Read: 1 Pet. 3:18–22
I want to draw attention to Peter’s unique — striking, in fact — teaching on baptism. I’ve preached many, many times at our church about baptism, but somehow I think this is first time I’ve addressed this passage, which is a very important one.
Peter has been addressing the topic of suffering in the Christian life and he offers our Lord as an example (vv. 17–18). He talks about how we need to answer respectfully those who persecute us (v. 15), and how in all things we maintain a pure conscience. It’s quite interesting how Peter, like Paul (Ac. 23:1; 24:16; 2 Tim. 1:3), was so concerned with a good conscience (vv. 16, 21). This is a topic we hear almost nothing about today, and it occupied a lot more of the thoughts of the biblical writers than it does ours.
But I want us to look at the odd statement Peter makes in v. 21. He’s just been talking about Jesus’ atoning death and bodily resurrection (v. 18). He makes a fascinating point in vv. 19–20, that Jesus in the spirit preached to the sinners in Noah’s day. This passage has been sometimes misunderstood to be saying that Jesus did the preaching when (or just before) he was resurrected. But that’s not the point at all. Peter is saying that the sinners from Noah’s time who are now in prison (he means waiting the Final Judgment) are the same ones Jesus preached to in Noah’s day. He means that God’s Son was at work in Noah’s preaching (Gen. 6:3; 2 Pet. 2:4–5). Jesus was at work in Noah preaching to the wicked antediluvians, and God was very patient with them, but finally he unleashed his fury (v. 20).
And then he makes a remarkable statement — “baptism corresponds to this [event].” Literally he says baptism is an antitype — it’s the fulfillment of the type that God was laying out in the OT. In other words, the floodwaters of Noah’s day were the type to which baptism would one day correspond.
Of all the OT uses of water (there are many), why did Peter select this one? The reason is that this example of water teaches something vital about baptism.
It’s simply this. Noah’s floodwaters that judged the world saved the righteous. This is quite how Peter expresses it. Noah’s family was “brought safely through water” (v. 20), like the water of baptism that now saves us. These are the same floodwaters that drowned the wicked.
Peter’s point is that the waters of baptism are both judgmental and salvatory. Or, baptism both judges and saves. The same water. How is this?
We often don’t think about the fact that baptism is an act of judgment on the world. How is this? In several ways, but I’ll mention just one. Baptism a mark of covenant exclusion, not just inclusion, but exclusion. Only those to whom the Gospel promises apply may be baptized.
If a mother phones me and asks if we can baptize her daughter, even though she herself isn’t a Christian and doesn’t want to be, we’ll politely refuse. Baptism is for Christians.
Years ago the perverse rock star Madonna had her daughter baptized. Somebody asked her how she could do this since she wasn’t a faithful Catholic. She replied that she didn’t have to believe the doctrines of the church in order to appreciate its rituals.
But baptism isn’t chiefly a ritual, although it can degenerate into that. Baptism is the visible act of God’s taking a person out of the sinful world and placing him into Jesus’ body (1 Cor. 12:13). Baptism is the visible act that corresponds to the invisible work of God in the heart of a man, woman or child.
When that happens, baptism visibly excludes everybody who isn’t baptized — everybody who stands outside Jesus Christ — they stand, as it were, in the floodwaters of God’s judgment.
Of course, God alone knows who is invisibly excluded; only he sees the human heart. But baptism isn’t about seeing the human heart. It’s about seeing the human body with God’s mark of ownership on it. And it’s about recognizing that anybody that’s not baptized stands outside God’s saving covenant dealings — that is, they stand under judgment.
The same floodwaters of Noah that were carrying the ark away from judgment were drowning sinners in judgment.
Peter says that baptism saves us (v. 21). If somebody says, “Baptism doesn’t save,” he is contradicting the inspired Word of God. But we have to ask, “In what sense does baptism save?” Peter right away says, “[N]ot as a removal of dirt from the body.” We know that water does this — that’s why we bathe in water. But Peter is saying, “Baptism doesn’t wash away our sins, like water washes our body, though it might picture that fact.” No, baptism saves us by allowing us to stand in good conscience before God because of what Jesus has done for us on the Cross (v. 18). We can be bold, our sins don’t accuse us any more, we stand with an open face (good conscience) before God, because we are righteous in his sight. We are justified. Jesus has taken away our sin.
This is critical, for it shows us that baptism is a judicial act. This is why there’s no baptismal regeneration, but there is baptismal declaration. Baptism declares publicly who belongs to God.
That’s why v. 18 says, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” We can’t be brought into God’s presence as sinful people. God is holy. But God leveled his judgment on his Son, who bore our sins, “the righteous for the unrighteous.” By his suffering on the cross, he made us holy so that we can stand with a good conscience, judicially, before God.
Now think about Noah’s floodwaters again. The very same waters that judged the world carried Noah and his family to safety. Think with me: the very judgment on Jesus that was God’s flood of wrath on him carried us to safety. It was the same judgment. Baptism signifies God’s judgment on the world, including when Jesus perished with the world on the Cross.
In the Bible, God’s judgment and salvation almost always go together, and never more than at the Cross. God judged Jesus on the Cross, and that judgment brought us salvation — just like the floodwaters that judged Noah’s contemporaries carried Noah and his family away from God’s judgment in the ark. The same water that drowns can also support. The same water that kills can also rescue. Because Jesus perished in the flood of God’s judgment, we are carried by those waters to safety.
There’s no magic in the water of baptism. But that water signs and seals our salvation (Rom. 4:11).
In baptism, we are witnessing judgment and salvation. Both. We are witnessing God’s judgment on the world, his exclusion of all those who haven’t placed their faith in Jesus Christ — all those outside the ark of safety; and we’re witnessing the external act of God’s wiping away of our sin by the judgment he leveled on Jesus — we are witnessing an act of covenant inclusion — in the case of children, the little lambs being placed in the ark.
This is why we can rejoice with these lambs today — God’s chosen ones, that he places in his ark of safety.