Peter drew from imagery that could portray the kind of fearless faith, godly character, and much-maligned yet God-affirmed lifestyle that he was seeking to encourage. Noah and his family of eight were a tiny remnant of faithful people in a very hostile world, and their experience, Peter seemed to be intimating, was much like the Jewish believers’ experiences, scattered throughout the Roman Empire.
There is good reason to believe Peter had so far reminded them that Jesus—in the Spirit—had preached through Noah to those now long dead and in the prison of Sheol.
These spirits (or people who had lived during the time Noah and his family were building the ark) had been given one hundred and twenty years’ worth of gospel revelation, and had ultimately rejected it. They had made life for Noah and his family very hard.
But the ark did save all those who believed God. Sadly, that number remained only eight souls.
The Days of Noah
[In the Spirit, Jesus] went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
And baptism, which this prefigured, 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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.1 Peter 3:19-22 (NRSV)
If we accept the position that God intended to give the generation of Noah’s day a hundred and twenty years to repent of their desperate wickedness, violence, corruption, and extreme evil, and that in the Holy Spirit, Jesus preached through Noah for all that time, then we see a picture emerging of redemption for the remnant and judgment for the persecutors. This is what the Jewish believers in Peter’s audience also faced, an extremely hostile and corrupt society that increasingly aimed its violence against Christians.
So, Peter now transformed this well-known story of the ark into a picture of Jesus.
The Ark as Christ
- It was made of “gopher” wood. No one today knows what type of wood that is, but the word “gopher” holds meaning. “Gopher” and the word “pitch” which occurs in Genesis 6, is the same Hebrew word used later in Exodus to mean “atonement.” All three of these words come from the same basic Hebrew root, which means “to cover.” Thus, the ark was made from “atonement wood,” and it was made water-proof with “atonement pitch.”
You can see where this headed. The ark of the covenant, described in Exodus, had an “atonement cover,” also called the “mercy seat” of God, which leads to the Lord Jesus Christ. As Apostle Paul taught, Jesus carried, in a mysterious way, all believers with him as he brought his own through death and into the newness of eternal life.
All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.Romans 6:3-4 (NRSV)
- There was only one door in the ark. God provided only one way of salvation (an ark) and only one door into that salvation. People could not be saved by any method they wished, but only through God’s provision. The same holds true today.
Early in his preaching, Peter had proclaimed,
This Jesus is
‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.’
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”Acts 4:11-12 (NRSV)
Peter was confirming a revelation to bring clarity.
- It was God who sealed the door of the ark. Every single living thing that entered the ark, every person, every creature, went in response to God’s command, willingly, in faith. The burden of decision was God’s, not Noah’s, to close and seal the door. Being sealed in with “atonement” pitch, Noah and his family would be completely safe.
Apostle Paul taught on a similar atonement seal.
In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.Ephesians 1:13-14 (NRSV)
Noah persevered in faith, and expressed his faith in his willingness to continue building, and to continue explaining what he was doing to whomever would listen. He and his family must have often felt discouraged, and felt tempted to give up. What God asked of Noah was going to take a long time, involving hardship, sacrifice, focus and perseverance.
In the same way, the first-century church was also being called of God to suffer and to persevere.
Salvation Through the Flood
It had to have been shocking, and awful, for the eight trembling people, and the panicked animals, as the ark bucked and wove through the pounding sea. Forty days and nights of steady downpour, sunlight blocked by the mighty hurricane.
The difference between Noah’s family and everyone else was merely their response to God’s grace, according to this narrative. Everybody else scoffed, but Noah took God seriously. The difference between those who were saved and those who died in the flood was the difference between being in the ark and being outside it.
Those who were saved and those who died all went through the flood. But those who survived were those in the ark which sheltered them from the effects of God’s wrath and grief over sin. Those outside the ark, as well as those within, knew the ark existed and knew about God’s warning of a judgment to come. Some chose to ignore these facts, while Noah, his wife, and his sons with their wives, acted on them.
And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience . . .
This passing through the Flood Peter likened to a baptism, much in the same way that the Hebrew people walking through the parted waters of the Red Sea was also a kind of baptism. On one side of the water was the old life of intense suffering and heavy burdens, of being a hated remnant of people faithful to God, with no hope of escape. On the other side was the new life of redemption and release, of liberty and joy, of being the faithful people of God together, and God in their midst, a new world, a fresh start.
The waters also represented a kind of cleansing, for the Flood scrubbed the earth clean of the wickedness and corruption, violence and evil those who rejected God perpetrated. So also, the waters of the Red Sea covered over the violence of the Hebrews’ enslavers, the godlessness of hardened idolaters, the army representing Pharaoh’s broken promises and enraged rebellion against Almighty God.
But, Peter wanted to clarify, he was not actually speaking of water baptism—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but the baptism of the Spirit which puts us into the ark of safety, our Lord Jesus. This spiritual baptism is only given through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
All throughout the writings of the apostles, this same imagery arises again and again, this is the vision of Jesus you and I have today. You and I are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, and we are safe, even when surrounded by hostile unbelief.