We return to 1 Peter today. And do you remember? He’s been writing to Christians who were suffering for their faith and who were suffering for doing good. And in the passage we looked at last time, there were three main points. Firstly, if you suffer as a believer, remember the blessing of God. Everyone else may be against you, and they might hate you because of what you believe and because of the kind of life you want to live. Everyone else may be against you, but the Lord is pleased with you if you continue to do what is right. Secondly, if you suffer as a believer, remember how to defend the faith. And that means being ready to explain the reason for our hope whenever anyone asks us about it. But do it with gentleness and reverence, Peter said. Thirdly, if you suffer as a believer, remember that it’s always better to suffer for doing good rather than for doing evil. And one of the reasons why it’s always better to suffer for doing good rather than for doing evil is because, when we suffer for doing good, we’re following the example of the Lord Jesus whose suffering on the cross has brought about our salvation. And that leads us to today’s passage where Peter refers in verse 18 to the suffering of the Lord Jesus, who died for our sins to bring us to God.
Now, today’s passage is very difficult. Verse 18 is straightforward enough. But verses 19 and 20 — where Peter refers to Christ preaching to the spirits in prison who disobeyed in the days of Noah — is very puzzling. And verse 21 — where Peter claims that baptism now saves us — is also puzzling, because everywhere else in the Bible we’re taught that we’re saved from the condemnation we deserve for our sins through faith in the Saviour. And if that’s true — and it is — how can Peter say that baptism saves us? So, these are puzzling verses. However, as a kind of spoiler to let you know what the whole passage is about, let me point out that the passage begins with the suffering of the Saviour; and it ends with Peter reminding us that the Lord Jesus was raised, and has gone into heaven, where he is now at God’s right hand, with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. In other words, even though he once suffered and died, he’s now alive and he rules over whatever other powers they are. And so, a suffering believer can read these things and be re-assured: yes, powerful and wicked people are against me, but I know that my Saviour, who rules over all, can help me. So, let’s look at this passage together.
I’ve already said that this is a difficult passage. Fortunately, verse 18 is straightforward and easy to understand. And it’s also a wonderful verse, which summarises the work of Christ in a nutshell. Listen again to these words:
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 [flesh] but made alive [in] the Spirit.
Let’s go through this phrase by phrase.
First, we’re told that Christ died for sins. One of the things that came out at the trial of the Lord Jesus was that he had done nothing wrong. The Sanhedrin had to rely on false witnesses to accuse him; Pilate, after questioning the Lord, was satisfied that he had done nothing to deserve the death penalty; the thief on the cross bore witness that he had done nothing wrong. So, when Peter tells us that Christ died for sins, we know that he didn’t die for his own sins, because he had none. No, he died for our sins. He took the blame for us, and suffered and died to pay for all that we have done wrong. He suffered and died as a sacrifice to pay for and to make up for what we have done wrong.
Second, we’re told that he died for sins once for all. This shows us the sufficiency of Christ’s death, because by his once-for-all, perfect sacrifice on the cross, he has paid for our sins in full and for all time. Think of the Old Testament sacrifices, when the Israelites would bring a bull or a goat or some other kind of animal to offer up to God in the temple. Well, those sacrifices had to be repeated again and again and again, because the blood of bulls and goats is not enough to wipe out the guilt of our sin for ever. Or think of other things which we need to keep doing. You cut the grass in the garden; and a week later you have to do it again. Wouldn’t it be great to be able do it once and for all? You trim the hedge; but a few weeks later, you look out the window and see how it’s got untidy and overgrown again and it needs trimmed again. Wouldn’t it be great to be able do it once and for all? You weed the flower beds, but in no time at all, the weeds are back and you have to do it again. Wouldn’t it be great to be able do it once and for all? You tidy your child’s bedroom; and it only takes a few hours for the mess to re-appear. Wouldn’t it be great to be able do it once and for all? Well, by his suffering and death on the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ has paid for our sins once and for all. He has paid for our guilt in full and no further payment will ever be required from us, because of what Christ has done.
Third, he died as our substitute. That’s what Peter means when he tells us that Christ died, the righteous for the unrighteous. We’re the unrighteous ones, which means that we’re the ones who are not right; and who have spent our lives doing what’s wrong. And the Lord Jesus is the righteous one, which means that he’s the one who never did anything wrong and who always did what was right. Well, because of all that we have done wrong, we deserve to suffer the wrath of God and to die for our sins and to be condemned for ever as punishment for what we have done wrong. But the Lord Jesus Christ — the perfectly righteous one — took our place and suffered on our behalf the punishment we deserve. Think of Barabbas. Do you remember Barabbas? He was the man who was due to be crucified because of what he had done wrong. And yet, Pilate released him and the Lord Jesus Christ took his place on the cross. And it’s a picture of what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for all his people, because he took our place and our punishment.
And fourth: Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. Having paid for our sins, it’s as if he takes us by the hand and leads us to God so that, in this life, we’re able to come to God in worship; and in the life to come, we’ll be able to come into his presence in glory and be with him for ever and for ever. Instead of being sent away from the presence of the Lord into eternal punishment, we’ll be brought into his presence to have that fullness of joy and those pleasures forevermore which he has prepared for his people.
So, Peter gives us this wonderful summary of the work of Christ: who died to pay for our sins; who died once for all; who died in our place, the righteous for the unrighteous; who died to bring us to God. And so, of course, we see here why we ought to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, because he’s the only Saviour of the world: he’s the one who died to pay for our sins; he’s the one who, by his once-for-all sacrifice, has paid for our sins in full; he’s the one who suffered in our place; and he’s the one who is able to bring us to God. And therefore, whoever hopes to come into the presence of God in the life to come, rather than being sent away from his presence into eternal punishment, must trust in him, the only Saviour of the world. And it’s by faith, and only by faith, that we are united with him and receive from him all the benefits of his death, when he died for sins once for all the righteousness for the unrighteous to bring us to God.
Verses 19 and 20
But let’s move on to verses 19 and 20. Verse 18 finished with Peter telling us how the Lord Jesus was put to death ‘in the flesh’. ‘In the flesh’ is a better translation of what Peter said. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive ‘in the Spirit’. So, there’s a reference to the Lord’s resurrection from the dead: though he died, and was buried, he did not remain dead, but was raised from the dead. And he was raised ‘in the Spirit’. That doesn’t mean he was raised spiritually and not physically. That’s what some people believe; but when the Lord appeared to his disciples, he didn’t appear to them as a ghost or a spirit; he appeared to them in the same body he had before he died, which they could see and touch and which bore the scars from his crucifixion. So, Peter is not saying the Lord was raised spiritually. He’s saying that he was raised by the Spirit of God. And by the Spirit of God he went and he preached to the spirits in prison in the days of Noah.
Now, these verses — verses 19 and 20 — are very puzzling; and Bible scholars have offered many suggestions as to how to understand what Peter is saying here. And really there are two questions which are hard for us to answer: Firstly, when did the Lord Jesus preach to the spirits in prison? Secondly, who are the spirits in prison?
In answer to the first question — when did the Lord Jesus preach to the spirits in prison? — some say he did this between the time of his death and the time of his resurrection. In the Apostles Creed, Christians confess that:
Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried….
he descended into hell….
the third day he rose again from the dead.
Some say that when he descended to hell — and that’s a notoriously difficult line in the Creed — but when he descended to hell, he preached to the spirits who were imprisoned in hell and announced to them his victory. In that case, the answer to the second question — who are the spirits in prison? — is that they are sinners in hell; and in particular, they are Noah’s sinful neighbours.
Others say that he preached to the spirits in prison after his resurrection and before he ascended to heaven. In that case, the answer to the second question — who are the spirits in prison? — is that they are evil spirits and demons; and especially those evil spirits and demons who led the people astray in the days of Noah and who are now imprisoned in hell.
Another interpretation — and this is the one I prefer — is an ancient interpretation which goes back at least to the time of Augustine, one of the church fathers. And according to this view, in the days of Noah, before the flood came on the world, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, went and preached to Noah’s neighbours. Now, you’re maybe thinking: How did Jesus Christ, the Son of God, preach to Noah’s neighbours at that time? Well, he preached to them though Noah and by the Holy Spirit.
Now, what evidence do I have for this view? Well, we need two pieces of evidence at least. We need to know that Noah was a preacher; and we need to know that the Lord Jesus spoke to people in Old Testament times by his Spirit. Well, in 2 Peter 2, Peter refers to Noah as ‘a preacher of righteousness’. So, as well as building the ark, Noah preached to the people. That’s the first bit of evidence we need.
And then, in 1 Peter 1, Peter has already told us how Old Testament prophets — men like Noah — searched intently and with the greatest care in order to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. That’s the second piece of evidence we need. Not only was Noah a preacher, but the Lord Jesus Christ spoke through the Old Testament prophets by his Spirit.
And if that’s the case, who are the spirits in prison? Well, they’re Noah’s neighbours who refused to listen to him; and who therefore died in the flood; and whose spirits or souls are now imprisoned in hell, waiting for the day of judgment. In the days before the flood, the Lord Jesus appealed to them through the mouth of Noah, that preacher of righteousness, and by the Holy Spirit, sent from heaven. But they would not listen. They would not listen. And perhaps they mocked Noah for building the ark. And perhaps they despised Noah for what he said to them about righteousness and how they needed to repent of their wickedness. Perhaps they mocked him and perhaps they despised him. But in the end, they all perished in the flood, and only a few — Noah and his wife; and their three sons and their wives — only a few were saved.
So, that’s how I interpret these verses. But why does Peter say this here? Well, remember: he’s writing to Christians who were suffering for their faith and who were suffering for doing good. And in order to re-assure them, he reminds them of the example of the Lord Jesus who suffered for doing good whenever he suffered and died to bring us to God. And in order to re-assure these suffering Christians, Peter reminds them of the example of Noah, who no doubt suffered in the days before the flood, because the people would not listen to him. But in the end, he was saved. And Peter is saying to his readers: You too might be suffering now. Perhaps the people around you are mocking you and perhaps they despise you. And perhaps the church is very small and very weak and so you’re only few in number. But listen: keep going and don’t give up, because just as Noah was proved right in the end, so the day will come when you will be vindicated and it will become clear to all that you were right to believe in him and to obey me. So, keep going.
And so, we come to verse 21, which is another puzzling verse. After mentioning the flood and how Noah and his family were saved from the flood waters, Peter goes on to refer to baptism. And he says that baptism now saves you. Well, we’ve just baptised Matthew. Is Matthew now saved? Is he saved from his sins because I’ve sprinkled water on him? Well, undoubtedly down through the generations, there are some who believe and teach that; they say that as soon as a person is baptised, their sins are forgiven, whether they believe or not. But everywhere else the Bible teaches that we’re saved from the punishment we deserve for our sins by trusting in the Lord Jesus. And baptism — when we sprinkle water on the children of believers or on believing adults — baptism speaks to us of God’s willingness to wash away the guilt of everyone who believes in the Saviour who died for us. So, how do we make sense of Peter’s words?
Notice again what Peter wrote about Noah and his family at the end of verse 20. He said:
In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water.
Whenever he said ‘in it’, he was referring to the ark, which was the means of their deliverance from the flood. Without the ark, Noah and his family would have drowned like everyone else; and the only way for them to be safe from the flood, was by entering the ark. Well, whenever we bring a child to be baptised, or whenever a believing adult is baptised, we confess two things: firstly, just as the people in Noah’s day deserved to be destroyed because of their sins, so we too deserve to be condemned for our sins; but secondly, just as Noah and his family were delivered by the ark, so we’re looking to the Lord Jesus, and we’re trusting in him to deliver us and our children from the punishment we deserve. So, when someone is being baptised, it’s not about removing dirt from the body. Do you see how Peter rules that out in verse 21? Instead, it’s about looking to God to give us a good conscience. And that means we’re looking to God to cleanse our conscience and to forgive our sins for the sake of Christ who died for us, so that when the day of judgment comes, Jesus Christ will carry us safely through.
So, that’s how I interpret this verse: Peter refers to baptism because baptism points us to Christ who alone is able to save us from the coming day of judgment. But why does Peter say this here? Well, he’s been referring to Noah who was saved from the flood by entering the ark. And he wants to press home to his readers — and that means he wants to press home to us — that the only way to be saved from the coming day of judgment is by turning to Christ. And perhaps we’re only few in number, as Noah and his family were only few in number; nevertheless, just as Noah and his family were saved, so we too will be saved if we trust in him.
Verse 21 ends with a reference to the Lord’s resurrection. And in verse 22 Peter goes on to refer to the Lord’s ascension to heaven, where he now sits at his Father’s side. And look: angels, authorities and powers — whatever other powers there may be — are in submission to him. He rules over all things, in heaven and on earth. And that’s important for Peter’s readers to know: they needed to be re-assured that though the world was against them, and though it seemed the Devil and all his demons were against them, nevertheless Christ their Saviour rules over all; and he will watch over them and help them and strengthen them to stand firm against everyone who stood against them. And in every generation, whenever believers are afraid, and whenever they wonder what the future holds, and whenever they worry how the church will survive when an unbelieving world is against us for what we believe, we need to remember and believe that Christ our Saviour is in heaven and rules over all and he’s the one who is able to help us.
And furthermore, we need to remember and believe that just as Christ our Saviour suffered and died for doing good, but afterwards was raised and exalted to heaven, so all who believe in him will also be raised like him and brought at last to our heavenly home. So, we may have to suffer for doing good now, in this life; but just as Christ died and was raised, so all who believe in him will be raised to live with him for ever in glory. So, there’s nothing for us to fear: in this life, we’re always under his protection; and when we die, we’ll be raised like him and will be brought with him into heaven.