Monday, December 08, 2008

Impenetrable Verses in the New Testament

Let's start with this one:
16If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. (1 John 5:16)
(mental gears grinding)

The best I can say is that we can speculate that this is similar to Matthew 7:6, "Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs" That is—there is a degree of apostasy so severe that it is acceptable to view the purveyor as a lost cause. It doesn't mean he is a lost cause—it means that as people with finite time and energy, God recognizes that we have to make judgments. If we are wrong—so be it. God will have mercy upon whom He will have mercy.

I am not at all sure of that interpretation. That is one tough verse. But perhaps not quite as difficult as:
29Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? (1. Cor. 15:29)
Let's be clear on something: there is no satisfying answer to the question of "what does this verse mean?" As far as I can tell, nobody knows what this verse means.

You will recall that in this chapter Paul is addressing the egregious error of denying the Resurrection of Christ and, as it would then follow, denying the future bodily resurrection of the saints.

In verses 12-19, Paul makes the reductio ad absurdum argument: If Christ has not risen, we all are pinheads of biblical proportions. I verses 30-24, Paul argues "why am I enduring pain and suffering if we will not be raised with Christ?" In between, we have Mormon-sounding baptism for the dead.

We note:
  1. We don’t know what the practice is.
  2. Paul does not endorse it.
  3. More importantly, I think, Paul does not condemn it.
Since Paul does not condemn it, wan assume it is not a practice of baptizing the dead in the hopes of bringing salvation to those who missed their opportunity. Why? Because (a) that is contrary to the remaining 99.999% of the New Testament, and, similarly (b) if it were salvific to baptize the dead, the practice would be loudly encouraged. Instead we have only this obscure reference.

I can make a guess—and it is no more than a guess. And it is based on Paul being neutral on the subject.

What if there was a therapeutic practice of baptizing on behalf the dead—perhaps children or the like. It was not meant to affect their eternal state, but as a catharsis for those who lost loved ones who, for whatever reason had not been baptized. Paul may have viewed this practice as a harmless tradition—provided it made no claims beyond being an unusual memorial service. But he latched on it as another plank in his argument: if you don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, why do you bother with this practice?

Who knows? I think this verse will remain a mystery.

As always in such situations, I think of the late Jack Hamilton, who once told me "It's not the things I don't understand in the bible that keep me up at night, it's the things I do understand."

Wise man, Pastor Hamilton. RIP.

Excluding the book of the Revelation, which is impenetrable in its entirety.

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