Well do please take a copy of God’s Word in your hands and turn with me to 1 Peter chapter 3, or turn in one of the church Bibles to page 1016; 1 Peter chapter 3. We’ve been working our way steadily through 1 Peter together here at First Church on Sunday mornings, and one of the major themes we’ve been considering has to do with living for Christ when doing so will bring suffering, opposition, hardship. And as we turn to 1 Peter 3:18-22, our passage this morning, we’re going to see that theme continue. Peter is writing to provide encouragement to the suffering church in his day and in ours.
We’re going to tackle it under four headings. Before we turn to read the Word of God and then consider those themes, we need to pause and pray, not least because this is probably the most difficult text in the New Testament, so let’s turn to God and ask for His help. Let’s pray.
O Lord, take Your Word and bring it to bear upon our hearts and lives. We ask that You would get in under our guards, that You would break through our defenses, that You would arrest our attention, that You would awaken our slumbering consciences, that You would call the dead from death unto life, and so it even by this portion of holy Scripture, for the glory of Your name. Amen.
1 Peter chapter 3 at the eighteenth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy Word.
One of my favorite lines in the New Testament is found actually at the end of Peter’s second letter, 2 Peter chapter 3:15-16, where Peter is commending the writings of the apostle Paul to his own readers. And he adds a little caveat about Paul’s letters where he says, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” I can’t help but imagine Paul reading those lines from Peter and thinking to himself, “I’m hard to understand; that’s a bit rich!” There are many benefits of sequential, expository preaching, which is our normal practice here on the Lord’s Day; we try to work our way through large chunks of the Bible. There are many benefits to the preacher and to the hearer alike of that approach to preaching. One side benefit for the congregation, if not for the preacher, is that you get to watch the preacher squirm and wriggle like a worm on the hook when he comes to texts like this one that he now has to deal with because that’s just what’s next!
So allow me to say that as we come to this difficult passage that I’m offering my reading of it with a good deal of provisionality. In fact, I would advise you to watch out for people who profess to know for sure what Peter means. You should walk the other way very quickly. They are selling you a bill of goods almost certainly. Martin Luther, the great German reformer, said of 1 Peter 3:18-22, “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not for a certainty know just what Peter means.” So if Luther didn’t know, we should all be willing to admit that we might have it wrong too and come at the passage with a certain modesty and humility. So those are my disclaimers. Okay? And with those disclaimers firmly in place, let’s take a stab at the teaching that we find here.
Christ is Our Substitute
Look first of all at verse 18, verse 18. Peter is reminding us that Christ is our substitute. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” The “For” with which verse 18 begins, links the passage back to what has already preceded it in the verses just before this one that we considered together last week. We are to “suffer for doing good,” Peter has told us in verse 17, “if that should be God’s will.” And now he says we should do it “because,” “for,” “since” Christ also suffered. Christ is our great example in suffering. The servant is not greater than the master. Christ suffered, and those who follow Him must pick up their crosses and walk the path of suffering too.
But Peter is saying more than that, more than simply Christ is our model and example in suffering. He’s saying “Christ suffered once for sins.” there is a uniqueness and a purposeful character to the sufferings of Christ that cannot be said of any of our sufferings. Hebrews 9:11-12 reminds us that unlike the earthly priests in the ancient temple in Jerusalem, who, according to the Levitical code offered sacrifice every day, “Christ has entered once for all” – there’s the same language – “into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves, but by means of his own blood, securing eternal redemption.” The death of Jesus has this unique character. It is the only once-for-all sacrifice for sin. No other is needed. Not the so-called sacrifice of the Mass. Not any religious sacrifices we think we may offer to God in our worship or in our giving or in our praying. Not the sacrificial work of philanthropy. Not our own goodness. Not any words or works that our hands may perform. Christ’s sacrifice of Himself is the only sufficient sacrifice that meets our need.
And notice how it works. It is a sacrifice, Peter says, “the righteous for the unrighteous.” That is to say, Jesus the righteous one offers Himself instead of us, we who are unrighteous, to bring us to God, to reconcile us to God. Our wickedness and sin has excluded us from God and He receives in Himself at the cross the punishment our sin deserves that we may be reconciled to the Father. A great exchange takes place, a swap. He is treated as though guilty and we are treated as though righteous, not with our own righteousness but with His.
There’s a great illustration of this, a very graphic one, in the Gospel narrative of the sufferings of Jesus. You remember when Jesus is on trial and the mob are baying for His blood and Pilate stands before them and says, “Who would you like for me to release to you? You can have Barabbas, convicted insurrectionist, murderer, or you can have Jesus, in whom I find not cause for condemnation.” And they all shout for Barabbas and they shout for Christ’s crucifixion. And Barabbas goes. Jesus, Jesus takes the place of Barabbas. The name “Barabbas,” by the way, means “son of the father.” It’s a beautiful picture. What is it we are being told? We are being told, “You are Barabbas. I am Barabbas. Wicked, guilty before the bar of heaven’s justice. Condemned justly in the sight of God.” And Jesus Christ stands in my room and stead and bears the penalty for me that I might become a son of the Father. The Father’s only begotten Son gives Himself for me.
The work is all His. There is nothing for you to do. No words, no works, no priests, no sacrifice, no standard to meet, no words to pray, no ritual to perform. There’s nothing you need to do. Christ has done it all. “Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul. Not what my toiling flesh has born can make my spirit whole. Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God. Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load. Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin. Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within. Thy love to me, O God, not mine, O Lord, to Thee, can rid me of this dark unrest and set my spirit free.” Christ our substitute. You have no hope, none, unless it rests on Jesus Christ alone. He can do what you never can. He will pay a price you cannot afford. Do you have Him as your substitute? Jesus is our substitute, firstly.
Christ is Our Preacher
Then secondly, Christ our preacher. Let’s look again at verses 18 through 20. Now we’re really getting into the tall grass. Verses 18 through 20, we are told Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” Pause there for a moment. “Spirit” there really ought to be capitalized. It’s not talking about His own human spirit but he’s saying He was made alive in the resurrection, the bodily resurrection, by the work of the Holy Spirit; by God the Holy Spirit. “In which,” verse 19, “he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought to safety through water.” What in the world does that mean? I’m not sure, is the honest answer!
Some people think the “spirits in prison” refer to demonic powers who had sinned at some point in the time of Noah. Some people think it means Jesus went to hell at some point, perhaps between His death and His resurrection, to proclaim His victory over the unbelieving dead. And a very few people think that this passage offers support to the idea of some sort of post-mortem opportunity for those who died without faith to believe the Gospel. Let me just simply say I don’t find any of those approaches convincing or credible. So here’s my best, albeit provisional stab at it. If you have a better read on the text I’m all ears!
But having told us of the ministry of the Spirit in raising Jesus from the dead, Peter wants to encourage the suffering church in his day, he wants to encourage us who live now in the age of the Spirit, by reminding us of a time in human history when the world was known for its unbelief and wickedness so he talks about the days of Noah and the work of the Holy Spirit back then as though to say to us, “What the Spirit did back then, He can do again today, and more now that Christ has risen from the dead!” The days of Noah provide for him an apt illustration. You may recall Noah’s time was marked by general immorality and unbelief. God’s believing people were very few in number, just Noah’s family. They were universally mocked and ridiculed for their faith. Nobody believed a flood was coming. Nobody. And yet Noah faithfully obeys God. Second Peter 2:5 calls him a “preacher of righteousness.” He preached that “God is just,” that, “Judgment is coming on the world in the form of a flood, but there is an ark to which you may flee for refuge. Come and take refuge. God has provided a way of escape from the judgment to come!” That was his message.
Every hammer he nailed, every board he hammered home as he built the ark was preaching that message. So – bang! “Flood is coming but there is a way of escape.” (Bang) “There is a flood coming. Judgment is coming! Flee the wrath to come!” (Bang) “There is a flood coming! Trust in the promise of God and flee to safety.” That was the message in word and deed. He built the ark and proclaimed judgment and mercy. And yet Peter says his generation “did not obey.” The word for “obey” there means “to hear and respond appropriately to the message.” They rejected the sermon that Noah was preaching in word and work. God’s patience waited, Peter says, while the ark was being prepared, offering redemption, rescue for anyone who would believe. And only Noah’s family responded in faith.
The result is, that at the time Peter was writing, the spirits of that generation, unbelieving, are now in prison. They are now in hell under the judgment of God. And Peter tells us that Christ went and preached to that generation in the time of Noah by the Holy Spirit who raised Christ from the dead. I take that to mean that Christ preached to Noah’s generation in and through the preaching of Noah himself. And I come to that conclusion under the influence of two other passages in 1 Peter. The first is back in chapter 1 verse 11 where Peter is talking about the work of the prophets in the Old Testament scriptures who predict the sufferings of Christ and the glories that are to follow. And they do it, he says, “by the Spirit of Christ in them.” It’s the Spirit of Christ in them that gave them that message. And Peter is saying here the same Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, Christ, by the Spirit through Noah, preached to his generation – a generation whose spirits are now in prison.
And the other passage that I find helpful here is in chapter 4 verse 6, 1 Peter 4 verse 6, where Peter speaks of the Gospel preached “even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the Spirit the way God does.” People who are now dead heard the Gospel in life, so that even though they received in their bodies the earthly consequences of sin – they’re dead – nevertheless, by believing the Gospel they live in their spirits in the presence of God. That’s a very similar thought, though with different outcome, because the people who heard the Gospel responded differently to the passage that is now before us, in fact, even using some of the same vocabulary.
Put all of that data together, I think you could paraphrase our passage like this. “Christ was made alive in the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, in which, by whom, He proclaimed to the spirits of Noah’s generation, the people of Noah’s generation, who are now in prison for their unbelief, the possibility of rescue and the inevitability of judgment. This proclamation took place when God’s patience waited while the ark was being prepared, in and through the preaching of His servant, Noah, the preacher of righteousness.”
Well okay, pastor. Enough geeking out over the interpretation of a difficult passage. Where does that get us? That’s what we want to know, right? Where does that get us? What is the “so-what”? What’s the cash value of the teaching here? Well it’s simply that Christ was the preacher in the preaching of Noah. By the power of the Holy Spirit, in the face of a dark, unbelieving generation when Noah almost alone proclaimed the truth of God, he did it enabled and strengthened by the Spirit of Christ. Christ was the preacher. Now think about Peter’s generation facing widespread opposition, persecution even, suffering for the sake of the Gospel, wondering, “In what strength, by what power can we see the good news advance? We feel small and weak? What can we do? However can we make a difference?” Peter reminds them of the days of Noah and how Christ, by His Spirit, proclaimed the Gospel in the face of the darkness. “And though many did not believe” – so don’t be surprised, he’s saying, if people don’t believe – “some did and were saved.”
One of the early confessions of the reformed church from Switzerland during the time of the Reformation is a document called “The Second Helvetic Confession.” And it says that “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” What it’s saying is, when you open your mouth and you say, “Let me tell you about Jesus,” and you explain the Gospel faithfully – albeit by lisping, stammering tongues, albeit fearfully, albeit in weakness, nevertheless, Christ Himself is the preacher who proclaims His Word. So stand up straight and open your mouth and proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ. You do not do it in your own strength. It’s not your persuasive words that will make a difference, but it is the Christ who speaks in the Gospel by your words. Christ our substitute. Christ our preacher.
Christ is Our Rescuer
Then thirdly, Christ our rescuer. Christ our rescuer. If Jesus is the preacher by the Spirit, even though many will not obey the Word, the point is, some will. Some did in the days of Noah; some will in our day too. Noah and his family believed and obeyed, and as a more literal reading of verse 20 might put it, they were “saved through water.” And that thought sort of triggers a connection for Peter back to the experience of the believers in the churches to which he was writing; back to our experience as Christians.
Look at verse 21 and the next curveball Peter throws at us. Verse 2, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal” – or a pledge – “to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The deliverance of Noah, who believed God and found refuge in the ark, and so was saved through water, Peter says is mirrored in the rite of Christian baptism. Well in what way? Well let’s start with the opening phrase of verse 21, the one that tends to make good Presbyterians break out in hives. “Baptism now saves you.” What does that mean? Is Peter really saying that, “Jesus is all you need,” and now he’s adding a little footnote, “and oh yes, baptism too”? I don’t think so. He’s saying baptism saves us the same way that the ark saved Noah. You’ve got to believe the promise of God to escape the flood and climb inside.
You just picture the scene. It’s a Saturday night, the work is finally finished; there’s the ark. The sun is setting, Noah’s kicking back, feet up, with the family; they’ve just enjoyed a meal together. He’s feeling a little philosophical and he says, “You know what, I’m really not sure I’m buying this flood business.” Would the ark save him? Without faith in Jesus Christ, there is no possibility of salvation. Without faith in the promise of God, there is no deliverance for Noah from the judgment to come. You’ve got to believe the promise to get into the ark. You’ve got to believe, “Rain is coming, flood is coming, and God has provided the way of escape,” to lock yourself and your family inside the ark. How does baptism save us? It saves us the same way the ark saved Noah. You’ve got to believe that there is an ark of safety into which we may flee to be rescued from the flood of judgment that is coming – the Lord Jesus Christ. Baptism is a picture, a proclamation to us, of a way of escape in the cleansing blood of Christ.
John Calvin famously said that, “The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are visible words.” He meant that the message proclaimed by the Word of God read and preached, and the message proclaimed in bread and wine and the water of baptism, is the same message. He meant that you don’t get something in the sacraments that you don’t also get in the Word. You don’t get a different Jesus. You get the same Christ in both. You hear the Word proclaimed, spoken in holy Scripture, read and preached, and you see the Word and handle the Word and taste the Word in the sacraments, but it’s the Word. And the way they work, the way you receive the benefits of both forms of the Word, the Word written and spoken and the Word seen and touched and tasted, the way you receive the benefits of both is exactly the same. You receive it by faith alone.
If you take out the word “baptism” from the text in verse 21 and insert instead “the Word of God” and reread it, I don’t think any of us would have any difficulty with the passage. Would we? Instead of “baptism which now saves you,” you read, “the Word of God which now saves you,” we would all understand immediately what Peter means. How does the Word of God save you? The Word saves you by calling you to repentance from life on your own terms and to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone as the only Savior of sinners. That’s precisely how baptism works too. That’s what it’s calling us all to.
We just witnessed beautiful baptisms this morning. And your own baptisms, however many years, decades ago, they may have been, are still preaching to you the good news about Jesus calling you today, all of us today and every day till we go to be with Him, to repent of our sin and to believe the Gospel. Jesus is the ark of safety. Get into Him. He is the way of escape. He is the only rescuer that you need. There is a flood coming, the flood of judgment still to come, but Jesus Christ is your rescuer. He is the ark of safety. Christ our substitute. Christ our preacher. Christ our rescuer.
Christ is Our Victor
And then look at verse 22. Christ our victor. Peter says, Christ is seated in resurrection glory in “heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” Now how would that have landed? Isn’t that such an encouragement to a suffering church, surrounded on every side by skepticism and mockery and opposition and mounting suffering for the cause of the Gospel to remember that seated on the throne of glory is the One who gave Himself for them in His love? Their Savior is King! The Lamb wins! That’s the message. And so he wants to say to the church who were tempted then as we are tempted today to back off, not to speak up, not to stand out, not to step out of line, to compromise, to blend in with the world – he wants to say to them, “No, no. You can stand firm and you can speak up because you know Jesus Christ has already won the victory over principalities and powers, demonic and angelic and earthly for that matter. He reigns right now as King!”
So the question is not, “Am I wise enough? Do I have the words and the arguments? Is my rhetoric polished? Am I persuasive? Can I be sophisticated in my engagement as I try to serve Jesus and do evangelism?” Those are the wrong questions. The question you need to get straight is this, supremely, “Do I trust Jesus Christ the King to overrule, to reign in every situation, in every suffering and in every success, for my good and His glory?” If the answer to that is, “Yes,” the press on, albeit through suffering if need be, speak for Him, live for His glory, risk everything – there is no risk in His service. He reigns! The victory is already won and we could not, therefore, be more secure. May God help us to hear, to the praise of His great name, that Jesus Christ is our substitute – He dies that we might live. He is our preacher who preaches in our preaching, who witnesses in our witnessing. He is our rescuer. Get yourself into Christ, the only ark of safety. And Christ is already our victor and we can have confidence in Him.
Let’s pray together.
O Lord, forgive us, please forgive us for doubting, forgetting, that You reign, and that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to You so that when You say to us, “Go and make disciples of every nation,” we need not fear the darkness of the world nor the weakness and liabilities of our own natures; we may be bold in Your service, not because the world isn’t dark and we’re not weak, but because You are mighty. And even through our poor lisping, stammering tongues, by Your Spirit You proclaim life-giving good news. Help us, O Lord, to fix those truths firmly into place in our thinking and to live in light of them for Your honor and glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
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