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E. G. Sewell on Baptism For The Dead

(Editor's note: when E.G. Sewell, former editor of the Gospel Advocate, was asked about the meaning of 1 Cor. 15:29, he gave the answer below.)

When Paul used the above language, he was arguing the resurrection from the dead; and the language was intended by the apostle as a part of his argument on that subject, and we must so interpret the passage as to give it that bearing if we would understand it correctly. The passage is confessedly a difficult one, and is certainly elliptical to us, although it may have been very clear to the Corinthians. As Paul was arguing the subject of the resurrection of the dead, we think it could do no violence to the passage to supply in our interpretation of the passage the word resurrection just before the words the dead and after the preposition for.

The Greek preposition huper, rendered for in this passage, means on account of, and might be so rendered here. Then we would have it thus: 'EIse what shall they do who are baptized on account of the resurrection of the dead?' All who are buried with Christ in Baptism declare by that act that they believe that he was buried and rose again: and in believing that he rose, we at the same time believe and by our action declare our faith in a resurrection of all the dead.

In our immersion, therefore, we declare by that action that we believe in the resurrection of all the dead, of Christ first and through him all others. If Christ did not rise from the dead, burial with him in baptism would be meaningless; and if he rose not, then no others will rise, and the religion of Jesus is a failure at last. And this is what Paul meant to impress upon them -that in having been buried with Christ in baptism, as he told the Romans, they had by that act declared a resurrection from the dead by being raised up from baptism, as Christ was raised up from the grave. He meant to impress upon the Corinthians that their baptism was utterly meaningless if there be no resurrection of the dead.

The word dead is plural number of the Greek, and we can find no authority for regarding it in the singular. If it were singular, then it might be regarded as referring to Christ only -that is, what shall they do who are baptized on account of Christ, who did not rise if there be no resurrection?- and thus put the argument that way; but the word being plural makes it refer to the dead in general as well as Christ; not only that he rose, but that all will rise. And with this idea there is meaning in the passage.

The argument or illustration is a very forcible one. As the apostle was arguing the resurrection, the interpretation we have given cannot possibly do any violence to the connection But if we undertake to conclude, as some do, that Paul here teaches that living persons may be baptized for, or in the place of, dead ones, then we make him introduce a new subject entirely in that one sentence that has no connection with the subject he was on; and not only that, but a subject that is nowhere else mentioned in all the Bible. And is it reasonable to suppose such a thing? Certainly not; for there is not the least allusion to such a practice as that in all the oracles of God. We insist, therefore, that Paul used the passage in connection with his argument on the resurrection, and insist that it is very forcible.

(M.C. Kurfees, ed., Questions Answered by Lipscomb and Sewell, pp. 165 -166.)