This morning we’re continuing in 1st Peter. And I want to highlight one reason we go through books of the Bible on Sundays, at least most of the time. One of the reasons, and I know this isn’t new to most of you—is because we can’t skip the hard parts. Today’s text is an example of a difficult passage of Scripture, at least a few parts of it. Let’s jump right in and read 1 Peter 3:18-22. I’ve asked Ben Thompson, who is one of our new deacons, to come and read for us.
18 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, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 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. 21 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, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
Thank you, Ben. There is a lot of evil in the world today. That has been true in every century since the beginning of creation. Evil abounds in the world. Not only the blatant evil of human beings like us, but even the “natural” evil that abounds in a fallen world. We have natural disasters, freak accidents, cancer, other illnesses. Sin and evil abound, and the byproducts of sin and evil.
For believers in Christ, we are not exempt. Though we are born again to a living hope in Christ, we still experience pain and suffering. And we have to remember that the people to whom Peter is writing here were experiencing that pain and suffering. They lived during a time of heightened persecution. They were denied rights that every human being should have, simply because of their faith in Christ.
So Peter has been writing about this pain and suffering and persecution. We’ve seen that over the last several weeks. He’s hinted at our example, who is Christ. Christ, of all people, is able to empathize with us. So he’s our example in how to suffer for God’s glory. But here at the end of chapter 3, Peter moves into almost a doxology. He writes about Christ being our example again, but then just spends a few verses confessing the pre-eminence of Christ. His “awesomeness” might be the word to use for millennials like me. Ultimately, Peter is pointing to Christ not only as our example, but as our ultimate hope. Even in the midst of all the pain and suffering and evils of the world—Christ has overcome it all. That is our hope. That’s what we constantly set our minds and affections toward. Christ himself. Why? Why must we set our hearts on Christ even in the midst of suffering? I have three reasons for you this morning.
- Christ died once for our sins (18, 21).
I love verse 18. And before you say, “Ryan, we always talk about this. Jesus died for our sins. This is old news; why do we keep talking about it?” Because it’s the heart of the Christian faith, yes?! You may call it old news; I say, “Give me that old news!” This is the hope of humanity. Christ died as a substitute for us. He died to pay the penalty for our sin. Let me just give something away. We’re gonna talk about Jesus dying for our sins today, and guess what? Next week: we’re gonna talk about Jesus dying for our sins.
Again, why? Because this is the only way in the world that we can be reconciled to God! That’s what Peter writes there in verse 18—that “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous…that He might bring us to God!” This must capture our hearts as Christians. If it doesn’t, if we’ve become indifferent toward Christ as our Substitute, we have wondered astray. This is the very heart of our faith.
Notice the sufficiency of Christ. He suffered and died once. This is not like in Old Testament times when sacrifices had to made repeatedly and consistently in order for God’s wrath to be satisfied. Christ absorbed all of God’s wrath for His people. He died once, and that was all that was necessary. If you have repented from your sin and put your faith in Christ alone to save you—listen: God claims you as his own. Your sin which once separated you from Him has been paid for, by Christ, once and for all.
This is the beauty of baptism, and what it symbolizes. In verse 21, Peter uses the flood during Noah’s day as a type pointing us to baptism. In a similar way that Noah and his family were saved through water—the water not only destroyed mankind, but also pushed the ark up and away from danger. Similarly, baptism saves us from the wrath of God.
Now, Peter immediately clarifies. He says, it’s not the physical, outward act of baptism. Not the removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience. Wayne Grudem paraphrases it like this: “Coming up out of the waters of baptism corresponds to being kept safe through the waters of the flood, the waters of God’s judgment on sin, and emerging to live in newness of life.”
Another commentator paraphrases it like this: “Baptism now saves you—not the outward, physical ceremony of baptism but the inward spiritual reality which baptism represents.” In other words, baptizing Catalina earlier—that was not the moment of her salvation. That was a symbol of the salvation that God had already birthed within her. When we repent and believe upon Christ, our sins are forgiven. The only possible way for any of us to escape our sin and the guilty consciences we all have—is through Christ. And He is sufficient. He died once for our sins. This is what defines us. We have been baptized into Christ.
No matter how frustrated you are with the world, or with where the culture is headed, and certainly I have my frustrations as well. No matter how frustrated we become, or how little we seem to fit within the culture as it changes, listen: we are not a hopeless people! We are not a mopey people. We are not a cranky people. We are a redeemed people, by the substitutionary death and resurrection of our Savior. No matter how much evil abounds in the world, no matter how much we may suffer unjustly—that’s not what defines us. What defines us is our King and Savior, who died once for our sins! We’ve been brought back to God. That’s our reality not just in the future, but in the here and now. Is there a better reason to set our hearts on Christ in the midst of pain and suffering? Reason #2:
- Christ proclaims the Truth of God (19-20).
Verses 19 and 20 are difficult to understand. I want to do a little Bible study with you on these verses. If you didn’t already have your Bible out, you’re going to need it. Let me read these two verses again, and then we’ll talk about them. Let me start with the end of verse 18: Christ, “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.”
So, what is Peter saying here? Let me start by telling you, many scholars consider verse 19 to be the most difficult verse to interpret in the entire New Testament. Even Martin Luther, the 16th century Reformer, called this verse “likely the most obscure verse in the New Testament.” So, what is Peter saying?
Well, let’s start with the obvious. Jesus proclaimed to the spirits in prison. We know that. But there are two main questions here. Who are the spirits in prison? Who is that? And what exactly did Jesus proclaim to them? Before I give you some options, I’m hoping to show you a few tips for how to study God’s Word. When you come to a hard passage like this, and you’re not sure what it means—two things that might help: First, read the whole passage multiple times. You might be surprised how much easier it is to understand one verse, when you read the whole paragraph like 10-20 times in a row. Second, look for similar language used throughout the whole letter or book. Or even throughout the New Testament. That might help you in understanding what’s being said. Obviously, that tip takes more time to develop. That’s something we get better at as we read God’s Word more and more. But I give you those as a precursor to how we can best understand these verses here in 1 Peter 3.
Let me give you three main views on this. Again, the main questions: 1) Who are the spirits in prison? And 2) What did Jesus proclaim to them? I’m going to give you three views. And then I’ll tell you which one is my view, which is obviously the correct view. These are the three primary views on what Peter is getting at here.
#1: Jesus, after his death but before his resurrection, descended into hell and preached to those who had died in the flood during Noah’s time. There are several variations of this view, but generally speaking it holds that Jesus descended into hell. This is likely the most common view among Christians, not really because of serious Bible study, though there are a number of scholars who hold to this. It’s common because it’s been somewhat popularized. There’s even a music video out there that shows Jesus descending into hell after he died and fighting Satan in a boxing ring. He beats Satan, and then is raised back to life. Obviously it didn’t happen like that at all. But, is this view possible? Yes. It’s possible.
#2: Jesus, after his death but before his resurrection, descended into hell and preached to fallen angels. Ok? So, this view still holds that he went to hell, the place of the dead, but specifically to proclaim judgment upon fallen angels.
Scripturally, the main evidence for this view is found in other passages that seem to parallel this one. Let me read 2ndPeter 2, verses 4 and 5, as an example: “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly…” and then it goes on. So, Peter there speaks of fallen angels being cast into hell, and even uses Noah as another example of a time when God did not spare the ancient world from his wrath. Could be a parallel, there.
We do know from other texts as well that there were some demons so evil and who had already committed such atrocities that God sent them to hell, a place of torment, even before Judgment Day, which was still to come. There’s a lot more I could give you on that, but that’s option 2, which is certainly possible. Some put options 1 and 2 together. He descended into hell and preached to both human beings who had died like during Noah’s time, as well as to fallen angels. Some do that, some keep them separate.
There are some problems with these two views: First, no matter what, he did not preach the gospel to these spirits or these human beings, and give them a chance to repent and believe. There is no biblical evidence for that. Whether these spirits are those who died from the flood, or fallen angels sent to hell before Judgment Day—either way, if this one or both of these views is true, Jesus proclaimed judgment over them. He didn’t preach the gospel and offer a chance for repentance. He proclaimed defeat for them. In other words, if one or both of these views is correct, Jesus proclaimed the Truth to them. Period.
Option #3. And I’ll tell you this is the one I lean toward. I’m about 64.328% sure that this is what Peter meant when he wrote these words. Honestly, I was about 85% sure until this last week, when I spent more time studying this text. So, my certainty has gone down, but I still lean toward this view.
#3: Jesus did not descend into Hell. Jesus preached in the Spirit through Noah. I think this is what Peter is getting at. Jesus was put to death in the flesh, this is verse 18, 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.
Basically, Noah proclaimed repentance to all the people before the flood came. But they didn’t obey, which is why only 8 were spared. That was Noah and his wife, and Noah’s three sons and their wives. Add all of that up, you get 8. The biggest problem with this view is that it would mean Peter is calling these disobedient people in Noah’s time “spirits in prison.” Why would Peter call them “spirits in prison?” It’s a good question, and my answer for that is that those people, when Peter was writing this, were in prison in hell. They were in the place of the dead awaiting Judgment Day, just like they still are today.
To help us understand that better. It’d be like saying, “King Charles was born in 1948.” He wasn’t King in 1948, but we can still say, “King Charles was born in 1948.” We’d still call him King Charles, because that’s an accurate title for him right now. That’s what I think Peter is saying here. Jesus, through the Spirit, used Noah to preach to these “spirits in prison.” They weren’t “spirits in prison” when Noah preached to them, but they are “spirits in prison” when Peter was writing these words. Does that make sense?
I know this is a lot to think about, and maybe you don’t fully grasp everything I just shared. But this is such a central part of this passage that I needed to explain at least some of that. And even though this is hard to grasp, and hard to figure out, this is God’s Word. It’s crucial to study it, even if we don’t have to agree on exactly what Peter is saying.
So, here’s the beauty of this, no matter which view you take, we can certainly agree on this: Jesus proclaims the Truth of God. If he was proclaiming judgment upon fallen angels or deceased human beings in hell, He’s proclaiming Truth. If he’s preaching through Noah to the people of Noah’s day, He’s proclaiming Truth. This is why we set our hearts on Him even in the midst of suffering!
You and I can look to Him because He does not lie, or manipulate, or work the angles, or coerce. He simply proclaims Truth. Whether we want to hear it or not, we need Truth, especially while living in a fallen world. Especially when sin and evil abounds, not only out there but even in our flesh. We set our hearts on Him because He is trustworthy. He proclaims the Truth of God. That was reason #2. Reason #3. Why we set our hearts on Him:
- Christ rules over all (22).
Oh, how we cannot omit verse 22. If we’re not already enthralled with Christ. If we don’t already feel compelled to set our hearts and our hope on Christ, Peter gives us even more. Verse 22: “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.”
It grieves me to see among Christians these subtle demotions imposed upon Christ. For the sake of our independence, or autonomy, or freedom—whatever you want to call it. We demote Jesus when it comes to His authority. That’s our human nature, and even as Christians we can fall into this at times. We weaken His power and say He’s just “more powerful than anyone else.” We diminish his rule, and think, “That probably caught him off guard, otherwise he wouldn’t have allowed it.” We minimize His presence, and think, “God probably wasn’t aware of that.”
Let me say this again, because Peter is not vague here. He does not mince his words. Jesus Christ rules over all. He is all-powerful and all-knowing and present everywhere. The risen Lord and King is seated at the right hand of God. All authorities and powers have been subjected to Him. We know from Philippians 2 that “God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Is there any confusion there? Is there any nuance? I don’t hear any confusion or nuance there.
Here’s why this reality should compel us to set our hearts upon Christ even in the midst of our suffering: Jesus is never surprised! Jesus is never caught off guard! Jesus knows your pain. Jesus is sovereign over your pain. Jesus is not unable to remove your pain. When your pain and suffering continues, you can be sure that Christ is not unable to end it. I know that might mean wondering why He doesn’t. But let me just tell you: I would so rather serve a King who knows my pain and lets it continue than a King who knows my pain and can do nothing to stop it.
We set our hearts upon Christ because He is the King of all. And this King died for my sin to bring me back to God. This King proclaims Truth even when I don’t want to hear it. And this King rules over all.
I attended a memorial service yesterday for a 44-year-old man who had passed away from cancer. I did not know him, but he and his family are very close to a family in our church. Hearing this man’s family and friends share about his life and his love for Christ—I couldn’t help but think, what a remarkable example of what these verses are getting at. This man and his family are astonishing examples of what it is to have your heart set on Christ even in the midst of suffering.
David was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer less than two years ago. He and wife have four boys, ages 10-16 (something like that). To hear David’s friends share of his character and his genuine love for Jesus. To hear his parents, who already lost one son, share of their deep peace as they trust in the sovereignty of God. To hear David’s wife, who lost her husband a week ago, share the gospel with everyone in attendance. To hear them all speak of the goodness of God, of David’s desire for Christ to be glorified in everything, no matter what. It’s been a long time since I felt that convicted about my own desire for Christ.
The things we allow to distract us. The things we so quickly call “unfair.” I think I needed a bit of a wake-up call, and God provided that yesterday through this man I never met. Perhaps you too need a wake-up call. If you don’t yet know Christ: I implore you, repent and believe. Christ died; he rose again. He ascended. He was exalted. And let me tell you: there will be no atheists on the last day. All will recognize Christ. Not with saving faith. But a recognition of Christ as the True King. I implore you: repent and believe now. Place your faith in Christ alone to save you.
If you do know Christ, like I do. Stop playing games. Stop setting your affections and your love on things other than Christ. In Christ alone we find victory over all evil and sin. In Christ alone, we are brought back to the Father. In Christ alone, we find peace and even one day, freedom from pain and suffering.
Evil abounds. Sin is pervasive. Suffering is real. But Christ suffered also, once for our sins. And Christ is not only as our example. He is our ultimate hope. Even in the midst of all the pain and suffering and evils of the world—Christ has overcome it all. That’s why we must constantly set our hearts and affections upon Him.