In my current Bible study time through 1Peter I have come across this section of scripture that has often been misunderstood and even among many good Bible scholars and students will still stir up some disagreement as to it's proper meaning. Yet it is still something we should seek to understand it's proper meaning. Context within all of scripture is very helpful to keep us away from spurious interpretations that lead to bad theology and living. Here is the text. 1 Peter 3:18-22 ESV "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, 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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him."
While I think Peter could have worded this passage a little differently to make our understanding more clear, herein are some great truths that align with other Scripture to help us see the beauty of what God wants us to hear and apply. This too is Spirit inspired Holy Word of God, so God had a reason to cause us struggle a bit with the passage. So let us think about it.
Two big questions that arise are how did the spirit of Christ preach to the lost in the days of Noah? And is Peter now saying we are saved by baptism? Clues are given within immediate context and greater Biblical context, so this is where it benefits us to know our Bibles and its revealed history. Does not the Bible teach us that prophets of God preached as they were moved by the Spirit of God? (ref 2 Peter 1:21). Is not the Holy Spirit also referred to as the Spirit of Christ? (ref ROM 8:9 where the titles are used interchangeably) God is triune, one in essence and yet three in person. So when the Father speaks you are hearing the spirit of Christ speak, and when Christ speaks you are hearing from the Holy Spirit. They are One. Some people have wrongly viewed this passage as meaning Jesus went into hell or Sheol and preached to the lost trapped there due to their disobedience. This is not at all what is being taught here. First of all that would be pointless. They have died and clearly Scripture teaches it is appointed to everyone once to die, then judgment (ref Heb 9:27). There no benefit to then be preaching to the dead, and this would not be in alignment with the justice of God that speaks to all men's consciences prior to their finality of death, from which our choices in life are sealed. They have their just reward. But based in the context of scripture clearly understanding the other facts I have just mentioned, Jesus Christ was preaching to the disobedient and lost in Noah's days through Noah, his prophet and servant. The context here is said "God's patience waited in the days of Noah", thus giving us the time of when Christ's spirit was preaching to them. They received their due warnings and through Noah. This passage Peter is paralleling to is the one in which Jesus began his earthly preaching ministry also. Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18. Notice in it the same phrase of "preaching to the spirits in prison" and how this is exactly what he said was being fulfilled in his ministry on earth when reading Isaiah 61 " to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound". He was speaking of us...of those living and yet to live who were captives to Satan spiritually because of our sin nature and how his mission is to set us free from sin and death, to unlock our or prison cells spiritually and bring us into the kingdom of light and freedom! This preaching of the the salvation of God has been his message even before Abraham. The Spirit of Christ formed the cosmos and even today holds everything together by his divine power! So all Peter is saying is that Christ preached to the lost through Noah.
Why is he referring to Noah? This leads to the second complicated concept here. Peter is about to relate to us how this same spirit by which Christ was raised is proclaimed in our baptisms. Some say it is the baptism of the Spirit he is telling us that is now saving us (which is in essence is true, but not specifically spoken about here), but the illustration is one of being saved by water. Like the 8 saved in Noah's day by water, so too we are saved today by Baptism. He is talking about water baptism (not just spirit baptism). Remember context is king. Now does he mean we are saved by water Baptism directly? Well obviously not, because he says clearly "not by the washing of dirt from our bodies", but he brings it back to the simple truth by saying as "an appeal to God for a good conscience through Christ's resurrection" . You see, as is true throughout scripture., Faith...obedient faith through the power of Christ is what saves us. Its always been about hearing God and obeying. Water Baptism does not save us, but real faith that follows Christ does. Baptism by water is a command for the faithful. Even Jesus our Master was baptized as an example that we too should follow him. When is a person saved? When they truly believe. Then they cross over from death to life. So some will never make it to the waters of baptism before death and still will enter into paradise, but this is not the norm. How do we know if a person is a Believer? They obey Christ. But for one who has ability to be an obedient follower of Christ and never has proclaimed their allegiance and death to self and new resurrected life in Christ through water baptism. About all I can say to you is what Christ has said.
So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven - Matthew 10:32 ESV
How does a person acknowledge Jesus before men? With your lips only? No, with what you say and how you obey. This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus. So a clear conscience before God is made by taking this step of faith and being baptized into Christ in water showing others you now seek to kill the sin nature daily and live in the resurrection of life following Jesus. Just as hearing and obeying was considered faith that saved Noah and the other 7 by water, so likewise baptism by the Spirit of Christ is shown in your life by hearing and obeying his commands, including the mark of all Christ's disciples, water baptism. Being baptized is essential to the obedient Christian life. Jesus taught his disciples to teach every thing he "commanded". Why? Because his followers want to obey ...and his true ones will. Are you his follower? Have you been baptized? Why not?