Encountering Tough Verses in Bible Study

1 Corinthians 15:25-34


Introduction: What do you do when you encounter Bible passages that are hard to understand, that make you scratch your head and wonder what in the world the author meant? Sometimes we’ll be reading a passage and come across a verse so perplexing it’s like a shut gate to the entire chapter. Well, for the several weeks we’ve been studying 1 Corinthians 15, which is called the Resurrection Chapter of the Bible. It’s a very long chapter, and I had really wanted to go through it more quickly. But this is a very important subject, and this isn’t exactly an easy chapter to figure out. It has some pretty hard verses in it, and the ones we’re coming to tonight are particularly perplexing. There’s a sort of long-jam right in the middle of the passage, and that’s where we are tonight. But rather than skipping over them, let’s just tackle them headlong and see if we can make any sense. Let’s look at them by looking at the questions they pose.

1. Is Christ Inferior to God the Father? – Verses 25-28

For He (Jesus) must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For He “has put everything under His feet.”

This is quoting from Psalm 8, which is a Messianic Psalm giving us predictions and prophecies about the Messiah. So far so good. But now, read on:

Now when it says that “everything” has been put under Him, it is clear that this does not include God Himself, who put everything under Christ. When He had done this, then the Son Himself will be made subject to Him who put everything under Him, so that God may be all in all.

There is a deviant teaching that is almost as old as Christianity itself, which says that Jesus Christ is intrinsically inferior to God the Father, that He is not actually God at all. This teaching says that God the Father is truly God, and that God the Son is something less than God the Father. If these verses in this paragraph of 1 Corinthians were the only verses in the Bible, I could understand the confusion. But it’s important for us to interpret Scripture in the light of Scripture and find the harmony that exists. And I cannot accept the premise that Christ is somehow inferior to God because the evidence of His deity throughout the Bible is too strong. He is called God. He is called theos — God, and He is called kurios–Lord. He is ascribed the attributes of God. He receives worship as God. He reigns eternally as God.

When it comes to the Trinity, it’s important to distinguish between substance and station. I can take you through the Bible and show you an abundance of verses that demonstrates that God the Father is God, but He is distinguished from God the Son and from God the Holy Spirit. I can show you an abundance of verses that demonstrate that Jesus Christ is God, but He is distinguished from God the Father and God the Spirit. And I can show you an abundance of verses that demonstrate that God the Spirit is God, but He is different from God the Father and God the Son.

This is the mystery of the Trinity—there is One God who eternally exists in Three Persons, and all Three Persons are equal in their deity. They are all equal in their essence or substance or nature. But for the sake of order and organization and productivity, they voluntarily occupy different stations or obligations. There is an order – an authority structure – within the Trinity. God the Son is functionally submissive to God the Father. He is equal with God in essence, but submissive to God in functional arrangement.

This is tremendously important because it sets the stage for all organizational and authority structures on earth. For example, in Romans 13, the apostle Paul said, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except what God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

Now, Paul wrote this in the days of the Roman Empire, which was certainly no friend to Christianity. He wasn’t saying that the Roman Emperor was always right. In face, the Romans were often wrong. But even though they were often wrong, they represented the fact that God ordained a system of authority to govern human affairs. Without an authority structure, humanity descends into anarchy and chaos.

And so we have authority structures in the nation, in the state, in the city, in the home, in the church. Now, if a governing authority commands us to do something diametrically opposed to clearly-understood Scriptural truth, than we have a right to commit civil disobedience, and we have to accept the consequences of that. But without a system of authority everything falls apart. Even animals have a pecking order. It’s built into the creation, and it has its ultimate source in the Trinity. So in His essence and nature and eternality, God the Son and God the Father and God the Spirit are equal in essence, nature, substance, and quality. But in terms of station and role, there is a diversification of duties and a line of authority that serves as the basis for all the authority structures in the universe. This is why children obey their parents, why church leaders are respected, why we obey the police, and why we pray for our leaders.

2. Can We Be Baptized for a Dead Person? – Verse 29:

Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them

This verse is frankly inexplicable and unexplainable. One commentary called it “one of the most difficult and obscure verses in the Bible.” Another commentary said there were thirteen different possible interpretations, and another commentary put that number at thirty. But yet another commentary said there were about 200 suggested interpretations to this verse. I’m not going to go through all the possible interpretations, but let me give you two that are at least plausible.

First, some people said that the preposition for can mean in place of. For example, what if I volunteered for a dangerous assignment and I was killed. You might say, “I am so moved and inspired, I will go for him. I will go in place of him. I will take his place.” According to this possible interpretation, people were coming to Christ in Corinth and some were being slain for their faith. Some were being killed. But the example of the martyrs was inspiring others to rise up and be baptized to take their place. So, if this interpretation is correct, what Paul was saying is this: If there is no resurrection, than those who died are just dead and will always be dead. So what good does it do if you come along and are baptized to take their place? Everything is futile. Everything is lost.

The other possibility, which I think might be stronger, is this. It’s possible that the Corinthians, who were so mixed up about so many things and has so many strange things going on, really did have a group of people who thought you could be baptized as a proxy for someone who had died before they were baptized. Or perhaps they believed you could be baptized for anyone who died and that baptism was efficacious for salvation.

So let’s say, for example, my brother came to Christ on his deathbed and he was wonderfully saved, but never baptized. Maybe I could say, “My brother was saved but was unable to be baptized, so I am going to represent him in a symbolic baptism. I am going to be baptized as his proxy. I am going to be baptized in order to give testimony of his faith.”

Now, there is no such recommendation in the New Testament that we do that. But we know those Corinthians. They had a number of strange things going on.

Or maybe it was even worse. Maybe I could say, “My brother died, and I don’t know whether he went to heaven or hell. I will be baptized for him.” In that case, baptism is somewhat akin to the Roman Catholic practice of indulgence, in which you could earn or gain a remission of sin on behalf of another person. This was the practice that helped lead to the Protestant Reformation.

Now, baptism by proxy or vicarious baptism is nowhere taught in the New Testament, but that doesn’t mean such a practice didn’t arise in the Corinthian church. Such practices did arise later. So, according to this interpretation, Paul was saying, “You Corinthians are so foolish. Some of you say there is no resurrection for the dead, and they you institute a practice of being baptized for the dead. Don’t you see that doesn’t make any sense.”

Paul didn’t condemn the practice of being baptized for the dead because he was countering an even worse error – the failure to believe in the reality of the resurrection. And he was saying, in essence, the smaller error is especially perplexing because of your bigger error. You’re like a person painting the front door a ridiculous color while the house itself if burning down.

Now, there are 198 other possible interpretations, but I could live with either of those. And I can also live with simply saying, “I don’t know.” But I hate to skip over a verse and pretend it’s not there simply because it’s difficult.

3. Did Paul Fight With Wild Beasts in Ephesus? – Verses 30-32a:

And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I face death every day – yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained?

We have a problem with this passage also, because there is no record of Paul ever having fought with wild beasts in the theaters or coliseums of Ephesus, Rome, or anywhere else. It was very unlikely that a Roman citizen like him would ever be thrown to the wild beasts.

Now, we do have the story in Acts 19 of a riot that broke out over Paul’s preaching in Ephesus, resulting in a great riot with everyone rushing into the theater. If you visit the ruins of Ephesus, you can see right where this happened. It was instigated by a silversmith named Demetrius, who was furious that Paul’s preaching had damaged his sales of idols and false gods. But the passage in Acts 19 certainly doesn’t mention any beasts or lions or bears.

It seems best here to think that Paul was speaking figuratively. He was speaking metaphorically. The writers of the Bible often compared their enemies as beasts and dogs and lions and dangerous animals. The apostle Peter said that the devil is a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. In Philippians 3, Paul told the Philippians to beware the dogs – and by dogs he was referring to a group of false teachers. So as solid interpreters, we follow a basic principle of biblical interpretation. If a passage makes sense literally, then we take it literally. This is basic hermeneutics. If a passage makes sense when you interpret it literally, then do so. But if not, consider the fact that biblical writers used symbols and analogies and metaphors and figures of speech just like we do, and interpret it accordingly.

The point Paul was making is this: Why would I subject myself to all the abuse I’ve experienced if there is no resurrection? If there is no resurrection, then we can live however we want. Let us eat and drink and live it up, because tomorrow we die and there is nothing more after that.

4. Why Does Paul Insert an Ethical Discussion about Friendship in the Middle of a Major Theological Discussion of the Resurrection? – Verses 33-34.

Do not be misled, “Bad company corrupts good character.” Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God – I say this to your shame.

This sounds like it belongs to the book of Proverbs or to the book of James, or maybe to the Sermon on the Mount. But what is it doing here? It seems to disrupt the theological argument Paul is making. It seems like he is saying something like this: “Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead, and we know He rose from the dead because of all the eyewitness accounts that cannot be explained away. Furthermore without the resurrection, we have no hope, we are still in our sins, and we are of all men most miserable. But Christ did rise from the dead and became the first in a series of resurrections that will extend until the final resurrection event at the end of time. And when the body is resurrected, it will be transformed and glorified. And by the way, make sure you choose good friends.”

But of course, here we come to another rule for sound Bible study. Theology always has application, and without practical application theology can become deadening. There are implications to our doctrines.

In the case of the resurrection, for example, some people don’t take it seriously. Some people never think about standing before God and having to give an account of themselves. Some people don’t believe it will ever happen. Some people believe this life is all there is, and so we should enjoy it in every way we want to. We should indulge in every appetite. We should live for pleasure; because once we’re dead we’re dead.

If you become buddies with people like this, they can tear you down spiritually. So make sure that you choose friends who take the resurrection very seriously and who live with the self-discipline and self-control that comes from a constant contemplation on the future God has in store for us. If you are living with a careless disregard to the Second Coming or if you are hanging around with people like that, then come back to your senses and start living as you should.

Conclusion: Now, you might ask why we would devote a Sunday night message to a handful of difficult verses in the middle of this chapter. The reason is because 1 Corinthians 15 is exceedingly important. In the remaining verses, Paul is going to explain the process and the product of the resurrection, and I don’t want us to minimize this chapter because of a handful of tough verses in the middle of it.

The ABC Television network has a series entitled Resurrection, set in a small Missouri town that is bewildered when several long-dead loved ones return after thirty years. I haven’t seen the show, and based on the ratings not many of you have either. But I did see a headline in an entertainment guide that said, “Resurrection Will Likely Be Cancelled.” I read that and I thought: “Well, not the one in the Bible.” But if you truly believe the resurrection has been cancelled, you have nothing but despair. Some time ago, an unbeliever—a young lady—posted this letter on an atheistic website:

“I’m confused… I always believed science would be the cure-all for my problems, but I don’t know if I can keep living without eternal life. I guess I’ll just have to find a way myself to make it through this meaningless existence. I just wish I knew of someone who could show me the path to eternal life. If science can’t provide the answers, though, then who or what can. Sigh. Doesn’t it seem like there is a high power that gives our lives purpose? Well, science says there isn’t, so there isn’t.”[1]

That’s why we need 1 Corinthians 15, even with its difficult verses. That’s why we need the resurrection. It’s not going to be cancelled. We need to think about the future constantly. We should think about heaven every day. And one of the best ways of keeping our mind on the optimistic future of God is by coming again and again to this wonderful chapter until it simple saturates our minds and hearts.

[1] Quoted by Josh McDowell in Evidence for the Resurrection (Ventura: Regal, 2009), iv.