The apostle Peter talks about Noah’s flood, and specifically tells us that New Testament baptism “corresponds to this”:
God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved 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 clear 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 subject to him. (1 Peter 3:20-22)
As St. Ambrose observes:
God shows that the grace of the Spirit is turned away by carnal impurity and the pollution of grave sin. Upon which, God, willing to restore what was lacking, sent the flood and bade just Noah go up into the ark. And he, after having, as the flood was passing off, sent forth first a raven which did not return, sent forth a dove which is said to have returned with an olive twig. You see the water, you see the wood [of the ark], you see the dove, and do you hesitate as to the mystery [of baptism]?
(St. Ambrose, On the Mysteries)
Well over 1000 years had passed since the creation of Adam and Eve, and the world was covered with evil. In the beginning, God had created mankind in His image: so that people would have godly relationships, and would exercise godly rule over the earth. But the Lord “saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Over the centuries, God had sent righteous men to preach the truth, but most people were not listening.
Then God points out someone special:
But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. . . . Noah was a righteous man . . . Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:8-9)
And God said to Noah:
I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under Heaven; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. (Genesis 6:17-18)
Because of Noah’s righteousness, God saved Noah and his family. After years of being surrounded by violence and corruption, they would be free. Wickedness would be washed from the face of the earth.
Just as God had originally commanded Adam and Eve, God told Noah and his family to be fruitful and multiply, and to take dominion over the earth. Instead of Adam, Noah would be the new head of the human race. By passing through the waters of the flood, Noah and his family were transported from the old creation into the new creation. Water translated him from the old world into the new.
With Noah’s story firmly in mind, let’s proceed to answer four questions:
- How do we know that this passage speaks of baptism?
- Who were the recipients of Noah’s baptism?
- How were the recipients chosen?
- What was accomplished by Noah’s baptism?
How do we know that this passage speaks of baptism?
In 1 Peter 3:20-21, the apostle Peter talks about Noah’s flood, and says that baptism corresponds to it.
Who were the recipients of Noah’s baptism?
Noah, and the seven members of his family.
How were the recipients chosen?
Noah was chosen because he was a righteous man who walked with God (Gen. 6:8-9).
Noah’s family, however, were chosen simply because they were in the family of Noah.
And here it may be observed, that it was Noah’s faith in preparing the ark, which is said to save his house, without a single word of their faith. All is attributed to the faith of Noah, and to the ark which by that faith he prepared.
On the basis of Noah’s righteousness, God saved Noah and his family. Scripture does not say that God found 8 righteous people, who all just happened to be in the same family. Rather, the Bible says that one man walked with God, and therefore his entire household entered the ark and was saved.
Is it theoretically possible that Noah’s wife and all six of Noah’s children were also righteous? Possibly. But God did not seem to consider it important to tell us such a thing. He could have written, “Noah’s family was righteous, blameless among the people of the time, and they walked with God“. But God chose a very different emphasis. Instead, God said, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” We aren’t told about the other seven people because their righteousness is apparently unimportant in this context. God only cares to tell us that He found
one man—Noah—to be righteous.
Similarly, notice the very specific wording used in Genesis 7:1—
God tells us that He saved Noah and his family, because He found Noah to be righteous. God is speaking of Noah’s righteousness, not the righteousness of Noah’s family. This fact is further strengthened by Genesis 6:8-9, which we looked at earlier. In that passage, God recognizes Noah’s righteousness, and says nothing about Noah’s family.
God does not mind mentioning Noah’s sons. He mentions them by name in the very next verse, Genesis 6:10. But God says nothing about their righteousness, like He had said in verse 9 about Noah. Rather, God states that which is especially important about the 3 of them: that they are the sons of Noah.
Also look at Genesis 6:22 and 7:5 — “Noah did everything just as God commanded Him”, and “Noah did all that the Lord commanded him.”
We are told explicitly, twice, that Noah was obedient to everything the Lord commanded. But these statements are not made about Noah’s family. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they were disobedient. It just means that their obedience was not important enough for God to mention.
We are told in Genesis 7:7 and 7:13 that all 8 of them went into the ark to escape the flood, but that does not mean that all 8 people were consistently obedient to everything that the Lord commanded. We cannot say whether Noah’s family was an obedient bunch, a disobedient bunch, or a mixture of both.
However, once we get to Genesis 9, the spiritual states of Noah’s children become clearer. Ham is wicked, dishonoring his father, and his son Canaan is thrice-cursed. Shem and Japheth are good, honoring their father, and are both blessed.
As one author has noted:
We have no evidence from the scriptures, that any of Noah’s family besides himself, was a true believer, before the flood. On the contrary, we have so much evidence as this, that at least one of his sons was dissolute, and incurred the curse of his father, which followed his posterity: and when God resolved to save some of the human family, he entered into covenant with Noah only; (“With thee will I establish my covenant;” Gen. vi. 18) yet on his account, he graciously condescends to save his whole family. Reader, do you not discover something here, like a connection, between the faith of a believer and the welfare of his household?
Scudder, N. (1818). A Familiar Illustration of Christian Baptism. Dodd & Stevenson. p. 261.
Thus, we have good reason to assume that the 8 people may have entered the ark as a mixed bunch: some in close fellowship with God, and some not.
- Noah alone is said to walk with God.
- Noah alone is said to be obedient.
- Noah’s entire family receives a type of baptism (cf. 1 Peter 3:20-21).
- God blesses Noah, and God blesses all 3 of his sons, too.
A man walks with God.
That man and his family are baptized.
All family members receive blessings.
What was accomplished by Noah’s baptism?
The author of Hebrews tells us that Noah, by faith, prepared the ark, so that he and his family would be able to pass safely through the flood. And since the ark was the only thing separating Noah from the ungodly world, it is fair to say that Noah’s “baptism” was an outworking of Noah’s faith. The author of the book of Hebrews tells us of three things Noah accomplished in his baptismal experience:
By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. (Hebrews 11:7)
The first thing accomplished by Noah’s baptism was the saving of his household. The water that drowned the world was the same water that carried the ark to safety.
The second thing accomplished by Noah’s baptism was that Noah condemned the world. For a long period of time before the flood, Noah had been a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5). Yet the people did not repent, and they continued in their evil ways. So when the waters of judgment finally came down, they were a death sentence for the ungodly world. Yet the very same waters were a baptism for Noah and his family. As Saint Augustine observed:
(St. Augustine, De Bapt. 6. 40. 78. Cited in: Hillier, Richard. Arator on the Acts of the Apostles: A Baptismal Commentary. 1993. pp. 84-85.)
The third thing accomplished by Noah’s baptism was that Noah became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. His heart of faith led to faithful actions, and those faithful actions made him an “heir of righteousness”. Similar to Abraham who would come later, Noah’s faith was working together with his actions, and by his actions his faith was perfected.
In a nutshell, Noah’s baptism brought about a new creation. By passing through the waters of baptism, Noah saved himself and his family, condemned the world of the ungodly, and became the heir of righteousness. He passed from death into life. He left behind the violent, corrupt world, so that he could become a new Adam, bringing about a new Genesis for the human race.
Noah’s baptism did not merely symbolize these things; it actually brought about these things:
- Without the waters of Noah’s baptism, the ark would not have floated, and would not have carried Noah’s family to safety, away from the world of the ungodly.
- Without the waters of Noah’s baptism, the world would not have been condemned by drowning.
- Without the waters of Noah’s baptism, Noah’s faith would not have been perfected.
- Without baptism, Noah and his family could not have passed from the old creation into the new creation.
Noah’s baptism did not merely symbolize new life; Noah’s baptism caused new life, bringing about cleansing and new creation.