The Baptism of our Lord
March 2, 2014
1 Peter 3:18-22
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us; baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him. 1 Peter 3:18-22
We think of Noah’s flood as destruction and judgment. We don’t think of it as salvation. We think of the ark as salvation because it saved them from the flood. We call the church the ark of salvation because through his church God will deliver us from his final judgment against this world. The flood is judgment; not salvation.
But in the words before us today, the flood is salvation. St. Peter says that eight souls were saved through water. He doesn’t say that they were saved from water but that they were saved through water. The water saved them. From what did the water save those eight souls? From the same thing that the water saves us: from sin.
Sin is within and without. The sin that is within is what the Bible calls our flesh. The sin that is without is the sinful world in which we live. Sin is unbelief. It is telling God that he is wrong and we are right. Unbelief manifests itself in sins against all of God’s commandments, but most especially against those of the first table. God says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Unbelief manufactures as many false gods as strike the fancy. People, who owe allegiance and devotion to the true and only God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, set up fake gods to serve. These fake gods then approve of whatever the idolater is doing. No surprise there!
God says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Unbelief brings God’s name into service to sin by putting on religious airs – appealing to God and faith – to justify one’s own opinions and habits that are directly contrary to the revealed will of God. God’s name is most profoundly blasphemed by those who are the most religious. They use God’s name to dress up their sin as if it is holiness.
God says, “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” Unbelief says it can know all it needs to know about God while ignoring the pure preaching of his Word. Unbelief despises what God says in favor of its own opinions, notions, and feelings.
God gave Noah 120 years warning before the flood came. St. Peter in his second Epistle calls Noah a preacher of righteousness. Noah preached to an unbelieving people. No one believed him. They preferred sin to righteousness. God destroyed them all. Only Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives were saved. Eight people were saved from sin. God washed away sin by washing away the sinners. As Noah and his family watched the world being destroyed by water they could see for themselves God’s judgment against sin. God saved his people from that sin through water.
God saves his people through water. How so? First, Christ dies. He is just. That is, he is righteous. He dies for the unjust, that is, he dies for the unrighteous. He who had no sin – who never had a sinful desire or spoke a sinful word or did a sinful deed – suffered and died for the sin of the world. As St. Peter writes:
He could not bring us to God in our sin. He had to take away the sin to bring us to God. The only way he could take the sin away from us was by taking it upon himself, as the inspired text says, “The just for the unjust.” The One who was righteous was offered as the substitute for those who were unrighteous. He was offered up on the cross as a sacrifice. Once was enough. “Christ also suffered once for sins.” His suffering was sufficient to take away the sin of the whole human race. He suffered just once and he suffered for the unjust. He did not suffer for only some of them. He fully suffered the full penalty for all sins of all people. His suffering was perfect in that it was for all. His suffering was perfect in that it accomplished everything it needed to accomplish. He took away all sin and reconciled us to God.
But the deliverance from sin must be delivered to us. This is crucial. Sin is unbelief. Faith receives the forgiveness of sins. Therefore, faith is necessary. God engenders faith by means of preaching the gospel to us. God engenders faith by means of baptizing us. But the working of faith is not magical. God’s word is often resisted. That we are saved by grace alone does not mean that grace is irresistible. Grace is resistible. Noah, the preacher of righteousness, preached the righteousness that is ours through faith. He preached Christ. He preached his suffering and death, the just for the unjust. And his preaching was resisted. He preached the truth and the truth was rejected. Then, after Jesus died on the cross, he went to preach to those who rejected Noah’s preaching. St. Peter writes of Jesus that after he was put to death, he was:
Jesus preached to the spirits in prison. We confess this truth in the Creed when we say, “he descended into hell.” Hell is called prison in various places in the Bible. Jesus did not preach to the inhabitants of hell to give them another chance. There is no second chance, as Abraham told the rich man in the story of Lazarus that no one can go from hell to heaven. Christ preached to the spirits in prison to validate the preaching of righteous Noah and the pure preaching of the gospel of every time and place. Christ vindicates the preaching of the gospel because all gospel preaching is Christ-preaching. He is the preacher and he is the One being preached. It is the substitution of his righteousness for our sin. That’s the heart of it all. Christ, the just, died for us, the unjust, to bring us to God.
The suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus give the gospel its power. The gospel can give us the forgiveness it announces to us because the just who died for the unjust has won this forgiveness for us. Baptism saves us because it gets its power from Jesus the Savior, as St. Peter says:
Jesus suffered, died, and rose from the dead. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. All powers are subject to him. He is Lord over all. He gives us the answer of a good conscience by taking away the sin that burdens our conscience. Baptism saves by virtue of the power of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Jesus told John that it was fitting for him to be baptized to fulfill all righteousness. This is how it is that our baptism is for us a robe of righteousness that covers us and sets us before God as perfectly righteous in his sight. Our baptism is not just water. It is water that is joined to the words and command of Christ who said to baptize all nations and promised, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.”
It is easy for Christians to become discouraged by the reappearance of sin in their lives. Noah and his family had to contend with the sin of a thoroughly godless society. It is increasingly that way for us as well. Basic Christian standards of right and wrong are not just ignored but also savagely attacked as our culture becomes increasingly intolerant of God’s law and of those who teach it.
But it is worse when our own sins rise up against us. It is worse when our own conscience accuses us. We are reminded of our idols. We try to smash them but they rise up to accuse us. We are reminded of our hypocrisy and abuse of God’s name. We know we have ignored his Word, set it aside, doubted it, and denied it. We bear the name of him who is righteous and we know that we are unrighteous.
But our baptism tells us differently. It saves us. It washes away the sin that clings to us. Baptism does not just wash away original sin and the sins committed before baptism. Baptism washes away all sin. Just as Jesus died but once and that was enough, so we are baptized once and that is enough to wash away all sin we ever commit. Baptism is a washing to which we return every day to claim the innocence it provides.
Baptism “works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this.” That’s the promise of God’s word we learn from the Catechism. In our baptism we hear the voice of divine approval. The Father said of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” In our baptism he calls us by name and approves of us. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus when Jesus was baptized. The Holy Spirit fills us in Holy Baptism and he makes his home in us as the grace of our baptism defines our lives. Even as the Holy Trinity was clearly revealed as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost when Jesus was baptized by John, so our baptism places upon us the almighty name of the Triune God, the only true God, who forgives us our sins, delivers us from death, and rescues us from all evil of body and soul.
Baptism saves us. It is the power of Jesus’ victory over sin and hell. When we face doubts; when we struggle with temptations; when we suffer pangs of guilt; when it seems as if the devil is winning the victory over us; we respond to our spiritual enemies by claiming our baptism and the victory it provides. We are baptized into Christ. We are children of Paradise. No power, no accusation, and no false promise can rob us of what God gives us in our baptism. Baptized into God’s precious name, our faith shall not be put to shame, and we shall never perish.
Rolf D. Preus