When the apostle Peter writes about Noah’s flood, he specifically informs 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 Pet. 3:20–22
As St. Ambrose also 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]? —On the Mysteries
Well over a thousand 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, exercising 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” (Gen. 6:5). Over the centuries, God had sent righteous men to preach the truth, but most were not listening.
And 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. —Gen. 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. —Gen. 6:17–18
Because of Noah’s righteousness, God spared Noah and his family from the flood. After years of being surrounded by both violence and corruption, they would be set free while wickedness would be washed from the face of the earth.
Just as God had originally commanded Adam and Eve, God instructed Noah and his family to be fruitful and multiply, taking dominion over the earth. In the place 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 to the new creation. Water translated him from the old world to the new.
With Noah’s story 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 Pet. 3:20–21, the apostle talks about Noah’s flood, explaining 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 that is said to save his household—without a single word of their own, personal 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 both Noah and his family. Scripture does not say that God found eight 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? Sure. But God did not seem to consider it important enough 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 choses a different point of emphasis. Instead, God says: “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 simply tells us that He found one man—Noah—to be righteous.
Similarly, notice the 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 here of Noah’s righteousness, and not the righteousness of Noah’s family. This idea is further strengthened by Genesis 6:8–9 (as seen above). In that passage, God recognizes Noah’s righteousness, and says nothing about his family. When Noah’s sons are mentioned, they are introduced as the sons of Noah.
Once we get to Genesis 9, the spiritual condition of Noah’s children becomes 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, A Familiar Illustration of Christian Baptism, p. 261
Therefore, we have good reason to assume that the eight people 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 Pet. 3:20–21).
- God blesses Noah, and God blesses all three of his sons.
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 (11:7) 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.
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 time before the flood, Noah had been a preacher of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:5). Yet the people did not repent, and they continued in their evil ways. So when the waters of judgment finally came, they were a death sentence for the ungodly. But the very same waters were a baptism for Noah and his family.
As St. Augustine observes (On Baptism 6.40.78):
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 after him, Noah’s faith was working together with his actions, and by his actions his faith was perfected.
In summary, 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 an 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, carrying 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 a new.
Noah’s baptism did not merely symbolize new life; Noah’s baptism caused new life, bringing cleansing and new creation to the whole world.