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, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. I Peter 3:18-20
Do you see that one verse underlined above? That verse has been giving me fits these past few days.
Do you ever do that? Get stuck on a specific verse that for whatever reason you can’t resolve what it means. You see all the different angles but know they can’t all be right.
Does this verse mean that Jesus preached to those who previously died when he died on the cross?
Does it mean that He preached through the Spirit back in the days of Noah through Noah?
Who are the spirits in prison? Are they people or fallen angels?
All these questions I’ve asked, researched, studied, and considered, and while I’m leaning towards the conclusion that this is talking about the Spirit preaching through Christ by avenue of Noah to those people in Noah’s time because it just seems to fit best with the context and overall message, I’m still not totally certain.
But, does it really matter if I totally get it to understand the overall message? In this instance, I don’t think so. While I would love to make complete sense of this single verse — and maybe some day I will — I believe the message goes deeper than just this one verse.
The point is, Peter is writing to Christians who were being terribly persecuted by evil, disobedient men and they needed encouragement and confidence in enduring these trials. What could give them that? Well, among constantly pointing them back to Christ throughout this letter and instructing them on righteous behavior, Peter also gives them an example they could look to from the past that relates to their current condition. And with this example, he gives them an antitype — something in the present that was foreshadowed by a past event. That antitype is baptism, as Peter ties together his previous illustration by saying:
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
But what does baptism have to do with what happened with Noah? Similiarly, they both involve cleansing and saving through water.
In Noah’s time, God cleansed the earth of those who were formerly disobedient by destroying them with the flood waters. While the water rid the earth of evil people, eight souls — Noah, his wife, three sons and their wives — were saved by being kept safe from the catastrophic effects of the water. They were saved through water from death. How? The Spirit revealed to Noah that he needed to build an ark and Noah obeyed. But, without the flood waters, that ark would have just been a big boat with nowhere to go and evil would have continued to prevail. The water had to come to cleanse the earth and save Noah and his family.
With a likeness to the story of Noah, the waters of baptism now saves us. Since baptism is for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38), it cleanses us from our former, evil, disobedient life and resurrects us to a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:3-4). In Noah’s time, those who were formerly disobedient were left in the water to drown for their evil deeds; yet now, in baptism, though we go into the water with our evil deeds, through the resurrection of Christ, we come out of the water free from those deeds thus giving us a good conscience towards God. Being out of the water we become as Noah and his family — saved from the judgment God bestows upon those left under the water.
What a message to hear in a time of persecution!
For Peter to give these saints an illustration where God destroyed evil and saved the righteous would have been comforting. Even better is the power in knowing that saving Noah and his family was a foreshadowing of their own redemption through baptism….
…..the baptism they had obeyed when they chose to believe and follow Jesus (Mark 16:16)
….the baptism that was their own death and resurrection with Christ (Col. 2:11-12)
….the baptism that they could look to to know that their sins are washed away (Acts 22:16)
….the baptism through faith that made them heirs to God’s promises and gives them confidence to endure this current fight until death (Gal. 3:26-29)
….the baptism that saves them (1 Pet. 3:21).
And how is this possible? Because the resurrected Christ reigns at the right hand of God putting all in subjection to Him as Peter continues by saying:
who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him. I Peter 3:22
So, maybe I don’t totally get that one verse in these passages, but what I can get is that Peter is giving these saints a powerful message that is pointing them to the confidence they can have in Christ through baptism because Jesus paved the way. A confidence we can all have if we submit to being saved through water.