Baptized for the Dead?

The Defining Event

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central event for followers of Jesus Christ.  Paul explained its importance in “the resurrection chapter,” 1 Corinthians 15:

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).

That is why Easter is such a marvelous holiday for Christians.  We have the joy and priviege of celebrating Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.  Because the tomb is empty, the opposite of everything Paul mentioned in the passage above is true.  Our faith is of great value.  We are no longer in our sins.  Those who have fallen asleep in Jesus are alive and in heaven. Because we haven’t hoped in Christ in this life only, we have great reason to rejoice.

An Unusual Phrase

Later in that same passage, Paul asked a very unusual question; “What will those do who are baptized for the dead?  If the dead are not raised at all, why then are we baptized for them?” (1 Corinthians 15:29)

What exactly does that mean? Whenever we read a verse of Scripture that is difficult to understand, it is wise to compare it with other passages in the Bible that are clearer or easier to interpret.  We know Paul was not saying that we could be baptized so that someone else could be saved.  That would contradict everything the Scripture says about salvation.

1 Corinthians 15:29 is best understood in light of 1 Corinthians 15:18.  Paul had already explained that because Christ was raised, those who have already died have not perished.  The question now is, who is going to take the place of those who have already gone to be with the Lord?  The answer is, men and women who have recently come to Christ.  They are “baptized for the dead” in the sense that God uses their gifts and abilities to fill the vacuum in the church created by men and women who have already passed away.

A Great Opportunity

Our church has a wonderful heritage.  We have been blessed by many men and women who knew Jesus Christ and allowed their living Savior to enable them to live faithful, godly, lives.  But now a number of the them have gone to heaven.  Their gifts and abilities that were such a tremendous blessing to our church family are no longer available.  Others have grown older and are unable to serve the way they once did.

Thank the Lord that He has simultaneously brought many new men and women to our church family.  Month after month we see people follow the Lord in believer’s baptism.  They often say in their testimonies that they are looking forward to serving the Lord together with their new church family.  In that sense, they are being baptized for the dead.

A Living Example

This week’s Passion Play is a great example of this principle in action.  Some of the men and women who faithfully served in the Passion Play years ago are no longer alive.  They will be celebrating this Easter in heaven.

But God in His grace has raised up a new generation of servants.  Many of those who will serve sacrificially this week are new believers in Christ.  Praise the Lord for new life.  Praise the Lord for those who have been baptized for the dead.

Steve Viars
Dr. Viars has served as a pastor and counselor at Faith since 1987. He is an author, national speaker, and Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Biblical Counseling Coalition.