I have just read “The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible” by Michael S. Heiser. This is a scholarly treatment of a subject most Christians seldom, if ever, think about, the unseen spiritual realm and the beings (powers) that inhabit it, what they do and how they influence the earthly realm in which we live. Heiser takes up the whole panoramic story of the Bible, examining the many passages which give us a glimpse into the world beyond our world, how both realms are interwoven and how that unseen realm influences and affects human existence.
This brief sketch and the quote below really do not do justice to Heiser’s book. In order to grasp the full significance of his argument a careful reading and re-reading of his book would be necessary. Until going through this study I really had no real concept of the scope of the “Unseen Realm.”
Among the many eye-opening expositions of passages in both the Old and New Testaments, his take on 1 Peter 3:20-21 really presents a challenge. He argues that baptism, rather than being just for salvation from sin is really a declaration of loyalty to God and a renunciation of loyalty to the god(s) of this world. I found particularly interesting his treatment of the puzzling passage in 1 Peter 3 about Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison and how this connects with his remarks about Noah, water, baptism and a good conscience, Heiser shows that the context is dealing with the conflict (war) Christians (and all people of all ages) are engaged in and the suffering that comes from that is part of the larger picture of spiritual warfare that has been raging since the fall of man in Eden. The quote below illustrates:
“So how does this relate to baptism? Our focus for answering that question is two terms in verse 21, that baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The two boldfaced words need reconsideration in light of the divine council worldview. The word most often translated “appeal” (eperotema) in verse 21 is best understood as “pledge” here, a meaning that it has elsewhere. 4 Likewise the word “conscience” (suneidesis) does not refer to the inner voice of right and wrong in this text. Rather, the word refers to the disposition of one’s loyalties, a usage that is also found in other contexts and Greek literature. 5 Baptism, then, is not what produces salvation. It “saves” in that it reflects a heart decision: a pledge of loyalty to the risen Savior. In effect, baptism in New Testament theology is a loyalty oath, a public avowal of who is on the Lord’s side in the cosmic war between good and evil. 6 But in addition to that, 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. 7 Baptism was— and still is— spiritual warfare.”
Heiser, Michael S. (2015-09-01). The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Kindle Locations 6270-6283). Lexham Press. Kindle Edition.
If we accept this interpretation it is not difficult to make the same connection in Acts 2:38. There Peter had just proclaimed the gospel – the “good news” that there was a new king – Jesus – whom they had rejected as their king, crucifying him as a common criminal. God had made the Jews his special people but their loyalty to powers other than God had led them to do this heinous crime and reject their true king. (Jesus told some that the devil was their father). This Jesus, he said, God had raised up and seated on the throne in heaven as both Lord and Christ. By such a declaration he also inferred that the powers to whom they had given their loyalty had been deposed and they need no longer have any fear of or give any loyalty to them.
At this news they were cut to the heart and cried out to the apostles, “What shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” (Acts 2:38). In light of what Peter had just said, of what sin(s) were these people guilty? Considering the context, didn’t Peter’s message to them boil down to this… “To whom will you declare loyalty?”
Is that still not the basic decision each individual must make? God made human beings to be in his image, but we – humanity as a whole – have failed miserably. We have been duped by powers beyond our sight although we are not beyond the reach of their influence. Each individual has done much that is wrong in life, but isn’t the basis of all wrong living and wrong actions a result of a misguided loyalty; turning our back against God and listening to some other influence? When we believe the good news (realize that Jesus is the king over all the world) and that we have yielded ourselves to other powers that permit us to hurt ourselves and others and to abuse God’s good creation, isn’t the right thing to do to declare our loyalty to the king who has loved the whole world so much that he died for it – and for us in particular?
When we are baptized, then, we are not just seeking to be free from our sins and to have a clean conscience before God. We are striking a blow “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV) that have held us captive to their will.
Certainly in the whole process of coming to faith (deciding that king Jesus is trustworthy), repenting (making the determination to live for him under his rule) and declaring our loyalty to him in baptism, we are forgiven of our sins. It really is foolish of us to argue at what point we are saved. What God asks of us is to be loyal to (have faith in) the king he has placed on the throne. Our forgiveness is something he does when he is satisfied with our loyalty. WE know we are loyal to him – and know we are saved – when we do what he commands.
Another remarkable thing in this passage is the promise in the last part of the verse – the promise of the Spirit. In this ongoing struggle with the evil powers, no longer would these people who had suffered deception at the instigation and influence of evil powers be subject to those powers. Their power was broken and those who declared loyalty to the true king would have help from God in the person and presence of the Holy Spirit.
This interpretation also gives us a frame of reference for our lives from this point on for the rest of our lives. We have been brought into the kingdom (under the rule) of the One whom God set upon the throne, Jesus, the resurrected Son. According to the language of Paul in Ephesians 2:6, God “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” It wasn’t just to save us but to restore us – and all humanity who yield to the king – to our originally intended place of rule over creation in which he placed mankind in the beginning. In verse 10 he says that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” This amounts to a strike against the powers that had deceived and slain us by captivating us in sin. As kings, (sitting with God indicates that, you know), we have been given victory over those powers. We have been restored to the place God always intended for man, ruling together with him over his creation.