A reader asks concerning three unusual passages involving baptism. What about baptism for the dead (I Cor. 15:29-30)? What of the Samaritans who believed and were baptized but did not receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:5-24)? And what of the 12 disciples of John the Baptist whom Paul required to be rebaptized, who then spoke with tongues and prophesied (Acts 19:1-7)?
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BAPTISM FOR THE DEAD. No one knows for sure exactly what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 15:29-30, but it seems that someone at Corinth was practicing baptism for those who had died already. Paul is arguing for the reality and importance of the resurrection, and he remarks in passing that such a practice would be meaningless unless there is a resurrection. I don’t know any more about it than that.
The Mormons use this text as authority for their practice of “proxy baptism,” in which living members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are baptized on behalf of dead ancestors who are presumed to have died unbaptized. However, it is usually not safe to construct a whole doctrine on one verse, especially if the verse is as obscure and ambiguous as this one.
THE SAMARITANS. This is another example of how God meets people where they are, to make whatever point needs to be made, and that he is not bound by any “order” of events in the process of salvation. The Samaritans and Jews at Jerusalem had been enemies for many years (remember Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4).
To show the Jerusalem apostles that God accepted even the Samaritans, and to show the Samaritans that God chose the Jerusalem Jews as instruments of his salvation, he did not give the Samaritans the Holy Spirit when they believed (as he did the people in Acts 10), or when they were baptized (as he did the people in Acts 2), but only after the Jewish apostles from Jerusalem came in person to lay hands on them and to witness God’s gift of the Spirit to these Samaritans. These Jews and these Samaritans all needed to learn a lesson, so God taught two sets of birds through one encounter.
THE EPHESIAN DOZEN. These folks in Acts 19 had apparently not heard the gospel that Jesus had died for sins and been raised from the dead. They knew only what John the Baptist preached, that the kingdom of heaven was at hand and perhaps that Jesus was the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.
Being still B.C., as it were, in knowledge, they could not yet put their trust in God’s redemptive work accomplished by Jesus. Their baptism was a baptism of John, looking forward to Jesus as Savior, rather than a Great Commission baptism, looking back with faith on Jesus as Savior. God did not give them the Spirit until they knew about Jesus’ finished work and put their faith in that. Christian baptism expresses faith in the atonement which Jesus accomplished. Without such faith, baptism is nothing but a dunking.