Baptized for the Dead

Else what shall they do that are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?

1 Cor 15:29 ASV
image confused person about baptized for the dead. Isabellasecas, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
Baptized for the DEAD? Say what!

The phrase baptized for the dead has befuddled people so much that many have given up trying to understand it. Then again there are some who have built a complex ritual around this verse.

There’s a simple reason for this widespread lack of understanding. Namely, the teaching that today is the only day of salvation; that if one does not accept Christ during this lifetime, they are doomed to eternal punishing. Game over. If this is one’s basic understanding, then there is no hope of ever understanding what Paul said.

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Not the only day of salvation

However, if one understands that God’s plan of salvation includes a time—a third harvest time—when all whoever lived will be resurrected and have their eyes and ears opened to the gospel of the kingdom; and all whoever lived will have an opportunity to repent, be baptized, and overcome sin; then there’s a chance for one to understand what the apostle Paul has said. And understanding the meaning is extremely important to understanding the hope of the calling and overcoming to the end. Otherwise, Paul wouldn’t have said it.

In the verses leading up to and the statement baptized for the dead, Paul is combating a false belief that the dead are not resurrected. He argues that all the dead will be raised but that there is a predetermined order. “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order . . .” (1 Cor 15:21-23 ASV). Christ says “Marvel not at this: for the hour cometh, in which all that are in the tombs shall hear his voice, and shall come forth . . .” (John 5:28).

Dead will glorify God

In Peter’s first letter, Peter drives home the point that believers are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood (2:9). And that as the chosen of God, they should “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul. Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles . . .” (2:11,12 emphasis added).

Abstaining from fleshly lusts can be a struggle. Peter likens it to a war. Peter then gives the reason in the last part of verse 12 for this abstaining: “that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation” (emphasis added).

It’s not about water baptism

But Jesus said unto them, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink the cup that I drink? or to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? And they said unto him, We are able. And Jesus said unto them, The cup that I drink ye shall drink; and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized: (Mar 10:38,39 ASV).

Yes, Christ’s final baptism was death, but he also suffered as a man and he learned obedience. As it says in Hebrews, “. . . he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became unto all them that obey him the author of eternal salvation;” (5:8-9 ASV). And we too learn obedience and are perfected from the things we suffer.

We’ve all heard the saying baptism by fire. Well the priesthood’s baptism doesn’t end at water baptism.

“. . . God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water: which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism . . .. Forasmuch then as Christ suffered in the flesh, arm ye yourselves also with the same mind; for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin;” (I Pet 3:20 – 4:1 ASV) - image gold refining representing baptized for the dead

Peter goes on to say, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial among you, which cometh upon you to prove you, as though a strange thing happened unto you;” (4:12 emphasis added).

Baptism represents cleansing. It represents purification. However, it is Christ that baptizes us “in the holy spirit and in fire” (Luke 3:16). This is the baptism Paul is talking about. The apostle John refers to this ongoing baptizing (cleansing): “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). And our faith is proved as by fire (1 Pet 1:7).

Titus says “. . . that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a people for his own possession, zealous of good works (2:14). And James says, “ Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye doubleminded (4:8).

So we can see that the suffering and trials we face are a baptism—a cleansing; a purification a testing by fire. Most people incorrectly assume Paul is talking about water baptism. He’s not talking about water baptism.

Now that we know that the chosen royal-priesthood is being baptized (i.e. purified and cleansed) by the things they suffer in the flesh; and now that we know that all whoever lived will be resurrected sometime in the day of Christ’s rule (day of visitation); and now that we know it’s so all will have a chance to glorify God because of our good works; we now have a chance to understand what Paul is saying.

For Pete’s sake

It’s common to misunderstand the meaning of the word for in the phrase baptized for the dead. In this verse it cannot mean to stand in for someone as a proxy (a substitute). Most people professing to be Christians know how ridiculous and contrary to scripture it would be to baptize themselves for a dead person (although there are some who don’t seem to think so). Most professing Christians understand that each person has to make that decision for themselves.

However, the word for in this verse includes the meaning for the sake of (see Thayer, Strongs 5228). Understanding the word for within the context of chapter 15, Paul is saying that if there is no resurrection, then why are we being baptized—that is to say enduring all this suffering—for the sake of the dead! Because it is for the dead’s sake that we have been called and chosen to be a royal priesthood; called and chosen to rule and execute judgment with Christ over all the resurrected dead (Ps 149:5-9, 1 Cor. 6:3); called and chosen to minister and preach the gospel of the kingdom of God to all the resurrected dead; called and chosen to teach God’s law to all the resurrected dead—that they should “glorify God in the day of visitation” and inherit eternal life (Is 2:3; Mal 2:6,7; 1 Pet 2:12).

As more proof that Paul is not talking about baptism in water but about baptism in suffering and trials, Paul, in the verses immediately following the phrase baptized for the dead, makes a point of relating his own personal suffering for the sake of the dead: exposed to danger, dying daily, fighting wild beasts (1 Cor 15:30-32).

Purified, cleansed, baptized for the dead

In summary, if we understand that the word for in this verse has the meaning for the sake of; and if we understand that there is a time coming when all will be resurrected and hear the gospel and glorify God in the day of Christ’s rule (visitation); and if we understand that the chosen royal-priesthood is being baptized (i.e., cleansed and purified) and perfected by the things they suffer in dying to self; then can we understand Paul when he says, “Otherwise, what will those people do who are being baptized for the dead?” (1 Cor 15:29 ISV). We endure the things we suffer for the dead.

What a glorious gospel! Every man women and child that ever lived will finally hear the gospel of the kingdom of God and have an opportunity to respond, live out their lives in sanctification, and receive eternal life. Just as it was revealed to the prophets that their prophesying concerning the sufferings of Christ was not for themselves, “but unto you did they minister these things”(1 Pet 1:10-12 ASV), so it it is revealed to us that it is for the sake of all the dead that will be resurrected, that the called and chosen priesthood is persevering and overcoming to the end—learning obedience and being perfected by the things they suffer (Rev 2:26).

. . . but thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not vain in the Lord. (I Cor 15:57-58 emphasis added)