1 Corinthians 15:29-34 discusses some important motivations that come as a result of believing in your bodily resurrection.
Motivation is defined as the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.
I remember when I was in high school, my dad told me he would buy me a Minolta 35mm camera if I got straight A’s for a semester. Boy, was I motivated, and you know what? I got straight A’s and the camera.
You could argue that I should’ve gotten good grades even without the incentive, and I suppose you’re right, but I don’t think it’s wrong to have tangible reasons for doing good things. And I don’t think it’s wrong spiritually, either.
In this section, Paul is looking at the resurrection as a motivation for good behavior. The resurrection itself can be the main reason we think and do good things.
By the way, it’s not that Christians are the only ones who have any motivation to do good things. Non-Christian moms and dads make sacrifices for their children, too. Agnostic soldiers and police officers will give their lives to save others. But belief in the resurrection is one of the most powerful motivations.
Now, this isn’t a new idea. In fact, the whole Bible, which was written so we would know things about Jesus, was also written so we would be motivated to do things.
Take, for example, the book of Romans. The first 11 chapters of Romans contain some of the most theologically rich parts of the whole Bible about God’s sovereignty in salvation and man’s inability to save themselves. But then in the twelfth chapter, it says this:
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship (Romans 12:1).
Therefore, based on the previous eleven chapters of theology about God, present your bodies as living and holy sacrifices. See, just knowing things isn’t the only goal of scripture. Knowledge about God is meant to motivate us to do things.
Now Paul is making a similar point in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. He’s saying the theology of the resurrection is worth knowing and believing, but it has an even greater benefit.
The resurrection can also motivate us to think and act in three ways. There’s a salvation motivation, a service motivation, and a motivation to live a moral life.
A Motivation to Become Saved
1 Corinthians 15:29 says,
Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?
Now, of all the points in this article, this first one is the hardest to explain: the motivation to become saved.
That’s because theologians have come up with about 40 explanations for verse 29, so I would be a fool to be overly dogmatic about its meaning. But I’m going to do my best to let you know what I think and why.
First, let me tell you about some of the more popular opinions and why I don’t think the meaning is any of these.
Some see "baptism for the dead” as baptism by proxy. In other words, they believe Christians were getting themselves baptized for friends or relatives who had died unbaptized. It’s what Mormons believe.
Let’s say you have a relative who never trusted in Jesus and then died. Since you don’t want him to go to hell, you get baptized for him and then he’s saved. This interpretation does fit the Greek in verse 29 but not the rest of scripture.
Hebrews 9:27 says “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment,” not baptism. Once we die, that’s it. There’s no second chance.
And not only that, but Baptism doesn’t even save those who get baptized in person. Faith in Christ alone—not baptism—saves us. So I don’t think Paul is talking about baptism by proxy.
Others take a modified approach to this and say that while Paul didn’t believe in baptizing by proxy himself, others did, and so he’s just using their belief as an example without condoning it.
Well, that seems like a bit of a stretch to me because Paul’s tone concerning “baptism for the dead” seems to be positive. There isn’t even a hint that Paul disagrees with what they were doing and it seems odd that Paul wouldn’t address their false idea. So the view that Paul is just using a false understanding of baptism he doesn’t agree with as an example just doesn’t seem to make sense to me.
Now again, I don’t want to be too dogmatic because the bottom line is that we will never know exactly what Paul meant until we get a chance to ask him face-to-face.
But here’s what I think makes the most sense.
A Salvation Motivation
I think Paul is talking about motivation to become saved, specifically the hope we will see our loved ones again. This is what many notable theologians believe, so if I’m wrong, at least I’m in good company.
But before I get into the details, let me explain the idea in general. The basic idea is that some people come to Christ because they want to see their loved ones again. This isn’t a motivation for everyone, of course, but it is for many people.
For example, how many times has an unbelieving husband attended the funeral of his believing wife, heard the message of salvation, and then became convinced he would only see her again in heaven if he, too, became a Christian. So he started coming to church and became a Christian himself.
Or how many Christians have become motivated to become Christians after the death of a child? I think this is how Norm and Marsha Covey, who lived up the hill behind the church, came to know Christ (see also Genesis 37:35; 2 Samuel 12:23 ).
So it’s generally accepted that belief in the resurrection can be a powerful motivation for those who are still living to become saved so that they can see their loved ones again.
Now let’s see how this fits with the text. The word translated “for” in verse 29 is the Greek word hyper, but it can be legitimately translated about twelve different ways in English.
Hyper is a preposition and when connected with the word dead can mean: over the dead, above the dead, across the dead, beyond the dead, on behalf of the dead, in the name of the dead, because of the dead, in reference to the dead, instead of the dead, with regard to the dead, etc.
So you see the problem. Translators have to pick one without knowing exactly what Paul was talking about. But the problem is also a solution, because we can just as legitimately translate the word hyper “because” as we can one of the other ways.
When we translate hyper “because of the dead”, or “for the sake of the dead,” the meaning, as J.K. Howard says, “is not in order to remedy some deficiency on the part of the dead, but in order to be reunited with them at the resurrection” (J. K. Howard, “Baptism for the Dead: A Study of 1 Cor 15:29,” 140–41; cf. 137–41.).
Now, for this to make even more sense, we need to remember that baptism is often used as a synonym for salvation.
For example, in Acts 22:16 Saul was told to “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” It’s not that getting wet is what made Saul spiritually clean, but it was a symbol of the salvation God gives.
Another example: in Galatians 3:27, after he’s been saved, Paul says to others “for all of you who were baptized in Christ, have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Paul could have just as easily said “for all of you who were saved in Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
So baptism pictures the removal of sin. It pictures what God does to us, which is why we don’t baptize ourselves, by the way. Baptism pictures a public profession of trust in what is done for us.
Baptism pictures salvation and it could be that this is the way Paul is using “baptism” in this verse. If it is, then we could translate verse 29, “Otherwise, what will those do who are coming to Christ, being saved, in hopes of seeing their dead loved ones again? If the dead are not raised at all, then what’s the point of being saved to see them again?”
So I think his point is, if there is no resurrection, one of the greatest motivations to become saved is removed. That’s what I think Paul is saying. I could be wrong, but it seems to make the most sense to me.
Now there is another motivation in verse 30 which isn’t nearly so controversial.
A Motivation to Serve Sacrificially
1 Corinthians 15:30–31 says,
Why are we also in danger every hour? I affirm, brethren, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.
In other words, if there is no resurrection of the dead, then what’s the point of taking so many risks? Paul’s asking—what’s the payoff for putting his life at risk every hour of every day if there is no resurrection?
In our world, even the wall street investor is willing to take risks because he hopes the payoff will be worth it. He’s motivated to work long hours, skip meals, invest all of his money in hopes it will make him rich.
How much more should we be laying up treasures in heaven? (see Matthew 6:19-21). It’s not that we can earn our way to heaven, but the resurrection is a motivating reason for doing good works by those who are already saved.
Hebrews 11:35 speaks of the reward, saying, “Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection.”
We can’t earn the right to be resurrected, but we can “improve” upon it through sacrificial service. See, God isn’t going to ignore our good deeds, he’s going to reward us for them and this is an awesome motivation.
Paul is affirming, literally swearing in verse 30, that every day, every hour, he is moments away from death—but he’s going to keep pressing on, knowing it’s all going to be worth it. In verse 32 he says:
If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.
This is the same question Isaiah and the author of Ecclesiastes ask. Humanly speaking, if there is no resurrection of the dead, what’s the point? If there’s no resurrection, then just try to live your best selfish life now. Investing in only today makes perfect sense if there isn’t a future reward.
Now some may question whether he fought with wild beasts, but even if he’s speaking metaphorically, his point is the same. No matter how great the cost in this life, it’s all worth it (see also Philippians 3:8; 2 Corinthians 4:11).
Last week, if we were watching the news, we learned about police officer Eric Talley, who was the first to respond to the shooting at King Soopers. The Attorney General said of him, “He died charging into the line of fire trying to save people who were simply trying to live their lives and go food shopping.”
Was it worth it for him? He left a wife and 7 kids behind. And it was said of him “He loved his kids and his family more than anything, he didn’t want to put his family through something like this….” But it was also said, “and he believed in Jesus Christ.”
See, Officer Talley served his community sacrificially, but he also served his Savior, and so his sacrifice won’t be in vain. Jesus saw what he did, his family will see him again and I believe he will receive a better resurrection.
So there’s a motivation to be saved, there’s a motivation to serve sacrificially, and...
A Motivation to Live Moral Lives
1 Corinthians 15:33 says,
Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.”
Don’t be deceived Paul says. But about what? About our mistaken beliefs regarding the resurrection. If we believe our theological views about the resurrection don’t make a difference, then we’re deceived. And if we associate with those who have bad theology about the resurrection, it’s going to rub off on us.
Bad, or evil company corrupts good morals. It’s more than just bad manners, as the KJV says. Paul’s not saying we shouldn’t hang out with people who talk with food in their mouths or put their elbows on the table. He’s talking about our moral behavior. Bad theology leads to bad behavior.
In other words, put positively, good teaching about the resurrection leads to good moral living. Good teaching about how Christ died and was resurrected, how he ascended into heaven and he’s coming back leads to living good moral lives.
Do we want to grow in Christ? Then spend time seriously thinking about the reality of our resurrection and that we’ll have to face him someday. 1 Corinthians 15:34 says it this way,
Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame.
Now, last week, we talked about how, in Adam, mankind doesn’t have the ability not to sin. That’s true, and in Adam we will all die. But now that we are in Christ, we have been given the ability to sin or not to sin. Those that are in Christ don’t have to sin, although we still will, but we have the ability in Christ not to.
When we go home to be with our Lord in glory, we will lose the ability to sin, but that time isn’t yet. For now, though, we must not fall into the trap of thinking there’s no hope and that we’re all just destined to keep living sinful lives.
No, in Christ, not by our strength, we have been given the ability to not sin. So stop sinning. Let the truth of the resurrection motivate us to live morally righteous lives. I’m not saying we can be perfect in this life, but neither are we helpless. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. So stop sinning.
Wrapping up, bad theology leads to bad behavior. The resurrection of the dead isn’t just an abstract idea. It is a powerful motivation. It can motivate people to become saved. It can motivate people to serve sacrificially, and it can motivate us to sin less and less.