by Matthew W. Bassford
Genesis 7:11-24 tells the story of the greatest cataclysm ever to overtake the earth. Because the wickedness of man was great on the earth, God sent a flood to cleanse it by destroying everything that lived on the land. In this flood, every human being died except for eight. The patriarch Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives escaped the deluge because Noah had obeyed God and built an ark for their salvation.
This event has great spiritual significance because it shows that God will not allow the wicked to go unpunished. However, it has even more significance for believers because it is a type of our salvation. In 1 Peter 3:18-21, the apostle compares the rescue of Noah's family to our rescue through baptism. This evening, let's explore this comparison to gain a better understanding of being saved through water.
I believe there are four main ways in which these two events are similar. First, we must recognize that, as in the days of Noah, judgment is coming. The apostle Paul predicts this in Acts 17:30-31. Here, he urges everyone to repent because the day is coming when Jesus will judge the world, as proven by His resurrection.
In both of these cases, the timing of judgment is uncertain. God warned Noah about the flood 120 years before the event and waited patiently while he constructed the ark. God continues to wait patiently in our day, but only He knows the day and the hour when His patience will come to an end and His wrath begin.
As Peter predicted would happen in 2 Peter 3, some take God's patience as an opportunity to scoff. Because He has not destroyed the world with fire yet, they assume that He will never do so. When Noah tried to warn others during those 120 years, all of them had the same reaction. They did not believe that judgment would ever come, so they continued to live wickedly. Tragically, they realized their mistake only when it was too late to do anything about it. Today, we must be wiser than they were. Otherwise, we will be destroyed in the judgment of fire as they were destroyed in the judgment of water.
Second, Jesus warns us that only a few will be saved from the judgment. Look at Luke 13:23-24. We don't know how many people were alive when the flood came, but it certainly was many more than 8! Nonetheless, the number of the saved didn't reach double digits. In Luke, Jesus is asked if only a few will be saved, and His answer is essentially “Yes.” This is the nature of the judgments of God. Only a remnant is saved, while the many are destroyed.
This should cause us to consider soberly our own beliefs about our salvation. I know all too many people who think that it doesn't make a difference what church you go to or even if you go to church as long as you're a good person. This is a very convenient belief to hold because it basically means that nobody has to do anything in order to inherit eternal life.
Sadly, it isn't true, and we can tell that it's not true because of the words of the Lord. If indeed being a good person were enough, then Jesus would have told His questioner in Luke 13 that in fact many would be saved. After all, aren't many people "good people," at least in the sense of that phrase? In reality, only a few will be saved, and none of those will be saved because they are good people.
This takes us to our next point, which is that the righteous will not save themselves. Here, let's consider Titus 3:4-5. At this, some might raise an eyebrow. After all, didn't Noah build the ark that carried his family safely through the flood?
Not exactly. Let me explain. As you may or may not have seen, there is a consistent online debate about whether the ark was seaworthy. Some believers say yes; Skeptics say no. I think the debate is silly for reasons I'll get into in a little bit, but if we only compare the competing arguments, I think the skeptics are right.
According to Genesis 6, the ark was 300 cubits long. Even using 18-inch cubits, that's 450 feet. The longest all-wooden ship ever made, constructed with all of our modern knowledge of shipbuilding, was the S.S. Wyoming. From one end of the deck to the other, the Wyoming was only 350 feet long, but it eventually sank because wood isn't rigid enough to give stability to a hull that long. What, then, of an ark that is 100 feet longer?
As I hinted earlier, though, all of this is beside the point. There is only one reason why the ark protected Noah and his family: because God promised him that if he built the ark and went into it, he would be safe. If Noah had just been a weird dude who decided to build the ark on his own, he and his family surely would have perished along with the rest of the human race. Salvation did not come from the ark; salvation came from God.
In the same way, salvation does not come simply because we have been immersed in water. As Titus says, we do not save ourselves through works of righteousness. Instead, God saves us according to His mercy through the washing of regeneration, which is baptism.
There are those who claim that we teach "works salvation" because we insist upon the necessity of baptism for salvation. However, "works salvation" is not what we teach, nor is it what the Bible says. Apart from God’s mercy, none of us could be saved, whether we dunk ourselves in the baptistry or not.
Nonetheless, and this is our final point, we must obey in order to be saved. Let's read from II Thessalonians 1:5-9. Note that Paul identifies two groups as belonging to the condemned: those who do not know God and those who do not obey the gospel. It follows, then, that if we do not want to be condemned, we must both know God and obey the gospel.
This is no different than what we see in Noah's life. The ark didn't save Noah; God did. However, imagine that Noah had said to God, “You know, God, building an ark is a lot of work. I know You could save me without an ark, so I'm not going to build it, and I'm just going to trust in You to save me.” If Noah had said such a thing, assuming that he even lived long enough to see the flood, he would have been fish food!
So too for us. Baptism does not save us by its own virtue, any more than the ark saved Noah by its own virtue. However, Noah still had to build the ark if he wanted to be saved, and we still must be baptized if we want to be saved. That is what God has asked of us, and woe to those who refuse to obey!
To put things another way, heading into the final judgment without having been baptized makes just as much sense as waiting for the flood without an ark. In both cases, we might claim to be trusting God, but really, we're putting Him to the test, and we'll meet the fate that all rebels deserve.