In light of the recent press surrounding the film ”Noah “, starring Russell Crowe, I would like to take a look at a verse about this Biblical patriarch that many Christians tend to shy away from (perhaps in a way that some readers may have flinched at the title of this article). It is kind of odd if you think about it. The story of “Noah’s Ark” is one of the most popular children’s stories of all time. Yet, if we as parents were reading through First Peter with our children, we might read quickly through the verse in chapter three about Noah in hopes that they would not ask us any challenging questions.
…while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (1 Peter 3:20-21 ESV)
From an impartial reading of this passage we see that it is referring to water baptism. Because of this it presents a challenge. Let me provide an example to illustrate.
Just imagine you and one of your co-workers are engaged in the following casual conversation around the water-cooler at the office:
Co-worker: Hey, have you checked out that new gladiator-flood movie, Noah?
You: Oh yeah. Pretty cool flick. I don’t know how they ever convinced Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins to do a movie about a Bible story.
Co-worker: Well, I saw the movie and then thought I’d read the version from the Bible… Pretty interesting.
You: Which part?
Co-worker: The part that said I was saved.
You: What do you mean?
Co-worker: Well, I was baptized as an infant…after that my family never really went to church, but I do remember I was baptized…so, at least I know I am saved.
You: Wait a minute… That is not really what it means. You are not saved just because you are baptized.
Co-worker: Well, that’s what it said…. “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you”. Didn’t you tell me one time that you think the Bible is the perfect, inerrant word of God?
You: Well, uh…yes I did. But, that’s different. It doesn’t really save you. That’s not what Peter means.
Co-worker: So, it should say, “baptism saves you, but it doesn’t really save you”?
You: Well, kind of, but not exactly.
Co-worker: Ok, go on. Explain.
You: Why don’t we just talk about the movie instead.
The good news is, you probably won’t have to engage in this discussion this week. The bad news is that most of us struggle when it comes to texts like this one in First Peter.
Now, I am not saying such passages are not difficult. What I will say is that it is time for us to stop our semantic contortions around such texts. It is time that we become more in touch with the understanding of covenant in scripture. When we do this, it will keep us from distorting the text and ending up like the character above whose covenant confusion puts him at odds with the inspired Word.
In this case specifically it will keep us from the dangerous error of believing that the waters of baptism render us regenerate, such that we are secured a place with God for all eternity in heaven. Our ticket to heaven does not get issued as a result of any outward washing. Period. At the same time it will give proper weight to an essential understanding of how God relates to his people.
Now, from the text we see that something does actually change at baptism. What changes is our status before God. (If at this point you are assuming I mean “elect” status, please re-read the paragraph above at least three more times. Then read it once more for good measure and resume reading the rest of the article.)
So, what do we mean “status”? Think marriage for a moment. A man before he is married is a single man. He is not a husband. One day, this single man decides to marry his fiancé. In a ceremony, an ordained minister performs the wedding. The couple exchanges vows before God in the presence of witnesses. The minister pronounces them husband and wife.
Tell me, did this man’s status change before God? Of course it did. He is now a husband. And as a husband he has different obligations than he did as a single man. He is bound in covenant on earth. He underwent a change in covenant status through a ceremony.
To understand this change in standing in regard to baptism, let’s go back to where we started – Noah.
Prior to Noah we see that Adam was in covenant with God. We know this because scripture tells us this in Hosea 6:7. It says that Adam transgressed the covenant. With this came the fall of man. Adam could no longer remain in communion with God. But God in His grace inaugurated a covenant to “save his people from their sins”. This inauguration in the garden in Genesis 3:15 is followed by a series of covenants in history that find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. We see the picture of Christ clearly in God’s covenant with Noah and the story of the flood.
The story of Noah points to this reality. Noah was enclosed in the ark while the rest of creation perished. Joel McDurmon puts it well in his new book, Noah: The True Story,
“After some time a dove is sent out – an image of the Spirit hovering over the face of the deep – until dry land appears. A new creation is born. Noah emerges from the enclosed Ark (a tomb) – an image of resurrection. Noah was like a new Adam in a new creation.”(1)
This is a clear picture pointing us directly to Jesus Christ. When Christ comes on the scene in the gospels he prophesies about the destruction of the Old Covenant order. We see this in his prediction of the destruction of the old temple and the rebuilding of the New Temple in three days. He was prophesying his own resurrection. He brings about the new covenant order. He destroys the old creation and brings about the new creation.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV)
This is the gospel. Although I would not agree with Ken Ham’s endorsement of Ray Comfort’s new film on Noah, I do like a recent statement Ham made regarding the Bible story.
“I believe the ark is the greatest reminder of the Gospel,” he said. “As Noah and his family had to go through a door to be saved, we need to go through a door to be saved. So it’s a reminder of Jesus. He said, ‘I am the door.’(2)
Now, don’t miss this. Noah indeed went through a door. So do we when we enter the covenant community on earth. Baptism is the authorized entry rite into the Body of Christ in history. This brings us to an understanding of covenant boundaries and to the climax of the discussion as it relates to 1 Peter 3:20-21.
Inside the ark there is life. Outside the ark there is death.
But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. (Genesis 6:18-19 ESV)
Let me state it again. Inside the ark there is life. Outside the ark there is death. This is a picture of Christ. God’s true saints will persevere through the same faith that Noah possessed.
By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. (Hebrews 11:7 ESV)
If we are baptized but do not have true faith, it does not follow that we were “not really baptized”. Just because a married man is unfaithful to his wife, it does not mean that he was “never really married”. He is married. It is a covenant reality. Baptism is a covenant reality. We should not seek to go beyond this visible, covenant relationship to a place reserved for God. We don’t possess eyes to see the hearts of men to determine their eternal status before the Almighty. Quite frankly, we should rid ourselves of these sinful tendencies.
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV)
We possess the revelation of God; that is, his authoritative Word as revealed in Scripture. We can witness a man’s confession and deeds that reflect his confession. We cannot see the heart.
It is this understanding of visible covenant boundaries in history that sheds light on a “baptism that saves us” or sets us apart in Christ’s covenant community. This same understanding drives us to see Christ in the story of Noah. Noah was saved from the destruction of those who would not follow the true and living God. His faith brought him and his family across a boundary into a covenant sphere teeming with life.
Cling to Christ… He is the life.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, (John 11:25 ESV)
- McDurmon, Joel. Noah: The True Story (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2014), 49.(↩)