This feels like the climax or pinnacle of the letter. Peter began by speaking of the new life the believer has in salvation. He then went on to describe the way that new life is lived, with God’s Word, worship, the conduct God desires, and suffering as the world fails to understand us or outright rejects us. Here, in this pivotal paragraph, Peter reminds us that Christ suffered too, and from here out the letter will focus even more on our suffering in the world for Christ’s sake.
Some translate the first phrase in verse 18 as “Christ died,” but the word here is to suffer. Christ, the righteous One, suffered for us, the unrighteous. His death and resurrection are what brought the victory of God over the sinful world. This is the story of what has given us hope, the new life in Christ where we are as God intends us to be. At this point Peter goes on to describe something of Jesus’ ministry that is hard to interpret. People have offered various ideas of what was intended, but ultimately none of it really affects the meaning of the passage. What is important is that God in his patience allows this world to persist so that some few may be saved through Christ’s sacrifice. His suffering.
Finally, just as Noah and crew were saved by God with an ark we too are rescued. According to Peter, baptism is the new ark. It does not literally wash away our sin, but it is the outward expression of the faith (trust and obedience) that saves.
Evangelical tradition likes to emphasize the truth that baptism nor any other form of “work,” saves us. It is only God that saves and we accept that salvation through our faith and by following Him as Lord. We like to play speculative games that point out that people who die before they can be baptized will still be saved because it is God that saves us through faith. However, what we have developed is a false teaching that claims that baptism is optional. The Bible does not teach this.
Faith is not a simple fact that we espouse. Biblical faith is a trust in and obedience towards God. Baptism is the first step of obedience that God instructs His people to practice. How can someone start their journey of discipleship by disobeying the very first instruction?