1 Corinthians 15:29-34
April 7, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 15:15 in the audio file.
Or, Foolish Risks and No Restraints Without the Resurrection
One of the things I often say at the beginning of our liturgy is that we are meeting in the name of the risen Lord, and that changes things. We are not merely a club, a social gathering, a people looking for something extra to do on Sunday morning. If Jesus is not Lord, and more importantly, if Jesus is not risen from the dead, then we should go home and find the best distractions and forget about all the efforts that go into believing. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, it’s too hard and we’re wasting a bunch of time we could be using to get drunk.
What we do really does come from what we believe. The fruit depends on the root; action grows out of creed and conviction. It is possible to mess this up, or to make it look like it’s messed up. There are many Christians who prioritize lining up their beliefs, like organizing tools on the workbench, who never actually build anything. I refer to these types as truth tubes, as if the goal of doctrine was to collect it, or switching the analogy back, to keep the truth-tools clean. But those Christians who study the Bible and take a lot of sermon notes and whose lives are unrighteous/miserable just demonstrate that what they believe is that right “beliefs” are important. It’s more important to outline and memorize the instruction manual than it is to plug the cord into the actual electric socket.
But, when we are hearing and doing the word well, we Christians appear foolish, especially to the world. Why do we do such weird things? Why are we willing to go through such difficult things? Why do we avoid so many things, and don’t just join them in the party? They are surprised that we don’t drown ourselves with them in the flood of decadence (1 Peter 4:3-4). The answer to all those questions is the same: Jesus Christ our Lord is risen from the dead.
Paul already said the preaching is stupid, and actually fallacious/false/bogus, if Jesus is still dead. He said that there is no forgiveness and there is no hope of reunion with our believing loved ones who’ve already died if there is no resurrection. But then he affirmed, “in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits” of all those who will be raised and the firstfruits of the kingdom that God has predestined to win through the Son’s resurrection.
Now in verses 29-34 Paul demonstrates three kinds of profitless behaviors if Christ isn’t risen. Why go through rituals, why face risks, and why pursue righteousness?
As a pre-question to Paul’s question, why would preachers try to preach this verse unless Jesus is risen from the dead? Ha! There are apparently some 40 different interpretations of this verse (Thiselton), and it is usually regarded as one of, if not the, most difficult verses to understand in 1 Corinthians. Even John MacArthur, usually known for putting his interpretive foot down even if it’s only on a thin pole in the middle of the pond, says that he’s unwilling to be dogmatic about what it means, and more comfortable acknowledging what it can not mean.
Here’s what it says: 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?
In the second century some heretics did start practicing vicarious or “in the place of” baptisms, and the Mormons still have it as part of their practice today.
But Paul loves baptism, he wrote about baptism in numerous letters, and he never says 1) that baptism saves (as in baptismal regeneration), or 2) that baptism can fix a lack of faith, or 3) that one person can be baptized as a substitute for someone else, living or dead. So there is no way to save a dead person if the deceased didn’t have faith, and there is no deficiency the living can fix for the deceased if he did have faith. There is no magic performed on earth to benefit those in the underworld; that’s not how the Scriptures speak.
Whatever “on behalf of the dead“ means it can’t mean that a living person does it in place of a dead person. That would contradict other clear passages, and it is almost impossible to believe that if Paul thought the Corinthians were practicing “substitute baptism” that he would not correct them for it. But he writes as if these baptisms are just as “normal” as his behavior in the following verses.
What are some better options? It could be being baptized on one’s deathbed (Calvin). Or it could be baptism “over top of” the graves of the dead (Luther). Or “baptized” could be a reference to ritual washing of a dead body, or washing after touching a dead body (Dabney).
It could be a reference to baptism itself, as in, the person being baptized recognizes himself as spiritually dead in hopes of spiritual life. The point of baptism is death and resurrection, so if there is no resurrection, what is the point of the picture of baptism?
It could mean that a living someone was influenced by the testimony of a believer who is now dead (MacArthur). The people…being baptized were converted through the witness and so the baptism is with the deceased in mind, “with a view toward.” Or a similar interpretation might be that a living someone was influenced by a believer who was a loved one, so the living believer is looking forward to eternity with the loved one. Perhaps that ties in with verse 18 and a concern about those “who have fallen asleep in Christ.”
Whatever the exact ritual practice, it makes no sense at all if there is no resurrection. And that is true for our baptisms. If there is no resurrection, go under the water and stay there. You might as well, because there’s no benefit in being raised back up.
Paul switches from the 3rd person (“people”) to the 1st person, “I.” He uses himself as an example of undergoing trials and troubles that aren’t worth it unless Christ is raised.
Why am I in danger every hour? The threats were round-the-clock. Any knock at his door could be an unfriendly. Paul listed his “resume of risks” in a few passages, though only mentions one specific instance in verse 32. But there would be no reason to face “jeopardy every hour” (KJV) for something that wasn’t true, for something with no future benefit. He wasn’t a person who enjoyed tedious, tiring, painful things. He was compelled to preach the gospel of a resurrected Savior and that put him in harm’s way.
He takes it up a notch. I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! They were an example of his work; they owed their existence as a church to him, and many of them owed their salvation and hope of eternal life to God’s use of Paul’s preaching. His were the beautiful feet that brought the good news to them. And it cost him. It cost him to get there, it cost him everywhere he went. When he said, I die every day, he doesn’t mean physical death. That only happens once in most cases (unless your name is Lazarus). Paul is speaking metaphorically about all the pains and labors and hunger and beatings and sleeplessness and sacrifices he made. His life was spent, used up and worn out for the elect.
Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. (2 Timothy 2:10)
What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? This is another challenging verse to interpret. Is it physical or figurative fighting? Are the beasts animal or human predators? Neither Luke nor Paul himself ever mention him being thrown into an arena for fighting wild animals. Lack of other reference doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, though we might wonder how he escaped. That said, the “daily dying” is as much figurative as it is physical. He was writing from Ephesus and he mentions in 1 Corinthians 16:9 that he had “many adversaries” there.
Either way, he wouldn’t have faced these “beasts” if he wouldn’t have been preaching and living in light of the resurrection. Humanly speaking, “from a human point of view” (NET), limited to the earthly perspective, it’s not worth it.
If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” This is the ultimate motto for nihil-hedonists. If this life is all there is, let’s have a party. YOLOEO – you only live on earth once. If this was not intended to quote Isaiah 23:13 it happens to be the same words as the Greek translation. If it is a quote, it comes from the mouth of Israelites in Jerusalem who were on the verge of being attacked by the Assyrians. Instead of repenting they went in to revelry-ing. We’re going to die, there’s nothing after that, so let’s get fat and drunk.
“Resurrection means endless hope, but no resurrection means a hopeless end—and hopelessness breeds dissipation.” (Garland)
Paul told the Corinthians later, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Corinthians 12:15). But that is senseless spending unless you believe there is resurrection profit.
The last two verses in the paragraph are not questions, they are commands. But we could still consider it from the angle of what makes sense without resurrection. It does not make any sense to live obediently if there’s nothing to come.
Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” It is possible to be deceived, to be tricked, and what trips us up are the ones we hang out with. Psalm 1 identifies the righteous man by who or what he listens to. He does not hang with the fools or the scoffers, he meditates day and night on the law of the Lord. Paul tells the Corinthians that the company they keep could corrupt their conduct; it’s a warping peer pressure. The quotation appears to be from an Athenian playwright named Menander (who died in 292 BC, Garland), but the motto also seems to be well known, like a line from Shakespeare for us. The point is, Paul may have been using a familiar jingle; they knew it, but they knew it so well they might not be paying attention to how true it is.
The word morals could also be translated as habits, “a pattern of behavior or practice that is habitual or characteristic of a group or individual” (BAGD). We might refer to it as lifestyle. Who do you listen to? Who do you hang out with? Who is in your ears? You could be being corrupted by an app.
Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. They had been lulled into a state of moral fog. They were questioning, if not scoffing at, right behavior. So Paul implores them to stop. Stop missing the mark. “Come back to your senses” (NIV). Get sober.
Though they would be appalled at the diagnosis, Paul gives the reason. For some have no knowledge of God. These are the Corinthians, the “wise” ones, the “spiritual” ones, the ones who claimed great knowledge for themselves. Paul says that at least some of them— and based on the final phrase of verse 34, this applied to some of them in the church—were ignorant of God. They have a no-knowledge, they have an un-knowledge about God (Thiselton). In all this talk of resurrection, Paul makes the connection that a failure to appreciate resurrection is a failure to apprehend God Himself.
He told them earlier in chapter 4 that he wasn’t trying to shame them, here he wants just that. I say this to your shame.
What is true about our meeting on the Lord’s day should be true about the rest of the six days that follow. We have no good reason to get together if Jesus is not raised. But because Christ has been raised, we have reason to worship.
So in our lives as disciples of Christ, whether it involves liturgy or lifestyle, our behavior should make no sense if there is no resurrection. Be inexplicable apart from such a hope.
Are you seeking blessings? Success? Profit? Wins? So does the world. Does that mean you shouldn’t? No, it means that you should seek blessings in humility, for the glory of His name not your own, and that obeying Him is a higher priority that winning at all costs.
The resurrection also means that we can lose like no one else. We can lose, even our lives, with confidence that we can’t lose everything. So we spend ourselves, we take risks, we don’t pursue security or comfort or success the way unbelievers do. Again, at times there may be some similarity in how our paths appear, but our motive and our mission and our perspective is not the same. We have more than “humanly speaking,” we have knowledge of God.
He is no fool who risks any loss or dying if resurrection life is guaranteed in Christ. Remember your baptism. Fight with beasts. Grow in knowledge about God. Get some good friends. Eat and drink, for tomorrow you might be resurrected.
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. (Philippians 3:20–4:1, ESV)