The Curious Verse We Didn’t Talk About

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.

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Life’s Many Goodbyes

Recently, our family has to had to learn how to say “goodbye” to some people in our lives. My wife’s uncle died this month, at the way-too-young age of 66. And this week, we said goodbye to a nephew who had been living with us for the past six months.

Isn’t it interesting that we even use the word “goodbye” when someone leaves? What’s good about goodbye?

The answer, it seems, is in history, and the history of language. The use of the word “goodbye” goes back to the 16th century — and began as the phrase “God be with ye.” As the phrase was used, it got shortened, and over time “God be with ye” became “Goodbye.”

Which means: what is good about goodbye is not that we let someone go, but that we let them go with God. Goodbye is good in the sense that God is still God, and He is still with the person we love — even when we cannot be. So, when we say goodbye to someone until we see them next week or next year — we do so entrusting them to God’s care. And when we say a bigger goodbye — the biggest goodbye — that comes when death separates us from someone we love, we do so entrusting them to God’s eternal care.

This doesn’t mean we ever get good at saying goodbye. On an episode of the show “CSI: New York,” one of the cops befriends Ruben, a ten-year-old kid from his apartment building. They go do an activity together, and on the way home, the cop notices a thief escaping the scene of the crime. He tells Ruben to go straight home, and then he begins to chase the criminal. Tragically, Ruben gets caught up in the chaos, and is killed.

Two detectives who work with the cop wrestle with how to comfort their friend: “What do I say?” one of them asks. “I’m not good at this kind of thing.”

“Just tell him you’re not good at this kind of thing,” her friend tells her.

I don’t think we ever get good at saying goodbye. And the bigger the goodbye, the harder it is. But because of Jesus — because of Easter — because we have hope, goodbye is not the same as The End. For even in our goodbyes, even in our biggest goodbye, we have a promise — that God really is with us through all our goodbyes.

You see, because of Easter, we can say goodbye. We can say, “God be with ye,” because through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we come to experience God’s presence — the kind that no separation can end. Not even the separation of death.

The Berlin Wall & What Really Lasts

On August 13, 1961, a wall sprang up overnight. For nearly 30 years, it would be a symbolic and physical reality that separated the city of Berlin — and, in fact, the West and the East. The Berlin Wall felt imposing; in fact, was imposing. How could anyone, on either side of the wall, deny its reality? How strong and lasting must it have been to have 96 miles of concrete and steel that said: Keep out!

But it didn’t last. On a surprising night in November, 1989, a gate was opened at Bornholmer Street (itself a fascinating story), and as fast as it went up, it just as quickly came down. And the gate went from being an imposing reality to a relic and reminder.

The truth is, so much in life is like the Berlin Wall. It feels overwhelming, unmovable, permanent.

Sometimes it is the work of our hands. We work so hard on our careers, our families, our houses, our reputation, our legacy, that we sometimes grow to count on them. Look at what we have built; how can it fall?

But other times, what seems unstoppable is not what we do, but what happens to us: the finances that fail, the job that falls apart, the future plans that never materialize, the loved one who walks out, the health condition that bottoms out. Look at what is happening; how can I make it through this?

In both cases, we would be wise to remember the lesson of the Berlin Wall. Sometimes, what seems unshakable, in fact, shakes. Sometimes, what feels like it is foundational, doesn’t go all the way down to bedrock.

What we need, what we really need, is something that is really foundational, unshakable, bedrock. The kind of thing we can build our lives on, whatever comes. No. Matter. What.

I Corinthians 15 takes us to bedrock. It points us to what is certain, no matter how uncertain life is. And it is found in the person of Jesus — his death, burial, and resurrection. This is not only the foundation of what Christianity is all about, it is also the foundation of what life is all about. That when what I build falls apart, Jesus doesn’t. When life comes at me, Jesus is there. When my sin and my brokenness overwhelm me, Jesus has taken it — is taking it — on himself. And through his death and resurrection, overcomes it all.

It’s the truth that changes everything. And it’s the truth that you can build your life on. For Now, and For Ever.