How often in life do we feel great pressure, perplexity, and persecution? We are knocked down by all kinds of adverse situations that come our way. The apostle Paul certainly experienced many challenging and painful moments in his earthly life. He suffered much in bringing the gospel to others. We read something of his experiences in his second letter to the Corinthians.
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.[i]
In other words, knocked down, but not out. How many boxers have been knocked down, but not out, only to rise again and win their bout?
Perhaps we have been worn down by the seeming lack of justice in our world, worn down into living in apathy about justice – and especially final justice. Justice in our world seems haphazard, even chaotic, and it seems extremely slow in its realization.[ii]
When events point out the inconsistencies of justice in our world we can begin to believe that justice doesn’t exist. Yet, what may be true in our earthly life, when evaluated in light of eternity, justice and vindication will come. One of the characteristics of God that we tend to shy away from is His justice or judgment. God will vindicate those who have suffered injustice. The apostle Paul tells us that if we will endure or suffer with Christ, we will also reign with him (cf. 2 Tim. 2:12). Peter has been teaching us that despite suffering, hardships, and persecution we have someone who has already traveled this path before us. Jesus is not only our guide but also the one who has made the journey possible. In 1 Peter 3:18-22 we have three main ideas that will encourage us as we travel this journey of life filled with injustice, suffering, and persecution because of our relationship with God.
THE FIRST IDEA THAT ENCOURAGES US IS THAT SUFFERING CAN BE A PATH THAT BRINGS US TO THE FATHER
Will we trust God in our difficulties or will they be the reason we give up and quit and wander from the faith? Jesus, who walked the path before us, suffered. Suffering is one vehicle or means that can brings us to God. Not that our suffering saves us or has merit in that sense. Rather as Peter earlier has pointed out in his letter, suffering refines us so that our faith is strengthened, as we look to God for help like never before.
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire-may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.[iii]
Times of trial and suffering reveal what is within our hearts. They prove the genuineness of our faith. Real faith grows stronger in trials and difficulties. Mere professions of faith melt away in times of crisis, pain, persecution and suffering. Trials and sufferings are tests of our faith.
We also see that Jesus’ sufferings were of incredible value, not so much to Him, but for our sake. Jesus was willing to suffer death, knowing that the Father would raise him up again, vindicating him, and bringing the ultimate victory over death, the devil and all the evil effects of sin in our world. Jesus knew what the ultimate outcome would be for those who would surrender their lives to him.
This vindication is transacted through the work of God, the Holy Spirit raising Jesus from the dead. This is the very means by which we can come to the Father. In the previous verses, Peter has been speaking of suffering unjustly or wrongly and now uses Christ as the supreme example. Jesus brought about the means in which we were reconciled to God. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit (1 Peter 3:18),”
The idea that is being communicated here is that Jesus suffered or as some translations put it, he died for our sins. Thomas Schreiner argues that the word ‘suffered’ is the right word though it means to suffer death.
Peter was thinking of the death of Christ here, but the term ‘suffer’ establishes a connection with his readers. …The distinctiveness of Christ’s sacrifice is featured here, for even though believers suffer, they do not suffer for the sins of others, nor does their suffering constitute a sacrifice for the sins of others.[iv]
Here Peter tells us that Jesus who was without sin, described here as righteous, is offered in place of those who had sinned (the unrighteous). Jesus’ sacrifice is both efficacious (meaning it is successful in producing what is needed) and substitutionary (in that it supplies our deficiency). We have no access to God. We are all under judgment and condemnation because of our sin. Jesus’ suffering here described as once for sins is speaking of his death which was unique.
The reason Christ’s death is sufficient is precisely because he was sinless. He could not have died on behalf of his people if he himself were stained by sin. His perfect obedience, therefore, is the basis for the sufficiency of his death.[v]
Jesus died to bring us to God. Or another way of saying it is that Jesus created the access or the way into God’s presence. Everything we read about in the Old Testament reveals to us the holiness of God and the inaccessibility into the very presence of God. The writer to the Hebrews points this out when describing the Old Testament tabernacle and then later the temple where the Holy of holies could only be entered into once a year, by the High Priest, and only after offering sins for himself and the people. When we come to the sacrifice of Jesus, we hear these amazing words of access.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with purer water.[vi]
No wonder Peter and John tell the Jewish rulers in Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” Jesus, Himself tells us that He is the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (cf. John 14:6). The apostle Paul argues that only through Christ’s sacrifice can we gain righteousness and access to the Father. “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing (Galatians 2:21).”
THE SECOND IDEA THAT ENCOURAGES US IS SUFFERING CAN BE A DECLARATION OF VICTORY OVER ALL SPIRITUAL POWERS
When we suffer for what is right and entrust ourselves to God, great power and good comes from that. Earlier in this letter, Peter has been communicating that when we follow the path of Jesus to bless rather than curse others, to forgive rather than seek revenge, God can work powerfully both in our lives and in the lives of those who have abused us. Once again Jesus is our paradigm or pattern for how we ought to live. What seemed like defeat on Good Friday ends up being the greatest declaration of victory on Easter Sunday. One of the greatest paradoxes is how God transforms evil and causes victories to be snatched from defeats. The story of God’s people is one where they are knocked down, but not out. The gospels is the great reversal. The way down is the way up. Jesus’ willingness to lay down his rights and life, was the very means that God, the Father utilized in defeating evil. God raised Jesus, the Son, and exalted him above all others. Paul says of Jesus’ attitude of humility:
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.[vii]
The resurrection from the dead was the vindication and validation of who Jesus is and what He accomplished. Notice it states that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, but in Romans at the great judgment, we read every knee will bow (cf. Romans 14:11). The apostle Paul explains that the resurrection was a declaration of Jesus’ identity as God. “and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 1:4).” Jesus himself told his own generation that the sign that would demonstrate to them his identity was the sign of the resurrection.
Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.
He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.[viii]
Jesus was speaking of his bodily resurrection from the dead and the Jewish leaders understood what Jesus said, as is evident from their remarks to Pilate after Jesus was crucified.
The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘after three days I will rise again.’
So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day.[ix]
Now Peter summarizes the thought that Jesus’ death and resurrection was the means to bring us to God, and that this was through his physical death and resurrection. The resurrection was the work of the Holy Spirit. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit (1 Peter 3:18),”
The NIV here translates that Jesus was made alive by the Spirit, though there are some that argue that the text should read that Jesus was made alive in the Spirit.
The second verb similarly cannot refer to somebody reviving or coming to life again through their own power but is passive and refers to being brought to life by an outside agency. This can only designate God’s bringing of Jesus back to life. This fits with the witness of the New Testament: no writer ever says that Jesus raised himself from the dead but that God raised him. …The point is that the ultimate authority over the death and life of Jesus does not lie with men.[x]
We now enter even more difficulties in understanding specifically what Peter is saying in verses 19-21.
After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits- to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water,[xi]
Who are the imprisoned spirits? Here we see that he went and made proclamation. Where did he go? Martin Luther who translated the entire bible into the common language of his day wrote regarding these texts.
A wonderful text is this, 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.[xii]
What Luther is saying is that these are difficult texts to fully understand. In other words, we must not be dogmatic here. There are many different ideas by biblical scholars as to the actual meaning of these texts. David Helms in summarizing the five verses says that we can have a general idea of what we are looking at.
Our text has a definite movement and flow of thought! It starts with Christ’s sufferings but ends with his ascension. It opens with his willful submission to unrighteous rulers, but by the time it closes, a complete reversal has taken place. The submissive Son is, by the end, the ruling King seated at the right hand of God.[xiii]
Let’s take a brief visit to a few viewpoints regarding the meaning of the text. Thomas Schreiner points out four major ideas of the many.
1. “First, Augustine, and since him any others, understood the text to refer to Christ’s preaching through Noah to those who lived while Noah was building the Ark. According to this view, Christ was not personally present but spoke by means of the Holy Spirit through Noah.
2. Some have understood Peter as referring to Old Testament saints who died and were liberated by Christ between his death and resurrection.[xiv]
3. Some believe that Christ entered hell after his death and before his resurrection to preach the gospel to the sinful human beings in Noah’s generation offering the opportunity to repent. In other words, this gives them a second opportunity. The problem with this viewpoint is that it flies in the face with other biblical text like Hebrews 9:27; “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”
4. Another major position is that these are fallen angels that Christ is preaching to.
Regardless of the position, the reality is that Jesus’ death and resurrection was a proclamation ultimately over evil spirits. The apostle Paul writes of this very thing in Colossians 2:13-15:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Just like the returning Roman conquerors that brought back booty and captives from their wars to Rome to display their triumph, so Paul uses that imagery to explain Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness through the cross and resurrection.
THE FINAL IDEA THAT ENCOURAGES US IS THAT SUFFERING CAN LEAD TO ULTIMATE VINDICATION AND TRIUMPH
Throughout the bible we see powerful moments of reversal and vindication of those who were oppressed and in despair. People who suffered were later exalted by God. Think of the many biblical characters who suffered and were later vindicated. Joseph, who was envied and sold by his brothers, ultimately saves his family as the prime minister of Egypt. Think of Hannah, who was barren and taunted by her rival wife because she was barren. Not only did God answer her prayer and give her the child, Samuel, who became a major voice for God in his generation, but she had five other children. Think of David, who wasn’t even invited to meet with Samuel as he was looking among his siblings to anoint the next king from among Jesse’s sons. God had selected him; though rejected by his own family. After being persecuted by Saul, David becomes king in Saul’s place. God has always chosen the weak and foolish things of this world to confuse the wise of this world, the noble and the strong (cf. 1 Cor. 1:27-28).
What we ultimately end up with in our text today is that this Jesus who submitted to those in authority over him and were inspired by evil spirits in having him crucified, God reverses the injustice as we read Peter’s concluding remarks. These same spiritual powers are now in subjection to Jesus Christ. Peter now uses the illustration of Noah and his generation to encourage his readers who feel overwhelmed by the majority of people who are hostile to the gospel message and are persecuting them. Peter now discusses the fact that they will also be rescued by the judgment of God even as Noah was in his generation.
and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also–not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand–with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.[xv]
The very element, the flood waters, that brought about the deliverance of Noah and his family, which God decreed as righteous, was the very element that brought judgment on those who refused to repent.
The parallel between the situation of Noah and the situation of Peter’s readers is clear at several points [and I would add is similar to us today.]
1. Noah and his family were a minority surrounded by hostile unbelievers; so were Peter’s readers (vv. 13-14;4:4,12-13).
2. Noah was righteous in the midst of a wicked world. Peter exhorts his readers to be righteous in the midst of wicked unbelievers (vv.13-14,16-17;4:3-4)
3. Noah witnessed boldly to those around him. Peter encourages his readers to be good witnesses to unbelievers around them (vv.14,16-17), being willing to suffer, if need be, to bring others to God (just as Christ was willing to suffer and die that he might bring us to God’, v.18).
4. Noah realized that judgment was soon to come upon the world. Peter reminds his readers that God’s judgment is certainly coming, perhaps soon (4:5,7; II Pet. 3:10).
5. In the unseen ‘spiritual’ realm Christ preached through Noah to unbelievers around him. By saying this Peter can remind his readers of the reality of Christ’s work in the unseen spiritual realm and the fact that Christ is also in us, empowering our witness and making it spiritually effective.
6. At the time of Noah, God was patiently awaiting repentance from unbelievers, before he brought judgment. So it is in the situation of Peter’s readers. That’s what is happening right now. God is patiently awaiting repentance from unbelievers (cf. II Pet. 3:9) before bringing judgment on our world (cf. II Pet. 3:10).
7. Noah was finally saved, with ‘a few’ others. Peter thus encourages his readers that, though perhaps few, they too will finally be saved, for Christ has triumphed and has all things subject to him (3:22;4:13,19;5:10; II Pet. 2:9).[xvi]
Everything that was true about Noah’s times and Peter’s times is equally true of our time.
Thomas Schreiner summarizes the passage well when he writes:
…believers have no need to fear that suffering is the last word, for they share the same destiny as their Lord, whose suffering has secured victory over hostile powers. Believers, then, are akin to Noah. They are a small, embattled minority in a hostile world, but they can be sure that, like Noah, their future is secure when the judgment comes.[xvii]
We can be encouraged. Though suffering now, we will reign with Christ later. It is a path that Jesus walked, and we may well also walk at times. It is not designed to destroy us, but rather refine and strengthen our faith. As we stand in that hour, it is a declaration before men and spiritual powers that we are living in anticipation of a great victory to come! That we are looking beyond this earthly life to the ultimate vindication from God. As John tells us: ‘this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith (cf. 1 John 5:4). Come to Jesus…if you are yet in your sins. Come to Jesus if you are struggling with suffering, persecution and sorrow. You will find refuge, strength and hope there.
[i] 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[ii] Scott McKnight, 1 Peter, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 219.
[iii] 1 Peter 1:6-7.
[iv] Thomas Schreiner, I, 2 Peter, Jude, The New American Commentary, vol. 37, (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2003), 181-82.
[v] Ibid, 182.
[vi] Hebrews 10:19-22.
[vii] Philippians 2:8-11.
[viii] Matthew 12:38-40.
[ix] Matthew 27:62-64a.
[x] I Howard Marshall, 1 Peter, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, (Downers Grove, IL: I. V. P Academic, 1991), 121.
[xi] 1 Peter 3:19-20.
[xii] Martin Luther, Commentary on Peter & Jude, 166 as quoted by Thomas Schreiner, I, 2 Peter, Jude, 184.
[xiii] David Helm, 1-2 Peter and Jude: Sharing Christ’s Sufferings, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 120.
[xiv] Thomas Schreiner, I, 2 Peter, Jude, 184-85.
[xv] 1 Peter 3:21-22.
[xvi] Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, TNTC, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 160-61.
[xvii] Thomas Schreiner, I, 2 Peter, Jude, 180.