HOW DID THE GREAT FLOOD’S WATER SAVE THE EIGHT SOULS IN 1 PETER 3:20?
by Shawn Brasseaux
A very awkward preposition appears in 1 Peter 3:20 of the King James Bible: “Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” Did not the water of the Great Flood in Noah’s lifetime drown and kill? Then, how is it that eight souls were “saved by water?” And, from what did that water save them? Lastly, why would the Apostle Peter even mention in his first epistle something that happened so long ago?
The Great Flood of Noah’s lifetime was the most catastrophic event ever to occur in human history. There was unparalleled devastation, literally worldwide ruin, in all natural realms. With greatly accelerated rates of erosion, transportation, and deposition of sediment, Earth’s surface was drastically changed. Even its atmosphere was altered significantly. With the exception of those on the Ark, all members of the animal kingdom died. Save the eight souls onboard, the entire human race perished in watery graves. Such violent waters drowned many millions of—perhaps a few billion—people. Today’s fossil record is one of the evidences of a worldwide, systematic extermination of all kinds of life-forms. Modern floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mudslides, and tsunamis we experience allow us to partially understand the terrible natural conditions that occurred during the Great Deluge. Massive canyons with “puny” rivers flowing through them, major orogeny (mountain building), the divisions of continental landmasses, gigantic impact craters, and other physical landforms, show us Earth’s history has the blot of an unmatched and cataclysmic event. (As an Earth scientist, I enjoyed that digression, but let us now get back to the Bible text!)
Depending on the context, the Greek word “dia” can be translated either “by” or “through.” In the King James Bible, it was rendered “by” in 1 Peter 3:20: “eights souls were saved by water.” Some modern English versions make the verse say “through.” That is, “by” was so problematic that the standard 400-year-old English reading was changed to “through.” When reading the King James Bible, some will actually have the audacity to “correct” the word “by” and make the text say “through” (encouraging unbelief and the exaltation of man’s opinions over God’s Word). If we give our Authorized Version translators the benefit of the doubt, however, we will wind up in faith rather than doubt. What if I told you that verse 21 held the key to the proper translation of the word “dia” in verse 20? Let me prove it to you.
We turn to read 1 Peter 3:21: “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:….” Is water baptism “saving” these individuals? Well, if words mean anything, the answer is, “YES!” “…[E]ven baptism doth also now save us….” Is water “saving” those in verse 21? Yes! Could water in verse 20 (our “problem” verse) be “saving” those in that verse 20? Yes! Verse 21’s “the like figure” points back to verse 20. The Noahic floodwaters of verse 20 preview that which those in verse 21 are saved by (and from)! If that sounds like nonsense, just wait a bit longer for me to flesh it out. It will become clear shortly.
Think about what was going on during the time of the Great Flood. (Historically, those events are recorded in the Bible in Genesis chapters 7 and 8.) Water was coming from beneath Earth’s surface, and it was coming down from heaven. A universal ocean was forming on the planet. All landmasses—even their mountain ranges—were completely covered. As water levels rose because of the rain and groundwater introductions, as the continental plates sank, and as the oceanic plates rose to deliver seawater onto the landmasses, Earth’s surface was progressively inundated. The lowest elevations (coastal plains, canyons, lake/sea basins, river valleys, et cetera) were filled first. Of course, mountains were the last to flood. Animal, plant, and human carcasses floated. Sediments—even gigantic boulders—were lifted and carried about and violently deposited. (Sorry for the science excursion again!)
What else rose with those water levels? Why, the Ark, the buoyant and waterproof boat that God commanded Noah to build to the saving of his house (Genesis chapter 6). That giant marvelous vessel began to lift from the surface of Earth. In fact, the language of the Bible is that the water level had to rise for 40 days around the world before the Ark actually began to float! Genesis 7:17-18: “And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth. And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters.” While it is mathematically impossible to figure out the volume of water needed to bring this to pass, the mere thought is staggering… to say the least!
Getting back to the Apostle Peter’s comments, we can see why the Holy Spirit said what He did. Why did the 1611 translators choose the word “by” instead of “through?” Something did not merely save Noah and his family through the water (as in the Ark passing through the water). There is more going on in Genesis chapters 7 and 8. Peter’s emphasis is on the water actually saving them. Remember, verse 21 says that water baptism saves Peter’s audience (which is certainly not us, but the nation Israel). In keeping with verse 21, verse 20 would have water saving people as well. The floodwaters in Noah’s day had a dual application. Firstly, they destroyed the evil human race and made way for a new world. Secondly, the waters lifted up Noah and his family, as the Ark floated above God’s judgment poured out on that wicked civilization. Without the water carrying the Ark, those in the Ark could not be saved from the water. Buoyancy in the water kept them from drowning with all the others in the water!
When the Holy Spirit led Peter to write 1 Peter 3:21, He was pointing back to Ezekiel as well as Matthew (and John the Baptist). Water baptism in Israel’s program symbolizes national repentance and cleansing from idolatry. Notice Ezekiel chapter 36: “ But I had pity for mine holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the heathen, whither they went.  Therefore say unto the house of Israel, thus saith the Lord GOD; I do not this for your sakes, O house of Israel, but for mine holy name’s sake, which ye have profaned among the heathen, whither ye went.  And I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the heathen, which ye have profaned in the midst of them; and the heathen shall know that I am the LORD, saith the Lord GOD, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes.
“ For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land.  Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.  A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.  And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.” (Please notice verse 25 especially—the sprinkling of clean water to cleanse Israel from all her filthiness and all her idols.)
Following Ezekiel’s prophecy, John the Baptist conducted his ministry. Matthew 3:1-12 tells us all about it: “ In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,  And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.
“ Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan,  And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.  But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:  And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
“ And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.  I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance. but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:  Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
The Jews coming to John’s water baptism were preparing for God’s wrath to come (see verse 7 above). God’s wrath was approaching, soon to be poured out upon idolatrous Israel. Those who had come in faith and repentance to John’s baptism would be saved through that wrath (seven-year Tribulation and subsequent Second Coming of Christ). That wrath was anticipated in early Acts. Hence, the Apostle Peter continued preaching water baptism, as Acts 2:38-40 confirms: “ Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.  For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.  And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation.”
That “untoward generation” (verse 40) was the unbelieving, rebellious Jews. Weeks earlier, they had rejected and crucified Jesus as a fraud, a liar. Instead of trusting Him as Messiah, they denied Him. Unfortunately, they were still in unbelief on the Day of Pentecost (Acts chapter 2). These people would be consumed in God’s wrath. Peter urged his Jewish audience to leave apostate Israel and join the “Little Flock” (Israel’s believing remnant). As the Lord Jesus had said in Luke 12:32, members of this Little Flock would be the heirs of the literal, physical, visible, Davidic kingdom that Israel had been expecting for many centuries. Read Jesus’ comments in Luke 12:31-31: “ But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you.  Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Just as the floodwaters bore the Ark, so that it floated and delivered the believers from God’s wrath, so water baptism delivers the believing Jews from being consumed in God’s wrath during the Tribulation and Second Coming of Christ. The water “saved” Noah and his family by floating them to safety. Likewise, the water baptism “saves” Israel by preserving them through that fiery wrath of the end-times. We have no reason to change the King James Bible in 1 Peter 3:20—eight souls were saved “by” water. This is in accordance with Jewish souls being saved “by” water during the conclusion of Israel’s prophetic program (future from us). Hence, I will leave the King James Bible text alone and just believe it. I have no business correcting it; it should be correcting me. (And, as far as I am concerned, it just did.)