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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?

— 1 Corinthians 15: 29, King James Version

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THERE IS A profound truth concealed in these words of the Apostle Paul. Of the many interpretations of this verse, the one which seems to favour his meaning is that of the sin offering of the Church.[fn1]


In this chapter the Apostle establishes the basic veracity of the resurrection of Christ, appealing to the testimony of numerous eyewitnesses (1-11). He clinches the link between the resurrection of Christ and the promised special resurrection of the Church without the one, the other is impossible (12-20). In addition, the general resurrection of mankind, the non-elect, is made possible (21, 22), leading to the events he assigns to the Kingdom of God on earth (23-28). This brings us to the verse under review.


‘On behalf of . . . .’

No one can by his or her own actions win eternal life for another. There is no such thing as salvation by proxy. Christ, and Christ alone, is the Saviour whose meritorious death has provided the means whereby anyone may, by faith, be released from the condemnation of sin and live forever. The Apostle informs us that the Church do not sacrifice themselves merely for their own benefit. Yes, their longing to be with the Lord is a glorious incentive, but their essential motive for sacrifice is to be directed outward. This is a selfless undertaking. As Jesus was baptised to a ministry of death, so were they (Matthew 20: 22; Luke 12: 50). In this sense they are baptised on behalf of the ‘dead ones’ (so reads the Greek) the world of mankind (those nominally alive but under the curse of death, and those in the grave).


The sin-offering of the Church must not be confused with the ransom-sacrifice of Christ. The members of the Church, fallen human beings, have no merit with which to redeem anyone. The sin offering of the Church collectively refers to their role in suffering in partnership with Christ, their sufferings being counted as part of His. Their sufferings cannot in any way augment the merit of His perfect ransom-sacrifice, which was a unique, complete, once-for-all-time offering. But the scope of their trials, tribulations, and overcomings as members of the Body of Christ encompasses the range of experiences common to imperfect humanity and thus they are qualified to be merciful and compassionate rulers with Christ in the Millennial Kingdom. (They will constitute, with Christ, the World’s High Priest.)


‘That which is behind . . . .’

Paul alludes to this in Colossians 1: 24 when he says that ‘[I] fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church’.[fn2] Translated literally this might read, ‘I supplement that which remains in the afflictions of Christ . . . .’ To put it yet another way, where the sufferings of Christ, the Head, ended, the sufferings of the Body of Christ began.


So, the Church suffers for the benefit of the world, the object of their future ministry. A mundane example of this principle would be that of a would-be nurse who, throughout her years of rigorous training, conscientiously applies herself to her academic and clinical studies in order to be of maximum help to her future patients.


God’s care for humanity runs throughout all details of life and turns up in the most surprising ways. However, this is what we should expect, since God is love the epitome and definition of it. This God-likeness was displayed by Christ in His sufferings on behalf of the world and it is to be found in His followers. The subjugation of self in the interest of others is a most touching and profound example of unselfishness and is Divine in nature.





[fn1] ‘This is certainly the most difficult verse in the New Testament; for, notwithstanding the greatest and wisest men have laboured to explain it, there are to this day nearly as many different interpretations of it as there are interpreters.’ (Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary, Abingdon Press, USA; on 1 Corinthians 15: 29)


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[fn2]Some translators and commentators take this to mean that Paul was himself deficient in his ‘share’ of sufferings.

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A Partial Bibliography

Clarke’s Commentary (Adam Clarke, Abingdon Press, USA)

Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Guardian Press, Grand Rapids, Mich., USA (1976 reprint))

Gershonism (Paul S.L. Johnson, Philadelphia, USA, 1938)

Merariism (Paul S.L. Johnson, Philadelphia, USA, 1938)

Tabernacle Shadows (Paul S. L. Johnson, editor; Philadelphia, USA, 1937)


Copyright June 2009

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