In this chapter, Paul defends the doctrine of resurrection, describing in verses 13-19 the consequences of no resurrection. If Christ is not risen then our preaching is meaningless (v. 14), the believer’s faith is futile (v. 17), they are still in their sins (v. 17), the dead in Christ have perished (v. 18) and all believers are to be pitied (v. 19). This theme is picked up again in verses 29-32. Connecting verse 19 to 29, it reads, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?” (NKJV).
If there is no resurrection, Paul asks why he or any other believer would get baptized, putting themselves in jeopardy of martyrdom (vv. 30-32). Water baptism pictures the believer’s identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Under the water, it pictures the death of their old life with the death and burial of Christ. As the believer is raised up out of the water, it pictures their new life in Christ because of His resurrection (Rom. 6:3-4). Nowhere does the Bible teach believers to be baptized on behalf of those who have died. Instead it is solely a personal choice believers makes for themselves in obedience to the Lord’s command. It does not save but instead proclaims that we are already saved and want to testify to it.
Then what does it mean to be baptized for the dead? The Greek “huper” translated “for” in the context of verse 29, means “on account of.”1 The church is like an army continuing the gospel battle from generation to generation. Each generation has new recruits of believers to replace those who have gone home to be with the Lord. Baptism testifies to our faith that we are saved and that both we and departed believers will someday be resurrected. It expresses our willingness to receive the baton from them because we are confident of ultimate victory. If there is no resurrection, the battle is lost and why keep fighting? One writer says, “…in the passage of time believers died, others were converted and being baptised, and so are viewed as filling up the ranks of testimony, and so the conflict of the gospel is maintained and continues. But there would be no point of continuing in this way, if the dead do not rise. It would be like an army, constantly replacing its dead with fresh recruits, continuing to fight a lost cause…Thus those who are baptised for the dead by their action are stating firmly their belief in the truth of resurrection.” They were like soldiers in an army taking the place of those who had died before them. If the dead believer will not rise again, why take their place and suffer for the cause of Christ?”2
Baptism signifies our complete identification with Christ. This includes His bodily resurrection. Why would believers continue to be baptized if there is no resurrection? It would make the ordinance a meaningless ritual. As one commentator says, “If Christ’s resurrection is not a fact, and ours consequently not a living hope, then what purpose is there for the rite of Christian baptism?… If there is no resurrection, and really no divinely authenticated Saviour and gospel of salvation, might they not better give up a rite that portrays their identification with such a Saviour and such a salvation?”3
It is the truth of our identification with Christ and His resurrection that inspires continuing generations of believers to take the place of believers who have gone on before them and like them be willing to be identified with and suffer for Christ.
1. Complete Word Study Dictionary (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2013), electronic version
2. What The Bible Teaches – 1 Corinthians (Kilmarnock, Scotland: John Ritchie Ltd., 1986), p. 193
3. The New Unger’s Bible Handbook (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1984), p. 500
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