18. A New Slant on Suffering (1 Peter 3:13-4:6)
13 And who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, 15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; 16 and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ121 may be put to shame.
17 For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong. 18 For Christ also died122 for sins123 once for all,124 the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. 21 And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.
1 Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.
3 For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousals, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. 4 And in all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excess of dissipation, and they malign you; 5 but they shall give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.
Recently I needed to obtain an official registration for an item purchased some time ago which required approval by a federal government agency and a lower level of government. To receive approval from the lower level, I needed the necessary paperwork certifying approval by the federal government agency. I received approval from the first agency without much trouble with an official form in triplicate. I then took these, along with other necessary forms, to the second government agency.
When I walked in the door of the second agency, I knew something was unusual. Having been there a number of times, I knew a few of the people who worked there. The problem soon became quite evident as two pre-school age children totally out of control ran around the room while their mother pretended they weren’t there; the clerks certainly wished they weren’t. The eyes of several rolled in contempt.
My attention was quickly drawn to a more mature woman attempting to push a heavy oak church pew. She attempted to navigate between the two children who were doing all they could to harass her as well as the rest of us. Stepping out of line, I approached the older woman and asked, “Do you need some help?” “Yes, please,” she responded, “these children broke this pew, and I’m afraid someone is going to get hurt if I don’t get it out of here.” Picking up the broken end of the church pew, (a pew intended for use by those waiting in line), I began to work my way toward the back of the room. The woman tried to lift the pew but could not until a co-worker came to her aid. The three of us gingerly carried the pew safely out of the way.
Stepping back in line, I waited for one of the clerks to check my paperwork. After looking through the forms, she hesitated. “They didn’t give you all the forms you need,” she informed me. Although this came as no real surprise, I did not know what I needed. “Just one moment,” she commented, as she made her way into one of the offices to inquire further. She soon returned with words of great comfort to my ears, “It’ll be O.K.,” she said, “the supervisor approved your papers.” The “supervisor,” I learned, was the older women who had been struggling with the bench.
The point is quite simple. Today’s jargon would say, “What goes around comes around.” Those in days gone by would have said, “One good turn deserves another.” This incident surely illustrates the beginning words of our text in the Epistle of First Peter:
13 And who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? (1 Peter 3:13).
Living according to biblical principles is the best way to live. And yet we are not guaranteed that godliness will always be received with gratitude and good deeds in return.
This passage is not so much about the favorable responses we might receive in response to godliness but the unpleasant responses of persecution and false accusations. Nevertheless, adversity is the soil in which the gospel thrives. And so Peter sets down in this text principles which should guide us in our response to persecution so that the gospel is proclaimed, God is glorified, and we are truly blessed.
Our text is without doubt the most difficult in the entire epistle. Luther reportedly said he did not know what Peter meant by these words. Others differ greatly in its meaning. Some misuse the passage to proof text doubtful, even heretical doctrines. As we come to this text, let us ask God to open our minds and hearts so the Spirit of God may guide our interpretation and application of this portion of God’s inspired Scripture.
The Structure of the Passage
Our text divides into two nearly equal portions. The first is verses 13-16; the second verses 3:18-4:6. The first section concentrates on instructions concerning our practice in Christ. The second focuses on our position in Christ and His position as the One at God’s right hand, exalted above all earthly and heavenly powers and authorities. Verses 18-22 also compare our “baptism” to that of Noah and his family who were spared from the flood by the ark.
Piety is the Best Course
13 And who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good?
Peter puts it in the form of a question because he has already cited the principle in the immediately preceding verses which are quoted from Psalm 34:
10 For, “Let him who means to love life and see good days Refrain his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile. 11 And let him turn away from evil and do good; Let him seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, And His ears attend to their prayer, But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (Psalm 34:10-12).
The principle we should live by is this: The one who follows biblical principles will get the most out of life—both this life and the life to come. Or we might say, “Obeying God’s Word spares us much needless suffering.” In the context of this third chapter of Peter’s first epistle, Peter is saying the Christian who seeks to be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, humble in spirit, and gracious (not retaliating) will have the most peaceable and rewarding life. We find this principle evident throughout the Scriptures. The Book of Proverbs constantly refers to the blessings which normally result from godliness and wisdom (see 11:2, 9; 13:3, 10; 14:27; 15:1). The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) also deals with these same truths.125
Piety Does Not Keep Us From All Suffering
Living according to the Scriptures keeps us from much unnecessary suffering, but it is no guarantee we will be spared from all suffering. Living by the Scriptures is something like defensive driving: it does not keep one from having an accident, but it may keep us from many accidents. Having established a “good life” as the norm, Peter addresses suffering as a possibility.
14a But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed.
Peter wants us to know suffering may come our way even when we are living as God instructs us to live. Indeed, suffering may come our way because we are living godly lives. A number of evangelical Christians fail to grasp this. They sincerely believe that if they follow the divine principles of Scripture, they can be assured of a happy, trouble-free life, a life of “prosperity.”
Job’s friends made this same error. They assumed Job’s prosperity was the result of his piety; when adversity overtook him, they were certain he had done something wrong. The way back to prosperity was to find the sin in Job’s life and be rid of it. This was also the view of the scribes and Pharisees in the days of our Lord who linked material prosperity with spiritual piety. Imagine how shocked they would be to hear the Lord Jesus say,
20b “Blessed126 are you who are poor … 24a But woe to you who are rich … ” (Luke 6:20b, 24a).
Peter makes it very clear that when one suffers for doing what is right, he is blessed (1 Peter 3:14). The blessings do not stop when the suffering begins. Peter insists that suffering for the sake of godliness is a blessing. This statement will receive further support and clarification in chapter 4 (see verses 1-5, 12-16).
Guidelines For Making the Most of Suffering
14b And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, 15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; 16 and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
Verses 14b-16 instruct us how we should conduct ourselves in suffering to make our suffering a blessing, both to others and to ourselves.
The first principle: if we are to be blessed in suffering, we must suffer for the sake of righteousness and not for sin.
20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer [for it] you patiently endure it, this [finds] favor with God (1 Peter 2:20).
14 But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed (1 Peter 3:14a).
17 For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong (1 Peter 3:17).127
The only virtuous suffering is innocent suffering, suffering for the sake of righteousness. If we are to be blessed in suffering, we must suffer for righteousness.
Our second principle: we should make the most of suffering by using the occasion for the proclamation of the gospel.
The last words of verse 14 and the first few words of verse 15 are a reference to Isaiah 8. In these verses, God warns the prophet Isaiah not to buckle under to the opposition he receives in response to the message God gave him to proclaim. Peter uses these words to remind us that we too should not be frightened or intimidated by the opposition we receive from men. We are to faithfully embrace and proclaim the truths of God’s Word.
Collapsing under the pressure of persecution is a very real danger (see Matthew 24:9-10). It would seem as though this were the great danger faced by the Hebrew Christians to whom the Book of Hebrews was addressed (see 10:32-39). When the Old Testament prophets were divinely commissioned, they were instructed to stand firm in the face of opposition and to faithfully proclaim the truth God revealed to them (see Isaiah 6:1-7; 8:1-22; Jeremiah 1:4-19; Ezekiel 2:4-7).
Peter is concerned that when things get tough, we will be tempted to be silent or to take the edge off our witness. Who should understand this better than Peter who, under pressure, denied being associated with His Lord (see Matthew 26:69-75). Now he writes that times of persecution are often occasions for bearing witness to the Savior; these are the times we dare not be intimidated so we deny our Lord, remain silent, or dilute the message of the gospel.
The third principle: the suffering saint must settle the question of whom he serves.
When persecution arises because of righteousness, we often find strong resistance and opposition. The pressure is to renounce or revise the message to make it less offensive. Our response to this pressure is a reflection of whom we most fear. We either fear God or men. Jesus put it this way:
24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. 25 It is enough for the disciple that he become as his teacher, and the slave as his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household! 26 Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. 27 What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear [whispered] in [your] ear, proclaim upon the housetops. 28 And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And [yet] not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Therefore do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 Everyone therefore who shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. 33 But whoever shall deny Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:24-33).
If we fear men who are able to kill us, we will be shaken and silenced by their opposition. If we fear God, we will not be shaken or silenced but faithfully persist in proclaiming the gospel. Persecution forces us to settle the question of whom we fear—God or men.
The fourth principle: we must be ready.
Peter says we are always to be ready to give an account. Readiness involves a couple of elements. First, it involves expectation or eagerness (see Matthew 24:44; Luke 12:40). In referring to this kind of anticipation, we say we are “ready and waiting.” This anticipation keeps us alert to the opportunities so they do not pass us by unexpectedly. Second, it involves preparation (see Exodus 19:15), ability, and resolve (1 Peter 4:5).
Our fifth principle: we must be ready to respond to those who ask.
There are times when we should seek to stimulate interest and gently introduce the subject of spiritual things, but Peter’s emphasis here (like Paul’s in Colossians 4:6) is that the gospel should be given when men ask us for an explanation. Peter assumes persecution will precipitate opportunities for witness. Peter’s words encompass a broad range of possibilities. We may be arrested and required to make a defense before political or civil authorities (see Luke 21:12-13) as Peter (Acts 4; 5:12-42) and Paul did (see Acts 9:15; see chapters 21-28).
The message is clear: we are to be ready to give an answer concerning the Christian’s hope. Times of suffering and persecution highlight the hope every Christian possesses. It is the hope of an eternal inheritance, preserved for us in heaven as we are kept for it on earth (1 Peter 1:3-9). It is a hope fixed completely on the grace yet to be revealed at the return of our Lord (1:13). It is a hope we have by faith, and this faith is proven through adversity (1:7). As the unbeliever observes the steadfast faith and hope of the Christian, he may be prompted to inquire, for without Christ, there is no true hope (see Ephesians 2:12; 1 Thessalonians 4:13; 2 Peter 3).
We should always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks. Peter’s words strongly imply we are to have more than the cultists. When they come to our door, they simply have a script. When forced to depart from their “script,” they don’t know what to say. We have more than a script; we have the Scriptures. We have experienced the grace of God through the gospel, and from the Word of God, we should have a thorough grasp of what the gospel is all about.
A recent television special celebrated 25 years of the Carol Burnett Show. One scene from that show illustrates how we are to understand the gospel and be able to translate it into terms which would relate to anyone who might ask about our hope. A replay from a past show captured a woman in the audience who told Carol she did not have a question, but she would like to sing. Carol invited her up on stage, and the woman confidently turned to the orchestra director and named the song she wanted, in the key of G. The orchestra performed magnificently, as did the woman, who was later joined by Carol herself.
The orchestra had never rehearsed the song, much less in the key of G. They could not possibly rehearse for every situation that might arise. But the men were expert musicians who could think musically. They were able to put the song together based upon their years of experience and skill as musicians. That is the way we should be concerning the gospel. We should not have a canned presentation of the gospel which we apply uniformly to every inquirer. This kind of evangelism is never seen in the New Testament. Rather, we are to know the gospel so well that we can relate it to anyone, in any situation, at any time. Is this a challenge? Of course it is. But what subject is more important?
The request may be a private one, prompted by our own testimony, or it may be occasioned by another believer. I have always thought this verse (15) referred primarily to “personal evangelism”—people asking us about our faith based upon our godly conduct and lifestyle. Certainly this is one aspect of our witness, but there is much more. The New Jerusalem Bible suggests yet another:
15 Simply reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts, and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have (emphasis mine).
The “you” was not rendered “you all” by the translators because they are from the deep South but because the “you” is plural. Peter is indicating that a person may ask us for an explanation of our hope because of the godly conduct of another believer. Some believers are much more visible, much more prominent than others. A man like Billy Graham is one of the most well-known evangelicals alive today. People may ask us about him, which results in an opportunity to share the faith we have in common with him. This assumes a fundamental unity and harmony between us and others who are in the household of the faith. It also suggests that a very prominent Christian who falls into sin has a negative impact on many Christians and their witness.
The message of the gospel is always the same although our method of presenting it will vary from person to person. Our motivation and manner of presentation is prescribed by Peter: We are to give an answer with “gentleness” and with “reverence.” As I understand Peter’s words, gentleness applies to the way we respond to the person to whom we are explaining our hope. Reverence appears to refer to our attitude toward God as we present the gospel. We are to be gentle, proclaiming the gospel with grace, not harshly or without concern. But we are also to present the gospel in truth. Thus we remember the One of Whom we are speaking is the One who sees and hears us as we witness to our hope, and He is the One before Whom we must one day stand and give account.
The sixth principle is to maintain a good conscience.
16 And keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (1 Peter 3:16).
The conscience is one’s inner sense of what is right and wrong, especially in matters not directly addressed by Scripture (see Romans 2:15; 2 Corinthians 1:12).128 The conscience is closely related to one’s personal convictions (see 1 Corinthians 8:7, 12; Romans 14). The conscience can be deadened by sin (1 Timothy 4:2) and unnecessarily scrupulous (see Romans 14:2). The Christian should always strive to maintain a clear conscience (1 Timothy 1:5, 19; 3:9).
Elsewhere, the conscience is viewed as the basis for ministry (1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 1:3). It is also something we dare not violate lest we sin (1 Corinthians 8; Romans 14). It is wrong for us to act in a way that encourages a brother in Christ to violate his conscience (1 Corinthians 8:7-13). But here in our text, Peter refers to a clear conscience in the context of our witness to unbelievers.
Peter puts his finger on a very important outworking of a clear conscience. He says we are to have a clear conscience so that when we are slandered, those who have spoken evil of us for well-doing will be put to shame. Godly conduct puts sinners to shame. But when godly conduct shames sinners, it often results in persecution. The Christian is tempted to draw back, to modify his conduct to reduce or minimize the persecution he faces. Peter urges us not to violate our conscience by compromising our convictions.
Peter well understood what he was saying. How painful the memory of his own denial of the Lord must have been, as he once sought to avoid arrest and punishment by denying he even knew the Lord. Peter was a new man. His conscience had been cleansed. He would (with a few exceptions—see Galatians 2:11-21) no longer compromise to avoid persecution. And he now urges us to do likewise.
Daniel was also a man faithful to his conscience. When he was far from his homeland living as a captive in Babylon, Daniel nevertheless made every effort to live with a clear conscience. When he was given food to eat which would have violated his conscience, Daniel wisely petitioned the one in authority so that he would not defile himself (see Daniel 1). His conduct was such that his jealous peers knew they could only accuse him in some matter related to his personal practice of spiritual piety (see Daniel 6:1-5).
I believe a clear conscience gives one a boldness to witness we do not have when we compromise. This is evident in Daniel’s life and in the life and ministry of Paul. When Paul was falsely accused by his Jewish adversaries, he was able to say,
1 “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day” (Acts 23:1).
It is little wonder that Paul’s accusers were greatly upset by such words. Their “religion” did not make such a statement possible. Paul would have us keep our conscience clear, so that our lives will contrast with the sinful ways of the world and our lips will be able to proclaim the good news of the gospel without fear that we are hypocritical in so doing.
Why Suffering For Righteousness is Right
17 For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong. 18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. 21 And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.
1 Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. 3 For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousals, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. 4 And in all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excess of dissipation, and they malign you; 5 but they shall give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.
The verses we are about to consider are some of the most difficult in the New Testament and certainly the hardest to handle in this epistle.129 Before attempting to interpret these verses, allow me to set down some guidelines I follow when dealing with difficult texts in the Bible. These principles apply not only to our text but to all troublesome texts (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:29).
Handling the Tough Texts
(1) Recognize that we are in good company when we find some texts or truths hard to handle. The prophets had difficulty understanding the things revealed to them (see 1 Peter 1:10-12). During our Lord’s earthly ministry, the disciples failed to grasp the meaning of our Lord’s words (Mark 9:32; Luke 18:34). Peter finds Paul’s writings difficult to grasp at times (2 Peter 4:14-16). Why should we expect to understand all things pertaining to an infinite God, especially in this life (see 1 Corinthians 13:9-13; 1 John 3:2).
(2) Do not feel compelled to have a satisfactory explanation for every text in the Bible or a solution to every biblical problem. Tough texts humble us, reminding us that God is infinite and beyond our ability to understand or put in a box (see 1 Corinthians 13:9-12). It is good for us to be mystified by Scripture so that we realize we do not have it all under control.
(3) Problem passages should not be the basis for new and novel doctrines or interpretations. Never accept a doctrine based solely on a problem text. Any truth vital to our understanding will be taught clearly, emphatically, and repeatedly. The cults often use difficult texts to establish bizarre doctrines which have no support elsewhere in Scripture.
(4) Be suspect of interpretations of difficult texts which do not have broad acceptance throughout the history of the church (2 Peter 1:20-21).
(5) We should not be overly dogmatic about the conclusions we reach concerning a problem passage. We should hold these interpretations and applications more tentatively and not make them a test of spirituality or orthodoxy.
(6) Avoid becoming obsessed with the gnats of the text and thus miss the camels. The mysterious elements of Scripture can sometimes become an obsession to the neglect of the main teaching of the text. Often the main thrust or message of a problem text is clear, even if some of the particulars are uncertain. We should not lose sight of the message, even if we do not understand the minute details of the text. Seek to determine the main flow of argument and to discern the main point. In our text, the message is clear, even if the minutia is not.
(7) In seeking to interpret difficult texts, determine if there are any parallel texts similar in teaching, and interpret the more obscure text in light of those which are clearer.
(8) Determine the issues, the interpretive options, and then choose the interpretation that best fits the context, the argument of the entire book, and biblical theology.
Probing the Problems in our Passage
The major thrust of Peter’s teaching can be traced in verses 17-18 and verse 22. The problems arise in verses 19-21. The following views sum up the more popular interpretations of this problem passage.
(1) Christ preached through Noah to the people of his day. This view was held by Augustine. Christ has always been actively involved in the world, even from ancient times (see Colossians 1:16-17; 1 Corinthians 10:4). He is also vitally involved with the world and His church until He comes again (Matthew 28:20; Acts 9:1-9; 16:7). This view’s main problem is the expression “spirits now130 in prison” which does not seem to be one that most naturally would be used and understood in reference to men. It is true, however, that “spirits” is used in Hebrews 12:23 in reference to those believers who have died.
(2) Between the time of our Lord’s death and His resurrection, He descended into the abode of the dead and preached to those who had formerly lived in Noah’s day but were now dead and in prison, spiritually.131 Matthew 27:52-53 and Ephesians 4:9 are sometimes cited as support. There are several problems with this view. First, why is only this group of unbelieving dead selected and preached to and not all unbelievers? Second, why would the gospel be preached to a group of people who were warned of the coming judgment of God for 120 years and who rejected this warning (see Hebrews 11:7; 2 Peter 2:4-5)? It wasn’t as though these people were not warned. Peter tells us they were disobedient (3:20). Third, at least some of those who hold this view also believe these folks are given a “second chance,” but this seems contrary to other biblical teaching (see, for example, Hebrews 9:27).
(3) Between Christ’s death and resurrection, Christ descended into hell and proclaimed His victory to the demonic spirits, who cohabited with women in Noah’s day (see Genesis 6:1-8; 2 Peter 2:4-5, Jude 6; see also 1 Corinthians 15:28; Ephesians 1:18-23; Philippians 2:8-11; Colossians 2:8-15; 1 Peter 4:22). This view seems to square best with Genesis chapter 6, 2 Peter 2 and Jude 6. It appears most consistent with the terms “spirits in prison.” But what does this have to do with Peter’s theme of suffering?
(4) Enoch (not Christ) preached to those living in Noah’s day. This is the view of J. Cramer and J. Rendel Harris. It has no textual support, but only a textual emendation (a change of the text, without the existence of any such text) based upon certain presuppositions. It can hardly be taken seriously.
(5) “I don’t know what Peter means here.” Luther held this view. We can at least respect his honesty.
The Argument of the Passage
Why Suffering For Doing Good is Better than Suffering for Wrong-doing
As I understand Peter’s teaching in our text, verse 17 lays the foundation for what Peter writes from verse 18 of chapter 3 through verse 6 of chapter 4. Peter writes that it is better, if God wills, for the Christian to suffer for doing what is right than to suffer for doing wrong. The following verses explain why.
The first reason is found in verse 18:
18 For Christ also died132 for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.
Why is it better for us to suffer for well-doing than for evil-doing? What else should the Christian do, knowing that our Lord suffered and died for our sins? He who was righteous died for men who are unrighteous to bring us to God. His suffering and death accomplished a “once for all” salvation. Our Lord put it quite well when He was dying on the cross of Calvary, “It is finished!” He said (John 19:30).
Peter’s argument here is very similar to that Paul employs in Romans 6. There, the question at hand is: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). Paul’s answer is simple: Christians have been united with Christ by Spirit baptism. Our water baptism symbolizes what took place when we were united with Him, by faith. In Christ we died to sin, and we rose again in newness of life. Because this is so, how could we live in a manner inconsistent with our life in Him? How can we practically deny that which we have experienced in Christ?
Peter will also deal with the necessity of our denying sin, but that is introduced in chapter 4, verse 1. Here Peter relates the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ to our suffering. He was righteous, yet He suffered and died for our salvation. If the sinless Savior could suffer and die for sinners, surely those who were once sinners should find it right to identify with Him in suffering for righteousness. Since He died to make us holy in God’s sight and to forgive our sins, how could we think of continuing in sin and suffering because of sin? His suffering for sin means it is no longer necessary, no longer acceptable, for saints to suffer for sin. If He, the just, suffered for sinners, surely we who are sinners saved by His grace should be willing to suffer for righteousness.
The second reason is also introduced in verse 18. The Christian, like Christ, may suffer physically, but he will also, like Christ, triumph spiritually. The unbeliever may seem to prosper physically, but he will be put to shame spiritually. At the end of verse 18, Peter goes on to remind us that Jesus suffered in the flesh but triumphed in the spirit. Our Lord died both physically and spiritually, and His resurrection was a bodily resurrection, not just “spiritual.” I believe Peter contrasts the “physical” and the “spiritual” for a particular reason. Jesus’ suffering was endured “in the days of His flesh,” while He was on the earth (see Hebrews 5:7-9). His triumph was “in spirit.”133 This should be recognized as a pattern with regard to our suffering. We should expect suffering while we are in the “days of [our] flesh,” suffering in this life. We should look for triumph in a spiritual dimension, rather than merely in a physical and fleshly way.
In the flesh, our Lord was rejected and persecuted by sinful men. He was tortured and put to death. But our Lord was also made alive “in spirit.” It is “in spirit” that our Lord triumphed over those who were disobedient, over those who rejected Him. “In spirit,” Jesus “went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison” (verse 19).
Let me explain the literal meaning of verses 19-20 as I understand them. “In spirit,” Jesus went to the abode of the dead between the time of His death and the time of His resurrection. “In spirit,” He presented Himself to the “spirits.” I understand these to include all men, both saved and lost. I further understand these “spirits” to include those who were a part of the super race which was destroyed by the flood (see Genesis 6:1-8). I believe “the sons of God” were angels, for this is the way the expression is used in the Old Testament (see Job 1:6; 2:1). These disobedient angels took on human bodies, which is also consistent with what we see elsewhere of angels in the Old Testament (see Genesis 18-19). They then married the “daughters of men” (6:2). The result seems to be a super race of Nephilim (6:4), who were “mighty men of valor” (see 6:4). This new race indeed threatened the “seed” through which the promised Messiah would come (see Genesis 3:15).
The flood was necessitated because this super race seemed to be growing rapidly. The race was a half-breed race, a blending of human and angelic lines. Noah and his family lived among these mighty men, proclaiming by deed and by words the coming wrath of God. This race rejected that warning and brought judgment on themselves. Further, this race was not only disobedient to God, they were actively in pursuit of fleshly lusts and pleasures. They were, as the New Testament informs us, “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (Matthew 24:38).
This entire race was destroyed with the exception of but eight souls, the family of Noah. While Noah’s generation sought earthly pleasures, Noah and his family devoted themselves to obeying God by the building of the ark. This was hardly an earthly pleasure. The result, however, was that Noah and his family were spared. The civilization of his day was destroyed. Noah and his family suffered in the flesh, but they were blessed spiritually. The disobedient race of Noah’s day indulged in fleshly lusts, but they will suffer spiritually for all eternity.
Peter’s argument therefore seems to go this way: Jesus suffered physically, but He was victorious spiritually. “In spirit,” He went to the “spirits” of those who in an earlier day indulged in the pleasures of the flesh in disobedience to God. He did not preach the gospel to these souls, offering them a second chance of salvation. Rather, He proclaimed victory over them declaring their eternal shame which they bear spiritually for all eternity. Those who chose to indulge physically in the flesh and to disobey God are those who now suffer spiritually for all eternity. The One whom sinful men rejected and caused to suffer and die in the flesh is the One whom God appointed to declare that victory to them. This is the point of several passages, including one in our own text:
18 [I pray that] the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. [These are] in accordance with the working of the strength of His might 20 which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly [places], 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. 22 And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:18-23).
13 And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us [and] which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him (Colossians 2:13-15).
22 Who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him (1 Peter 3:22).
Both men and angels, who sought only the satisfaction of fleshly appetites in the days of Noah, have been put to shame. They lived it up, physically, and now they live in torment, spiritually. In contrast, Noah lived not for the satisfaction of fleshly lusts but denied these in order to obey God. In so doing, he suffered the scorn and persecution of his peers during his years of building the ark, but he was also spared. The waters, which brought about the destruction of the disobedient, brought Noah to safety as he took refuge in the ark. Noah spent his life preparing for eternity. His peers spent their lives in the pursuit of earthly pleasures.
Verse 21 sets forth the third reason. Noah’s deliverance through literal water is likened to our spiritual deliverance in Christ which is symbolized by water baptism. It is absolutely essential that Peter is talking about spirit baptism, not mere water baptism. He is talking about our spiritual union with Christ at salvation, when we were identified with Him in His suffering, death, burial, resurrection and ascension (see also Romans 6:1-11).
Noah and his family were brought safely through the flood waters of divine judgment by being in the ark, the instrument of God’s salvation. We are brought safely through the judgment of God by being in Christ, God’s full and final provision for sin. The physical waters of baptism cannot cleanse the defilement of sin; it is the blood of Christ which cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7). Christ’s suffering in the flesh was the payment for our sin; Christ’s triumph in the spirit is the basis for our victory over sin. How then could we possibly consider a lifestyle of sin in the flesh, resulting in suffering for doing wrong? Our only reasonable path of action is to follow in the steps of our Savior, suffering for doing good.
The rite of water baptism is an act of obedience, an act in which we make a public profession of faith in Christ. Peter refers to it as an “appeal … for a good conscience” (verse 21). Peter means that when we trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, we turn to Him for the forgiveness of our sins; we appeal to Him for a cleansing both of our sins and our defiled conscience which these sins have produced (see Hebrews 10:22). If, at the time of our water baptism, we have expressed our petition for a cleansing of conscience, then we must in our daily walk “keep a good conscience” (verse 16) by suffering for doing good rather than suffering for sin.
The fourth reason is given in verses 1-6 of chapter 4. We must choose either to identify with Christ and suffer in the flesh or choose to identify with the world in the indulgence of the flesh. Peter appeals to us to adopt the same mindset as Christ who fulfilled His commitment to suffer in the flesh for our salvation:
1 Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin (1 Peter 4:1).
Suffering should not come upon us as some kind of unexpected surprise (see 4:12), but rather as the result of a conscious choice and commitment on our part to imitate Christ whose suffering resulted in our salvation.
The last part of verse 1 and verse 2 pose another problem for us. Is Peter saying here that suffering is the means to being freed from sin?
1 Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God (1 Peter 4:1-2).
I believe Peter’s words have a two-fold meaning. First, Peter is speaking to us as those who are “in Christ” by faith to those who are saved. In Christ, we have suffered in the flesh, ceased to sin, and been freed from the lusts of the flesh to serve God (see also Romans 6). Christ has accomplished our redemption from sin once for all. If we are in Him, we should have the same mind as Christ, we should be willing to suffer in the flesh (for doing good), and we should be freed from sin to obey the will of God.
The first meaning is called by some “positional truth”, truth about what we are, in Christ, apart from our contribution, based solely on the work of the Savior. The second meaning is personal and practical in that it speaks of our appropriation and application of all that Christ has accomplished for us. As Christians, we should embrace the mind of Christ and thus be willing to suffer in the flesh. When we, in Christ’s power, suffer for doing what is right, we recognize that our bondage to sin has been broken and that sin no longer is master over us (Romans 6:12-23).
From this perspective, suffering takes on a whole new meaning, a completely different meaning than that of the religious legalists. Jewish legalists believed suffering was an indication of sin; Peter teaches that suffering for doing right is an evidence of true spirituality. This was a dramatic change for Peter, who once held the legalistic view. When the disciples came upon a man born blind, they asked Jesus who had sinned, the blind man or his parents (John 9:1-2). Just like Job’s friends, they believed adversity is always the result of personal sin. But they likewise believed prosperity was proof of piety. This is the reason the Pharisees were so in love with money and power (see Luke 16:14): they thought these were proofs of their spirituality.
Peter turns the tables upside down. He tells us that suffering for Christ’s sake, suffering for well-doing, is an indication of righteousness, of freedom from sin, through the grace of God. This is also the teaching of our Lord, though it surely took His listeners by surprise:
1 And when He saw the multitudes, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. 2 And opening His mouth He [began] to teach them, saying, 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:1-10).
Peter explains in verses 3 and 4 why suffering for well-doing is evidence of God’s grace in our lives.
3 For the time already past is sufficient [for you] to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousals, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. 4 And in [all] this, they are surprised that you do not run with [them] into the same excess of dissipation, and they malign [you] (1 Peter 4:3-4).
Ultimately, suffering is the result of sin. But when the righteous suffer for well-doing, their suffering is the result of the sin of those who persecute them. Before we were identified with Christ at salvation, we used to live in the same way unbelievers still live. Our former lifestyle, like theirs, was characterized by fleshly self-indulgence. We endeavored to fill the cup of human pleasure to overflowing. But when we were turned to faith in Christ, all that changed. And now, our new lifestyle not only puzzles unbelievers, it threatens them. It makes them look bad. It might make them feel guilty. And so we are reviled for doing good.
But this is not the end of the story. The unrighteous may indulge in the flesh now and persecute those who pursue righteousness. But their pleasure is only momentary, just as the suffering of the righteous is temporary. Like those who lived in Noah’s day (3:19-20), the wicked must someday stand before the One who is ready to judge both the living and the dead (verse 5).
This should be a very frightening statement for an unbeliever. God’s judgment is not just for the living but for the dead. The greater judgment comes after, not before, death:
27 And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this [comes] judgment, 28 so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation without [reference to] sin, to those who eagerly await Him (Hebrews 9:27-28).
This is precisely what Peter has just told us about those who lived in Noah’s day. They were disobedient in Noah’s day, but the Lord went to them in spirit and proclaimed His victory (and thus, their doom). Christians, on the other hand, may suffer for righteousness’ sake in this life, but we have all eternity to experience the blessing of a more intimate fellowship and worship in His presence.
For this reason, Peter tells us in verse 6, the gospel has been preached even to those who are dead. Life does not end at death. The spirit lives on for all eternity. The spirits of those who are disobedient and ungodly spend eternity in torment, while the spirits of the righteous experience eternal bliss:
22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than [the blood] of Abel (Hebrews 12:22-24).
The gospel is preached so some may be delivered from the coming wrath of God and so those who are not will be without excuse. The saved may suffer the general sentence of death pronounced upon all men due to the sin of Adam (see verse 6; Romans 5:12-21) but they will live eternally in the spirit in the blessed presence of our Lord.
Studying this passage in Peter’s first epistle once again reminds me of the importance of “connectivity.” Connectivity refers to the importance of making the connection between the truths of God’s Word and the daily application of them in our lives. Too many Christians have an academic grasp of biblical truth but fail to see its relevance and application to their daily decisions and actions. Peter, like Paul and all the other apostles, calls upon us to practice what we profess to have experienced in Christ.
One of the vital connections Peter wants us to make is the linking of our present attitudes and actions with our future hope. We ought to live in the present in the light of eternity. Closely related is the relationship between the flesh and the spirit. The “flesh” refers to those physical things we wish to enjoy in the present. The “spirit” refers to spiritual matters which are not seen but which continue for all eternity. While the world sets aside things of the spirit which God provides for the present enjoyment of the things of the flesh, the Christian is willing to suffer in the flesh, knowing that untold spiritual blessings are ours now and throughout eternity. The contrast between our thinking and actions pertaining to flesh and spirit and those of the world is a prominent theme in our text.
Our text has much to say to us about suffering. Christians should view suffering in the light of the suffering of our Savior. He is the One who suffered and died to lead us to God. He, the righteous and sinless One, suffered and died for us, the unrighteous. And because He suffered and died for us, we should adopt the same attitude toward suffering He demonstrated.
We should see that suffering is one of the ways in which we enter into a deeper fellowship with our Lord. Baptism is not just being dipped into water and lifted out (or being sprinkled). Baptism is about identification with Christ. The term rendered “baptize” is one used in ancient times for the dying of a garment. The garment was immersed in dye, and when this was done, the garment took on the qualities of the dye; the garment identified with the dye. So also Paul tells us that the “baptism” of ancient Israel was their identification with Moses as they went down into the sea and came forth:
1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).
Suffering, according to Jesus, is a kind of baptism experience, a time when we are identified with our Lord in His suffering and death for our salvation:
36 And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” 37 And they said to Him, “Grant that we may sit in Your glory, one on Your right, and one on [Your] left.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to Him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” (Mark 10:36-39).
If I understand Peter correctly, he says suffering for Christ is a kind of baptism, a way in which we come to identify with Him in a greater way. This puts suffering in an entirely different light. It makes suffering a blessing rather than a perceived punishment, for it draws us ever more close to the One who suffered and died for us.
8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from [the] Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which [comes] from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:8-11).
With this, Peter wholeheartedly agrees:
14 But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, [you are] blessed. AND DO NOT FEAR THEIR INTIMIDATION, AND DO NOT BE TROUBLED (1 Peter 3:14).
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation (1 Peter 4:12-13).
Suffering not only draws us more closely to Christ, it affords opportunities to bear witness to the lost about our faith in Christ. Our endurance at doing good in the face of persecution demonstrates that we have a hope lost men do not possess. Maintaining a clear conscience when suffering for Christ may provide occasions where we are asked to explain the hope which is ours in Christ. Often, times of suffering are when the church experiences growth, and the blood of the martyrs is seen to be the seed of the church.
This text not only assures us that suffering for Christ’s sake will lead to opportunities for witness, it teaches us some very important principles concerning evangelism. Allow me to share a few.
(1) Witnessing is not an attack waged against an unwilling victim, but an explanation given in response to a request about our hope. This is not to say we only share our faith when asked, but one finds little support for the forceful style of evangelism more characteristic of those selling aluminum siding or carpet cleaning than of our Lord or His apostles. This is especially important in relation to the principle of submission. Submission is putting the interests and needs of others above our own. Submission in evangelism does not seek to force the gospel on unwilling victims, but to stimulate interest and then respond to it (see also Colossians 4:6).
(2) Evangelism is not trying to identify with unbelievers to show them how much like them we are; it is about living a distinctly different life than they, and then explaining why. Too much of today’s evangelistic effort tries to look and act like the world, trying to make people comfortable with us and our faith. It is the difference between the believer and the unbeliever which is so important, and it must not be compromised by defiling our conscience when opposition to our well-doing arises.
(3) If you want an opportunity to witness to your unsaved friends and neighbors, do what Noah did—build an ark. Obviously we need not build a literal “ark” like the one Noah built over 120 years. The ark was but the physical evidence of Noah’s faith and obedience. The ark symbolized his willingness to spend this life in preparation for the next. It served to condemn the sins of the people of his day and to warn them of future judgment. If we did as Peter has instructed—fix our hope completely on the grace to be brought at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1:13)—our neighbors would begin to see the ark in our lives, and we would have many opportunities of explaining our hope. As I read the commands of our Lord in the Gospels, I begin to see that our obedience to them would make us “Noahs” in our own time. The key to evangelism is not some gimmick or slick presentation of a packaged gospel; it is a life that witnesses to our waiting and working for the things not of this world but of the next.
I dare not leave this text before asking you a very direct question: “Are you in the ark, or are you outside the ark? Are you living only for the pleasures of this age and disregarding God and the judgment which awaits you?” The people of Noah’s day were warned of coming judgment by Noah and the building of the ark, but they disobeyed God and disregarded this warning. Both Noah and the people of that age went through the flood. The difference was that Noah and his family were delivered through the flood, inside the ark, while the rest were destroyed by the flood, outside the ark.
By God’s design, there is a coming day of judgment when sinners will stand before a Holy God and acknowledge their sin and guilt. And they will bow their knee to Jesus Christ. They will also spend eternity suffering the consequences of their sin in this life. God has provided a solution for man’s sin and a way to escape divine judgment. The only way of escape is Jesus Christ. He took on human flesh, adding sinless humanity to His perfect deity. He suffered and died for sinners, and He was raised from the dead so that men might be justified before God. The wrath of God on sin was outpoured on Him. Those who are in Christ need not suffer God’s wrath, because they have been punished in Christ. Those who lack righteousness need not fear the wrath of God because they are declared righteous, in Christ.
And so I ask you very simply, “Are you in Christ, or are you outside Christ? Are you trusting in your righteousness, or in His righteousness?” The difference between those who are saved and those who will suffer eternal torment is the difference between being “in Christ,” by faith, and being apart from Christ. I urge you to acknowledge your sin, your need of salvation, and to trust in the One whom God has sent to deliver you from His wrath—the Lord Jesus Christ.
123 A. T. Robertson points out that this expression “for sin” is the regular phrase for the sin offering in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1933), VI, pp. 115-116.
125 It is amazing that some dispensationalists want to sweep aside this teaching as irrelevant to this present age and applicable primarily to the coming of Christ’s kingdom. The standards our Lord sets down in this sermon are those established by the Old Testament Law which apply to life here and now, even though many of the blessings are to be fully realized in the future.
126 Peter uses a different term for blessing here in verse 14 than he employed in verse 9. In verse 14, the term is essentially the same as our Lord used in the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-22. In verse 14, Peter underscores his teaching by joining the teaching of Isaiah 8 with that of our Lord in Matthew 5 and Luke 6.
127 Note the repetition of this principle of righteous suffering. Peter lays down themes like this which he then takes up later in his epistle, pursuing the principle even further. Peter’s approach to teaching seems to be more circular (as in 1 Peter), while Paul’s is more linear (as in Romans).
128 Kelly defines conscience as “. . . a man’s inner awareness of the moral quality of his actions.” J. N. D. Kelly, The Epistles of Peter and of Jude (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers), 1969. Harpers New Testament Commentaries Series, p. 144.
129 “This is not only one of the most difficult passages in Peter’s letter, it is one of the most difficult in the whole New Testament; and it is also the basis of one of the most difficult articles in the creed, ‘He descended into Hell.’“ William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, [rev. ed], 1976.) The Daily Study Bible Series, p. 232. “The following verses have caused more controversy than anything in the Epistle.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1933), VI, p. 116.
131 “Bigg argues strongly that Christ during the time between his death and resurrection preached to those who once heard Noah (but are now in prison) and offered them another chance and not mere condemnation.” Word Pictures in the New Testament, A. T. Robertson, VI, p. 117.
132 In the King James Version, the text reads “suffered,” not “died” as in the NASB. This difference is due to a different term found in some of the Greek manuscripts. I believe “suffered” is the correct reading and that the concept of our Lord’s death is then taken up later in the verse. Peter wants us to remember that our Lord suffered and died for us.
133 In verse 18, the Greek New Testament reads literally, “in spirit” without the definite article (the). The translators of the NASB have opted to supply the definite article the. It is ironic that much time and effort is spent trying to determine whether “in spirit” means by the (Holy) Spirit or in His spirit. I doubt Peter is as concerned with such distinctions. The fact is He was raised from the dead by the Holy Spirit (see Romans 1:4; 8:11). He was quickened “spiritually” as well as raised bodily (see 1 Corinthians 15). But Peter is here contrasting the physical, fleshly world with the spiritual realm. Let us look for and count our blessings in this realm, the realm of the spiritual (see Ephesians 1:3).