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1 Peter 3:18-22 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
18 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 also He went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who had formerly been disobedient when the patience of God was waiting in the days of Noah, while the ark was being constructed, in which a few people, that is, eight souls, were carried safely through the water.
Baptism and a Good Conscience
21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the flesh but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
In the history of interpretation, 1 Peter 3:21, especially as part of 3:18-22, is considered one of the more difficult passages in Scripture (ironically so, since the author in 2 Peter 3:15 complains of Paul having some difficult sections), and has generated a great deal of printed material, not only in commentaries but in many articles, essays and theses. Here we can only do a bare-bones treatment of the subject, but enough, I think, to make a fair argument to answer the question:
“Does the text imply a salvation by water baptism?”
Now, at the outset, let me mention that I have neither the time nor the inclination at this point to deal with the several exegetical difficulties of this text. This essay is specifically focused on the question above.
First, we need to see that Peter’s statements here are in the context of his extended argumentation concerning the place of suffering, and particularly the suffering of persecution in the life of the believer. This is clear from vs. 13-17, in which Peter explains that there are right reasons for suffering persecution, and wrong, the right being as a result of one’s obedience to Christ, and the wrong being for doing evil (vs. 17). Suffering and persecution is one of the themes of First Peter (cf. 1:6-7 as well as 3:13-17), and the author is concerned with the outworking of holiness during such evil times. This is underscored by the verb for “suffer” used in 3:14. It is a form somewhat rare in the Greek New Testament, called the optative, a form used in certain conditions, which often imply probability. It is also in the present tense. Here, the use of this form underscores the likelihood of the suffering, and the present tense underscores the immediacy. We might paraphrase it, “If you happen to suffer [now, which is probable] due to righteousness…”
Peter then follows his statements on “right suffering” in vs. 18-22 with a sentence beginning with hoti, “that,” which here explains the basis for the Christian’s ability to endure the suffering and persecution envisioned. Specifically, his readers are told that “Christ suffered, once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous,” a fact which would have particular meaning in this context since the readers have just been told that suffering for righteousness is the only valid suffering. The contrast here is clear, as is the exemplary nature of Christ’s suffering. “Exemplary” simply means “as an example” and Christ’s suffering certainly sets an example for his followers to imitate. That there is a theological dimension here well beyond the simple exemplary is clear from the actual content of the statement. Christ’s suffering was on believers’ behalf and was designed to lead them to God. Our salvation is fulfilled in Christ and the believer is, in fact, in the presence of God as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ’s sacrifice does have an exemplary element, but this exemplary aspect only makes sense since the believer is, in fact, brought to God through the work of Christ. The emphasis in verse 18 is therefore the reality of the believer’s relationship with God, brought about through the death and resurrection of Christ.
This leads to the Old Testament illustration of this theological reality, Noah. The nature of the spirits in prison and the character of the proclamation to them must await another essay at another time. One clear emphasis that seems beyond dispute, however, is that the salvation of Noah and his family “through water” (Grk., di’ hudatos) is a picture of the believer’s salvation regarding Christ and his work described in vs. 18. This parallel is made explicit in vs. 21-22. The antitype, or fulfillment, to which that Old Testament salvation from the flood pointed toward, is illustrated in baptism. As the water of Noah’s day, normally thought of as the waters of judgment, were actually part of the means of salvation from that very judgment, so baptism is seen as that which characterizes the salvation of the believer. That Baptism is the sign of the reality, however, is shown in Peter’s description of it as a “pledge,” (eperōtēma) of a good conscience toward God. It’s not simply a bath, the putting off external dirt, but it has a reality lent to it by what it represents. The word pledge implies inward faith resulting in and outward expression, that outward expression is baptism itself. Notice that this is “through the resurrection” (di’ anasteōs) a phrase that is parallel to the earlier “through water.” This helps show the proper relationship of baptism to the work of Christ. Baptism is a pledge, which represents the believer’s faith in Christ and the work, which he has accomplished, so that in a sense, baptism can be spoken of as doing the actual saving by way of metonymy. “Metonymy” is a figure of speech in which one object is so closely associated with another that it stands in, so to speak, for that other object. Common examples include “throne” for the king or queen, as in “A decree was issued from the throne today” or “guns” for the army, “Our guns won a great victory on the front.” In this case, baptism is so closely associated with the reality it represents that it stands in for that reality. It is the work of Christ, represented by baptism, which saves us, and not simply the water itself.