Monday, March 27, 2023

Baptism for the Dead – 1 Corinthians 15:29

In my recent sermon on I Corinthians 15, (March 26, 2023) I glossed over a controversial verse in Paul’s teaching on the resurrection. It’s 15:29 that gets our attention:

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? (NIV)

What’s going on here?

Let’s review the context. In 1 Corinthians 15:12-34 Paul is arguing that the resurrection of Jesus is absolutely necessary for our faith. Without the resurrection our faith is worthless.  To bring this point home he assures the readers that those who have died are actually only asleep. Death is not the end. If Jesus is not raised those who have died are lost. Playing on this thought he then introduces a practice among the Corinthians – baptism for the dead. Such a practice is meaningless if there is no resurrection. The question is the purpose or intent of this practice.

Some suggest that Paul is being hypothetical here. It’s not that this practice is actually taking place, but if it was it would serve no purpose without a belief in the resurrection. This view eliminates the need to explain the function of the practice, but Paul doesn’t even hint that this is hypothetical. It seems like Paul is referencing an actual practice of the church there.

So, why are the Corinthians being baptized for the dead?

One possibility is that a believer can affect someone else’s salvation. You or I can express faith in Jesus and submit to baptism not only for ourselves but for others. In this case we can secure salvation for someone who has passed on or at the very least give them a posthumous opportunity to express faith in Christ. This is a practice of some religions (as I understand it). This interpretation, however, seems to contradict the New Testament’s clear teaching on the necessity of individual faith. Where else in the New Testament is this vicarious faith even hinted at? Where in the New Testament is someone baptized on behalf of anyone else, living or dead? Whenever we encounter confusing or obscure passages like we have here, a general rule of interpretation is to interpret the confusing passage in light of clearer passages. For that reason, I dismiss this view.

But what is the alternative?

1 Corinthians was written around AD 55. Paul first visited Corinth about 6 years previous to writing this letter. Perhaps others had come with the good news before Paul, but the fact remains that many God-fearing people had died between the time of Jesus’ resurrection and the reception of the gospel which included baptism as the initiatory act of faith. The Corinthians may have been wondering about the fate of those people?

Imagine this scenario. Stephanus, a believer in Corinth, heard the gospel at the teaching of Paul and was baptized. He had very devout parents and grandparents who died before hearing the good news. They never had the chance to be baptized. Stephanus is confident that had they lived to hear the gospel they would have been baptized. So, to honor their faith, Stephanus is baptized for them. Not for their salvation but as a token of their faith and assurance that even though they have died they still benefit from the resurrection. In this case Stephanus is not being baptized to secure their salvation but to testify to their saving faith. Although this kind of practice is not taught in the New Testament, such an understanding does not violate any clear teaching in the New Testament.

It is important to note that Paul does not necessarily endorse this practice. He merely uses the practice as further evidence of the necessity of the resurrection to the Christian faith. This practice may fall into the category of personal preferences. But, since Paul nowhere else teaches or encourages this practice I tend to think that Paul considers the practice harmless or else he would have set them straight as he is often known to do!

In any case, the importance of this verse is to offer further evidence that Jesus is actually raised and his resurrection guarantees the resurrection of all the faithful – past, present, and future.



Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Lessons from the Pothole

Driving to work the other day I hit a pothole and, like most people, I reacted angrily. “Why can’t they do something about this?” I mumbled under my breathe. But this time instead of complaining I thought maybe I could learn a lesson or two from the pothole.  Here’s what I learned:

Pothole Lesson #1 - There will always be potholes.

It seems like every city that I’ve lived in has had potholes. They’re everywhere. In fact, if you find a city without potholes move quickly because they soon will have some. Do you, like me, expect life to be all smooth sailing? That’s a nice thought but it’s just not going to happen. There will be potholes in life. Some of my own making. Some the making of others. And some just because we live in an imperfect world. Maybe I need to just make sure that I don’t overreact to these inevitable potholes in life. Sometimes I can let something annoying ruin my entire day and the day of everyone around me. It’s not that potholes are enjoyable, but I shouldn’t let them have the power over me that I allow them to have. Sometimes I just need to hit that pothole and move on.

Pothole Lesson #2 - Learn from your mistakes.

There is one route I take to work where I kept hitting the same pothole. Then one day I realized that if I just swerved a little to the left I could avoid it. Hitting potholes may be inevitable but hitting the same pothole day after day is not. I needed to learn from my mistakes. Have you ever heard this definition of insanity – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Instead of just complaining I need to learn how to avoid potholes in the future.  This is especially important when I am the cause of the pothole.  I need to ask myself how I contributed to the problem and what actions I need to take to avoid the same problem. Too often I’ll just blame others when what I really need to do is to take ownership of the foolish decisions I have made and make adjustments. Potholes can teach me better and wiser ways of doing things.

Pothole Lesson #3 - Talk to others who have traveled your path.

One way to avoid potholes is to talk to others who have taken the road I plan to take. I like it when I map out a route on my phone and it lets me know if there’s construction or other delays. Having that information helps determine what path to take and what to expect along the way. As I consider careers, major purchases, and other significant decisions it’s wise to ask someone who has already gone down that path. Mentors in life can help me avoid potholes. I can learn from their mistakes. I can read biographies of successful people and learn from them. I can read the wisdom literature of the Bible – books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and James – and gain insight from them. Whenever I hit a pothole I’m probably not the first to hit it and perhaps I can avoid some from the experiences of others.

So, next time you hit a pothole don’t just complain. Remember the lessons from the pothole and let it make you a better person.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The Idol of Eloquence

I’m a preacher. That’s my job. Most every Sunday I stand before the congregation and deliver a sermon. I love my job. I chose to do this. But, not to elicit your sympathy, it’s not easy. If you’re a church goer I would wager that on Sundays part of your worship experience is to listen to a preacher preach a sermon. Just typing that sentence makes me shudder. The words “preach” and “sermon” both can carry a negative connotation. Who really likes being “preached” at? Does anyone ever look forward to a “sermon”?  Admit it, the preacher has a difficult task.

I would like to think I deliver an interesting and applicable sermon, but I admit some Sundays are better than others.  Sometimes I fumble through the words. Other times an illustration or a joke doesn’t connect. Most of the time when I take my seat I remember something I left out or think of a better way to say what I tried to say. Some sermons are great (at least that’s what my mom always said). Some are good. Some are okay. And some are just plain bad. But however sermons are graded doesn’t just depend on the preacher. Some of it depends on you, the listener.

We admire eloquence and charisma in a public speaker and, speaking for all the preachers I know, we do try to be both. But what is more important, the message or the messenger? Perhaps a good or a bad sermon depends not so much on how it is presented as on how it is received.

Not too long ago I came across this statement: “A spiritually mature person is easily edified.” Could it be that even bad sermons can benefit a person who is more concerned with content than presentation? Could it be that every time a sermon is deemed bad it says more about the listener than it does the preacher? Have we made an idol of eloquence?

John Calvin wrote, “When a puny man risen from the dust speaks in God’s name, at this point we best evidence our piety and obedience toward God if we show ourselves teachable toward his minister, although he excels us in nothing.” Calvin argues that we can show our love for God’s word by listening attentively to even the “puny” preachers amongst us. In fact, we all may have missed some really good sermons because we tend to grade more by style than substance.

This Sunday when you go to church I hope your preacher has a well prepared, scripture-filled sermon. I hope you’re moved to laughter and tears. But more than that I hope your heart is open to the life-giving word of God. I hope that you are easily edified.

Preaching is hard work and every preacher should be willing to put in that hard work.  But listening is hard work too, and whether a sermon is good or bad depends more on you than your preacher.

My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power.

The Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 2:4–5 (CSB)

I don't remember 99% of the meals I've eaten, but they've kept me alive. God uses faithful, forgettable sermons to beautify his bride. - Matt Smethurst


Wednesday, December 07, 2022

A missed flight turned blessing

Sometimes missing a flight turns into a blessing.

My older son was flying from Little Rock  to Kansas City through Dallas but missed his connection because the flight was late leaving Little Rock. He called from the airport bemoaning his fate but said that there was another flight he could book that wouldn’t put him into Kansas City too much later than planned. Not long after that call he called again. This time with better news.

While my son was booking the new flight he came across an older gentleman who was on the same flight and in the same predicament but was having difficulty booking a new flight. My son helped him out and got the gentlemen on the new flight.  All was well. In appreciation the man invited my son to the Admiral’s Club in the terminal – a swanky lounge for wearied travelers stocked with all kinds of food, drink, and comfortable chairs to pass the time. So, the second call came while he was eating steak! His missed flight turned into an unexpected blessing!

That happens sometimes. Sometimes what appears to be a curse ends up being a blessing. Not always, but sometimes. I know it’s happened to me.

  • That relationship I wanted so badly ends only to be blessed by another relationship that turns out to be so much better than I could have ever expected.
  • The job offer that I so desperately wanted never comes only later to find a job that is so much better.
  • The ministry I so anticipated turns out to be unfruitful but opens the door to another ministry that fits my skills and passions in so many more ways.

It’s happened enough in my life to convince me that some things that I think I can’t live without are really holding me back from the things I really need. Sometimes not getting what I want is precisely the pathway to getting me where I really need to be.

Sometimes it’s obvious, but even when it isn’t perhaps we can live life with the awareness that with every missed opportunity comes another opportunity to learn something or to grow in some way. Being denied what I want doesn’t have to be the end of me. I don’t have to fall into despair. That denial is a chance to see a possibility I never would have seen otherwise.

Add to that my faith in a God who is always working behind the scenes, I can trust that he can make right any mistake I make or redeem any wrong that others do to me. Ask the Old Testament hero Joseph whose life is all over the map until he finally lands a cushy job with Pharaoh. In a meeting with his no-good brothers who in jealousy sold him into slavery, he articulates this beautiful truth – you meant to harm me, but God intended good (Genesis 50:20).

You see, that’s what God does. He takes a missed flight and turns it into an invitation to the Admiral’s Club! Sometimes missing a flight turns into a blessing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Stability in the Flux

Our family likes to play games. One card game we played when the kids were younger was a card game called “Fluxx.” It bills itself as “the card game with ever-changing rules.” Hence, the name” Fluxx.” During play the number of cards drawn changes. The number of cards you can have in your hand changes. The goal to win the game changes. It’s entertaining and frustrating at the same time.

Life sometimes resembles the games we play and right now I feel like we are living “Fluxx.” It’s like we were all playing by the same, unchanging rules for centuries and BAM – the rules changed. And then, when we figure out the new rules, they change again. For me, it’s not so much entertaining as it is frustrating.

I suppose change is inevitable and I guess change is not bad. I don’t want to be that guy who is so set in his ways and beliefs that I never question the rules and even acknowledge that some rules need to change. I want to be flexible, but I notice an ongoing craving for stability in my life and my beliefs. Afterall, what good is a belief if it is open to change? Are there some things, anything, that I can rely on day after day, year after year? Doesn’t life come with some immutable rules or is everything up for grabs?

As I read the New Testament, I see a Jesus who comes into a world steeped in religious “rules” and who boldly challenges much of what his contemporaries believe about God. Jesus is most harsh with those who never question what they have always believed. So, he calls for change, but in doing so he also calls them back to what is unchanging. And isn’t that the challenge – what is open to change and what is immutable? To live life in a total state of flux is denying that any truth exists. And many have chosen that path. But the Bible does give us that option.

The Bible makes claims like when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” There is no denying the implicit claim that there is truth. Not everything changes. There are some realities about life that are not open to public polls or opinions. There are some truths that are not subject to cultural norms or societal trends. One truth that you can be certain of is that the Bible, and Jesus, are either right on this or they are supremely arrogant, misguided, and egotistical.

A decision all people must make is whether we are living in the game of “Fluxx”, where the rules are all subject to change, or whether we live in a world where there are some absolute rules that give us all reliable guidelines to live by. If the former is true, then we must live in the reality that there is really nothing to put our faith in. If the latter is true, the next move is to make our life’s work the discovery of where this truth can be found.

These are important things to ponder, because this life of ours may be more than a game. If you’re on the search, I point you to Jesus. He makes the claim to be truth. He offers stability in the flux of life. Or, you can keep playing “Fluxx.”


Thursday, July 21, 2022

Trading Places

I don’t like being sick, but it might be even more difficult to see your child sick. You try to comfort them and help them heal, but there’s only so much you can do. There have been times when I would say to my child that if it were possible I would trade places with them. And it’s true. If you’re a parent you’ve probably had the same sentiment. We would gladly bear their pain if we could spare them. But as much as we want to take their pain, we just can’t.

One of the prominent pictures of God throughout the Bible is that of a father. God is our father providing for us, guiding us, teaching us to walk, and even disciplining us. And I get this sense that just as I hurt when my children hurt, he hurts when we hurt. And as a compassionate father he nurses us back to health. He helps us heal just like we do for our kids. And I imagine that God has those same feelings I have for my children when they are sick. He too would gladly bear our pain to spare us. Though I can’t do that for my children, he can and has done that for us.

The greatest sickness we suffer from is sin and the greatest pain we will ever experience is separation from God, our Father. And that’s what sin does. It keeps us from our Father, the source of all that is good. That separation is painful to us, but it is equally painful to God. And our Father has done something for us that we all wish we could do for our children. He traded places with us.

That is what the cross is all about. Jesus’ death on the cross is God bearing the pain of sin for every one of us. I’ve heard criticisms that it’s cruel for God to punish someone else for what we have done, but that’s not what happened. God punished himself in so much that Jesus is God. Jesus makes that claim and the biblical writers confirm it. “Jesus is God in the flesh” is an indispensable teaching of Christianity. God does on the cross what every parent wishes they could do for their child – he suffers for us. This is how much God loves us.

I believe God knew he would have to do this, even before he created us. He knew that parenting requires sacrifice and from the beginning he was willing trade places with us. Long before Jesus came, the prophet Isaiah painted this beautiful picture of God’s fatherly love:

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering. He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

God took our pain. Jesus suffered for us. He took my place. But after all, that’s what a good father does, and He is a good Father.



Wednesday, July 13, 2022

It took me to the moon and beyond!

Today I said goodbye to a good friend.  Just to be up front, no one died so this naturally doesn’t rise anywhere close to that level of sadness. But I did say goodbye to something that has been a part of my life for the last 21 years. My 2001 Honda Odyssey van has gone to the big car lot in the sky. I sadly confess that it took me more than two years to finally scrap the old vehicle, but today was the day, and it was just as hard as I thought it would be.

It was towed from the curb outside my house and left in a sad scrap metal facility populated by similarly old cars and other objects that had outlived their usefulness. I’ll remember this moment as much as I remember the moment we signed the papers to take ownership of a pristine new vehicle that would serve our family of four. That family would grow to five and then to six, and oh the memories we made.

Road trips to South Padre Island. Football games and band trips. Tennis matches all across north Texas. School drop offs and pickups. Dropping off kids at camp and college. Holidays to family homes. Some of my happiest moments in life were driving that van glancing to my right to check on my wife and checking the rear-view mirror to see what the four kids were up to. In many respects, our family grew up in that van and all those happy memories came racing back to my heart and mind faster than that van ever went.

In all, the van travelled nearly a quarter of a million miles, approximately the distance to the moon. But in reality it took me to the stars where dreams of love and family come true.