Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come 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: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 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? Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.
We now come to verse 20 where Paul wrote, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Christ really has been raised from the dead, and the very fact of that is proof that we ourselves will be raised if we are joined to him in saving faith. He is talking about Christ’s resurrection and our resurrection. As we look at that from the perspective in which he was writing, he is talking about a relatively small span of years.
The Lord Jesus Christ died and rose again in A.D. 30, according to my calculations. Then there is Paul, writing in the 50s to these Christians in Corinth. Given the small span of years, there would be a tendency on the part of some people to say, “Well, this teaching is nice, but it really is just a little incidental phenomenon of history.” Paul counters that by taking us back to Adam and the fact that we fell in Adam and were united to Adam in the fall.
Then Paul comes to the present by pointing out that, just as God judged us as sinners in the fall of Adam, God now judges us according to the atoning work of Christ for those who are united to him by saving faith. He then goes ahead to the future by saying that the time is coming when Christ, who is going to be victor over all, will subdue that last enemy, which is death. Death will reign no more. And Christ, at the very end, as the Son, will submit everything to the Father. God the Father will be all in all.
It is not some small thing that we are talking about, because the essence of salvation is the resurrection through which we are united to Jesus with our whole being–body, soul, and spirit–and one day, even death itself is going to be destroyed. We are going to be part of the victory as we stand with Christ in our resurrection bodies.
Paul talks about a particular problem in the church in Corinth in verse 29. He wrote, “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?” There are all sorts of peculiar interpretations of this. Paul is probably referring to something that they did–some burial rite that they practiced at the time. Some have said that, whatever it was, it must have been wrong. Paul does not endorse it. He is merely asking them why they are doing it if there is no resurrection. I think that interpretation is inadequate. Let me suggest a few other interpretations.
There have been some who believe that “being baptized for the dead” means that there were those receiving baptism on behalf of those who had already died in order that they might be saved after death. In our own time, we have a cult that practices this–the Mormons. Some very pious Mormons are baptized many times for many people. The problem with that is that it imparts a mystical property to baptism. It is saying that salvation comes by the performance of a rite. Fortunately, in Christianity, this practice has been repudiated.
There is another explanation that says that when a new believer is baptized, he is taking the place of somebody who has died beforehand. Harry Ironside had a very interesting story to illustrate this explanation.
A much-venerated saint in his congregation died, a man who had been a great blessing to the church. He had witnessed to his family, but not all of them had come to Christ. Yet, when the funeral was held some of the children who had not believed were there. When they came to the end of the service and the family was invited to take a last look at the face of the one who had died, Ironside intervened and said, “I really feel constrained before we close this casket just to say this. We have lost a pillar of the church and I know there are people here who have not come to Christ. I am wondering if there is anybody who would like to make a profession of faith in Christ, and so indicate his or her willingness to take the place of this one that we’ve lost.”
With that he gave a Gospel invitation and one of the relatives, a son, came forward and confessed Christ. He said that he would like to try to begin to fill the shoes of his father who had lived in such an exemplary way for God. The following Sunday, this man was baptized publicly. Ironside took that story and said, “That is what it is. When we are baptized, we fill up the ranks in the church, taking the place of the honored dead.”