March 29, 2020
Good morning, Alliance family. This is now our third week worshipping together virtually – that is, by live streaming. What is interesting is over the past two weeks, we’ve had more views of our worship service online than we have people who attend our church. I’m encouraged by that – it means more people are tuning into the ministry of Alliance than normal. That’s wonderful. But that also means I need to explain, briefly, the way we do things around here. We are Alliance Bible Fellowship, and Bible is our middle name. We are passionately committed to biblical truth. In fact, one of our core values is Biblical Authority – we joyfully submit ourselves to the truth of the Bible – even if it’s uncomfortable, or flies in the face of culture. I often say it like this – at Alliance, we want to be a Christ-exalting, Gospel-centered, Word-saturated church. We want everything we do to be grounded on the foundation of Scripture.
And so, one of the ways we commit to Biblical Authority is to study through books of the Bible together. Meaning, you won’t ordinarily find us picking some topic we want to discuss, and selecting verses that support that topic. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, we’d just rather go verse by verse through books of the Bible together. So, for example, we are currently studying through the book of I Peter. We started it well before this pandemic.
Now, studying through the Bible verse-by-verse has a number of advantages – not the least of which are the following two: first, we view passages in their context. That is, we look at verses in the context of the verses before and verses after, and within the context of the whole book. And secondly, it forces us to study the whole Bible – and not just passages we want to cover. In fact, it keeps us from skipping difficult passages, or passages we wouldn’t normally choose. I say that, because the passage before us today needs those two advantages. That is, I’m thankful we’re looking at the passage in its context, to aid in its understanding, and to be honest, I probably wouldn’t pick this passage if left to me. This is an extremely difficult text – not for what it says. In fact, the first verse of the text is glorious. It’s the verses that follow which are notoriously difficult to interpret. What in the world is Peter saying?
For example, one of my commentaries said, “This passage in I Peter is the one most debated and written about; from the earliest days of the church, it has been understood in different ways….Even among today’s interpreters this passage has the reputation for being perhaps the most difficult in the NT.” And here I am, in our third live-stream, teaching what many maintain is most difficult. This should be fun.
In fact, the reformer, Martin Luther – smart guy – said of this passage, “This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other in the New Testament. I still do not know for sure what the apostle meant.” Are you kidding me. Can I just skip it? Actually, I don’t want to. You see, our commitment to the Word of God impels us to study, learn and grow from even this difficult text. I would say further, studying it within its context will not only help us understand it, but will deeply encourage us. So read it with me – I Peter 3:18-22.
There are some very intriguing questions that come to mind regarding these verses, namely:
- Who are these spirits in prison?
- When and where did Jesus proclaim to them?
- What did He proclaim?
- How does Peter jump to Noah and the ark?
- And how does baptism now save us?
If you can readily answer all those questions, you’re way ahead of Martin and me. Many of you have heard the Apostle’s Creed – which most surmise was composed in the late first or early second centuries. I say surmise, because while we know it likely dates to that period, we don’t have written copies from then. You see, Christianity was so opposed, they didn’t write it out – they simply recited it. And it was a great summation of Christian doctrine.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
He descended into hell;
on the third day He rose again from the dead;
Do you see that? Many modern versions, and in fact some early versions, don’t have the “descended into hell” part. What does that mean? Where did it come from? It comes from the text before us today. It’s one of the many interpretations of the passage. But here’s the question – did Jesus descend into hell between His death and resurrection? If so, for what purpose?
You see, context is incredibly important in this passage. Yes, there are lots of interpretations, but as we jump in, let me give you the overall flow of the text. Remember, the context: Peter is writing to suffering believers. They are being persecuted for their faith. He writes to encourage them. In chapter 1, he reminds them of this great salvation they have – their living hope. In chapter 2, he begins the main body of the letter: live beautiful lives so that, even if they slander you, malign you, they will glorify God on the day He visits. And then, to live a beautiful life, he further encourages them to joyful submission, even though it may cost you. This launched him into the main purpose for his writing – encouragement to suffer for the cause of Christ.
Now, in chapter 2, he cited Jesus as the example of the just sufferer – that is, one who suffered unjustly. He serves as our example, that we should follow in His steps – also suffering for doing good. He gets to chapter three, and again cites the suffering of Jesus. But he expands infinitely on that – He tells us why Jesus suffered. Can I suggest to you that one phrase in verse 18 is one of the most important in the Bible. I’ll talk about that more in a moment. So Jesus suffered for us. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit – that’s the resurrection – in which spiritual realm, He went and preached to the spirits in prison, proclaiming His victory after suffering. That’s where Noah comes in. We also, like righteous Noah and the other seven with him, also suffered – through a worldwide flood. But God delivered him, just like He’ll deliver you. After all, after Jesus suffered – was dead and buried, He was raised from the dead, and ascended to the Father. And by doing so, His victory over evil was proclaimed and complete. So hold on – your victory through the resurrection of Christ is coming, too. That’s the point of the text.
It’s a great text in three parts, which form our outline:
- The Suffering of Jesus (18)
- The Resurrection of Jesus Proclaiming His Victory (19-21)
- The Ascension of Jesus Subjecting His Enemies (22)
Notice that – we could summarize those three points with the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus – all for His glorious victory, and our good. Look at it with me, starting with, the suffering of Jesus in verse 18.
Notice verse 18 begins with the conjunction, for. That points us back to verse 17 where he has just said, it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong. So he’s just called us to suffering for good, saying that God wills it so. How can we do that? That doesn’t sound like much fun. Sign me up for suffering 101. How? For Christ also died – or suffered by dying for sins once for all, the just for the unjust. Once again, just like chapter 2, Peter holds our Jesus as our example. But, His example of suffering is infinitely different than ours, for what it accomplishes.
For Christ also suffered – ultimately dying – once for all. This is a clear statement of Jesus suffering in our place. This is the vicarious substitutionary atonement – He died for us and our sins. You see, the Scripture is clear – He had no sins of His own for which to die. But He died for us – in our place, as our substitute – doing something we could never have done for ourselves.
This is what Peter means when he says Jesus died for sins – one time, by the way. It’s not like the animal sacrifices of the OT – which happened over and over, but could never deal with sin once and for all. They simply pointed to Jesus. He died once and accomplished for all time the salvation for all those who would believe in Him. Hebrews tells us after dying once, He sat down – mission accomplished – at the right hand of the Father in heaven. So Christ died for sins once for all who would believe – the just for the unjust. Just, perfect, holy Jesus for unjust, imperfect, unholy sinners. Isaiah 53 says it like this:
4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.
Jesus died for us. It’s interesting if you look closely at verses 17 and 18. Peter tells us not to suffer for wrong. Then, in verse 18, he said Jesus did just that. Only, He didn’t suffer for His wrong – He suffered for our wrong. That’s what sin is – rebellion against a holy God and His perfect character. So, perfect Jesus died, the just for the unjust.
I want to be very clear about this. This is the gospel. We are sinners, and there is nothing we can do about our condition, because we are unjust. Unrighteous. Paul makes that clear in Romans 3 – there is none righteous, not one. We rebelled against our holy God. You say – but wait, I didn’t rebel. Actually, you have – by every act of sin which transgresses the very nature of God. As a result, as a holy and just God, His wrath was rightly aimed our way. It is right for God to be angry at sin, because it violates His very nature. This is the bad news of the gospel.
But the good news, God did something about our miserable, lost condition. When there was nothing we could do, He stepped in and did it for us. In the person of His Son Jesus – who took on flesh, and lived a perfectly just life. A holy life. And therefore, He didn’t deserve to die – He had done no wrong. The wages of sin is death – but He never sinned, so He didn’t deserve the payment or wages of death. But as Peter said in chapter 2, He took our sins in His body on the cross.
Here, Peter says the just died for us, the unjust. He died for our sins. Further, Paul says in Romans 10 – if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord – surrender your life to the Lordship of Jesus, and believe in your heart the rest of what this passage says, namely that Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended to Father – you can be saved. Peter, in the first message of the Christian church, talked about the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. The people were convicted of their sin, which nailed Jesus to the cross. And they said to Peter, what must we do? And he said, repent – that is, confess your sin and turn from them, and be baptized – we’ll talk about that in a moment – and you will be saved.
And so I ask you – have you done that? Have you repented, and trusted in Jesus as the Son of God, who died in your place for your sin – the just for you, the unjust. Have you asked Him to forgive you – have you confessed Him as Lord? If you haven’t, you can do that today. Now you might sit there and think, wait just a minute, I’m a pretty good guy. And you might be, if we were using the rest of us as the standard. You might be good compared to most everyone else. But we’re not the standard – the holy, just God is. And we have violated His good and perfect nature. So we need His forgiveness – provided through the work of Christ. Why?
That is, to what end did Jesus die? To what ultimate end did Jesus die for sinners? What was the purpose of His dying for us? If you think about it, there are lots of benefits of the gospel. We get the forgiveness of sin. The removal of guilt. The righteousness of Christ. And so, we get to escape the penalty of sin, namely, punishment in hell forever. Instead, we get eternal life. We gain an eternal inheritance. This is a pretty good list, isn’t it? We get heaven as our home – streets of gold, no more sickness, no more pain, no more death. But is that it? Is this the end for which Jesus died – is the ultimate hope of the gospel? What does our text say? This is what I said earlier – this is one of the most glorious phrases in the Bible.
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that – that’s the purpose clause – this is why Jesus ultimately died for sinners – so that He might bring us to God. All those other benefits – they are simply the necessary means to the end of bringing us to God. Jesus, by His death and resurrection, opened the way to be reconciled to God. To come to God. The best part of the Gospel, the ultimate end of the gospel, is we get God. (Grandma-Grandpa) John Piper wrote a book on the topic called, God is the Gospel. In it, he asks,
“The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?”
The answer is a resounding no. All those other things – side benefits. But the best part of salvation is we get God. He redeems us, He reconciles us to Himself. We get God. Piper also writes:
“What makes all the events of Good Friday and Easter and all the promises they secure good news is that they lead us to God. ‘Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God’ (I Peter 3:18). And when we get there, it is God himself who will satisfy our souls forever. Everything else in the gospel is meant to display God’s glory and remove every obstacle in him (such as his wrath) and in us (such as our rebellion) so that we can enjoy him forever. God is the gospel. That is, he is what makes the good news good. Nothing less can make the gospel good news. God is the final and highest gift that makes the good news good.”
This is indeed good news. Now remember the context: in the midst of all the suffering his readers were facing, this would have been good news. The gospel will bring you to God. And in the midst of all were facing – increased hostility, a planet that doesn’t work right because it has been subjected to futility, natural disasters, viruses, etc. – this is good news – we ultimately get God.
There was a print – a painting that went around Facebook sometime ago, entitled, First Day in Heaven. (Print) Now listen, I don’t know about all the theological ramifications of the print – whether we will be hugging Him or bowing at His feet in holy reverence – but look at it. I love the joy in the young lady’s face as she gets God.
And so I want you to know God, through His Son Jesus. I want you to know the hope we have. Christ died for sinners – if you will ask Him, He will forgive you of your sin, and give you His righteousness, and reconcile you to God. He will turn His wrath away from you. You will become a son or a daughter of the living God. And the time will come, that you will follow Him in resurrection. I plead with you today to believe this gospel.
Let’s move quickly then through the rest of the text. I’m not going to give you all the various interpretations of the text – you can read about them if you want. But within its context, I’ll tell you what I think the text is saying. Point two – the Resurrection of Christ Proclaiming His Victory. So verse 18 said He suffered by dying – being put to death for our sins so that He could bring us to God. But He didn’t stay dead. The end of verse 18 says, He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit. He was crucified and died, but raised to life – both bodily and spiritually. We could say, He was put to death in the realm of the flesh, in the realm of physical things, but made alive in the realm of the spirit, in the realm of spiritual things. Yes, of course, it was bodily resurrection, but it is new, and predominantly spiritual.
Now, this clearly speaks of His resurrection, but some want to suggest – a la the Apostles’ Creed, that during the three days between His death and resurrection, He went to hell and proclaimed or preached to the spirits. I actually think it was after His resurrection – there’s nothing in the text that indicates He went to hell between His death and resurrection.
So, after His resurrection, in some way He proclaimed to the spirits. When used in this way, the words spirits always refers to demonic spirits. Which fits the first part of verse 19. In which spiritual realm Jesus went – the same word as in verse 22. That’s important, because I believe we’re talking about the same going – that is, it was in His ascension to heaven.
So, after His resurrection, in His ascension to heaven, in some way and for some reason, He proclaimed to the spirits in prison. These spirits were long ago disobedient in the days of Noah. This is where it gets extremely confusing, so let me just sum up in couple sentences what many commentaries say convincingly. There is a book called I Enoch – not part of our Bibles, but very influential on Jewish thinking of the day. It suggests these spirits or demons were disobedient in the days of Noah in Genesis 6:1-4 when they had relations with human women. As a result, they were thrown into a spiritual prison, awaiting future judgment.
Peter is not giving credence to the story – he’s simply saying that Jesus in His resurrection and ascension somehow proclaimed to these spirits who were disobedient in the days of Noah. Let me come back to that in our third point in just a moment.
Because you see, mentioning Noah causes Peter to remind us of some very important truths as we are a suffering minority. Namely, Noah and his family – 8 in total – were a significant minority in an evil world. During that time, as the ark was being built – while the entire world was evil – God was patient, and Noah was a preacher of righteousness – proclaiming the destruction to come. He was calling for people to repent. Obviously, few did. Just his family.
So also, readers in Asia Minor, and believers today – we are in the minority. And becoming more so. As we live in an increasingly hostile culture, we will become more oppressed – and perhaps smaller in number. Will that affect your faith? Does it require the majority of people to believe before you will? Does it require an easy life of respect and acceptance before you’ll believe? Noah was no doubt ridiculed and oppressed. Yet he pressed on – and very few were saved.
God was patient, but when it was time, judgment came through a flood. And through that flood, eight people were brought to safety. Verse 21 – that flood serves as a type of the safety through which we will be brought if we believe. The waters correspond to baptism – a proclamation of faith. And through the waters of baptism and your faith, you too will be brought to safety. I don’t think Peter is saying baptism itself saves you. He goes on to say – baptism doesn’t remove dirt from the flesh – but it is an appeal to God – better a pledge to God that you believe and will follow Christ through a good conscience, cleansed by the work of Christ. And notice the last phrase – we are saved through the resurrection of Christ. The middle part is a parenthetical – take it out, and it says, “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
I’m out of time, but quickly notice the last verse, and how Peter wraps it up. Having spoken of the resurrection, he reminds us Jesus then ascended to the right hand of God and gone into heaven. This is a reference to Psalm 110, the most quoted Psalm in the NT. There we read, “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.’”
Peter says, Jesus is seated at the right hand of God in heaven, after angels (probably fallen angels) and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him. When had they been subjected? At His resurrection when Jesus subdued all powers. Now clearly, there is an already-not yet nature of this subjection. Yes, the enemy of our souls still prowls about, seeking those he may devour, chapter 5 tells us. But he has been ultimately defeated. Do you think this would have been an encouragement to those who were be mistreated, oppressed, persecuted because of their faith.
All authority has been given to the Son. He is seated at the right hand of Father, making intercession for us, Romans 8 says. We need not fear those who oppose us. We need not fear the futility of this creation as things don’t work rightly. God is in control – all enemies are under His feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death, which will happen at the resurrection of all those who believe in Jesus. He has paved the way, through His death, His resurrection, and His ascension. He has proclaimed victory – and it is for those who believe. Do you believe?