re-stating his gospel message: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” and appeared to many people (1 Corinthians 15:3-7). He argues that if Jesus rose bodily from death it doesn’t make sense to preach that there is no bodily resurrection from the dead: if there is no physical resurrection then Jesus did not rise from the dead and our faith is futile (15:17) and those who have died are lost (15:18). Paul is absolutely convinced that Jesus rose from the dead with a physical body and therefore those who put their faith in him will also experience a bodily resurrection.

Problem: Paul uses “baptism for the dead” to support his argument for a bodily resurrection: if there is no resurrection, it doesn’t make sense for people to be baptized for the dead.
There are a couple important principles to keep in mind:
1. As Pastor Ian has reminded us, the Bible is written for us, not to us. This means that while we may not understand what Paul is referring to here, we can presume that his original audience did.
2. We should understand a particular passage in light of the teaching of the whole Bible. In this case, baptism for the dead is not referred to anywhere else in the Bible. Further, there seems to be no historical reference to baptism for the dead up to the time Paul wrote this letter. If we were supposed to practice baptism for the dead, we should find more instructions in more places and references to it being practiced and affirmed in the early church. In fact, when Marcion (an early Christian) and his followers practiced baptism for the dead based on this passage and it was universally opposed by the other church fathers.
3. Paul regularly uses writings and practices from the culture to make his point. For example, the altar to the unknown god in Acts 17. It doesn’t mean that he condones the practice necessarily; he uses their practice to illustrated and support his point. In this case, we might paraphrase his argument this way: “It’s clear that even you don’t really believe that there is no bodily resurrection because you are being baptized on behalf of the dead. Why would you do that if you didn’t think they would rise again?”

Another problem is that it is not clear what Paul is referring to when he says baptism for the dead. Because there is no further biblical or historical reference to it, we are in the dark as to what he means. We assume that people were being baptized on behalf of those who died before they could be baptized. However, it is not clear. For example, it could refer to the Jewish practice of washing (baptizing) a corpse in preparation for burial, or something else entirely.

Themes: The theme of the passage is that the bodily resurrection of Jesus gives us confidence that those who have faith in Jesus will also experience bodily resurrection. This fits with the over-all message of the gospel: Jesus does not just save our souls but our whole person. Further, it fits with Paul’s argument that what we do with our body has eternal significance.

Obligations: We’re on pretty shaky ground if we conclude from this one verse that we should start practicing baptism on behalf of the dead. It is clear that Paul is using the practice (whatever it refers to) to support his argument for a bodily resurrection. It is not clear that Paul is condoning this practice.
What is clear is that the resurrection of Jesus gives us confidence that we will also experience a bodily resurrection which gives us confidence to pursue the mission of Jesus without fear. In verse 30, Paul says: “As for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I face death every day…” Paul’s confidence in facing death for the sake of Jesus’ mission comes from his confidence that he has been united by faith with Christ in his death and resurrection.
Are you living in a way that speaks to your confidence in a future bodily resurrection based on the resurrection of Jesus? Or are you living in fear? Jesus’ resurrection compels us to pursue Jesus’ mission without fear of death.
A further implication is that what we do with our bodies matters. Our future bodily resurrection has implications for our practices of sexuality, participating in the customs of our culture, and practices of exercise and nutrition. Our bodies are not of ultimate importance but, because those who have faith in Jesus will experience a bodily resurrection, what we do with our bodies is of eternal significance.

Reflections: The main point of the passage is that Jesus rose from the dead. The main call of the passage is to live a life that indicates our confidence in Jesus’ resurrection by pursuing Jesus’ mission with courage and confidence even in the face of rejection, ridicule, and death.