Bible Study with Jairus – 1 Corinthians 15
What is Baptism For The Dead?
First Corinthians 15:29 is a verse we don’t often study. In the midst of this popular chapter on resurrection, we read a puzzling sentence about baptism for the dead. Apparently, there were Corinthians believers who were baptized for the dead. Why did the Corinthian church baptize for the dead? Paul did not criticize this phenomenon, but simply said, “If there is no resurrection, why baptize for the dead?” What does Paul mean?
Let’s look more closely at this puzzling verse. First Corinthians 15:29 says, “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?” (ESV).
I believe that different people in the Corinthian church lived out the experience of resurrection in different ways. Paul fully lived in the reality of the resurrection, but other believers lived without any awareness of the resurrection. They were baptized for the dead, believing in some kind of intermediate state after death. Perhaps they mentally assented to the resurrection, but they lacked Paul’s real experience of the resurrection.
In addition, I believe 1 Corinthians 15 is a continuation of the themes of chapter 14. Chapter fourteen encourages believers to have balance in the use of their spiritual gifts, and not to use them in excess. Here, Paul continued to talk about balance. Those who pursue knowledge and truth in excess often lack a personal experience of the Lord’s resurrection. In this passage, Paul explained his own experience of the risen Lord and encouraged other believers to get to know the risen Lord through experience.
Does Paul’s Mention of Baptism For The Dead Mean That He Agrees?
This passage is confusing. Personally, I do not know of any modern church that practices baptism for the dead. One website explains, “There is a lot of controversy among bible scholars about what ‘baptism for the dead’ is, possibly referring to vicarious baptisms. There may be some believers in the Corinthian church who were baptized on behalf of those who died before they could be baptized. But Paul’s mention of this does not mean he agrees. The point was to use this to remind the Corinthians that if there is no resurrection, why do it?”
After reading this passage over and over again, I have concluded that Paul was neutral on this subject. Although I don’t see Paul supporting the practice of being baptized for the dead, I don’t see him criticizing it either. He is just saying, “If people don’t believe in the resurrection, why should they be baptized for the dead?” Let’s look at what verse 15:29 says: “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?”
Personally, I believe that Paul’s attitude is at least neutral. In the very next verse, Paul goes on, “Why are we in danger every hour?” The reason Paul was in danger every hour was because of his longing for the resurrection. We see this fact in Acts 23:6, when Paul affirmed to the Pharisees, “I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” (Acts 23:6 NIV). From these verses, we see that Paul was in danger because of his hope in the resurrection. These verses place Paul’s persecution and baptism for the dead side by side, as if they are equally valid. Both relate to ways we practically live out our faith in the resurrection. This is my personal understanding.
Who Didn’t Believe in The Resurrection?
The Bible clearly tells us that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection or in spirits, whereas the Pharisees did. Matthew 22 says that the Sadducees challenged the Lord Jesus about the resurrection. They told a story about seven brothers who had successively married the same woman and then passed away.
“Whose wife will she be when she is resurrected?” the Sadducees asked.
Jesus answered, “We will neither marry nor be given in marriage when we are resurrected. Instead, we will be just like angels.” Jesus even quoted the Bible and said, “‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.” His words are very interesting. God is the God of the living. Therefore, in His eyes, whether we live on earth or in heaven after we are resurrected, we are living people.
Now we know that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. But how did this belief spread to the Corinthian church? We have no way of knowing. Perhaps some Jewish Christians were influenced by the teachings of the Sadducees.
Judging from the passage in Matthew, the Sadducees not only disbelieved the resurrection, but they also failed to believe in the Living God, who is the God of the Living. If they had believed that God is the God of the Living, then they should have understood that people can be resurrected because God is not the God of the dead.
Perhaps the Sadducees lacked knowledge about the resurrection, just like some Christians today. Many people do not know and experience God as a Living God. They stick to dogmas, traditions, and even God’s written words, yet refuse to follow His new, living leading. They don’t know or understand that God is the Living God.
As I have explained in the past, some parts of God are unchanging. God’s words in the Bible reveal aspects of His unchanging nature: love, light, holiness, and righteousness. Yet other parts of the Bible reveal God’s circumstantial leading, which changes according to the environment and the wishes of the Living God. When we take these circumstance-dependent words of God and crystallize them into unchanging principles, we often miss His new leading. This has been the case throughout the ages. Not only Jews, but many Christian individuals and groups commit the same mistake.
Understanding the resurrection isn’t limited to believing we will one day be raised from the dead. It also means believing that God is a living God today. We cannot dogmatize the Word of God because written words—even the words of the Bible—bring death, but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6). Knowing the Living God is knowing the Resurrection.
Which believers in the Corinthian church did not know about the resurrection? To whom is Paul speaking in 1 Corinthians 15? I believe 1 Corinthians 15 is a continuation of the train of thought Paul began in 1 Corinthians 14. Chapter 14 discusses those who pursue spiritual gifts. Paul exhorts believers to balance spiritual gifts and spiritual life. Chapter 15 seems to be targeting people who oppose spiritual gifts.
Why do I say that? At first, I didn’t understand why the topic of the resurrection was suddenly introduced in chapter 15. One day, while listening to the dramatized audio Bible,[i] I played 1 Corinthians 15. While praying in tongues, I sought the help of the Holy Spirit. Suddenly I thought of a question that seemed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. This question was, “Who in the Corinthian church did not understand the resurrection? Was it those who pursued spiritual gifts? Or those who were against them?”
Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 14 that the purpose of speaking in tongues was to utter mysteries to God (14:2), and that prophecies could disclose the secrets of people’s hearts, causing them to fall on their faces and declare that God was truly among them (14:25). Those who pursued spiritual gifts often focused on their experiences, so they often had better knowledge and experience of the risen Lord. But their shortcoming was that they often neglected other people’s feelings and put too much emphasis on spiritual gifts. Because of this, Paul gave them some truths to bring balance to their lives. He asked them to be mindful of others’ feelings and to pursue love and life.
So why did Paul suddenly start talking about the resurrection in chapter 15? This section was probably targeted toward those who opposed tongues and spiritual gifts. Paul clearly stated that speaking in tongues should not be forbidden (14:39), so apparently there were people in the Corinthian church who wanted to do just that. Why? When believers oppose spiritual gifts and the pursuit of experience, they easily begin to place too much emphasis on knowledge. But when believers overemphasize knowledge, they often lack experiences with the living, risen Lord. So chapter 15 continued to add balance. Those who pursued spiritual gifts in excess needed to balance it with love, and those who pursued knowledge in excess needed to balance it with an experience of the living Lord.
The Word “Testimony” In Hebrew Means “Do It Again”
The word “testimony” in Hebrew means “do it again.” In other words, when we share our testimony about God’s healing and resurrection, God is very willing to “do it again” in the lives of those who hear us. In other words, Jesus Christ will not only appear to the apostles but will also appear to everyone who desires to know His resurrection. When the Lord Jesus appeared to the disciples after His resurrection, Thomas was not there, so he did not believe. He said that he would not believe unless Jesus appeared to him personally. Later, when the Lord Jesus appeared again, Thomas believed. The Lord Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29). But this does not mean that God is unwilling to appear to us. On the contrary, although Thomas did not believe at first, he longed for the risen Jesus to appear to him. And Jesus was more than happy to do so.
Paul’s testimony about the risen Lord (1-11) served this very purpose. He hoped his testimony would inspire the believers in the Corinthian church so that they too could know and experience the risen Christ. We are blessed if we believe without seeing; but if we have doubts, we can ask the Lord, and the risen Christ will surely appear to us as well. The Bible shares a basic principle: we do not have because we do not ask (James 4:2). God also tells us, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7). Why don’t some people ask? Because they pay too much attention to absolute knowledge and truth and don’t accept the idea that they can experience Jesus personally.
I spent my first thirteen years as a Christian at an evangelical church that valued Bible study, and I gained a good foundation in Bible study. But this church did not focus on spiritual gifts such as healing and prophecy. Neither did it pursue dreams and visions. Therefore, though the Lord did speak to me during the first thirteen years of my Christian life, I never had the experience of being transported to heaven in a vision. Later, I left this church and went to a charismatic church to study spiritual gifts. I was very envious of the people who shared testimonies about being taken to heaven. I often prayed that God would take me to heaven and allow me a glimpse of heaven.
On the last day of 2017, the Lord Jesus appeared to me and took me to heaven. After that, I still hungered for more. I continued to pray that He would give me more experiences of heaven. I was working in Washington DC at the time. I often went out for a walk over my lunch break to pray. As I walked, I prayed in tongues, sang, clapped my hands, praised God, meditated on the words of Scripture, and sang the words of the Bible. I wanted to be in constant prayer and continual fellowship with Him.
One day at noon, as I was walking near the Potomac River, I sincerely prayed, “Lord, please take me to heaven again today.” I prayed this same prayer often, so once I was done praying, I forgot about it. But that night, I found myself in a dream, waiting in line to see the Lord in heaven. I was asked to put on a robe while I waited. My heart was pounding with excitement. Before I got to the door, a huge force knocked me to the ground. I couldn’t stand up. Then I heard the powerful voice of the Lord saying, “Get up.” I instantly had the power to stand up. After I got in, I saw the Lord sitting there. He called my name, “Sean.” I heard the Lord of the universe calling my name, and my heart melted. Then Jesus pinched my chin and humorously asked, “No beard?” My meeting with the Lord was short, but it was the nearest I had ever seen Him. I saw His face and His strong muscles. Afterward, a Chinese woman (I guess she was the Holy Spirit in disguise) led me to visit other places in heaven. The whole experience got me so excited I got completely carried away.
Why did I not have the experience of being taken to heaven during the first thirteen years of my Christian life? Why have I been taken to heaven so many times in recent years? How much impact did my encounter with the Lord have on my understanding of the resurrection? Why do evangelical Christians who hyperfocus on knowledge of the Bible lack similar experiences? Why do many believers in the Pentecostal Movement have similar experiences? The differences in teaching bring different expectations to different believers. When we testify of the Lord’s resurrection through sharing our experiences, we plant seeds in the hearts of those who hear us. They will begin to long for such an experience. When they ask God, He will give them this type of experience. Such experiences will play a very important role in their understanding of resurrection.
Some believers in the Corinthian church focused too much on knowledge. They were opposed to spiritual experiences such as tongues and spiritual gifts, so gradually they stopped experiencing the Living Lord. This, in turn, affected their understanding of the truth of the resurrection, and they eventually stopped believing in the resurrection altogether.
In the same way, today’s liberal churches pursue science and knowledge. They don’t even believe in the miracles in the Bible. Yet those who pursue spiritual gifts often pray in tongues and seek the gift of prophecy. They constantly utter mysteries to God and hear Him talk, so naturally, they have more opportunities to encounter the risen Lord. Our spiritual experiences are no substitute for our love for the Lord and our study of biblical truths, and Paul dealt with the tendency to hyperfocus on spiritual gifts in chapter 14. But it’s important to realize that the pursuit of knowledge and truth (even science), combined with the denial of spiritual gifts and experiences, will eventually lead to the loss of the truth. That’s why Paul reminded the Corinthian believers in chapter 15 to take spiritual experiences seriously.
Biblical truth and spiritual experience are two sides of the same coin. They are the two wings we Christians need in order to take flight. Both are indispensable; neither can be neglected. Today’s traditional evangelical churches tend towards a dead spirituality; liberal churches deny the authority of the Bible and God; and charismatic churches that over-pursue spiritual gifts often fail to balance truth and Christian experience. Doesn’t that sound a lot like the Corinthian church?
The Truth About the Resurrection of Christ and the Resurrection of Christians
Paul shared his experience of the resurrected Christ first, before he shared the truth about the resurrection. He did this because the power of testimony is so enormous. Paul mentioned that after the Lord Jesus was resurrected, He “appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (15:5-8)
Then Paul elaborated on the truth about the resurrection. His words about the resurrection are often quoted at funerals. Since the focus of today’s devotional is not on the truth of the resurrection, we will not spend too much time talking about these truths here.
In short, resurrection is like sowing a seed. The seed we sow exists in one form, but the resurrected plant exists in another form. Therefore, we must experience the resurrection in order to know the risen Christ and break the limits of our imagination. There was a Chinese Christian who didn’t believe in the resurrection. A preacher pointed to the wheat field outside the door and said to him, “The wheat you sowed is a single grain, but the wheat after the resurrection will be heads of grain.” This Christian suddenly understood the truth of the resurrection.
Perhaps the people who were baptized for the dead in the Corinthian church believed in God’s resurrection to a certain extent! They buried themselves in water for others, hoping that they would be resurrected in glory. Although they may not have had the same profound knowledge and experience of resurrection as Paul had, they may have understood the resurrection better than those who did not believe in it at all!
Knowing Resurrection Makes Us Steadfast And Abounding In The Work Of The Lord
The last verse of this chapter says, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58) We who serve the Lord are often discouraged, so we need to understand the resurrection and be empowered by the risen Lord. Many people who serve the Lord become exhausted from time to time. But when the Risen Lord appears to them, they will regain their strength. When we truly understand the truth of the resurrection and have experienced the risen Christ, we will abound in the work of the Lord, regardless of our circumstances.
Much of the work we do is sowing. After the seed is sown, someone else will water it; but it is God who makes it grow. As long as we do not become discouraged, we will surely reap a good harvest in the resurrection.
 All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
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