1 Peter 3:18-22 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
This is our third (and final) week in this portion of Peter’s letter. The bookends (vs.18 and 22) are as clear and glorious as any passages in the letter. The first half of v.18 is a remarkable summary of the good news of Christianity. Jesus Christ “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” It really doesn’t get much clearer than that. We would all do well to share that with someone today. With equal clarity, v.22 states that Jesus’ story doesn’t end with his sacrificial death. Instead, we find, it continues with his resurrection, ascension into heaven, and all authority over all “angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” If you needed it, there is the source of courage you might need to share v.18.
And yet, as accessible as vs.18 and 22 are, the middle verses are far less so. Last week we considered vs.19-20 and the fact that in them Peter described the total victory of Christ as a means of strengthening his readers for faithfulness in their persecution. This week, then, we’ll consider v.21. Specifically, I want to answer two primary questions. First, why did Peter write about baptism here? And second, what do we learn about the meaning and practice of baptism? In order to answer those questions, we’re going to zoom way, way out before coming back down.
Let’s pray now that God would help us grasp the startling, mysterious, amazing, and persevering reality that you and I can be united with Jesus in his death, resurrection, and righteousness. Let’s also pray that God would remind us of this as we remember our own baptisms and as new Christians are baptized among us.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE LARGER STORY
It’s always the case that to truly understand anything we encounter in life, we need to understand the larger story into which the encounter fits. Let me give you an example from my life. I’ll start with a narrow snippet and gradually get wider. As I do, I think it’ll be easy for you to see how the widened perspective is absolutely crucial to really understanding the opening scene.
At some young age I was, playing a game with a group of friends. At one point I yelled out, “Jesus!” and the closest adult quickly and sharply scolded me for using Jesus’ name in such a disrespectful manner.
With only that you are likely to conclude that I was duly chided. By zooming out just a bit, it only gets worse for me. I was in fact a rather obnoxious kid. It would not have been out of character for me to speak disrespectfully like that. Indeed, I had a reputation for being somewhat of a restless troublemaker.
To broaden the context a bit more though, my friends and I were playing a game in a Sunday school class because, as I remember it, our teacher (who was the adult who scolded me) was waiting on some copies she needed to begin the class. It still doesn’t look very good for me.
To zoom out one more time, the game we were playing was “hangman” and I was excited to be the one who solved it. The word was, of course, “Jesus”. After a hasty explanation we were able to persuade our teacher that we were not, in fact, using the Lord’s name inappropriately and our game was allowed to continue as we waited for our curriculum.
Again, by looking only at the narrow slice of the story that I initially shared (and that the teacher originally experienced) an innocent utterance was easily and understandably mistaken for sin. Indeed, it would have been very difficult to rightly interpret my exclamation without understanding more of the surrounding story.
The same thing is true of every passage in the bible. We must understand its context if we are to truly understand it. Not doing so is far more likely to end in misinterpretation than accuracy.
All of that is to say, in order to understand baptism in general, and Peter’s use of it in particular, we need to first understand how it fits into the larger story. Therefore, believe it or not, that means understanding baptism in 1 Peter 3:21 requires going back to the beginning…before the beginning actually. As a means of answering our two main questions (Why did Peter write about baptism here? And what do we learn about the meaning and practice of baptism?), let’s go there now—back before the beginning.
THE BIG STORY OF BAPTISM
The one big story of the bible (concerning the glory of God in Jesus), inside which baptism fits, is most helpfully summarized by four words: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Let’s quickly consider each.
Eternally existing in three Persons (Father, Son, and Spirit), there is one God who is entirely perfect and glorious beyond measure. As an expression of his creativity and a display of his glory God created the universe. Truly, “in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (Exodus 20:11). His creation and its maintenance are entirely accomplished “by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). God spoke “and [the universe] came to be, he commanded and it stood firm (Psalm 33:9). By his mere word all that has been made has been made. And all of this “for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
Therefore, to this God alone belongs all “glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever” (Jude 25).
Mankind, who alone is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), is the pinnacle of God’s creation. And it is for the expressed purpose of glorifying God and enjoying him forever that man was made in this exalted state. By God’s design, only in God can man be satisfied, for in all existence only God is truly satisfying.
Therefore, to this end, God made a garden for mankind to live in, in perfect peace and harmony and fellowship with God and the rest of his creation. What’s more, God was so kind as to instruct man concerning his place in creation and the means to his everlasting joy.
In the garden God promised to rule over mankind in perfect goodness and wisdom, providing, guiding, strengthening, and keeping mankind as long as mankind rightly acknowledged God as King. God promised to be a covering for his people while they lived according to the good and life-giving rules of God’s glorious kingdom. At the same time, though, God promised death for rebellion (Genesis 2:17).
In short order, having been deceived by a trespassing serpent, Adam and Eve did just that; they chose to defect from God and his kingdom of love, liberty, and life and declare allegiance to a new King and kingdom, one of deceit, destruction, and (ultimately) death. This act was, in the truest and fullest sense, treason. They were, therefore, driven from the Garden and sentenced to death.
Worse still, their treasonous treachery led not only to their own exile and death, but also to the exile and death of all of their kind (1 Corinthians 15:22). In their rebellion Adam and Eve incurred the wrath of God for themselves and all their posterity. No longer God’s willing subjects, knowing only his presence and blessing, mankind became God’s enemies, knowing only futility and struggle.
In spite of their sin, and in spite of the inescapable death it brought upon them, however, God promised to one day send a Redeemer (Genesis 3:15), one who would rescue them from the penalty and effects of their sin.
Until that day, though mankind went on rejecting God’s rule and forgetting his promise, mankind continued to sin to the point that God “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:5-6). Having been made aware of this, and repeatedly offered the chance to repent, mankind chose instead to continue in his rebellion such that God determined to destroy all mankind in a catastrophic, world-wide flood. Mankind’s punishment for his sin was to be immersed, baptized into the waters of death. Out of the entire world, only one man, Noah, and his family hoped in God and were therefore spared.
After the flood, slowly, through Noah and his family, the world was repopulated and again given another chance to give their allegiance to the God who made them and who alone could save and satisfy them. Time and time again God offered the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve the opportunity to return to his good and wise and joyful rule. And yet, just as before, time and time again Adam’s children chose instead to continue in Adam’s treasonous ways, offering themselves to idolatry and sin and therein remaining drowned in the waters of death.
For centuries this continued. God sent leaders, in the form of ordinary men, judges, kings and prophets, in order to call his people back into fellowship with God through trust and obedience. But mankind continued to reject God. Mankind never forgot his love for sin, but God never forgot his promise. Mankind continued in treason and its death while God continued to point to his promised Savior and his life.
One day, however, God the Father sent the One who would break this cycle forever. He sent his only Son to be conceived by the Holy and born of a virgin, as a man, but without sin. He was the savior God promised to send. His name is Jesus.
Unlike the first man (and all who came from him), Jesus lived a perfect life, testifying to the perfect union of his human and divine natures by unprecedented wisdom, teaching, signs, wonders, and miracles. He lived on earth as he’d lived for eternity past: as one in complete and perfect fellowship with the Father and Spirit. His message was an offering to join him in that fellowship.
Willingly and joyfully, Jesus chose to offer his life as a payment for man’s treason. “The righteous [him] for the unrighteous [us] to bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). He lived the life we couldn’t live and died the death we deserved. And the amazing climax of this part of the story is that according to the Father’s glorious plan, all Jesus’ nature and accomplishments are credited to the account of anyone who would hope entirely in him. When place our faith in Jesus the Father unites us with his perfect righteousness, his sacrificial death, his resurrection to everlasting life, and his perfect and everlasting fellowship with God.
In the fullness of time, then, Jesus will come back from heaven, restore the Garden of fellowship, return those who hoped in him to it, and dwell with us in it in perfect fellowship forever.
THE STORY OF BAPTISM IN 1 PETER 3
That’s the larger story, but what does all of that have to do with baptism and why does Peter write about it in 3:21? To answer those questions we need to zoom in a bit further. The message of 1 Peter, as we saw earlier, is a description of Christian faithfulness in the face of exile and persecution.
To this point in the letter Peter’s charge to that end included increased holiness, increased fellowship with other Christians, increased awareness of their identities in Jesus, increased submission to authority (even bad authority), and an increased willingness to bless the very people who were causing their suffering. All of that culminated in the simple explanation, “for it is better to suffer for doing good…than for doing evil” (3:17).
But why is that? “Why is it better to suffer for doing good than evil,” Peter anticipated his readers asking. It is better, he answered, because “Christ also suffered once for sins…that he might bring us to God” (3:18). In other words, Christians who are made to suffer for their faith in Jesus ought to do all the things Peter charged them to do (especially, willingly blessing those who persecuted them), because that’s what Jesus did when he was mistreated for his faithfulness to God. And the amazing result of Jesus’ faithfulness is that all who receive it really are “brought to” God.
But how did Jesus do this? He did it, Peter wrote, by “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (3:18). Jesus willingly endured persecution even to the point of death. Indeed, it was by his death that he paid the wages of sin for all who would receive him.
And here’s where we land this plane…the great symbol of all of this (of all that Jesus accomplished for his people and the means by which we gain access to it) is water baptism. All of this is symbolically displayed every time a Christian is baptized. And all of this, Peter wrote (surprisingly, perhaps), was prefigured in the Flood.
The reason, therefore, that Peter invoked water baptism, in connection with the Flood, in connection with the faithfulness of Jesus was to explain to the suffering saints that the same God who was able to deliver Noah and his family from the waters of death, and the same God who turned Jesus’ suffering into salvation, and the same God who gave all authority in heaven and on earth to Jesus, and the same God whose power united Peter’s readers to Jesus through faith, was actively working to keep them faithful through their persecution and to use their faithfulness to bless others.
Again, baptism was the great symbol of all of this. It was the great reminder of all that God was and accomplished through Jesus for them. And because of that, Peter invoked their baptism as a reminder of God’s great and sufficient strength to endure whatever trial they were in.
THE STORY OF BAPTISM FOR THE CHURCH TODAY
What does this teach us about the actual practice of baptism? Let me suggest four things:
First, it teaches that baptism, which corresponds to the very heart of Christianity (the death and resurrection of Jesus), and has roots ordained by God centuries before the practice began (in the Flood), is an exceedingly important practice for the life of the Church.
Second, it teaches that it is not the physical act of baptism that saves us. It is, instead, the grace of God that baptism represents that saves. It may sound at first like Peter taught otherwise—“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you…”. But Peter is quick to clarify his meaning. “Not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. One commentator (Grudem, 171) paraphrases this by writing, “Baptism now saves you—not the outward physical ceremony of baptism but the inward spiritual reality which baptism represents.” Again, for Peter, baptism does not save anyone. It does not take away a single sin (“not as a removal of dirt from the body”). Instead, it is a remarkable symbol, given by God, as forshadowed in the Flood, that salvation is through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus (“as an appeal to God”). It symbolizes the believer’s union with Jesus in both.
Third, it teaches that the most appropriate mode of baptism is immersion. We must be entirely united with Jesus in his death. In him we die entirely to our sins. Likewise, we must be entirely united with Jesus in his righteousness and resurrection. And again, in him we become fully righteous and come fully back to life. Immersion provides the best picture of this.
And fourth, it teaches that the only appropriate time for baptism is after conversion. If mankind is only united with Jesus as a result of genuine faith in Jesus, which is what baptism symbolizes, then faith must precede baptism.
I said at the beginning that I wanted to answer two main questions: 1) Why did Peter write about baptism in v.21? and 2) What do we learn about the meaning and practice of baptism from this passage?
The simplest answer to the first question is that he did so, once again, because he knew that a proper understanding of baptism would help the Church stand firm in the face of even the most fiery trials. And the simplest answer to the second question is that baptism is a visible representation of a Christian’s invisible, faith-caused union with Jesus and, therefore, faith must precede baptism and immersion is the most appropriate mode.
Let me conclude by answering one more simple question: What, in light of all of this, are we to do? How shall we then live? How might we respond to all that we’ve seen from Peter’s use of baptism? Three things…
Be amazed at the bigness of the gospel. Before the foundation of the world, the gospel was planned (Ephesians 1:4). From the first pages of Scripture the gospel was promised. Throughout the history of creation the gospel was imaged. At the proper time the Gospel was born and secured. And at the fullness of time, the gospel will come to complete goodness. The gospel is the good news that those who hope in Jesus have been chosen, called, regenerated, converted, justified, adopted, sanctified, persevered, and will one day be glorified. The gospel is bigger and better than you and I can possibly imagine. Let’s fight to be properly amazed.
Find strength (as Peter meant us to) to persevere through hardship by remembering your baptism and what it represents. Remember in your suffering that Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that faithfulness is never in vain.
Get baptized. Get baptized because it’s clearly commanded in Scripture. But also, get baptized because in doing so it paints a picture of the bigness of the gospel, blesses the church, strengthens your faith and the faith of the people of God, and testifies to the world that God is real, present, loving, and mighty to save.