Noah, Baptism, and Hell - 1 Peter 3:18-22

Question
Does baptism save us? And did Jesus preach in hell? - 1 Peter 3:18-21
Answer

Thanks for your questions?

(1) Baptism does save, not by literally washing one's sins away, but as Peter says, through "a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" which is a gift of God alone (Heb 9:14; Jas 1:17; cf. Gen 3:7-8; Rom 2:14-15; 1 Pet 1:3). (2) In addition, Jesus didn't preach the gospel in Hell, but rather he preached the gospel through Noah to unbelievers, presently in Hell, while they were still upon the earth (1 Pet 4:6; 2 Pet 2:5). Let's look at our text.

1 Peter 3:18-22

It is interesting that 1 Peter 3:18-22 forms a chiastic structure (a writing style that uses a unique repetition pattern for clarification and emphasis) contrasting Noah's flood and baptism:

  • A. God (1 Pet 4:18)
    • B. made alive in the spirit (1 Pet 4:18)
      • C. brought safely through water (1 Pet 4:19)

      • C'. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (1 Pet 4:20)
        • a. not as a removal of dirt from the body (1 Pet 4:20)
        • a'. but as an appeal to God for a good conscience (1 Pet 4:20)
    • B'. resurrection (1 Pet 4:21)
  • A'. God (1 Pet 4:22)
Notice C and C' above. This is a major emphasis of our passage - water baptism. In addition, Peter desires to insure we don't miss the point of what true regeneration is all about, so we see another contrast - a and a' and B and B'.

1 Peter 3:18

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.

Christ, who is righteous, took upon himself the sins of his unrighteous people. Christ suffered for his people (Isa 53:1-12). We remember that Peter already mentioned the concept suffering unjustly (see 1 Pet. 2:20-24; 3:14, 17). Now he states that Christ suffered, not for the righteous, but for the unrighteous (Rom 3:23).

Jesus is "the Holy and Righteous One" (Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14; 1 John 2:1, 29). Jesus is righteous, that is, without sin. As Paul writes, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus fulfilled God's demand for justice, paid the penalty that was ours, and offered himself as a sacrifice "to take away the sins of many people" (Heb. 9:28; cf. Isa 53:12). Jesus "was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit." See Romans 1:4; 8:9-11. See WCF 8.2; 8.7; BC 21; HC 16, 37.

The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead (1 Pet. 3:18; Gen. 6:3) saves repentant sinners by grace alone (John 3:1-8; cf. Gen. 6:8; Eph. 2:8-10).

1 Peter 3:19-20

By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

Four main interpretations of have been promoted of 1 Peter 3:19-20:

(1) The section refers to preincarnate preaching (i.e., that Christ preached through Noah [cf. 2 Pet. 2:5] to Noah's wicked contemporaries while they were still alive). He called them to repentance, but they disobeyed and are now imprisoned. The point of Peter's argument would then be the parallel between God's vindication of Noah in a world of unbelievers and his vindication of Christians in similar circumstances. This is the most reasonable interpretation of our passage.

(2) This passage refers to preresurrection preaching (i.e., preaching that occurred between Christ's death and resurrection, during a "descent into hell"). One variation of this view holds that Christ announced his victory and their doom to the spirits of Noah's wicked contemporaries in the place of the dead.

(3) Another version of the preresurrection approach holds that Christ proclaimed the same message to fallen angels, who are often identified with the "sons of God" of Genesis 6:2, 4 (cf. Job 1:6; 2:1), in their place of confinement.

(4) These two verses refer to postresurrection preaching (i.e., Christ proclaimed his victory to fallen angels at the time of his ascension into heaven). The point of the last three interpretations is that just as Jesus was vindicated, so God will vindicate Christians. In no case was Peter suggesting that Christ offered deceased unbelievers an opportunity to receive the gospel and thus be saved.

One should probably agree with Grudem on his interpretation:

19. Taken by itself, the phrase spirits in prison could refer either to human spirits in hell or to fallen angelic spirits in hell. 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6 speak of sinful angels being imprisoned and punished, while Luke 16:23-24 and 2 Peter 2:9 refer to unbelievers who have died and are in a place of punishment. . . . and in every case where it means 'angelic spirit' as well as every case where it means 'human spirit' the context makes it clear what kind of spirit is meant.

20. The spirits in prison are those who formerly did not obey (better: 'disobeyed', since the word has a sense of active rebellion), when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark. These phrases indicate that only human spirits can be intended, for nowhere in the Bible or in Jewish literature outside of the Bible are angels ever said to have disobeyed 'during the building of the ark'. Genesis 6:5-13 clearly emphasizes the human sin, which provoked God to flood the earth in judgment. . . . When God's patience waited in the days of Noah also suggests human, rather than angelic, disobedience. God's patience waited for human beings to repent before bringing the judgment of the flood (this is also a frequent theme in extra-biblical literature), but never is there any hint that fallen angels have a chance to repent - it is only given to sinful human beings (cf. 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 1:6).

But why does Peter refer to 'spirits' if he has in view disobedience by human beings who were not just 'spirits' but bodies as well? This is best explained by understanding the text to mean 'spirits who are now in prison' (i.e. at the time Peter was writing), but who were people on earth at the time of Noah, when Christ was preaching to them. (The NASB translates, 'the spirits now in prison'.) A similar expression is found a few verses later at 1 Pet. 4:6, 'For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead', which is best understood to mean 'the gospel was preached to those who are now dead' (but who were alive when the gospel was preached to them; see discussion below). One can speak the same way in English: 'Queen Elizabeth was born in 1926' is an appropriate statement, even though she was not Queen when she was born - we mean 'She who is now Queen Elizabeth was born in 1926.'

The phrase who formerly did not obey is better translated 'when they formerly disobeyed', thus specifying that this was the time when Christ 'in spirit' preached to these people: i.e. 'when they formerly disobeyed when God's patience was waiting in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark.' Peter elsewhere mentions ideas similar to the thought that Christ 'in spirit' preached through Noah, for in 1 Pet. 1:11 the Spirit of Christ is said to have been active in the prophets of the Old Testament era (cf. 1 Cor. 10:4).

Although Peter does not specifically call Noah a prophet in 2 Peter 2:5, he terms him a 'herald of righteousness', and uses the noun (keryx) which is related to the verb 'preached' (kerysso) in 1 Pet. 3:20.

By saying that Christ went and preached rather than just saying that he 'preached', Peter suggests that Christ did not stay in heaven but 'went' to where people were disobeying, and there preached to them through the lips of Noah. The content of this preaching was not a message of final condemnation . . . or the completion of redemption . . . , but concerned the need to repent and come to God for salvation. This is what Noah would have preached to those around him (even without extra-biblical literature we would draw this conclusion from 2 Pet. 2:4). It is the right message to preach when people are disobeying 'while God's patience is waiting' (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9).

This interpretation is very appropriate to the larger context of 1 Pet. 3:13-22. The parallel between the situation of Noah and the situation of Peters readers is clear at several points:

(1) Noah and his family were a minority surrounded by hostile unbelievers; so are Peter's readers (1 Pet. 3:13-14; 4:4, 12-13).

(2) Noah was righteous in the midst of a wicked world. Peter exhorts his readers to be righteous in the midst of wicked unbelievers (1 Pet. 3:13-14, 16-17; 4:3-4).

(3) Noah witnessed boldly to those around him. Peter encourages his readers to be good witnesses to unbelievers around them (1 Pet. 3:14, 16-17), being willing to suffer, if need be, to bring others to God (just as Christ was willing to suffer and die 'that he might bring us to God', 1 Pet. 3:18).

(4) Noah realized that judgment was soon to come upon the world. Peter reminds his readers that God's judgment is certainly coming, perhaps soon (1 Pet. 4:5, 7; 2 Pet. 3:10).

(5) In the unseen 'spiritual' realm Christ preached through Noah to unbelievers around him. By saying this Peter can remind his readers of the reality of Christ's work in the unseen spiritual realm and the fact that Christ is also in them, empowering their witness and making it spiritually effective (cf. 1 Pet. 1:8, 11, 12, 25; 2:4). Therefore, they should not fear (1 Pet. 3:14) but in their hearts should 'reverence Christ as Lord' and should 'always be prepared' to tell of the hope that is in them (1 Pet. 3:15).

(6) At the time of Noah, God was patiently awaiting repentance from unbelievers, before he brought judgment. So it is in the situation of Peter's readers: God is patiently awaiting repentance from unbelievers (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9) before bringing judgment on the world (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10).

(7) Noah was finally saved, with 'a few' others. Peter thus encourages his readers that, though perhaps few, they too will finally be saved, for Christ has triumphed and has all things subject to him (1 Pet. 3:22; 4:13, 19; 5:10; 2 Pet. 2:9).

This passage, once cleared of misunderstanding, should also function today as an encouragement to us to be bold in our witness (as Noah was), to be confident that, though we may be few, God will certainly save us (as he did Noah), and to remind us that just as certainly as the flood eventually came, so final judgment will certainly come to our world as well, and Christ will ultimately triumph over all the evil in the universe.

1 Peter 3:21

The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If the basis of one's salvation is Christ ("It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ"), what does Peter mean by "baptism that now saves you?" Peter clearly says it saves one "not as a removal of dirt from the body." It is not the physical act which washes dirt from the body that saves a person - in other words, nothing man can do (John 1:13; Rom. 9:16) - but a "clear conscience toward God," which is by grace alone (Heb. 9:14; cf. Prov. 20:27). Describing the conscience, Thomas Watson in Body of Practical Divinity states:

A good conscience has God for its object, it respects his word, will, and worship; and therefore is called, "conscience towards God" (1 Pet. 2:19), as repentance is repentance towards God, and faith is faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ; . . . "conscience of God," which is of God, has God for its author, being implanted in the mind of man by him; it is God's vice-regent [an officer appointed as deputy by and to a sovereign or supreme chief], which acts for him, and under him, and is accountable to him.

Peter was consistent with the other apostles (cf. Eph. 2:8-10) who taught salvation by faith alone (1 Pet. 1:18-19). He was not teaching the (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and in some circles Lutheran, etc.) doctrine of baptismal regeneration (a baptism which "signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one 'can enter the kingdom of God'" - Section 1215 of the CCC).

Baptism is a sign and seal of being in God's covenant (as circumcision was in the Old Covenant - Gen. 17:7-14) in which there are covenant stipulations (see "Covenants in General" below) of both blessings for obedience and cursing for disobedience for both saved and lost. A person in the Old Covenant could be circumcised (Gen 17:26) and yet lost. See "Was Ishmael Saved?" below. The same goes for baptism in the New Covenant (Simon in Acts 8:13-24; Alexander in 2 Tim 4:14, etc.).

Many commentators see a connection between the Old Testament rite of circumcision and the New Testament sacrament of baptism. Peter's wording of "removal of dirt from the body" probably implies that he was thinking about the rite of circumcision. Note that "circumcision" was a command given after Abraham had faith. Circumcision saved nobody. It was a covenant sign. The Old Testament saints were saved the same way New Testament saints are - through the gift of faith alone (Gal 3:8). As Paul says, "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal 3:29). See WCF 27.3; WLC 161, 163, 167; WSC 91; BC 34; HC 69, 72.

1 Peter 3:22

"God's right hand" is the place in the universe of supreme privilege and sovereignty (Eph. 1:20-23; Heb. 1:3). Christ defeated principalities and powers (Col. 2:15), and when Christ ascended to Heaven, he proclaimed victory over the spiritual forces that were at enmity with him (Eph. 2:2; 6:12). In Psalm 110:1, which Jesus applied to himself (Matt. 22:41-46), we read that upon his enthronement, Christ triumphs over his enemies. See WLC 54.

So: (1) Baptism does save, not by literally washing one's sins away, but as Peter says, through "a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" which is a gift of God alone (Heb 9:14; Jas 1:17; cf. Gen 3:7-8; Rom 2:14-15; 1 Pet 1:3). (2) In addition, Jesus didn't preach the gospel in Hell, but rather he preached the gospel through Noah to unbelievers, presently in Hell, while they were still upon the earth (1 Pet 4:6; 2 Pet 2:5).

Related Topics:

Baptism in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2?
Covenants in General
Was Ishmael Saved?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).