First Corinthians 15--Baptizing for the dead, part 1
Sep 27, 2017
After establishing the doctrine of resurrection and how God intends to save all men in the end, putting all things under His feet, Paul makes an odd statement in 1 Corinthians 15:29-32,
29 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.
I have quoted verse 29 in its context in order to get the fullest purpose for Paul’s statement about baptism for the dead. Let us start by stating that Paul’s use of the word “otherwise” links it to the previous passage about God being “all in all.” Viewed this way, we might see the restoration of all things as the reason people were being baptized for (hyper, “on behalf of”) the dead.
Whatever they were doing, it is clear first that the dead were not lost forever. The dead overcomers were to be raised first, the rest of the dead later. But those who died in unbelief would have to await the final Jubilee before returning to the inheritance that was lost when Adam sinned. This is the order of full salvation, and when all of God’s creation has been reconciled to Christ, then and only then is the divine plan for this universe complete.
In view of the fact that even the unbelieving dead will be saved in the end, it is clear that Paul and other believers were concerned for them and believed that something could yet be done on their behalf. Believers living on the earth could be baptized on behalf of the dead unbelievers. By extension, people could also pray for the dead, for baptism may be thought of as a form of prayer, a petition for citizenship made before the divine court.
Baptism is a legal act in the divine court, wherein a mortal is registered in the records of heaven as immortal, having passed from death unto life. Baptism for the dead, as a general principle, is what we all do when we are baptized. Technically, when a person is baptized, having faith in Christ, the divine court issues a death certificate for the old man and a certificate of live birth for the New Creation Man.
It is the formal “paperwork” which changes one’s legal (or spiritual) status that guarantees a future result. That which is changed in heaven sets the pattern that will be fulfilled on earth within the boundaries of time and space. Each person who is baptized becomes a minute part of the overall plan whereby God becomes “all in all.”
So when a person is baptized, there is an inner fulfillment of the resurrection principle that will be fulfilled on a corporate level with two resurrections and a Jubilee. Such baptism has the power to wipe out genealogical and gender distinctions, along with all social and class distinctions, making all equal in Christ in the eyes of the law. It is the great unifier, and this unity does not end at death. The fellowship (communion, “common union”) supersedes death, for Paul says in Romans 8:35-39,
35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? … 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The love of God in Christ is greater than death; therefore, death has no power to separate us, either from Christ Himself or from each other as His body. During the years of history, this body of Christ has continued to grow, and the fellowship has increased accordingly. Yet the body is very incomplete apart from the majority of mankind that yet remains in darkness outside of this fellowship. The purpose of resurrection and summoning them to the Great White Throne is to bring them too into fellowship, once they have bowed the knee and confessed their allegiance to Jesus Christ.
In view of this future conversion, there is no reason why we, as believers, should not pray for them. In John 17:9 Jesus prayed for the overcomers only, those devoted to him according to the laws of devotion (Leviticus 27), those He was raising up to rule in the age to come. Yet at the same time He acknowledged His own “authority over all mankind” (John 17:2). He will yet exercise that authority at the appropriate time.
Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 15:29 clearly goes beyond one’s own baptism. When we are baptized in the usual sense, it is a baptism OF the dead, because we come as mortal souls in need of immortality and a change of identity. But when Paul speaks of baptism FOR the dead—that is, on behalf of the dead—he speaks on another level. One person is being baptized on behalf of someone else.
A priest is an intercessor. A priest represents God to men and men to God. Prophets, too, are intercessors, because they are a special type of priest. In my book, Principles of Intercession, I establish, by Christ’s own example, the steps that an intercessor takes to accomplish the goal of his intercession.
Identification: The intercessor identifies with those in need. Jesus came to earth and became a man in the likeness of human flesh.
Bearing Their Iniquity: The intercessor is blamed for the problem (or sin) of those who are actually to blame. So Christ was blamed for the sin of the world, which was prophesied by the priest every time he laid hands on an animal to impute the sin of the people to that animal.
Suffering the Penalty: The intercessor is killed or suffers the penalty that the people themselves would normally have suffered. Jesus Himself actually died, but we as intercessors often experience death in an inward manner, allowing us to die to self in a greater way than we had known previously.
Resurrection: The intercessor is then raised in victory from whatever form of death he had experienced, even as Jesus Himself was raised from the dead.
Ascension: The intercessor then ascends to the throne, a position of spiritual authority and from that position, brings many sons into glory (Hebrews 2:10). Having paid the price, sealing it with his blood (as it were), and learning to love the very people who put him to death, the intercessor is given the authority to guarantee the success of his work.
The point is that an intercessor does the work of intercession on behalf of the living dead, those who are yet in their sins, whether they are believers or unbelievers. Intercession is not mere prayer, for anyone can pray for others. Intercession is a much deeper form of prayer in which the intercessor becomes a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of others. Jesus was the only perfect sacrifice, of course, and for this reason He was qualified to intercede on behalf of the whole world. But we too are sometimes called as lesser intercessors to share the burden. In doing so, not only are we becoming part of the solution to the world’s problem, but we are also learning to love, while gaining a deeper understanding of what Christ Himself experienced.
Interceding for the Dead
The dead are not lost forever, Paul says. All will be recovered, all will be restored. Not only is man in need of such restoration, but God Himself must recover all that He created out of Himself. All things were created “out of Him,” they go “through Him,” and finally return “to Him” (Romans 11:36). If anything is not restored, then God will remain incomplete forever, and God could never again be “all in all.” Such is not possible.
However, since the fifth century, the church has attempted to stamp out the belief in the restoration of all things—which was, by far, the most common view prior to the great controversy that arose in the year 400 A.D. (See my booklet, A Short History of Universal Reconciliation.) In its place came the doctrine of never-ending punishment, where the Greek word aionian, “pertaining to an age,” was replaced by the Latin word aeternas, “eternal.” As men began to view dead unbelievers as being lost eternally, there was no point in praying for them further—or being baptized on their behalf.
As the church became more Roman in nature, and more Augustinian in particular, the need arose to distinguish between believers and unbelievers when praying for the dead. The idea of Purgatory was established for the non-overcoming believers, in contrast to “Hell” as the place where all unbelievers were to go. In this way, the church was able to continue, on a limited scale, its prayers for the dead, while losing all hope for the vast majority of humanity.
But Paul’s whole point in 1 Corinthians 15:29 was to show that baptizing for the dead (and prayer as well) allows us to participate in the restoration of all things, whereby God is becoming “all in all.” The plan of God does not call for just two percent of creation to be salvaged. Christ’s blood paid for the sin of the whole world (1 John 2:2). He paid for it, and He will indeed claim all that He purchased, leaving nothing to the devil. He has the right to save all that He purchased, He has the power to enforce His rights, and His love compels Him to do so.
Hence, when we pray according to the will of God that His plan will be fulfilled, we are praying for the restoration of all things, whether we understand this or not. This means we are praying for the vast majority of humanity that has lived and died without Christ. Are those useless prayers? Of course not. Was Christ’s blood largely a wasted effort? Was the effectiveness of Christ’s blood only applicable to two percent of humanity? Of course not.
Is man’s “free will” an impediment to the salvation of all? Of course not. If God could overrule man’s “free will” by summoning them to the Great White Throne against their will, and if He could sentence them to live under authority of those ruling over them, then could He not also override their “free will”? The fact is, God is sovereign enough to cause them to bow their knees and confess their allegiance to Christ. Really, who would do anything different, once they see the glory of God and understand the truth? God’s will is greater than man’s will, and He has His ways of making us willing to bow the knee!
We have already seen that “love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8), and yet we often fail to believe that Christ’s love is more powerful than the will of man. We often attribute more power to man’s will than to Christ’s love. Neither do we understand the legal rights of the Creator or even the rights of a redeemer, having had so little training in biblical law.
The law of God defines the rights of God and men, and the restoration of all things is rooted in the rights of God. God’s right to rule His creation is greater than man’s temporary privilege to refuse His rule. In man’s relationship with God, man has only privileges, for no man created himself. Privileges are always subordinate to rights, even as authority is always subordinate to the higher power that authorized it.
In Part 2, we will discuss the practical aspects of baptism for the dead and how it was practiced in the early church.
This is part 108 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.