This is a perfectly good passage selection for the Lectionary but it does carve this a bit out of context. If you look closely and glance just above where verse 18 starts, then you will see that the main thrust of this part of 1 Peter—like a good bit of the letter—ties in with our own suffering as believers. Peter’s talk about Jesus’ sufferings here are a way to round out this section by suggesting that there can be something redemptive about suffering when we suffer for the same Jesus whose own sufferings and death spell our salvation.
As we begin the Lenten Season, we naturally turn to passages that reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice. That is a key focus of Lent, after all. But for some of us today—though by no means for all Christians in this world today—that can be done somewhat at arm’s length. That is, we maybe do not have a lot of experience in being persecuted or otherwise suffering on account of our association with Jesus. Yes, Jesus suffered and predicted the same would be true for his followers but . . . for some of us, that has not been the defining trait of our discipleship. Yes, Jesus suffered and terrible though that was, we know he did it for us and so gratitude is summoned up in us for what he suffered. But for some of us, anything akin to that suffering in our own lives on account of our faith is not so vivid.
Yet that is the experience of many but according to Peter, there is at least the assurance that such suffering can be redemptive in that it participates in Christ’s own sufferings.
Most of what Peter has to say in this actual lection about Jesus’ sufferings is pretty similar to other passages by Paul, Peter, and others in the New Testament. Of course, this part of 1 Peter 3 has that novel section about Christ preaching to souls that were somehow imprisoned and not only that—which is a bit odd all by itself—there is some connection to those who were disobedient as long ago as the time of Noah and the Flood. It would surprise no one to find out that these verses have been interpreted in more ways than you can count. It would also surprise few if any that the result of all that is that there is little consensus on the meaning of all this.
It all ties in with one theological tradition of “the harrowing of hell” in which Jesus literally went down to Hades or Sheol or Hell or some such underworld place and preached good news to the those who had been awaiting release. Following this and en route to his own resurrection, Jesus “led captives in his train” and performed a kind of big prison break. Those who had been waiting for redemption finally received it.
Who knows what to make of this imagery or that particular theological tradition. Probably in preaching on this passage it would be a good idea to steer clear of those weeds and seek to preach down the center of the trench in pointing to Jesus as the only true hope anyone—past, present, or future—can have for life beyond this earth, for salvation despite our brokenness and sinfulness. We are washed in baptism—an image Peter gets to while he is thinking about the original floodwaters long ago—and once we are so washed, we are purified and saved in a way no one can ever undo.
We can be further assured of our salvation by following the trajectory arc of Jesus’ own resurrection in that it landed him at the right hand of the Father and from that position, Jesus is Lord over all. Everything is subject to him now. Nothing escapes his sovereign reign now.
In that this passage began with that focus on how to think about our own sufferings in life and particularly as believers, this crescendo at the end of the chapter nicely frames and qualifies all that. It is so easy—and perhaps it is somewhat our natural tendency—to see only what is right in front of us at any given moment. The events in our own lives—and most especially the painful events—loom large on our mental and spiritual horizons. Some things can loom so large as to be overwhelming. In the light of this reality, Peter tries to reassure us that there is always something bigger: the Lord of lords and King of kings who just is Jesus. We should not pretend that knowing who Jesus is and seeing him as exalted will smooth out every wrinkle of our lives much less completely wash out every sorrow. The day will come when every tear will be dried from our eyes but that day is not yet. For now the tears are still very real and very painful.
But there is properly something more than a little reassuring in sizing that all up in the light of who Christ is, what he suffered, what he has done for all of us imprisoned by sin and evil, and where he now is as a result of his glorious resurrection. We are not alone. We are not in this by ourselves. And the one who is on our side is not puny or ineffective. He is the King and all are in subjection to him and to his reign.
Knowing this does not erase every sorrow or fear. But it is more than a small comfort to turn our eyes onto this Jesus. During Lent we see what Jesus suffered but we are also reminded of what that suffering wrought and where it ultimately landed our Lord and Savior. He knows better than we can imagine everything we go through. He’s been there. Thanks be to God.
There’s an old “story” that you have maybe heard before. A guy is walking down the street when suddenly he falls into a deep hole he just hadn’t seen as he walked along. The walls are so steep he can’t climb out. A doctor happens by and the guy shouts, “Hey, Doc, can you help me out here?” The doctor writes out a prescription and throws it down the hole. A priest comes by and the guy shouts out “Father, I’m stuck in this hole can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer and tosses it into the hole. The guy’s best friend happens by. “Hey, Joe, it’s me. Can you help me out here.” Joe jumps down into the whole and the guy says “What did you do that for, stupid? Now we’re both stuck down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 18, 2018
1 Peter 3:18-22 Commentary