Two quick questions came in this week. I decided to let them jump the queue as I work on a long, involved answer to another set of questions that came in over the last month.
Is Matthew 6:33 more of a promise to humanity than to an individual person? I would think there are plenty of people who seek God’s kingdom and do not have food, clothing, shelter.
There are many passages such as this which can cause people’s faith to shipwreck when their experiences do not match with the promise… but is it a promise?
As Jesus was God in the flesh, he used language the same way we use it. He used generalities, synecdoche, parable, etc. We do the same thing all the time. See? I just did it – “all the time.” The fact is that I spend part of my day sleeping and other parts eating or reading so “all the time” isn’t technically true, but nobody read it that way so it wasn’t a lie, either. Jesus was saying (read vv.31-32 as well) that the pursuit of worldly provisions and earthly goods cannot be our primary focus. We are to be focused on the kingdom of God. Is that a 24/7 (or, since they observed the Sabbath, perhaps a 24/6) task? Of course not. Nothing is.
He was making a point and he made it using language the way we use it. Generally speaking, when someone is focused on pursuing the things of God, he finds that he has enough food and clothes to survive. I just got an email from a missionary in Angola this morning. He lives in a building that has sewage seeping from the walls, where his electricity is sometimes turned off for weeks at a time, and where he has to haul his human waste down three floors in a bucket and pour it in the street. Yet… he has food and clothing and while he could use some more money to help repair a vehicle, he is content. That is a rather extreme example, but it should suffice – even when things are bad, we are usually fed and clothed.
Is it always true? No. Jesus wasn’t making a legal document and using legal speech; he was speaking as we do every day. (See that? I did it again)
One more thing needs to be factored in here: the context in which Jesus was speaking. Not the scriptural context but the historical and sociological context. He was speaking in a closed community that was run by religious rules. The poor were taken care of by the community and, in fact, that was a major component of their identity: “we are the people who care for each other and watch out for the poor.” When they didn’t, Jesus went after them and publicly chided them for their failure. Would Jesus have made such a statement after the cross when the gospel was being spread into communities where caring for your neighbor was not an assumed part of your everyday duties? Maybe not – the writer of Hebrews certainly indicates that following Jesus can lead to earthly tragedy (see Hebrews 11) and death.
Remember: allow Jesus to use language as we do and remember in what community and culture he spoke and lived.
Can I get your perspective on the following verse?
“If the dead will not be raised, what point is there in people being baptized for those who are dead? Why do it unless the dead will someday rise again?” Help a sister out!
This is considered the most difficult passage in the entire book of First Corinthians (1st Cor. 15:29). Others have said it is the most obscure verse in the entire New Testament. Thiselton says there are 40 different explanations for this verse but Ralph Martin says he has found 200 different ones! Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?
Keep some things in mind when we look at this: these were early days in the faith. Some in Corinth were polygamists and it seems clear that some of them believed that there were many gods out there (but that God was the greatest god). When we carefully read chapter 15 it seems clear that most believed in the resurrection of the dead but others did not. Those who did not still believed in life after death but that life was spiritual only (and, perhaps, impersonal as in our spirits joining into one big spirit). Regardless of what we would like, here are the facts: there were LOTS of local customs and beliefs in Corinth that are lost to us and we aren’t going to be able to reconstruct them by reading this chapter.
The tenses of the verbs used by Paul makes it clear that there was a local practice of baptizing for the dead. What that meant and whether it originated in paganism or in a group of Christians is unknown. Some think they were being baptized for deceased believers – those who died before the institution of baptism in the church or those who died before they were able to be baptized (many postponed baptism until the last minute out of fear they would be baptized and then sin and fall away. They did not understand repentance or grace. And, predictably, postponing baptism until the last minute means a good percentage are going to time it wrong and die first).
Some theologians believe that Christians were being baptized for those they loved who had died outside of Christ. The thinking is that some in Corinth believed that their power to forgive sins (Jesus said that if we forgive people their sins, they will be forgiven) would still be there after the object of their forgiveness was dead. There is no historical evidence for this belief in Corinth, but we don’t have much evidence about local beliefs of any kind there. Mormons baptize for the dead to save them and they also practice a spiritual form of marriage so that they will be married to this or that (or this AND that) person in heaven. They use this passage to justify their practice though I think they are overreaching by a considerable measure.
It is important to notice something in this passage: Paul mentions it and uses it as an illustration to bolster a point he is making but he never gives any indication that he approves of it nor does he return to it in this book or in any other of his books that survive to this day (at least one and probably two other books written to Corinth did not survive and are known to us only by mentions in the two books that do survive).
To summarize, most theologians will fall into one of a few camps on this passage. 1) Vicarious baptism – being baptized to improve the status of someone who is already dead. Marcionites – an early heretical sect – did this but most Christians would have looked at such a thing as odd and ineffective. 2) Martyrdom – in this explanation, being baptized means being immersed in dead on behalf of others. In other words, some are giving their lives for the faith in assurance that they will get their lives and bodies back at the resurrection. There is some linguistic support for this but it doesn’t completely satisfy our curiosity about what was going on in Corinth. 3) The phrase “for the dead” refers to the person being baptized. In other words, they were being baptized in their dying bodies because they believed they would receive a new body. This strains the language Paul used to the breaking point and I don’t think this explanation helps us. 4) Those being baptized are doing so in order to join the faithful who have already died. So, I might be baptized in order to join my sister – who has already passed – in the afterlife. This doesn’t completely answer the question, however, because joining someone in the afterlife doesn’t seem like a good argument for the resurrection of the body.
We may never know what was going on in Corinth and what Paul was talking about, but we DO know something was going on that Paul could refer to to bolster his argument that the dead are, in fact, raised.