Baptism as Spiritual Warfare

The pastor had been preaching a series of messages through 1 Peter. When it was time for 1 Peter 3:14–22, he sincerely announced, “We’re going to skip this section since it’s just too strange.” He was right and wrong that day. As odd as it is, this passage is one of the most compelling in the New Testament—if you understand what it’s saying.

But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. And now the antitype—that is, baptism—saves you, not be means of a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience on the basis of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

The theme of 1 Peter is that Christians must withstand persecution and persevere in their faith. To understand how our odd passage fits with that theme, we need to get our heads around the concept of “types” and typology—a kind of prophecy that occurs in the Bible.

We’re most familiar with prophecies directly from the mouth of a prophet. But a “type” is an unspoken prophecy; it is an event, person, or institution that foreshadows something that will come. For example, Paul tells us that Adam was a type of Christ. He foreshadowed or echoed something about Jesus, namely that His work on the cross would affect all people just as Adam’s disobedience had a global effect (Rom 5:14).

First Peter 3:14–22 uses typology. The passage presumes that events associated with Genesis 6 typify or foreshadow the gospel and the resurrection. The episode of Genesis 6:1–4, where angelic beings (the “sons of God”) cohabited with human women—the catalyst to the wickedness that brought the judgment of the flood—was especially significant. For Peter, these events were commemorated during baptism.

Peter was evidently familiar with Jewish tradition about Genesis 6. Jewish writers just prior to the New Testament era taught that God sent Enoch (Gen 5:21–24) to inform the fallen sons of God that they were doomed for what they had done. These angelic beings were, according to Jewish traditions, held in a prison under the earth.

Jesus as a Second Enoch

Peter saw a theological analogy in these ideas. Just as Jesus was the second Adam for Paul, Jesus is the second Enoch for Peter.

Enoch descended to the imprisoned fallen angels to announce their doom. First Peter 3:14–22 has Jesus descending to these “spirits in prison,” these fallen angels. He then tells them they were defeated, despite His crucifixion. God’s plan of salvation and ruling His kingdom was still intact. In fact, it was right on schedule. The crucifixion actually meant victory over every demonic force opposed to God. This victory declaration is why 1 Peter 3:14–22 ends with Jesus risen from the dead and set at the right hand of God—above all angels, authorities, and powers.

How does this relate to baptism? It explains the logic of the passage. Two words in verse 21 need reconsideration in light of this backdrop. The word most often translated “appeal” (ἐπερώτημα, eperōtēma) in verse 21 is best understood as “pledge” here. Likewise, the word “conscience” (συνείδησις, suneidēsis) does not refer to the inner voice of right and wrong here. Rather, the word refers to an attitude or decision that reflects one’s loyalty.

Baptism, then, is not what produces salvation; it is an oath of loyalty to the risen savior—a public avowal of who is on the Lord’s side in the cosmic war between good and evil. It is also a visceral reminder to the defeated fallen angels. Every baptism is a reiteration of their doom in the wake of the gospel and the kingdom of God.

Early Christians understood the typology of this passage and its link back to the fallen angels of Genesis 6. Early baptismal formulas included a renunciation of Satan and his angels for this very reason. Baptism was and is spiritual warfare.


why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

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Michael S. Heiser

Michael S. Heiser is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (M.A., Ancient History) and the University of Wisconsin- Madison (M.A., Ph.D., Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies). He has a dozen years of classroom teaching experience on the college level and another ten in distance education. He is a former scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software.

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  • Excellent explanation, Michael. Thanks. Baptism in the Catholic tradition still includes a renunciation of Satan and his empty promises.

  • “Baptism was and is spiritual warfare.” [Baptism vs Spiritual Warfare blog]

    I find it difficult to find the reasoning for his above statement/conclusion.

  • (I did not get a confirmation when submitting this comment-please forgive me if posted twice)
    Dr. Heiser, I do not deny your capability of providing keen, scholarly insights, helpful to Biblical studies. However, I spent 3 years studying the Biblical texts associated with Baptism, in the original languages, alongside a parallel study of Baptism as taught throughout Church history and by the Church Fathers. My purpose was driven by a personal need to discern right baptismal doctrine between the typical, modern, evangelical view, and the orthodox, confessional, Lutheran view. Up to that point, since my conversion to faith in Christ, I had been a Southern Baptist for about 13 years, so my struggle to arrive at right baptismal doctrine was fierce and difficult to say the least. I am also a theology student through a university in the UK, and I have learned how to make use of critical resources, and have much at my disposal, and I have to say, never did I once come across an exegesis of the 1 Peter 3 passage similar to yours. I am not saying there aren’t others that hold your view … I have just not seen it. So, keeping in mind, as I’m sure you are aware, that many significant theologians up through the Reformation, not the least of which being the great Reformer Martin Luther himself, did not hold your view, my question is this … rather than provide your interpretation of the 1 Peter 3 passage as a stand-alone exegesis, why did you not present the other well documented historical/theological view(s) of Baptism in the 1 Peter 3 passage alongside your view, so that a comparison between your view and the alternate view(s) might be made? No Biblical scholar should be expected to assume the orthodoxy of another scholar’s exegesis, without being given a well documented juxtaposition of the supposed strengths of one view, against the supposed weaknesses of other historical/theological views. With that said, I’m sure you are familiar with the distinction between the two major historical/theological views on Baptism: 1) Baptism is a work of God 2) Baptism is a work of man. From that main categorical division, sub-branches of Baptismal doctrine have emerged over the centuries with different emphasis, but the essential differences always distill back down to the two major distinctions, baptism as God’s work, or baptism as man’s work. Dr. Heiser, your exegesis of 1 Peter 3 reveals that you have pitched your tent in the camp of baptism as a work of man. So, my challenge to you, as Logos scholar in residence would be this …. why don’t you present your case for the doctrine of Baptism, as though you were preparing for a debate with Martin Luther? Now of course this will entail quite a bit of introduction to your audience of the historical teachings of Baptism dating from Luther back to the Apostolic Fathers, as well as para-church documents, such as the Didache, and intra-church documents such as the ancient creeds. You will have to engage the Large Catechism as well, seeing you will be debating Luther himself. And you will have to exegete your view of other important Bible passages that speak of Baptism. And of course to sustain your view before Luther, you will have to prove that your’s was the predominant view held by the Church from the 1st Century up until the Anabaptist controversy and the fragmentation of views that sprang up during, and especially post Reformation. If you do this, I submit you will be doing much more than 99% of Evangelicals ever do, before they answer the question, “What is the orthodox Biblical doctrine of Baptism?”. Most Evangelical Christians it seems, never stop to seriously ponder this question, much less attempt to answer it in any substantive way. Will you? Thanks for taking time to read my response! I hope you take up my challenge, as I believe it might prove useful for many readers of LogosTalk . … Phil Owen

  • I suggest that we need to exercise care in establishing an Enoch typology. There is no mention in Genesis 6, or anywhere else in the OT, of Enoch preaching to fallen angels. For this tradition we are dependent on the non-canonical, late (c 300 BCE) and highly speculative 1 Enoch. Jude refers to 1 Enoch (Jude 6,7) but this does not confer canonical status on it, nor, I think, does it entitle us to develop a typology which has no roots in Scripture.

Written by Michael S. Heiser