In studying for last week’s message, I came across a remarkable statement by John Chrysostom explaining the perplexing words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:29 (I have updated the language from older English). I could only quote a part of it in my sermon. Here is the full quotation.
Chrysostom takes the view that in “baptism for the dead,” Paul refers to the symbolism of baptism (for a similar view taken by a more modern author, see David Garland’s commentary on 1 Corinthians in the Baker Exegetical series). This is the view I hold. As he states below, Chrysostom paraphrases Paul thus: “For in fact with a view to this you are baptized, the resurrection of your dead body, believing that it no longer remains dead.”
There is more to observe in this quotation, however. According to Chrysostom, that baptism symbolizes our future resurrection is seen not only in baptism by immersion (which he explicitly references–see below), but in the very words of the confession of the new convert (the “initiated”) before baptism, where he confesses, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead.” Moreover, at least in this citation, he reserves baptism for those who confess faith in Christ.
Notice as well how he speaks of the assuring power of baptism. As we identify with Christ publicly in baptism, there is a sense in which it brings assurance to us that the promises of God to us in Christ are ours. We never want to transfer the ground of our assurance to baptism or to ourselves–we could never sustain such weight and the Almighty God is the one who keeps us by his grace. Yet God uses means–like baptism–to teach us that we are Christ’s and that Christ is ours when we receive the good news of his salvation by faith.
I know that Chrysostom is not a American Baptist from the Midwest. He does here, however, appear to make a good spokesman concerning our practice.
But first I wish to remind you who are initiated of the response, which on that evening they who introduce you to the mysteries bid you make; and then I will also explain the saying of Paul: so this likewise will be clearer to you; we after all the other things adding this that Paul now speaks.
And I desire indeed expressly to utter it, but I dare not on account of the uninitiated; for these add a difficulty to our exposition, compelling us either not to speak clearly or to declare unto them the ineffable mysteries. Nevertheless, as I may be able, I will speak as through a veil.
As thus: after the enunciation of those mystical and fearful words, and the awful rules of the doctrines which have come down from heaven, this also we add at the end when we are about to baptize, bidding them say, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead,” and upon this faith we are baptized. For after we have confessed this together with the rest, then at last are we let down into the fountain of those sacred streams.
This therefore Paul recalling to their minds said, “if there be no resurrection, why art thou then baptized for the dead?” i.e., the dead bodies. For in fact with a view to this you are baptized, the resurrection of your dead body, believing that it no longer remains dead.
And you indeed in the words make mention of a resurrection of the dead; but the priest, as in a kind of image, signifies to you by very deed the things which you have believed and confessed in words. When without a sign you believe, then he gives you the sign also; when you have your own part, then also doth God fully assure you. How and in what manner? By the water.
For the being baptized and immersed and then emerging, is a symbol of the descent into Hades and return thence. Wherefore also Paul calls baptism a burial, saying, “Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death” (Rom 6:4). By this he makes that also which is to come credible, I mean, the resurrection of our bodies. For the blotting out sins is a much greater thing than the raising up of a body. And this Christ declaring, said, “For whether is easier to say, Thy sins are forgiven, or to say, Take up thy bed, and walk?” (Matt 9:5). “The former is the more difficult,” says He, “but since you disbelieve it as being hidden, and make the easier instead of the more difficult the demonstration of my power, neither will I refuse to afford you this proof.” Then He says to the paralytic, “Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thy house.”