God’s Grace & Suffering, part 2

Peter continues his exploration of the relation between God’s grace and the suffering Christians experience at the hands of unbelievers. In the midst of this larger context are couched two of the most enigmatic and problematic verses in the New Testament (3.19; 4.6). While commentary will address these verses and work through them with a particular interpretation, the overall thrust of these verses, viz. suffering as Christians after the model of Christ, will be the primary emphasis.

Suffering & Christ (3.18-4.6)

Christ is the example for Christians of suffering according to God’s will.

18For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,

For Christ…the unrighteous: Peter appeals to Christ as the model for his readers to follow. Christ also suffered even as you now suffer. Though similar, Christ’s suffering was unique in that He suffered once for sin, a common theme in the NT (Heb 9.28; 10.10, 14). It was not “once upon a time,” but “once for all.” It was not for His sins; He was sinless (2.22). But for our sins did He suffer. He was righteous, that is He was wholly conformed to the holy Law of God. So He was innocent whereas man was guilty of breaking God’s Law, i.e. unrighteous. By His unique suffering…

Just as Jesus fearlessly suffered to accomplish God’s purposes so we must face suffering fearlessly that God’s purposes might be accomplished in us. His vicarious sacrifice on the cross (the doctrine of atonement) animates & stimulates our patient endurance in suffering. “Just as suffering was the pathway to exaltation for Christ, so also suffering is the prelude to glory for believers.”[1] Doctrines embody the duties; duties are animated by the doctrines.

[1] Schreiner, Thomas R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude. Vol. 37. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003. Print. The New American Commentary.

“Christ suffered once for sins” and no more. Contrary to what Catholicism teaches concerning the Mass – that Christ is sacrificed all over again each time Mass is held.

The sinlessness of Christ – His absolute moral perfection – is stressed here as elsewhere. The purity of Christ was never soiled or stained in the slightest degree. “Though exposed to the assaults of the great author of evil, that adversary did not prevail against, that son of mischief did not overcome him. Though in a world full of temptation and sin, he remained untainted; though tried both by its smiles and its frowns, its terrors and its allurements, he never in the slightest degree imbibed its spirit or imitated its manners. He kept himself ‘unspotted from the world,’ being ‘in it, not of it;’ and he died, as he lived a stranger to guilt and depravity. No action, no word, ever escaped him, no thought, no desire, ever arose in his bosom, inconsistent with the requisitions or with the spirit of the divine law. He left this world as he entered it, ‘holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners.’” (John Brown, Expository Discourses on First Peter, Vol. 2, p.385-386)

That He might bring us to God: This is the result of Christ’s suffering for our sins—access to the immediate presence of God. Our sins had separated us from God; His suffering brought us near to God. We may draw near to God by the new & living Way Christ provided by the cross.

Note: Nothing in the atonement changed the inherent nature of God. While Christ showed us the Father in Himself, He did not bring God to us. On the contrary, Christ brought us to God by His suffering on the cross.

“That He might bring us to God”: Peter is preparing to venture off into turbulent waters. The verses ahead have given scholars pause & headaches probably since Peter put pen to parchment. It is difficult & obscure. Whatever is meant by the next few verses, one thing is clear: by His death, resurrection, & exaltation Christ has provided us with immediate & direct access to the presence of God the Father.

Being…in [the] spirit: So Peter clearly identifies the sufferings of Christ—specifically His painful & violent death “in the body” (NIV) on the cross. Made alive (i.e. reanimated) “by the Spirit” (NIV) is resurrection language. This is similar to Paul in Romans 1.3-4 & 1 Timothy 3.16 in both structure & meaning. While Christ’s suffering on the cross brought death to His body, He was raised from the dead by the Holy Spirit.

19in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison,

In which: or in Whom also (kai). The Holy Spirit is in view as the inspiration for proclamation.

He went: Who? Christ. Christ’s Spirit has always been the initiator of divine revelation (1.11). This going is after His death in the flesh and resurrection. Therefore, this is His ascension back to the Father.

Proclaimed to the spirits in prison: One of the primary interpretations of this text since Augustine has been that this refers to when Christ’s Spirit proclaimed (aor) in the days of Noah to those souls which were alive at the time but are now in prison (NASB) since they died in the flood. Indeed, this was this author’s view. However, upon further evaluation and following Dalton, this “refers to Christ’s self-presentation as risen Lord to the hostile angelic powers in the heavens on the occasion of his ascension.”[1] This idea is continued in verse 22 when Peter explains the subjection those same spirits, i.e. “angels, authorities, and powers,” to the resurrected Christ.

[1] William Joseph Dalton, Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits: A Study of 1 Peter 3:18–4:6, vol. 23, Analecta Biblica (Roma: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1989), 26.

Preaching to Spirits in Prison

While the above exposition seems the best explanation for this difficult text, other explanations have been offered:

1) Christ’s Spirit in Noah’s Day: Christ’s Spirit went & preached in the days of Noah to those disobedient ones then alive but who are now dead & in prison, i.e. tartarus. This view incorporates the reference to Noah in verse 20.  A nuance of this view is that “in prison” described their state in the days of Noah, i.e. they were in bondage to sin.

2) Christ in Hades: He then went to the hadean realm (see Acts 2.24, 27, 31) where He proclaimed a message of victory over the forces of evil to the evil angels who did not keep their proper place (Jude 6). A variation of this view says Christ proclaimed to dead saints in paradise or to those who repented just before the flood but went to Purgatory, which is the “prison” (Catholic).

3) Christ’s spirit went to the hadean realm to preach the gospel to all the dead, thereby giving all a second chance at salvation. This universalist view stands in contradiction with several key biblical texts, esp. Hebrews 9.27.

20because 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.

Because they formerly did not obey: This phrase with the accompanying time stamp of “days of Noah” in the next positively identifies the “spirits in prison” of v.19 as human spirits. God’s judgment in the flood was upon human sin (Genesis 6.5-7).

When…being prepared: Never are angels given time to repent; only with man does God patiently wait for repentance. So while the ark was being prepared God waited patiently for disobedient men to repent before His judgment came in the flood.

God is patient. [If God is love & love is patient, then God is patient.] By my calculations it took Noah about a hundred (100) years to build the ark. 100 years. A lot can happen in 100 years. People live whole lifetimes in 100 years. We have gone from the inability to fly to manned space flight & landing on the moon in less time. We’ve gone from telegraph to telephone to cell phone to iPhone in 100 years. Computers went from massive machines that took up hundreds of square feet to wristwatches in 100 years. Technologically man can literally leave our solar system in 100 years. Yet…spiritually given 100 years man will still persist in his rebellion & disobedience to God. For 100 years Christ through Noah preached repentance & judgment. By faith Noah built his ark. But according to extra-biblical literature & through our own experience with the callous hearts of mankind all Noah received back was derision: “Old man, what is this ark for?” And still God waits patiently as Christ through His church continues to preach and prepare for the judgment & eternity.

In which a few…through water: It must be noted that Peter affirms the historical nature of the Noah account (Genesis 7.13, 23). Two facts emerge from the example of Noah: 1) Few were saved; 2) The salvation came through water.

The example of Noah was selected by Peter (even the Holy Spirit) to encourage his readers (and even us) to faithfulness in the midst of suffering. Noah’s family was an oppressed minority surrounded by hostile unbelievers; so were Peter’s readers; so are most Christians today the world over. Noah was faithful to mission of God; so Peter exhorts his readers to faithfulness to God’s mission by calling them to set Christ apart in their hearts & being willing to give an answer for their inward hope (3.15). In Noah’s day judgment was soon to come and did come in the flood; so for Peter’s readers judgment was soon to come and would come (4.5, 17). God was present with Noah by the Spirit of Christ; so God would be with Peter’s readers, empowering them in their work; so they should not fear (3.14). These parallels in like manner should encourage our hearts: though we are the minority, the “few,” God is faithful, He will save us, and final judgment will come.

21Baptism, 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,

Baptism…now saves you: The waters of the flood is that which corresponds to baptism as a type or figure (Gk antitupon). The flood of Noah’s day “prefigures” (NET) or “symbolizes” (NIV) the baptism of Peter’s readers. How? Just as Noah & his family escaped the corrupt world & entered into the renewed world, so Christians escape from the corruption of the world & enter into renewed life with God. Just as in the flood, in baptism evil is washed away & continues to save us (present tense). Baptism “brings us into a state of salvation, into covenant with God” (Caffin 137).

“The basis of their assurance is their baptism, for in baptism they have appealed to God to give them a good conscience on the basis of the crucified (v. 18) and risen (v. 21) work of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[1] “Baptism now saves you.” “But it is only the beginning, the birth; the growth must follow; the death unto sin, the new birth unto righteousness, must be realized in actual life” (Caffin 137). John Gill, good Baptist that he was, saw the inescapable conclusion of this text when he wrote, “the sense seems plainly this; that then is baptism rightly performed, and its end answered, when a person, conscious to himself of its being an ordinance of Christ, and of his duty to submit to it, does do so upon profession of his faith in Christ, in obedience to his command, and “with” a view to his glory; in doing which he discharges a good conscience towards God: and being thus performed, it saves.” Albert Barnes, good Presbyterian that he was, likewise recognized the immediate meaning of this text when he wrote, “The sense is, that baptism, including all that is properly meant by baptism as a religious rite – that is, baptism administered in connection with true repentance, and true faith in the Lord Jesus, and when it is properly a symbol of the putting away of sin, and of the renewing influences of the Holy Spirit, and an act of unreserved dedication to God – now saves us.” Barnes goes on to call baptism “the indispensable condition of salvation.” Indeed, we cannot be in Christ without baptism.

[1] Schreiner, Thomas R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude. Vol. 37. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003. Print. The New American Commentary.

Now the flood of Noah’s day did a couple things: 1) It brought catastrophic disaster & judgment after a long period of patience and 2) It saved Noah & his few family members. This became a type of Christian baptism for baptism likewise does a couple things: 1) It marks out for judgment those who refuse it through disobedience & rebellion and 2) It brings glorious salvation to those who submit. What was true in Noah’s day was true in the 1st century is true today: the same waters that bring salvation to the faithful likewise condemn the unrepentant. We have escaped the judgment & have experienced the grace of God; indeed, it is the same favor Noah found from God. God is still perfectly capable & willing to save His people who are facing ridicule & hardship from unbelievers.

Not as…the body: But this is no mere ceremony. Peter is quick to squelch any “magical” notions about baptism. It is not a bath to remove dirt from the body (Gk sarkos), indicating the true meaning of baptisma as an immersion since a few drops sprinkled would not cleanse the body. Rather, while an outward action is being performed (immersion ), an inward attitude must be maintained (faith).

But as…a good conscience: But (Gk alla) indicates a strong contrast. As an appeal can also be translated “the pledge of.” So is baptism a petition or a promise? Commentators note how difficult the language of this verse is. Perhaps this was intentionally done by Peter so that both petition & promise come into view. On the one hand, when one is baptized he/she is asking God for a good conscience—something only He can give by the blood of Christ (cf. Hebrews 9.14; 10.22). At the same time, when one is baptized he/she is pledging to maintain a good conscience before God through a life of service to Him. Both of these fit well with Peter’s overall theme.

“The inner meaning of baptism is not that the flesh puts away its filth, but that a good conscience inquires of God. The outward and visible sign doth not save if separated from the inward and spiritual grace” (Caffin 137). Or as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:22, ESV) The body must be washed with pure water, but the heart must also be sprinkled clean.

In baptism we are pleading with God to forgive us our sins, make us clean by the blood of Jesus, wash us inwardly of sins so that we are whiter than snow, and put us in right relationship with Him. It is no wonder that the one writing this epistle is the same one who told the crowd on Pentecost to “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2.38).

At the same time, in baptism we are promising God that we will walk Him, renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, dedicate ourselves to Him fully, & consecrate our hearts to service in His kingdom. So it is no accident that the one writing this epistle is the same preacher who warned the crowds on Pentecost to “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (Acts 2.40).

Through…Jesus Christ: Here is the power of baptism—Christ’s resurrection. Everything related to our “living hope” is connected to Christ’s resurrection (1.3). This includes the good conscience & deliverance from sins one receives from God through baptism. Christ earned these for us by His resurrection. As He was raised from the dead, so are Christians raised from spiritual death.

22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

Who has…of God: Christ’s ascension & exaltation are in view here. Following the 40 days He was with His disciples after the resurrection, Christ was “lifted up” & taken out of sight by a cloud (Acts 1.9) to go back to heaven to intercede on our behalf (Hebrews 7.25). Has gone is the same word as “went” in verse 19 (cf. Ephesians 4.10). Being seated at the right hand of a king in antiquity indicated that one acted with the authority & power of the king. So Christ acts on the authority of the Father; power and honor belong to Him. Also, this is an allusion to Psalm 110.1.

“Just as Noah was delivered through the stormy waters of the flood, believers have been saved through the stormy waters of baptism by virtue of Christ’s triumph over death.”[1] Peter brings his readers & us back to the main point of this section: Christ’s victory over all His (and our) evil foes. Christ triumphed over sin, over death, and over angelic beings. “Now who (or what) is there to harm you?” (v.13) Christ is all-powerful, since the holy angels worship Him & evil angels tremble at His name. If even these mighty creatures are subjected to Him, what can harm us that He cannot overcome? Further, God will bless you for suffering while doing good (v.14) and, like Noah, God will ultimately deliver you from all the corruption of the world.

[1] Ibid.

With angels…subjected to Him: See Ephesians 1.20-21. Angels, authorities, and powers can refer to spiritual beings both good and evil. All these powerful creatures regardless of rank have been subjected to Christ, that is, through His resurrection, ascension, & exaltation He brought them into submission even those which were not willing.  Christ is the cosmic sovereign Ruler over every power; “Now who is there to harm you…?” (v.13). Peter has answered His question by tracing the example of Christ clearly for his readers to see the exalted Lord. Summing up, Peter exhorts his readers to follow Christ’s example in suffering and be encouraged that the Lord will deliver them from all enemies be they of flesh or spiritual.

1Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin,

Since…in the flesh: cf. 3.18. Peter returns to where he started in presenting Christ’s suffering (Gk. Root pascho) as an example for these Christians suffering persecution. The aim here will focus more on the eschatological glory to come for suffering for Christ.

Arm yourselves…thinking: i.e. think as Christ thought about obedience & suffering. Arm yourselves is military language for the resolution needed to venture forth into battle.

Why do we do what we do? Do we behave a certain way in order to avoid suffering & minimize hardship? Or is obedience to God our supreme motivation? Peter exhorts us to obedience to God in spite of hardship & suffering. Since it is true that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” and therefore cannot be avoided, we need military grit & discipline to live the Christian life. Battle is inevitable for soldiers; similarly, persecution is inevitable for believers. This is the nature of God’s dealings with peoples. Therefore, prepare for war.

For whoever…sin: This is the 1st main emphasis Peter wants to impact his readers—suffering frees us from sin. Ceased from sin in that Christians make a clean break from sin & obeying God is the supreme motivation for all of one’s actions. The next verse explains further.

“Ceased from sin” is further detailed in verse 2 when Peter explains how we are “to live…for the will of God” as opposed to “for human passions.” Hence, in view here is the process sanctification. The aorist tense indicates a clean break from sin whereby obedience to God becomes our chief aim in all we do (as opposed to no longer sinning, a notion which fails to account for a number of verses which teach the complete opposite).

2so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.

So as…human passions: the rest of the time in the flesh is the time God gives. Human passions at the desires they had before they were converted (3). They “no longer live for themselves” (2 Cor 5.15).

It is important to keep Peter’s theme of suffering for righteousness or “for doing good” in view as we read about suffering in the flesh (3.14, 17). This would exclude all “human passions,” i.e. “the lusts of men.” We are yet “in the flesh” or “fleshy” (sarki). So long as we are alive, we still live “in flesh.” At the same time, we should be living in the flesh so as to glorify God by doing His will as opposed to being controlled by & gratifying the flesh.

But for the will of God: However many years God may give these Christians, God’s will is to be their highest priority. God’s will & “the lusts of men” are always opposed to each other (Gal 5.17).

Christians are exiles in whatever country they live, hostile government or not. God’s will is to be priority #1 wherever we live. The goal must not be to avoid suffering; rather, the goal should be to use suffering as a means to sanctification. Regardless of regime or who sits on the throne, this is the purpose of our suffering: to live for the will of God.

3For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.

For the time…want to do: Why live for God’s will? They have spent enough time in the other. Since Christians are New Israel (1.2; 2.9-10), Gentiles here means those who are not Christians.

However long you were without Christ & however much sin you committed; whether it was one sin or a grossly profligate lifestyle given over to sin, Peter is blunt – that time was sufficient for sin. It was enough! So we should not want to live any longer, not a day, hour, minute, or second more in it. We have done enough of living “for doing what the Gentiles want to do.” That life was not right. So let us be done with it. There is no reason to continue in it.

Living in sensuality: No moral restraint in sexual acts or physical violence.

Passions: or “lusts” (NASB). These are unnatural, ungodly desires for sex or property.

Drunkenness: excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages; intoxication.

Orgies: typically linked with drunkenness (Gal 5.21), these parties encouraged immoral behavior.

Drinking parties: these were social gatherings where drinking games were played (cf. Isa 5.22).

Lawless idolatry: Pagan worship which was against God’s law & resulted in immorality.

God’s word still speaks a powerful word into our current social situation. Where there is all manner of ungodly behavior being engaged in, God demands holiness from His people. In our culture, greed is still good & sometimes celebrated. Covetousness is used in commercials to sell products. Sex sells. Men still want women who are not their wives & women want men who are not their husbands. People still have unnatural, ungodly, evil desires. Drunkenness is still a blight upon our society today, along with other serious substance abuse. Typically this kind of behavior is accompanied by sex, in some cases forced and others consensual with multiple partners (our modern definition of orgies). There are drinking parties which include a host of drinking games (beer pong, et al). All of these “lusts of men,” these “human passions,” are diametrically opposed to the will of God. They are thoroughly non-Christian (i.e. Gentile) activities. Enough with these!

4With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you;

With respect…debauchery: They are surprised or “think it strange” is a sudden amazement or wonder the unbeliever has given the life change which has taken place in the Christian. The same flood of debauchery is all the sins listed in verse 3. Christians seek to do God’s will.

The “surprise” is one of eyes wide, mouth agape astonishment. Whoa! The unbelievers are taken aback at the radical change which has taken place in the life of the believer. This is the way it is supposed to be. For the unbeliever it is strange because they feel no guilt or remorse over sin nor do they have any sense of obligation to God. Their obligation is to self-gratification, the philosophy of “if it feels good do it,” get all you can now because this life is all there is. The Christian, on the other hand, has been awakened to the spiritual reality of God, heaven & hell, & the folly of sin. They have sought to abandon the gratification of the flesh for actions which are pleasing to God.

The malign you: Or “speaking evil of you” (NKJV). Or “they vilify you” (NET). Surprise turned to anger.  The Christians became the objects of the pagan unbeliever’s wrath.

The unbeliever’s puzzlement turns to outrage. Unbelievers consider the “flood of debauchery” as normal behavior. Therefore, since Christians do not engage in what they consider normal behavior, and so engage what is for them unnatural behavior, they speak evil of the Christians. They criticize, defame, revile; they name-call, belittle, & teardown. We see this in our own society where Christians are typically presented as unenlightened prudes who do not really contribute to thoughtful dialogue about issues since they are usually blinded by bias. “In a world of sin, Christians are strangers, especially if they were formerly part of that world.”[1]

[1] Kistemaker, Simon J., and William Hendriksen. Exposition of the Epistles of Peter and the Epistle of Jude. Vol. 16. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001. Print. New Testament Commentary.

5but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

[But] they will give account: The reviling of the unbelievers is not the last word; they will give back “a word” to God. In other words, they will answer to God for maligning Christians. In this the suffering of the Christians will be vindicated.

The reviling & evil speech, even blasphemy, of the unbelieving world is never the final word. Indeed, the final word anyone will have to give back to God is “Jesus is Lord” spoken either to their vindication or condemnation at the last day. Furthermore, there is always a sense from the NT writers that the Judge would appear at any second, as though He were “standing at the door” ready to break forth onto the grand stage of history to bring the final act to a close. We today must live in confident expectation that at any moment the Lord will appear in glory.

To Him…the dead: He who is ready to judge is Christ. The living & the dead means everyone; some will be alive when He comes in final judgment while others will have died. For ready see James 5.9.

Notice how Peter speaks of Christ/God: “Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” Paul does a similar thing (e.g. Romans 8.11 – “Him who raised Jesus from the dead”). They do not come out and simply say “Christ” or “God.” They focus on a certain aspect of what makes God God or Christ Christ. It amplifies the subject. It is a way of magnifying God & Christ. So Christ is magnified as the judge of all people, living & dead. How we talk about God matters!

6For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

For this…who are dead: Since Christ will judge the dead, what about the faithful dead, i.e. Christians who have already died esp. those who suffered martyrdom in persecution. The gospel was preached (aor) indicates this took place in the past. Those who are dead are those who obeyed the gospel preached & have since died (whether by persecution or not).

That…people are: That (Gk hina) shows the purpose of the proclamation of the gospel: on the one hand (Gk men) judged (and condemned) by men in [the] flesh or…

In the same way that Christ was judged worthy of reviling, malignity, & death by fleshly men, so too are Christians across time & space deemed worthy of the same. But just as God did not abandon His soul to Hades so that He saw life, so too are Christians promised life with God both now & forever.

They might…God does: on the other hand (Gk de) they might live according to God in [the] spirit. So while alive, these Christians were judged by fleshly men as worthy of reviling, malignity, & even death, but God, who is Spirit, gives them life even in death.

Both the judgment of men & life with God have consequences for the present & eschatologically (now & not yet). These men who judge Christians as worthy of rejection & as despicable themselves heap up condemnation on their own life and will one day stand & give account for their blasphemy. In the meantime, they stand condemned, lest they repent & are saved (e.g. Saul/Paul). Christians, as they endure this treatment, live for God’s will as supreme in their life & thereby live with Him even now. As this world gives way to the next, we will enjoy life with Him even more.

Special Study—The Gospel Preached to the Dead

1) Following His death & before His resurrection, Jesus went to the unseen spiritual realm (Hades) & preached the gospel to the spirits of the dead. However, this removes the teeth out of the promise of vindication in v.5 if there is a second chance.

2) The “dead” are those “dead in trespasses & sin,” i.e. spiritually dead. The aorist tense works against this; why not say “the gospel is preached” since this is what was taking place even as Peter wrote?

3) Those who heard & obeyed the gospel but have since died (perhaps via persecution). This seems the best understanding.