Vol. 1 - No. 8
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"Baptism For The Dead"
I would like to take friendly issue with brother Leon Odom's article on the above subject which appeared in the June, 1982, issue of this journal. 1 Corinthians 15:29 is, without question, a difficult passage and deserves cautious, rather than dogmatic, treatment. We can agree with brother Odom that a good way to approach such a passage is to determine first what it does NOT teach and then give careful attention to the context.
However, an additional "rule" might be suggested for approaching difficult texts and that is ‑‑‑ "always use a word in its ordinary, literal sense unless the context demands a figurative usage." The question comes down to this in our subject text: "Can the word BAPTISM be used in its ordinary (not figurative) sense?" In other words, can it be accurately stated that ordinary water baptism is in any sense "for the dead?" Brother Odom has concluded that literal immersion in water is not possible in this text and therefore suggests that a "baptism (overwhelming) of suffering" is what is taught. I must dissent from this view for the reasons which follow.
In the first place, I believe it is an oversimplification of the definition of the Greek word HUPER, to limit it to "In the place of, instead of." This word is capable of several different renderings ‑‑much like our English word "for." This is the main reason why the passage has been deemed to be so difficult and subjected to some thirty different explanations! The word HUPER can also be rendered "over," "on account of," "for the sake of," "concerning," "of," "as respects," "with regard to," "in reference to," etc., as affirmed by Thayer, Winer, Arndt and Gingrich, and other authorities.
As a matter of interest, HUPER is found right in this same chapter at verse 3, which states that "Christ died for (HUPER) our sins..." It is plain in this context that the word is used in the sense of "concerning," "with regard to" or "in reference to." Take a brief look at other passages in which this word is apparently used in this same sense: 2 Thessalonians 2:1 (NASV) ‑‑‑ "Now we request you, brethren WITH REGARD TO the coming of the Lord...;" 2 Corinthians 1:6; Romans 15:9; 2 Corinthians 7:4,14; 8:24; 9:2,3; 12:5, etc. So this is certainly not an uncommon use of the word.
Now, with the above in mind, let me ask again, is there any sense in which people are baptized in water "concerning," "with regard to," or "in reference to" the dead? I believe the answer is a resounding YES! Everyone who was ever baptized into Christ was aware of the fact that, on the one hand, death is inevitable. The gospel, on the other hand, holds forth hope for "the dead ones." This hope is inextricably connected with the resurrection of the dead. Indeed, then, those being baptized are "baptized IN REFERENCE TO the dead"! And, to pick up the thread of Paul's argument, why in the world would anyone be thus "baptized in reference to the dead" if the dead are not raised?
A second consideration, which appears significant to me, is Paul's change in use of plural pronouns in verses 29 and 30. Read it and look for the change: "Else what shall THEY do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are THEY then baptized for the dead? And why stand WE in jeopardy every hour?" If Paul were talking about a "baptism of suffering" to which early Christians in general were subject, why did he not say, "What shall WE do ... why are WE then baptized for the dead?" Paul first talks about someone else (they) who were doing something that Paul and other Christians (we) were not doing. I believe this change in personal pronouns shows that, whatever the "baptism for the dead" may be, Paul was not himself submitting to it. Thus, the "baptism of suffering" view would not be compatible with the language of the passage. But the view I have here taken would fit the words perfectly. To paraphrase: "Else what's in it for those who are submitting to baptism (which has reference to the dead)? Why are they being baptized with reference to the dead if there is no resurrection? And by the same token, why would we (apostles and faithful Christians) endure these dangers and persecutions if there's no resurrection?"
It is my conviction that this view of 1 Corinthians 15:29 is consistent with the language, the context, and the rest of the Bible on related subjects. It is my hope that this, along with brother Odom's article, will prove helpful in the studying of a most difficult text.