Exposition of 1 Corinthians 15:29-34 How love can conquer death and loss

1 Corinthians 15:29-34

29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? 30 And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31 I face death every day — yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 33 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” 34 Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God — I say this to your shame.

The Christians in Roman Corinth were fortunate to have a social and historical context that allowed them to understand some of Pauls phrases that have baffled generations of Christian thinkers. Many regard 1 Cor. 15:29 to be the most puzzling in Pauls letter to the Corinthians.

Although more than forty explanations have emerged, we will offer only two and will prefer just one of them. The first explanation, upheld by a majority of commentators, is that Paul is speaking in verse 29 of some type of vicarious baptism for the dead, a baptism by proxy in which a living person is baptized to confer some type of spiritual benefit upon a dead person — presumably an unbeliever — even the benefit of salvation itself. This view has several serious problems: (1) There is no record of such a baptism in the New Testament or among the early churches; (2) Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant doctrine all reject such a practice, as did several prominent church fathers; and (3) Paul could never allow an act that completely bypasses Gods grace and personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Concerning the proxy baptism view, Gordon Fee says: “It smacks of a magical view of sacramentalism of the worst kind, where a religious rite, performed for someone else, can have saving [effect].”[1] We agree with Fees rejection of this explanation for verse 29. Today the only religious group that consistently uses this practice of baptism by proxy for the dead is the Mormon Church, which names itself The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Two translations and an interpretation of baptized for the sake of the dead

In an attempt to make sense of 1 Cor. 15:29, the NIV makes a fairly lengthy addition to the text, and that is shown in italics in this quotation of their translation: “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?” Thiselton’s translation is closer to the actual Greek text: Otherwise what do those people think they are doing who have themselves baptized for the sake of the dead? If the dead are really not raised, what is the point of being baptized for them?

Anthony Thiselton explains that baptism for the sake of the dead is not in order to remedy some deficiency on the part of the dead, but in order to be reunited with them at the resurrection.[2] Thiselton also makes clear the reason: “Paul is referring rather to a much commoner, indeed a normal experience, that the death of Christians leads to the conversion of survivors, who in the first instance for the sake of the dead (their beloved dead) and in hope of reunion, turn to Christ.”[3] So, the survivors of a beloved Christian commit themselves to Jesus and receive baptism out of the desire to rejoin their deceased loved one at the resurrection.

Pauls point is that the only reason that people trust in Christ in this particular way is because they rely on the fact that resurrection will occur. Otherwise, their conversion and baptism would be pointless. The baptism such people undergo is appropriate in light of their own faith in Jesus.

Pauls own reliance on the resurrection

If you think Paul is exaggerating when he says, I face death every day (1 Cor. 15:31), we should recall that Pauls bold witness for Christ did indeed lead to his eventual death in Rome. Paul writes to the Corinthians from Ephesus, and he speaks metaphorically of the intensity of the struggle there: I have fought wild beasts in Ephesus (1 Cor. 15:32). This is likely a reference to the riot in Ephesus against Paul and his followers (Acts 19:23-41) or similar threats. Garland says: “The wild beasts plausibly are bloodthirsty human antagonists who would eagerly tear him to pieces. His Roman citizenship did not provide him protection from mob violence.”[4]

Having presented a picture of his own life being in constant danger of death, Paul drives home the point that this life only makes sense if he has the certainty — biblical hope is always a certainty — of resurrection in Christ (1 Cor. 15:32b). Garland describes this hope with skill: “Resurrection means endless hope, but no resurrection means a hopeless end.”[5]

Paul shows both his education and his rhetorical skills when he says, If the dead are not raised, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Cor. 15:32b). This wording simultaneously appeals to Jews, by quoting Isa. 22:13, and to the other citizens of Roman Corinth by its similarity to slogans used in debate among competing Greek philosophies. A life of self-sacrifice in imitation of Jesus makes little sense if there is no resurrection. Jesus was not kidding when he said you cannot serve both God and money, where the latter term encompasses everything the world has to offer apart from God (Luke 16:13). Paul says we serve God through commitment of our lives to Christ because we believe we will experience a resurrection like his.

Paul has already made it clear that he is dealing with some (1 Cor. 15:12) who deny the resurrection, and that makes it more likely than not that we should translate 1 Cor. 15:33a by “Stop being misled” rather than NIV’s “Do not be misled.” Some had already been misled and were adversely influencing the others.

Thiselton expresses an important point: “These two verses [33-34], especially v. 34, express the theological heart of the chapter and the hinge of the argument. Knowledge of God (Gods resources, Gods grace, God’s transformative action through Christ) holds the key to understanding what the resurrection is actually about.”[6]

We might say that “come back to your senses” (1 Cor. 15:34) and “stop sinning” are two ways of saying the same thing. Thiselton explains, “Paul regularly regards sin less in terms (if at all) of acts (plural) of commission or omission than as an attitude, stance, and state in which the human will is granted autonomy to turn away from God and to seek self-gratification as the chief end of human life.”[7] That statement is worth thinking about!

Pauls most devastating charge is that “some . . . are ignorant of God” (1 Cor. 15:34). That is actually a stinging rebuke for people who take pride in their knowledge; to be ignorant of God is similar to the darkness of a pre-Christian state. Paul pushes this knife in with the statement: “I say this to your shame” (verse 34). In a culture which found its bearings in relation to honor and shame, that was the ultimate insult.

Copyright 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

 


[1] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997) 764-5.

[2] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 1248, quoting J.K. Howard.

[3] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1248, quoting G.G. Findlay.

[4] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 721.

[5] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 721.

[6] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1253.

[7] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1256.

Exposition of 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 God’s orderly process and resurrection

1 Corinthians 15:20-28

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

Starting in verse 20, Paul reverses the argument and begins from the true premise that Jesus was raised from the dead — by God the Father — with the current and enduring result that Jesus now lives. Paul is more forceful than the NIV (“indeed”) indicates: But “in fact” Christ has been raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20, NLT, ESV, CEB). The standard Greek lexicon uses the phrase “but, as a matter of fact” and says that the Greek word introduces the real situation after an unreal clause or sentence,[1] referring to the unreal assumption that there is no resurrection.

For the seventh time since verse 4, Paul uses the relatively rare Greek perfect tense (passive voice) to refer to Jesus being raised. The seven verbal forms are identical, so it is plain Paul is making a point. What is the point? As before, the Greek perfect stresses the current result of a past action; here the current result is that Jesus lives after being raised by the Father. This force is hard to express briefly in a Bible translation.

The next critical fact is that Jesus is called the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor. 15:20b). The concept of Jesus as firstfruits is metaphorical. The Law of Moses called on the Jews to offer annually a sheaf of grain from the very first harvest to God (Lev. 23:1011). David Garland reminds us that the feast of firstfruits occurred on Nisan 16 every year, and Jesus was resurrected on Nisan 16 in A.D. 33.[2]

But the metaphor of firstfruits is more expansive than what has been described so far. Anthony Thiselton explains that firstfruits embodies both a temporal logic and representative logic.[3] As firstfruits, Christ is not only the first to be raised from the dead but also the representative of the full harvest to come. Note carefully that Jesus is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20b), a phrase that always refers to Christians. We who are in Christ will take part in the full harvest of resurrections of which Christ’s was the first.

Verses 22 and 23 must be interpreted together. Garland gives his interpretation, with which both Thiselton and Gordon Fee agree: “All those bound to Adam share his banishment from Eden, his alienation, and his fate of death for that death becomes the common lot of his posterity. All those bound to Christ receive reconciliation and will share his resurrection and heavenly blessings. Not all humans are in Christ, however.”[4] Those who are in Christ include those who have fallen asleep (verse 20) and those who belong to Christ (verse 23).

The other theme introduced in 1 Cor. 15:23 is order. The verse begins with a military term to describe something placed in its proper order, and it is easy to see a definite sequence of events which climaxes in verse 28 with “that God may be all in all.” Paul is showing the Corinthians that events are unfolding in an order that God intended.

Paul has made no attempt to account for what eventually happens to all humanity. It has been his purpose to establish the resurrection of Christ and then the raising of all who are in Christ. A few interpreters have attempted to drag the unsaved dead into the picture by saying that the term translated “the end” (verse 24, Greek telos) necessarily includes them, but that was not the concern of the Corinthians, and the great majority of interpreters rejects the idea for several reasons. The fate of the unsaved dead is recorded in Rev. 20:5, 11-15. In fact, the consummation of world history is seen in verse 24 to be about God rather than about us or the unsaved dead.

Verse 24 contains the phrase “all dominion, authority and power” as a list of those powers Christ would nullify, and that statement might have made some in Roman Corinth nervous. After all, the Roman emperor was portrayed as both divine and the spiritual Father of the empire, but Paul is replacing that imperial propaganda with a picture of Christ voiding all powers and giving everything to his Father. In 1 Cor. 15:25, Paul includes an indirect reference to Psalm 110:1, and putting enemies under ones feet is a metaphor meaning to bring them into subjection. Jesus is even now bringing all his enemies into subjection, and the last to fall will be death (1 Cor. 15:26). But fall it will!

Verse 27 is tricky because the subject shifts from Christ taking action in the earlier verses to God taking the action in verse 27. Garland explains it by showing an identity in brackets with each pronoun: “When it says, All things have been made subject [by God], clearly that excludes the one [God] who made all things subject to him [Christ].”[5] Paul was being careful to prevent some foolish person from using the phrase all things to include God. The scope of the word “all” is always an issue for interpretation.

We can use the same technique to make sense out of 1 Cor. 15:28: “When he [God] has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him [God] who put everything under him [Christ], so that God may be all in all.” Thiselton brings to our attention a subtle idea from another scholar: “There is no order without subordination.”[6] Sin threw the world into chaos, but the Son was willing to subordinate himself to the Father as part of the plan to redeem humanity and make a new creation in which God and his people could dwell forever.

Though Paul’s meaning is complex and taxes our minds, we see in verse 28 the culmination of God’s orderly process of redeeming lost humanity and defeating his enemies through Christ. Christ, though equal to the Father and of the same substance, voluntarily subordinated himself to the Father as part of this long salvation process (Phil. 2:6-11). Nevertheless, they remain one, along with the Spirit, and their purpose remains one. Thiselton says, “Thus God remains the source and goal, Christ remains the means through which the goal which God purposes comes to be brought about.”[7]

In Roman Corinth there were other factors in play that likely caused Paul to express himself in this way. Thiselton explains that in the surrounding Greco-Roman culture it was common for various religious groups to gather around their own favorite divine hero, such as Asclaepius the healer, and to worship that divine hero without ever including any serious reverence to a supreme deity, such as Zeus.[8] The supreme deity effectively dropped off their list.

Remember 1 Cor. 8:5, where Paul told us that in Roman Corinth there are many gods and many lords. Paul did not want anyone to see Jesus as just another of the many lords, and he did not want them to see God the Father as just some vague, mysterious idea. No, he wanted them to see God as all in all, the supreme creator and sovereign ruler over all the world.

Copyright 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

 


[1] BAGD, nuni, “but, as a matter of fact” (meaning 2.b.), q.v.

[2] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 706, footnote 4.

[3] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 12234.

[4] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 707, and see 709. (Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1227; Gordon Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 750.)

[5] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 713.

[6] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1224, quoting T.C. Edwards.

[7] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1236.

[8] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1237, citing J. Moffatt.

Exposition of 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, A false idea and its implications

1 Corinthians 15:12-19

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.

16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Commentary

As you study this passage, it is vital to keep in mind that Paul is writing to people who are totally accustomed to the techniques of persuasion used by speakers and writers. So, he is very methodical in dealing with the issue of the resurrection of the dead. He has just recited the preaching of all the apostles (1 Cor. 15:1-11) saying that Jesus was raised from the dead and now lives, just as Paul had preached and just as the Corinthians had believed. That sets the stage for dealing with a theological issue in the church at Roman Corinth.

Some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15:12b). Paul first points out a contradiction: The Corinthians have responded to the gospel with its message of Christ crucified and resurrected, so how can some still question resurrection? Next, Paul starts with the false premise that there is no resurrection and shows the butchers bill for holding that view.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Jesus did was not raised either (verse 13). That overthrows all the apostolic preaching and voids the faith in Jesus expressed by the Corinthians. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, the gospel is no more than snake oil peddled by hucksters and bought by rubes.

But Paul is not finished. If the apostles have consistently preached a false resurrection, they are exposed as liars[1] (1 Cor. 15:15) not merely about some mundane subject but about the living God. And, by implication, the Corinthians are fools for believing their message.

Next, Paul repeats the false premise and its main consequence: For if the dead are not raised [false premise], then Christ has not been raised either [main consequence] (1 Cor. 15:16). Next he moves the argument in to an intensely personal level. No resurrected Christ means, the faith of the Corinthians was useless, and they each still face the wrath of God for their sins (verse 17). Further, their believing, though now dead, family members and loved ones are lost for good[2] (1 Cor. 15:18). That is one horror that easily translates across the centuries to believers like us situated in the twenty-first century. It is too painful to think about.

Adopting the false premise that there is no resurrection from the dead leads to the awful conclusion that Christian hope ends at death. Under such circumstances, David Garland says, Christianity would be an ineffective religion that is detrimental to ones health since it bestows only suffering on its followers.[3] Under this assumption, Christians would suffer and find shame like Jesus, but their shame would be well deserved and unrelieved by eternal fellowship with God.

Concepts about death in Roman Corinth

Garland relates the findings of an important study of Roman tombstone epitaphs by saying, The belief of the ancients, both Greek and Roman, in immortality, was not widespread, nor clear, nor strong.[4] One tombstone inscription was so common that it was abbreviated by the first letter of every Latin word — to cut costs — and it may be translated to say, I was not. I was. I am not. I am free from wishes.[5] The result of such fatalism was that people wanted to live for the moment; thus Paul quotes a popular saying Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Cor. 15:32).

To avoid getting into Greek philosophy, we will rely on Garlands summary of what the Corinthians likely believed: Humans are composed of two inharmonious parts, body and soul, that are of unequal value. At death the mortal body is shed like a snakes skin, and the immortal soul continues in a purely spiritual existence.[6] They struggled to understand how an earthly body could possibly exist in a heavenly realm, and that may have led them to question bodily resurrection.

Paul totally rejected any idea of a spirit existing without a body, but his way of resolving the confusion about a resurrection body must wait until 1 Cor. 15:35-55.

Copyright 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

 


[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 1219.

[2] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1221.

[3] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 703.

[4] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 698, quoting R. Lattimore.

[5] non fui, fui, non sum, non desidero abbreviated nffnsnd on tombstones.

[6] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 700.