Sermon preached on 1 Peter 3:18-22 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 6/26/2011 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Peter 3:18-22
“That He Might Bring Us To God”
Have you ever felt as a Christian that everything seems so hopeless for this world? You look around and see a world that seems to be headed more and more in a godless direction. You wonder if things can ever get any better? You wonder what hope there is for the church, even our church here in Novato, faced with so many around us opposed to our very message. What can we as a church do with so few, faced with so many opposed to us all around us? When you try to share your faith and Christian convictions you are either laughed off or spoken of as evil for having intolerant views. What do you do when we seem to be losing the battle on this earth? What do you do when the suffering and Christian persecution increases, while the churches decrease?
Faced with that sort of setting, Peter points us to the triumph of Christ. Peter again connects Christian suffering with the work of Christ. Already at the end of chapter 2 he really brought out that connection. He called us to endure Christian suffering for the sake of Christ, following his example. Today he again returns to that same foundation. Christ’s suffering is a foundation for Christian suffering. And yet this passage’s focus moves beyond Christ’s suffering to his triumph. Yes, Christ suffered. But that is suffering that resulted in victory, triumph, and exaltation. As we share in this suffering, we also share in this triumph. We’ll see how Peter encourages us in this again today.
And so here’s how we’ll tackle this passage for today. First, we’ll look at an overview of Christ’s work. This passage presents both Christ’s suffering and exaltation. We’ll consider both. Second, we’ll hone in on the baptism reference here and see how that connects us with Christ, in both his suffering and his triumph. Third, we’ll spend some time on verses 19-20 considering this preaching Christ did to imprisoned spirits. That’s a highly debated pair of verses, and we’ll consider the main interpretations. We’ll ultimately see the main important truths that jump out at us, even despite some differing interpretations.
Let’s begin then first by surveying Christ’s work in history to save us. The work of Christ in this passage can be divided up into two parts. One part is his suffering and humiliation. Another part is his triumph and exaltation. Let’s begin first with his suffering. Verse 18 describes this for us. It confronts us with Christ’s suffering and death. He died on the cross. But this verse tells us why. It says, “for sins.” But not his sins. No, it says, the just for the unjust. Think of how horrible this death on a cross was – and yet he didn’t deserve it. But, that’s of course part of Peter’s rationale from the last passage. We should be willing to suffer unjustly, because Christ suffered unjustly – and he did that for us! Christ did it for the purpose of atoning for our sins. Of course, if we find ourselves suffering unjustly now, it’s not to atone for anyone’s sins. No, rather it’s us mimicking our Lord Jesus. We’ve been marked as his, and so it’s our delight now to follow in his footsteps. If we have to suffer unjustly for his sake, we can gladly do it because he already did it for us, for our salvation. We are the unjust ones mentioned here. He died in our place, it says; the just for the unjust; that our sins could be forgiven. The church proclaims Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross. Well, verse 18 is one of the passages that teaches this doctrine.
Let’s turn next then to talk about Christ’s exaltation and triumph. Verse 18 begins to talk about his resurrection – he was “made alive by the Spirit.” Verse 21 specifically mentions the resurrection by name. Verse 21 is saying that we are saved through the resurrection. Yes, Jesus paid for sin on the cross. But the final victory was claimed through the resurrection. He had to overcome sin and death to ultimately offer us forgiveness and new life. His resurrection marks this victory. But then it goes on. His exaltation and triumph is taken a step further in verse 22. After his resurrection, he ascended. He ascended up into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father. This ascension especially brings out his authority. He’s not just up there, he’s in a place of authority. That’s what the right hand of God represents. That’s what’s stated specifically when it says he’s over every angel, and authority, and power. That’s the language of spiritual forces. That’s the similar language to what’s used in Ephesians 6 when it talks about the spiritual warfare in which Christians are involved.
So do you see the triumph? Satan and all his wicked forces might have thought they gained the victory over Jesus at the cross. It was Satan who tempted Judas to betray Jesus. And the same with the world. The Jews and Romans who looked to put him to death must have thought they gained the victory that day at the cross. But Jesus overcame death. He rose again and ascended up into heaven. He now sits reigning over all. There is no force that can stand against him. No spiritual force. No physical force. For us as pilgrims in this world, this is intended to encourage us. When we suffer like he does, we can be assured that his is the victory. For Christ, his suffering led to his triumph. Christ will see to it that even if we have to suffer now for a little while at the hand of the enemy, Christ will bring you to the ultimate victory.
There is one more work of Christ mentioned in this passage. It’s the work of his preaching in verse 19. I will address that in our third point. But for now, notice that he connects that preaching with the story of Noah. And then he connects the story of Noah with our baptism. And he connects our baptism with our salvation. These things are all closely related. I’d like to turn now to consider this baptism then, and our salvation. It’s how we especially find ourselves in this passage. He connects Christ’s work with Noah’s days. He talks about how God brought salvation to Noah and seven others through the waters in the ark; verse 20. He then in verse 21 says that’s a typological picture for us. The salvation of Noah and family in the ark and through the water, is a picture of our salvation. He connects us with how our salvation is also pictured with water – the waters of baptism. But he tells us that our salvation is more than just an external picture. It’s a salvation that comes through Jesus’ saving work for us.
I love how verse 21 puts it. At one point he makes it sound like baptism is what actually saves us. But as quickly as he says that, he qualifies it. This shows us how sacraments work. They are covenant ceremonies. The signs of the covenant are closely related to what they signify. So much so, that he can say that baptism saves you. But immediately after that, he clarifies – it’s not really about a physical washing – removing dirt from the body. No, it’s about a new relationship with God that comes about through faith in the work of Christ. It’s about standing before God and acknowledging your need for him. That you need him to come into you and to clean you. That you need to be made right before God, and that the only way you can be made right before him is in Jesus. You acknowledge that he’s your only hope. You are turning to be identified with him, baptized into his name. That you could begin a life of looking to live for Christ. That you are becoming identified with Christ as his disciple – where he will grow you in godliness by his grace.
So we see again here the wonderful gospel. The gospel is about saving us. That’s the language of verse 21. We needed to be saved. Two pictures are given of that salvation here. One picture is that we are saved from a wicked, disobedient world, that rejects God. Just like Noah and family was saved from that wicked world. They didn’t taste of God’s judgment on it – they were saved from it. We too are saved from the terrible judgment of God that will come upon this world. And this saving is also pictured in terms of cleaning. Yes, baptism outwardly washes dirt off us. But inwardly, it makes our consciences clean before God. Because we have been forgiven in Christ and he now leads our life. Verse 18 also describes what this salvation looks like. We have been brought to God. That’s what Jesus accomplished. He brings us to God. We are now his! The world in its disobedience was not close to God. God patiently waited in the days of Noah for them to come to him. They did not. But we are those who have heard God’s call of faith and repentance in our heart. We’ve turned to Christ and been saved. That’s what our baptisms picture. And if you are one here today who has not yet turned to Christ, then I would urge you to do that. Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins! Be saved through faith in Christ!
One reason why Peter’s baptism reference here is so fitting is because of what it represents. In this letter, Peter’s been calling Christians pilgrims. We are strangers and aliens in this world. We are different than the rest of the world. Well, it’s our baptisms that mark us out in this way. At our baptisms we are pledging to no longer live as the rest of the world does. We are asking for forgiveness, and becoming visibly marked as a Christian. You are now those who have been baptized in Christ. You have been visibly marked out as different than the rest of the world. But by Peter connecting this with Noah, we are reminded of what this involved. It means we will stand out from the world. Noah stood out. History records that Noah was persecuted for his faith. And yet God saved him, even when he stood out. God saves us, even though we stand out as Christian.
Well, we’ve been talking about the connection in this passage with Noah’s time. Let’s dig in to address that connection more, particularly verse 19. Let’s read this part again, beginning in the last part of verse 18. Christ was, “made alive by the Spirit, by whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is eight souls, were saved through water.”
These verses have sparked much debate, even from a very early time in church history. Surely the original audience would have easily understood what Peter was getting at. They would have spoken the exact Greek that’s used here, and they would have had a shared historical context as Peter. In other words, they surely would have understood the subtle nuances of this passage that has been difficult for later interpreters. Martin Luther for example, essentially said that he didn’t understand this passage. Well, I don’t intend to tell you that I have all the answers. Part of me would just like to give Luther’s answer. What I’ll do today is give you three main views on this, and tell you which one I actually strongly prefer. I won’t bog you down in every detailed argument though – I just don’t think that’s best use of our time here. Rather, I’ll quickly after that, expound several points of significant application that we can take from this, that largely comes regardless of which specific viewpoint you take.
Three main questions arise when thinking about Jesus preaching to these imprisoned spirits in verse 19. First, who are these spirits in prison? Are they human spirits, or angels? Second, what did Christ preach? Was it a message of repentance, a proclamation or victory, or a final chance at salvation? Third, when did he preach? In between his death and resurrection, or back during Noah’s day?
Well, here are three major views that have been put forth. One view is that Christ went down between his death and resurrection to hell and preached to people there, particularly to people who disobeyed during Noah’s time – either giving them a chance to repent, or possibly just to condemn them. A second major view is that
Christ went down between his death and resurrection to hell, to preach to fallen angels there who some believe may have married human woman prior to the flood. The idea in that view is he proclaimed his victory to these fallen angels. A third view, is that in the past Christ preached by the Holy Spirit to the disobedient people during Noah’s Days. The idea is that he did that through Noah, by the Holy Spirit calling them to repentance. These people are currently human “spirits in prison,” and that’s how Peter refers to them – their current state, and then references Jesus’ former preaching to them through Noah by the Holy Spirit.
Well, of these and all the other views I’ve heard, this last one is by far the most convincing to me. Of all the views, it’s the one that seems to speculate about the text the least. If the phrase “through Noah” was added to the note here about Jesus preaching, that alone would have clarified this position. Presumably, the original audience would have clearly understood from his language that this is what Peter was getting at. The first two views might seem appealing at initial glance because we’ve all heard the Apostles Creed and remember the language in there that says Christ descended into hell. And yet how we should understand that phrase in the creed is something highly debated among Christendom. Many churches including our own denomination have defined that phrase as referring to something more general than Jesus making a trip into that spiritual prison where the spirits of the wicked reside. The Westminster Larger Catechism says that we should understand that phrase there to simply refer to how Jesus remained in the state of the dead, under the power of death, until the third day. In that state, his spirit was separated from his body, until his body was resurrected the third day.
You see, what do the Scriptures tell us? From Scripture what we clearly know is his Spirit was in paradise the very same day of his death. That’s what he told the thief on the cross. From Scripture we know Jesus experienced hell on the cross – we see that when he cries out about God forsaking him. From Scripture we do know that his spirit experienced the state of death and the grave – we see that in Acts 13:35 quoting Psalm 16:10, but that was overcome by the resurrection. But when you look at the Scripture support for seeing Jesus go down into hell and interact with wicked spirits there, you come up pretty lacking for any real good passage. Frankly, this passage is arguably the best one, and as you see, no clear teaching of a preaching ministry in hell by Jesus can be found with any clarity here. You’d have to add a lot of speculation to this text. The few other passages that are sometimes appealed to for a literal descent into hell by Jesus are even less clear and all have better explanations.
So what about the phrase in the Apostles Creed? Isn’t that one of our most ancient creeds? People often think that creed originated with the Apostles. Well, the apostles may have used some earlier form of this, but certainly not what we have today. We can see through history earlier incarnations of the apostles creed as early as the second century, with the form we have today not coming out until more like the seventh century. Instead you see records of things like the Apostles Creed growing and developing. With regard to the descent into hell phrase, it doesn’t even appear in our records until about 400 AD. Then it was used in place of the phrase referring to Jesus’ burial.
For that matter, the Apostle’s Creed was not the product of any official church council. It just developed over time popularly. In fact, the larger Nicene Creed which was the official product of a church council in 325 AD does not have the descent into hell language. The Nicene Creed follows and expands the Apostle’s Creed outline, but doesn’t have that language. It seems the Nicene Creed was either expanding an earlier version of the Apostle’s Creed that didn’t have that descent language, or consensus in the church couldn’t be had on that language.
The reality is that the earliest church history seems to show the idea of Jesus’ descent into hell was sparked by speculation. Some were trying to figure out what about those people who hadn’t been told about Jesus before they died. Out of this speculation led to the idea of Jesus going down to such people in hell and giving them the gospel. But again, where does Scripture come from for that? It’s not here. At best this verse would talk about Jesus doing that only for the wicked of Noah’s day. But even that is not clearly stated.
So I think you can still confess the Apostle’s Creed, and just see the descended into hell language as referring to his state of death for three days. That’s how the Westminster Confession defines it. It doesn’t define any other statement in the creed – obviously they defined that to clarify what is otherwise speculative theology at best. Rather, the view I’ve suggested for this passage, does do justice to this passage. Let me clarify here – I’m not wanting to be ultra dogmatic at this point. I agree with Luther – this is a very hard to understand passage. We can ask Peter in heaven.
And yet the view I proposed is very commendable. It was proposed in this basic form long ago. Saint Augustine of the early church proposed essentially this view, for example. This is just saying that Jesus preached to the wicked people of Noah’s day, through Noah, by Christ’s Spirit. This view is saying that the “imprisoned spirits” is the current label to describe those wicked people back in Noah’s day. Just like if I say “President Obama was born August 4, 1961,” we all know that he wasn’t President back then. You can use someone’s current label to talk about their past, when that label didn’t apply yet. Those wicked people are now imprisoned spirits in hell.
A few other notes about the text to show this view. Verse 19 refers back to the Spirit. It’s saying that Jesus’ preaching was in some way in the spirit. Well, this shouldn’t seem strange for Peter to say that Jesus preached by the Spirit through the Old Testament saints. In fact he already told us that back in 1:11. In 1:11 Jesus said the Spirit of Christ spoke through the prophets of old. This would just be another example of that. You might reply that Noah wasn’t a prophet. Well, I’d point you to 2 Peter 2:5 where Peter calls Noah a preacher of righteousness during his day. Not the specific language of a prophet, but the general idea. It shows that Noah preached back then, and surely this was a message of repentance for them in light of the coming judgment of the flood.
Well, I could say a lot more, but these few data points show that this would be a way to read this passage. Let’s move beyond the controversial interpretations though and ask what the point of this reference to Noah and this preaching really is? Well, think about it in light of the context of 1 Peter. 1 Peter is speaking to Christians who are pilgrims in a world that is not their home. They are living in a world full of the wicked all around them. The world doesn’t seem to be getter better. Rather the unbelievers are looking down upon them or persecuting the Christians in different ways. This would have had some similarities with Noah’s day. Peter’s audience could find an analogy with it. We can find a similar analogy.
Noah was a preacher of righteousness during those wicked days. We know that he did that by the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit of Christ spoke through him back then. Noah would have called them to repentance. But almost everyone in the whole world rejected him. They ignored his warning of imminent judgment. But this is still what we do as the church. The church now continues to preach to the disobedient by the Spirit of Christ. We preach a message of repentance – turn from yours sins and find forgiveness and life in Christ. Be saved from that imminent judgment that is upon this world. Extra-biblical history records that they mocked Noah when he did this. They said that judgment would come for him. Well, isn’t that what happened to Jesus? He preached a message of repentance and they mocked him and killed him. But he did that for us. And that’s why it wasn’t defeat for Jesus. Rather it was his triumph.
And so now as we go forth preaching this same message of repentance and faith in Christ, it’s not something we do in defeat. Even if we have to suffer now for a little while, this passage encourages us of the triumph we have in Christ. We have been brought to God by him. He has resurrected from the dead. He has ascended. He now reigns on high. And he is coming back one day in judgment. But at this moment he is exercising patience. Just like the patience God showed in Noah’s day. So too, he is patient now. He is giving people time to repent. He uses us to bring that message of repentance. He calls us to have a bold witness even to a hostile world. Even to a world that will ridicule our faith. Even to a world that says we are the wicked ones for bringing such a message as the biblical gospel. Christ calls us to have a bold witness – bold because of both his suffering and triumph.
Think of the result of Noah’s preaching. It says it right here. Eight were saved. We might look around and only see 20 or 30 people here on a given Sunday and get a bit discouraged. And yet we are just one church of many throughout the world. Noah preached to the whole world and only 8 were saved. But that was enough. That was enough to continue God’s plan of redemption. That was enough to safeguard the seed of the woman until one day Jesus was born. God knows how to save his own. He has saved us. And he calls us to see the victory he has had in Jesus Christ. Let us bring it boldly to the world, knowing that victory is the Lord’s! Amen.
Copyright (c) 2011 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.