Message # 56 | 1 Corinthians 15:20-34 | September 24, 2017


This week I found myself deep into the comment sections of a blog post written by Scot McKnight on, titled “Women and the Public Reading of Scripture.”[1] McKnight was responding to an article that was written by the popular, theologically conservative blogger, Tim Challies. would be a good example of a left leaning theologically liberal website community. As the debate raged in the comments section, one commenter wrote,

I could deny the trinity, deny the divinity of Christ, deny that he came in the flesh or that he was really raised from the dead and I would get a more sympathetic hearing from most of the commenters than I would if I advocated Challies’ position [on women not reading scripture in church].

Sadly, instead of anyone rejecting this dramatic statement, one commenter went on to write:

None of those positions deny the humanity and equality of half the human race. They are abstract beliefs that don’t directly impact living, breathing people. That’s why I’m so quick to dismiss garbage like this, it is not just a theological game.

It appears that many in this comment section, who would consider themselves Christians, consider the divinity and humanity of Christ and the reality of his resurrection as “abstract beliefs that don’t directly impact, living, breathing people.” For them, a discussion on the resurrection is just a “theological game.”

Yet consider the practical implications that Paul shares with us if we deny the resurrection. Paul believes that if there was no resurrection then all our hopes would be dashed and we should plunge into grief. Our faith would be annihilated. Our preaching and any gospel communication would be in vain. Those who died before us would have all perished. We would all be left in our sins. As a result of being left in our sins, we might as well live a life entirely focused on our own desires and the temporal happiness of the moment. We would be living lives of delusion and the world should show us pity more than anyone. To some, apparently that is just a “theological game” with no practicality for living, breathing people. And yet, Paul’s entire point in the next section is that [Purpose Statement] the reality of our future resurrection is motivation for our present holiness.

Resurrection: our future reality (15:20-28)

These few verses offer the believer a simplified eschatology. (1) Christ has been raised. (2) Believers will be raised. (3) Christ will be ultimately victorious and will reign over all.

Christ has resurrected as the “firstfruits” (15:20,23a).

Firstfruits[2], in the Old Testament, were given to God out of gratitude for his blessings and in acknowledgment of the fact that he created everything that exists and deserves the first and the best. Therefore, an offering of firstfruits was brought. This offering was evidence of a couple of things. It showed gratitude and submission to God as the sovereign creator. It also was evidence of a greater crop. These firstfruits were simply a small portion of a much greater harvest. As well, these firstfruits were evidence to the quality of the remaining harvest.

Let me offer a pretty benign example. If Linda saunters downstairs and hands me a ball of cookie dough, there are a few things that I would likely conclude. First, that my wife loves me. Secondly, that this small and amazing ball of joy indicates that there is more cookie dough awaiting my presence in the kitchen. And finally, that the cookie dough upstairs is going to taste the same as the cookie dough ball I just inhaled.

And so it is with Christ being the firstfruits. His resurrection is both evidence of a much greater resurrection to follow. As well, his resurrection is like the many others that will follow. “Christ himself is the firstfruit of the power of the resurrection, and his victory over death is the guarantee that believers too will experience resurrection.”[3]

This is similar in thought to what Paul writes in Romans. “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23 ESV). In presently having the Spirit within us, we have a small foretaste of a much greater reality in the future. And so it is with Christ’s resurrection. We look forward, with anticipation, to our future resurrection because Christ is the firstfruits.

Christians will be resurrected (15:21-22,23b).

There is an implication for Christ being the “firstfruits.” The implication being that those who are in Christ will as well be resurrected. Paul will draw this conclusion at the end of verse 23, but to lead the reader there, he first connects Christ and Adam.

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor 15:21–22 ESV).

Paul’s concern is not in pointing to the fact that Adam’s sin brought death, although that is true. His reason for referencing Adam is to show the universal affect his actions had. Because of Adam’s individual decision to sin, all mankind has been born into a state of sin and misery ever since. So then, one man’s actions had universal consequences. The same is true of Christ’s resurrection. All die in Adam. All are resurrected in Christ. While all are resurrected due to Christ’s resurrection, not all are resurrected to the same eternal fate. Some will be resurrected to “always be with the Lord” and others will be resurrected, only to be thrown into the lake of fire.

Resurrected to life. [Paul encourages the believers in Thessalonica not to grieve like others without hope] since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:14–18 ESV).

Resurrected to death. [In Revelation 20, Christ is seated on the throne and John] saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. . . . And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:11–15 ESV).

Christ will reign (15:24-28).

In one very real sense, at the cross and in his resurrection, Christ has already entirely defeated sin and death, Satan and the demons, and the entire world philosophy that has raised its’ fist against him in opposition. But, history still needs to catch up to this reality. In essence, Satan and the world are fighting a battle that’s already been won. I believe it was this victory that Christ proclaimed when he went and proclaimed victory to the spirits in prison (in 1 Peter 3:19). Peter writes, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison [and a couple of verses later ties this victory to the] resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:18–22 ESV).

He is already reigning, but there will be a moment, in history, where this reign will no longer be of any confusion to anyone. Paul tells us, once Christ is raised and then everyone else is raised, “then comes the end” (1 Cor 15:24). Everything that the incarnation and the death of Christ was intended to accomplish will be done. The people of God will have been redeemed. The broken affairs of the universe will be restored back to the way they were before the Fall.

“Christ will deliver the kingdom to God the Father” (1 Cor 15:24). Christ will have fulfilled his role as redeemer. He will have fulfilled his role as mediator. He will have completely subdued “every rule, and every authority and power.” He will then, finally and ultimately, defeat death. His resurrection was a defeat of death, and the final resurrection will be a display of Christ’s power over death once again. Death’s power will be annihilated. This is why Paul writes just a few verses later, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? . . . thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:54-57).

Having fulfilled the role that was given to him by his Father, he then hands back to God the Father the authority which had been given.

Resurrection: our present motivation (15:29-34)

The resurrection is a proper motivation for conversion (15:29).

Paul writes, “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?” (1 Cor 15:29 ESV). I don’t come to verse 29 with even a little pretense of dogmatism. One author refers to this verse as the most “hotly disputed” in the epistle. Gordon Fee writes, “everything must be understood as tentative.” “By 1887 Godet had counted “about thirty explanations” for baptized for the dead,” while [two other scholars] . . . allude to “more than forty.”[4]  And an additional author concludes that due to the “impasse concerning its meaning . . . This has led to an exegetical agnosticism on the part of many scholars.”[5]

While the passage is clearly challenging, let’s take a few moments to wrestle with it a bit. We are of course not going to do an overview of the 30-40 potential interpretations of the passage, but we will consider four overarching categories that the different interpretations primarily fall into. (1) Over the course of church history, many have taken the passage at face value and attempt to offer an historical explanation for “vicarious baptism for the dead.” Some proponents of this view would likely be the gnostics in the second century who were reckoned to be heretics by the church. There is nothing in church history prior to Paul that would indicate that this was the practice of the church and there is nothing throughout the New Testament that would indicate that Paul exhorted this type of practice. Simply put, any view that espouses living people paying for the sins of dead people by being physically baptized cannot be accepted. (2) A second view revolves around the interpretation for the word translated baptized. Such discussions offer ideas such as “washing the dead for burial”[6], a “baptism of suffering and martyrdom”[7], or even baptism being a synthesized creed of sorts.[8] (3) For some the discussion revolves more around the meaning of dead. In these cases, dead could refer to “the tombs or graves of the dead,”[9] or how Paul refers to himself as “dying daily” and to the apostles as “men under the sentence of death” (1 Cor 4:19). (4) A final area of discussion concerns the meaning of hyper, translated in the ESV as “on behalf of” and in nearly every other major version as “for.”

So then, let’s land somewhere. Ciampa and Rosner, in the Pillar New Testament Commentary Series, [10] offer what I found to be the most natural explanation for this challenging verse. Their approach is somewhat reflected in the ESV’s translation, “baptized on behalf of the dead.” Although they would translate it as “baptized on account of the dead.” Throughout the chapter the word dead has consistently referred to actual dead people – more specifically referred to redeemed dead people who will be raised to glory. As well, if we understand baptism to be, not something that brings salvation in and of itself, but instead is the initial confirmation of faith and initiation into the body of Christ, we might then conclude that people were being baptized (ie. converted) on account of the witness or testimony of those who had died for their faith. A great deal of persecution was occurring, and many people would have known someone who died due to their commitment to Christ. These immense testimonies and displays of faith likely motivated people to come to Christ and be baptized.

Therefore, Paul offers the following logic. If the dead do not rise, what value was there in people being drawn to Christ due to their testimonies of faith. That would be pointless. The inference can then be drawn. Since those who are dead in Christ will rise again, then people being drawn to Christ by their testimony is of great value.

The resurrection motivates people to sacrificial and holy living (15:30-34).

Paul’s logic continues. “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” (1 Cor 15:30–32 ESV). If the dead are not raised, our faith and preaching is in vain. Why then would I live a life that is characterized by danger every moment for this faith and so that I can preach. If the dead are not raised why do I live a life that is characterized by “I die every day”? If the dead are not raised, I could sacrifice myself to the beasts at Ephesus – all for the cause of Christianity, for the cause of the Gospel, for the cause of Christ – but why, if the dead are not raised? What would be the point?

Instead, if the dead are not raised, we might as well live a life that is characterized by the humanistic motto, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” We might as well do whatever we want if there is no resurrection.

But , as verse 20 tells us, Christ has been raised. So then, what? (1) First, get away from the people who are leading you astray into such destructive doctrine. “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals’” (1 Cor 15:33). Paul exhorts the believers to get away from those in the church that were teaching that there was no resurrection.[11] (2) Secondly, instead of being led into destructive doctrine by others, “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. Is say this to your shame” (1 Cor 15:34).

Therefore, because Christ did rise from the dead, and because we will as well, our present behavior should be dramatically affected by these realities. Sacrifice for the cause of the Gospel is worth offering. Holy living due to the reality of and out of appreciation for our future resurrection is both logical and appropriate.


So then, what you’re saying is that we are going to be raised in the future? Yes! What then are our resurrection bodies going to be like?  That seems to be the question that Paul anticipates in the following section. “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead to be raised? With what kind of body do they come?” (1 Cor 15:35). And that is a question we will leave until next week.

Additional Quotes

Thiselton. Verse 29 is a notoriously difficult crux: the most “hotly disputed” in the epistle (Conzelmann); “it is not clear precisely what this practice was” (Dale Martin); “everything must be understood as tentative” (Fee); a variety of understandings emerge “given the enigmatic nature of the practice” (Collins). By 1887 Godet had counted “about thirty explanations” for baptized for the dead,” while B. M. Foschini and R. Schnackenburg allude to “more than forty.” Wolff’s commentary includes seventeen subcategories with seven issue-centered general approaches.157 A vast literature stretches from the second century to the present day[12]

White. In the past thirty years, however, interest in the subject has fallen off as scholars reached an impasse concerning its meaning. There has been only a trickle of new ideas, and certainly nothing close to a consensus on the proper interpretation has emerged. This has led to an exegetical agnosticism on the part of many scholars.[13]

White. Past attempts at interpreting 1 Cor 15:29 have been tremendously creative. We may categorize them as follows: (1) those that take the verse at face value and try to offer some historical explanation for the practice of vicarious baptisms for the dead; (2) those that postulate some nonsubstantival sense for τών νεκρών; (3) those that offer some alternate meaning for the preposition υπέρ; and (4) those that postulate some nonliteral sense for βαπτιζόμενοι. We shall briefly review these basic approaches.[14]

Ciampa. We think that the best approach is to translate the key phrase, “those who are baptized on account of the dead,” and to understand the reference to the dead in light of the usage of the word throughout this chapter (see vv. 12 [2x], 13, 15, 16, 20, 21, 29 [2x], 32, 35, 42, 52). . . . We note first that in every other instance in this letter “the dead” are people who have died. . . . the other usages, and the discussion as a whole, make it quite clear that Paul is not interested in all dead people, but in those who will benefit from being raised to glory. . . . As Keener puts it, this may be Paul’s “roundabout way of saying ‘baptized so as to be able to participate in eternal life with Christians who have already died,’ hence baptized in the light of their own mortality as well.” . . . Baptism itself is tied to the resurrection hope by way of its integral role in the conversion experience. It is not that baptism per se brings salvation, but baptism is understood to be the initial confirmation of faith and act of initiation into the body of Christ. . . . Thus we would paraphrase the verse as follows: “Now, if there is no resurrection, what will be accomplished by those who get baptized because of what they have heard about how our dead will be raised? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people undergoing baptism on account of them?” [15]



[1] Scot McKnight, “Women and the Public Reading of Scripture,” (Patheos, December 12, 2011), Accessed September 22, 2017.

[2] Timothy Friberg, et al., Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, 61.  ἀπαρχή, ῆς,     (1) in Mosaic ceremonial law, a technical term for the first portion of grain and fruit harvests and flocks offered to God firstfruits, first offering (RO 11.16); (2) figuratively, of persons as the first of a set or category first: as the first converts in an area (RO 16.5), as the first to be resurrected (1C 15.20), as the first of their category to be dedicated to God (RV 14.4); (3) of the Holy Spirit, given to believers as the first portion and pledge of all that God will give to redeemed people foretaste (RO 8.23)

[3] Duane A. Garrett, “Feasts and Festivals of Israel,” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 250.

[4] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, 1240.

[5] Joel White, “Baptized on Account of the Dead,” Journal of Biblical Literature 116, no. 3 (September 1997): 487.

[6] Theodore Beza and Heinrich Bullinger

[7] John Lightfoot

[8] Chrysostom

[9] Martin Luther

[10] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, 783-785.

[11] Many modern commentators believe this to be a quote from Meander’s lost comedy, Thais. If so, it is the only quotation from a non-biblical source in Pauline literature. It is unnecessary to draw any conclusions as to the source to draw a conclusion on the point Paul is making. But it does seem clear that the quotation is a cultural colloquialism of Paul’s day.

[12] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, 1240.

[13] Joel White, “Baptized on Account of the Dead,” Journal of Biblical Literature 116, no. 3 (September 1997): 487.

[14] Joel White, “Baptized on Account of the Dead,” 488.

[15] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, 783-785.

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