To balance the victory we share in our Lord’s victory and our participation in his sufferings requires heavenly wisdom. The church has often succumbed to a triumphalism that skews the path of discipleship and the dynamic of the kingdom. It makes us forget that the way to the crown is through the valley of the cross, that, as John said, we are partakers of “kingdom and tribulation” (Rev. 1:9). As it was with Christ our Savior, so it will be with us – we must die in order to live, be crucified to rise, suffer to reign (2 Tim. 2:12). Other believers have so focused upon the trials and tears of life that the joy and glory of our Savior’s victory have been diminished, as well as the incredible peace and strength that come to us when we glory in his exaltation and dominion. Yes, we must bear the cross and die to ourselves. The flesh wars against the spirit so that we cannot be as holy as we want (Gal. 5:17). We do walk in a vale of tears; it is through many tribulations that we enter God’s kingdom (Acts 14:22). Yet, Paul says that we are raised with him and seated with him, sharing in his reign as his “holy nation” and “royal priesthood” (Eph. 2:5-6; 1 Pet. 1:9). To keep these two in their right relation, Peter draws our attention to Noah and his experience. He had to pass through the great Flood, but he was saved. The whole world perished; he and his family were delivered. It was as if he survived by being shut up in a coffin, the ark. The watery grave through which Noah passed leads Peter to the waters of baptism: specifically, that we must die to sin in order to live to righteousness.
He calls Noah’s passage through the Flood a “figure.” He does not mean that the waters of the Flood were a sacramental baptism for Noah and his family, but that that there is a correspondence between what Noah experienced and the path the Lord now calls us to walk. Noah was saved by submitting to God’s judgments and believing God’s word. He had to pass through a sort of death in order to be saved. In a similar way, baptism saves us – not through any efficacy in the water itself, or its application to us with the baptismal formula, or any other simplistic reading of this line. In fact, he makes clear through the additional phrase – “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh” – that he means nothing merely outward. The flood waters never touched Noah, so Peter is only using them to make a higher point. Baptism saves us due to its meaning. It saves us because in submitting to baptism, we are undergoing a certain type of death, like Noah did. Rather than clinging to our false delusions, as the men of the pre-Flood world, we trust God’s promise. Baptism, in that it is a sign and seal of Christ’s blood applied to us, brings us by faith into union with his death. Perhaps this would have been clearer if baptism was administered with blood, but this would deny the all-sufficiency and once-for-all nature of our Savior’s death on the cross. That water is used reminds us of the effects of his blood: cleansing, purification, deliverance from the wrath and curse of God.
When we are baptized, the waters preach Christ’s death to us. We must pass through them if we are to live. Even more, we must die with Christ that we may live in him. Baptism is a sign and seal of our cleansing in his blood and passage to life. Through baptism, we declare, as Noah did, that we have forsaken the world. We declare our resolve to turn from its rebellion against God. We confess that our only hope and trust is God’s promise of life and salvation through his Christ. In this alone we obtain a good conscience before God. In the face of judgment, we give this answer: Jesus Christ has died for us; we are one with him in his death. Baptism gives us a good conscience through the blood of Jesus Christ. Thus, the naked sign is insufficient. While all of Noah’s family was saved from the Flood, one of his sons, Ham, was cursed. He lacked the reality of baptism: faith in Christ. Similarly, we must believe God’s promise and partake of our Savior’s life if baptism is to save us. Baptism saves us because of union with Jesus Christ, because he is the ark into which we have fled for refuge from the wrath of God against the whole world of sin (Heb. 6:18-20). Entering into him by faith, we have a sure pledge of forgiveness, assurance of cleansing, and hope of boldness when we stand before God. Christ has purged our consciences from the guilt and power of dead works (Heb. 9:14); we are no longer under condemnation. We have passed from death to life.
So that we may have firm and unshakable confidence of forgiveness, Peter immediately adds “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The death of Jesus Christ is not enough. God, the Judge of all, must testify that he has accepted his death for us and that we are truly cleansed from our sins and right with him. This is what the resurrection proclaims to us: that Jesus Christ “was delivered for our offences and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). By raising his Son from the dead, the Father declared: “It truly is finished. My justice is satisfied; full and sufficient atonement has been made for sin. Those who look to my Son are truly reconciled to me; death has no more claim upon my Son; sin and the curse have no more claim upon you.” The resurrection is an addendum to the gospel. It is the capstone of biblical religion. Death passed upon all, for all have sinned (Rom. 5:12). But our glorious Savior rose for us. He swallowed death by his righteous, substitutionary life, by taking all our sins upon himself. Being baptized into the name of a dead man will do us no good. Christian baptism would be nothing but a memorial, a constant funeral ceremony, if Christ did not rise. Thus Paul: “And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). We must be brutally honest upon this point, as the Holy Spirit is. The resurrection is not a “and they lived happily ever after” conclusion to a moving tragedy. It is the very soul of true religion, the very hope of the gospel. Without it, we should stop telling lies about God and pretending to have hope when there is none – for anyone (1 Cor. 15:15). But with it, everything changes. Death is not God’s final word to sinners; sin and judgment have not triumphed. The resurrection of Jesus Christ means we are baptized into the name of a living Savior. The gospel is not only good news but the best news, the only ark through which we may safely pass the seas of death and judgment and enter into God’s everlasting kingdom.
We must remember these things about baptism, especially when the children of believers are baptized, for their condition reminds us just how weak and helpless we are to overcome the floods of sin and judgment unless God comes to us by his power and grace to give us life in place of our death. What else do we confess when we are baptized, stand in covenant for our children to be baptized, or witness a baptism but that the floods of sin, death, and hell would completely engulf us had not our mighty Captain passed through them for us? We say: “our only cleansing is through the blood of Jesus Christ; we have no other hope in life and in death. His blood is all our cleansing; his obedience all our righteousness. Like Noah, we may have to pass through many hardships in order to come finally to God and heaven, but our Savior lives. He is the Anchor of our soul, our Refuge within the veil of God’s holiness, our Life.” Confessing this, we must then, like Noah, forsake the world. Baptism obligates and empowers us to this. It holds nothing for us but death. When Noah entered that ark, he left the world behind. God was everything to him. He could lose everything else, but if God was with him, it was enough – even in his dark coffin. Do we believe this? Baptism brings us right before the foot of the cross. The water is poured; the blood of the crucified One is applied to us. We want nothing else but him. We need nothing else. Let the world jeer; it will howl. Let us be tried and tested; the living Lord of life is with us. The floods cannot touch us. One day, we shall even walk out of our graves because he did. We live because he loved us and gave himself for us – and rose.
The story is not finished. If all these things be true, why did our resurrected Savior depart to heaven? Would the gospel not have been clearer and surer if he had established an earthly kingdom after his resurrection, remained here to give incontrovertible proof of his victory at the cross? Every believer, moreover, longs to be with Jesus. O, the separation from the Bridegroom! It is painful. How we long for him: “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.” He went into heaven, first, because any earthly kingdom, as glorious as can be imagined, is nothing but a pig trough in comparison to the universal dominion promised to him by his Father, the reign he now enjoys. Thus, as Calvin wrote, he ascended that he might rule heaven and earth immediately by his power. Second, while it may seem that his going into heaven makes the gospel less real, our victory less clear, the opposite is actually the case. Had he remained on earth, we could not all be with him at once. Peter could not have used the analogy of Noah because our Savior would have been physically present with us; no faith would be required. We would never learn just how powerful he is above all the floods of human rebellion and Satan’s malice. Bearing the cross would be somewhat superfluous, and we should never know his power in our weakness. We should likely try to turn the risen Lord into a celebrity, thus making his cross and sufferings ridiculous, his reign a common thing.
When he ascended, however, he opened heaven for us. He is on the “right hand of God,” the position of supreme glory and power in the universe. He has gone there “for us:” to be our new and living way to God through the veil of his flesh; to intercede for us; to rule over all things for our sake (Heb. 10:20; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:19-23). Yes, we miss him, desire him, long for him, but look at what he has opened for us because he is there. Our Head, the One in whom we were chosen before the foundation of the world, our Mediator and Redeemer, is in God’s very presence. In a sense, because we are joined to him, we are there – by faith. We may call upon our God and Father with confidence at all times. We may be sure that just as he is smiling upon his Beloved, he is smiling upon us. If we need help or hope, we may through prayer ascend to heaven and obtain whatever mercy and grace we require (Heb. 4:12). And when sin and Satan assail us or our consciences are grieved by sin, there he is! The Anchor of our soul within the veil, our Advocate, is interceding for us, securing our forgiveness by his own endless life and the virtue of his perfect sacrifice. We feel our death – look, there is the Resurrection and the Life, guaranteeing that we shall live, that death shall not finally prevail, that a glorious “entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:11). On earth, we are often pressed down, grieved by our own sins and those of others, vexed by the wickedness of men in their mad rebellion against God. But he, the Lover of our souls, is in heaven preparing a place for us, preserving our inheritance untouchable so that however the world rages against us, we are secure. We have these blessings, third, because upon his triumphant ascension, he gave his Spirit to us (John 16:7). This is preferable to his physical presence now, for the Spirit is the bond of the union between Christ and us, even his very presence and power with us at all times. Through his Spirit this hope grows in us and comfort abounds. The more we walk in the light of God’s word, the more the Spirit teaches us, confirms us in good hope and faith, and sanctifies us into the image of our dear Savior.
Could we have such firm assurance unless Christ ascended? His entrance into heaven is God’s pledge that we shall enter there one day, for our Captain has gone before us as a “Forerunner within the veil” (Heb. 6:20). We may already turn to heaven, to God as our God, Jesus’ Father as ours, with strong confidence and assurance. The Rock of ages cleft for us, the One who loved us to the end, is at the Father’s right hand! The living God smiles upon us and invites us to call upon him with confidence, promises aid to us in our distress, comforts us in adversity, and teaches us. That Jesus Christ has ascended to heaven is the greatest testimony that baptism truly saves us. He was baptized into death, bearing all our curse. We are baptized into his death and thus partake of his life (Rom. 6:1-14). He will never leave or forsake us, fail or disappoint us. We are not separated from him but joined to him by faith in an unbreakable relationship of life and salvation. He sealed that bond, that covenant, with his own blood, and secured its blessings by his resurrection and ascension. Would we know more of this joy? We must often be “looking unto Jesus.” His word must dwell in us. Worldly thoughts and ways crush this hope, make it dim, unreal, ineffectual in our lives. Flee to him; he is the Ark of the Covenant, Emmanuel, God with us. Meditate upon his sufferings, yes, but meditate also upon his life, what he is doing for us and preparing for us at the Father’s right hand.
This seems so wonderful, but the world rages, Satan tempts, and sin deceives. These believers were suffering for righteousness’ sake. We are tempted to think we shall not make it. Enlightenment thinking has made such “metaphysical mumbo-jumbo” seem passé, unreal, unhelpful. What counts is the here and now, men and machines, money and movements, what man can do to help himself and build his utopias without revelation, without submission to God. We feel this deeply, that the old values and commitments are collapsing around us and that we are descending into a fresh pagan abyss, statist horrors, radical democracy’s nightmarish totalitarianism, planned economies, and bland uniformity. The flood waters mount afresh, do they not? God is judging again, is he not? But there is a difference, and to this faith must mount up to overcome and endure to the end, even to suffer with joy and quench darkness with hope. “Angels, principalities, and powers being made subject to him:” this line meets our fears and silences them. Having suffered and died for our sins and being raised from the dead, our Lord Jesus now possesses all authority and power. What glories – the One who loved us to the end now reigns until the end: until all his enemies are made a footstool for his feet; until he returns with one more victory shout and trumpet blare; until he throws sin, Satan, and death into the pit of hell; until he returns for his bride!
His rule is not an esoteric theological idea. It is the governing fact, the central reality on earth today. Do you see nations falling into blindness and rebellion? He is crushing them. Do men who forsake his gospel and church suffer the dreadful consequences of their faithlessness? He is making sure the curses of the covenant are fulfilled in them. Is public morality in the West at its lowest ebbs, evil men ruling who will not kiss him, plotting their fresh Babel of rebellion against God? Those whom the Lord of glory intends to destroy with the floods of his judgment, he first makes mad, drives them to desperation, makes them furious against him and his church. Why does he do this? O, we cannot forget the cross, the empty tomb, the throne he occupies, the covenant he defends! He will not be mocked. He was once. He was denied and rejected of men once; those who reject him now will be crushed, swept off the stage of history, either slowly or dramatically, silent or screaming, but reign he must. Reign he will. This is as much his Father’s will as his death and resurrection. The Father does not forget what his Son did: how he humbled himself unto death, poured out his soul unto death, became so low in obedience to his will that he might redeem us. He will not forsake his Son ever again. It is finished. Death, hell, Satan, and sin, as well as those on earth who will not yield and obey the Son of God, are finished. They cannot prevail. They must repent and confess or be judged and damned – in history, at the end of history, in hell forever. All things are under his feet. He must have the preeminence in all things. Let us enter the Ark; let us run to Christ. He is the King. All other men and movements, parties and philosophies, are pretenders to power. Christ the King has already preached his victory sermon to them. He has bound the strong man; he is spoiling his house. Yes, we shall suffer, for he will have us bear his cross, share his hope, look to his reign, wear his stigmata. But this is so that we might reign with him forever, the weak made strong, the foolish in the eyes of the world shown to be the wise: like Noah; like the Son of God.