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? Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame. – 1 Corinthians 15:29-34 ESV
In verse 29, Paul takes what appears to be a rather interesting and confusing diversion from his primary topic. Actually, he is simply trying to drive home his point regarding the reality of the resurrection. To do so, he brings in another practice that was evidently common in Corinth, perhaps not in the church, but in the pagan community. It involved proxy baptism or baptism for the dead. Now it has been estimated that this one verse has been given as many as 40 different interpretations over the years in an effort to explain what Paul is talking about.
They included that Christians in Corinth were being “baptized into the ranks of the dead” by martyrdom (thinking of “baptism” in the light of Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50), that this was ordinary Christian baptism that took place “over” the grave of the dead, or that new Christians were baptized to “replace” Christians who had died. Though interesting, these proposals lack credibility. The most plausible interpretation is that some in Corinth were getting baptized vicariously for the dead. Several factors, however, put this into perspective. Although Paul does not explicitly condemn the practice, neither does he endorse it. – Christianity Today, August 10 1998, Vol. 42, No. 9
The most likely explanation is that Paul is referring to a practice that was common among the mystery religions found in and around Corinth. These pagan religions encouraged their followers to be baptized on behalf of and in place of their deceased relatives in order to assure their “salvation.” It is the same belief held today by the Church of Latter-Day Saints or the Mormons. But Paul is not endorsing this practice. Notice that he says, “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?” He is pointing out what others, outside the church, were doing. This was a practice the Corinthians believers would have been familiar with, and Paul is simply using it as an example of how even the pagan mystery religions believed in a resurrection of the dead. Otherwise, their practice of proxy baptism would have been pointless.
Paul’s whole point is that there is a resurrection of the dead. To reject it or refuse to believe in it would be to reject the gospel. And Paul had been putting his life on the line to preach the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). He had suffered greatly as a result of his belief in the resurrection. It was the resurrection of Jesus that caused much of the persecution against the disciples in the early days of the church. Which is what led Paul to ask, “Why are we in danger every hour?” (1 Corinthians 15:30 ESV). It was because of the message of the resurrection. In Acts chapter 4, Luke records that Peter and John, after sharing the gospel in Solomon’s Portico in Jerusalem, were arrested.
And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. – Acts 4:1-4
They were arrested for proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead. It was this message that riled the Jewish religious leaders. The next day, standing in front of the high priest and his religious cohorts, Peter and John were asked to explain by what power or authority they had healed a crippled man the day before. And Peter responded, “ let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well” (Acts 4:10 ESV).
It is the resurrection of Jesus that gave the gospel its power and made possible the coming of the Holy Spirit. To reject the resurrection simply because you can’t explain it is absurd. And Paul asks the Corinthians, “And what value was there in fighting wild beasts—those people of Ephesus—if there will be no resurrection from the dead? And if there is no resurrection, ‘Let’s feast and drink, for tomorrow we die!’” (1 Corinthians 15:32 NLT). If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Jesus was not raised from the dead and we have no hope of future resurrection. This life is all there is. So if that’s the case, let’s enjoy our life while we can and stop worrying about eternity. But Paul rejects that logic. In fact, he tells the Corinthians, “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame” (1 Corinthians 15:34 EV). It was as if their senses were numbed by too much alcohol, affecting their ability to think clearly. Paul demanded that they “sober up” and start listening to God rather than their pagan friends and neighbors. The resurrection of Jesus was just as much a part of the plan of God as His death. When the women had come to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus they were met by two angels, who said to them:
“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. – Luke 24:5-9 ESV
We need to wake up to the reality of the resurrection. It is the resurrection of Jesus that gives us hope. It is what assures us of our own future resurrection. It is because He rose again that we can believe that He will one day come again. And in the meantime, as we wait for that day, Paul would have us remember, “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you” (Romans 8:11 NLT).