Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? 30 Why are we also in danger every hour? 31 I protest, brethren, by the boasting in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. 32 If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” 34 Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame.
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?NIV
I do not know for certain how many different interpretations have been offered for verse 29, but I know they are numerous. Before trying to interpret this text, we should attempt to set the stage.
First, there is no other passage in the Bible which indicates that Christians should be baptized for the dead. It is never commanded. We never see this practiced in the Book of Acts or elsewhere in the New Testament. This is a unique occurrence in Scripture.
Second, we would surely be foolish to build a doctrine on this one obscure reference, when it is not clear who is being baptized, by whom, or for what purpose. We do know from Peter’s own words that the false teachers were those who seemed to major on twisting the obscure elements of Paul’s teaching (2 Peter 3:14-18).
Third, Paul speaks of “those who are baptized for the dead.” He speaks in the third person. Contrast this with the first person pronouns employed in verses 30-32. We are not told that Paul has ever been baptized for the dead or that anyone in particular in the church has done so. Somebody is being baptized for the dead, but we do not know who. It seems safe to say it is somebody other than the apostles.
Fourth, we are told by Luke that many in Corinth believed as a result of Paul’s teaching and that many were baptized (Acts 18:8). We also know that very few were actually baptized by Paul (1 Corinthians 1:16), a fact which pleased Paul in retrospect. In this same passage at the outset of this epistle, it does seem evident that baptism was one of the things in which some took pride and over which some took sides. Baptism then did seem to be a problem at Corinth. It seems to have played too important a role to some. It may have been more than a symbol and thus became a “work” in which some took pride.
Given all of these observations, I am inclined to understand verse 29 as follows. Baptism had taken on too much meaning for some at Corinth. Some looked upon baptism as the Judaisers looked upon circumcision, as a “work” performed by men which was necessary to salvation. If baptism was considered necessary for salvation, then surely those now dead, who may not have been baptized when they were saved, would be thought to be in trouble.
How could this problem be remedied? By a vicarious baptism, a baptism enacted on behalf of the one who had already died without being baptized. Paul is not advocating this kind of baptism; he is showing the inconsistency of this behavior apart from a belief in the resurrection of the dead. If those who were being baptized for the dead were also those who rejected the resurrection of the dead, Paul is showing how inconsistent their practice is with their doctrine. If those being baptized for the dead believe that the dead are not raised, what value is there in (wrongly) being baptized for one who has already died? Their behavior (baptism for the dead) is not consistent with their belief (there is no resurrection of the dead).
To further emphasize his point about the fact of the resurrection, Paul returned to his conditional “if” clauses. If there is no resurrection, he asked, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? Apparently, some believers had been baptized on behalf of others who had died unbaptized. Nothing more is known about this practice, but it obviously affirms a belief in resurrection. Corinthian believers may have been practicing a sort of vicarious baptism for the sake of believers who had died before being baptized.
The “dead” certainly referred to those who had come to faith, not to unbelievers who had died, or Paul would have condemned the practice. Paul was not promoting baptism for the dead; he was continuing to illustrate his argument that the resurrection is a reality. (Certain groups, such as Mormons, who encourage baptism for the dead today, do so on very flimsy biblical grounds.) Paul’s apparent lack of concern over this situation probably means that, though theologically incorrect, the practice was basically harmless. Paul could have written disapprovingly of this practice, but pointing out the glaring inconsistency of their rejecting the afterlife while baptizing for the dead was sufficient. Paul had deeper theological issues to straighten out—at this point, the fact of the resurrection. If there is a resurrection, then all believers will be raised (and all who truly believed will be saved whether they have been baptized or not). If there is no resurrection, however, as some had contended, then why bother with this ritual?
|If death ends it all, enjoying the moment would be all that matters. But Christians know that life continues beyond the grave and that life on earth is only a preparation for our life that will never end. What you do today matters for eternity. In light of eternity, sin is a foolish gamble. Your belief in the resurrection will affect your view of the future. It ought to also affect how you live today.|
15:30-31 And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? I die every day! That is as certain, brothers and sisters, as my boasting of you—a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord.NRSV If there is no resurrection, believers are indeed the “most miserable people in the world” (15:19 nlt). Why should the apostles bother to put themselves in danger every hour, dying every day for the sake of the gospel message. To suffer and face danger for the sake of a message that only has “benefits” for this life would be foolish indeed. “I die every day” refers to Paul’s daily exposure to danger. Why would any sane person do this for the sake of a gospel that only ends in death, just like anything else? This constant danger is as certain . . . as [Paul’s] boasting about the Corinthians. Despite all that Paul had to correct and rebuke in them, he genuinely loved the Corinthian believers and boasted of their faith. He could make that boast in Christ Jesus our Lord, knowing that Christ had saved them and that Paul had been their spiritual father (4:15). See also 2 Corinthians 11:23-27.
15:32 And what value was there in fighting wild beasts—those men of Ephesus—if there will be no resurrection from the dead? If there is no resurrection, “Let’s feast and get drunk, for tomorrow we die!”NLT Some have taken the reference to fighting wild beasts to literally mean that Paul had been placed in the arena—a vicious form of entertainment where prisoners would be placed in a stadium and wild beasts sent in to tear them apart. Paul probably meant this metaphorically, however, as noted in the translation above, referring, instead, to those men of Ephesus. The human enemies that Paul had faced in Ephesus had been as vicious as wild beasts (see Acts 19). When Paul was in Ephesus, Demetrius stirred up people against Paul. Paul preached against Artemis, the goddess of fertility, and was disrupting Demetrius’s silver business (he made idols). Demetrius caused a furious riot against Paul.
Paul repeated the question, If there will be no resurrection from the dead, then what value was there in standing up for his faith against those in Ephesus who wanted to kill him (Acts 19:31)? Why bother standing for anything at all? If there is nothing more to look forward to than simply to one day die and return to dust, then why deny oneself? Instead, it would make far more sense for everyone to feast and get drunk (see also Isaiah 22:13). Life with no meaning leaves one with the need to simply indulge oneself and get all one can for enjoyment here and now.
15:33 Don’t be fooled by those who say such things, for “bad company corrupts good character.”NLT Those who denied the resurrection could not possibly be true believers, for this entire chapter explains why the resurrection is central to the Christian faith. Paul told the Corinthian believers not to be fooled by those who say such things—those who denied the resurrection and told the believers to “feast and get drunk” (15:32). This is quoted from a proverb in a comedy by the Greek playwright Menander, titled Thais; it was used by Paul to make a point to his Greek audience. The bit of worldly wisdom, “bad company corrupts good character,” means that keeping company with those who deny the resurrection will corrupt true believers and hurt the testimony of the church.
15:34 Come to your senses and stop sinning. For to your shame I say that some of you don’t even know God.NLT Paul’s final words about this issue were simply that the Corinthians should come to [their] senses (literally, “to wake up out of a drunken stupor”). If they would take the time to think about it, they would realize, as Paul had argued earlier, that it would be senseless to live for a faith that offered nothing after death. To deny the resurrection amounted to sinning, for it denied the truth of the claims of Christ and the promises of God. It was to their shame that some among them did not even know God. To not understand and believe the doctrine of the resurrection meant to not understand anything about God, for the doctrine is central to all that God has done for sinful humanity.
In verses 30-32, Paul turns our attention to his own example, showing that his behavior is consistent with his belief in the resurrection of the dead. Paul’s conduct makes no sense, unless there is a resurrection of the dead. No one can dispute the fact that Paul lived dangerously. Almost from the moment of his conversion, his enemies were trying to kill him (Acts 9:23-25; 14:19; 21:31; 22:22; 23:12). And some of those who may not have wished Paul dead certainly did want to do bodily harm to him (see Acts 16:22-23; 19:23ff.; 22:25). Wherever Paul went, he risked his life for the sake of the gospel. This would be a most foolish thing to do, unless of course there is such a thing as the resurrection of the dead. Suffering for Christ, and taking up our cross in this life, makes perfect sense if there is a crown awaiting us after the resurrection. His belief in the resurrection inspired and enabled Paul to live as he did (see Philippians 1:12-26; 3:7-14).
On the other hand, if there is no resurrection of the dead, then a very different lifestyle would be justified: “If the dead are not raised, LET US EAT AND DRINK, FOR TOMORROW WE DIE” (verse 32b). Hedonism is the logical outcome of denying the resurrection of the dead. We all know the contemporary beer commercial, which goes: “You only go around once, so you’d better grab all the gusto you can get.” Once one denies the resurrection of the dead, this slogan seems entirely logical. But since Christ was raised from the dead, and since His kingdom culminates in the defeat of death, we actually “go around twice.” And knowing this, Paul’s lifestyle is the only way to go.
Verses 33 and 34 link behavior and belief in yet another way. Just how could some of the Corinthians come to the place where they denied the resurrection of the dead? How could such an unbiblical and illogical conclusion be reached by Christians? Paul gives us the answer in verses 33 and 34. Normally helpful to us in his paraphrase of the New Testament text, J. B. Phillips seems to miss Paul’s point entirely:
Don’t let yourselves be deceived. Talking about things that are not true is bound to be reflected in practical conduct. Come back to your senses, and don’t dabble in sinful doubts. Remember that there are men who have plenty to say but have no knowledge of God. You should be ashamed that I have to write like this at all!
I think Phillips reverses Paul’s meaning. His paraphrase indicates that entertaining discussions of doubtful things is the cause of immorality and sin. I think it is just the reverse. I grant that our doctrine should work itself out in our behavior. We see this taught throughout the Bible. Many of the New Testament epistles begin with doctrine and conclude with our conduct. But the sad truth is that for most of us, our morality determines our theology. Proverbs says it this way: “An evil doer listens to wicked lips, A liar pays attention to a destructive tongue” (Proverbs 17:4). We listen to those who tell us what we want to hear, and what we want to hear is that which justifies what we are doing (or want to do). Elsewhere, Paul puts it this way:
1 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:1-4).
This is the very thing about which Paul had warned the Ephesian elders:
25 “And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will see my face no more. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day, that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. 28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:25-32).
The Corinthians, so wise as they are (1 Corinthians 4:7-10), have really been deceived. This is the reason they came to reject the resurrection of the dead. The Corinthians had entered into fellowship with those who were rotten apples, spiritually speaking. They had failed to separate themselves from the pagan culture in which they lived. They began to esteem and emulate those who spoke with worldly wisdom (chapters 1-3). They looked down on Paul and other apostles (chapter 4). They not only tolerated those who lived in immorality, they proudly embraced a man whose conduct shocked the pagans (chapter 5). They looked to worldly courts to settle their disputes (chapter 6), and they felt so spiritually invincible that they did not hesitate to participate in heathen idol worship (chapters 8-10). They embraced the feminist thinking of their day (1 Corinthians 11:1-16), and they had no reservations about hastening on with the Lord’s Supper so as to exclude some members of their fellowship, in the process conducting themselves as heathen (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The exercise of their spiritual gifts is such that it appears dangerously similar to their “spiritual rituals” as unbelievers (12:1ff.). Are we surprised, then, if the Corinthians have come to embrace sinners as saints, that their doctrine suffers in the process?
Paul challenges the Corinthians to “sober up” and face up to their folly. They need to straighten up in their thinking and then stop sinning. They need to get their doctrine straight and then consistently apply their beliefs in godly behavior. They need to realize that some among them have no knowledge of God. These are those whom Paul will later expose as false apostles, as messengers of Satan (2 Corinthians 11:12-15). Those who have been led astray by such false teachers must also admit their lack of knowledge, repent, and return to the doctrine of the apostles.
Once again this passage begins with a very difficult section. People have always been puzzled about what being baptized for the dead means, and even yet the problem is not definitely settled. The preposition for in the phrase for the dead is the Greek huper. In general this word can have two main meanings. When used of place, it can mean above or over. Far more commonly it is used of persons or things and means instead of or on behalf of. Remembering these two meanings, let us look at some of the ways this phrase has been understood.
(i) Beginning from the meaning of over or above, some scholars have suggested that it refers to those who get themselves baptized over the graves of the martyrs. The idea is that there would be something specially moving in being baptized on sacred ground with the thought of the unseen cloud of witnesses all around. It is an attractive and rather lovely idea, but at the time Paul was writing to the Corinthians persecution had not yet broken out in anything like a big way. Christians might suffer ostracism and social persecution, but the time of the martyrs had not yet come.
(ii) It is in any event much more natural to take huper in the sense of instead of or on behalf of. If we take it that way there are three possibilities. It is suggested that the phrase refers to those who get themselves baptized in order to fill up the vacant places in the Church which the dead have left. The idea is that the new believer, the young Christian, comes into the Church like a new recruit to take the place of the veterans who have served their campaign and earned their release. There is a great thought there. The Church ever needs its replacements and the new member is like the volunteer who fills up the depleted ranks.
(iii) It is suggested that the phrase means those who get themselves baptized out of respect for and affection for the dead. Again there is a precious truth here. Many of us came into the Church because we knew and remembered that some loved one had died praying and hoping for us. Many have in the end given their lives to Christ because of the unseen influence of one who has passed over to the other side.
(iv) All these are lovely thoughts, but in the end we think that this phrase can refer to only one custom, which has quite correctly passed out of Church practice altogether. In the early Church there was vicarious baptism. If a person died who had intended to become a member of the Church and was actually under instruction, sometimes someone else underwent baptism for him. The custom sprang from a superstitious view of baptism, that, without it, a person was necessarily excluded from the bliss of heaven. It was to safeguard against this exclusion that sometimes people volunteered to be baptized literally on behalf of those who had died. Here Paul neither approves nor disapproves that practice. He merely asks if there can be any point in it if there is no resurrection and the dead never rise again.
From that he passes on to one of the great motives of the Christian life. In effect he asks, “Why should a Christian accept the perils of the Christian life if it is all to go for nothing?” He quotes his own experience. Every day he is in jeopardy of his life. Something terrible of which the New Testament has no record happened to Paul at Ephesus. He refers to it again in 2 Corinthians 1:8–10: he says that in Asia, that is in Ephesus, he was in such dire peril that he despaired of life and had the sentence of death passed upon him. To this day in Ephesus there is a building known as Paul’s prison. Here he calls his peril fighting with beasts. The word he uses is that used of a gladiator in the arena. The later legends tell us that he actually did so fight and that he was wondrously preserved because the beasts would not attack him. But Paul was a Roman citizen and no Roman citizen could be compelled to fight in the arena. Much more likely he used the phrase as a vivid picture of being threatened by men who were as savage for his life as a wild beast might have been. In any event he demands, “To what end is all the peril and the suffering if there is no life beyond?”
The man who thinks that this life is all, and that there is nothing to follow it, may well say, “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” The Bible itself quotes those who speak like that. “Come,” they say, “let us get wine, let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.” (Isaiah 56:12). The preacher, who held that death was extinction, wrote, “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment from his toil.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24, cp. 3:12; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7). Jesus himself told about the rich fool who forgot eternity and took as his motto, “Eat, drink and be merry.” (Luke 12:19).
Classical literature is full of this spirit. Herodotus, the Greek historian, tells of a custom of the Egyptians. “In social meetings among the rich, when the banquet is ended, a servant carries round to the several guests a coffin, in which there is a wooden image of a corpse, carved and painted to resemble nature as nearly as possible, about a cubit or two cubits in length. As he shows it to each guest in turn, the servant says, ‘Gaze here, and drink and be merry, for when you die, such will you be.’” Euripides writes in the Alcestis (781–789, A. S. Way’s translation):
“From all mankind the debt of death is due, For of all mortals is there one that knows
If through the coming morrow he shall live? For trackless is the way of fortune’s feet,
Not to be taught nor won by art of man. This hearing then, and learning it of me,
Make merry, drink; the life from day to day Account thine own, all else in fortune’s power.”
Thucydides (2:53) tells how, when the mortal plague came to Athens, people committed every shameful crime and eagerly snatched at every lustful pleasure because they believed that life was short and they would never have to pay the penalty. Horace (Odes 2:13; 13) gives as his philosophy, “Tell them to bring wines and perfumes and the too-short-lived blossoms of the lovely rose while circumstances and age and the black threads of the three sisters (the Fates) still allow us to do so.” In one of the most famous poems in the world the Latin poet Catullus wrote, “Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love, and let us value the tales of austere old men at a single halfpenny. Suns can set and then return again, but for us, when once our brief light sets, there is but one perpetual night through which we must sleep.”
Take away the thought of a life to come and this life loses its values. Take away the idea that this life is a preparation for a greater life to follow and the bonds of honour and morality are loosened. It is useless to argue that this should not be so and that men should not be good and honourable simply for the sake of some reward. The fact remains that the man who believes that this is the only world tends to live as if the things of this world are all that matter.
So Paul insists that the Corinthians must not associate with those who say that there is no resurrection; for this would be to risk an infection which can pollute life. To say that there is no resurrection is not a sign of superior knowledge; it is a sign of utter ignorance of God. Paul is unleashing the lash that very shame may bring these wanderers back into the right way.
 William Barclay, ed., The Letters to the Corinthians, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster John Knox Press, 1975), 152–156.