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.