Saturday, May 18, 2019

"Remember Your Baptism"

The preacher at our congregation is going through 1 Corinthians 15. In verse 29, Paul mentions something rather curious which has given many an exegete lots of headaches. "Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised, why are they baptized for them?" As the preacher mentioned, you will probably find as many opinions on just what exactly Paul meant as there are commentators. This passage is one of those biblical passages which is not quite clear and that demonstrates the importance of examining such verses in their full context: culturally, socially, historically and biblically.  

One of the challenges that we have today when seeking to understand the Bible, is the fact that we are removed from its writings by 2,000 years of history. Thus, we do not have the cultural or social background necessary to understand, at first glance, what the writers were telling their readers. (Obviously, there are passages that are quite clear; but there are many, such as the passage in question, that are not very clear and that require a good deal of leg work to understand). The diligent Bible student will ensure that all of the aspects of proper Bible study are employed when seeking to understand God's will for us today. Too many have tripped over passages that, with some effort and care, could be understood and can certainly make sense for us today.

This passage brings to mind another very important issue. And that is that it is extremely dangerous, and very often erroneous, to build a doctrine on a single passage of Scripture. Many have been the cults that have created a whole system of theology based on a single passage of Scripture which, when examined correctly and in the light of the rest of Holy Writ, is shown to be mean something completely different to what they think. The passage in question is the one biblical passage that Mormons point to concerning their doctrine of baptism for the dead. Joseph Smith, horrendous exegete that he was, completely misunderstood the Bible. He made a myriad of errors that are clear examples of this problem, from the confusion about what heaven and hell are all about, to the preexistence of men and the nature of God. 

It is instructive to remember that during the time that Mormonism came into existence in the early 19th century, a number of other groups sprung up, all claiming that they were the answer to the question of the unity of the church. They all purported to be the ones that had the truth and that could bring to an end the supposed disunity  that afflicted the body of Christ in their day. Seven Day Adventists (SDA), Shakers, and yes, Mormons, all declared loudly and often that they had found the true and proper way and that they were the ones that would restore the true faith of the first century. The same thing happened later in the same century with the Jehovah's Witnesses, a SDA splinter group, and the Christian Scientists. 

The one problem that all these groups have in common, is a fundamental misunderstanding of one or a handful of scriptural passages upon which they have all built their doctrines. But, when rightly exegeted and understood, those passages teach something completely different to what the cults claim. First Corinthians 15:29 does not teach what the Mormons would have you believe. Rather, Paul is likely using those who have gone before as an example for those who were then living, especially in the context of the resurrection. Neither Scripture nor history say anything about the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead. That is a doctrine that was invented, out of whole cloth, by Joseph Smith. 

It is incumbent upon us, as serious Bible students and as believers in the Christ of that Bible, to treat what is written with respect and care. One of the most important aspects of that respect and care is to ensure that we're not lifting passages from their context in order to support our belief. Rather than going to the Bible with an idea we want to prove, we need to allow the Bible to determine what our belief is going to be.  It is equally important to realize that simply reading the Bible is often not enough to understand the meaning of difficult passages. Many people claim that they just "use the Bible and that's it." But what they have done is no different than what I mentioned above. It would be very easy to become a Universalist, for example, if you simply read passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:19 without giving thought to its context and its setting within the word. A little study, however, will help us truly understand what Paul meant.

By all means, read your Bible, often. But ensure that you do the hard work of understanding all that influenced the writers and the readers to whom they wrote. In doing so, we will ensure that we are doctrinally sound and theologically accurate. If we are to live lives that are holy and pleasing to God, we must rightly divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). "But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. To Him be glory forever and ever, amen" (2 Peter 3:18).

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