A Better Reason to Suffer: Part 1
Passage: 1 Peter 3:18-22
The next two weeks we are going to study one of the most difficult passages in the entire NT. Let’s read it and dive in (Read). I’m guessing that as we read through the passage two major questions jumped out to you. First, you probably wondered what in the world is Peter talking about in vv. 19–20. Who are these “spirits in prison” and what does it mean that Jesus preached to them? I don’t remember that story in my Bible. Second, what does Peter mean in v. 21 when he says that baptism now saves. That sounds like a clear denial of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Is Peter teaching that the act of being baptized can get someone to heaven? If not, what is he saying about the significance of baptism? Both of these questions are very important, and theologians have spent a lot of time trying to figure this passage out. Martin Luther, who was never one to mince words said of this passage, “A wonderful text this is, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.” You may feel the same way. I intend to walk carefully through these questions because they have great theological significance, especially the second one and we want to know what Paul meant. But I am very concerned that we not become so preoccupied with the debate that we actually fail to see it’s major theme in light of its context. To use a common analogy, I’m concerned that we may get so wrapped up with the trees that we fail to see them in light of the forest because the forest in this particular instance is grand. This passage is much more than a hotbed for debate; it is also an awesome statement regarding the victory of Christ over sin and its significance for us today. Therefore, it would be our loss if we missed the forest for the trees today. Because of that, I’m going to approach this passage differently from my normal style of preaching. I typically prefer an inductive approach where we work through the passage and conclude by pulling it together in a theme. I think that’s generally a more engaging approach. But with this passage, I’m afraid that an inductive study would cause us to get lost in the trees, and so I want to begin with a flyover. BTW, just to put your mind at ease if you have dinner plans, this will be another two-part sermon.
To understand this passage appropriately, we have to see it in its context. Remember that we are now in the third major unit of 1 Peter, which is concerned with Christian suffering, and notice again how the previous paragraph concludes in v. 17. Peter says it is better to suffer for doing good, but how is it better? Notice that v. 18 begins with “for” or more accurately, “because.” That tells us that Peter’s basic purpose in this paragraph is to tell us why suffering for righteousness is better or worthwhile. The next paragraph confirms that vv. 18–22 are primarily concerned with suffering. Notice 4:1–2. Peter is going to build off our text by challenging us to follow Christ’s example of suffering. Therefore, in our text, Peter uses the example of Christ and what he provided through his suffering to tell us why we should follow his example of suffering.
In light of that, the central theme of this passage is that Christian suffering is worth it because Jesus won the victory, and he assures us of the same victory. This passage is about suffering leading to victory. Jesus did it, and we can be confident that our suffering, as believers, will lead to the same outcome.
How does Peter make this point?
Let’s do a quick overview of the development of the theme before we fly down into the trees. First of all, it would be a sad mistake if we got so caught up in the difficulties of this text that we missed the glory of v. 18. It tells us of the awesome example Jesus set in suffering unjustly. But it also tells us that Jesus did more than set an example, he provided an effective payment for sin and then rose in victory. Verses 19–20 follow by describing Christ’s identification with Noah who also pursued righteousness though he was in a very small minority, and the point of these verses is that just as Christ delivered Noah, he will deliver us. Verse 21 drives home the similarity between Noah’s deliverance and ours. Christ’s death and resurrection should give us great confidence to press forward. Verse 22 then concludes the passage by offering us even further confidence regarding our ultimate end through noting Christ’s current position of glory and authority. Hopefully you can see from high above that this passage is intended to give us confidence in the victory we can achieve over suffering by pointing us to the victory Jesus already won.
With that in mind, let’s fly down into the trees. Verse 18 is a powerful statement regarding…
The Example and Effectiveness of Christ’s Suffering (v. 18):
I’d like to summarize this verse with four truths. First…
Christ suffered unjustly.
That word “suffered” is very significant in context because of the situation of Peter’s readers. Jesus suffered a humiliating, gruesome, and painful death in which he took on himself God’s wrath against sin. Jesus knows what it is to suffer. Not only that, he knows what it is to suffer unjustly. Peter describes Christ as “just.” In other words, he did not deserve the suffering he endured. This is very significant in context because Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer for doing good (v. 17). The crucifixion is the most unjust event that has ever occurred. Yes, there is a lot of injustice in our world, but Jesus endured far more injustice than any of us will ever endure. And when we find ourselves in the same boat, we can run to Christ for comfort. He has been there, and so don’t whine about your hardship and don’t despair. Jesus is not asking you to do something he has not done himself.
But Jesus did much more than merely set an example. The second truth of v. 18 is that.
Christ’s suffering was substitutionary.
This verse is clear that the death of Christ was intended to deal with sin. God states that Christ suffered “for sins” and that the “just” one died for the “unjust.” These phrases speak to the fact that we are all sinners. But the problem is much deeper than the simple fact that we sometimes fail. Rather, God describes us as unjust. We fall short of God’s standard, and we are guilty. But Jesus died in the place of the guilty. The Greek preposition translated “for” is huper. It is commonly used throughout the NT for Christ’s death, and it means “in the place of.” Therefore, when Jesus died on the cross, he quite literally took on himself the suffering that we deserve. He took on himself my punishment. It was a substitutionary or vicarious death, as theologians will sometimes call it. Notice as well that Jesus suffered “once.” The point is that Jesus provided a permanent solution. His suffering will never need to be repeated. The sin debt has been fully paid.
Then Peter adds that that there was a purpose to his death. The third truth of v. 18 is that.
Christ’s suffering provides a relationship with God.
Whether people realize it or not, man’s greatest need is fellowship with God. But sadly, our sin creates a humanly impossible barrier between him and us. God is holy and cannot be in the presence of sin. Sin is so contrary to his character, that God told Moses in Exodus 33:20 that no sinner could ever see the face of God and live to tell about it. The full glory of God would kill us on the spot. When you consider that awful reality, this statement in our text is incredible. Because Jesus took my punishment and gave me his righteousness, he has now brought me into the presence of God. Hebrews 4:16 says that I can come boldly because through Christ, God is now my Father, not just my judge.
But the gospel would be incomplete with just Christ’s death. The fourth truth is…
Christ’s suffering did not conquer him.
The phrase includes the first point of controversy in this passage, which concerns the meaning of “spirit.” Spirit is capitalized in the NKJV, but I believe it is better to leave it in the lower case. This is because the two phrases “put to death in flesh” and “made alive by the Spirit” are carefully constructed to be parallel; therefore, it makes far more sense for flesh and spirit both to refer to a sphere or place than to have flesh be a sphere and Spirit be a person or agent. The idea then is that Jesus died in the earthly realm of existence, but he lived in the spiritual or heavenly realm. The contrast is between Christ’s life on earth and his eternal, glorified state. And the point is very simply that Jesus did not stay dead. He rose again into a glorified state. Christ’s victorious resurrection is going be very significant to the argument of vv. 21–22, but Peter couldn’t wait that long to note that death wasn’t the final victor.
Verse 18 is a powerful summary of the heart of the gospel and of how we can enjoy a relationship with God. I want to again emphasize the significance of the idea that only Jesus can bring someone to God because many people think that they can earn their way to God. Some people try use religious steps like baptism, penance, or church attendance to come near to God. Others just assume they have a relationship with God because why would God turn them away. But Peter is clear that we are all unjust sinners; therefore, we can’t get to God on our own. That is the basic reason Jesus died. He paid the sin debt we could never pay so that he could bring us to God. How can you receive the benefits of his death? Acts 16:31 says “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Put your faith in what Christ did and you can be saved. If you’ve not done that, I hope you will do so today. For those who are saved, this verse is a needed reminder that the gospel is the foundation for every aspect of the Christian life, including something like overcoming persecution. The gospel sets an example of endurance through the suffering of Christ. It also gives a reason to endure because we have a hope that is worth every sacrifice. And it gives strength to endure because it enables us to share in the victory Jesus achieved. Don’t ever think that the gospel is just for kids or unbelievers. We need the gospel every day to sustain us and motivate us.
Praise the Lord for the example and effectiveness of Christ’s suffering. Verses 19–20 then follow by giving us further encouragement through…
The Example of the Salvation of Noah and His Family (vv. 19–20)
These two verses are where most controversy over this passage lies. It’s probably best to begin by laying out the main interpretations and why I hold to the view I take.
Second Chance for Salvation:
According to this view, the “spirits in prison” are people in hell who rejected Noah’s message of repentance. It’s argued that between Christ’s death and resurrection, he descended into hell and offered them a second chance for salvation.” This view has serious problems. For one, the Scriptures are clear that there is no second chance for salvation after death. Think of the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man dies and finds himself in hell, and the story offers him no hope of a second chance even though he realizes the foolishness of rejecting God. There’s also the issue of Jesus descending into hell. It’s an old idea that goes back to the Apostles’ Creed (which of course the apostles didn’t actually write). It’s frankly an odd idea that doesn’t have any solid biblical foundation, and there are strong arguments against it. When the thief repented on the cross, he said that they would be together today in paradise. That’s a pretty good indication that Jesus didn’t spend the three days before his resurrection in hell. As well, when he cried “It is finished,” it’s a statement that Jesus’ suffering was complete. It would seem contradictory for Jesus to then suffer in hell.
Deliverance of OT Saints from Abraham’s Bosom:
According to this view, prior to the death of Christ, OT saints did not go directly into the presence of the Lord but instead were in a holding place of sorts. After Jesus died, he brought them to heaven. But this view doesn’t fit the details of the text. Verse 20 describes people who rejected Noah’s preaching. There’s no indication that these people ever responded positively. And frankly, there isn’t a biblical basis for thinking that OT saints were kept from the presence of the Lord.
Christ preached a message of judgment to fallen angels after his resurrection.
This is probably the most common view. It’s built on the tradition that a group of fallen angels came to earth during the time of Noah and fathered children with human women. In so doing, they crossed a significant line of wickedness and were banished to prison. Genesis 6:1–4 can potentially be read as advocating this idea though it is hardly clear. Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4 both indicate that there are angels in prison because of their sin though neither verse states what they did or when they did it. According to this view, our text is saying that Jesus went to this prison and declared his victory. Proponents of this view argue that “the spirits” most naturally refers to demons not people and that the readers would naturally see the phrase “spirits in prison” as a reference to these demons. This view is viable, but I see a couple of big problems with it. For one, nothing else is said in the NT of Jesus going to preach to these spirits, and frankly, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for him to go to this prison and mock this pretty insignificant group. And the word “preached” is never used this way in the NT. It almost always refers to gospel proclamation. As well, if this is what Peter meant, it doesn’t contribute much to the argument of our text. It would highlight Christ’s victory, but it makes for an awkward jump to Noah’s significance at the end of v. 20. I think there’s another view that best fits the context and the broader theology of Scripture.
Christ was present in Noah’s preaching to his wicked generation.
The idea is that Jesus went in his heavenly state, and was present in the preaching of Noah to the wicked people of his day. But as we know they rejected Noah’s preaching and are now in prison, or hell. I prefer this view primarily because it fits our text the best, especially v. 20. Peter talks about the patience of God in the days of Noah. Second Peter 2:6 describes Noah as a “preacher of righteousness.” We know that during the long construction of ark, he called on the people to repent. It fits our text to think that Christ was speaking through Noah to call on this wicked generation to repent. God patiently waited even while they mocked and slandered Noah. But ultimately the floodwaters came because mankind refused to change his ways. Genesis 6 is clear that the flood was ultimately the result of man’s sin, not the sin of angels. The challenges for this view come in v. 19. First of all, we may find it strange to think of Jesus preaching through Noah. However, the idea of Jesus being present in OT revelation has already come up in 1:11. As well, v. 19 sounds like Jesus preached to them while they were in prison, which of course they were not prior to the flood. But that’s not a necessary conclusion. If I said, “the man sitting in the sound booth drove to church this morning,” referring to Kenny, it would be obvious that I am describing Kenny based on his current position, but that doesn’t mean he was necessarily in the sound booth when the action occurred.
Assuming this interpretation is true what is the point? In these two verses, Peter is calling on his readers, in the midst of their suffering to identify with Noah. Like the readers…
Christ was with Noah as he lived for God in a small minority.
Our day doesn’t look so bad when you compare it to Noah’s day. Imagine how bad it must have been for God to look out at all of mankind and to only find one man who was righteous. God told him to embark on a 120 year building project. I’m sure that the people were ruthless in their mocking of Noah. And Noah and his little family must have felt very small and lonely. And yet during that entire project, Noah continued to warn mankind and to call on them to repent. How was he able to keep preaching? He was able to continue being ready “to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” because Christ was with him giving him boldness and guiding his words. Christ sustained Noah for 120 years “while the ark was being prepared.”
Then finally, God validated Noah’s hope.
Christ rescued Noah and his family in the ark.
God delivered this small group from a terribly wicked world. He brought them out of opposition and suffering and in a sense placed them in a new world that was free from the corruption of the old world. It’s interesting that Peter describes this deliverance as “through water” because we normally think of the ark as God’s means of deliverance. Of course Peter notes the role of the ark also. But the waters also served a significant purpose. For the disobedient people of Noah’s day, the waters were the means of God’s judgment, and that’s going to be significant next week when we look at v. 21. But like I said, the water was also used of God to cleanse the world and to deliver Noah. I’m sure that when Noah got out of the ark, it was sobering to look at the destruction God had brought to consider the millions of lives that had died. But there was also great joy in knowing that God had vindicated his faith, that God had graciously protected his family through such a harsh judgment, and that he could now start over in a world that was rid of such awful evil.
Again, Peter’s purpose in citing this story is to encourage his readers by having them identify with Noah. They too were in a small minority and had been called to defend the faith amidst slander and hatred. Their circumstances may feel overwhelming, but just as Christ was in the preaching of Noah, he would be with them in their defense of the faith and would strengthen their hearts. And ultimately, he would vindicate their faith by bringing them to glory and judging evil men. And praise the Lord that he is with us also. Christ is present in this service. He is with you at work when you struggle with hardship. He is with you when your coworkers or family put pressure on your faith. He can strengthen you to stand to proclaim his Word faithfully. And he will reward your faithfulness. While rebellious men are judged in hell, you will enjoy God’s rewards in eternity. Take hope in the story of Noah. Christ is with you and will reward you.
Remember that the theme of this passage is that Christian suffering is worth it because Jesus won the victory, and he assures us of the same victory. Remember that the foundation of our confidence is the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus bore our sin, removed God’s wrath, and brought us near to the Father. By bringing us near, not only did he secure our eternity, he also secured our victory for today. As we close today, let’s rejoice in what Jesus accomplished, and let’s be challenged to draw near to the grace he secured.