It is not too easy to determine the exact connection of these verses with the foregoing from the pen of Paul.
There are, in the main, two views concerning this relationship of these verses to the foregoing. There are those who hold that the phrase “else what shall they do who are baptized for the dead” refers to Paul’s argument in the verses 20-28, namely, that if Christ is not the first-fruits of them that fell asleep, what shall they do who are baptized for the dead. Others seek the connection between these verses and the foregoing in the general argument of Paul against those who deny that resurrection from the dead.
To our mind it really does not make any essential difference which of these interpretations one chooses. The argument of Paul is not changed in either case. For his argument is clear and lucid. It is an argument with those in the church at Corinth who say that there is no resurrection of the dead. Paul asserts the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the first-fruits and, therefore, he posits the resurrection of those who fell asleep in Jesus.
Had he not shown in the verses 1-11 that he had preached that Christ died according to the Scriptures for our sins, and that he rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures? That thus all the apostles had preached together with Paul, and thus they had believed? And does Paul not thus take his apologetical stand foursquare in the blessed gospel of Christ? Thus the status quo, the point of departure of Paul’s argument is established.
And in the verses 12-19 Paul had shown the serious consequences of a denial of the resurrection. These were serious consequences for the content of the gospel itself. It would mean that the preaching would be empty, be void of content. If Christ is not raised then faith is empty and we would still be in our sins. It would have the serious consequence that the preachers of the gospel are false-witnesses. They would then, as eye-witnesses, simply be bold pretenders. They would claim to have seen what they never did see, if Christ is not raised. And it would, thirdly, have the very serious consequence that we are still in our sins. Then those who died in Christ have perished. And we are of all men most miserable.
In the verses 20-28 Paul has shown positively from the Scriptures the grand implication and significance of the resurrection for the unfolding of the counsel of God, in which resurrection all things become subjected or subdued to God, and God is all in all!
Now one may argue that the phrase “otherwise what shall they do who are baptized for the dead” is a continuation of the thought in the verses 20-28 or that it is a picking up of the thread in the verses 12-19. In either case it is difficult to show the logical connection. According to Dr. Kling in Lange’s Commentary on I Corinthians, Stanley remarks that we have here “. . . one of the most abrupt (transitions) to be found in Paul’s Epistles.”
It would seem that this very sudden transition of thought from verse 28 to verse 29 is not a logical one. We hold that this is a psychological transition. Paul suddenly reverts to the main argument in this entire chapter from verses 1-34. It is the that of the resurrection. Not the manner of the resurrection is at issue. That follows on the part of scoffers. But the very fact of the resurrection.
The point of departure of Paul here is therefore against the background of the assertion of the scoffers that there is wholly no resurrection of the dead. The dead rise not at all, so the unbelievers contend. Such were the evil communications that corrupt good manners, sound Biblical ethics.
Against these is Paul’s apologetic!
And he does it masterfully in verse 29, where we read: “Else what shall they do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead rise wholly not, why are they baptized in behalf of them?”
There are various attempted interpretations concerning the phrase, “those who are baptized for the dead.” We shall here present a few of them. We should bear in mind that according to A. T. Robertson in his Word Pictures In The New Testament this phrase “remains a puzzle.” He tells us that Stanley gives thirteen interpretations of this passage, and that over thirty have been suggested. Obviously all cannot be what Paul had in mind in this phrase under consideration. Neither do we intend to give them all. We shall only give the more representative views of this phrase.
We believe that the first interpretation meriting our attention is the one given by Dr. Kling. Writes he: “The simplest explanation of the act here spoken of, is the suffering of one’s self to be baptized for the benefit of deceased persons, or in their stead, so as to redound to their advantage, i.e., that the salvation mediated by baptism, might fall to their lot, so that those who themselves died unbaptized, might pass for baptized, and thus have part in the resurrection and in the kingdom of Christ.” And he adds : “A custom of this sort is discoverable in subsequent times ; yet, however, only among heretical sects, such as the Cerinthians and the Marcionites.”
Niander writes: “We might imagine that many, having come to the exercise of faith, resolved to receive baptism, but died ere the rite could be performed. This was so much the more likely, inasmuch, as according to chapter 11:30! there was an epidemic prevalent. If, then, a relative had suffered himself to be baptized in the conviction that he was only doing what the deceased would have done had he survived, the proceeding would not be quite so superstitious.”
There is really none who hold that Paul in citing this rite, which was evidently known to the Corinthians (otherwise the argument here, would have not force) thereby also validates it as a custom in the church. It is interesting to note that such interpreters as Meyer, Alford and others, point to the fact that Paul uses the third person plural in the text. Otherwise what shall they do who are baptized for the dead. Dr. Bisping considers the “third person” in what shall “they do” as an indirect intimation of disapproval. Thus also Meyer.
There is also yet the view of Lightfoot to consider. With him agrees the view of RosenmÅller, and Robinson follows the view of Lightfoot in his N. T. Greek Lexicon. This view takes “those who are baptized” (baptizoumenoi) in the sense of “being immersed in sufferings” as parallel to “being in jeopardy” in the next clause in verse 30. It then refers to all the saints as they are overwhelmed with calamities, trials and sufferings in the hope of the resurrection, or with the expectation that the dead shall rise. (See Lange Series Commentary.)
There are other interpretations which are not essentially different from these which we have caused to pass in review. Thus there is the explanation of Barnes who follows the Greek Fathers, which takes the baptism here alluded to as that which is applied to all the believers, who, in receiving the rite, witness to their faith in the resurrection. Thus we could paraphrase the phrase, “those baptized in behalf of the dead,” by “those who are baptized in behalf of their faith in the resurrection of the dead.”
It is our considered opinion that most of the explanations attempt to not allow the apostle to say what he actually says.
In the first place it should be noticed that Paul literally speaks of those “who are baptized for the dead.” The force of the preposition in Greek (huper) means in behalf of, in stead of. And the fact that Paul does not say what shall “we do” but rather what shall “they” do who are baptized for the dead rather indicates that Paul has definite people in mind who have done this for definite dead. And that Paul asks the question of these Corinthians tacitly assumes that this rite was well known to them.
In the second place it seems to be the natural sense of the words that this baptism was for those who had already died, but were now no longer living. Those interpretations which seek to insert for “the resurrection of the dead” really do so contrary to the plain meaning of the term. There is really nothing in the context to suggest it.
It is for these reasons that we hold with the interpretation of Dr. Kling and Niander. (See above.)
The meaning of Paul then is quite clear. He is answering the contention of those who hold that the “dead rise wholly not.” And that would imply that death as our “enemy” would never be destroyed. Death would have a complete and total victory. All would go to the grave, Christ included. None would ever come forth. The gospel is empty, the preaching is vain, the apostles are false witnesses of God and we are still in our sins. All that fell asleep in Jesus are perished. There is no hope. We are all without God in the world. We simply go down into death and hell.
Such is the position of the deniers of the resurrection.
Now Paul will elicit a very strong argument from the facts of life, from the hope of those who actually live in it. Let it be true that this ritual of being baptized in behalf of the dead had in it the elements of superstition and that it was not founded upon an ordinance and institution of Christ. It is a rite with which the Corinthians are acquainted. And he asks them in effect: How do you account for it? What is its meaning? That too is then vain, even in this form. But since Christ is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep, even this rite, proves that in the mind of these who have themselves baptized for the dead, it is the clear understanding that these dead shall rise. Otherwise why would they have themselves baptized for them?!
This form of argumentation is an argumentation from pointing to resurrection hope in action.
There is a reason, a rationale in this.
Paul does not hold it forth as something which must be emulated by the skeptics. Nowhere in Scripture is such a rite advocated or taught. Paul only brings it forward as an evidence of resurrection faith. That is the truth even in this wrong custom and rite.
And as such it is an argument that has weight. It proves that these people believe the resurrection, and live in the silent hope of seeing their dear ones in the resurrection morning. Ultimately not even the skeptic can rid himself of the fact that he will not cease to exist. The entire world somehow betrays the fact that God has made man originally after his image, and that for man the grave is not the end. The dead will rise.
Only here Paul is speaking of the blessed resurrection.
Life has not any meaning and has no end without the hope of resurrection. The denial of the resurrection is the death-blow to all Christian heroism and all Christian ethics and striving for perfection.
The slogan “let us eat, let us drink and be merry” is the only other alternative if we deny the resurrection.
But such have not the knowledge of God.