1 Corinthians 15:29
"Baptized for the Dead"
Else what shall they do which are baptized for [on behalf of, in place of, instead of] the dead [plural, "dead ones"], if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?
It's important to understand what this verse does not teach. Water baptism does not save anybody. See our study "Does Water Baptism Save?"
Also water baptism is a personal decision made by a new believer to publicly identify with Jesus Christ. A believer cannot do this for someone else, and certainly cannot do this for a dead person. Water baptism is something that each and every believer needs to do at the beginning of the Christian life, and it cannot be done for anyone else. Just as a believer cannot observe the Lord's Supper (Communion) for another person, so a believer cannot be baptized for another person. These are spiritual exercises that a person can only do for himself, although in so doing he can certainly be a testimony to others.
The Mormons wrongly practice some sort of "proxy baptism," based on this passage, but this is entirely unbiblical. See the following study on Mormonism to see how unbiblical this cult really is.
In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, H. A. Ironside offers a very clear explanation of the above verse which has puzzled so many Bible students. He explained it in this way:
I have spoken of four suggested interpretations of these words, and I come now to what I believe is the exact meaning of the text. First, let me say that the expression, "Baptized for the dead," means literally in the Greek text, "Baptized in place of, or over, the dead ones, or those who have died." The word "dead" is in the plural, it is not a singular noun; therefore it cannot refer to the Lord Jesus Christ; it is not, "Baptized because of Christ." Neither the preposition nor the noun will permit of that interpretation, but the actual rendering would have to be, "Baptized in place of dead ones." It is not, "baptized on behalf, or for the benefit, of dead ones." The preposition does not suggest that. In the earlier part of the chapter the apostle reproves those who denied the physical resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and says, "If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins" (verse 17). Everything for a believer depends upon the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was delivered up to death for our offenses, He was raised again for our justification, and if He be not raised, manifestly redemption has never been accomplished, the sin question has never been settled, they who have fallen asleep in Christ are perished, they have found that their profession has gone for naught, for there is no redemption if Christ be not raised, and it naturally follows that if that be the case, we are making a tremendous mistake for, "If the dead be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins," and therefore Christ is powerless to save. Think of the millions of people who have been willing to stake everything for eternity upon this Christ who cannot save if the dead rise not, but if Christ be not risen, they have blundered terribly. We might better go on and enjoy this world, for death ends all if that theory be true.
Verses 20 to 28 form a parenthesis in which the apostle turns aside from his argument to give us an outline concerning the pageant of the resurrection, and then goes on and develops it. You will find that in verse 29 he picks up the thread of the argument again from verse 19, saying, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. Else what shall they do who are baptized in place of the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead ?" This may be translated, "What shall they do which are baptized in the place of the dead ones if no dead ever rise? Why are they then baptized in the place of the dead ones ?" Do you not see that the argument is clear and luminous? Those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished if Christ has not been raised again, and yet every day other people are being baptized in their places, others are professing faith in Christ, others are availing themselves of the ordinance of baptism, they are filling up the places made vacant on earth by those who have died professing Christ. But if Christ be not risen, then those who have died are lost, they have gained nothing by their profession. Why then should we go on filling up the ranks all down the centuries and putting other people in the place of danger if there is nothing to be gained by it? This is a military figure. A regiment of soldiers goes into battle, and after the battle is over they count the men and find perhaps that seventy-five have been slain. Immediately they begin to recruit others in place of the dead, not to do the dead any good, but to take their places. Seventy-five other men are drawn into that regiment, are recruited in place of the dead, they don the uniform and go forth to take part in other conflicts. But if they are fighting a losing battle, if there is no possibility of ever winning, if they are just wasting their lives, why are they then recruited for the dead? What is the use of their taking the places of those who have died? It is the height of folly if they know there is nothing but certain defeat and destruction awaiting them.
Think of Christian people as a mighty army. Down through the centuries, for nineteen hundred years, the Church has been in conflict with the powers of sin and death and hell, and throughout the ages one generation of Christians has fallen and another has taken its place, and the public way of manifesting the fact that they have thus enlisted in the army of the Lord is through baptism. But what a foolish thing if Christ be not risen and if the dead rise not! What are they gaining by being baptized in place of the dead? Would it not have been better to have wound up the history of Christianity in the first centuries and said, "The whole movement is a failure, there is no risen Christ, there is no possibility for salvation here in this life"? A man may accept the philosophy of Christianity and keep it to himself. Possibly his neighbors would never suspect his belief and he would not be subject to martyrdom, but if he really believes in the Lord Jesus Christ he says, "I must make it known," and the right way is through baptism, through confessing Christ in that way as the One who died and rose again. The moment a man was baptized in Paul's day, and many centuries afterwards, he put himself in the way of possible martyrdom. His neighbors said, "That man is a Christian." "How do you know?" "He has been baptized, confessing the name of the Lord Jesus Christ." Paul was risking his life every hour, for there were enemies of Christianity on every hand. But if Christ be not risen, why should he, why should I and my fellow-laborers stand in the place of jeopardy? Paul says, "I protest by your rejoicing which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily." I am putting myself in the place of death every day, I am exposed to death, and I am ready to die for Jesus Christ. Paul knew He had risen for he had seen Him in the glory as He appeared to him that day when he fell stricken on the Damascus road, and Paul became the outstanding defender of Christianity. He says, "I am set for the defense of the gospel," and for the name of Christ he took his life in his hands and died daily.
Richard W. DeHaan gives this brief summary of the meaning of this passage:
Inasmuch as the Bible makes it clear that baptism in itself has no saving efficacy, it is obvious that these words cannot be construed as an endorsement of proxy baptism for people who have died. Baptism has no part in obtaining salvation, and nowhere do the Scriptures even hint that people can be baptized in behalf of someone else. In the light of the verses that immediately follow, it is not difficult to arrive at the true meaning of this verse. Paul is affirming that if there is no resurrection, it is folly for people to receive Jesus Christ, be baptized, and thus take their place among Christ s people, filling the ranks of those who have died. Why should a person open himself up to the ridicule, hatred, persecution, and many sacrifices involved in the Christian life if there be no resurrection? It is perfectly valid to translate the preposition hyper as "instead of." As saints died, the Church was not being depleted, for new people were constantly receiving Christ, expressing their faith in baptism, thus filling the places left vacant by those who had died [from his booklet, Christian Baptism, published by the Radio Bible Class].
See also Believer's Bible Commentary
by William MacDonald, under 1 Corinthians 15:29 (page 1807).
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