The greatest example I can remember of a verse of Scripture being quoted out of context occurred at an assembly at the Baptist university that was my alma mater. The speaker was delivering a message to the students encouraging us to give our best efforts toward the pursuit of success, and at one point he said, “Jeremiah 45:5 says, ‘Do you seek great things for yourself?’” His point in quoting that verse was to encourage us to do that very thing: seek great things for ourselves. However, I had recently memorized that entire verse, and here’s a bit more of the context. In speaking to Baruch, the assistant to the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord said, “Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not, for behold, I am bringing disaster upon all flesh, declares the LORD.” Context matters. Without context, meaning will be obscured.
It will help us to understand the significance of 1 Peter 3:18-22 if we recognize that what Peter is doing here is putting our sufferings in context. By telling again the story of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, Peter is telling us to bring our own sufferings into that story in order to see the meaning of them. Yes, there is much about our suffering that remains mysterious, for which we must trust God and acknowledge our limitations, but God does tell us how to understand the big picture of our sufferings in this world, and that big picture is the pathway from suffering to glory that Jesus Christ traveled, and that he has laid out for us to travel with him.
Peter has just told his readers in verses 17-21 that they must face persecution from this world without fear. Now he goes back to the story of Jesus to show them the theological resources they need to do that. What is it that might cause us to fear the sufferings we face in this world? I think it is reading them in the wrong context. When we suffer, we are tempted to draw faulty conclusions. We fall into the error of Job’s friends and assume that suffering means God must be against us and, consequently, our hopes are undone, and suffering will have the last word. But that is a lie from the devil. Where in Scripture do we get that impression at all? Doesn’t Scripture actually seem to bend over backwards to tell us just the opposite? Whether you are suffering today or will face it in the future (and those two categories encompass all of us), I pray this passage will encourage you to view your sufferings in the context of the story of the gospel so that you will not fear them.
Before jumping into the text, I want to address one question that may be lingering. We know that Peter is speaking about sufferings that result from our faithfulness to Christ. Verse 14 refers to suffering for righteousness’ sake. Verse 16 refers to being reviled for good behavior. Verse 17 speaks of suffering for doing good. I know some of you have experienced that, and I know that in the future many of us (maybe all of us) will experience it. But does Peter also include here the sufferings in your life that seem random? What about major health issues that you, your spouse, or your children face? What about financial difficulties that result from economic forces beyond your control? What if you are hit by a drunk driver? Or what if a tornado topples your house to the ground? Should we apply the teaching of this text to those kinds of sufferings as well? I think we should. I believe the New Testament teaching about suffering with Christ includes any suffering that we encounter as we are seeking to be faithful to Christ, whether we can directly tie it to our righteousness or not. I’ll give a couple of reasons why I think that is the case. One is that we simply don’t know to what degree Satan may be involved in the sufferings we face. I was talking about this issue one day with a group of interns, and Nathan Webb made a very astute observation: Job was a righteous man who was persecuted by Satan because of his righteousness. He experienced the loss of his wealth, family, and health, all from seemingly random events, and he never knew that Satan had done these things to him. Or think of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” whatever kind of suffering that was. He referred to it as a “messenger of Satan” (2 Cor. 12:7). So what seems random to you may very well be an attack of the enemy against you because of your righteousness. Another reason I’m confident including “random” suffering is because, whether or not we know that that enemy is responsible for it, we do know that the enemy will seek to tempt us through our “random” sufferings to abandon our faith in God. And that temptation will itself be part of the suffering. So if you are facing suffering that seems random, I want you to draw encouragement from this passage by viewing it in the context of the story that Peter tells. And that story shows us that, in Christ, suffering is the pathway to glory.
Here are three words of encouragement to draw from this passage:
I. In Christ, our sufferings will bear fruit for God’s kingdom.
Here’s the principle that I believe Peter wants us to grasp: just as the sufferings of Christ bore rich fruit for the kingdom of God, so do our sufferings bear rich fruit for the kingdom of God. That doesn’t mean that our sufferings accomplish the same thing that Christ’s sufferings accomplished, for he is the unique sin-bearing sacrifice for our sins, and we cannot atone for anybody’s sins. However, while fully acknowledging the uniqueness of Christ’s redemptive work, Peter invites us to see ourselves as following his example by suffering for the good of others.
In verse 18, Peter writes, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” Jesus Christ, the righteous one, suffered for the good of the unrighteous. He died in order to reconcile us to God. Peter wants us to see that our sufferings can bear similar fruit for the sake of others. Remember the thesis statement of this entire section of Peter’s letter, which is found in 2:12: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” This section of the letter is about living in such a way that adorns the gospel and helps draw unbelievers to faith. One of the ways we do that is by facing suffering without fear. When we face the loss of temporal things—money, reputation, health, social standing—and we do so with unwavering trust in the goodness of God, we present a powerful testimony to the world that Christ is more valuable than anything we can lose in this world. That is why, I believe, Peter has just said in verse 17 that it is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. Suffering for doing good adorns the gospel and gives testimony to the infinite worth of Jesus Christ.
This truth became more vivid to me when I recently read a short book by Richard Bauckham about the book of Revelation.i Bauckham pointed out something that is easy to miss, but that has profound meaning. In Revelation chapters 6-9, we read about God’s judgments of warning against humanity in the form of the seven seals that are broken, followed by the seven trumpets that are blown. After all the seals are broken and six of the trumpets are blown, and all kinds of destruction have been unleashed on the earth as a result, we read in Revelation 9:20-21: “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.” Judgments of warning, in other words, while they give the opportunity for repentance, don’t produce repentance. But then in chapter 11 John sees a vision of two witnesses, who seem to represent the church (there are two of them because of the requirement in the Old Testament that every matter be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses). These two witnesses prophesy to the world, and when their testimony is complete, the beast that rises from the abyss kills them, and they lie dead in the street for three-and-a-half days, to the great joy of the nations of the world. But then, God’s Spirit enters into them again, and they are raised from the dead and taken up to heaven in a cloud. And then we read in Revelation 11:13: “And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.” What warning judgments alone did not produce, the suffering of God’s people did: the repentance of the nations. God intends to bring the nations to repentance, in part, through the courageous suffering of his people.
So if you are suffering today, or if you face suffering in the future, realize this: you have been given an opportunity to display the glory of Jesus Christ to the world by the strength of your faith through this suffering. Just as Christ suffered to bring us to God, you have the opportunity to suffer to help bring others to God. So let that fill up your days with a sense of the rich significance of the privilege to which you have been called: the privilege of suffering with Christ.
A second word of encouragement for us is this:
II. In Christ, our sufferings will give way to resurrection.
In the words of Andrew Peterson’s song “Lay Me Down”: “I believe in the holy shores of uncreated light; I believe there is power in the blood. And all of the death that ever was, if you set it next to life, I believe it would barely fill a cup. Because I believe there is power in the blood.” In the end, all of the suffering, death, and evil that we face in this world will be so completely swallowed up by life that it will scarcely be able to compare to it. That is what Peter tells us by referring throughout this passage to Christ’s resurrection and its implications for us.
Notice again verse 18: “For Christ also suffered once for sins.” Most commentaries I read on this passage argued that Peter is highlighting the uniqueness of Christ’s death here, because certainly Peter is not calling for his readers to suffer “once.” So, they argue, this must be one way in which Christ’s sufferings have no parallel in our experience. But to that I want to say: not so fast. I think Peter is laying emphasis on the fact that Christ, having completed the course of his sufferings (which encompassed his whole life), then finished his course so that he would suffer no more. He suffered “once” and then entered into the life of the age to come. Is that a pattern that we too will follow in him? Yes, absolutely it is.
The reason Christ suffered once and then was finished with suffering forever is because God raised him from the dead into the life of the age to come. That is what Peter means at the end of verse 18: “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” That does not mean that Jesus’ body died but his soul survived death. The word “made alive” would not have been used to communicate that idea. Peter is talking about the resurrection of Christ from the dead on Easter Sunday. He was put to death “in the flesh,” meaning in the realm of “flesh,” which characterizes this fallen age. But he was made alive “in the Spirit” (capital “S,” in my view), meaning by the power of the Holy Spirit and into the life suitable to the world to come. The contrast here is the same you see in 1 Corinthians 15, which speaks of the body that dies as a “natural body,” and the body that is raised as a “spiritual body,” (i.e., a body animated with life by the power of the Holy Spirit; 1 Cor. 15:44). Christ has been raised from the dead, and so will we be raised.
Peter tells us further in verse 19 that, in the Spirit, Christ “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” I want to come back to that strange statement in my next point. For now I want to note that these spirits in prison are connected to the story of Noah, to which Peter takes us in verse 20. He says the spirits are 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.” We have here a reference to the time when God waited patiently for Noah to finish building his ark so that, once he poured out his judgment on the world through the flood, Noah and his family could be delivered from that judgment inside the ark. Why does Peter take us back to this story here? It’s because of the way the story of Noah and his family parallels the situation of believers in this age. Noah’s family was a small minority living in a godless world that was on the brink of a coming judgment. The church is far bigger than the eight people of Noah’s family, but in general, the same is true of us. Noah’s family was about to escape the coming judgment of God against the entire world, and by that escape they were about to enter into a new world. The same is true of believers in Christ: God’s judgment is coming against this world, but we who are in Christ will escape that judgment and enter into a new world. So we can suffer as a minority in this world without fear now, knowing that God’s people have been in a situation like this before and came through it.
I want you to notice some parallel wording in verses 20 and 21. In verse 20, Peter says that eight persons “were brought safely through water.” The Greek could just as well mean “were saved through water.” Now, it sounds strange at first to say that Noah and his family “were saved through water.” Weren’t they saved from water? In one sense, yes, they were. But in another sense, it was the water that deluged the world that cleansed the world of all the enemies who stood against them. The water, as God’s judgment on a godless world, wiped out (for a time) the seed of the serpent and delivered God’s people into a new world. So now notice a parallel phrase in verse 21: “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Noah’s family was delivered from God’s wrath, from their enemies, and into a new world “through water.” We are delivered from God’s wrath, from our enemies, and into a new world “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” His resurrection from the dead is the basis for ours, the day when all suffering will be over, and all of the death that ever was will be completely swallowed up by life. In this hope, let us face the temporary sufferings of this world without fear.
Peter has spoken of the deliverance of Noah’s family in the ark, and he has spoken of the resurrection of Christ. These are two objective, historical events. But how do we come to share in the deliverance that is prefigured in Noah and accomplished in Christ? Verse 21 tells us that it is through baptism: “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.” Notice three things Peter says about baptism here. First, baptism corresponds in some way to the floodwaters of Noah’s day. How so? Think about it: the waters of divine judgment deluged and cleansed the earth, and from them Noah’s family emerged into a new world. In the same way, in baptism we are pictured as being immersed into the death of Christ. We are united with him in the divine judgment that fell upon him, but we emerge from the water into new life. The correspondence between baptism and the flood, where water represents the power of death from which we emerge into life, is only rightly pictured by immersion in water. You can’t symbolize this reality very well by sprinkling, and so this is one of a number of texts in Scripture that leads us to baptize only by immersion in water. Second, Peter says that baptism saves us because it is based on an objective reality: “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Without Christ’s resurrection, baptism would mean nothing. Third, Peter tells us that baptism saves us only when it expresses a subjective reality. Read the sentence again: “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.” Baptism saves us, but not as a physical act. In other words, it’s not the act itself that saves (washing the body), but rather what we do in the act that saves. And Peter says that if a person being baptized appeals to God for a good conscience—that is, appeals to God to forgive his sins through Christ—that person is saved by his act of faith expressed in baptism.
I will just say this as a side note: there is one category of person for whom it would seem that it is impossible for baptism to be an appeal to God for a good conscience, and that is the category of infants. Many churches baptize infants, and while some are open to the thought that perhaps infants can have faith, all are agreed that infants cannot express faith in baptism. And so a whole tradition has grown up in churches to have sponsors for infants who are baptized, and those sponsors confess faith on behalf of the infant. One of the tragedies of this practice is that those who are baptized as infants, even if they grow up to confess faith of their own accord one day, are normally denied the opportunity to appeal to God for a good conscience in the act of baptism itself. And according to Peter’s teaching here, that is a distortion of the meaning of this ordinance.
And so, just as Noah and his family were saved through water from an old world destined for judgment into a new world, so are we saved through the waters of baptism—as an act of faith—on the basis of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which ultimately brings us into a new world once God’s judgment has fallen on this one. How does that reality set our present sufferings in context? It leads us to put our hope in the age to come, not in this one. About a month ago, I lost my last grandparent. My mother’s mother died of a stroke at the age of 93, and of all the loved ones I have lost so far, this one has been the hardest. My grandmother was a wonderful, godly, loving woman, and I grew up in the same town in which she and my grandfather lived. Not all grandchildren have the blessing of living near grandparents, but I did, and as a result, there is scarcely a childhood memory I can look back on that she is not a part of. When she died, it was as if a whole era of my past died with her. And it hurts to experience that kind of loss, even though I have the joy of knowing she is with the Lord.
Sometime after I got back from her funeral, I told Lee that his sermon series through Ecclesiastes had been a source of great encouragement to me in my loss. In laying out the message of Ecclesiastes, Lee proclaimed to us that we cannot extract from this world more than it has to offer. We cannot hold on to blessings of this age as though they can give us ultimate meaning. Let us receive the things of this world as gifts, but never place our greatest hopes in them. Even our loved ones won’t live forever. But we have hope beyond the limitations and losses of this world, and that hope is the world to come, when we will share in resurrection life with Christ forever. Our sufferings will give way to resurrection.
And then a third word of encouragement from this passage is this:
III. In Christ, our sufferings will lead to triumphant enthronement.
So far I have avoided verses 19 and 22. So let’s face this question now: who are the “spirits in prison” to whom Christ went in the Spirit and made proclamation? There are several views on this question, and I don’t have time to go through the arguments for and against each view.ii So I will simply let you know what I think here. I believe there are very good reasons to say that these “spirits in prison” are a particular group of fallen angels who sinned by intermarrying with human women in the story of Genesis 6:1-4, which leads up to the story of Noah and the flood. Here are three arguments for this view. First, 2 Peter 2:4-5 speaks of angels who sinned, connecting them to the days of Noah, and says that God has committed them to chains of gloomy darkness as a holding place until the final judgment. That sounds like a prison. Jude verse 6 expresses the same idea, referring to angels who left their proper dwelling being kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment. So in these two other biblical references to a prison, we are told that God is keeping rebellious angels there in waiting for a judgment to come. A second argument: this reading seems to fit with what we see happening in Genesis 6:1-4, which uses the term “sons of God.” That exact term always refers to angels in the Old Testament. Third, the argument of this passage favors this reading. Verse 19 says Jesus “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison,” and then verse 22 says “who has gone [same Greek word in the same form translated “went” in v. 19] into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” So the parallel ideas between the verbs in verses 19 and 22, as well as the clear reference to angels in the latter strongly suggests that the same idea is present in verse 19. And then a fourth argument is that there is a tradition associated with a book known as 1 Enoch that the books of 2 Peter and Jude seem to refer to, and that book clearly identifies the incident in Genesis 6 as a rebellion of fallen angels. I’m not saying that Peter and Jude endorse that whole tradition, but it does seem that they are drawing on ideas that were well known in the first century.
Now, I do not know exactly how angels could have engaged in sexual relations with human women. I’m only speculating here, but one way it could have happened would have been through the phenomenon we know as demonic possession. In the Gospel stories, we see numerous accounts of people whose bodies have come under the power of demons. You get the impression reading the Gospels that Satan’s forces have taken over the land of Canaan, and Jesus has come to drive them out and cleanse the holy place. What if, in the days before the flood, demonic oppression had reached a point that was far, far worse than even what we see in the days of Jesus? What if the old world had come under the power of the serpent to such an extent that God’s “last option,” so to speak, was to wipe out the whole human race and consign the demonic powers who had participated in that rebellion to the abyss and hold them there until the final judgment would come? Does that sound a bit too mythological? A bit too much like the ancient stories of the gods coming down to earth that we all know are a bunch of baloney? Well, as it turns out, we have a good number of stories from the ancient world about a worldwide flood. The details are different in each one, but one pervasive theme in the literature of ancient cultures is some kind of flood story. And if you think about it, that’s exactly what the Bible leads us to expect: after the flood, when humanity spread out into different nations and cultures, each one would have handed on its own tradition of a shared story from the time of Noah, and over time those stories would diverge in details, but they all bear witness to a real event that happened and that is recorded in Scripture. Is it possible that the myths of ancient societies, with their stories about the gods, are part of the same heritage that goes back to an event that actually happened? Is it possible that behind all the mythology is a real story of an angelic invasion from which God rescued the last righteous remnant of the human race? I find that to be not only possible, but in light of all that Scripture teaches about angels, demons, spiritual powers, it seems like a very likely explanation.
So Christ made proclamation to the fallen angels being held in prison for judgment. That could mean that he verbally proclaimed something to them, but more likely I think it means that his ascension to the right hand of God was the proclamation. It was the event that carried the message. And what was the message that Christ proclaimed to them by his ascension? Humanity is back on the throne of creation, and so your doom is sealed! You see, God made man in his image, which means God created man to rule over creation as God’s representative. But when Adam and Eve listened to the voice of the serpent and rebelled against God, man’s dominion over creation was taken away, and the serpent (Satan) seized power instead. And the whole story of the Bible is about God restoring dominion to humanity by himself becoming a man, by atoning for the sins of humanity, by crushing the head of the serpent, and by reclaiming the throne for us in triumph over the spiritual powers that seek to destroy us. If the angels who are being held in prison were holding on to any hope that one day Satan might be able to free them from their chains, Jesus drove a nail into their coffin when he ascended to the right hand of God and reclaimed dominion for humanity.
As we sing in the hymn “See the Conqueror”: “Thou hast raised our human nature in the clouds to God’s right hand; there we sit in heavenly places, there with Thee in glory stand. Jesus reigns, adored by angels, man with God is on the throne. Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension, we by faith behold our own.” If you are in Christ, your sufferings are not just about you. They are about a bigger story, the story of Christ crucified, risen, and ascended to the right hand of God, where humanity has now been restored to its rightful place. In Christ, we become what God always created us to be: kings and queens who rule over creation and walk over the heads of serpents.
That day will come for us, but the pathway for us to get there, just as it was for Jesus, is through suffering. So face the sufferings of this age without fear, knowing that, in the end, you will be vindicated over every power that opposes you. As Paul writes 1 Corinthians 6:3: “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” God has destined us for a victory and a glory in the coming age that we cannot imagine now.
This passage speaks of Christ being put to death in the flesh, made alive in the Spirit, and now gone into heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of God in power. In other words, it has a death-resurrection-ascension storyline, with baptism mentioned in the middle, showing that it is by baptism as an act of faith that we are drawn into this same story. We who are baptized have been crucified with Christ, made alive with Christ, and seated with him in the heavenly places. If you have not been baptized as an act of faith, then I call on you to take hold of the Christ spoken of in this passage. Look to him in faith, and proclaim that faith through baptism as an appeal to God for a good conscience. The waters of baptism will be for you like the floodwaters that saved Noah’s family from the world that was. Come and be baptized into the life of the world to come.
If you are not a baptized believer who is a member of a church, we ask you to abstain from the Lord’s Supper today. You don’t need the Lord’s Supper yet. You need Christ, and you need the church first. And then we would be eager to welcome you to the table with us. But if you are a baptized believer in good standing with a church, we invite you to eat and drink with us. And as we eat and drink together, we will remember the sufferings of Christ, we will remember his triumph, and we will once more intentionally draw our own sufferings into the context of God’s bigger story, a story in which suffering bears fruit, death gives way to life, and humanity reigns with God—even over angels. Amen.
iRichard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
ii One view is that Christ, between his death and resurrection, proclaimed the gospel to dead human beings who had lived before his coming to give them a chance to repent of sins and be saved. We can confidently reject this view for at least three reasons: (1) it can’t explain why Peter would mention particularly the days of Noah; (2) it understands “made alive in the spirit” (v. 18) as a reference to the survival of Jesus’ soul after death but before his resurrection, which is an unlikely meaning of that phrase; (3) it contradicts the broader teaching of Scripture that, after death, there is no other chance for repentance (e.g., Hebrews 9:27).
Another view is that Peter is speaking of Christ, back during the time of Noah, going in the Holy Spirit to preach through Noah to rebellious human beings in Noah’s day who are now, as a result of the flood, dead and thus “spirits in prison” (i.e., in Hades, the place of the dead). Peter would then be saying, “Christ was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit by which he had previously preached repentance through Noah to those who rebelled during Noah’s day, but who are now spirits in prison as a result of God’s judgment.” There are good arguments for this view. Noah is called a preacher of righteousness in 2 Peter 2:5, and Peter does speak of “the Spirit of Christ” speaking through the prophets of old (1 Peter 1:11). God refers to his Spirit contending with man in Genesis 6:3 [literal translation of the Hebrew verb], which may refer to the prophetic ministry of men such as Noah calling their contemporaries to repentance. If this view is correct, then Peter would seem to be making two points in 1 Peter 3:18-22: (1) don’t be afraid to suffer with Christ, for you will be raised with him to glory; (2) don’t be afraid to preach the gospel as Noah did, for it will be Christ preaching through you just he did Noah. Whether or not the second point is present in this passage, I certainly believe it is taught elsewhere in Scripture.
So the view that Peter is referring to Christ preaching through Noah has much to commend it. However, I find it unlikely that Peter would speak of dead human beings as “spirits in prison” in v. 19, especially in light of the reference to angels who are in chains in 2 Peter 2:4-5 and Jude 6. In addition, this view requires us to interpret “spirits in prison” as “spirits who are now in prison but were not in prison at the time.” That may be a possible reading, but it seems less preferable to a more simple explanation that Christ made a proclamation to them while they were in prison. Finally, in context, Peter doesn’t seem to be making a point about our call to evangelize unbelievers (though he certainly does earlier in verse 15). His focus in this paragraph (3:18-22) seems to be encouraging us through sufferings by the example of Christ. He sums up this point in 4:1, where he writes, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.”
These arguments represent my thinking on verses 19-20 to this point in my study. But it is entirely possible that I could be persuaded of the “preaching through Noah” view at some point in the future. It is certainly a view that I respect, even if I am not quite persuaded of it now.