Notes on 1 Corinthians 15:29-34

1 Corinthians 15:29‑34  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 9
The apostle now resumes the reasoning interrupted by the great parenthesis of divine revelation in verses 20-28. Therein he had traced out the consequences of Christ's resurrection, and its connection with the kingdom to the end, when God shall be all in all. And the simple apprehension of the unquestionable fact that he does take up again the thread laid down at verse 19 is of all moment in helping us to understand the true bearing of verse 29, which has been singularly misapplied by all who fail to see this reference. It had been shown that the denial of the resurrection affects alike the dead and the living saints. If Christ be not raised, not merely did those that fell asleep in Him perish, but if in this life only we have had hope in Christ, we are more to be pitied than all men. This directly in sense connects itself with the disputed clause.
"Else what shall they do that are baptized for the dead? If no dead rise at all, why also are they baptized for them?1. Why are we also in danger every hour?” (Vers. 29, 30.) There is no need of departing from the ordinary meaning of “baptized,” “for,” or “dead.” Still less is it admissible that the Corinthians or others, in that early day, had devised a new and superstitious application of baptism, either for catechumens about to die, or for relatives already departed, who had not been baptized. It is incredible that the apostle should have contented himself with so passing a notice of such a nefarious imposture, though Dean Stanley assumes its truth, and characteristically draws from it a testimony to the apostle's charitable dealing with a practice for which he could have had no real sympathy. Calvin justly explodes the notion of any such allusion here. It is probable, however, that though with Estius, &c., he is wrong in thinking “the dead” mean those about to die, such a misinterpretation of the language may have suggested the rite later to the excitable and perverted minds of the Syrian Marcionites, or other heretics, of whose practice we hear in the writings of Tertullian, Epiphanius, &c.
Neander's mind revolts from the idea, of such a baptism, yet he so far yields to the reasoning of Ruckert as to allow that it seems the most natural interpretation. (Hist, of the Pl. and Tr. of the Christian Church, i. 164, ii. 117, ed. Bohn.) He suggests the raging of an epidemic about that time in Corinth, which may have swept away believers before baptism, whose relatives were baptized in their stead; but he pleads that, if Paul might for the occasion have borrowed an argument from the conviction lying at the basis of such a custom, he would probably have taken care to explain himself at another opportunity against this custom itself, as he did in reference to females speaking in their public assemblies.
There is not the smallest foundation for any hypothesis of the sort. The context suggests the true substitutionary idea. That ὐπέρ allows of some such shade of thought is certain, not only from its usage in all correct Greek, but especially from the New Testament, where the physical sense of “over,"2 so common elsewhere, does not occur. Thus we find the apostle in Philemon 1313Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: (Philemon 13), which is distinct. (Compare John 11:50-52; 18:1450Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. 51And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; 52And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad. (John 11:50‑52)
14Now Caiaphas was he, which gave counsel to the Jews, that it was expedient that one man should die for the people. (John 18:14)
; Rom. 5:6, 7, 86For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. 8But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6‑8); 2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 20; 114For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: 15And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again. (2 Corinthians 5:14‑15)
20Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)
Thess. 5:10; 1 Tim. 2:6; 16Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time. (1 Timothy 2:6) Peter 2:21; 3:18, &c.) Nor is this found in the inspired writers only. Vigor has cited a decisive passage from Dion. Hal. (Ant. Rom. viii. 87, ed. Reiske, p. 1723): οὗτοι τὴν ἀρχὴν παραλαβόντες, ὐπὲρ τῶν ἀπαθανόντων τῶ προς Ἀντιάτας πολέμω στρατιωτῶν, ἠξίουν ἐτέρους καταγράθειν.
The apostle then refers to those who had already slept in Christ, as well as the living trials of such as himself. What will become of those baptized for the dead? Why then be enlisted into such ranks, if no dead at all are raised? Why do we too incur danger every hour? It was a forlorn hope indeed, if the light of resurrection did not shine. There is no strange practice supposed, but a forcible association of and now baptized with those who had gone before; still less is there a reprehension, express or tacit, which it is only possible to conceive by indulging in the imagination. Had it been οί βαπτισθέντες, there might have been some trifling show of argument for an exceptional fact or class, but οι βαπτιζόμενοι much more naturally suits the baptized in general, the objects of that action. To infer that the present participle, rather than the aorist, implies a practice not generally prevalent, is as illegitimate grammatically, as it is exegetically to conceive a practice not otherwise known to us. There is not the least ground to gather from the text that it existed then, or was here alluded to. There is no reason, therefore, for translating the phrase, “on behalf of the dead.” Indeed it seems to me that, were there a reference to friends, believing or not, who had died without baptism, a much more definite and restricted formula would be imperatively called for than ὐπὲρ τῶν νεκρῶν, which very naturally refers to those in verse 18, as present danger does to verse 19. This also accounts for the change from the third to the first person; so strict is the analogy, without the strange fancy that by the third person, and by the article before βαπτ., the apostle indirectly separates himself and those to whom he is writing from participation, in, or approval of, the practice.
I do not contend for, nor agree with, the views of the Greek fathers; but it is to be noticed that not one of them, as far as I am aware, saw any such reference, as Ambrose, Anselm, Erasmus, Grotius, &c., followed by Ruckert, Meyer, De Wette, Alford, &c.; still less states it as “the only legitimate reference,” which is indeed not only unfounded but presumptuous, if not to the last degree puerile. Nor do I understand what Mr. T. S. Green means by “baptized concerning the dead,” as he translates in his “Twofold New Testament.” In his “New Testament Grammar” of 1842, page 251, he cites Rom. 1:44And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead: (Romans 1:4), and 1 Cor. 15:2929Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:29), as Bur posed instances where by νεκρῶν only one person, namely, Christ, is really signified; but this is in both a mistake. C. F. Matthaei falls into the opposite error of supposing that, baptism being typical of resurrection, ὐπὲρ τῶν ν.=ἐαυτῶν, comparing Matt. 8:2222But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead. (Matthew 8:22) and similar passages. This resembles Chrysostom, Theodoret, Tertullian, &c., who taught that “for the dead” meant for our bodies. None of them saw the train of thought.
But G. B. Winer seems at least as uncertain as any in his Grammar of New Testament Greek (Moulton's edition). First, he tells us (page 219) that ὐπ[ερτῶν νεκρῶν can hardly refer to (the dead) Christ—in that case we should have had εἰς τοὸς νεκρούς—but must be understood of (unbaptized) dead men. There is no such necessity, as we have seen. But, letting this pass, in page 849 we are told that the text is probably to be rendered, “who allow themselves to be baptized over the dead,” whereas, when formally treating of the prepositions, he admits that the meaning of ὐπέρ in the New Testament is always figurative, the nearest approach to its local signification being 1 Cor. 4:66And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another. (1 Corinthians 4:6), unless we so render our text. In the same page (478) he gives “for the benefit of, for,” as probably meant in 1 Cor. 15:2929Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:29). But he does not close the paragraph without admitting that, as in most cases he who acts in behalf of another appears for him, ὐπέρ, sometimes borders on ἀντί, “instead of,” and cites, besides Eurip. Alc. 700 and Philem. 1:1818If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; (Philemon 18), Thuc. i. 141 and Polyb. iii. 67. 7. This last evidently sustains the real unforced sense of our text, which is as consonant with the context and argument, as it avoids the need of doing harshness to exegesis, grammar, early doctrine, or history.
It is the resurrection (and all is based on that of Christ) which, as it is the basis of Christianity, so also animates with a calm and constant courage more than human. Here the apostle turns to his own experience, the more vividly and solemnly to impress the saints addressed: “Daily I die, by the boasting of you, brethren,3 which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord. If after man I fought with beasts in Ephesus, what [is] the profit to me? If no dead rise, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die. Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners. Wake up righteously, and sin not; for some are ignorant of God: I speak unto your shame.” (Vers. 31-34.)
The Corinthian saints were his boast and joy, whatever their faults, which no one had such reason to feel as the apostle; but he had it in Christ Jesus, which gave it force and permanence. Thus does he protest his dying day by day. It is not a doctrinal standing; there he could say, I died. Death with Christ is a fact, for faith never a mere and slow process going on, as mystics dream. Here it is a constant exposure to physical death. So he served the Lord, and boasted in His saints: how absurd if there be no resurrection! But it was not only joy in the saints spite of daily dying; what a spring for endurance in the world outside! “If after man I fought with beasts in Ephesus, what [is] the profit to me?” Faith is not fanatical; it reasons as soundly as it feels loyally and works by love.
Here again it was resurrection which cheered him in the fierce conflict, which, speaking as men do, he calls a fight with beasts. It is no uncommon figure. Compare Titus 1:11Paul, a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God's elect, and the acknowledging of the truth which is after godliness; (Titus 1:1)2 Tim. 4:1717Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. (2 Timothy 4:17); and so, it seems, Heraclitus designated the Ephesians see also Appian, Bell. C. ii. 763, and Ignat. ad Rom. 5. To me also with some ancients and moderns, κατὰ ἄνθρωπον seems meant to qualify the phrase, so that it should not be taken literally.
To abandon resurrection then is to yield ourselves up to ease, pleasure, and indulgence. It is not the immortality of the soul, but the faith of resurrection, which keeps man from sinking to and below a brute. Men may cry up the soul, without a thought of God, and only to self-exaltation; but the resurrection brings in the reality of God's intervention with men, either in salvation or in judgment. And these human thoughts, which looked plausible and even spiritual, had deceived some of the saints in Corinth. Is it not more purifying to think of the soul apart from the body, and in heavenly glory? Not so; it is the hope of the body rising which encourages us to deny self, and mortify our members here below. See the place given to the body in Rom. 6; 12, as well as in the Epistles to the Corinthians, and elsewhere. Now is the time, here the place, to walk as dead with Christ, and alive in Him to God. In glory we shall dwell at ease, our bodies changed into the likeness of His glorious body.
The word of God maintains this life of unselfish faith and readiness to suffer, not the communications of men, as themselves confess. These puff up and corrupt: so say Euripides, Menander, and common proverbs. Hence the call to wake up righteously, or to righteousness, and not to be sinning. To deny the resurrection is to display ignorance of God. (See Matt. 22:2929Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. (Matthew 22:29).) This was not wonderful in a heathen; but what a disgrace to the saints that some among them should be thus ignorant! So ends boastful knowledge. The Corinthians must begin again, and, starting from a dead and risen Christ, use the truth of God to judge the thoughts of men. He loves to be known as the God that raises the dead; while it is also true that all live unto Him.
1. αὐτῶν A B Dpm E F G K P, twenty cursives, most versions, &c.
2. This was the thought of Luther, Tyndale, and others here. They took ὐπέρ as meaning over their graves; but the Greek Testament uses loquendi is against the sense.
3. δελφοί, A B K P, many cursives, versions, and fathers.