Only a Few
“...a few, that is, eight souls, were saved… ” I Peter 3:20
I Peter 3:18-22 is an oft misunderstood passage of Scripture. An accurate grasp of the surrounding context is important to any Biblical text, and that is especially true in this case. Unfortunately, sometimes people want to run with the most sensational interpretation possible, when a simple explanation is usually correct.
Peter has been talking about returning blessing for evil, (I Peter 3:9), and suffering “for doing good,” (I Peter 3:17), leading up to verse 18. The verse that follows 3:22 reads, “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind,” (I Peter 4:1). Jesus suffered for doing good, so we should also expect to suffer for doing good in our effort to walk with Him. Understanding this to be the consistent theme will help us accurately interpret I Peter 3:18-22.
Verse 18 says that Jesus was “put to death,” and He was “made alive by the Spirit,” (I Peter 3:18). This is just saying that Jesus was crucified, (suffered for doing good), later to be resurrected by the power of the Holy Spirit. His suffering was not the end!
Verse 19 tells us “He went and preached to the spirits in prison,” (I Peter 3:19). Who are the “spirits in prison?” These “prisoners” are likely the same “captives” Jesus spoke about in Luke 4:18, when He stated His purpose in coming “To proclaim liberty to the captives…” We are all “slaves of sin” without obedience to Jesus’ gospel message, (Romans 6:16-18). All disobedient people, then, are “spirits in prison,” (I Peter 3:19).
Verse 20 of I Peter 3 brings Noah into the discussion. It is important to note that verses 18-20 are one sentence. With that in mind, it seems that Peter is saying that Christ preached to disobedient people “in the days of Noah….” How can that be? A sensationalized interpretation of this passage some people take is that, while Jesus was dead and in the grave, he went and preached to the lost people of Noah’s day. Notice that this interpretation changes the order of statements made in verses 18 and 19. Other variations of this incorrect interpretation are held by people as well. This view, however, is very inconsistent with other Biblical teachings, (Luke 16:25-31 in particular).
So again, what can I Peter 3:20 be saying? For starters, we know that Noah preached to the lost of his day, (II Peter 2:5). God uses mankind to teach His message of salvation. When Noah was preaching to his generation, it was God’s message that was being preached. God used Noah to preach His message.
Now we get to a more important point for Christians today. Noah’s example is offered as an encouragement to us. Noah suffered for doing good just like Jesus did. Despite God’s patience with the disobedient of Noah’s day, only “eight souls, were saved,” (I Peter 3:20). Despite God’s patience with the disobedient people in our day, only a few will be saved, (Matthew 7:13-14).
Just as salvation was offered to Noah, salvation is also offered to Christians today despite our suffering for good. I Peter 3:21 tells us “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.” Read v. 21 again. What does baptism do? It “saves us.” It is not the only thing that saves us, but it does save us. Unfortunately, when you look at the religious landscape around us, we do not see many people teaching that truth. It seems I Peter 3:21 is taught as often today as the 2nd chapter of James! (That is to say, it is virtually ignored).
Here is where Noah’s example hits home again. Only eight were saved in Noah’s day. God did not change His standards to make things easier on the disobedient majority. Teaching that baptism is essential for salvation today often comes with some pushback. Those who teach the necessity of baptism are certainly in the minority. When you face criticism though, just remember who else received unfair treatment for preaching the truth. Noah did. So did Jesus. Where is Jesus now? I Peter 3:22 tells us He “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.”
Only a few were saved in Noah’s day. Only a few believe baptism is essential in our day. Only a few seem to want to believe the plain, simple truth of the Scriptures. Only a few choose to subject their life to Jesus Christ as the Lord and Master. And yet, it is Jesus who is sitting “at the right hand of God.” Be one of the few.