This week we look at a passage that some Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons use a lot, 1 Corinthians 15:25-29. This is an awkward passage and so a lot of mainstream Christians sort of ignore it, while Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons found some of their core doctrines on it — You’ll find that sometimes, where religions that are a little outside the mainstream will zero in on passages that other religions overlook and base a whole doctrine on them. Jehovah Witnesses in particular have their own translation of the Bible (called the New World translation), so they can support their unique beliefs through their specifically-crafted translation.
A great example of this kind of challenging verse that we’ll look at this week is 1 Corinthians 15:25-29:
“For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.
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?”
Part 1: The divinity of Christ
What does Paul mean when he says that the son will also be subjected, does this mean that the son is inferior to father? This is in fact precisely what Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses believe. But one of the primary convictions of the Christian church is that Jesus is fully God and fully human. The fully God piece makes him exactly equal to God and the Holy Spirit, NOT inferior in any way. If we compromise on this conviction then the whole framework on which our faith is based would be called into question. So in digging into this one passage, we will in part be defending our doctrine of incarnation and the divinity of Christ.
We will start out by ruling out what this passage can’t mean. What it cannot mean is that Jesus is somehow not God or not equal to God.
There are many, many passages that support our view that Jesus is God and equal to God, and a very good book that goes into a lot more detail about this is called Putting Jesus In His Place by Robert Bowman. But we’ll just focus on a few. First in John 1:1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The Word is well known to refer to Jesus Christ, so John here is saying Jesus Christ IS God. But the New World translation of the Bible (that the Jehovah Witnesses use) says that the Word was “a” God. This phrasing differs from every other mainstream translation out there and the difference is huge.
This book was written in Koine Greek, which was the language that most spoke during this time. And in this language, they don’t include an article at all. This is because they leave the article out if everybody knows you’re talking about a singular standalone thing. For example if you are talking about the capitol of Minnesota, they would not necessarily say “the capitol of Minnesota” they would just say “Capitol of Minnesota” because everyone knows there is only one. And so we can rightly assume that they similarly left out the article because it is assumed.
In choosing to translate this passage as “a god,” the Jehovah Witnesses are not being completely honest because of all of the places in the Bible where it refers to God, this is the ONLY place where they translate it as “a god.” For example see John 1:6, where it says “There was a man sent from God” the New World translation leaves out the “a” there. And the Greek leaves out the article there as it does here. But they don’t include the “a” there. And in all of the other instances, they don’t use “a” in any of them. It is just in this ONE place, which would otherwise call into question some core beliefs of their faith, their translation conveniently changed this verse to match what they believe. That makes this translation seem a little disingenuous.
A second example verse to support the Christian view of the divinity of Christ is found in John 20:28. Peter exclaims “My lord and my God!” Now, the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim he is talking to heaven. But the key which shows this is not the case is found in the very next verse where Jesus says “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” So he is clearly saying My Lord and my God TO Jesus, not to heaven.
Another one is in Romans 9:5: “Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”
The New World translation puts period after the word Messiah, forming two sentences and two thoughts. This is not technically grammatically impossible, because the Greek actually has no punctuation at all, but it’s weird. Because this kind of thing where Paul breaks into praise in the middle of a thought is called a doxology, and Paul does it a lot. (See Rom 1.25, Rom 9.5, Rom 11.36, Rom 16.25-27 just to name a few. Paul was always randomly bursting out into praise!) He always does it as part of the main thought in the same sentence. He does not break it out into its own sentence, breaking his own train of thought, it’s usually all mushed together as one nonstop thought. Again, they changed the translation to support their own belief.
We also can point to Titus 2:11-13 to support our view: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ”
The New World translation phrases this as “while we wait for the happy hope and glorious manifestation of the great God and of our Savior, Jesus Christ” they insert an additional article “and of” and this changes everything! There is something implicit in many languages but in the study of translating Koine Greek they have something called Sharp’s rule, which states that if you repeat the article “the,” it refers to two subjects. Like how saying “the president and CEO said…” means one person said something, as opposed to saying “the president and the CEO said” means there are two people who both said something. When there is a single article “the” it means there is one subject. And that is exactly what we find, the original Greek only has one article “the.”
We can’t include all of the passages that indicate the divinity of Christ but those are some of the big ones. There are also a few indirect passages that are good to include. Ephesians 5:1-2 says “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” This passage indirectly equates Christ with God — saying imitate God therefore act like Christ. We also see this in Jesus’ words about himself, such as in Rev 1:8 Jesus says “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
This is a reference to Isaiah 43:6 where Yahweh says “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.” And we know this is Jesus talking because in the previous verse Rev 1:7 it says: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.” Jesus is the one who was pierced, and the coming with the clouds is a commonly used term to connote majesty. So the writer is again equating Jesus with God (and suggesting the Jesus himself also does this).
If you’re not sure that it’s Jesus talking, just read on and see this repeated in Revelation 1:17-18 “he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Who else could be the “I” talking but Jesus? Revalations 22:12-13 repeats it again “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
So hopefully this sampling assures you that the deity of Jesus is affirmed throughout the New Testament, both from people talking about Jesus as well as Jesus talking about himself. There can only be one bridegroom and one creator of the world; people pray to him and he accepts worship but everyone knows you can only pray to the one God. It is made clear that Jesus IS God.
And this is very good news! Because it means that God does not give the task of saving the world over to some third party. He came here personally and risked his human/bodily self for us. This speaks volumes about who he is. If you and your friend are walking and you see a house on fire, what kind of person are you if you send your buddy in there to go put it out while you stay safely away from the flames? The God we worship goes in and does it himself and puts himself in harms way for us. So when we see “For God so loved the world he sent his only Son” this is what it means. It means God himself came in human form, God himself who took on our humanity, and gave it up for all the world. This shows his true colors, who God himself is. This is why Jesus is the perfect revelation of God! When you see Jesus loving people, that is God loving people. When you see Jesus healing the sick, that is God healing the sick. We can anchor it all on Jesus because Jesus IS God. It is the point of everything. So for these reasons, we can vigorously assert that this passage from 1 Corinthians 15:28 cannot and does not mean the son is inferior to the father.
So, what does it mean, then, when Paul says “the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all?” Scholars usually interpret it this way: We believe Jesus is fully God. But he is also fully human. As fully God he IS God, equal to him. But as human, he is inferior to God, and he IS fully human too. This is why he says both, for example in John 14:28 he says “for the Father is greater than I”, because as fully human, Jesus has to submit to the father.
As a human, he has the role of savior and conqueror. And in that role he can be subjected to the father. When the purpose of that role is complete and the powers are at last under his feet, then Jesus’ role as conqueror will be complete and he will be fully united with the triune God, who will define every square inch of the cosmos.
Part 2: Proxy Baptism
So what then is meant by the second part of this verse, 1 Cor 15:29 “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?”
Based on this single verse, Mormons practice something called proxy baptism, where one person can be baptized on behalf of all of their loved ones, particularly those who have passed on. They will do the whole family tree and in fact it’s said that the Mormons have the best genealogical records on the planet, all because of this (they need good records to know who all in your family tree however many generations back may need to be baptized by proxy). Many people have made a whole ministry around this, where all they do is be baptized for other people.
Woodland Hills does not think this is a sound practice, and here are 3 reasons why:
1) As mentioned in previous weeks of this series, it’s not good idea to base whole doctrine on one passage, particularly one that is obscure and does not match the rest of the Bible. We believe that important passages (like one that you base a doctrine on) need to be affirmed in other places in the Bible, they can’t stand alone.
2) Whenever you are considering a belief or practice, ask yourself: What picture of God is presupposed in this belief or practice? If it’s not consistent with the person of Jesus Christ and especially with him crucified, then this tells you something is off with that belief. The idea that you are actually saved through baptism (and the resultant practice of proxy baptism) presupposes a view of God that is not consistent with what is revealed with Jesus Christ. Imagine if the thief who was next to Jesus on the cross asked to join him in heaven and Jesus said to him “sorry too bad you were not baptized so I can’t help you… but maybe one of your descendants will baptize on your behalf in a few hundred years!” Of course not! We know through Jesus that God is not a god of technicalities, and he does not let a technicality thwart his love.
3) Everything else the New Testament says about baptism runs counter to this belief. The repeating theme about it is not that it saves you, it’s that it is a ceremony by which you join with the bride of Christ and therefore become betrothed to him. Baptism itself doesn’t save you, but it’s an important ceremony in which you publicly identify with Jesus’ death in the water, and his resurrection as we come back out of the water. it is the first act of discipleship in the New Testament. This is why in Matt 28:19-20 we see him say “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Those that are being baptized are disciples, and these disciples are those who are capable of obeying — but dead people can’t do that! Some things you just have to do on your own. You can’t ride on someone else’s coat tails into heaven.
This is why we don’t do infant baptism at Woodland Hills, because we believe that babies can’t on their own choose to obey and follow Jesus. We do it later in life, once you are fully cognizant and able to make an informed choice on your own, and take full ownership. (this is also why we are related to the Anabaptists — “ana” means again, so anabaptist means “baptized again”) Some people bristle at this, feeling that it is insulting to one’s parents to be baptized again, as though the first one was not good enough. But we see it as the opposite. We see it more like how in traditional cultures where they had arranged marriages, there comes a point where the couple decides for themselves if they want to follow through with what their parents had pledged for them. They take ownership for it themselves. It’s not insulting to your parents to be baptized again, rather it is affirming on your own what your parents had pledged for you!
So given all of this, why is Paul talking about this, and what does he mean? The issue Paul is addressing is that some of the new believers in Corinth didn’t believe in a future resurrection of the dead. They thought that in being baptized they were already (somehow) literally resurrected and would never die. It sounds strange to us but evidently that is what some believed. So Paul is trying to correct this faulty belief, and he does this by exposing this apparent contradiction. The Corinthians are practicing proxy baptism, and he is pointing out that on their very own terms, they hold two incompatible beliefs (that on the one hand there is no future resurrection, and on the other hand it is necessary to practice proxy baptism, which assumes there IS a future resurrection, since the person is already dead) he’s not condoning or attacking the proxy baptism practice, he is simply is using it to make a bigger point that their beliefs about future resurrection don’t make any sense. The more important belief he is going after here is the one about future resurrection.
So, we can see there is no solid basis for baptizing for the dead. But baptism IS important. In Acts 10:48 just as soon as the Holy Spirit descended upon the gentiles, Peter “commanded” them to be baptized in the name of Jesus. It’s the very first thing they did as new believers.
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