A Better Reason to Suffer: Part 2
Passage: 1 Peter 3:18-22
This morning, I’d like to conclude our two-part sermon on 1 Peter 3:18–22. Let’s read the text, do some review, and dive into the last two verses (Read). I mentioned last week that this passage is among the most difficult passages in the NT to interpret. Martin Luther 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.” I’m sure Luther really wrestled with this text because it addresses the debate that defined his life. He was a Roman Catholic monk, and he dedicated his life to earning the righteousness of God. But the more he tried, the more he realized how far he fell short. In his despair he began to read the Bible, which is always a good answer. Romans and Galatians particularly grabbed his attention, and he saw very clearly that the righteousness of God is not something we earn but something God grants through faith. He talks at length in his writings of how wonderful this discovery was, but it also set him in a heated conflict with the Catholic Church, which teaches that salvation is not by grace alone; rather, God gives grace to do the works necessary for salvation. And maybe no work is more foundational to their beliefs about salvation than baptism. Therefore, v. 21 would have created major questions for Luther to answer because it sure sounds like Peter is teaching that baptism earns salvation. Is that actually what Peter believed? Listen to what Peter said in Acts 2:28 at the conclusion of his sermon at Pentecost. “Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” It again sounds like he believed that baptism cleanses us from sin. As a Baptist church we believe that baptism is not a means of salvation but an expression of faith for those who are already saved, so you know where I’m going to land, but we need to see it in the text. I’m excited for the opportunity v. 21 provides for us to talk about baptism because it is a very important ordinance of the church. But as I said last week, we also want to be careful that we not miss the forest for the trees in this passage. We need to understand what Peter is saying in light of the broader argument of the book.
Let’s take some time to review the context and Peter’s argument.
I mentioned last Sunday that the ultimate purpose of this paragraph is to expand on v. 17. It tells us why it is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. The simple answer is that Christ makes it worth it. 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.
Peter makes this point by first rehearsing the foundation of Christ’s victory, which is his substitutionary atonement. He died in the place of unjust sinners, conquering sin and death. And by his victory he brought us into a relationship with God. This relationship is significant in context because it is worth far more than anything we could ever lose in this life. This gift alone makes suffering for good worthwhile. But Jesus victory is not just significant because it provides hope. It is also significant because it provides strength to endure. Peter makes this point in vv. 19–20 by noting how Christ sustained Noah. We spent a lot of time last week discussing the various ways scholars understand these verses, and I argued that the best interpretation in context is that Christ was present in the preaching of Noah to the wicked people of his day. Even though Noah was in a small minority, Christ empowered him to preach boldly for 120 years while he built the ark and while God patiently waited. But they did not respond and so God sent the flood. The water judged the evil men, and they are now “spirits in prison (or hell).” But the water also delivered Noah and his family. Peter’s point is that just as Christ was with Noah when he was in a small minority, he is with us as we stand for him and suffer. And just as Christ delivered Noah, he will deliver us. And so while suffering for evil has no good purpose, there is hope for deliverance when we suffer for doing good.
That brings us to v. 21, which describes…
The Present Effectiveness of Christ’s Victory (v. 21):
It’s probably best that we just begin our study of this verse by answering the question…
Is Peter teaching baptismal regeneration?
At first, it appears as if this is obviously what Peter is saying. In v. 20, he says that God saved Noah and his family through water. In other words, the floodwaters were the means God used to deliver Noah from a wicked world. And v. 21 follows by saying that in a similar fashion, baptism now (or in the church age) saves God’s people. What else can that mean other than that baptism cleanses from sin and makes someone right with God?
But all we have to do to see that this is not what Peter means is to read the remainder of the verse where he clarifies that…
Salvation cannot be reduced to a mechanical action. Peter makes this point by setting up a contrast. He says that we cannot reduce baptism to a purely physical act like taking a bath. As a side note, the fact that Peter felt the need to clarify that baptism was more than a bath indicates that baptism was assumed to be by immersion. No one would naturally associate having a few drops of water sprinkled on him as bathing. That being said, Peter says that salvation requires something far more than a mechanical ritual that washes the skin. We need a “good conscience.” The contrast between the flesh or body and the conscience indicates Peter is saying we need something to take place in our hearts. When we think of a “good conscience” we typically think of behavior and its effects on our relationships with God and people. Having a good conscience means that there is no sin between me and God or another person. When used this way, the conscience can be good or bad depending on our obedience. But the NT also uses conscience with reference to our permanent standing in grace based on the finished work of Christ (10:19–22). When used this way, a clean conscience is parallel to justification or reconciliation. This is how Peter uses the term in v. 21. The idea then is that salvation requires something much deeper than a physical washing; we need what Jesus did, as described in v. 18, to purify our conscience or heart. And this cleansing is not ultimately applied through a mechanical ritual but by an “answer…toward God.” There is some debate over how to translate this word. But in this context, the best translation is an “appeal” or “request.” Therefore, the idea is that ultimately, salvation does not come about by an outer, mechanical washing but through an appeal or request to God for a good conscience. We call on God by faith, not so that we can cleanse ourselves but so that he will cleanse us. How does he do so? He is able to cleanse our conscience “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Peter clarifies that salvation is a gift of grace that is provided through the sacrifice of Christ and applied by faith.
And the NT consistently teaches that salvation is applied by faith not baptism. For example, notice 1 Corinthians 1:12–17. Paul says that he did not baptize many people in Corinth because they were wrapped up in personalities, and he didn’t want someone’s faith to be grounded in the fact that the Apostle Paul baptized him. Notice the distinction he makes in v. 17. His mission was to preach the gospel, not to baptize. The assumption is that the gospel and baptism are distinct, and our confidence must be in the gospel not baptism. Notice as well Acts 16:29–33. When the jailer asks how to be saved, Paul says to “believe on Christ.” He does not “be baptized.” Jailer was baptized later that night, but there is clearly a distinction in Paul mind between faith and baptism.
Application: Returning to our text, Peter is not teaching that a mechanical ritual can save. Salvation is applied by appealing to God for something we could never create through our works. We need Christ to wash us. If you think that you will be in heaven someday because you were baptized, I pray you will see that no mechanical ritual can make you right with God. We saw last week that you are unjust, and there’s nothing you can do to wash away your sin. You need to acknowledge your sin and call on Christ to save you. Stop trusting your goodness and look to Christ who, as v. 18 states, died for the unjust to bring us to God. If you’d like to know more about this great gift, I hope that you will talk with me afterwards.
We’ve established that Peter is not teaching that baptism mechanically saves, but if that’s true, then…
Why does Peter use such a strong statement?
The NT closely associates conversion and baptism. When you read NT accounts of people getting saved, you almost always see them getting baptized immediately. For example, Acts 2:41 tells us that following Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, “Those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to the church.” Again, the text distinguishes receiving the word and baptism, but still it notes that they baptized 3,000 people that day. The Ethopian eunuch was baptized immediately in Acts 8. Paul was baptized three days after his conversion. Cornelius was baptized immediately. Following the establishment of the church, the NT knows nothing of an unbaptized disciple. The Great Commission assumes that being a disciple means being baptized. That’s why we make it a requirement to observe the Lord’s Supper. Thomas Schreiner who is a leading Baptist NT scholar states, “Baptism is fundamental to discipleship. It is the initiation rite for entrance into the people of God, signifying that one has become a member of the new community and that one now belongs to the triune God.”
Baptism is such a significant act because it pictures two important aspects of the gospel.
Baptism pictures spiritual cleansing. We this assumption in our text. The ideas of washing the body and of a clean conscience both indicate that being immersed in baptismal waters pictures how the gospel cleanses our hearts of guilt. Earlier I read Acts 2:38. “Remission” can also be translated forgiveness. As sinners we are guilty. Our hearts are black with the filth of sin, but baptism pictures how the gospel washes our hearts clean. Notice as well Paul’s account of what the Lord told him on the road to Damascus in Acts 22:16. Again, it is the “calling on the Lord” that ultimately applies salvation. Paul wasn’t baptized for three days. But again, conversion and baptism are closely associated, and baptism is specifically associated with washing away sin.
The NT also closely associates baptism with our union with Christ’s death and resurrection. This is apparent in Romans 6:3–4. Again in this passage, Paul closely associates baptism with conversion. Verse 4 teaches that going down into the water pictures union with the burial or death of Christ and that coming up out of the water pictures union with his resurrection. And so baptism pictures how we have been joined to Jesus’ victory. We see this picture also in our text. Verse 20 states that Noah was saved through water. I mentioned last week that water was the means of God’s judgment for Noah’s world. Similarly, Christ took on himself God’s judgment against sin. But that judgment didn’t destroy Christ. Just as Noah emerged from the flood, Christ emerged from the grave. And our union with Christ, pictured in baptism joins us to his victory. And so baptism is a very significant event. It publicly declares our allegiance to Christ and our faith in his work on the cross to cleanse us from sin and to give resurrection life. If you have been saved, but you have not been biblically baptized, then you need to do so soon because the Great Commission assumes that baptism is the first step of discipleship. I hope you will get baptized next month. When we baptize people, let’s not forget the significance of what we are doing. Baptism pictures rich truths of the gospel. And let’s make sure the focus stays where it should be. Baptism is intended to point our attention to what Jesus did. How sad it is when we instead focus on the work of the individual. Ultimately, Jesus saves; baptism simply pictures the application of what he has done to our account.
Now that we have worked through the trees…
What is Peter trying to say?
Clearly, v. 21 is closely connected with vv. 19–20, which promise that God will deliver his people as he delivered Noah. God delivered Noah out of an evil world by mean of floodwaters. Verse 21 states that this deliverance through water looks forward to baptism. Just as God cleansed the world and delivered Noah through water, Christ, through the gospel cleanses our hearts and, by implication, gives us hope for our ultimate deliverance in eternity. And remember that Peter is ultimately telling us why suffering for Christ is worth it. Verse 21 gives us the fundamental answer. The gospel saves! This gift is worth any suffering we could ever endure in this life. Is following Christ sometimes difficult? Absolutely. Does it mean making hard choices to deny your flesh? Yes. Can it mean losing close friends, being mocked or feeling like an outcaste? Unfortunately yes. But you will never give more to God or give up more for God than he has already given you. Don’t moan and groan over what God demands, and don’t be discouraged. See what you have and press forward because the gospel is a great gift. But that’s not all.
Notice in v. 22…
The Assurance of Christ’s Present Position (v. 22):
Verse 21 concludes with Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and v. 22 then completes the thought by telling us what happened to Christ after his resurrection. First…
Jesus ascended to heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father.
After Jesus rose from the dead, he spent 40 days on the earth to prove that he had risen and to prepare his disciples for life after his ascension. Jesus then gathered his disciples on the Mt. of Olives, and Acts 1:9 says, “He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.” He then sat down at the right hand of the Father, which is a very significant position of honor and authority. King David prophesied some 900 years earlier that the Christ would sit down at the Father’s right hand until he would return and defeat all enemies. Psalm 110:1 states, “The Lord (the Father) said to my Lord (the Christ), ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’” Jesus applied this prophecy to himself as a testimony to the fact that the Messiah would be the Son of God, not just a man, and the NT authors refer to it often. They also draw a lot of significance from the fact that Jesus now sits at the Father’s right hand. Hebrews uses the fact that he sits rather than stands as a testimony to the fact that Jesus has completed the work of redemption. Romans 8 notes that because of this exalted position, Jesus is able to intercede for us. In our text, Peter’s primary concern is that Jesus position at the Father’s right hand speaks to his exalted, royal status. Jesus reigns!
Specifically, Peter notes that…
Jesus reigns over every spiritual power.
Peter mentions three groups, but they are simply different groups of angels. The different names are because not all angels are equal. They have differing powers and rankings. Peter is primarily thinking of evil angels because the good angels do not resist Christ’s rule. But even though the evil angels are powerful and hate God, Peter says that through his resurrection, Jesus won the victory and has subjected them to himself. I love how Colossians 2:15 describes this victory. It says that through his death Jesus, “disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.” But again, Psalm 110:1 states that Jesus currently sits until the day that every enemy is placed under his feet. The fact that Jesus has defeated angelic powers doesn’t mean that all of them are bound in chains and are no longer active. In fact, the vast majority are still very busy opposing God and God’s people. Peter’s readers were very aware of this opposition. But Jesus resurrection assures us that his final victory over demonic powers is a foregone conclusion. Jesus already broke their power, and he is simply waiting for the day God has appointed when he will put them under his feet in complete humiliation.
And Peter raises this point here to remind his suffering readers that the day is coming when…
Implication: Jesus will destroy all evil and we will be vindicated.
Why is it better to suffer for doing good? It’s because good has already won will win. We are on the winning side. It may not always feel that way. In fact, it often feels as if evil is winning, but we know the end of the story. Christ will defeat all evil.
More than vv. 18–22 are about tricky theological questions; they are about Christ. He died in our place, and he rose in victory. He conquered sin and every evil power. His victory secured for us some incredible blessings. He cleansed our conscience so that we could come near to God. He is with us as we seek to serve him in a hostile world, and he has promised us an eternal home that will be free of all evil. Christian suffering is worth it because Jesus won the victory, and he assures us of the same victory. Look to Christ. Maybe you are struggling today with guilt or spiritual discouragement. Rest in the victory Christ has won. His grace is greater than any sin. Maybe you feel overwhelmed with the difficulties of life in this world and the pressure you feel as you seek to follow Christ. Remember that Christ is with you as he was with Noah, and he can sustain you even when you are in a small minority. Or maybe you simply find yourself in a rut, and you’ve lost sight of your hope as a Christian. Stay focused on eternity. As God delivered Noah into a cleansed world, he will also deliver us in a brand new world that is free of wickedness and evil. Christian suffering is worth it, so let’s press on.