Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 18, 2024

1 Peter 3:18-22 Commentary

It may be a good thing that the RCL appoints 1 Peter 3:18-22 as this Sunday’s (as well as an earlier Easter) Epistolary Lesson. Otherwise, preachers might succumb to the temptation to skip over it without ever addressing this passage that’s both so theologically rich and, in some places, deeply mysterious.

This Sunday marks the first in the season of Lent. It’s the season during which God’s dearly beloved people try to let the Spirit prepare our hearts to both remember Jesus’ deep suffering and celebrate how God afterward raised him to life. In fact, verse 18’s “Christ was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit” offers a wonderful summary of just what Christians plan to celebrate and remember during Lent.

Jesus graciously did all of this, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson emphasizes for the sake of what verse 18a calls “the unrighteous” [adikon]*. Here is the gospel’s great news that’s the context of its grim news. Jesus didn’t suffer [epathen] and die for the dikaios (“righteous”) folks of the world. He died for the adikon, the “unrighteous.”

That, however, may not sound like particularly good news for those of us who naturally assume that we are the “righteous.” We naturally assume that the “unrighteous” about whom Peter writes are people who, for example, “speak maliciously” (3:16) about Christians’ good behavior. Even Christians sometimes assume that “unrighteous” people are the ones with whom we disagree about things like politics, climate change and human sexuality.

But this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson makes it clear that the apostle has his readers, as well as all of his brothers and sisters in Christ, squarely in his sights. After all, in verse 18 Peter says, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you [hymas] to God.” The close grammatical proximity of “the unrighteous” to “you” strongly implies that we are among “the unrighteous” for whom the righteous Christ allowed himself to be crucified.

Of course, as my colleague Stan Mast notes, this is a rather unique way to think about Christ’s death. We might, after all, expect Peter to say that Christ died so that we might live or go to heaven. However, what he says in verse 18 is that the righteous Christ died to bring unrighteous prodigals like us “to God [to Theo]. We might say, then, that Christ died so that not even the most unjust suffering can separate God’s adopted sons and daughters from God.

What’s more, especially near the end of 1 Peter 3, the apostle again insists that we are among those whom God considered “unrighteous.” Both preachers and our hearers are naturally unjust. Peter reminds his readers that God views people on all sides of today’s most controversial issues as naturally wicked.

But it isn’t just unrighteous Peter and his living brothers and sisters in Christ for whom Jesus died. The apostle makes his perhaps most mysterious comment in verses 19-20 when he writes about how Jesus “went and preached [ekeryxen] to the spirits [pneumasin] in prison [phylake] who disobeyed [apeithesasen] long ago when God waited patiently [makrothymia] in the days of Noah [hemerais Noe] while the ark was being built.”

Preachers who wish to delve more deeply into this mysterious phrase will benefit from consulting my colleagues’ earlier commentaries on it: Scott Hoezee and  Stan Mast. Yet we perhaps need to say little more than that the righteous Christ was so determined to rescue unrighteous people that his resurrected self found a way to somehow preach the good news to spirits whose disobedience imprisoned them.

Lent’s good and bad news are so tightly interwoven that it can be hard to completely disentangle them. Its great news is that the righteous Jesus gave his life for unrighteous people. The bad news is that outside of God’s redeeming grace, we’re precisely those unrighteous people for whom Jesus gave his life.

That gospel “entanglement” continues as Peter reflects on the relationship between Noah’s ark and baptism’s waters. The good news? “A few people [oligoi], eight [okto psychai] in all, were saved [diesothesan] through water [di hydatos]” (20). The bad news? That handful of people needed to be rescued. The further good news? “This water symbolizes [antitypon] baptism [baptisma] that now saves [sozei] you also” (21). The bad news? All of Jesus’ friends needed baptism’s water to deliver and protect us.

It isn’t, in other words, just people who speak maliciously about Christians’ good behavior that need God’s salvation. It isn’t just those who wouldn’t listen to God long ago when Noah built the ark that need God’s salvation. It isn’t even just the eight God-worshipers in Noah’s family that needed God’s salvation. It’s also all of God’s dearly beloved children (“you”) who need God’s salvation.

God, insists Peter, affects this rescue and preservation of Jesus’ friends through baptism – “not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge [eperotema] of a good [agathes] conscience [syneidesos] toward God” (21). Here is another mysterious assertion that’s hard to interpret. After all, we understand that baptism doesn’t remove dirt from our bodies. But we’re less sure about the precise relationship between our baptism and our salvation.

Preachers will need to sort out this link through the lens of our own theological tradition. But we might not just publicly recognize that Christians disagree about what Peter means here. We might also note that our baptism that we receive with our faith in Jesus Christ is a sign of our salvation. The Holy Spirit may also use our baptism to strengthen our “conscience” [syneideseos] as we sort through how to respond to things like unjust suffering.

Paul goes on in verses 21b-22 to insist that baptism saves God’s dearly beloved people “by [di] the resurrection [anastaseos] of Jesus Christ.” Christians have long recognized the role that Jesus’ crucifixion plays in our salvation. We’ve generally been far less clear about the role his resurrection plays in our rescue.

But Peter may mean for us to understand at least this: God rescues us only through Jesus Christ’s death, resurrection from the dead and ascension into the heavenly realm. The hope of “God’s elect” (1 Peter 1:1) whom persecution has scattered across the world doesn’t lie in our righteousness. It lies, instead, in the righteous Christ’s saving work that God confirmed by raising him from the dead.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


Near the end of his commentary on this passage, New Testament scholar Karl Jacobson reflects on the end of the movie, Unforgiven. In it Clint Eastwood’s character William Munny stands over Gene Hackman’s character Little Bill Daggett with his rifle pointed at him. An already wounded Daggett looks up at Munny and pleads, “I don’t deserve this. To die like this. I was building a house.” Munny answers him, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Munny then pulls the trigger.

Jacobson writes how “In sharp contrast to this scene stands the suffering Christ on our behalf, and the claim that Christ makes for us in baptism — not after we are cleansed, not on account of our righteousness, but in direct opposition to what we might deserve, another Noah and another flood and another drowning out of the sinner. Instead we are baptized in Christ’s name, delivered from the power of sin through his suffering, and so saved. ‘Deserve’s got nothing to do with it’.”


Preaching Connections: , , ,
Biblical Books:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!

Newsletter Signup