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In the NIV and the Berean Study Bible (apparently the most literal Bible translation according to its website) versions, 1 Peter 3:21 reads:

"and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ"- NIV

"And this water symbolizes the baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ"- BSB

But as one can recall from the Flood narrative, the waters of the Flood were what killed people. So how could Christians be saved by the mechanism of divine judgement? And how does baptism "judge"?

Am I missing something here or is this a genuine translation issue? In other versions, I could better understand what the verse was trying to say (I.e. just as baptism was the means for a believer to make their pledge towards God, people joining Noah in the ark was their means to make their pledge that they believed in Noah and were willing to follow God):

Examples:

"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"- NKJV

"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"- KJV

"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 good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ"- ESV

"Whereunto baptism being of the like form, now saveth you also: not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the examination of a good conscience towards God by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."- Douay Rheims

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  • "He will baptize you in fire" (Matthew 3:11) comes to mind - maybe baptism is supposed to hurt
    – b a
    Commented Sep 1, 2019 at 10:46
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    The waters saved Noah and his family from the grotesque situation in the antediluvian world. The waters were salvation to them.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Sep 1, 2019 at 15:56
  • Now I understand. So they were purified from the sins of the antediluvian world because of the Flood? Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 4:49
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    Am I missing something here ? - Apart from the fact that both involve water, and obliterate sin ? (Romans 6:3-7).
    – Lucian
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 5:25
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    Just as God used water to save 8 people in Noah's day from death, so also God uses water and word to save people in Baptism from sin. It's beautifully constructed parallelism.
    – Epimanes
    Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 1:04

6 Answers 6

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How do the waters of Noah's flood correspond to baptism (1 Peter 3:21)?

The whole earth was covered with water. All wicked people were wiped out.

When the earth was flooded people either lived or died. That was the judgement. If you didn't follow what God said and weren't in the ark with Noah, then you died.

When you are baptised in water this "represents" your sin being washed away. The water baptism shows outwardly what a person has chosen inwardly. The earth being flooded in Noah's time revealed who actually followed God and who didn't.

Jesus walked on the water in Matthew 14, Mark 6 and John 6 showing he was above judgment and he is our "ark" which saves us. If we are in him, then we are also, by God's grace, above judgement.

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1 Peter 3:20 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. 3:21 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:

knowing that salvation is not a work but a matter of faith alone. Noah didn't build an ark and then decide to have faith. Noah had faith and that faith compelled him to build an ark. Just like that ark saved Noah as a result of faith, baptism is the physical sign that you already had a faith in God

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  • "Noah didn't build an ark and then decide to have faith." Very aptly put. +1 Commented Oct 14, 2023 at 12:43
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The correlation is that the water saved those eight physical lives by keeping the ark afloat above the deluge. In this sense, they were "saved by water." It corresponds to baptism because, putting faith in the sacrament whereby we recieve "forgiveness of sins," (Acts 2:38) by we escape the coming judgement, and save our spiritual lives. As with the ark, where only those who boarded the ark were saved, baptism is preached unto all as their escape (Mark 16:16). In each case, the water isn't the thing which saves in itself, but trust (πιστις—faith) in God's means—which happens to be water in both cases.

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Romans 6:4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Jews were required to perform cleansing rituals, mikvot, after contact with unclean objects, like dead bodies. The text teaches that believers are not to confuse baptism with those cleansing rituals. Rather baptism was an expression of the right response to God's call to come out of Egypt, selfish living. Believers were to be confident that God could save from a risky step, like cutting all ties to the world system, which required serving selfish interest, which was unpleasant, but necessary to survive in that environment.

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Your suspicion and interpretation is correct, that the pledge of Baptistm (of the good conscience) saves, not the water. Water is not the object of symbol, rather the process of obedience through the ark; the ark was the salvation. Water was the means of destruction (2 Pet 3:6).

The poor translation is caused by the phrase "through water" δια ὕδατος in v20. It is in the same sense as escaping and passing through fire: 1Co 3:15 σωθήσεται οὕτω δὲ ὡς διὰ πυρός; it doesn't relate to instrumental means. They were saved through out of water (not by or with water). See Thayer's lexicon on dia G1223, the first entry is of place. The right translation is 'out of water' of 'from water'. BDAG3 on dia ① marker of extension through an area or object, via, through. Also see the BDAG3 on διασῴζω for details.

Thus, those versions using "through water" are ambiguous, but the NIV and BSB are very off for taking the water as the object of symbol. Both v20-21 should be read closely.

Samuel Thomas Bloomfield writes The Greek Testament, with English notes, critical, philological and exegetical 1855, Vol. 2, p. 719 on 1 Peter 3:20:
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[1Pet 3:20-21 SBL] ἀπειθήσασίν ποτε ὅτε ἀπεξεδέχετο ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ μακροθυμία ἐν ἡμέραις Νῶε κατασκευαζομένης κιβωτοῦ εἰς ἣν ὀλίγοι, τοῦτ’ ἔστιν ὀκτὼ ψυχαί, διεσώθησαν δι’ ὕδατος. ὃ καὶ ὑμᾶς ἀντίτυπον νῦν σῴζει βάπτισμα, οὐ σαρκὸς ἀπόθεσις ῥύπου ἀλλὰ συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς θεόν, δι’ ἀναστάσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ,

Disciple's Literal NT:

[1Pet 3:20-21 DL] ones having disobeyed formerly when the patience of God was waiting in the days of Noah while an ark was being prepared, ... in which a few (that is, eight souls) were brought-safely through the water, ... which also as to you a corresponding-thing now saves— baptism (not a putting-off of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

Some modern Greek translations like Filos also render it as διασώθηκαν από το νερό (out of or from the water). It is easy to judge bad translations if we have a basic knowledge of Greek. To think that the water saved them, shows a terrible misunderstanding of the context and the Greek. If water is the antitype (symbol) then Baptism conveys destruction, not salvation. That misinterpretation is based on a wrong tendency to think that the relative pronoun refers back to the immediately preceding word (the water which also...), when here it's clear that it refers to the act of obedience with the ark. A simple understanding of the preposition dia, and the fact that water was used for destruction, makes it clear that water is not the object of the Baptism.

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The Greek word rendered as “symbolizes” in the NIV and BSB is ἀντίτυπον (Strong’s 499, adjective that in usage means “typical of, representing by type (or pattern), corresponding to”). “Antitypical” is arguably a better translation for ἀντίτυπον (see answer to “What is the basis for translating ἀντίτυπον as ‘symbol’ in 1 Peter 3:21?”).

The water of the flood of Noah can be understood as the type, of which baptism is the antitype. Furthermore, the relationship between type and antitype has a unique character that is not reflected in the relationship between a symbol and the thing it symbolizes.

“What is an antitype in the Bible,” gotquestions.org

In the Bible, an antitype is a fulfillment or completion of an earlier truth revealed in the Bible. An antitype in the New Testament is foreshadowed by a type, its counterpart in the Old Testament.

Whereas “symbol” refers simply to representation, “antitype” is more of a foreshadowing. The concept of shadow here is key, such that the type is not fully understood until the revealing of the antitype. With this point in mind, consider that 1 Pet 3:21 presents the water of the flood in a completely new light, not as the means of destruction but as the vehicle by which the people were saved.

Eight were saved from being drowned by the water, but the rest were saved from sin. That is, while the latter experienced physical suffering and death, the water prevented them from sinning further. The connection between physical suffering/death and spiritual life is a theme that is replayed in the NT, only then it is the suffering/death of Christ that is the means of spiritual life for all sinners, and the suffering of those who follow Christ is a way of sharing in his suffering (1 Pet 4:13).

The words of 1 Pet 4:1, and much of what is written in context, can therefore be applied both to those who have been baptized as well as those who were carried away by the flood.

1 Pet 4:1 NKJ

1 for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God

From this point of view, the water did not represent, as the OP posits, God’s judgment but his mercy. The suffering and death that the people of the flood experienced was physical in nature, but judgment was postponed until such time as Christ would come to preach the gospel to them (1 Pet 3:19, 1 Pet 4:6). Thus those who are dead would still have the chance to live according to God in the spirit.

1 Pet 4:6

6 For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

The OP asks, “How do the waters of Noah's flood correspond to baptism (1 Peter 3:21)?” In both cases, water is the instrument of conveying God’s mercy. In the flood, it does so by bringing about physical death. In baptism, it does so by uniting us to Christ’s death (cf Rom 6:3). In this way, baptism is also a dying, not a literal dying, but a dying to the flesh and to sin (cf Rom 6).

1 Pet 3:18

18 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

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