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Peter and baptism 

Exploring Peter's understanding of baptism. By Terry Young  



Baptism is not a theme that resonates throughout Peter’s first letter, as do many of the themes we have considered. In fact, baptism is mentioned just the once, in 1 Peter 3:21 (all quotations from the NIV). However, what he lacks in references he makes up for with a stick of theological dynamite.

Peter was certainly not a Baptist since Baptists are not saved by being baptised. Perhaps those who baptise infants – Anglicans, Roman Catholics, or Presbyterians, for instance – may see baptism as a route to salvation, but not Baptists. How many baptisms have you been to where the minister has gone to great lengths to explain that baptism is a symbol of something that has already occurred?

The problem is that Peter says that baptism is what saves us now. Furthermore, while we often think of baptism as symbolic of a deeper change, Peter sees baptism as the reality to which other symbols point. How are we going to straighten out Peter’s theology?

Whoever wrote 2 Peter – let’s accept it was the same chap – notes how Paul’s letters can be quite difficult to follow (2 Peter 3:15-16). This always amuses me, since I find Peter really hard to follow, and his approach to baptism is a case in point.

As we might expect by now with Peter, he hasn’t sauntered straight up to the point and explained what he believes about baptism. Instead (1 Peter 3:18-22), he has been writing about something completely different – Jesus’ death and resurrection – when he diverts into Jesus’ preaching mission to the dead, another topic on which Baptists are a little hazy even if Peter is keen (but not clear) on the issue (1 Peter 4:6.).

Somehow, he gets to Noah and the ark and then, bang! Peter tells us the flood waters in Genesis symbolise baptism. I haven’t sat down with the commentators – this is too much fun to wreck by doing that – but Peter’s line of argument seems to be that the flood waters lifted Noah and his family out of a world of violence and corruption (see Genesis 6:11) to eventual safety.

Central to Peter’s picture, from what I can see, is the flood as an agent of destruction and, for a few in the right place, an agent of salvation. The difficult question of what happened to the rest, or what Peter thinks about them, is one I hope we can leave to another blog.

The waters which destroyed so much, saved Noah and his family through floatation, a principle eventually articulated by Archimedes. We might say it was the ark that saved Noah, but Peter’s view is valid, too. In a world saturated with corruption and violence, both an ark without a flood and a flood without an ark would limit your life expectancy.

Let’s see if this helps. It links back to where he started and the contrasting righteous and unrighteous connected in a single death, when ‘Christ also suffered once for sins’ (1 Peter 2:18). The idea of vertical rescue also resonates with Peter’s description of how baptism works (1 Peter 3:21-22): ‘it saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.’

The washing metaphor is applied to baptism (e.g. Acts 22:16) and Peter is not saying that other views are wrong, he just being clear that he isn’t talking about baptism that way.

So maybe this view of water as judgement and salvation at the same time is at the heart of Peter’s concept of baptism. If so, it might explain a few other things in his letters. For instance, Peter places a close association between Jesus’ suffering and the suffering Christians undergo in Jesus’ name.

Let’s pick up where Peter first talks to slaves (1 Peter 2:18-25) about their suffering and watch how it morphs first into a discourse on the example Jesus set for all to follow and then into a short meditation on Isaiah 53 that is part commentary, part quotation. Clearly Peter does not believe that Christians can suffer to save themselves or anyone else, but just as clearly, his mind is moving to that scene he witnessed (1 Peter 5:1) when salvation-suffering happened once-for-all in the most unfair act of suffering, ever.

However, he also believes we share in Jesus’ suffering just as we share the results of Jesus death and resurrection and will share in the glory. We need to get our head in the right place, too (1 Peter 4:1): ‘Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin.’ Whatever it is, there is a close association in Peter’s mind between Jesus’ suffering and those of the believers who follow him.
Perhaps Paul’s concept of being ‘in Christ’ (Ephesians 1:1, 3, 10, 12, etc) is not far away as Peter describes his take on baptism: just as the floods swept those inside the ark to safety, so baptism sweeps those who are in Jesus away to glory through Jesus’ resurrection to take his place, ‘at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him’ (1 Peter 3:22).

Perhaps that’s why Peter wants to avoid the washing metaphor for baptism that removes dirt from the outside (1 Peter 3:21). It’s not about outsides, it’s about insides!

‘Yes!’ we all say, when we watch a baptism: It’s really about what has happened inside the candidate, not what happens outside. ‘No!’ says Peter, that’s the wrong inside: the inside that matters is not what’s inside us, but what we are inside.

If this is a fair take on Peter’s view of baptism, then all the wonderful and perplexing things he has to say come together in baptism: sharing in suffering, suffering and glory, having the right mindset, and even our calling. This is what we’re called to!

Image | Jason Watson | Creationswap

This is part of a series where Terry explores 1 Peter
  1. Calling and being called 
  2. Alert and sober
  3. Suffering and glory
  4. An upside down world 
  5. Peter and baptism

Terry Young was born to missionary parents working in the Middle East. He has always tried to unify his life of worship and secular missions, and has been part of church leadership teams in Essex, and at Slough Baptist Church. He has written a few books that link worlds, including After the Fishermen, and Jake, Just Learn to Worship.

After a mobile early childhood his family settled in the UK to the northwest of Birmingham, and eventually he studied at the local university. After his doctoral studies he worked for 16 years in Chelmsford undertaking research and business development in the aerospace sector, where his interest was in fibre optics and photonics. In the end he gravitated to healthcare systems and moved to Datchet with a position as a university professor. He is a member of a Baptist church


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Baptist Times, 20/01/2021
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