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A reader wonders about some things in 1 Peter 3:21. This is a difficult text to get to the bottom of. Scholars differ widely on the passage and phrases within the passage so the rest of us need to be modest in our speech. Modest, but not speechless.
What does he mean when he says, "Baptism saves you"?
Whatever he means by it, he said it! In some real sense baptism is related to salvation in a functional way. Peter doesn’t say, "Baptism symbolically saves you." That would be to say that baptism doesn’t save you, it merely symbolises the fact that you have been saved. To say, "baptism symbolises the fact that you have been saved" makes sense; but it isn’t what Peter said. Had Peter said, "Faith saves you by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead" we wouldn’t hesitate to say that faith functions in a saving way. (Some of us speak as if we’re scared witless by water baptism.) What he did say was, "Baptism saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." We mustn’t be afraid of the doctrine of baptismal regeneration or self-salvation and so empty Peter’s words of their obvious meaning. Peter never believed that the mere application of water (a little or a lot) gave life with God to anyone! When we’re done explaining his words that "Baptism saves you" it’s important that we allow him to attribute to baptism some saving function. Baptism saves people! (How it functions in a saving way is for further discussion.)
What does he mean when he says, "Not the putting away the filth of the flesh"?
Peter told his readers what baptism did—it saved them by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Before he tells them in what way baptism saves, Peter tells them what it does not do. Baptism doesn’t save by putting off the filth of the flesh.
He could mean that baptism isn’t meant to remove physical dirt from the body. We could imagine him saying that simply to underscore the importance of baptism’s function. It would be as if he said, "You understand, baptism is no mere bath in water after a dirty day’s work." Similarly, if a young man walked into a jeweller’s shop to buy a diamond ring for his soon-to-be wife and was taken back by the price the jeweller might say, "Yes, it’s expensive but this isn’t a piece of glass."
Or he might mean that baptism is not merely ceremonial, a Jewish-type purification rite that makes a person "clean". Certain washings, within the covenant, were required on different occasions when "sinners" needed to be cleansed. You see a lot of that in Leviticus.
He might mean what Oscar Brooks took him to mean. Brooks thought it meant something like, "Baptism saves you, but I don’t mean it takes away your tendency to sin or that it removes your sinful desires."
He might mean that baptism doesn’t have a place in the taking away of sins (it doesn’t purify a person from the moral filth of the sinful nature or past deeds).
My guess is he has none of these in mind. I think he’s saying that baptism saves you but not by making you right with God within the parameters of the flesh.
He’s writing to Jews whose past (as a nation) was based on their fleshly relationship with Abraham. That Abrahamic family (through Jacob) had consistently violated the covenant and polluted itself (they recapitulated the ante-deluvian behaviour). Fleshly Israel ceased to be covenanted according to the flesh because they persistently self-polluted. The flesh had failed and there was no curing of it—it had to be put to death. Some might have thought that baptism saved them by wiping that national filth away (as if it were another Jewish washing) and renewing their covenanted status as the fleshly elect. Baptism, on this view, doesn’t cleanse "the flesh" and make it acceptable—only death and resurrection takes care of the problem; it’s a new birth to a new inheritance.
In fact baptism signals the end of that phase of relating to God ("the end of all flesh"—Genesis 6:12-18 and here 3:19-21 and compare Romans 6:1-11 and 7:4-6 and 10:4, which have their own particular agenda but add point here). Baptism doesn’t relate to setting Jews right by curing the Mosaic violation as if baptism were a part of the Jewish covenant structure that supported the flesh—compare Hebrews 10:19-29. Baptism doesn’t relate to being born a Jew, it relates to being born again by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:3-4). It doesn’t save you by bringing you back to God within Mosaic parameters (as part of the fulfilment of Malachi 4 and John the Baptist’s ministry). It doesn’t ensure that we as Jews relate to God in the same old way.
Receiving this as plausible might lead us then to think of Christ being put to death in (the realm of) the flesh and made alive in (the realm of) the spirit. The "flesh" days are gone (Romans 10:1-4). If we grant that Peter is writing to Jews I think it sharpens the point. Christ didn’t purify the flesh he slew it in his dying and salvation in Christ occurs in being raised in and with him (think of 2 Corinthians 5:15-17 in this connection).
Baptism into Christ corresponds to the ancient scenario in which only a remnant was saved when the flesh was destroyed. Peter insisted in Acts 3:22-26 that Jews who reject the Messiah are cut off from among the people. Baptism (in its full richness) is like the Red Sea crossing (1 Corinthians 10:1) or the crossing of the Jordan into the inheritance (as recently, N.T Wright). After the water which ended all flesh is life beyond death, for a remnant in Noah’s day. After the water of New Covenant baptism, which is the end of the flesh (since in baptism they took on them the name of the exalted Christ), is resurrection life through Jesus Christ. As it was with Jesus (life in the flesh ended and life in spirit began) so it is with all those Jewish people that have accessed his death, there is the end of the flesh and resurrection life in the realm of the spirit through Christ’s resurrection. In Noah’s day flesh ended (and with it the old world—2 Peter 2:5) and they came out of the ark into a new world in a new beginning (see Genesis 1 creation language used in Genesis 9:1-3 and compare here, 3:22). So death (in Christ) to the realm of the flesh means entering into a new creation, the realm of the spirit (2 Corinthians 5:15-17).
It’s true of course that "flesh" has universal application but if Peter is writing to Jews (as I believe he is) the notion of "flesh" has that added specific use that we see in places like Romans and Galatians that focuses on Israel.
What does he mean when he says, "The pledge of a good conscience"? (NIV)
I believe that Peter wrote his book to Jews that had embraced Jesus Christ as God’s Christ and not to Gentiles (as the scholarly consensus claims). These were Jews that lived outside Palestine. See the following link for some justification of this claim. http://www.jimmcguiggan.com/experienced/lesson.asp?status=Chew+On+This&id=108
Though there are difficulties in understanding just what the Hebrew writer meant, he did claim that there was that aspect of the Mosaic Covenant that didn’t reach down to the conscience of the worshipers (9:13-14, and see 10:1-2) though their "flesh" was purified. In contrast, he says, through Christ’s blood their consciences were purified from dead works to enable them to serve the living God. So OT sacrifices in some sense purified "the flesh" (my guess is that that’s a shorthand way of describing Israel’s relationship to God that is grounded in their physical relationship to Abraham). The whole sacrificial system was God’s gift to fleshly Israel (Romans 9:3-5) and by it they were marked out as God’s elect. Christ’s sacrifice (required by Israel’s sin since they consistently violated the old covenant—Hebrew 8:6-13) brought them to God at a different level on a different basis and in so doing delivered them from what were now "dead works". That is, adherence to the law that availed nothing or clinging to the violated covenant which could only pronounce their death. In addition the Hebrew writer speaks of consciences cleansed and bodies washed with pure water (10:21-22).
The nation as a national entity (not every individual—far from it) had walked away from God. But now they could return to God in a new way, apart from the old sacrifices, offering to God a commitment that rose out of a pure conscience, submitting to baptism that is the taking on the name of Christ and all that that involves. They had been born again to a living hope by the resurrection of Christ out from the dead but they endured suffering and would face more. When critics challenged them to give the grounds for such a hope they were to give an "answer" (defence) that rose out of an honest and upright life (lived in the sight of God—compare 2:19).
They are to give a responsive defence/answer directed to their critics concerning their hope (which comes to them from God via the resurrection of Christ—3:16 and 1:3). And they give a responsive pledge to God in baptism to the offer of hope that comes via the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In so doing they are saved by the virtue in (the death and) the resurrection of Christ.
The lexical studies don’t end the dispute about the word rendered "pledge" in the NIV so in the end the student must draw his or her conclusion on the basis of what he or she thinks Peter means by the word he uses.