The Meaning of Baptism

1 Peter

The Meaning of Baptism

February 20th, 1983 @ 7:30 PM

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

1 Peter 3:18-22

2-20-83      7:30 p.m.



And welcome the great multitudes of you that are sharing this hour with us on radio.  This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, delivering again a message from Simon Peter; this one in a most unusual and strange passage.  I have entitled it simply The Meaning of Baptism, and we begin reading in 1 Peter chapter 3, at verse 18, and following to the end of the chapter; 1 Peter chapter 3, beginning at verse 18.  And if you are listening on radio, get your Bible and read out loud with us; it will bless you as you read with us in this great throng in the First Baptist sanctuary of Dallas.  First Peter 3, beginning at verse 18, all of us together:


For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:

By which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison;

Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto Him. 

[1 Peter 3:18-22]


Simon Peter is introducing that subject by speaking of the death, the burial, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  He suffered for us, “put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit” [1 Peter 3:18], and in verse 21 raised from the dead, resurrected from among the dead [1 Peter 3:21].  Our Lord put to death [Matthew 27:32-50], Satan bruised His heel [Genesis 3:15], but not for long did He remain lame.  Not for long was He in the tomb:  on the third day He was raised from the dead [1 Corinthians 15:3-4].  Despite the watch, and the stone, and the seal <<, He was raised from the dead; He did not see corruption [Acts 2:24, 27].  The Holy Spirit, according to Romans 1: 4, raised Him from the dead.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the most authenticated and avowed and provable facts in human history.  Jesus is alive.  He appeared to one [John 20:11-18].  He appeared to two [Luke 24:13-32].  He appeared to several [Matthew 28:9-10].  He appeared to ten [John 20:19-25].  He appeared to eleven [John 20:26-29].  He appeared to over five hundred brethren at one time [Matthew 28:16-20; 1 Corinthians 15:6].  And a testimony to the living life, the resurrection of our Lord, is found in His church, His body.  Every church is a witness to the living resurrection of Jesus our Lord.  He remained forty days in this earth before His ascension into heaven, appearing unto many [Acts 1:3]. 

When you think of His appearing for forty days, it reminds you of the forty days in the wilderness, when at the beginning of His ministry He was assailed by Satan [Matthew 4:1-11].  Why didn’t Satan assail Him in the forty days of His resurrection?  Because Satan is a crushed and ruined and defeated enemy; he has lost his power of victory and triumph in sin and in the grave [1 Corinthians 15:54-57].  Why didn’t Satan stop the resurrection of our Lord at the grave?  Why didn’t he assail our Lord when He appeared to the women, to the disciples, to above five hundred at once?  Why didn’t Satan assail our Lord in Jerusalem?  Why didn’t he accost our Lord in Galilee?  Why didn’t Satan oppose our Lord when He rose from this earth to enter into heaven [Matthew 28:1-7], for Satan is described as the “god of this world” and “the prince of the power of the air?” [John 12:31; Ephesians 2:2].  In those forty days [Acts 1:3]—and especially as our Lord ascended into heaven [Acts 1:9-10]—why didn’t Satan accost Him and assail Him?  For the simple reason:  he is a broken and defeated and conquered enemy.  Satan is ruined and forever.

This also:  the resurrection of Jesus Christ—and the forty days that He appeared to His disciples, and to the brethren, and to the women in the earth—is a harbinger, and a type, and a portend, and an earnest of the millennial reign, when all will be quiet and calm [Psalm 72:7; Isaiah 2:4].  Satan is defeated; he is ruined.  And in that ultimate millennial return of our Lord [Matthew 24:30], there will be no one to lift up hand against Him.  There’ll be no scribes and Pharisees seeking stones to stone Him [John 8:59, 10:31-33]; there’ll be no citizens in Nazareth to hurl Him headlong down from the cliff on which their city is built [Luke 4:28-29]; there will be no opposition.  He will be King [Luke 1:32], and the whole world, “filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” [Habakkuk 2:14], will be quiet and calm.  Satan is defeated [Revelation 20:2-3].  Jesus is raised from the dead [Matthew 28:1-7].

And that glorious gospel of the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord leads Simon Peter into a figure that is one of the most unusual in his presentation that you could find in the Bible.  It is a strange passage that Simon Peter writes, illustrating the death and the burial and the resurrection of our Lord, finding its type and its figure in the ordinance of baptism [1 Peter 3:18-22].  In the death of our Lord, “quickened by the Spirit, He went and preached unto the spirits in prison” [1 Peter 3:18-19]. 

There are two ways that you can interpret that, and when you read and study you’ll stumble into both ways many times.  The most obvious one is the one usually presented:  that the Spirit of Christ was in Noah, preaching to those disobedient antediluvians [2 Peter 2:5].  There are others who will say that in the Spirit He went into Hades and proclaimed His triumph to those who await the judgment of Almighty God.  But however we interpret that preaching of our Lord to the spirits in Hades, His illustration of our salvation in Christ is most unusual.  He illustrates it with baptism and Noah in the ark of Christ, saved dia, “through,” the water [1 Peter 3:20-21].

Baptism itself is a strange ordinance.  In the first chapter of the Book of John, we are told the story of the committee from Jerusalem who was sent down to John, who was baptizing in the Jordan River [John 1:19].  And they asked him, “Are you Elijah?”

“No,” he said. 

“Well, are you the Prophet that Moses promised us?”

“No,” he says. 

“Well, are you the Christ for whom we wait?”

“No,” he says. 

Then they ask him, “If you are not Elijah, and if you are not the Prophet, and if you are not the Christ, why is it that you are introducing this strange and unusual ordinance?”  [John 1:20-25]. 

Now may I speak of that for a moment?  As I read, and read, and read, and read, there are those who say—they postulate, they guess, they surmise—that an ordinance of baptism was known to the Jewish nation.  There is no beginning of an approach of a syllable of truth in that.  The Jewish people never had any ordinance or practice of baptism. 

The Jewish people had many, many ablutions.  They washed their pots, and they washed their pans, and they washed their hands, and they washed their feet, and they washed their heads, and sometimes they washed themselves all over.  But not in all of the Talmudic story or in all the tradition of the elders, and certainly not in the Bible, is there any time, anywhere, any instance of an institution among the Jewish people where one man ever took another man and washed him.   Always the people washed themselves.  But this thing that John the Baptist was doing was a strange innovation.

  He was down there in the Jordan River [Matthew 3:1-6]; and to those who repented of their sins and gave their hearts in expectation to the coming of the kingdom of heaven—Jesus our Lord—he took them and he buried them in the watery grave, and raised them up in that new life in the expectancy of the kingdom of God [Mark 1:3-8].  It was a strange ordinance that John the Baptist introduced.

It is no less strange to me, as I read and as I look at the perversion of that simple ordinance—buried with our Lord and raised with our Lord [Romans 6:5]—it is an amazing thing, I say, to me, the perversion, the changing of that ordinance.  It is now accepted by most of this believing world that in baptism we are washed from original sin; or some of them, in baptism we are saved, regenerated, cleansed and washed in the ordinance of water itself.  And no less amazing to me, the perversion in changing the mode:  instead of it being a burial and a resurrection—a baptisma, a “burial”—instead of that it is the sprinkling of water, a few drops on the head of, say, a newborn babe. 

What an amazing development.  What an unbelievable perversion!  What an astonishing change!  It is very plain and very emphatic, dramatic, how Simon Peter, speaking of that ordinance of baptism, speaks of it.  You see, in that antediluvian age, the judgment of God came upon the world, and Noah faced that judgment with all of the rest of the sinners who lived in his day [Genesis 6:5], and to whom he valiantly preached in the Spirit of Christ [2 Peter 2:5].

Judgment, the judgment of Almighty God: judgment in a flood of waters [Genesis 6:7].  Amos says in his prophecy, chapter 5, verse 24, “Let judgment run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” [Amos 5:24].  Waters: a picture of the judgment of Almighty God.  When our Lord closed His Sermon on the Mount, in the seventh chapter of the Book of Matthew, that’s the way He closed it.   There is a house built in the way of a flood, and the rains fall, and the flood rises, and the winds beat, and if the house is on sand, it collapses.  The other house, built in the same torrential flood, and the rains fall and the floods rise, and the winds beat [Matthew 7:24-27]; well, it’d be very reasonable to ask, “Why would both of those men build their houses in the path of a storm, of a flood?”  The reason is obvious: all of us live in the presence of the judgments of Almighty God. 

Death, the penalty of death, sin [Ezekiel 18:4, 20], the judgment upon sin; all of us live in a world that faces the fires and the floods of the judgment of Almighty God.  You can’t build your house anywhere else.  Death awaits.  The judgment day awaits.  All of us face that inevitable flood, and so it was that the waters of judgment fell upon the earth [Genesis 6:5-8, 7:17-24]. 

Then Simon Peter uses that marvelous illustration and picture and type:  “In the days of Noah and the ark, wherein eight souls”—Noah’s family—“was saved dia, ‘through’ the waters; dia, ‘through’; saved through the waters” [1 Peter 3:20].  Not saved “by” the waters; the waters drowned the people.  The waters are a flood of the judgment of Almighty God [Genesis 6:7].  But the ark is a type and a picture of Jesus our Lord: “saved through the waters,” through the flood, through the judgment; saved in Christ [1 Peter 3:20].

And not only that, but he points out another; he calls it “type,” translated here “a figure” [1 Peter 3:21].  Not only that, but the ark, the ark figures the beginning of a new race, and a new life, and a new world, and a new hope, and a new day [Hebrews 11:7].  As baptism, we are buried in the flood waters of death and of judgment, and we are raised out of those flood waters in Christ to a new life in our Lord [Romans 6:3-5].  So these in the ark of Christ are saved through the flood waters of the judgment of Almighty God [1 Corinthians 15:22], and Noah illustrates that [1 Peter 3:20-21].  The old life and the old days and the old judgments, they are dead, and Noah now, through the waters, in the ark, faces a new day, and a new life, and a new era, and a new promise [Hebrews 11:7]: the presence of the living God. 

It’s a marvelous picture.  And lest somebody might think that he would say that baptism in water saves us, he expressly points out, “Not the putting away of the filth of the flesh”—all that baptism and water does in itself is just to make our skin less dirty—“but, what saves us is our conscience toward God, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ” [1 Peter 3:21]: a new heart, a new spirit, a new day, a new life, saved in the ark, in Jesus our Lord; saved through the waters of the judgment of Almighty God [1 Peter 3:20].

Dear me, as I face the inevitableness of the providences of life, how shall I be equal for them?  In the hour of my death, what shall I do?  And in the great floodwaters of the judgment day of Almighty God, how shall I stand?  The apostle Paul wrote of that in [2 Thessalonians chapter 1, verses 7-8]:  “In the day when our Lord shall be revealed, taking vengeance on those who obey not the gospel” [2 Thessalonians 1:7-8], or the closing of the sixth chapter of the Book of the Revelation:  “For the great day of His wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?” [Revelation 6:17]. 

Crying for the rocks and the mountains to fall upon me as I face those inevitable exigencies [Revelation 6:15-16], and providences, and certainties of life, I face them—my death, the judgment day, my sins, all that God has written in His book, every thought, every deed—as I face that, what shall I do?  Where shall I turn?  My hope in the floodwaters of the judgment of God are found alone in the ark, in Christ; saved through the waters [1 Peter 3:20], preserved by the grace and mercy in the love and forgiveness of Jesus our Lord [Romans 8:2].

May I close with just an observation concerning this figure of baptism, as he calls it?  “Whereunto even baptism now saves us by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” [1 Peter 3:21]: not the water in itself, but our hearts in obedience, in good conscience toward God.   May I close with a word concerning that obedience of our Lord—to our Lord—in that holy ordinance of baptism?  When we receive the truth, it will be confirmed by every little detail.  That’s a strange thing about human nature. 

Let me illustrate it in a courtroom.  When a witness is on the stand, and he’s lying, if you’ll get him talking, just keep him talking, it’ll be very apparent by and by that he’s lying.  There’ll be little, tiny, inconsequential tell tale details that don’t quite fit.  Just keep him talking, and if he’s lying you’ll see it, you’ll know it.  He can’t make every little piece of the jigsaw puzzle fit together; he can’t do it, he cannot do it.  If he’s lying on the witness stand, just keep him talking, and soon it’ll be apparent that there are little details that he can’t fit.  He stumbles over them.  He forgets what he said ten minutes before.  But if a man is telling the truth, every little detail will fit just right; unconsciously it will fit.  The same thing is about the truth of God.  If what you are saying is the truth of God, and what you’re doing is in obedience to what God has willed and said, every little detail will fit. 

Let me give you an illustration.  Baptism is a picture of the death and the burial and resurrection of our Lord.  “We are buried,” says Paul, “in the likeness of His death, and we are raised,” says the same apostle, “in the likeness of His resurrection, to walk in a new life.”  [Romans 6:3-5]   Baptism is a burial in the waters of judgment, the floodtide of God’s judgment, and we are raised out of it in Christ, delivered from judgment and death.  That is what the Bible says is baptism:  a burial and a resurrection.

Now I want you to see just as an instance of how if you say the truth and obey the truth, every little detail will fit.  Now here’s one:  in John 3:23 the apostle writes, “And John the Baptist also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there:  and they came, and were baptized.  For John the Baptist was not yet cast into prison” [John 3:24],  Now do you see that little detail?  He’s not talking about baptism as such; he’s talking about John the Baptist in this passage here, giving witness as the friend of the groom to the bridegroom [John 3:29].  Yet incidentally he says, “John is down there at Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there”; and he was baptizing: “the people came and were baptized” [John 3:21].  Well, why did John have to have a whole lot of water with which to baptize?  It’s a little detail; it fits the jigsaw puzzle.  He was baptizing in Aenon because there was much water there, because you can’t baptize in a saucepan or a teacup or a baptismal font.  Brother, you got to get in a river, and you got to have a baptistery.  It takes a lot of water to baptize.  It just fits; every little detail will fit when you’re preaching the truth.

When we receive the truth, it is not only confirmed by the details of the Holy Scriptures, but it is confirmed by the leadership of the Holy Spirit.  In this marvelous story of Philip and the treasurer of Ethiopia, outlined for us—repeated for us—in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts, beginning at verse 26, it is the Spirit of God, it’s the angel of the Lord that spake unto Philip in his great revival meeting at Samaria, saying, “Go down into the desert, into Gaza,” and he arose and went [Acts 8:26-27].  Now the next verse, 29, verse 29: “And the Spirit said unto Philip, Join thyself to this chariot [Acts 8:29].  And Philip ran thither to this eunuch, and listened to him as he was reading out loud the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah [Acts 8:28].  He had been up to Jerusalem for to worship” [Acts 8:27]. 

I love those old English, Elizabethan expressions; “He was up there for to worship,” and there in Jerusalem he had somehow obtained a copy of the prophecy of Isaiah.  If you go to Jerusalem and look in that monument to the book, why, you will see a copy of Isaiah, doubtless one exactly like that.  He had found it, this treasurer of Ethiopia, in Jerusalem, and returning back home, seated in his chariot; he was reading aloud the prophet Isaiah [Acts 8:27-28].  And at that moment, when the Spirit said to Philip, “You join yourself to the chariot, go up there” [Acts 8:29], and as he walked along, he listened to that eunuch as he read aloud the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah [Acts 8:30]: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all” [Isaiah 53:6]. And he asked the treasurer, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  And the man said, “No.  I do not know [Acts 8:31].  When he says, God hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all, is he talking about himself or of some other man?” [Acts 8:34].  And Philip, seated now by the side of that treasurer, began at the same Scripture, and preached unto him Jesus [Acts 8:35]. 

Now listen, and watch the work of the Holy Spirit of God:


And as they went on their way, and as Philip was preaching to him about Jesus, they came unto a certain water: and the treasurer said, Look, look, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?

[Acts 8:36]


The first thing that will happen, that’ll come to pass, in the life of one who is turned by the Spirit of God in faith to the ark—to Jesus—is, “I want to be baptized.”


See, here is water;  what doth hinder me to be baptized?  I want to be baptized. 

And Philip said, If you trust in Jesus, if you believe in Him with all your heart, you may.  And that eunuch answered and said, I believe, I believe.

He commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him in the likeness of our Lord’s death, and he raised him up in the likeness of our Lord’s resurrection. 

And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord took away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more—and this is the third confirmation—and he went on his way rejoicing.

  [Acts 8:36-39] 


Not only will it be confirmed by every detail in the Word of God; not only will it be confirmed by the leadership, and teaching, and presence, and guiding of the Holy Spirit of God, but it will be confirmed by human experience.  “And he went on his way rejoicing” [Acts 8:39].  This is something God has given me to do.  This is something I am happy to do.  This is an obedience that brings gladness to my soul.

Dear people, I have been a pastor now almost fifty-five years.  I could hardly number these I have seen accept our Lord, “I believe,” and have followed Him in baptism.  Not one time, not once, in all of these more than one-half a century of years have I ever seen anybody, anyone, anywhere, who obeyed our Lord in that beautiful ordinance but that in heart, and soul, and memory, and mind, rejoiced that he did it, glad that he obeyed, happy in the way.  “And he went on his way rejoicing” [Acts 8:39].

  Bless God.  Praise His name.  You’ll be that way.  God is in it.  God invented that ordinance.  John said he got it from heaven; it came from our Father [John 1:25, 33].  And when finally we learned what it meant, that was it:  we are buried in the likeness of His death, and we are raised in the likeness of His resurrection [Romans 6:3-5]; and on the way, in the pilgrimage to heaven rejoicing, praising God in our souls.

May we stand together?

Our Lord, You were baptized in the River Jordan by the great Baptist preacher [Matthew 3:13-17]; what a beautiful example, what a holy dedication, what a heavenly way to begin that public ministry [Matthew 4:17], that ensued in Thy saving death on the cross [Matthew 20:28], joining the great Christian movement with the Baptist movement, one movement, one in the mind of God who raised up John and sent him from God to preach and to announce the coming of the kingdom and the presence of Christ [Matthew 3:1-2]; and then baptizing our Lord in that messianic commitment [Matthew 3:13-17].  O Savior, what a privilege for us to follow our wonderful Savior in a like burial and a like resurrection [Romans 6:3-5].  As He gave Himself, dying for us, buried for us, raised for us [Romans 4:25], someday coming for us [John 14:3], what a glorious privilege we have to follow our Lord in that beautiful ordinance.  Buried with our Lord, the floodwaters of the judgment of death covering us, but not to be laid in the grave and forever, but raised in the new life, in the resurrected life of our living Lord [Romans 8:11].  O precious Savior, thank Thee that we’re thus privileged in obedience thus to follow Thee [Matthew 16:24].

And while our people pray and wait, a family, a couple, a single, a somebody you—“This is God’s night for me, and pastor, I’m on the way”—make the decision in your heart, and in this moment when we wait and pray, when we sing our song, that first step will be the most precious you’ll ever make.  Come.  A thousand times welcome.  Ten thousand angels attend you in the way as you answer with your life.  In the balcony round, down a stairway; in the press of people on this lower floor, down one of these aisles: “We’ve decided, pastor, and here we stand.” 

And thank Thee, Lord, for the sweet harvest You give us.  In Thy saving and keeping name, amen. 

While we sing, welcome, come, a thousand times welcome.