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The occasion of 1 Corinthians (which is at least Paul's second letter to the church) is the divisions (1:11) and worldliness (3:3) of the church. There is all manner of immorality (5:1), idolatry (8:7) and debauchery (11:21) in the church, not to mention elitism (4:8) and charismatic indulgence (14:26). I could go on, suffice to say that the root of all of their sins is a heightened eschatological framework. They were far too focused on the already of God's redemptive work, and had lost sight of the yet to come. They were kings in their eyes; they had been perfected, esteemed and exalted by God; they could do anything they wanted, because Jesus had already cleared them totally of all wrongdoing so went their thinking.
It is this misguided eschatology that underpinned all their heresies and faults. Hence, Paul's basic concern in the letter is (while clearly establish what God has done) ultimately to focus the church on what is yet to come. When this framework is clearly seen, the letter comes to life, right from the first few chapters. It is obvious why chapter 15 is the clear summation of the entire book it is perhaps the greatest and most inspiring analysis of the yet to come in all Scripture!
This also picks up on the intermediate context, because it is clear that Paul is responding to the Corinthian claim that resurrection is impossible (v12). He is almost certainly quoting from their letter in v35. He sets his refutation of this claim on the basis that he is expounding the gospel itself (v1-3) it is a sustained theological discussion, and our problem verse lies in its midst. Paul's master stroke is that, in responding to their erroneous claim, he is not merely refuting, he is expounding expounding the exact message of the Day of Reckoning which he had been eager to get out the whole time.
Between these two main arguments, we seem to be presented with two shorter (but not necessarily less significant) arguments. The second one is clear enough: Paul's hope to be resurrected is what motivates and underpins his very life (v30-32 compare v15); resurrection can not and must not be a fantasy, or else salvation is as well!
The first of the shorter arguments is because people are "baptized for the dead". I see no reason to assume that Paul is talking about a marginal or obscure practice here why should he, when he is trying to convince the church of such a central teaching? I also would dispute any inference that Paul is merely referring to, and not actually approving of, the practice. I see no doubt that Paul does agree with it; he himself is using it as an example of normal practice! So there we have the difficulty contextualized.
But what else do we know about this immersion? It enters us into Christ (Galatians 3:26-27); it saves us (1 Peter 3:21); and it is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6:3-4). This last point is central to our discussion. Immersion is not just into Christ, but, more specifically, into his death. It unifies us with Christ's death, and looks forward to us being unified also with him in resurrection (Romans 6:5). Immersion, then, is into death and through death, looking forward to resurrection.
This is very significant, because immersion does not really affect our material life at all it does not take away the temporal consequences of our sin; it doesn't lengthen our physical life, nor does it make it any easier. Immersion, then, has no use in this life at all! All of its benefits are spiritual (eternal forgiveness, the indwelling of the Spirit and entry into Christ's spiritual Kingdom), and they all look to ultimate fulfilment at our physical death it is then that we shall behold God face to face, and be spiritually perfected; it is then that we will be in complete rest before God's eternal throne.
Immersion, then, is not only through death, it is with a view toward death, since it is not for this life. I would go so far as to say that immersion is for our death, because unless we died, it would have no use, and it is only in death that its benefits are culminated.
Others suggest that there were some Corinthians (perhaps a certain faction?) which had taken to the aforementioned practice. Paul, they argue, was not agreeing to their practice, but pointing out their hypocrisy in carrying on with such a practice if they don't believe in resurrection. This puts Paul on shaky ground indeed, and leaves one wondering (a) why he does not go on to rebut the practice? and (b) why he would use such a weak argument to support such a central doctrine?
In other words, the idea that it was some rogue marginal activity does not account for the immediate context that of Paul drawing on powerful arguments to defend the climax of the Gospel message. This view does not fit the context; and it would relegate a key theological argument to the realm of erroneous, unbiblical practices.
Some would say that we cannot pinpoint the meaning so surely, because Paul is so unclear in his wording. This is basically the "we can't know, and shouldn't bother asking" view. But look to the intermediate context Paul is referring to a series of questions they asked; we need not expect him to detail everything they wrote, he is merely responding to their questions. This prompts us to search for what Paul could reasonably be referring to; and we know that there is indeed only one immersion! By coming to terms with the intermediate context, and working within its bounds, I am sure that it is possible to exposit the passage, as I seek to have done.
Others would counter by saying that immersion is never spoken of is this way in other passages. This view sums up many people's initial reaction to the verse: "It couldn't be baptism for the forgiveness of sins, because it is obviously talking about something completely different." But the same is true of Galatians 3:27, where Paul is emphasising the New Creation, and talking about immersion in a basically unique way. But does anyone conclude that he is referring to a different immersion? Far from it, he is deepening our understanding of the one true baptism, and the same is true of 1 Corinthians 15:29.
We must remember that the wider context of 1 Corinthians is Paul's emphasis on what is yet to come, and it is because of this key underlying doctrinal preoccupation that Paul speaks of immersion in a unique way. In so doing, he is making a powerful point about immersion, one which we would do well to remember: immersion is not for this life; it focuses us on the life to come. Just as we were immersed with a view toward our eternal existence, so we need to live for the next life, and not for this present one. We are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20).
Paul's point in the verse, then, is likewise straightforward: Why did you guys bother getting immersed if you have no hope of being resurrected? If you'll never live beyond the grave, what benefit did you gain from being immersed at all? It's a powerful point indeed! They, without doubt, were all immersed for the forgiveness of sins, so the point would have driven home powerfully.
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