PastorRodney’s Weblog

Preaching from the Pulpit of Ephraim Church of the Bible

1 Corinthians 15:29; How To Interpret Scripture – Baptism for the Dead

05/17 1 Corinthians 15:29 How to Interpret Scripture ; Audio available at:

1 Corinthians 15 [SBLGNT]

29 Ἐπεὶ τί ποιήσουσιν οἱ βαπτιζόμενοι ὑπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν; εἰ ὅλως νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται, τί καὶ βαπτίζονται ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν; 30 τί καὶ ἡμεῖς κινδυνεύομεν πᾶσαν ὥραν; 31 καθ’ ἡμέραν ἀποθνῄσκω, νὴ τὴν ὑμετέραν καύχησιν, ἣν ἔχω ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ τῷ κυρίῳ ἡμῶν. 32 εἰ κατὰ ἄνθρωπον ἐθηριομάχησα ἐν Ἐφέσῳ, τί μοι τὸ ὄφελος; εἰ νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται, Φάγωμεν καὶ πίωμεν, αὔριον γὰρ ἀποθνῄσκομεν. 33 μὴ πλανᾶσθε· φθείρουσιν ἤθη χρηστὰ ὁμιλίαι κακαί. 34 ἐκνήψατε δικαίως καὶ μὴ ἁμαρτάνετε, ἀγνωσίαν γὰρ θεοῦ τινες ἔχουσιν· πρὸς ἐντροπὴν ὑμῖν λαλῶ.

1 Corinthians 15 [ESV2011]

1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? 30 Why are we in danger every hour? 31 I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! 32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 34 Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.

1 Corinthians 15 is the resurrection chapter. Some of the Corinthians were saying that there is no resurrection of the dead. Paul from beginning to end is answering this serious doctrinal error. In the first 7 verses, he demonstrates that the resurrection is integral to the gospel message. In verses 8-11, he holds up himself up as a former enemy of Jesus persuaded by the resurrection, and as a life radically transformed by God’s resurrecting grace. In verses 12-19 he lays out the dire consequences if the resurrection were not historical; both on those who preach and on those who believe. In verses 20-28, he parallels Christ with Adam; Christ as the new representative of mankind undoes what Adam did and reverses the tragic consequences of the fall. In verse 29 he points to the incoherence of baptism if there is no resurrection. In verses 30-32 he points to the incoherence of suffering in Christian service if there is no resurrection. In verses 32-34, he warns of the moral dangers of unbelief in the resurrection. In verses 35-49, he answers the naturalistic objection to the plausibility of the resurrection. In verses 50-53 he argues for the necessity of resurrection for participation in the kingdom of God, in verses 54-57, the prophetic necessity of the resurrection, and in 58, the meaningfulness of the Christian life because of the resurrection. This chapter is all about the resurrection. So when we look at the details of the chapter, we need to keep the big picture in view.

1 Corinthians 15:29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

Paul’s point in this verse, whatever the details mean, is that baptism makes no sense if the dead are not raised. Baptism assumes the reality of the resurrection.

So what does it mean to be baptized on behalf of the dead? There are several possible ways of understanding this phrase. I have heard numbers ranging from 13 to as many as 30 different opinions on what this verse means. I was tempted to simply be satisfied with saying that whatever the details of this verse mean, the main point is clear: baptism assumes the reality of the resurrection, and then move on to the next verse. My original intent was to look at the whole paragraph of verses 29-34. But I know there are some of you that just wouldn’t be satisfied with that. I will resist the temptation to go in detail through every variation of opinion on this verse, but I think it will be useful to look at this verse as a model of how to study the Bible, and what to do in your reading or studying when you come across a difficult verse.

Proxy Baptism

1 Corinthians 15:29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

At first read we might conclude that this verse is talking about people who are baptized in order to benefit a deceased person. And this is one possible way to understand this phrase ‘baptized for the dead’. But this is not the only way this phrase can be understood. If this is what Paul means, he is talking about a proxy baptism where a living person is baptized in place of a dead person and for the benefit of that dead person. There are at least two main variations on this view. One is that Paul could be referring to a pagan practice that the Corinthians were familiar with, in which a living person would be baptized for the benefit of a dead person, to secure some kind of benefits for them in the afterlife. An alternative to this is the idea that a believer would be baptized for the benefit of a new convert who died before being baptized.

One problem with understanding this phrase as referring to proxy baptism is that we have no evidence of any kind of proxy baptism either among the pagans or among Christians until the 2nd century AD. It is possible that there did exist such a practice, and the Corinthians were familiar with it, but we have no surviving record of it.

A more significant problem with understanding this as proxy baptism is that Paul mentions it without qualification. He doesn’t say it’s good; he doesn’t say it’s bad; he just brings it up and moves on. If this were a practice that we are expected to participate in, we would expect to find it in the teaching of Jesus, and in the practice of the early church, and some instruction about it in the letters to the churches. Take, for example, breaking bread, or communion, or the Lord’s supper. We see Jesus breaking bread with his disciples in the three synoptic gospels, and Luke records his command ‘do this in remembrance of me’. Then we see the church breaking bread together throughout the book of Acts. Then we have clear instructions on the practice in 1 Corinthians 11. But baptism for the dead is mentioned only here in all of Scripture, and here it is not even clear what the practice was, or if it was something that was commended or condemned.

Paul does seem to distance himself from the practice. He abruptly changes to the third person in this verse. He does not say ‘why are we baptized’ or ‘why are you baptized’, but ‘why are they baptized for the dead’. He switches back to ‘we’ in the very next verse. This has led some to conclude that Paul is not in favor of the practice, but he mentions it only because it is a practice familiar to his readers, and it is a practice that makes no sense if there is no resurrection.

When the practice of proxy baptism is mentioned by Christian writers in the second century, the practice is clearly condemned as heretical and absurd. Even if it were being practiced as early as Paul’s day, it would seem quite unlikely that Paul would refer to a pagan or heretical practice and employ it as a legitimate defense of the Christian belief in resurrection. And for him to mention it without confronting or correcting it seems unthinkable.

Who Are The Dead?

When interpreting a difficult passage, it is essential to be sensitive to the context. One thing that is important for us to keep in mind in seeking to understand this verse is who ‘the dead’ are. In this chapter, ‘the dead’ is not a broad category including every person who has died. ‘The dead’ in this chapter is specifically talking about believing dead, those whose faith is not in vain (v.17); those who have fallen asleep in Christ (v.18); those who hope in Christ in this life (v.19); those who are in Christ (v.22); those who belong to Christ (v.23); those who will bear the image of Christ (v.49); those who will inherit the kingdom of God (v.50); those who will be raised imperishable (v.52); those who are given the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (v.57). ‘The dead’ in this chapter are believers in Jesus who have died. The unbelieving dead are not in view in this chapter. So to take this passage in a way that baptism for the dead brings some benefit to those who have died in unbelief is to violate the whole context of the chapter. This eliminates the possibility of understanding this to mean that Christians were being baptized in an effort to offer some help to unbelievers in the afterlife. This understanding of who the dead are may fit with the notion that on rare occasions when a new convert died before being baptized, a living believer might be baptized for them. But this idea has its own problems.

What We Know For Sure

This is a difficult passage. A key principle for interpreting the Bible is to allow clear passages to shed light on ambiguous or unclear passages. Because God is truth and cannot lie, we can be confident that he will never contradict himself. Because the Bible is breathed out by God, and every word proves true, we can be confident that there is harmony between passages that on the surface appear confusing or even to contradict, even if we are unable to see that harmony. One difficult passage of Scripture will not overthrow the rest of the plain teaching of Scripture.

It will help to keep us on track to review some things that we know for sure based on the clear teaching of Scripture. Paul makes it clear in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians that there are only two categories of people; those who are perishing and those who are being saved. And the thing that differentiates between these two categories is not baptism, but the preaching of the cross. This is also what Jesus taught:

John 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

John 5:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

It is clear that believing in Jesus, not baptism is decisive for escaping condemnation and enjoying life. Baptism is not necessary for eternal life, but it is what those who have received the gift of eternal life do to testify to the fact that they have been united with Christ. Baptism is what saved people do out of obedience to Christ, but baptism has no saving effect on an unbeliever. This begs the question; What would proxy baptism accomplish for a dead person if the baptism of a living person does nothing to effect their own salvation?

We know from the clear teaching of Scripture that baptism is an outward symbol of an inward reality. John said:

Matthew 3:11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Jesus spoke of the Spirit in John 7:

John 7:39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, …

Jesus said:

Acts 1:5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

What is essential is the inward reality of being immersed in the Holy Spirit, without which the outward symbol of being immersed in water is meaningless.

We know based on the clear teaching of the Bible that nothing can be done to change the situation of those who have already died. ‘Hebrews 9:27 tells us that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” In Luke 16, Jesus told a story of a rich man and Lazarus, who both died. The rich man, in anguish in the flames, cried out for mercy and relief but found none. He then begged that someone be sent to his living relatives to warn them so that they too would not end up in this place of torment.

Baptism is an outward symbol of an inward reality. That inward reality comes by believing in Jesus. Nothing can change the state of those who have died. This is the plain and clear teaching of the Bible. So to conclude that this difficult verse teaches that something can be done to benefit those who have died is contrary to the clear teaching of God’s word. To conclude that this verse opens the possibility of salvation beyond the grave is to force it to go against the rest of scripture. To conclude from this verse that water baptism is a necessary part of salvation is to go against what the bible plainly teaches. If we use this verse to imply that there is any hope for eternity outside a believing relationship with Jesus we go against the overwhelming consensus of the entire biblical record. We must allow the clear teaching of God’s word to guide our thinking on less clear passages, like this one.

Converts on behalf of the Dead

1 Corinthians 15:29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

Another possible way of understanding Paul’s language is not that the living person is attempting to bring any benefit to the deceased, but that being baptized for the dead means that the dead believer is the motivation for an unbeliever to believe and be baptized. Seeing the confident assurance with which a believer faces death has a profound influence on their survivors, who recognize their own mortality and some may become disciples in order to have that same confidence and to one day be reunited with their deceased loved one. To be baptized for the dead could mean that an unbeliever, having seen the confidence of a dying believer has in the resurrection, that unbeliever becomes a follower of Jesus in order to share in that hope of the resurrection. This fits better with Paul’s point, that this baptism makes no sense if the dead are not raised.

A possible weakness of this understanding is that this tends to lose sight of the primary point and motive of conversion; to be with Christ, not merely to be with loved ones who have gone ahead. And if this is what Paul intended, there may have been a better way to say it to make this thought more clear.

Convert Baptized on behalf of their own Dead Body

1 Corinthians 15:29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

Another way to understand Paul’s meaning is to see ‘the dead’ in the theological sense of those who are dead in their trespasses and sins, of the body which is dead because of sin. Why are people (new converts) being baptized for the dead (for their own bodies which were dead in sin)? This takes baptism in its normal sense, the way it is used in the rest of scripture, of a new believer who has come to trust in Jesus for salvation to be baptized as a public confession identifying with Jesus. Baptism is something believers do, and it is not something that can be done for someone else. The focus throughout this chapter is on the resurrection of the body, a physical resurrection, not a mere spiritual existence after death. If the dead bodies of believers are not raised at all, why are believers baptized for their own dead bodies?

Romans 8 points to the physicality of the resurrection:

Romans 8:10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Resurrection gives life to your mortal bodies, bodies that are dead because of sin.

Paul connects baptism with Jesus’ death and resurrection and ours in Romans 6.

Romans 6:2 ..How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

We have been buried with Christ through baptism into death, we have been united with him in a death like his, our old self was crucified with him; we have died with Christ. All this is so that as Christ was raised from the dead, we will be united with him in a resurrection like his, so that we will live with him. Baptism is our identification with Christ, our union with him in his death in order to be set free from sin and be really and truly alive. We are baptized for our own dead bodies, in the hope that those bodies, having died with Christ, will raised to a new kind of life. Baptism makes no sense if there is no resurrection. Christian baptism is a picture of death and resurrection; if there is no resurrection then baptism is a faulty picture. If there is no resurrection, baptism would be a better picture if we just pushed people down under the water and held them there.

This seems to be the way the early church understood Paul’s words. Tertullian, who lived c. 155-240 AD, wrote:

unless it were a bodily resurrection, there would be no pledge secured by this process of a corporeal baptism. “Why are they then baptized for the dead,” he asks, unless the bodies rise again which are thus baptized? For it is not the soul which is sanctified by the baptismal bath: its sanctification comes from the “answer.”

-Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 48


To be “baptized for the dead” therefore means, in fact, to be baptized for the body; for, as we have shown, it is the body which becomes dead. What, then, shall they do who are baptized for the body, if the body rises not again?

-Tertullian, Against Marcion, 5:10 [c.208 AD]


Baptism is an identification with Christ in the gospel story. Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared. We believe the gospel and we act out the gospel. Christ died for our sins and was buried, and our old self died with him. Jesus was raised from the dead, and we believe that our mortal bodies will be raised to be with him forever.

When we are faced with a difficult section of Scripture, we need to keep in mind the big picture, to pay careful attention to the details, to be sensitive to the context, and to recognize that because of the character of God, the Bible must harmonize, and one obscure passage should never be used to overthrow the plain teaching of the rest of Scripture.

Whatever Paul meant by this phrase ‘baptized for the dead’, we understand his main point. The practice of baptism makes no sense if the dead are not raised. Yet followers of Jesus continue to be baptized, attesting to their belief in the resurrection.

Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~

May 17, 2015 - Posted by | 1 Corinthians, podcast | , , , , , , ,

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