1 Peter 3:21-22
Last time we looked at the very difficult passage in 1 Peter 3v18-20 where we read: “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, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 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”.
It’s a passage that Roman Catholics would use to support their mistaken doctrine of purgatory. We didn’t allow ourselves beside tracked by that particular red herring. Rather, we did our best to work out what the passage means and concluded that it’s actually saying that through Jesus’ death on the cross, although His body died, His spirit was made even more alive. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15v45 Jesus “became a life-giving spirit” in that His gospel, with its power to give new life and save, became a reality through His work on the cross. As such, He then “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison”. We worked out that that meant that He then proclaimed the gospel of liberty to sinners. He did that and continues to do so through the witness and preaching of His church upon which He has poured the Holy Spirit.
Moving on from there the passage continues to be quite difficult to understand. We read in v21-22: “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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him”.
That passage is clearly about baptism and it is sometimes used to support another false doctrine. That doctrine is known as “baptismal regeneration” and it is the teaching, held by Roman Catholicism and some others, that baptism is necessary for salvation because they maintain that it is the means of regeneration. If that is so, administering baptism almost mechanically bestows saving grace upon people, in which case, we don’t need to preach the gospel and encourage people to come to faith in Christ. We just need to get them dunked and that’s job done!
Let’s see what Peter has to say about baptism. In verse 21 we can identify two basic points about baptism. Firstly, we see Peter presents “Baptism Exemplified” and then we see him present “Baptism Explained”. So, let’s start by looking at what Peter had to say about:
We see that because verse 21 begins, in the ESV, by saying “Baptism, which corresponds to this”. The NIV has “and this water symbolises baptism” but the word “water” is not actually in the Greek text and rather than “this symbolises baptism” the text actually says “baptism is symbolised by this”. The idea is that baptism has been pre-figured by something. There has already been an example of something similar. Clearly, in saying “Baptism, which corresponds to this” or “this symbolises baptism” Peter is referring back to what he’d just said in the previous verse. He’d been talking about the days of Noah and the ark “in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water”. What is the correspondence or connection between baptism and what happened then? Some would be quick to say that the connection is “water”. That seems to be the obvious common factor and it’s what the NIV suggests. However, if you give it a moment’s thought you’ll quickly realise that that doesn’t actually make very good sense. Although baptism and the flood both involve water, there isn’t really a good correspondence between baptism and the water of the flood. Why do I say that? Well, Peter is going to say that “Baptism …….. now saves you”. We’ll think about the sense in which that is true in a while but, for now, it’s difficult to see any sense in which the water of the flood saved Noah and his companions. The fact is that the flood was sent as God’s judgement upon the sinful people of Noah’s day. It was sent to destroy them and that’s exactly what it did. The fact that Noah and his companions were saved from the flood certainly wasn’t because of the water. The water didn’t save them. Rather, that’s what they were saved from. What saved them was the ark that God provided. So, in saying that they “were brought safely through water”, Peter wasn’t saying that they were saved by means of the water. He was saying that, as a result of being in the ark, they came safely through the turbulent, destructive water of judgement. So, they “were brought safely through water” or “saved through water”. You could think of it in terms of being saved from the water by means of the ark that God provided.
Of course, baptism involves passing through water, so, it seems to me that the point of correspondence between baptism and what happened in Noah’s day is the idea of being “brought safely through water” or “saved through water” by means of something else. Now, of course, the water that is used in baptism isn’t actually dangerous or destructive. It’s clean, calm water. At worst, it might be a bit too cold for comfort. But, by relating baptism to what happened at the time of the flood, Peter is saying, maybe among other things, that the water in baptism represents the judgement and punishment that we deserve as sinners. Baptism itself then represents being saved from that judgement and punishment.
So, with that example as helpful background, let us go on to look at what Peter had to say about:
According to one commentator: “1 Peter 3:21 is the nearest approach to a definition of baptism that the New Testament affords”. Peter’s explanation of baptism is given in the words: “Baptism 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”.
Now the sentence construction there is such that it’s very easy to miss the thrust of what is actually being said. The words “not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience” are really in parenthesis. That’s not to say that they aren’t important but they are an aside. They are in addition to the main thrust. They are providing clarification. So, if you take those words away for a moment the main thrust of what Peter is saying becomes much more evident. That is: “Baptism now saves you ….. through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”.
Firstly, notice that Peter says: “Baptism now saves you”. So, this is personal. His readers were believers in Christ. As such they were saved and they had been baptised. This isn’t just theoretical. Peter is referring to their own experience.
Secondly, let’s make sure that we don’t overlook that little word “now”. It would have made perfectly good sense had Peter have said “Baptism saves you ….. through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” but he said “Baptism now saves you ….. through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. Why did he make a point of saying that? You might think that he just means in his day and our day rather than in Noah’s day but the point is that there is a huge difference between now and then. In Noah’s day, God’s judgement took the form of sinful people being cast out of His presence by means of the physical destruction inflicted by the flood. Noah and his companions “were brought safely through water” or “saved through water” because they were saved from that physical destruction by means of a physical ark that God provided. Now, that physical destruction was a foreshadowing of the eternal judgement to come and no mere boat will save anyone from that. The point is that there is now something that can save from that judgement to come. Back in verse 18 Peter said: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God”. You see, Jesus has now suffered in our place for our sins to “bring us to God”. He is our ark who can bring us safely out of judgement. His resurrection is the proof and vindication of what He has done. It demonstrates that He has come through judgement safely and, because He did that in our place and on our behalf, we are in Him just as Noah and his companions were in the ark and we are brought safely out of judgement and back to God just as surely as Noah and his companions “were brought safely through water”.
So, be in no doubt, it isn’t baptism itself that saves. It’s Christ who saves us through His death on the cross. Paul alludes to baptism in Colossians 2v12-15 where he says: “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him”. You see, baptism represents our being in Christ. It’s not baptism that saves. We’re saved by being in Christ in His death and resurrection. It’s “through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead”. We see that “God made us alive together with him”. We see that God has “forgiven us all our trespasses” because Christ bore them on the cross for us. Our salvation is entirely God’s doing through the work of Christ.
That being the case, in what sense is it true to say that “Baptism now saves you”? How does it work? What is the connection between being baptised and being saved through the resurrection of Jesus? Well, Peter explains that by means of those words in parenthesis and he’s careful to make it absolutely clear by means of a contrast. You’ll see those words “not” and “but”. He shows how it doesn’t work as well as how it does work to make absolutely sure that there’s no room for misunderstanding.
So, firstly, he says that it’s “not as a removal of dirt from the body”. The removal of dirt from the body is the natural effect of being immersed in water but Peter is saying that that is not the point of what’s going on in baptism. That immediately tells us that there is nothing physical that is having an effect. In the case of Noah and the others they “were brought safely through water” by being physically present in a physical ark but the physical act of being baptised does not have a similar effect. As an aside it’s worth noting that, although the mode of baptism isn’t particularly the focus of attention here, it does seem to suggest that Peter was thinking in terms of baptism being by immersion. The sprinkling of a few drops of water would hardly bring the idea of the “removal of dirt from the body” to mind.
It’s interesting to note that the Greek word that has been translated as “body” here is “sarx”. Now that word is usually translated as “flesh” and it speaks of the fallen, corrupted human nature. So, Peter is not only saying that baptism is not about producing physical cleansing. He’s saying that it doesn’t produce moral or spiritual cleansing either. Being baptised doesn’t magically bring about a moral transformation. Peter is really saying that baptism is neither mechanical nor mystical.
So, what is baptism about then? How are we to understand what’s going on? Well, Peter goes on to say: “but as an appeal to God for a good conscience”. The NIV translates it as: “the pledge of a clear conscience towards God”. Clearly, the words “appeal” and “pledge” have quite different meanings. If the word is “appeal” it would mean “ask”, “request” or could even be as strong as “demand”. In that case, it would speak of our need and dependence and placing our confidence in someone else. If the word is “pledge” it would mean something like “promise” or “commitment”. In that case, it would speak our confidence in ourselves to deliver. The Greek word in question could have either of those two meanings in ancient Greek but it only occurs on this one occasion in the New Testament so we can’t look to other New Testament usage to help us. How are we to ascertain which meaning Peter intended? To do so, we need to consider what is either being appealed for or pledged. We see that to be “a good conscience” or “a clear conscience towards God”. That’s the idea of being able to stand before God without shame and without fear. It’s the idea of being confident that we are acceptable to Him.
Once you see that, the intended sense becomes obvious, doesn’t it? We can’t promise God that we’ll be worthy. We can’t promise to love, honour, obey and serve Him with all our hearts, minds and souls as we should. It’s hard to imagine a promise that would be more rash and deluded. No, we must appeal to Him. We must ask Him to give us the “good conscience” that He looks for and that we need. The wonderful thing is that although we fall so helplessly short of what He requires, we don’t have to “appeal to God for a good conscience” in a sort of panicky desperation. Sometimes, when someone has been found guilty of a crime they’ll go on to the Court of Appeal. To do that there has to be a basis for that appeal such as an alleged irregularity in the original trial or some new evidence having since come to light. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the appeal will succeed. The verdict could go either way so it’s a tense and uncertain situation for the defendant.
We stand guilty before God but we can appeal to Him for a good conscience and we can do so with confidence of a successful outcome. The basis of that appeal is not that there was an irregularity in the original trial because that was conducted perfectly by the book by the judge who is infallible. The basis of that appeal is not that there is new evidence to consider. Any new evidence is every bit as damning as any previous evidence. Yet we can make an appeal with absolute confidence because the basis of the appeal is Jesus and what He has done in dying on the cross for us.
We read in Hebrews 9v14: “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God”. You see, we plead the blood of Christ to purify our consciences.
We read in Hebrews 10v19-23: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful”. What confidence is being expressed there! How come? Because we’ve been cleansed from an evil conscience by the blood of Christ.
He is the perfect and certain ground for appeal. That’s how “Baptism now saves you ….. through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. It’s not because the water is either naturally or supernaturally doing anything. It’s not because of the ritual or ceremony or any words spoken in conjunction with it. It saves solely because it represents an appeal to God on the basis of the saving work of Christ that came to completion when He rose from the dead. To quote John Piper: “Baptism is an outward expression of a spiritual, inward appeal to God for cleansing. In other words, baptism is a way of saying to God: “I trust you to apply the death of Jesus to me for my sins and to bring me through death and judgment into new and everlasting life through the resurrection of Jesus””. From that it follows that baptism can only be for believers. Apart from faith in Christ it is nothing more than an empty, meaningless, outward ritual.
So, baptism saves solely and simply because it is an appeal of faith. Paul said in Romans 10v13: “For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved””. Baptism is such a calling on the Lord. It is an appeal to Him for forgiveness of sin and newness of life on the basis of the work of our risen Saviour. It’s precisely for that reason that baptism is for believers. In the absence of belief and faith in Christ no such appeal is being made to God. So, someone might be immersed in water but it’s not Christian baptism unless it is being done as an outward expression of a personal, Christ dependent “appeal to God for a good conscience”.
We’ll close by briefly looking at verse 22. Having said that “Baptism now saves you ….. through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” Peter goes on to say of the risen Christ: “who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him”. In the context of today’s sermon that might sound a bit like a postscript but in the context of the chapter it provides a glorious climax. It’s a grand finale.
You sometimes hear the question asked “Where are they now?” Almost invariably, that question is being asked of people who were once famous and the answer to the question is often that they are no longer anywhere special. They’ve returned to obscurity. They’ve had their moment of fame but in most cases their lives are now quite ordinary and mundane. In some cases, their lives are even quite sad or tragic. The man Christ Jesus is very much the opposite of that familiar pattern. Although He was popular in some quarters for a while, His life on Earth is really best summed up in the words “He was despised and rejected”. He was mocked. He was mistrusted. He was falsely accused. He was abused. His life was a life of suffering that led to His death on the cross. If the rich and famous can fall into obscurity where would you expect the likes of Him to be? Peter has told us that Jesus has risen from the dead but “Where is Jesus now?” Well, Peter answers that question by saying that He “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him”. There we see His place, His position and His power.
What do we see about His place? Well, we see that He “has gone into heaven”. He’s returned to the glory from which He came. He’d prayed in John 17v5: “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed”. That prayer has been answered. He is, once again, in the presence of the Father.
In addition to that we see something about His position in the presence of the Father. Peter says that He “is at the right hand of God”. That speaks of a position of honour and authority. It’s not being flippant to say that Jesus is God’s right hand man. That’s not just as an honorary position.
We see that He has real power in occupying that position because Peter speaks of “angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him”. The clear message is that the risen Lord Jesus Christ is now reigning over all things from heaven. His enemies and our enemies are all subject to Him.
The message is: “Jesus suffered terribly but just look at Him now!” Why did He suffer so? Well, verse 18 said that it was so “that he might bring us to God”. Peter is saying that his readers might also have to suffer in this world now but their baptism is their appeal to God to be saved through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yes, that points back to His death on the cross and the forgiveness of sin that it accomplished but it also points forward to His subsequent ascension and all conquering reign. He is now with God on our behalf and will bring us to God as was intended. If we are in Christ, besides having the joy of knowing that we are forgiven, we also have confidence that we will be brought through suffering to share in His victory. In fact, there is a very real sense in which we can think of ourselves as already being there with Him. Does that sound presumptuous? Look at what Paul says in Ephesians 2v4-7: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus”.