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Baptism for the Dead?

• Greg Boyd

This week we look at a passage that some Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons use a lot, 1 Corinthians 15:25-29, and we end up digging into the reasons for our belief in the divinity of Christ, as well as the Mormon practice of proxy baptism and our own practice of adult baptism.

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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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Topics: Anabaptism, Baptism, Controversial Issues, Defense of Christian Faith

Sermon Series: Loose Ends


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Focus Scripture:

  • I Corinthians 15:25-29

    For [Christ] 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 this does not include
    the one who put all things in subjection under him. When all
    things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be
    subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him,
    so that God may be all in all. Otherwise, what will those people
    do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are
    not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

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5 thoughts on “Baptism for the Dead?

    kevin says: Thursday July 12, 2018 at 9:49 am

    Please; do not stop with the socks. I’d also add that if you are going to wear a boring white tee shirt, abstain from wearing an outer shirt that clings to it or else lose the white tee on that day. Speaking of tee shirts, how about wearing Vee Neck Tees (so we don’t have to look at your underwear). Praise God for moderate fashion sense!

    Reply
    kevin says: Thursday July 12, 2018 at 11:29 am

    This is where my quandary begins. I’ve learned better than to just take a/the preacher’s word for what’s true; so, for many years, personal study has ruled the day; however, the jury is still out, for me, on dynamic theologically important topics such as the ones in this sermon. I actually had more peace back when i was blissfully ignorant and if God expects me to understand Greek, and now the common vs. the classic form, in order to have the whole truth, then i’m doomed to live with the hard questions unanswered…..or just take Greg’s word for it.

    Reply
    kevin says: Friday July 13, 2018 at 11:05 am

    There are many many passages that differentiate God from Jesus and many that are plain enough to read without having to know one whit of greek. “Jesus said to them, “Have faith in God.” Mark 11:22 , for instance.
    What you should be expounding on are the ‘implications’ of believing this way or that way; otherwise, it’s just a bible boxing match.

    Reply
    Tracy says: Sunday July 15, 2018 at 8:16 pm

    I am surprised that Greg would push baptism as a command. Greg is very strong on ‘the OT as a ‘shadow of the reality of things to come’. I believe water baptism is a ‘shadow’ of the reality of spiritual baptism. ( meaning that when we are born again we are born of the Spirit). The only command i see as far as traditions go, is when Jesus said about the last supper – “Do this in remembrance of Me”. Never said that about water baptism. In fact, Jesus never baptised anyone. Surely if it was that important, we would have seen him doing it. He himself was only baptised as a fulfillment of the law. He was still under the Old covenant till his death. Paul too, didn’t focus on baptism. He couldn’t remember at one stage who he had baptised! It probably continued in practice until around the time the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, and the Jews were dispersed. I baptise you INTO the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. NOT In the name of the Father. When we come to faith we are baptised into the family of God.

    Reply
    Peter says: Tuesday July 17, 2018 at 11:08 am

    Hi Tracy,
    While I don’t attend Woodland Hill’s Church, there are some matters you raise that I will attempt to answer on their behalf notwithstanding that there appears no oversight in this area that seems willing to address these matters.

    “I am surprised that Greg would push baptism as a command.”

    WHC has a Baptist heritage with Greg (and presumably the oversight) having Anabaptist intentions. Their stance on Baptism is briefly stated in the Beliefs page of the website,

    “BAPTISM AND COMMUNION
    Baptism and communion are two ordinances the Lord has given the Church. The only form of baptism we practice is believer’s baptism by immersion. (Baptism: Acts 2:38-41; Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 8:26-40 ; 10:47; 18:8; Romans 6:3-4. Communion: Acts 2:42-46; 1 Corinthians 11:23-29)”

    So, contrary to your “surprise”, I would find Greg’s view to “push baptism” (your words) totally consistent with his and WHC’s beliefs.

    “Greg is very strong on ‘the OT as a ‘shadow of the reality of things to come’. I believe water baptism is a ‘shadow’ of the reality of spiritual baptism. ( meaning that when we are born again we are born of the Spirit).”

    Yes Tracy, most theologians (and ourselves) do see, “the OT as a shadow of the reality of things to come” and we can see similar expressions in NT scripture. However, although baptism as practiced by John the Baptist was not an OT practice, as such, (although there are ritual OT ‘washings’), and I see the point you are trying to make, you will find in WHC’s beliefs (and many other denominations), both water and Spirit baptisms should be the desire and experience of the believer.

    “In fact, Jesus never baptised anyone. Surely if it was that important, we would have seen him doing it. He himself was only baptised as a fulfilment of the law. He was still under the Old covenant till his death.”

    I am not sure whether you have something else in mind, but if you read through John 3:22-26 we find (abridged below) this is definitely not the case,

    Jn 3:22 “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he [Jesus] remained with them and baptized.” Jn 3:26 “…here he [Jesus] is, baptizing, and all are going to him.”

    “Paul too, didn’t focus on baptism. He couldn’t remember at one stage who he had baptised! It probably continued in practice until around the time the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, and the Jews were dispersed.”

    I can’t fully follow your logic here as the Church is still following the ‘apostles’ teaching’ today with water baptism (remembering Peter at Pentecost Acts2:38, “And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”).
    The other interesting thing here is the scripture you are citing in relation to Paul’s memory 1 Cor 1:16, “(I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.)”. This in fact has a lot to do with Greg’s message although it appears to have been overlooked from the perspective of context. Let me explain.
    Preceding this verse we have 1Cor 1:12-17,
    ” What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius; lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
    But before anyone makes the observation Paul said, “Christ did not send me to baptize”, he is not negating the need to baptise, as this was probably done by others in the church. If a preacher came to WHC and a number were saved, it would not necessarily that preacher that carried out the baptisms.
    You can see from the scripture quoted that what was disturbing Paul was where Corinthians were attaching themselves to the apostles/evangelists that brought the message of salvation…like today if you were saved under Greg’s preaching, then saying I ‘belong to Greg’. Hence, Paul seeks to release himself from this silliness/foolishness rather than be stuck with, “Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”. While the Corinthians were baptised into ‘the name’…it was not to be interpreted as the name of the preacher/evangelist that brought them to Christ.
    Hence, when we have the focus scripture and particularly verse 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?”, this comes after the preceding verses of chapter 15 where Paul is debating with the Corinthians the whole matter of the resurrection of Christ. The explanation of verse 29 is that certain Corinthians that dedicated their baptism to the preacher/evangelist that ‘saved’ them and, if they (the Corinthians) did not believe in the resurrection, Paul is then effectively saying, “why are people baptized on their behalf?”
    In other words Paul is not accusing the Corinthians of proxy baptism for the dead but, in a sense, were honoring those who had ‘saved’ them but were now dead. That is why Paul didn’t want to be tied up with this (pointless exercise) in relation to those who nominated him…and he was seeking to recall the names of those who he had baptised and, no doubt, his memory was little different to our own considering the numerous people he had preached to and was involved with establishing the Church amongst the gentiles. I wouldn’t condemn him for that.
    There are other aspects that should be considered in relation to the importance of water baptism, before considering this to be some form of an anarchism that has little place in the believer’s life. From the above and the beliefs of WHC it is an important sacrament of the Church and, more than symbolic of the repentance and cleansing of one’s own life from sin and judgement, but being born again to newness of life.

    Reply

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