“Right Thinking about the Resurrection” (1 Corinthians 15:29–34)
Listen to the Sermon:
Hear now the word of the Lord from 1 Corinthians 15:29-34.
29 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? 30 Why are we in danger every hour? 31 I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! 32 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.” 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 34 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. 1 Corinthians 15:29-34, ESV
Well over this last year one of the clearest lessons that we have probably learned from 2020 is that the American public does not all see the world the same way. Now this is something we have known, that we haven’t been completely united in all points of our thinking. There have been a number of stress points that we’re all familiar with this past year that have really brought these divisions to the forefront and made them painfully clear we don’t all see the world in the same way.
Why don’t we see the world in the same way? Well, the way we see the world is shaped by our thinking. How we think about the world, sometimes we minimize or downplay the role of our thinking in the way that we live our lives. We sort of separate the two, thinking is over here and living or acting is over there.
If we ever imagined that we could do this, this is a year when we have seen that the way that we think about a number of things flows directly into the way that we will live in a number of ways. In big ways, big things that we think about the world, as well as all the thousands of small little decisions we do throughout the course of our days. The way we think affect the way that we live.
Now Paul’s point here is to take that point, this idea of this connection of thinking to the way that we live, and he wants to show that the way that we think about the resurrection specifically will flow into the way we live, for good or for evil. Now sometimes as Christians when we think about what we know we say, “Okay I need to let what I think, I need to let what I believe, affect the way that I live.”
Sometimes that’s the sort of exhortation that we have, you know what you believe, live that way. Paul’s point here is actually slightly different, and this is really important. Paul is not encouraging us just to try to more let the way that we think affect our lives, Paul is actually saying something simpler that, how we think will affect the way that we live. You can’t separate the two, one will bleed over into the other. The way you think will affect the way that you see the world and the way that you live your life, you can’t separate the two.
So, what Paul is urging us is not to connect our thinking to our living, but to recognize the connection that exists and so to be very careful to think about the way that we think and to think about our thinking, especially about the resurrection.
Our big idea today then is this. Think rightly about the resurrection.
So, Paul is going to try to reshape our thinking in a number of ways in this passage.
1. The Reorientation of Baptism
2. The Rationality of Suffering
3. The Repercussions of Thinking
The Reorientation of Baptism
So, let’s start with baptism in verse 29. In verse 29 Paul starts with a statement that has puzzled students of the Bible, since roughly after it was first written. In verse 29 we read
29 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 Corinthians 15:29, ESV
Now Paul knows what he’s talking about, the Corinthians knew what Paul was talking about, pretty much everybody since then has been confused as to what exactly is going on here. It’s important to see that as Paul was retraining how we think about the resurrection, he’s trying to remind the Corinthians that that their baptism should have some role in their thinking about the resurrection. So, we have to ask what does this mean then? What is he is talking about? What does it mean by baptize people being baptized on behalf of the dead?
Well, if you just look at the language itself and there’s sort of a grammatical way in which the baptism is related to the dead, we’re not quite sure exactly what this means. The most natural way to understand this would refer to some kind of practice of vicarious baptism. Where living people were theoretically being baptized on behalf of dead people so that the benefits and blessings of the baptism would not count for the one who received it, the living person, but would be received by the dead person in some way.
Now that’s what the language sounds like, but there are a couple problems with taking it as though it means that. The first is that we don’t have any records of these kinds of vicarious baptisms happening when Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians church. Now we do have records of this kind of vicarious baptism happening by groups of heretics about a hundred years after this, but we have no records this early on. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen, this may be the only existing record of this happening.
What makes it more significant, a bigger objection perhaps, is that Paul is describing what would essentially be, if that is what this means the vicarious baptism, what he would be describing would essentially be a magical view of baptism. You could baptize one person and the benefits would go to someone else. Just like a voodoo doll, you poke a doll and somebody else gets hurt. You could baptize someone and someone else gets the blessing, especially someone who is dead. Yet this doesn’t fit with the Biblical view of what baptism is or what baptism does, and certainly it doesn’t fit with what Paul says in so many other places about what baptism is and what it does.
Now again it doesn’t necessarily mean it couldn’t have happened, we’ve studied a lot of the book of 1 Corinthians so far and what we have seen is that the Corinthians were doing all kinds of crazy things over in their church.
Here’s kind of the clincher to make us think that this probably isn’t what was happening, a vicarious sort of baptism, Paul doesn’t say a word to critique this. The Corinthians have done all kinds of crazy things, but each time Paul critiques them and says you shouldn’t be doing this, you should be doing this instead. Yet here Paul appeals to this practice, whatever it is in verse 29, but he does not say a word of critique. Which is why Paul probably isn’t talking about vicarious baptism. He would have critiqued that if that’s what they had been doing.
Well, if this isn’t a vicarious sort of baptism of the living on behalf of the dead, well then what’s Paul talking about? If you open the commentaries, you’ll see pages and pages and pages of all kinds of speculative possibilities of what this might mean. We won’t go into all of these things, we will simply say that we don’t know. Again, this is something that Paul understood what he was talking about, the Corinthians church understood what he was talking about, but this is something that we just don’t know what exactly Paul is referring to in this a case.
We’ve encountered these before, with the details of what Paul is talking about are fairly obscure but the doctrine itself that Paul is pointing to is quite clear. The details are obscure, but the doctrine is clear. We don’t know what Paul is talking about precisely, but we know why Paul is saying what he is saying here and specifically what Paul is doing is appealing to the true purpose of the resurrect or of the baptism.
Baptism in part reminds us of the pledge, the guarantee, that we have that we will be raised up with Christ. Paul writes about this elsewhere in Romans 6:3-5. In baptism we are united with Christ in two significant ways, first of all in his death and second of all in his resurrection. In Romans he says,
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
Baptism is a pledge, it’s a guarantee it’s a promise of God about all the promises of the gospel. Especially that just as we were united with Christ in his death, so we also will be united with him, by faith in the power of the Spirit, in a resurrection like his when Jesus Christ returns. Paul is pointing to baptism.
Again, the details are obscure about what exactly he’s saying, but the doctrine is clear. Paul is reminding them of the baptism that they too had received the baptism which is a guarantee and a pledge that should lift their minds, lift their thinking, to contemplate the promise of what that baptism means. That they will be raised up with Christ. Baptism should reorient our thinking, it should remind us to bring us to think more about the resurrection itself and the promises we have in Christ through the resurrection.
So, this is the first thing that Paul says. It’s not the clearest statement he makes in details, even though we can understand the doctrine of baptism that he’s pointing to.
The Rationality of Suffering
The second thing Paul does is to point to something that we have much more information about, namely it is about the suffering that Paul undergoes. Again, we don’t totally know what Paul is talking about in verse 29, but in verses 30 through 32 we have all kinds of information about the many ways in which Paul suffered deeply as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. What Paul is saying, the reason he’s bringing these up, is to sort of frame a question. Why would it make any sense, humanly speaking according to human logic, for anyone to put themselves in this much danger if the resurrection from the dead were not real?
If there is no resurrection, if this life is all that we have, why on earth would anyone consider suffering to be a rational choice? On the flip side if the resurrection from the dead is real, if it is true, if we will be raised up with Christ, then the most rational thing that we could do is to suffer for Christ’s sake. It depends on how you see the world, what you know about the world, how you think about the world. Do you see only this life, or do you see another life to come?
30 Why are we in danger every hour? 31 I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! 32 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.” 1 Corinthians 15:30-32, ESV
See what he says in verse 30. Paul was a man and those he traveled with and ministered with were people who were in danger every hour. They never had any time any moment where they were out of danger. Paul is saying why would we do this if there were not a resurrection from the dead? Then in verse 31 he uses language for swearing and oath. He says, “I protest brothers”, that’s very strong language of an oath.
Then he says he not only faces death faces the possibility of death every day, the danger of death, but Paul also has to deny himself, he has to die to himself in order to put himself in all of these situations where he’s facing deep suffering. Paul knows that he could walk away from this and live a happy comfortable life, but if the resurrection is true then that would be irrational to pursue comfort and ease in this life. Whereas it’s only rational to pursue Christ if there is a resurrection from the dead.
So, look at what Paul says in verse 32, this is where he really brings to the forefront how are we to be thinking about this. He says, “what do I gain if, humanly speaking,” according to human thinking, human reasoning, “what do I gain if I fought with beasts at Ephesus?”
Now here’s another phrase where we have a question, did Paul literally fight with beasts at Ephesus? If so, this is the only place we read about this, it is the only place Paul talks about this. It’s possible he fought with the beasts at Ephesus, but he also might mean something a little bit more metaphorical like when we talk about being thrown to the wolves. “Oh, I was really thrown to the wolves there,” well if I say that to you, you understand I’m not talking about being thrown into a pack of howling wolves that are trying to devour my flesh, you understand that I’m talking about suffering at the hands of cruel and vicious human beings.
The point isn’t whether or not Paul suffered, the question is really only does he mean that he literally suffered with wild beasts or that he metaphorically suffered at the hands of vicious people. In both cases Paul is saying that his suffering does not make any sense according to human thinking, according to how humans would look at the world if this life is all that there is.
If this life is all there is, Paul says if the dead are not raised let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die. If this life really is all there is, why would you spend all that you have suffering. If the dead are not raised, why wouldn’t we just pursue lives of pleasure?
Well, Paul’s point in this is not that he is behaving irrationally, it’s rather that he is indeed behaving rationally. What Paul is doing is reminding us that he is not only seeing the benefits that he can gain in this life, it’s not only what he can gain now humanly speaking, but he’s also looking to the benefits of the life to come. Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to think about this, to connect the dots, to consider the way in which they’re seeing his actions.
They know that Paul has been suffering, but they haven’t recognized that Paul’s suffering is eminently rational. Paul endures all of this because the dead are raised. As Jim Elliott has famously written, a missionary who gave up his life for the cause of spreading Christ to people who did not know Jesus yet, Jim Elliot wrote, “he is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Suffering is irrational if this life is all there is, but there is nothing more rational than suffering for the sake of Christ if there is indeed a resurrection of the dead. Again, Paul isn’t urging them to let their thinking influence their living, Paul is saying your thinking will influence your living. If you see a world beyond this one, if you see that there will be a life of resurrection after you die, if you think that then your thinking will affect the way that you live. You will willingly, even if it causes you to die every day, to be in danger every hour, you will willingly do that for the sake of what you stand to gain. It’s rational.
The Repercussions of Thinking
Well Paul then focuses the spotlight directly on this issue of thinking in verses 33-34. He’s been challenging their thinking, encouraging, reminding them, coaxing them to connect the dots about his suffering and his confidence in the resurrection to come. Finally, Paul directly addresses their faulty thinking in verses 33 and 34.
33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 34 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. 1 Corinthians 15:33-34, ESV
In verse 33 look at what Paul says he says, “do not be deceived”. Your thinking is deceived, you are believing something that is not true. So, here’s what he says, “Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Paul is here warning, admonishing, exhorting the Corinthians not to be deceived in their thinking. Because what he is saying is that their bad thinking, their incorrect thinking, is not just a mental error, an intellectual mistake. Their bad thinking is flowing into bad living. Bad company corrupts good morals or ruins good morals.
Now this is actually how Paul began this discussion. There’s this error that’s floating around in the Corinthians church and look at what Paul said back in verse 12, he said,
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 1 Corinthians 15:12, ESV
There’s the bad company and what this bad company is doing is that they’re teaching, they’re talking, they’re raising questions that may sound innocent. Such as, “Well maybe the dead aren’t raised.”
“How can some of you say that there is no resurrection from the dead?” Paul is saying don’t be deceived by this, your thinking doesn’t remain in your mind, it will affect absolutely every part of your life. Paul is saying don’t be deceived by this. Instead in verse 34 Paul says,
34 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. 1 Corinthians 15:29-34, ESV
Being deceived on this critical point of the resurrection is more than just a miscalculation in your mind, this is sinful thinking. It’s made their thinking confused, inebriated, intoxicated, impaired. Wake up, Paul says, from your drunken stupor as is right and do not go on sinning.
Now the way this is written, do not go on sinning, means that in the way that they are thinking currently and downplaying the resurrection means that their thinking is sinning. Furthermore, their thinking is in fact infecting and flowing into, bleeding into the way the way they are living the rest of their lives.
What Paul is saying is the people who are spreading this word, spreading this idea that there will be no resurrection from the dead, have no true knowledge of God. Paul says that’s a problem. That’s a big deal because the scripture is declared everywhere that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. You cannot continue forward in wisdom, you cannot build a house in wisdom, unless it rests on the foundation of the fear of the Lord.
We read that in Job 28:28, in Psalm 111:10, and Proverbs 9:10, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, or “the fear of the Lord is wisdom.” Then in the opposite direction we also read the scriptures teaching that, “It is the fool who says in his heart that there is no God.” That’s in Psalm 14:1 and 53:1.
The point that Paul is making is that these people who are ignorant of God, who have no knowledge of God, the people whom the Corinthians are believing, are not just people who have made an intellectual mistake. They are committing sinful thinking and their sinful thinking is will continue to affect their living, which is in sin until they wake up from their drunken stupor.
So, Paul is addressing these thinking issues in the Corinthians church and let’s look at three applications of how to apply sort of each section this issue about baptism, in thinking about suffering, and about right thinking about the resurrection.
1. We try to apply what Paul is saying here in is this improve your baptism. God gives baptism to the church as a pledge, a seal, a confirmation of his promises to us. This is what Paul is appealing to in verse 29. Again, even if the details are not totally clear the doctrine is. Theologians then talk about the importance in this regard, and beyond this, about the importance of us improving our baptism.
Now when we hear that phrase, maybe you’ve heard that phrase before you should improve your baptism, sometimes we use it in the baptisms that we administer here. Improving doesn’t mean that we should try to make God’s promises in baptism better. That’s what the word improve means to us in the modern use of the word, to improve means to make something better. However, there’s an older form of the word which is when this phrase was developed, improve your baptism. The older form simply meant to use or employ.
So, improve your baptism and to put your baptism to good use. In part what that means is we should continually let baptism reorient our thinking and direct our minds back to the resurrection of which baptism is a promise, a guarantee, a seal.
I’d like to direct your attention to Westminster Larger Catechism question number 167 which asks, “How is baptism to be improved by us?” How do we put our baptism to good use? Now the Bible says a lot about this baptism. It is not just a one-time performance of a symbol that tells us something about Christ. Baptism is to be improved by us, to be put to use by us, as the guaranteed seal of God about the promise of the gospel our whole lives long.
So, here’s the answer. How is baptism to be improved by us?
“The needful but much neglected duty of improving our Baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others, by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of the Baptism and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that Sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.”
Now that’s a long answer because the Bible says a lot. Our baptism should not just be one of those heirlooms that we tuck away in the attic and never remember again until we move somewhere. No, our baptism should be something that should be center stage in our lives, something that we should be constantly be reminding ourselves about.
What God has promised to us when he sealed upon us the promises of the gospel at our baptism, and what Paul is appealing to here, is that we should think about our baptism, give serious and thankful consideration of what baptism promises. Namely that if we’ve been united in baptism with Christ in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Put your baptism to good use, improve your baptism.
2. The second application point is this, think carefully about your thinking. As I said earlier, we can so easily fall into the trap of thinking that our thinking is innocent and maybe morally neutral. We think it’s a separate thing from our actions, the way that we live our lives, and what the Bible says. That’s just not true.
So, we might say, “well so long as I don’t act sinfully, my mind can explore all kinds of possibilities.” This is especially true when we think about doctrine, “well God cares more how I live, right, not whether I have perfect theology.” Again, Paul is not saying that our thinking should influence the way we live, Paul is saying that our thinking will influence the way that we live. So, we need to think carefully about our thinking because it will have an effect for good or for evil one way or another.
What the Bible teaches, and this is so important for us to continually remember as we think about our own lives and the way we live and our struggles with sin especially, is that God created us with two internal faculties. He created us with two tools inside of us that direct the way in which we end up living and the choices and decisions that we make in our lives.
The first is that God has made us rational people, thinking people. We have minds that God tells us to imagine and to think and to judge and to evaluate and to consider. God wants us to think and specifically he wants our thoughts to be shaped by his word. That’s why we need to be in the scriptures, that’s why we need the renewal of our minds, because we are thinking people.
God also made us to be desiring people. We’re not just brains on sticks, we have hearts. The Bible calls them our guts that drive us to desire, to move towards certain things and away from others. We are thinking people and we are desiring people, and both of these are working together to affect and shape the way in which we live a lot our lives. Again, in the big things that we do in our lives and in the thousand small decisions we make at every step of the way.
So, first of all our thinking is always going to affect what we desire. The more we think on something, the more that we are going to want it, to be attracted to it, to desire it. So, if your thinking is meditating, day and night it’s filled with the word of God, so that you’re meditating day and night on the law of the Lord and on the promise of the resurrection held out in the gospel, then your heart is going to yearn for the resurrection. It will desire the resurrection more and more and you will then live for the resurrection. It’s not because your thinking is the same thing as your acting, but your thinking leads to your acting. They are directly connected, they will connect in one way or another, for good or for evil.
On the other hand, if your thinking is downplaying the resurrection, minimizing the resurrection maybe it doesn’t enter into your thoughts at all, or even dismissing the resurrection, then Paul says your thinking will descend into a drunken stupor. You will not think as is right and you will go on sinning because of your thinking.
It’s also true, just as our thinking affects our desiring, so our desiring affects our thinking. We probably all know what this is like. Sometimes we know that something is wrong, but we want it anyway. When we know that something is wrong, but we want it, well our desires start working on our thinking and this is really when our thinking becomes a drunken stupor. This is where our desires start to reshape and rework our thinking to justify and rationalize a way to eventually come out saying, “well I was told originally that this is sin and I knew that was sin, but the more I thought about it I realized it was just fine. I can do this, it’s just perfect.”
We’ll be thoroughly pleased with our ability to find what our desires have reshaped to call the truth. In that case, it will be like the pleased drunk man who is pleased with just how well he believes he is driving. It’s not actually in line with truth. We just think that we have accompanied the truth because our desire has reworked our rationality. Again, Paul calls this a drunken stupor, and he says wake up as it is right. You must seek the truth and you must set your thinking and have your minds renewed by the promises of the gospel. Because if you don’t, your thinking will be filled with what you can find in this life. Only you will eat and drink because functionally you will believe that all that matters is that tomorrow we will die, and I just need to live it up today.
Our thinking will then increasingly justify selfish, greedy, and pleasure-seeking pursuits until we do not even want the resurrection at all. What Paul is saying is that if you want to live a life where you are willing to do whatever it takes, where you are willing to even suffer to die every day for the sake of Christ, then you need to start with your thinking. Think carefully about how you think because your thinking will have a tremendous influence on your life.
3. The third application is we need to think rightly about the resurrection. We need to think rightly about the promise of the gospel that our king Jesus Christ is coming again and that as our coming king he will come as the conquering king who will judge his enemies. and reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
The hope of the resurrection then is our only hope in this life and the next. If you’re here today and you have never trusted in Christ for salvation, let me explain to you the good news of the gospel in Jesus Christ. The Bible says that we are sinners, we have all turned away from God. Our thinking has been corrupted and our desiring has been corrupted and certainly our actions have been corrupted. We’ve gone on sinning in rebellion, in revolt against God.
Because of that sin we must die, and the Bible says this death is not what sometimes people imagine it will be sort of a slip into nothingness and non-existence. What the Bible says death will be eternal, infinite, conscious torment in hell for all of eternity. That’s the warning, that is what your sins deserve, that sounds horrifying to us only because we have not considered what a horrible thing it is to sin against the infinite holiness, righteousness, glory, and majesty of almighty God himself. The only punishment that will fit the crime is an eternity in hell forever.
However, the Bible says that God has not left us there. God has done something to bring us out of this. God has loved us so much that he sent his Son into this world, who entered this world took upon a human nature like ours. Not because he was a sinner, but so that if he was treated as if he were a sinner, he could go to the cross to suffer and die in our place. He could take the wrath of God’s curse against us for our sin. So that he, dying under the weight of that curse, he could exhaust all the wrath of God forever.
Jesus Christ when he died and descended into the grave, because he was innocent, because he was the holy spotless Son of God, because he was God, death could not hold him in the grave. He arose on the third day and he promises that if we are in him, if we are united to him by faith which is confirmed in our baptism, which is a symbol of this, then we will also be reunited with him. We can be united with him in resurrection life forever and ever.
Christ the king, who has ascended to the right hand of God the Father, who is reigning right now, who is right now putting all of his enemies under his feet, he offers a royal pardon. That for all those who look to him in faith, he will forgive you and he will save you to the uttermost. He will save you out of the pit of hell and bring you to live with him in glory forever. You won’t get what you deserve, you will get what God gives you by his grace. If you’ve never trusted in Christ believe on him and be saved. Think rightly about the resurrection and the promises that God holds out to you in the gospel.
Brothers and sisters, our thinking makes more influence in our lives than we think it does. We have a tendency to downplay the thoughts that go through our mind, to permit them to let them sort of be there, to meditate on doubts that we may have. Paul warns us of that, he says take care of how you think. Let your minds not be conformed to the image of this world but be renewed by the promises of the gospel of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit so that as your thinking is renewed. Your whole inner person can be renewed in faith and love as you desire and follow Christ more and more throughout the days of your life and on into eternity.
Let’s pray together. Heavenly Father, we pray that we would be reshaped, reformed, renewed in the gospel of Jesus. Start with our thinking. Overturn our false drunken stupor thinking and instead let us think as is right on the foundation of the Lord. We pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.