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“There is also an antitype which now saves us--baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” – I Peter 3:21
Perhaps no verse in the Bible has been more misused than the one before us. No doubt, billions have been deceived into believing that they were saved by passing through the waters of baptism. One group in particular has made a habit of quoting “baptism doth also now save us” (KJV) while leaving the rest of the passage alone. But, these words and even this whole verse are part of a greater context. To rightly understand I Peter 3:21, we must look at this entire passage.
We are given the main theme of this passage in verse 18. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit”. The remainder of this passage rests on this theme. If we ever stray from this subject, we are missing the main point of this passage. By the work of Jesus alone, we are brought into fellowship with God. Our faith must never be founded on any work, including baptism. Our confidence must always rest in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He suffered for our sins. He paid the debt that we could not pay. He alone is the Way to the Father (John 14:6). He was “put to death in the flesh” to give His people eternal life. Yet, He rose from the dead three days later as proof that His sacrifice for our sins was accepted by God. And surely, we are accepted by God through Him (Ephesians 1:6). This is the great theme of I Peter 3:18-22.
During the interval between His death and resurrection, Jesus went to the lower parts of the earth (Ephesians 4:9) to empty Abraham’s bosom. He informed His elect children that He had finished the work of redemption. He had done what no other was worthy to do – He had paid the sin debt of every one of God’s elect children. He “preached” to these, His children. Let us not forget, there was another place in the lower parts of the earth. This was a place of torment. These two abodes were separated by a great gulf that no one could cross (Luke 16:26). However, they could converse back and forth as we see in the case of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). Jesus not only preached to those in Abraham’s bosom, but also to those in torment. This was not done to give them any so-called “second chance”. This was merely done to proclaim that God’s Word was true, and that He had bruised the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15).
These spirits in torment “…were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared…” (I Peter 3:20). Though Noah had preached faithfully for 120 years that God’s judgment was coming, these had refused to believe. They continued to carry on with normal life without taking any precautions (Matthew 24:38). As a result, when the flood came, it destroyed them all. Since that time, they have been dwelling in the same torment that the rich man found himself in after this life. No doubt, billions alive today will find themselves in just such a place.
Though these “disobedient” souls died in the flood, God miraculously saved Noah and his family. I Peter 3:20 informs us “…a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.” This is an extremely important phrase in this passage. This statement sets up what we are to learn in our text verse. Let it be stated plainly, Noah and his family were not saved by water. A mere casual reading of Genesis will clearly point out that they were saved “through” the water. The water is what Noah and his family was saved from. The flood waters were God’s judgment on that evil age. However, God had given Noah clear instructions on how to escape that judgment. Noah was to build an ark by following a specific design. As we all know, this ark kept Noah and his family safe through the flood waters.
Perhaps we should remind our readers of the subject of this passage at this time. The theme of this passage is the meritorious work of Jesus Christ in the place of His sheep. Why then did God inspire Peter to pen anything about the flood? The answer is simple. The ark is a type of the work of Jesus Christ. As the ark bore the judgment of God while keeping those inside safe, so Christ bore the judgment of God in His body and kept those safe who died in Him. He is our Ark! Praise the Lord, we are safe from the judgment of God in Christ. He died as our Ark, taking all that we deserved while we escape the wrath of God. This is what happened with Noah physically during the flood and this is what happens spiritually for the believer in Christ.
Knowing this, we will now attempt to show the meaning of our text verse. I Peter 3:21 reads, “There is also an antitype which now saves us--baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. One can easily see the importance of keeping this verse in context. If this passage is showing that the work of Christ is sufficient to save all of God’s elect, then verse 21 is clearly not teaching that baptism adds to that work. Knowing the true meaning of this entire passage, we can easily see that many have yanked this verse out of the clear context and misused it.
Baptismal regenerationists have used this verse to teach the exact opposite of what this passage is saying. That said, many good Bible believing Baptists have had difficulties with this passage themselves. Hopefully, we can lay some of those problems to rest in this small treatise.
There are two confusing terms in this passage that need to be explained. The first is, “antitype”. The Greek Word translated thusly is Antitupos. Strong’s defines this word as, “A thing formed after some pattern” or “a thing resembling another, its counterpart”. This word does not mean “another similar type” as is often employed. “Antitype” refers to the counterpart of the previous type. That is, the words that are about to follow are the fulfillment of the type represented in Noah and his family being saved by the Ark. This word is used one other time in the Greek New Testament. In Hebrews 9:24 we read, “For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us”. The word translated “copies” here is the same Greek word as the one we are now considering. In this verse, there are obviously not two types. The temple on earth was a type of the real temple in Heaven. The temple in Heaven was the antitype of the temple on earth. Considering the definition of the Greek word as well as the normal New Testament usage, it seems that “antitype” is, in fact, a good representation of the Greek word Antitupos.
The second confusing term isn’t quite as obvious. Oddly enough, the second confusing term is the word, “baptism”. We often assume that every use of the Greek word baptizo (or similar) is a reference to New Testament water baptism. But, this is not true. The Old Testament saints are said to be “baptized into Moses” (I Corinthians 10:2). Surely this is not a reference to New Testament baptism. More importantly, Jesus spoke of a baptism that He would be baptized with in Matthew 20:22-23. Jesus said, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”. This is definitely not speaking of New Testament water baptism. Jesus was speaking about the judgment of God which He was about to be immersed into. Moreover, He was about to bear this judgment for us as He acted as our Ark. This baptism…this immersion of Christ into the judgment of God…saves us. It is this baptism that I Peter 3:21 speaks of.
With these two confusing terms having been clarified, we can easily see that I Peter 3:21 is not speaking about water baptism at all. The baptism (immersion) that is spoken of is Christ’s immersion as our Ark into the judgment of God. This is, no doubt, the antitype of the previous verse as it relates to Noah’s physical salvation from the flood waters by the ark. Noah’s physical salvation pictured our spiritual salvation. The ark of gopher wood surely pictured the real Ark of God that bore the necessary penalty of our sin. He was immersed into the judgment of God for us.
Some may ask what the meaning of the parenthetical part of the verse is – (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God)”. This part of the passage is further proof that water baptism is not part of this verse. Peter is acknowledging that this “baptism” is nothing external. There is nothing ceremonial in the passage. Water baptism is not under consideration here. A good conscience before God is to be sought in one thing – the meritorious work of the risen Savior. The purchase of God’s elect is proven to be sufficient “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Surely a child of God should follow his Lord in New Testament baptism. Baptism is important. Baptism even pictures the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. But, water baptism is simply not the “immersion” being spoken of in I Peter 3:21. This passage from start to finish is speaking of the work of Jesus Christ as our all-sufficient Savior.
I pray that the Lord uses this short treatise on this ever important passage. If you have ever believed that baptism had a part in saving your soul, I pray you now have been shown differently. If you’ve had a difficult time with this passage, my hope is that you may now be better able to explain it. More than anything, I pray we have all been reminded that the only way into fellowship with the Father is by the work of the Son as He, acting as our Ark, bore the price of our sin as He was immersed into the judgment of God on our behalf.