Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 21, 2021
1 Peter 3:18-22 Commentary
It seems as though Peter nearly always returns to the cross. He constantly reminds readers that willingness to suffer for Jesus’ sake is based on the wonder of Christ’s willingness to suffer death on the cross for our sakes. So as the Church enters the season of Lent, it’s important to study I Peter 3. Here, after all, the apostle reminds Jesus’ followers that the suffering Christ is also the victorious Christ.
In this week’s Epistolary Lesson Peter reminds readers that the Spirit made the Christ who suffered and died on the cross alive again. This risen Jesus has ascended into heaven and is now at God’s right hand. He is the victor over sin, Satan and death.
Jesus’ adopted siblings share in that victory, by God’s grace. After all, the Spirit who made Christ alive again has also made us alive. He has given Christians victory over sin and Satan by raising us to an obedient life. However, Christ’s Spirit has also given us victory over death because his resurrection guarantees that he will someday resurrect us to eternal life in his glorious presence.
In verse 18 the apostle insists Christ’s saving work was complete, writing “Christ died for sins once for all.” In fact, if Jesus’ sacrifice weren’t somehow complete and final, he’d have to offer it again, like people repeatedly offered Old Testament sacrifices. He offered the complete and final sacrifice not of animals’ blood, but of his own.
Christ let the Romans sacrifice him, Peter reminds his readers in verse 18, to fully pay the price for the “sins” of God’s people. He who lived perfectly died in the place of God’s beloved but imperfect adopted children. Christ absorbed the full weight of God’s eternal wrath against all of the sins of all of God’s people.
Thankfully, however, Christ didn’t stay dead. The Spirit, says Peter in verse 18, “made him alive.” On the first Easter morning, the resurrected Jesus walked out of his tomb. Christ did all of this, we also read in verse 18, “to bring us close to God.”
By nature, both this Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers are God’s enemies who are spiritually distant from the Lord. We’re naturally prodigal children who repeatedly and persistently dash off to the spiritual far country, rebelling against and separating ourselves from God.
Now, however, Christ has graciously brought us near to God. Because he sacrificed himself on the cross, his adopted siblings dare to approach the God who has claimed us as God’s own in fellowship and worship. For Jesus’ sake, we even dare to call our heavenly Father by the intimate term, “daddy.”
In this context Peter writes the highly mysterious words about Christ’s preaching to the spirits in prison. While his original audience probably understood what this means, we have a far harder time doing so.
To try to help our hearers understand this passage that seems so strange to us, its proclaimers must try to answer a couple of questions. First, when did Christ preach to the spirits in prison? Was it before his life on earth or after his death, but somehow before his resurrection? Or did Christ preach to the spirits in prison after his resurrection?
The interpretive key may be found in what Peter refers to in verse 18 as Christ being “made alive by the Spirit.” He doesn’t seem to mean that while Christ’s body lay dead in the tomb, his alive Spirit somehow preached to the disobedient. For then Peter wouldn’t be able teach that the Spirit made Christ alive.
What Peter may mean is that the Spirit raised Christ to a new kind of existence that was no longer limited by time and space. After his resurrection, after all, Christ mysteriously appeared and disappeared in ways that showed that his resurrected body was now a spiritual rather than physical body.
So might Peter be saying that Christ appeared to the spirits in prison after his resurrection but before he appeared to the women at the tomb? That he somehow spent those hours proclaiming the gospel to the spirits of sinful people who have died?
Scripture also allows us to interpret this to mean that Christ, as the second Person of the Trinity, preached through Noah. That Noah’s actions proclaimed the gospel to a world that was already dying before God flooded it.
A bigger question is, “to whom did Christ preach?” Taken by itself, verse 19 might answer the “fallen angels.” However, it’s hard to describe fallen angels as those who “disobeyed long ago . . . in the time of Noah.”
So it may be more likely that Peter means that the resurrected Christ’s Spirit proclaimed his resurrection victory and their doom to those who sinned during Noah’s generation. Those sinners, who are now in hell’s “prison,” are those who were disobedient when Christ’s Spirit preached to them through Noah.
Yet however we understand this difficult passage, we recognize that it’s part of Peter’s reassurance of Christians who are suffering for Jesus’ sake. He’s insisting that Christ has won the victory over Satan, sin and death by his resurrection’s power.
So while the devil may still stalk Jesus’ followers like a roaring lion stalking a wounded gazelle, he can’t destroy us. After all, the devil and his human henchmen stalked God’s people during the time before the flood. But the favor Noah found before God shows that they couldn’t completely overcome God’s dearly beloved people.
We sometimes think things in our world are worse now than they’ve ever been. Fewer and fewer of our co-workers, neighbors and even family members seem to care about God. Morality seems to be at an all-time low. Americans in particular seem more divided than at any time since perhaps the Civil War.
Yet the power of evil was at least as great in Noah’s time as it is now. After all, Genesis 6:5 reports that “the Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of his heart was only evil all the time.” It’s a grim picture of radical and universal willful disobedience.
What’s more, the number of God’s people sometimes seems to have been proportionately even tinier in Noah’s time than it is now. After all, Genesis 6:9 reports that “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time.” While it also mentions Noah’s sons, it says nothing about even their righteousness.
Yet even in Noah’s time, God was in full control. God withheld God’s judgment, much as God does now, to give people time to receive God’s grace with their obedient faith. Yet God’s judgment did come in God’s judging flood from which rescued only righteous Noah and his family.
So those today who reject Christ and his gospel still endanger themselves of the judgment that will come when Christ returns. In our text, however, Peter reminds us that those who receive God’s grace with their faith are saved from that judgment. God graciously gives us full and final salvation.
God guarantees that full and final salvation through the “baptism” to which Peter refers in verse 21. Of course, the apostle can’t be here referring to the sacrament of “baptism” that the church offers. After all, the water with which pastors baptize doesn’t itself save us. Only “Jesus Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sins,” as Reformed Christians confess in the Heidelberg Catechisms.
So the “baptism that now saves” us to which Peter refers in verse 21 is this cleansing from our sins by Jesus’ blood and the Holy Spirit. Christ’s blood and Spirit alone wash away sins. Yet God uses this water of baptism to remind God’s adopted sons and daughters that the spiritual washing away of our sins is as real as physical washing with water.
This baptism by Christ’s blood and Spirit is what verse 21 calls “the pledge of a good conscience toward God.” This seems to refer to Christians’ response to our baptism in Christ’s blood. For those whom Christ’s Spirit has baptized pledge a life of “good conscience,” of faithful obedience to the God who in Christ saved us.
In that “pledge” God’s dearly beloved people agree with God’s judgment on sin and on our own sinful nature. We also acknowledge that to turn back from that assent toward persistent disobedience would bring on ourselves God’s just judgment. For Christ’s has died for our sins, once for all, to bring us not to disobedience, but “to God.”
Christ is now “at God’s right hand,” ruling over all of God’s creation. The angels, authorities and powers of which verse 22 speaks must submit, though they often do so involuntarily, to Christ. That means that they must finally do God’s will, whether they really wish to or not.
The submission Christians offer to King Jesus is quite different. We willingly and joyfully submit to the One who died for our sins. After all, we see our faithful and submissive obedience as simply part of our thanks to God for his amazing grace and wonderful salvation.
However, all of creation, including the angels, authorities and powers, will someday have to fully recognize Jesus’ authority. So Jesus’ adopted siblings don’t have to be afraid. We belong, after all, in body and in soul, in life and in death, to the victorious Lord of glory.
In a 2001 public lecture at the Beeson Divinity School, Ralph Wood described Karl Barth’s concept of godliness. My colleague Neal Plantinga summarizes the lecture’s content this way: “Wood … suggests American Evangelicals take heed. Godlessness for Barth is refusing to be scandalized by the gospel.
“Trying to fit the gospel on a bumper sticker or a hallmark card. In fact the gospel is always strange, other, scandalous. It is never obvious. Regarding God as the champ of pop piety. Speaking of God by speaking of man in a loud voice. Believing that we have a direct and unmediated relation to God. Having no need of Israel or of Jesus.
“Where do we find such Godlessness? In fundamentalist/evangelical churches, where Jesus is a body-builder who carries the sins of the world. “His blood’s for you” [This Bud’s for you]. Cross with a note on it: ‘Back Soon.’ Puppets singing, ‘I found my thrill on Golgotha Hill.’
“In A Far Glory, Peter Berger tells us that these things reveal a religion in which nothing extraordinary is going on, in which nobody is falling to their knees. And we applaud pop singers of hymns that are prayers – as if their audience were not God.”
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might take some time to explore the contrast between its wonder of the cross and this popular godlessness. It’s, frankly, hard to even put what Woods said into the same Sermon Commentary as Peter’s stirring words about Jesus’ magnificent sacrifice.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!