Reflection | The third chapter of Peter’s first recorded letter to churches scattered throughout Asia Minor has been focused on relational dynamic. Initially, Peter addressed specific relationships, namely how Christian wives and husbands married to unbelieving spouses ought to engage their partners. Gradually, Peter expanded to a more general treatment of how all followers of Jesus should treat one another – both those within and outside of the community of faith.
Mutual submission was the overarching posture that Peter called for us to practice. We are to maintain this orientation even, and especially when, we are mistreated by others. Our submission then, is not as much the individual, as it is to abiding and thus reflecting the goodness of God in the face of human evil. Peter begins our passage today by reinforcing this theme as he writes, “For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (verse 17).
The idea that it might be God’s will that we suffer will be a startling idea for some. It certainly runs counter to a strain of false teaching within the Church that believing in Jesus leads to ironclad wealth, health, and prosperity. However, if we’ve paid close attention to Jesus’ own words, let alone His example, this should not be the case. Jesus told us plainly to follow Him was to find trouble as we would end up going against the grain of a community built on the premise of living primarily for oneself. If the One in whom we believe and trust suffered and died for both proclaiming and promoting a kingdom not of this world; then the road on which we trod is likely to be marked with hardship and loss as well.
Peter, likewise, reminds us, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (verse 18). In the example of the life of Jesus, we witness suffering with a redemptive purpose – good that comes out of evil. Jesus, who is righteous – that is perfect and without sin – endured denial, rejection, abuse, and ultimately death on a cross for we who are unrighteous. Jesus acted in this way in order to bring us beyond the limits of our sin back home into the presence of God.
Rightly appreciated, the work of Christ does not merely bring good out of evil. The goodness of what Christ accomplishes has broken the binding and lasting power of evil in this world. In other words, Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection have done sin in. When Peter says Christ “suffered once for sins,” the literal and better translation of what he writes here is “once and for all.” What Jesus accomplished through the Cross is a single and singular act that is not diminished over time but rather reverberates through eternity.
The ripple effect of the Gospel, that the goodness of God that is greater than all evil, unrelentingly purposes to be revealed through we who follow Christ. Hence, there is nothing masochistic about Peter’s words to us here. Living out of our faith in Jesus is not about suffering for the sake of suffering. It is about suffering with a purpose – as a declaration of hope and against the tyranny of fear. It is about taking our hits in the line of duty for the sake of reflecting a love that is stronger than death, that is always resurrected. It is about defiantly testifying in the face of all continuing injustice, the lingering residue of sin, and the last, desperate attacks upon all this right and good, that evil is ultimately, inevitably doomed to fail.
And just like Jesus, thanks to Christ in us, by choosing to suffer for doing good, we can and we will bring others to God.
At the end of verse 18, Peter adds Jesus was “put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” It would be tempting to read this statement as a reference to the Holy Spirit resurrecting Christ from the dead. Such a reading might remind us of the apostle Paul’s words in Romans, chapter 8, wherein he declares the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead now lives powerfully in us, uniting us together in Christ. However, given what Peter shares next this is not what he had in mind. What follows in verses 19 – 21 are among some of the most confusing and puzzling verses in all scripture.
Peter writes, “After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits – to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built” (verses 19 and 20). Given this cryptic passage, when Peter speaks of Jesus “being made live in the Spirit,” it refers to Christ’s own personal spirit – Himself in Spirit form. Jesus, it would appear, was made alive before his bodily resurrection in order to deliver a message to “the imprisoned spirits.”
Who exactly is Peter talking about here? We get some clue from the fact that the story of Noah is invoked. Peter also mentioned that those to whom he is referring defied God even as the Lord patiently waited…for their repentance? Some theologians, therefore, assume Peter is talking about Jesus preaching to all the human beings who rejected the lifeline God was offering them with the construction of Noah’s ark.
Most scholars, however, recognize allusions by Peter to the apocryphal book of Enoch. Enoch, you say? I don’t see that book in Bible. You wouldn’t and you shouldn’t. This is because the Book of Enoch is not part of the inspired word of God but one of the pseudepigrapha, stories written in the names of historical, biblical characters (in this case, Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, see Genesis 5:18) but not necessarily true. These fictional stories were created as form of theological commentary by Jewish theologians back in the time before Christ. While not accepted as God’s truth, these stories shed light on the political, ideological, and historical reality of the time period in which they were written.
Peter would have known this book and its’ interpretation of the events of Genesis 6:1-4. Writers of books like Enoch held that the sons of God or fallen angels who intermarried with human women provoked humans to rebel against the Lord and to attack each other. The violence and evil unleashed by this prompted God to flood the world and imprison these fallen angels. With this understanding, Jesus goes to proclaim His victory over death and thus judgment over these disobedient spirits.
Does Christ proclaim judgment upon fallen angels, or an opportunity to repent for willful human beings who missed the boat? Peter doesn’t make this clear. What remains certain, what is essential, is that Christ was dead and then made alive, that He suffered for our sake and was then made victorious forever by the power of God. It is out of this assurance, that Peter continues to address the Lord’s concern for all humanity.
In closing out the story of Noah, remembering how “only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water,” Peter goes on to state, “and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also” (verse 21). Most of us recall the story of the flood as the Lord saving Noah and his family from the water and not by the water. And yet, Peter declares our understanding of Christian baptism ought to be shaped, in part, by this historical event. The flood serves as a reminder of our baptism in Christ.
There are those who have interpreted Peter’s words here as indicating that we, as Christians, are saved by baptism. But we need to read not just the one verse but this whole passage in context. Peter is not suggesting that we are saved by our baptism. After all, Noah and his family were not saved by the flood, it was God who saved them through the flood. In the same way, we are not saved by the act of our baptism, we are saved by God who carries us safely through the waters of judgment – from death to life. Paul argues something similar when he frames the Israelites passing through the waters of the Red Seas as being another “baptism” (se 1 Corinthians 10). Again, the waters of the Red Sea did not save the people. They were saved because God brought them safely through the waters while the Egyptians drowned.
This understanding of what Peter is saying is further supported by Peter’s insistence that baptism is not about “the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him” (verses 21-22). Baptism is not about outward cleansing. It is not the outward action of the water on the body that purifies us from sin.
Baptism is about receiving a clear conscience – of being completely forgiven by God and set free of guilt and shame due to our sin. And, as Peter makes plain, that clear conscience symbolizes by the water – our ultimate salvation from the judgment of death into the glory of everlasting life is through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Baptism doesn’t save us. Baptism is a sign we embrace that we have been saved by Christ.
Another way to think of the act of baptism is how it parallels Jesus’ movement, as outlined by Peter in this passage. Jesus moves from death on the Cross to descending to imprisoned spirits, and then ascension to glory through His resurrection. Following Christ, our trajectory can be no different. We must first die – to ourselves – and in so doing, be willing, be ready to descend to those who are physically, emotionally, and spiritually imprisoned. Both actions will result in pain, suffering, and loss for us. However, in doing both – in choosing what is good, what is right, we will rise above and beyond the evil within us, around us, and even done unto us. We will, in the end, be vindicated and victorious – because Jesus lives.
Consider & Discuss | In your life, do you suffer more for doing good or for doing evil? Which is better, in your experience, suffering for doing good or for doing evil? How might reflecting and abiding more in your relationship with Jesus enable and empower you to do good – especially in the face of evil?
Peter assures us that our sin has been dealt with by Jesus once and for all? Are you living out of this assurance or are there still sins in your life that you believe are beyond the reach, the forgiveness of Jesus? If and when you were baptized into Christ, did you focus more on the outward act of what you did in being baptized or the deeper, more lasting work of what Christ has done for us all through the Cross and the Resurrection? How might redirecting your focus on Jesus carrying you through the waters – not just once but always, deepen and widen the presence of the peace of His Spirit in your life?
Prayer Focus | Good, good Father, we thank you that in Jesus Christ, You are no stranger to the sufferings of this world. We are humbled and grateful to realize, to remember, that out of the evil of our rejection and rebellion of You, You have brought the goodness of our salvation. We fall down on our knees amazed when we perceive how far You were willing to go – to die – in order to bring us home to You. We confess that our baptism does not save us but that You alone save us. Not just in the experience of the sacrament of Baptism but whenever we interact with water, teach us to remember and to rejoice that You are the God who always carries us from death to life, from failure to forgiveness. Empower us to follow You by dying to ourselves and being willing to go down to where our brothers and sisters are imprisoned by injustice and evil. Raise us up with them as we seek to reflect and proclaim Your Gospel through the good fruit You purpose to harvest in our lives – fruit borne of Your Spirit. Amen.