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God’s Word for You

1 Corinthians 15:29 Baptized for the dead?

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, July 20, 2023

29 Otherwise, what will those people do who are baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?

Paul takes on some of the elegance of a dancer or a figure skater at this point, suddenly turning from the glories of the gospel to chiding the Corinthians for their offbase opinions and tendencies, just as he did at the beginning of the letter with his long treatise about the Corinthian “wisdom.” Here he zooms over to a seemingly obscure deed that was at least known to the Corinthians if not generally embraced by them. There were some people who were “baptized on behalf of the dead”! There are too many possible interpretations of this phrase that have been proposed over the centuries to list them all here (as many as 200), but these are some explanations that have the merit of paying attention to grammar and to the theology of the Scriptures:

1, Might “for the dead” mean “over the dead,” that is, “over the graves of the dead”? This puts a strain on the Greek preposition hyper (ὑπέρ), which never means “over” in the New Testament.

2,  Might the whole phrase mean “baptized for death” meaning those in peril of death? This also strains hyper with a meaning that is otherwise unknown, but it is worth noting that many of the ancient Church Fathers preferred this to #4 below.

3, Could this be a way of connecting new converts to saints who had already died? A pagan might think, “Just in case there is a resurrection, I will let myself be baptized to see my grandmother again.” The theology of this idea does not stand up to close scrutiny.

4, The interpretation that is quite widespread today is that the passage means “on behalf of the dead.” That is to say, a Christian who is already baptized might be baptized again, this time on behalf of someone else.

The fourth option, which is not mentioned or even hinted at anywhere else in the Bible, runs contrary to the Scriptures. Peter said at Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Just as no one can be circumcised for another, so also no one can be baptized for someone else. Paul is not advocating this practice. In fact, he distances himself from it by carefully using third person pronouns: “What will those people do who are baptized for the dead?” He does not say “What will we do” or even “What will you do when you are baptized for the dead?”

Shouldn’t Paul condemn this practice if it was wrong? He doesn’t always stop to do that. He mentions sitting “in an idol’s temple” in this same letter (8:10) without condemning it, even though he and his readers know that a Christian should avoid associating with pagan religions and with demons in particular. Here, he seems to call out a brand new and novel practice that was, to an orthodox Christian, plainly weird and theologically bizarre: being baptized on behalf of someone else. The only people who espouse this today are the Mormons, who are never very careful about their Biblical exegesis or interpretation, and who sit camped outside of Christianity, looking for a path to heaven apart from the blood of Christ shed on the cross.

What, then, is Paul’s point? He says, if even that fringe group with their non-Scriptural beliefs is baptizing—even a wrong kind of baptism—surely they are at least confessing a faith in baptism and in the resurrection. Otherwise, why would they bother if there is no resurrection? We could say the same thing today about the Mormons and their similar practice even though we disagree with all of their doctrine and all of their beliefs.

This little side-comment will pale next to the bigger point Paul is about to make. But as he skates and dances his way through this beautiful arena of the doctrine of the resurrection, he shows us all sorts of things we might otherwise have missed. It’s worth missing the heresy of baptism for the dead, but even that casts the light of significance on the resurrection, the way that the chairs and café tables might help along the story of an opera or a play or a ballet without even being mentioned in the script.

Set aside the minor things. Put them out of your mind if you like, and remember the promise of the resurrection. The spotlight is there, and Paul will skate right back to it in just a moment.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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