The last few weeks, I have been preaching through 1 Corinthians 15. But there’s a section I skipped — because I simply don’t know how to preach it. In fact, it’s not really a whole section, it’s one verse: 1 Cor. 15.29. And, specifically, one phrase in that verse: baptism for the dead.
What in the world? How does someone preach that? For that matter, how does one even make sense of that? What the heck is baptism for the dead? And why in the world is the Corinthian church doing it?
No shortage of ink has been spilled on this one phrase. By one count, there are over 40 different explanations regarding what was happening in Corinth. By my limited reading, two of the explanations seem to rise to the surface:
- The first interpretation is the easiest to swallow. Perhaps, it is suggested, Paul is referring to a practice where folks chose baptism so they could be reunited with those they loved who had already died. This wouldn’t be so unique; it still happens today. I had a guy tell me recently, while standing at the graveside of his loved one: “I want to be baptized so I can see him again.”
- The second theory is that believers are being baptized on behalf of those who died before they were baptized. If so, this might be one of the strangest practices of the early Church. But, hey, when we read 1 Corinthians, we shouldn’t be surprised at the odd things that happened there. This was the church, after all, that was okay with a guy sleeping with his step-mom. This was a church that was almost certainly less than 200 in size, and yet this small congregation couldn’t resolve their disputes — and fellow members of Corinthian Christian Church went to court against each other. This was the only church mentioned in the New Testament that had to have instructions regarding speaking in tongues during worship. And this was the church that prompted Paul to give an extended explanation on behalf of resurrection — because there were some who were saying that resurrection doesn’t happen.
And that’s the point. The heart of the message of 1 Corinthians 15 is: Jesus has been raised, and so will we. And ever after you sift through all the theories regarding “baptism for the dead” — the truth is, we simply don’t know what it means. But the bigger point — Paul’s bigger point — is that it makes no sense if there is no resurrection. Even if the Corinthians were having a mass “baptism for the dead” service, where members lined up to be baptized on behalf of deceased Uncle Charlie and my sweet Grandma who is no longer with us — even if they were doing this, and it was not something that Paul taught them to do or advocated himself — he was focused on his larger point. And so he asked: Why the heck would you go through the practice of going under the waters of baptism for the dead, if the dead are simply six feet under?
So, it’s safe to say that this Sunday — Easter Sunday — I won’t be preaching on the baptism of the dead. Or practicing it. But we will be focusing on Paul’s main point in 1 Corinthians 15 — that Resurrection is Real, and that it changes how we live, everyday. Because, the point of 1 Corinthians 15 — the point of the Bible; the point of life — is that if Easter is real; if Jesus is alive; then everything changes. Everything.
So, when you worship this weekend, make sure it is a celebration of the truth, and the power, and the game-changer that is: the Resurrection of Jesus. Because this really does change everything.