|Volume 24 Number 8 August 2022
While teaching that Christ’s resurrection was the greatest proof that our own resurrection will occur at His coming to judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31; John 5:28-29), the apostle Paul asked the Corinthians, “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 NKJV). Some have held that there was a custom practiced by some in the first century of baptizing people – living persons – for the benefit of the individuals who had died without baptism. Some think that in 1 Corinthians 15:29 the apostle was using an argument based upon what some Christians were doing at Corinth – practicing vicarious baptism, baptizing Christians on behalf of deceased acquaintances who, while under instruction and faith development, had died before completing their primary obedience to the Gospel (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38).
The obvious difficulty in imagining such allusion here is met by emphasizing that the apostle did not here evaluate such a practice with which he would have been in complete disagreement and merely mentioned it in an argument in making his overall case for the resurrection. Moreover, had such a custom existed there or at any other place in the first century, then, certainly the apostle Paul would have denounced it, as he did in every other case where Christians were deviating from the truth. He certainly would not have used such an unscriptural practice as an example to teach the most important truth about the resurrection – Christ’s or ours.
The apostle rebuked the Corinthian Christians when some of them were causing division in the church (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 3:1-4). He rebuked them for their immorality that was defiling the church (1Corinthians 5). In another instance, the apostle reprimanded the Corinthians for corrupting the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). One can no more obey God and have the blessing transferred to the dead, than he could disobey the Lord and have that condemnation imputed to some deceased person. Proxy baptism is not in view here.
In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle was particularly and specifically dealing with the doctrine of resurrection, which certain false teachers were denying. He argued that since Christ rose from the dead, so in the same manner all will rise from the dead. It was in the hope of resurrection of the dead for which the Corinthians were baptized (Acts 18:8).
Before going through the act of baptism, one must repent or die to sin (Acts 2:38), and that is precisely what they had done. Before their baptism – their burial in the watery grave of baptism – they had, by repentance, died to sin. Through baptism, they were put in the grave of water as dead men and women. A living person is not buried in a grave, but a dead person is. Their baptism was a planting in the likeness of the burial of Christ and a raising in the likeness of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. They were buried in the grave of water, through their baptism as dead men and women and were raised from the tomb of water to walk in the newness of life (Romans 6:3-5). The inference is that their baptism was in the very likeness of the death and burial and resurrection of Christ. Yet, if Christ had not risen, and the dead rise not, then their emblematic burial in water and coming out of the watery tomb of baptism had no meaning.
So, the question arose, “Why then are they baptized for the dead?” How vain a thing had their baptism been if there will be no resurrection? Would the Corinthians stand by their baptisms (which imitated the death, burial and resurrection of Christ) or would they renounce them? They themselves were baptized for the dead. That is, with the view that through their own death to sin by repentance, they were buried in the tomb of water and had come out of it, declaring their own death, burial and resurrection. Immersion of a believer in water symbolizes his death or separation from the old existence lived under the power of sin, and coming out of the grave of water baptism portrays the resurrection of Christ after His death.
The purpose, the scope and the connection of what the apostle said in 1 Corinthians 15:29 will admit of but one meaning – if the dead rise not, what shall they do who are baptized in the hope of the resurrection? One is “baptized into Christ” to live in Him and die in Him, and finally to be raised as justified and saved in Him.