In the previous verses Peter had referred to beings who had disobeyed God prior to the flood, with their disobedience being connected to the building of the ark by Noah. The exact nature of their disobedience is not specified. Peter’s mentioning of the flood, however, is followed by a reference to baptism. The common feature, according to Peter here, in the flood and in baptism is salvation: at the flood Noah and his family were saved because they were in the ark that Noah built; baptism saves Peter’s readers because it somehow brings them into contact with Jesus. What does Peter mean by his statement that ‘baptism now saves’? His other writings make it very clear that he does not mean baptismal regeneration. So what does he want us to realise about baptism?
First, Peter reminds his readers that baptism is not designed to clean their physical bodies. No doubt, the reason why Peter mentioned this wrong notion was that some were regarding the meaning of baptism in this superficial way. Perhaps it was regarded as the important contribution in a ritual. Obviously, because water was used, it would remove any dirt that was on the body. The more water, the cleaner the body would be. Yet that was not the significance of baptism, says Peter. So what is its significance? Peter will highlight several aspects that are essential in understanding the meaning of baptism.
To begin with, Peter says that baptism is ‘the appeal to God for a good conscience’. ‘Good conscience’ is mentioned in verse 16 as describing the outcome of consistent Christian living, which was important at that time for another reason, the necessity of suffering righteously and not deservedly from the civil authorities. If a believer was taken to court for his faith, it was essential that his way of life did not contradict his profession. So when he was asked about his faith he would be able to describe it truthfully.
In what way does baptism require a good conscience? Baptism of a new convert is an occasion when a person states that he or she will live a holy life from the inside. Peter’s word ‘appeal’ probably alludes to promises or petitions that a person would have made to God at his or her baptism. So their baptism would have revealed to others that they were asking God for salvation, for cleansing from sin, which is the proper response to his grace and one of which conscience would approve. Thinking about their baptism would enable them to maintain a good conscience. What was professed by them at their baptisms must remain the desire of their hearts throughout life.
We will think about other benefits of baptism tomorrow.