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The 'baptism which now saves you':

1st Peter 3:21

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Question: 

Could you please explain 1st Peter 3:21? Also, it's true that all things work for the good for those who love the Lord, right? Sometimes it seems to me that the Lord has my trials mixed up with someone else's. It seems that He never gives me the tests I expect.

Response: 

To take first things first, here is my translation of 1st Peter 3:21:

And it is [just] this true baptism [of the Spirit] which saves you. Not any [literal] washing away of filth from your flesh, but an appeal to God for a clean conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
1st Peter 3:21

The context of this verse is twofold:

    1) Christ's pre-resurrection stay in Hades (specifically, in "Abraham's bosom" or paradise) during which time He made proclamation of His victory to the offending fallen angels of Genesis 6, this proclamation having been accomplished "by means of the Spirit" (v.19), "through which" Holy Spirit He was resurrected (v.18).

    2) The "baptism" of Noah and his family "into the ark" which forms an analogy to our baptism into Christ.

These two ideas/concepts are, admittedly, difficult to connect, but Peter does connect them by linking on the one hand Christ's message of victory given by means of the Spirit to the fallen angels of Genesis 6 now confined to Tartarus in Hades to, on the other hand, that same historical example of Noah and his family being delivered from the Nephilim (fathered by those same fallen angels of Genesis 6; see the link: "The Nephilim"), and saved by their entrance into the ark, which is an analogy to the baptism of the Spirit. Finally, Peter brings the whole period to a conclusion in verse 21 by comparing our salvation through the Spirit's baptism to Christ's resurrection by means of the Spirit in verse 18. This is complicated, I know, so let me give a synopsis of these verses to try and bring the argument out in a more understandable way, keeping in mind that the two-fold main idea here is first the power of the Spirit for deliverance our Lord, our exemplar and Savior and for us, and, second, the Spirit's means of accomplishing this for us, the baptism by which are made one with Christ, which is foreshadowed by the entrance of the righteous into the ark:

v.18: Christ died for us, but was resurrected by the Spirit's power, and

v.19: by the Spirit's power He proclaimed victory to the imprisoned angels,

v.20: who offended when Noah was saved through a symbol of Spirit baptism (the ark),

v.21: just as we are now saved by Spirit baptism through Christ's resurrection.

Verse 21 answers verse 18: as Christ was resurrected through the Spirit, so we are saved by being united to Him in resurrection by the Spirit.

Verse 20 answers verse 19: as Christ was empowered to preach to the disobedient angels in Hades through the Spirit, so the righteous of that day were saved in the ark, a type of Christ in whom we are by the Spirit.

Verse 18 complements verse 19: It is the power of the Spirit that took Christ to Hades, and it is that same power of the Spirit that raised Christ.

Verse 21 complements verse 20: Noah and his family were saved in the ark, a type of being saved by being in Christ through the Spirit, and in the true antitype we are saved by actually being in union with Christ through the Spirit.

Peter needed to add the "Noah argument" to keep this construction parallel, because while both Christ in His humanity and believers are resurrected by the Spirit's power, we can be baptized into Him but not the other way around (so that the "baptism into the ark" is added both for the sake of analogy, and to add a second instance of the Spirit's power working for Him in his humanity, also one which applies only to Him and not to us). This approach also allows Peter to explain the truth about baptism in general and to do so in a delicate way so as to avoid offense. To take the essential argument in reverse (i.e., working backward from verse 21 to verse 18 and expanding the translation to make the issues more understandable), I would paraphrase this section as follows:

Water baptism doesn't save you. No, rather it is the Spirit's baptizing you into Christ following your calling upon God in repentance and in faith in Jesus and His resurrection that saves you as God answers your prayer for a clean conscience before Him: it is repentance and faith that saves you, not any literal washing off of the dirt on your body but the washing of your hearts through repentance and faith, for this is the true baptism, the baptism of the Spirit which follows your repentance and faith. Now the baptism of the Spirit is analogous to the "baptism" that Noah and his family experienced, for they entered the ark as you entered Christ, and they were really saved by this entrance into the ark rather than by the water which destroyed the world, just as you are really saved by your entrance into Christ through the Spirit rather than by any literal water administered in ritual. Now that ark of deliverance was built in the days when certain fallen angels were threatening the faithful, but God removed those offenders, yes, and Jesus has proclaimed to them the victory of His cross through which you have been saved, and He did so through the power of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that three days later resurrected Him, even though He had died for your sins, once and for all, the Just for the unjust, to bring you to God [accomplished through your appeal for a clean conscience and faith in His resurrection and sealed by the Spirit baptizing you into Him].
1st Peter 3:21, 20, 19, 18 [reverse order expanded translation]

Here is a more traditional translation (with some notes to help explain it):

(18) For Christ died once for us on account of our sins, the Righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in [His] flesh, but having been made alive by the Spirit. (19) It was also by means of the Spirit that [Christ] visited the [angelic] spirits in prison (i.e., in Tartarus in the Abyss), and proclaimed [His victory]. (20) [These are the angels who] were disobedient in the days of Noah at the time when God patiently waited (i.e., delayed judgment) while the ark was being built. [Having entered] into this ark [as a sort of baptism "into it"], a [precious] few, specifically, eight people, were brought safe through the water. (21) And it is [this true] baptism [of the Spirit] which saves you (lit. as an "antitype" or analogy to the ark's bringing of "salvation through water": just as they were saved by being "baptized" into the ark, we are saved by being baptized into Christ). Not any [literal] washing away of filth from your flesh, but an appeal to God for a clean conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (i.e., repentance and faith result in Spirit baptism, union with Christ and resultant salvation).
1st Peter 3:18-21

To put it into a "nutshell", these verses make the following points: 1) it is Christ's sacrifice which is the key to salvation; 2) that sacrifice is appropriated for salvation by repentance and faith in Him and His resurrection; 3) that salvation is sealed by the Spirit's baptism; 4) it is the baptism of the Spirit that is important in this process, not water baptism; 5) water baptism merely removes literal dirt, but the Spirit's baptism makes us one with Christ; 6) Noah's ark gives us an analogy of this, for just as he went into the ark by faith (a kind of "baptism") and was saved "in it", so we go into Christ by faith through the Spirit's baptism and are saved "in Him". This is Peter's equivalent to Paul's 1st Corinthians 1:17 ("For Christ did not send me to baptize"), and with an appropriate explanation: water baptism doesn't accomplish anything - it is the Spirit's baptism that is the key. One of the problems commentators, interpreters and people in general have had with understanding this passage is the failure to understand that the way the Bible uses baptizo is very often NOT one of merely dipping into water. For example, Paul does something very similar to Peter here at 1st Corinthians 10:2 where he says that all the Israelites were "baptized into Moses" - clearly no water there, rather they were "in Moses" (i.e., God considered them like Moses and delivered them in spite of their unworthiness, just as we are delivered in Christ when God sees Him instead of our unworthiness). Failure to see that the Bible uses "baptism" much more often in the figurative sense in the epistles than in the literal sense has caused many misunderstandings and false interpretations of scripture. Many people can't get beyond the water.

In 1st Peter 4:6, Peter continues this exact same refrain of the power of the Spirit and the importance of the spiritual dimension over that of the physical or literal one. Just as Christ was "put to death in the flesh" but "made alive by the Spirit", so God's first and best desire for all mankind is that they will come to realize in this physical life ("according to men") that they stand condemned before Him "in the flesh", in order that they may have eternal life ("according to God") "by the Spirit".

As to your question about personal testing, I want to encourage you to continue in the Lord with this same spirit of dedicated searching of His Word evidenced in your desire to understand this scripture. I believe that it is true that those who are lackadaisical about their relationship with Him are less likely to come in for intensified attack by the adversary. In the case of believers who are truly walking up the road to Zion, the road of growth and production for Christ, very often the testing and trials are not originated by God but are permissively allowed by Him to demonstrate such a person's faith and the depth of their faithfulness. Job, after all, was being paid the highest possible divine compliment in the special and unique testing he had to undergo. This is, admittedly, a difficult perspective when we are under the gun, but it is also an important one. We are being watched by angels and accompanied in our journey at all times by Our Lord. He knows what we are suffering through and would not allow it if it were not somehow a part of His plan. We lack the vision, earthly creatures that we are, to see what the exact purpose is for these sometimes seemingly counter-productive trials, just as Job did (and eventually even he lost patience). But God has it all planned out. As I look back on my life, almost nothing has turned out the way I expected. But God has always been faithful and has always brought me safely through the fire (even when I was expecting water) and through the water (even when I was expecting fire). I am happy to be able to say that on a number of important occasions (would that it were every occasion) I did trust Him and was blessed to experience His comfort and a confidence in His deliverance even before it was clear just exactly how He was going to effect that deliverance (or when). My hope and prayer for you is that through His Word and the power of His Spirit you will also continue to be comforted and strengthened in the same way. May God grant you rapid and blessed deliverance in Him through whom we have indeed been delivered from this world and its mortal consequences, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

We will shout for joy when you are victorious and lift up our banner in the Name of our God!
Psalm 20:5

Please also see the following links:

Baptism: Water and Spirit.

Baptism: Water and Spirit II

Baptism and following Jesus

Is baptism necessary for salvation?

Is water baptism required for Christians today?

Foot-washing, Bitter Herbs, Baptism, and Borrowed Faith.

The baptism of the Holy Spirit as distinct from speaking in tongues.

An Extended Conversation about the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Sin, Baptism, and the Book of Revelation.

Baptism and Salvation

Does baptism play a role in being born again?

Yours in Jesus Christ, our loving and faithful Savior,

Bob L.


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