Tuesday, July 5, 2016
In history of interpretation, 1 Peter has been regarded as a “baptismal homily” or as a “baptismal liturgy.” In other words, we perhaps are reading either an ancient sermon (homily) setting forth the meaning or significance of baptism. Or, we may find the letter descriptive of a worship format (liturgy) for a baptismal event. Even though both descriptions are surely too narrow, they suggest at the least a significant thematic value for baptism in the letter. This essay will undertake an independent investigation of the significance of baptism for 1 Peter.
Before we start, we should be aware of a theological agenda that has long militated itself against baptism as a salvific act. Although the great Protestant Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, each admitted a role for baptism pursuant to the initial salvation of a convert to Christianity, this role came to be harshly denied later in Protestantism. The greatest error feared within Protestantism is using “works of human merit” to achieve self-righteousness, instead of seeking justification from God through grace. So grace had to be stripped of “works” so as to be achieved by “faith only.” After this theological development, no requirement could be even considered beyond that of simple faith—sola fide. Baptism was thus squeezed out of discussion, and even Scriptural declarations that plainly assign it salvific significance had to be re-interpreted in ways counter to that natural reading and understanding. This hardened theology took place sometime after Luther and Calvin; it certainly had no place historically in New Testament times.
Readers will have to make their own theological determinations about this. I will simply suggest that Biblical salvation is a matter of covenant relationship. And, unapologetically, let it be stated that any relationship requires two active partners, not just One (in Protestantism, an active convert is often taken as a threat to God’s sovereignty in determining matters of salvation or damnation). Salvation is achieved when relationship succeeds between the convert and the Savior. Like any relationship, success is conditional on the efforts of both partners. And God, whose right it is to set the terms that qualify a relationship as successful (and thus, as salvific and saving), established certain requirements that demand action of a prospective convert.
Baptism lies among these relational requirements as the culminating act in the process of conversion, resulting both in forgiveness of sins and in reception of the indwelling Spirit (Acts 2:38). One who performs these required acts attains the prerequisite “relational dynamics” that God desires, enters covenant, and so is saved. Notions of boasting and earning one’s own salvation—which later became the key considerations of hardened Protestantism—should never come into play when one believes, repents from sin, confesses the Lordship of Jesus, or is baptized into His Name. Baptism, thus conceived as a rite of covenant-entrance, has no more “earning power” or “merit” than does a wedding ceremony (another rite of covenant entrance). Something is wrong when Protestants disapprove of a convert simply doing what God commanded and for precisely the reasons set forth by God. Baptism is not a forbidden “work”; it is a required act of salvation.
The Conversionary Setting. The letter of 1 Peter harkens its first readers back to the time of conversion, beginning with the greeting that opens the letter. And the time of conversion is the time of baptism.
Being “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God”, and being “sanctified by the Spirit”, and being “sprinkled with the blood of Jesus Christ” are celebrations for every new Christian convert (1:2). The references to “new birth” (1:3, 23), likewise apply to the newly baptized (cf. John 3:3-5). Peter speaks of evangelistic preaching (1:12, 23). He speaks of faith that saves when believed and of disbelief that brings condemnation (2:7-8). The very theme of 1 Peter is imitating Jesus in His suffering on the Cross, and this is the heart of evangelistic preaching and of the conversion that responds to it. After conversion, among the first necessities is turning away from the old life of flesh and sin lived before Jesus, and replacing it with the Christian alternative. This recurs repeatedly in 1 Peter. And, we find urgings for Christians to form themselves into community, especially in the description of the Christians and of their Lord as “living stones” which are being constructively joined to form a “temple” with the result that those who previously “were not a people” now are (2:1ff.). Conversion is often described in terms of God’s “calling” through the gospel (cf. 2 Thess. 2:14), and Peter describes a calling from darkness into light (2:9). These indications and concerns all point to readers who are still “wet behind the ears” with conversionary experience.
Of course, it is often necessary and helpful in pastoral concern to draw even older Christians back to their conversions. In a similar way, couples now married for many years need to be reminded of the particular vows agreed to at their wedding. So this plainly conversionary emphasis may possibly be directed at Christians not recently converted. Some Christians fail to develop and mature, even after much time has passed, and may need to be addressed as a new convert might (1 Cor. 3:1ff.; Heb. 5:12ff.). It is hard to know, therefore, if Peter is addressing recent converts or older believers who are still as immature as converts. Either way, it cannot be denied that readers of this letter find a message in which baptism is perfectly at home.
Where Baptism Surfaces. Although baptism is explicitly mentioned only in 3:21, there are thinly-veiled allusions that would be recognized by anyone who understands the theological meanings that attach to baptism. Being “born again” or being given “new birth” (1:3, 23) are plainly baptismal (John 3:3-5). The notion of “souls being purified through obedience to the truth” might be anathema to modern Protestants, but NT Christianity regarded the Gospel not merely as something to be believed, but as something to be obeyed to achieve salvation (Rom. 10:16; 2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17). See the discussion below. Also, Peter sounds quite similar to Paul in 2:24 with “free from sins, we might live for righteousness”, which resembles the language of the baptism-themed chapter of Rom. 6 and this expression may also be about baptism for Peter. Finally, the explicit mention of baptism in 3:21 is preceded in vs. 16-17 with a direct link between the suffering of Christians and the suffering of their Lord in His Passion and Resurrection (v. 18) and then this explicit mention is followed by the same linkage in 4:1. The fact that “baptism now saves you” is meaningful to any whose sufferings correspond to the sufferings of Christ. This is strikingly similar to the protective power of faith described in 1:5-7. While we endure suffering and wait for the salvation to be eschatologically revealed (1:5, 7) meanwhile baptism now saves us.
Obeying the Gospel: Much to the consternation of those Protestants who accept only converts to Christianity who display extreme passivity before the sovereignty of God, the NT speaks of the necessity of “obeying the Gospel” for salvation. The truth is, Christians who lived in a time much closer to Jesus than Luther and Calvin saw the Gospel as something to be not only believed. They saw Gospel as something to be obeyed. In other words, the evangelistic Gospel calls out to active and responsive converts.
The expression is found in Rom. 10:16; 2 Thess. 1:8; and 1 Peter 4:17. Different vocabulary is used, but the words are clearly synonymous and cover the same semantic range of meaning. The verb found in Romans and 2 Thessalonians is, at root, a verb of hearing. We commonly speak of someone who “disobeys” as someone who “fails to listen” (to authority). And then the verb found in 1 Peter means fundamentally to disobey, but the lexicon notes that when employed in Biblical literature the word describes disobedience to God. Moreover, since Christians viewed disbelief toward the Gospel as the greatest disobedience, the word for “disobey” carried connotations of “disbelief.” It may also be significant that Silvanus had a hand in writing as the scribe for Paul in Thessalonians and for Peter in his first epistle.
The Gospel may be defined as the message of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, of His dying, burial, and rising. How might one “obey” that? With the expectation of Jesus that His followers should take up their own crosses (and thus, die for Him and with Him), baptism is the obvious answer. In baptism, one enters death (Rom. 6:3). Not physical death, of course, but in the sense described in 2 Cor. 5:15—“and he died for all, that they that live should no longer live unto themselves, but unto him who for their sakes died and rose again.” So thoroughly is Jesus lived-for as “Lord” that one actually dies to self. The only way to “obey” the death of Jesus is to die yourself; the only answer—and it faces one and all as a Gospel-imperative that must be obeyed—is to take up our own executions. We are in the conceptual place of baptism. Baptism takes in not only the shared-death of Jesus. It also takes the convert into the shared-resurrection of Jesus. Baptism entails obedience to the death-burial-resurrection of Jesus as a performed analogy to the Gospel.
And if “obeying the Gospel” essentially means “getting baptized” it makes a lot of sense that baptism is frequently an item placed in a command, a command to be obeyed if dire consequences are to be avoided. When Jesus struck a challenge against the Pharisees regarding John’s baptism, He clearly hung that challenge upon an authoritative imperative, “The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven or from men?” (Mk. 11:30; Matt. 21:25; Lk. 20:4). Those Pharisees who shunned John’s baptism were regarded as now outsiders to the purpose of God (Luke 7:30).
It follows when Peter declares the condemnation of those who “stumble at the Word, being disobedient” (2:8) and when he speaks of the husbands of Christian wives who “obey not the Word” (3:1), he is essentially indicating that such disobedient people are unbaptized. They have not “obeyed the Gospel.” Notice that the expression is usually used negatively in all of its locations, by both Peter and Paul, with condemnation to attend those who disobey.
Acts 5:32 is also suggestive. Peter (and the apostles) declare to the Jewish authorities, “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.” The notion of “obeying” turns up in immediate context in the necessary choice to be made by the Christians before competing authorities: “We must obey God rather than men!” But reception of Spirit is assigned to baptism in the paradigmatic conversion account in Acts 2, and here the Spirit is given by God to those who “obey” Him. If Luke (reporting Peter’s activity), like both Paul and Peter, also sees baptism as Gospel-imperative and thus something to be “obeyed” to secure the baptismal gift of Spirit, we have a rather broad swath of Biblical authorship bearing their witness to a commonplace theology in the early church.
Romans 6 sets focus on baptism as an event that brings to a practical end the involvement of a Christian with sin. The power of sin has been broken and enslavement has ended. The believer now walks in “newness of life” and this means living in such a way as to bring a firmly negative answer to the question that opened the chapter: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” Having been baptized, the answer must be “No! God forbid!” Baptism has led the believer in “interchange” fashion (Morna Hooker) to participate in the Gospel-events of Jesus’ own experience. He died in crucifixion; we die. He was buried; we are buried into His death. He was raised from the dead; it follows that we will be raised in the likeness of His resurrection. As Paul begins to wrap up his discussion, he writes: “But thanks be to God, that, whereas ye were servants of sin, ye became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered.” This again is obedience to the Gospel, and Paul is speaking of baptism.
Perhaps it would not be excessively bold to expect baptism to be treated post-Reformation as a Gospel-imperative, in all of its salvific glory. This was commonplace in the pre-Reformation church and is pervasive in the Bible. Although the allusion may escape those living under the shadows of Luther and Calvin, Peter was speaking of baptism when he wrote to Christians who had “purified your souls in your obedience to the truth.”
1 Peter 3:21: So Peter is writing to a situation in which it is pastorally strategic and appropriate to draw upon conversionary experience to lead his readers into appropriate worldview and praxis. That conversionary experience in Biblical Christianity did not merely include baptism, it centered on baptism as the culmination of conversion to Christ Jesus. Peter harkens back to evangelistic preaching of Gospel. Without making explicit references, Peter makes allusions that would not have been missed as clear references to baptism. The only direct reference to baptism comes here in 3:21, and it finds itself in a ready-made home in which it is secure in familiar surroundings. We need to hear this verse embedded in the larger flow of the message that surrounds and incorporates it.
The primary purpose for the epistle was to enable fairly new Christians to face persecution which they were actually facing or were potentially going to face. They were living as disempowered exiles and aliens in a culture that was alert with a hostile edge against the appearance of new religions that could disrupt the harmony of homes and, from there, the very fabric that held society together. Suffering was either real or a ready possibility. This word on baptism takes its place in this discussion about Christians suffering persecution.
Peter begins in 3:14-17 with basic philosophic and strategic approaches to hostile culture. Then in v. 18 he sets forth the essential Christian touchstone in times when faith brings pain and hardship: the example of Christ Jesus. He suffered before you did, and how can you possibly expect anything different or anything less? This model of leadership into suffering begins with Jesus in the Gospels and is carried into the Epistles. The writer of Hebrews (who quite likely is the same Silvanus/Silas who served Peter as scribe) is perfectly blunt about the implications of the Cross. He chides Christians who feel they’ve taken all they can stand and are ready to abandon the Christian faith by reminding them that, in battling sin, they had “not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (12:4). There was no degree of suffering, including martyrdom, that was considered outside of expectations. Our faith anchors in His Cross, and follows.
V. 18 may well be a snippet from an ancient Christian hymn. Jesus has been “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” That seems to indicate His death in the earthly realm, followed by an infusion of resurrection-life from the spiritual realm. And being “made alive” refers to the resurrection. That sets the time frame in a significant way. Some interpreters have thought that the spirit of Jesus descended into Hell while His body lay three days in the tomb. This verse skips that time period and neither this verse nor any other teaches a descent into Hell by Jesus. Subsequent views of atonement held that for Jesus to truly be our substitute, He had to take our place in Hell-fire as well as upon the Cross. That is wrong also, as Jesus declared it all to be finished on the Cross (John 19:30). No further payment for sins was necessary.
So resurrection ushered Jesus back into the unseen realm when Jesus ascended from Earth to Heaven. And in that resurrected, spiritual state (v. 19) Jesus re-entered the Heavenly realm and preached to spirits in prison. The notion of the “harrowing of Hell” by Jesus (described above) led to conjecture that He found Hell to be a prison system, that He went there and preached so as to offer the doomed and damned souls imprisoned by Satan a second-chance at salvation. By means of such preaching, Jesus set the spirits free. We can now see that this conjecture is also off-target (and with it, Catholic notions of Purgatory), because it is demonstrable that Peter is operating here largely on the conceptual framework provided by the non-canonical Book of Enoch. This becomes apparent to those who read both 1 Peter and Enoch (the book is also quoted in Jude 14-15).
Enoch is the Bible character from Gen. 5:24 who was apparently translated from Earth to Heaven without experiencing death. The Book of Enoch is written as though this Enoch were the author. This is obviously fiction, as the book was actually written closer to the time of Jesus than that of Enoch. Enoch interprets (wrongly, I think) Gen. 6:1-5 as teaching interbreeding between evil, disobedient angels and human females. These angels, on analogy to the influence of the Serpent on Adam and Eve, instigate a human rebellion against God of worldwide proportion by a proliferation of evil, sin, and wickedness. Enoch is sent to preach to these disobedient angels, and his message is a prophetic oracle of doom that offers the angels no chance of reprieve from God. They are consigned to chains and prison in a fiery abyss. Peter accepts this conceptual framework and thus sees Jesus also preaching to these angels. In all likelihood, the message of that preaching is again one of doom—only this is now bolstered by Jesus’ claim to victory founded on His resurrection from crucified death.
This is significant for the suffering readers of Peter, because they intuitively understand their persecution from their culture to be an expression of the larger battle between good and evil. And, from all appearance, they have fearful minority status before forces of evil that seem to be supreme. This presentation of Jesus in spiritual victory adds another crucial layer to this conception. Yes, evil seems to be the superior power, but Jesus has achieved victory that assures that while the current minority status is temporary, the situation will finally be overturned and God will put things right eschatologically.
Peter turns to that ancient rebellion. God dealt with the perpetrating angels with eternal imprisonment. He dealt with the expansive rebellion among humanity by sending the Flood, which resulted in a purified Creation. And God provided a salvation for eight people via the ark of Noah. And Peter says, “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you…”
Forces of cosmic evil are again at work to persecute Christians. These are the forces that have always been at work since ancient times, and Peter conjoins his contemporary experience with the ancient one with the link of an analogous event of salvation. The ancient and modern salvations both benefit few people and both are achieved through the instrumentality of water. First there is Noah’s ark; then there is Christian baptism. Both offer a saving rescue from the pervasive rebellion instigated by the beings we now refer to as demons or evil spirits. When we read that “baptism now saves you” this is what Peter means.
A word should be inserted here to ward off another Reformed Protestant dodge of baptismal responsibility that is all too common. Because Peter uses the type/antitype expression to relate Noah’s salvation to Christian baptismal salvation, and because this is translationally expressed at times either as a “like figure” it is sometimes suggested that baptism only saves figuratively. [Note: it becomes wearisome when Protestants toss up ridiculous arguments in shocking and repetitive denial against what always seems to be the plain meaning of Scriptures that mention baptism!] The notion here is similar to the “moods” that attach to Greek verbs. The “indicative mood” conveys fact, but the “subjunctive mood” expresses what may be true only conditionally and, thus, potentially. But then the “optative mood” expresses what is true in such a most unlikely and improbable way that it becomes like a mere wish. Every step—from indicative to subjunctive to optative—takes one further away from factual reality. And it is suggested that Peter is robbing the true force from the saving power of water-baptism by suggesting it was “prefigured” by Noah’s salvation. This does not follow, and may be brought to consideration only after the rest of the plain matter-of-fact declarations of other NT Scriptures are disregarded. For if they are assumed, the passage in 1 Peter looks just like yet another one of those.
Peter then offers two explanations regarding baptism, one explaining a wrong conception of its saving power and another explaining how it actually does save. First the saving power of baptism has nothing to do with the cleansing action of water on skin. Occasionally one hears from Reformationists the silly take-away from this that water-baptism has no saving power. And this leads the silly into the false dichotomy between “spirit baptism” and “water baptism.” This suggests that spirit baptism really is potent in its internal effects, while water baptism is merely external and non-consequential.
The genesis of this false dichotomy begins with the Protestant error of supposing the Holy Spirit does His real converting (regenerative) work not only prior to water-baptism, but even prior to faith! The convert, in this thinking, comes to faith only after (and because) the Spirit creates such faith and this activity is salvific. So the convert is thought to be already saved before getting dunked in water. But this whole conception is errant because the Scriptures teach that the Holy Spirit indwells a convert after that believer is water-baptized into Christ. There is no personal experience called “spirit baptism” to be found that is in addition to water-baptism (in which sins are forgiven and the Holy Spirit is received as per Acts 2:38). The only proper application of the term “baptism in the Holy Spirit” is the event of Pentecost, and this is not a personal experience—it is a major not-to-be-repeated event in God’s unfolding work in His Kingdom. Yes, individuals had personal experiences (such as tongue-speaking) that attended this event as "signs" and so thus created awareness that it was taking place, but even tongue-speaking was never intended as a normative part of conversion that would become a model for all Christian believers to follow! When the apostles preached evangelistically after the Pentecost event, they presented water-baptism as the culminating event of salvation that both forgave sins in sanctification and imparted the Holy Spirit as an indwelling Presence. There is no additional “spirit baptism”. So when Peter indicates that the saving power is not caused by water on skin, he is not urging us away from water-baptism.
When Sam Houston was baptized in 1854, a friend remarked, “Well, General, I hear your sins were washed away." "I hope so," Houston is said to have replied. "But if they were all washed away, the Lord help the fish down below." That was obviously a joke that turns on the notion that the water of baptism somehow cleanses certain toxins off of the skin, and Houston expressed concerns that the toxins from his sins would be so potent as to present an ecological danger to fish swimming in the baptismal waters. That is exactly what Peter says does not happen in baptism. I am reminded here of the occasion on which a Protestant friend disparaged my baptismal beliefs by lampooning the hymn, “There is Power in the Blood” by ridiculing, “There is power in the water, power in the water!” That inexcusable critique and Sam Houston’s excusable humor both turn precisely on what Peter denies as the saving power of baptism. The power is in the Blood and it saves in water-baptism.
Peter then explains that the saving power of baptism derives not from its external workings, but from those internal—and this brings us to the realm of conscience. The conscience is where feelings of guilt register when you know you have done something wrong and when you know that others know. The conscience first makes us feel ashamed, and then as we contemplate facing consequences for what terrible things we have done, then the conscience makes us afraid. Shame and fear are a terrible burden to carry on the inside. No feeling is more disturbing and uncomfortable than a guilty conscience. And no feeling is more refreshing that when a dirty and guilty conscience is unburdened, so that the conscience is again free and pure and relieved.
But the greatest difficulty to understanding 3:21 is the presence of a word so difficult to translate that it yields a bewildering variety of options. It is the word that points to precisely what it is regarding conscience that “now saves you.” The reason for the difficulty is that this word is extremely rare and is found only here in the entire NT. Moreover, we find but few usages even outside of the NT. It is the noun form that pertains to a verb whose meaning is simple enough: to ask or to request. And the noun likewise seems to denote either a question or a request. The matter is complicated a little by a usage apparently found in some papyri which use this noun as a technical term in legal application. It here indicates a formal request that has legal consequence. For example, one business partner may query another about their acceptance and agreement to certain obligations. And, in this technical usage, the same word may come also to include the formal response or answer offered to the essential query. Thus, the word may denote the query, the response given to it, or both. Take this to translations of the Bible and you will find two primary options:
· Baptism is regarded as an appeal/request made by the convert for a good or clean or untroubled conscience from God.
· Baptism is regarded as a pledge/answer made to God from a good conscience.
So this word is rare (at least as a noun) and we cannot settle the matter simply by consulting a dictionary or lexicon. In these reference books for word meanings we merely find a record of meanings historically associated with a word. These definitions may or may not be applicable to a particular usage that we are trying to understand. Our example, after all, may evidence a totally new meaning that is assigned to the word. Fortunately considerations beyond the dictionary may be consulted to help us identify the truest translation.
First, while there is a technical application of the word in legal settings that would include both a question and its answer, there is no indication that this technical sense applies outside of the legal realm. The obvious weight of meaning for both the verb and the noun leans toward question or request. And even the legal use of the term always begins with the query. It is not certain that the extra technical meaning that includes the answer ever applies outside of that technical use of the word.
Second, notice the dynamics created by each translational and interpretive option. The one suggests that the conscience is ill at ease in the approach to baptism; the other suggests a composed and ordered conscience at this approach. Although Reformed Theology suggests that salvation takes place before baptism and thus the convert may approach getting-wet-all-over with a settled conscience that already luxuriates in the comfort of forgiving grace, nothing like this is found in the NT (unless 3:21 proves to be the sole exception).
What we find regarding these dynamics in other passages is that those coming for baptism have consciences weighted down with sin-guilt and full of fear for the wrath to come. They thus come to baptism hoping to find forgiveness and relief of conscience. Thus on the day of Pentecost, Peter (the author of 3:21!) lays guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus on the consciences of his Jewish audience and they are “cut to the heart” and query, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:36-38). Before this in the Gospels, John proclaim a “baptism of repentance for the remission of sin.” Although Protestants bob and weave before the plain meaning of this, the clear implication is that the preaching of John, that highlighted moral failures and warned of the wrath of judgment that was sure to follow, this preaching troubled the conscience of his hearers and offered relief in baptism for the conscience. The same applies when Paul is commanded (yes, this is imperative!): “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins by calling on His name” (Acts 22:16).
In every case, the troubled conscience is the precipitating experience that calls for baptism as the solution offered by God in Christ Jesus. This salvation pulls each individual convert from the expansive rebellion that takes in not only humanity but the disobedient angels beings who instigated and empowered the rebellion. An ark lifted Noah from the destruction that follows this rebellion; baptism now saves us (be sure to read 3:22 as confirmation of all of this).
Conclusion: 1 Peter is surely not a baptismal liturgy, although it probably exhibits expressions and elements of Christian theology that were commonplace at ancient baptisms. Nor is it a baptismal sermon, although Peter no doubt included in his preaching much of what he put into epistolary form with the help of Silvanus. That said, it is abundantly evidenced that baptismal theology is deeply expressed in this epistle.
It is tragedy that we live downstream of historical events in the Protestant Reformation that militate against baptism as it is presented in the NT Scriptures. The command to get-wet-all-over has been retained by Evangelical Protestants, but only after the essential meaning of the act has been changed to the point of being thoroughly replaced. Clearly if God with strongest imperative commands converts coming to Christ Jesus to get-wet-all-over, the significance of that must be found not so much in the getting-wet as in the meanings that follow by association. So, for example, when Protestants urge getting-wet-all-over as a means of publically displaying faith, isn’t that silly on the face of it? It would seem that to strip baptism of its Biblical significance and to still call it “baptism”—just because it is still getting-wet-all-over—renders 1 Peter 3:21 robbed of its meaning. What Protestants do with their water is not baptism at all. The dynamics created by a theology that soothes a sin-stained conscience before water-baptism renders that event meaningless, and Protestant attempts to supply some other rationale for why one should get-wet-all-over are nothing but silly in their futility. Baptism now saves you.