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Lesson 18: A Difficult Passage Explained and Applied (1 Peter 3:18-22)

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When I was in seminary, one of the things they taught us in homiletics (how to preach) was, if an illustration is so complicated that you have to explain it, you’d better pick another one. The point of an illustration is to make something clear, not to make it more confusing.

While I believe that the Holy Spirit inspired Peter to write this epistle, humanly speaking I wish he had followed that principle. Our text is Peter’s illustration to explain the point made in the verses just above, namely, that we are called to bear witness in a hostile world, but we can trust God to vindicate us. Peter uses Christ as the main example, showing that His unjust suffering resulted in witness and that He was vindicated through His resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God. Noah was another example of a man who bore witness to a hostile world and was vindicated by God who delivered him and his family through the flood. Thus Peter’s readers should be willing to bear witness through baptism, even if it meant persecution, knowing that God will vindicate them.

While Peter’s overall point is clear, the details are incredibly complex. Most commentators acknowledge that these are some of the most difficult verses in the New Testament to interpret. Even Martin Luther says that this is perhaps the most obscure passage in the New Testament and admits that he does not know for certain just what Peter means (Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and Jude [Kregel], p. 168). Simon Kistemaker points out that the meaning of each word in verse 19 varies and he cites D. Edmond Hiebert who says, “Each of the nine words in the original has been differently understood” (New Testament Commentary: Peter and Jude [Baker], p. 141). So while the overall point is clear, we cannot be certain on the details. The main point is:

Since Christ bore witness through His suffering and was vindicated, we, too, can bear witness through suffering and trust God to vindicate us.

1. Christ bore witness through His unjust suffering and was vindicated through His resurrection and ascension.

There are three sub-points: A. Christ suffered unjustly on our behalf (3:18); B. Christ bore witness through His unjust suffering (3:19); C. Christ was vindicated through His resurrection and ascension (3:18b, 21b-22).

A. Christ suffered unjustly on our behalf.

The word “for” (3:18) shows that Peter is explaining what preceded, namely, that we may suffer for doing what is right as a means of bearing witness. As in 2:21-25, Peter points us to Christ as our chief example (“also,” 3:18), but then he takes us beyond Christ’s example to the uniqueness of His substitutionary death. So the overall effect is to urge us to imitate Christ, but also to show us that there is a point at which the imitation stops and we must bow before Christ who alone is exalted over all.

Some of you may have versions that read, “Christ suffered for sins” (rather than “died”). The textual evidence is evenly divided. Since “suffered” is a favorite word of Peter’s and since he doesn’t use the verb “to die” anywhere else (compare, “put to death,” 3:18), I lean toward “suffered” as the original. It fits Peter’s theme of linking his suffering readers with the Savior who suffered on their behalf (3:14, 17; 4:1).

Christ’s suffering involved “the just for the unjust” (or, “righteous for the unrighteous”). Right away we see that Christ is our example in suffering, but He is more than our example. Only Christ is just or righteous. None of us, when we suffer, can truly say, “I don’t deserve this!” We do say that because we erroneously compare ourselves with other sinners and think, “I’m a good person! I don’t do drugs or cheat on my mate or murder. I’m basically honest and law-abiding. Why should I suffer when scoundrels get away with murder and enjoy a good life?”

But our problem is, we’re comparing ourselves with the wrong standard! If we would compare ourselves with the absolute righteousness of God, we would see that the only thing we deserve is hell! Each of us has broken God’s Ten Commandments over and over and over, even as believers in Christ. We put other gods before the living and true God. We make idols for ourselves. We take His name in vain. We don’t keep His day as holy. We dishonor our parents. We murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, and covet. If we think we don’t, read the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus shows the self-righteous what the true standard of the law means. Truly, we are unrighteous; only Jesus Christ is righteous.

God, in His perfect justice, cannot just shrug off our sin. But He took our sin and put it on Jesus Christ, the righteous, to bear the penalty we deserve. The purpose was that Christ might “bring us to God.” The word was used by the Greek writer Xenophon for an admission to an audience with the Great King. You just didn’t stroll into the presence of a great king and say, “How’s it going?” You had to have someone to introduce you properly. Because the righteous Christ bore our sins, He can bring us into an audience with the Great King.

One other point: Christ’s death for sins was “once for all.” His death was sufficient to pay for all the sins we have committed and will commit. The author of Hebrews makes this point repeatedly and with great emphasis, contrasting the repeated sacrifices of animals under the old covenant with the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ under the new (Heb. 10:1-18, esp. vv. 10, 11, 12, 14, 18).

The point is, if you’ve put your trust in Christ, then your sins are on Him and you have been reconciled to God once-for-all. God wants every believer to come to the place of full assurance where you understand that the basis of your acceptance with God is not your performance; it is His grace, that Christ died for your sins once for all and you have trusted in Him, not in your own good works. The hymn writer (Horatio Spafford, “It Is Well”) put it,

My sin, O, the bliss of this glorious thought,
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

That’s the good stuff! Now, for something a bit more complex:

B. Christ bore witness through His unjust suffering.

We need to answer three questions: (1) To whom did Christ bear this witness? (2) What did Christ proclaim? (3) When did Christ bear this witness?

There are three main groups of interpretations (I’m relying on Edwin A. Blum, 1 Peter [12:241], in Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], Frank Gabelein, general editor). In the first group, Christ went down to Hades (the realm of the dead) during the interval between His death and resurrection and preached to Noah’s contemporaries. Clement of Alexandria (ca. A.D. 200) taught this view (Kistemaker, p. 144). This group is subdivided into those who say that Christ gave a second offer of salvation to those who perished in the flood; those who say that He announced judgment to them; and, those who say that He announced salvation to those already saved.

Calvin (Institutes, II:XVI:9) seems to take it that Christ went to the nether world and preached the fulness of grace to the righteous dead and condemnation to the wicked dead. He also affirms the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, that Christ “descended into hell,” to mean that He bore the full wrath of God on our behalf (II:, II:XVI:9) seems to take it that Christ went to the nether world and preached the fulness of grace to the righteous dead and condemnation to the wicked dead. He also affirms the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, that Christ “descended into hell,” to mean that He bore the full wrath of God on our behalf (II:XVI:10-12).

A second group of interpreters take it that the pre-incarnate Christ preached through Noah to Noah’s disobedient contemporaries. Augustine (ca. A.D. 400) taught this view (Kistemaker, ibid.).

A third group of interpreters think that Christ proclaimed His victory on the cross to fallen angels. This group is subdivided into those who say that this took place between His death and resurrection (through a descent into hell) and those who say that He made this proclamation in His ascension.

With that as an overview, let’s try to answer the three questions: (1) To whom did Christ bear this witness? In other words, who are “the spirits who once were disobedient in the days of Noah”? To me, it is decisive that the word “spirits” in the New Testament “always refers to non-human spiritual beings unless qualified” (Peter Davids, The First Epistle of Peter [Eerdmans, NICNT], p. 139). Since these spirits are “in prison,” I take it to refer to demons who influenced the terrible wickedness on earth in Noah’s day and were put into hell to await the final judgment (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). Thus I do not understand Peter to be referring to Christ’s preaching through Noah to his contemporaries.

Some say that these demons cohabited with women before the flood, leading to the increase of sin on earth in that day (Gen. 6:1-4), but I think that view creates many more problems than it solves. These demons influenced people then just as they do now, only to a greater extent then. When God judged the world through the flood, He also judged these demonic forces. It was to these confined demons that Christ bore witness of His triumph over Satan through the cross.

(2) What did Christ proclaim? The verb means, “to proclaim” or “announce.” Peter uses another verb for “proclaim the gospel” (1:12, 25; 4:6; noun in 4:17). The idea that Christ would give an offer of salvation to souls who have already died or to fallen angels is foreign to the Bible (Heb. 2:16; 1 Pet. 1:12). Hebrews 9:27 states that “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” There is no second chance for salvation after death (Luke 16:26). So I understand that Christ proclaimed His victory over sin, death, and Satan (Col. 2:15) to the fallen angels who had been confined to hell since the time of the flood.

(3) When did Christ bear this witness? The answer to this question largely depends on how you interpret the phrase, “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (3:18). If you take the two phrases, “in the flesh” and “in the spirit” to be exactly parallel, then the meaning is that in His human sphere Christ was killed, but in His resurrected sphere He went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison. Connecting the verb “went” in 3:19 with the same verb in 3:22, it is concluded that in His ascension the risen Christ made this proclamation.

But if you take the phrase “in the spirit” to mean “by the [Holy] Spirit” (there are no capital letters in the original text), then Peter would be referring to the Holy Spirit as the agent of Christ’s resurrection (see Rom. 1:4; 8:11). The passive voice may lend weight to this view (see discussion in Kistemaker, p. 140). Ephesians 4:8-9, which talks of Christ descending into the lower parts of the earth and then leading captivity captive in His ascension, seems to allow that Christ descended into hell before His ascension (“lower parts of the earth” can also mean “the grave”). Since the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed about Christ’s descent into hell has been there since the early centuries of the church (see Evangelical Dictionary of Theology [Baker], p. 314), I lean toward the view that between His death and resurrection, Christ went into Hades and made proclamation of His victory, which was further displayed in His ascension.

All of that is to explain what it means that Christ bore witness through His unjust suffering! Peter’s third point about Christ is:

C. Christ was vindicated through His resurrection and ascension.

He was raised from the dead (3:18b, 21b) and now is at the right hand of God, with all the spiritual powers made subject to Him. Though “we do not yet see all things subjected to Him” (Heb. 2:8), we know that the victory was won and it’s just a matter of time for the outcome to be revealed. As the angels told the disciples as they gazed upward as the risen Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

If someone scoffs, “If this is true, then why hasn’t He come back sooner?” the answer is, “Because just as in the days of Noah, God is patient, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance” (1 Pet. 3:20; 2 Pet. 3:3-10). Just as in Noah’s day the flood was delayed for many years, and yet certain, so the second coming of Jesus Christ to judge the earth has been delayed, but is drawing ever closer. The patience of God keeps waiting, but He will not wait forever. Today is the day of salvation!

The application of Peter’s pointing to Christ, who bore witness through suffering and was vindicated by God, is:

2. We can bear witness through suffering and trust God to vindicate us.

Peter implies that we bear witness through suffering in two ways: through baptism and holy living (as seen in the example of Noah).

A. We bear witness through baptism.

The reason that many of Peter’s readers were suffering was that they had borne witness to their faith in Christ through baptism. Perhaps some had confessed Christ verbally, but were hesitant to confess Him through baptism because they had seen what had happened to others. So Peter here is urging these persecuted Christians to make public confession of their faith through baptism.

Peter is using the flood and deliverance of Noah and his family as a loose analogy or type of what is portrayed in Christian salvation and baptism. Just as Noah passed through the flood waters into salvation from God’s judgment, so believers pass through baptism into salvation from God’s judgment. But, before you leap to wrong conclusions, Peter clarifies—it is not the act of baptism which saves (“the removal of dirt from the flesh”), but what baptism signifies—the appeal to God for a good conscience.

“Appeal” can point either to the moment of salvation, when a person cries out to God for cleansing from sin; or, to the pledge given at the baptismal ceremony, when a person promises to live in a manner pleasing to God. Either way, baptism testifies to our faith in Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on our behalf (3:18). Since Christ’s suffering did not minimize His witness, but rather enhanced it, Peter is urging his readers to be baptized, even if it means persecution, in order to bear witness of Christ’s saving grace.

B. We bear witness through holy living in this wicked world.

This is implied by the reference to Noah. It took him years (perhaps 120 years) to build the ark in obedience to God. His neighbors watched and no doubt ridiculed the old man who spent so much time building this ocean liner in the middle of dry ground. By his godly life and words, Noah preached righteousness to that generation (2 Pet. 2:5). But rather than having people stand in line to get a berth, only eight persons got on board (Noah, his wife, and his three sons and their wives; note that Peter believed in a literal flood account in Genesis). The rest of the world perished.

Peter’s point is clear: His readers were a small minority seeking to obey God, but surrounded by a godless culture. They were being chided for not joining in the dissipation around them (4:4). Peter uses the example of Noah to say, “The majority is seldom right on spiritual matters! Stand alone for God, if you must. Don’t cave in to the pressure to conform to this godless world. Like Noah, you will bear witness. Also like Noah, you will be delivered and this wicked world will perish.”

C. If we bear witness through baptism and holy living, God will vindicate us.

He vindicated Noah, although he was vastly outnumbered. He vindicated Christ, although it looked to His enemies as if He was defeated on the cross. Even if we give our lives in martyrdom, the day is coming when we will be vindicated (Rev. 6:9-11). Christ’s resurrection and ascension assure us that He is King of kings and Lord of lords! We need not fear what this wicked world can do to us.


We’ve covered a lot of difficult material. But I don’t want you to miss the clear application of this text for your life. Three questions we each need to answer:

(1) Have I truly trusted in Christ as my sin bearer? To do that I need to view myself as unrighteous, unable to present myself to God by my own good works. The pervasive pride of the human heart always wants to earn salvation based upon personal merit or worth. But God’s way is always to humble our pride and strip us of everything in ourselves that would commend us to Him. Many who have attended church for years do not understand this basic point. They are trusting in their own goodness or they are hoping that God’s standard is not absolute holiness. That’s a false hope. As Toplady put it (“Rock of Ages”), “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” Make sure that you have let go of all human goodness and trust in the righteous Christ who died for the unrighteous.

(2) Have I testified to my faith in Christ through baptism? Baptism cannot save anyone, but it is an important step of obedience to Christ in which we publicly identify ourselves with Him in His death and resurrection. It was important enough that Jesus mentioned it as a part of His Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). We dare not neglect it.

(3) Am I standing alone for Christ in my sphere of influence? By standing alone, I mean, standing for Christ even if I’m the only one, or standing with others who are following Him. The Bible is clear that we can expect opposition and hostility if we take a stand for Christ. Frankly, it is most difficult when that opposition comes from those who profess to know Christ instead of from raw pagans. But if our Savior had to face hostility at the hands of sinners before He entered into glory, why shouldn’t we? But God’s truth is never established by majority vote. Even if, like Noah, no one else listens to our witness, we know that God listens and His cause will ultimately prevail. Make a commitment to be like Noah—to stand alone for God—and He will vindicate you.

Discussion Questions

  1. How prevalent is the idea of salvation based on human merit? Why is this so?
  2. How can a person know that his sins are forgiven?
  3. What Scriptures would you use to answer a person who said that we must be baptized to be saved?
  4. How would you counsel a Christian who wanted to stand alone, but felt weak and defeated?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1992, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christology, Evangelism, Faith, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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