Serving God in Tough Times (preaching resource for Lent 1: February 18, 2024)
This post exegetes 1 Peter 3:18-22, providing context for the RCL Epistle reading on 2/18/2024 (Lent 1). This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary") and David Wheaton ("New Bible Commentary").
|"Resurrection" (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
When times get tough we all need hope. And that’s why Peter wrote this letter to some early Christians facing the prospect of increasing persecution. In 1 Peter 3:18-22, Peter offers hope by giving an important and powerful reminder about who Christ is, and about who we are in Christ. These truths encourage us to keep serving God—even in tough times. Here’s what Peter writes:
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good 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.
Interpreters wrestle with certain issues here, and though we won’t resolve them all, we will seek to embrace the core message of hope that Peter offers us here. That message revolves around three ministries in tough times—those of Jesus, of Noah and our own.
1 Peter 3:18–22
Jesus is the perfect example of serving God faithfully no matter what. Peter describes Jesus’ ministry from the perspectives of his death, proclamation, resurrection and ascension.
1. Jesus’ death (18a)
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
In verse 17 Peter mentions Christians suffering for well-doing rather than evil-doing. Now he gives the supreme example of Jesus the Righteous One who suffered terribly for the evil-doing of others. Here Peter gives one of the most succinct and yet profound statements in all the New Testament concerning the atonement. Through his ministry, Jesus resolved once and for all the problem of humanity’s broken relationship with God. As our representative and substitute (1 Pet. 2:24), Jesus brought us back to God. And he did this “once for all” (meaning “on behalf of all”; also see Heb. 9:24–28). Jesus did not suffer and die because of his own sins, but because of ours (1 Pet. 2:22). The phrase “bring you to God” is a technical term that means “gain audience at court.” Because Jesus, the Creator of all, is in his incarnation representative of all humanity: his death is our death. When Jesus died, we all died. And when he rose we all rose. And when we ascended we all ascended to the Father. Jesus, our representative and substitute, gained for us all a place in God’s family as his beloved children. In Christ, we are adopted into God’s life and love (Eph. 2:18; 3:12). As a result, we may come boldly to his throne (Heb. 10:19ff). And as a result we have access to his marvelous grace to meet our daily needs (Rom. 5:2). All this is ours because Jesus came among us as one of us and was willing to suffer to the utmost in order to serve us.
2. Jesus’ proclamation (18b–20)
He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water…
Jesus' ministry of serving us continued following his crucifixion. Peter notes this by addressing Jesus’ ministry during the period between his death and bodily resurrection. Death itself is the separation of body and spirit (James 2:26); and when Jesus died, his body hung lifeless on the cross as he yielded up his spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46). But where did his spirit go? Verse 19 may provide a glimpse into at least part of the answer. Along with Eph. 4:9 this verse may establish what is mentioned in early Christian creeds as Jesus’ “descent to the dead.” Jesus, in spirit, “descended” to the realm of the dead—the “prison” where certain “spirits” were being held awaiting judgment. These spirits are either unforgiven human sinners (specifically those who rejected God’s warning in Noah’s day), or fallen angels who had a role in the rebellion of Noah’s time. The idea of fallen angels seems best to fit the context (see also 2 Pet. 2:4–10). Jesus’ message to these imprisoned spirits was probably an announcement of his victory over Satan and his demons (see Col. 2:15, 1 Pet. 3:22). And that victory is ours. How? Through our sharing in Jesus’ resurrection.
3. Jesus’ resurrection (21)
…and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ…
Jesus’ resurrection plays a key role in his continuing ministry. Because death comes when the spirit leaves the body, resurrection involves the spirit returning to the body (Luke 8:55). This is what happened to Jesus—his human spirit was united with his now glorified human body. And it is in this resurrected-glorified Jesus that we have “living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3–4). Here Peter relates this hope to Noah as a type of our baptism. More about this later, but note now the great importance of Jesus’ resurrection. It declares that he is God (Rom. 1:4), that his work of salvation is complete and is accepted by the Father (Rom. 4:25), and that through that work death has been conquered (1 Thes. 4:13–18; Rev. 1:17–18). It is our sharing in Jesus’ resurrected life that brings us salvation (1 Cor 15:1-4). We should think of salvation as a relationship, not a mere event or one moment in time. It is our continueal sharing in Jesus’ life that saves us. And it is the risen Christ who gives us that life and it includes his power to live for God and serve him in ministry daily (Gal. 2:20).
4. Jesus’ ascension (22)
…who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand-- with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
Sadly, the vital and amazing doctrine of Jesus’ bodily ascension is often minimized. But here Peter gives it due prominence. Forty days after his bodily resurrection, Jesus (God-in-the flesh now glorified) ascended to heaven where he sits “at God’s right hand”—a reference to his exalted status. All humanity, now included with Jesus as God’s adopted children, sits with Jesus in that heavenly exaltation (Eph. 2:4–6). From heaven the ascended Jesus is ministering to us, with us and through us as our High Priest (Heb. 4:14–16; 7:25) and Advocate (1 John 1:9; 2:2). Jesus himself is the “place” prepared in heaven for all humanity (John 14:1–6). We “reign in life” (Rom. 5:17) with the ascended Jesus who reigns over all, including all “angels, authorities and powers” (apparently a reference to the evil hosts of Satan). By embracing and expressing this exalted position that is ours in union with Jesus we are able to “reign in life” (Rom. 5:17)—including over the hardships we face. This means that in our struggles we do not fight for victory, but from victory—the mighty victory that our Lord Jesus Christ has already won for us in his death, resurrection, and ascension.
Let’s return to these verses now noting Peter’s discussion of Noah’s ministry. In Peter’s day, Noah was held in high regard among both Jews and Christians—on par with Daniel and Job (Eze. 14:19–20). Jesus referred to Noah (Matt. 24:37–39), and Peter mentions him in his second letter (2 Pet. 2:5; 3:6). Noah is also named as a hero of faith in Heb. 11:7.
So here Peter points to Noah as a positive example of faithfulness in ministry in tough times. As a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5) Noah ministered for 120 arduous years (Gen. 6:3). Early Christians remembered that Jesus has said that the “end times” (the time between Jesus’ resurrection and return) would become increasingly like the “days of Noah” (Matt. 24:37–39). And so as they saw persecution increasing, they no doubt remembered Jesus’ warning. Now Peter wants them to remember Noah’s faithful example in serving God even when it was tough and even when ministry seems to bear little fruit. Indeed, what counted for Noah was not success (only seven people heeded his warnings!), but faithfulness.
There is another connection to Noah here. Peter saw in Noah’s flood a type of Christian baptism. Just as the flood waters buried the earth in judgment and lifted Noah and his family up in the ark to safety; so too our baptism pictures burial with Jesus and being lifted up with him in his resurrection to new life. In the way that Noah and his family were saved by faith because they believed God and entered into the ark for deliverance, so too sinners, by repentance and faith, participate actively in the life of Christ which saves them. And thus Peter can say that Noah and his family were “saved through water” (1 Pet. 3:20). This does not mean that baptism itself saves, but that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, saves us (v21). Baptism thus pictures for us who Jesus is and what he has done to include us in his resurrected life.
According to Peter, having a good (clean) conscience is vital in this (1 Pet. 3:16, 21). In the early church, those about to be baptized were asked if they pledged to obey God and serve him, renounce the devil and break with their sinful past. If they had reservations about this in their hearts, or deliberately lied about it, they would not have a good conscience. Similarly, if, under pressure of persecution, they deny their baptismal pledge (and Peter knew something about denying Jesus), they would not have a good conscience. So Peter is reminding of our baptismal pledge—not to burden us, but to encourage us to be faithful to our commitment to Christ, including ministering with him even in tough times, like Noah.
The ministry of Christians today
Through the examples of Jesus and Noah, Peter is pointing us toward faithfulness in serving God in our day—particularly when things get tough. Let’s note his key points:
1. Expect opposition
In a world living in the darkness of minds alienated from the God who loves us and has saved us, we can expect people to resist our efforts to serve Jesus. Jesus himself, though perfect, was mocked and crucified like a common criminal. If the just One who did no sin was treated this way, what right do we who are imperfect have to escape opposition? We must be careful, however, that we suffer because of well doing, not because we have disobeyed our Lord.
2. Seek faithfulness not success
Noah served God for decades yet only eight people (Noah plus seven other family members) were saved from the Flood. Nevertheless, God honored Noah for his ministry. Of course, to the world, Jesus appeared a total failure when he died on the cross, yet his death was a supreme victory. His cause today may seem to fail, but he will accomplish his purposes in this world and he will do so through our faithful service. And so we seek faithfulness and we leave the numbers (or other signs of “success”) to the Lord of the harvest—remembering that the great harvest comes at the end of this age.
3. Be encouraged by Christ’s victory
Jesus’ victory over sin, death and all other obstacles is pictured in our baptism. Water baptism pictures our baptism in the Spirit, which is what unites us to Christ (1 Cor. 12:12–13). It is through the Spirit’s power that we live for Christ and minister with and through him (Acts 1:8). The opposition of men to our ministry is energized by Satan, who has already been defeated by Christ. And so we approach ministry, despite hardships and disappointments, with confidence and a clear sense of victory.
4. Baptism is important
Our baptism identifies us with Christ and gives testimony that we have broken with the old life (1 Pet. 4:1–4) and will, in Christ, live a new life. The act of baptism is a pledge to God that we will follow him no matter what difficulties arise. Some people make too much of baptism by teaching that it is a means of salvation, but others make the mistake of minimizing its importance. If we have not been baptized we should be as an act of trust and obedience toward our Lord. And then we are to live the “baptized” life—a life of ministry with and in Jesus who is our salvation. In him we are safely delivered from all that can harm us forever.
Participating actively in the life we have in Jesus will often bring difficulties, even persecution. But be encouraged, Jesus is far greater than any difficulties we may face. Don’t worry about “success”—seek faithfulness like Noah. And remember that Jesus is at the right hand of God and you are seated there with him. Share in Jesus’ victory, and in his faithfulness. “Hang in there”—trust in God, no matter what; take up your cross and follow Jesus. He is your place of safety!