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Victory in Spite of Suffering and Death-part 1
1 Peter 3:18-22
You love it just as much as I do–the old west gunfight, the good sheriff versus evil villain, the bad guy shoots and the sheriff falls and everything looks real bad. But just when it couldn’t get any worse, the sheriff, who everyone thought was dead, returns to defeat the villain and save the day. Or the disease ravages the community and everyone is dying–then the doctor who alone knows the antidote also gets the disease. Everything appears really dark, but at the last moment, just before he dies the doctor prepares the antidote, saving himself and everyone else.
We don’t like it when the good guys are beaten and die—why? Because we want the good to win, and not lose. When you die or suffer or are beaten, it means you’ve lost. When most of your troops are killed and your equipment has been destroyed, you’ve lost the war. When you get sick and die, you’ve lost to the disease. But that is not the case with Jesus Christ—He suffers torture and dies, but Jesus Christ wins.
Open your Bibles to 1 Peter 3:18 to 22, for it is here we see that Christ was beaten, suffered, was under the thumb of the Jewish leaders and Roman authorities, then killed on a cross. And though it looks like Christ lost, He actually won. And because you are in Christ, no matter what hurt happens to you, even if you die for your faith, you have won too. Take a look at the greatest comeback in history in verses 18 to 22–this is where you find the biggest surprise ending.
Read with me these amazing verses, starting in verse 18, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so 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 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.”
Jesus Christ wins even though He suffered and died. This passage will take us two Sundays to work through–why? Before us today is one of the most troublesome sections in Peter’s entire first letter–in fact it is one of the thorniest passages in the entire New Testament. So never forget this–the most important action to take when a passage is fuzzy is to look hard at the context. When you do, often the passage comes into focus. When you take small phrases, whole verses, or entire paragraphs out of context, it leads to all kinds of bad interpretations. So before we dig in let’s get an overview and make some basic observations.
First The overall context describes unjust suffering
Even though verses 18 to 22 appear at the end of chapter 3, they are actually in the middle of a large section of Scripture beginning in 3:13 and ending at 4:6. Peter began the letter telling his readers to stand firm in God’s grace in the midst of pressure and persecution. The first key to stand firm is to live by your salvation in chapters 1 and 2. Next, live by submission to those in authority in chapters 2 and 3 so you’re not making unnecessary waves as you live for Christ as your ultimate authority. So now in 3:13 to 4:6, the third key to stand firm is to live honorably while in the midst of unjust suffering.
Peter’s readers would ask, but if we live good and actually bless others while suffering and dying to ourselves, what good does that do, especially when it looks like we lose? We would ask it this way, “Why shouldn’t we protest, sit in, shout our disagreement, make political waves, and fight for our rights?” Peter’s answer is to look to Jesus Christ.
Second The immediate context describes Christ’s victory through His unjust suffering and death
Do not miss an obvious truth–Jesus Christ is the focal point of verses 18 to 22. In verse 18 you see His crucifixion, in verse 19 you see His proclamation, in verse 21 His resurrection, and in verse 22 His exaltation. If you forget that, you will miss the main point and misinterpret the difficult statements found in this passage. The entire paragraph is about the work of Christ and how He won, when it looked like He lost.
Verses 18 to 22 describe the victory of God the Son even though He suffered and died unjustly. Jesus went to the cross, but accomplished God’s purpose. Jesus proclaimed to His enemies that He won and they failed. Jesus looked like He ultimately failed because He died, but proved everyone wrong by rising from the dead. And Jesus looked like He went away, only to rise to the place of ultimate authority, at the right hand of God. That’s this passage!
This passage is all about Christ experiencing unjust suffering, and how it looked like He lost but He actually won the ultimate universe-wide good vs. evil Super Bowl. This is here to encourage you and me. When we suffer unjustly, when life looks darkest for you, when it looks really unfair and hurts more than you can endure and you want to fight back, defend yourself, and protest, remember Christ who suffered unjustly but was victorious.
Verses 18 to 22 tell us to remember what it looked like when Christ suffered–recall how dark and defeated it appeared. He was unjustly tortured all night long, was passed from one abusive group to the next. He went through six unjust trials, was verbally assaulted and physically tortured all night long, and then was unjustly crucified. Not a merciful death, but a slow death purposely planned to make it as painful as possible. Christ writhed on a cross for six hours and did so for you.
So when you’re hurt, Peter says remember Christ–He won, even though it looked like He lost. All those who suffer appear to be losing. All those who die appear to have lost. Jesus did both and won. Peter’s point is for you and I to be encouraged by the example of Christ, by His suffering and by His death and how it ended as a victory.
Now as he’s describing Christ’s victory through suffering and death in verses 18 to 22, Peter chooses to describe Christ’s victory using two problematic, difficult to understand references. They were not confusing to the original audience. Peter didn’t randomly decide–I want to make this difficult for my readers to understand. He didn’t want to turn the focus off of Christ and onto these challenging illustrations. Peter had no desire to confuse all of you here at FBC or mess up the church for 2,000 years.
These are issues because we are not a part of the original audience, and because we were not taught by Peter personally. So we have to use good exegesis to draw out the truth as best we can, but not lose sight of the main focus, which is Christ’s victory over unjust suffering, in order to interpret these two issues correctly. The two references Peter uses to describe Christ’s victory over unjust suffering in this passage that mess everyone up are . . .
#1 Christ’s proclamation to the spirits in prison found in verse 19
#2 Baptism now saves you found in verse 21
But never forget, these two references are a digression to the main theme. These two descriptions are illustrations used to make a point about victory through death and suffering. These two problematic issues are actually here to help make a point that even though it looked like Christ had lost because He suffered and died, He actually won, was victorious and accomplished God’s will in a mighty way.
That’s why Peter begins these verses with an amazing statement. He declares to us that Christ’s suffering and death accomplished the impossible. What was that? How could dirty, unrighteous, rebellious, proud humankind get right with God? How could a race of people who were dead in their sins, come alive to God? How could those who are unable and unwilling to be made right with God be forgiven? Well, the wages of sin is death.
Some man would have to pay the wages of death for man, but that man could have no sin of his own–he had to be perfect. Only a perfect man could make a sacrifice that God would accept. But there’s no one perfect but God, so this man also had to be God–100% God could make a sacrifice a holy God could accept, but this God would also have to be 100% man, so He could take the place of man, substitute for man, die in our place, pay the price that we had to pay for our sins.
And that is who Jesus was and what Jesus did–the God Man accomplished what we could never do for ourselves. And Jesus won–Jesus paid the price, Jesus was victorious and accomplished redemption for us, salvation for His people, the only way to be right with God through His suffering and His death. That is how Peter begins in verse 18.
#1 Christ was victorious in His death for you
Verse 18 is awesome–it encapsulates the Gospel in a single verse. Look at verse 18, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” Peter reiterates that:
1) Christ died to solve our sin problem
2) That Christ’s death was a once for all transaction
3) That Christ’s death accomplished its purpose
The One who was totally just, totally innocent, totally perfect and without sin, died for the many who were unjust, full of sin, unholy, and imperfect so that He might bring us to God. Christ alone is the provision God has made for you to stop being God’s enemy and now become His friend. Christ has given you immediate and permanent access to your heavenly Father.
The theme here is Christ’s unjust suffering and death actually brought about a great victory. And Peter writes believers who are experiencing some persecution, and possibly a few deaths, as an encouragement for these Christians to know, with them, that God’s will is being accomplished, just as it did for Christ.
Only Christ could provide the way for us to be saved. Only Christ was perfect God and perfect Man without confusion, who paid the price for us to be made right with God now and forever. Only through Christ can you go to heaven. All those trusting in Muhammad, Buddha, or Mary and not Christ alone are going to hell. And Christ shows us just how God can accomplish great good through unjust suffering and death.
Look at verse 18 again, “For Christ also died for sins once for all.” The first word “for” or “also” point you back to the previous passage, verse 13 to 17 reminding you not to be surprised or discouraged by suffering on this hostile planet. Why? Peter says now in verse 18, Christ triumphed in His suffering even though He died an excruciating death reserved for criminals and traitors, the worst kind of death sentence.
But Peter says, sinless Christ died for a reason–a purpose. Verse 18 says Christ died for sins–sin caused sinless Christ’s death. This is the supreme example of suffering for righteousness sake. Christ willingly endured suffering for your sins and willingly endured dying for your sins. The verb “died” or “put to death” here (which includes his suffering and His ultimate death) is a fact–Christ did this for His children. This is not a fantasy but a historical event. And it was not an accident, but intentionally willed by God out of His love for evil men, even those who crucified Him. This is what Peter meant in Acts 2:23, “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” God intended for Christ to die for sins, but not His own.
Back in 1 Peter 2:22 Peter reminded us that Christ committed no sin–He never had a single thought, word, emotion, attitude or action that did not fully please God. He was and is perfectly holy and never sinned once. And because He was fully God means Christ could not sin. No, Christ died for your sins. And Peter says in verse 18 that Christ died once for all.
Back in the Old Testament God required animal sacrifices to symbolize the need to atone for sin by the death of an innocent substitute, and every year at Passover at least 250,000 sheep died as a result. But now this phrase “once for all” means perpetual validity, not requiring repetition. No more sacrifices are necessary. There is no need for annual reminders, no more symbols–Christ is the perpetual, permanent, once-for-all, never-to-be-repeated sacrifice for sins.
Hey, genuine Christian–look up here, young and old–Christ paid the price for your sin, all of it, once-for-all. There is no need to beat yourself up over your sin. Christ was beat up for us. Yes, you grieve the Spirit and must confess and repent, but there is no place for constantly punishing yourself for your sins. Jesus took care of that once for all. Jesus said, “It is finished.”
And just to be clear, Peter adds in verse 18, “the just for the unjust,” meaning the right for the un-right, the straight for the crooked, the perfect for the imperfect, the sinless for the sinful. Christ took your place. Jesus was your substitute. As 100% man He could take your place, as 100% God, His sacrifice for us was acceptable to the Father. You should have died, but Christ took your place in death. You should have been tortured for your sin, but Christ took that torture on your behalf. You should have suffered the torment of hell, but Christ took the Father’s wrath for sin instead of you. It is called substitutionary atonement. Righteous Christ willingly took upon Himself the entire penalty due to the unrighteous.
Just like Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Those of you who’ve been broken under your sin, seen its evil, been sickened by its effects and consequences–those of you who now understand forgiveness should be shedding tears of joy. The one Man whose perfect righteousness meant that He never deserved to die endured horrible pains of death on behalf of those who deserved to die for their own sins. The just died for the unjust–Peter is reminding His readers and us that Christ was victorious when he suffered and died so we can be encouraged in our suffering as well.
What did Jesus’ death do? What was God’s purpose? In verse 18, do you see–so that He might bring us to God. In verses 13 to 17 Peter told you to do good in suffering. Well here in verse 18 is the ultimate good-doing in suffering. Through His suffering and death Christ brought us to God–that’s good.
The only way you will ever be brought to God is to put your life in Christ’s hands–to trust in His work on the cross for your sins, to exchange all that you are for all that He is. Have you? Are you surrendered, or are you still in rebellion? But now you appear religious, or Christian, or nice, or spiritual, but you have not exchanged all that you are for all that Christ is.
Christ died to bring you to God. The temple veil separating you from God’s presence has been torn in two, from top to bottom, symbolically telling you that Christ has opened the way to God. You now have access to the Holy of Holies–as royal priests you are welcomed into God’s presence. The verb translated “he might bring” was often used in ancient Greek to describe being introduced to a king, or “given access” to come into a king’s presence.
That is what Christ has done for His children–you have access into heaven’s court and can boldly approach the King of creation, and the verb tense tells us not just once, but generally always. You are now a slave of the only true Master, a son to the Father of all, a co-heir with the Son, and a friend to your God because of what Christ has done for you. You’re invited into His presence, not because of what you’ve done or because of what you are currently doing.
And genuine Christians are not restricted from God’s presence because they had a bad day or yelled at their kids. Your sin was taken care of. You are welcomed into His presence because of the work of Christ on the cross for your sins once for all. Beloved believers, are you taking advantage of your access? Are you enjoying your relationship, are you talking to your Father, do you spend time with Him in prayer?
Peter now ends verse 18 by letting his readers who are suffering and feel like they are losing because of it know what happened when Christ died on their behalf—“having been put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” Jesus didn’t faint on the cross–Peter makes it very clear that Jesus’ physical life ceased. Christ died–His body stopped.
Crucifixion was continual torture. Nailed hands and nailed feet, and bent legs. When hanging from your hands, you couldn’t breathe, and the pain would get so great in your hands you’d seek to find release by pushing up on your feet to catch your breath. But soon the pain in your feet would get so great you’d slide back down–then hang from your hands. Never able to escape pain or breathe, you would writhe up and down, sometimes for three days or more depending if they gave you water.
To hasten your death, they would break your legs so you could no longer push yourself up. Because 6 pm Friday night, the Sabbath, was approaching, sometime after 3 pm the soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves on either side of Jesus, But they didn’t break Christ’s legs because He was already dead. To confirm this, they pierced His side with a spear, causing blood and water to flow out, which is a physiological sign He was certainly dead. Peter affirms this in verse 18, Christ was “put to death in the flesh.” But he also says Christ was “made alive in the spirit.” This is a reference to Christ’s eternal inner person.
The Greek text omits the definite article, which suggests that Peter was not describing the Holy Spirit, but that the Lord was spiritually alive. This makes sense as the statement alive in the spirit is in contrast to his body being dead in the flesh. This is not speaking of Christ’s resurrection, since repeatedly the New Testament speaks of Christ’s resurrection as being bodily, physically, in the flesh–the resurrection was physical. But verse 18 is describing how death is for all of us. We die physically in the flesh, but we are still alive in the spirit. Your material body dies, but your immaterial spirit lives.
And even though Christ is eternal life itself, He did experience a kind of spiritual death–not the cessation of existence, but an experience of separation from God when all of God’s wrath was being poured on Him and He cried out, “My God, my God, why has Thou forsaken me?” That utterance reflected His temporary and humanly incomprehensive sense of alienation from the Father, while God’s full wrath and the burden of all our sin were placed on Christ and judged. For that brief time, probably from 12 noon to 3 o’clock, Christ’s experience paralleled the condition of unbelievers who live in spiritual death, separated from God in this life and face divine judgment when they physically die.
In His death for sin and resurrection to eternal glory, Christ was victorious over death–He conquered death for His own. But unregenerate sinners, those who’ve not turned to Christ in faith, die their own deaths for their unrepentant sins and go to eternal torment. They are eternally punished for their sins because they did not place their sins on Christ to be punished on the cross. And Peter tells us that Christ died physically, but continued to live in the Spirit for an encouraging reason–to give us hope in our suffering. How is that?
#2 Christ was victorious in His proclamation over His enemies
Here is one of those statements that Peter’s readers understood better than we do today–but remember, this is still talking about Christ being victorious, even though He suffered and died unjustly. Verse 19 and 20 say, “In which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient.”
What is Peter saying here? Like a news article, let me give you the summary, then explain the details. What does this mean? Simply this–after Christ died and His body was placed in the grave, His spirit traveled to a special demonic jail. There Christ proclaimed His victory over death, over sin and over the power of the devil. Satan and His army had failed in all their evil efforts to stop Christ. The proclamation caused the demons to realize that all their attempts in the gospels, Christ’s persecution, suffering and ultimate death on the cross had not worked. All their efforts to sabotage our salvation through the cross were nullified.
This is a huge encouragement to the original readers of 1 Peter, who were currently being persecuted. Christ won, even though He suffered and died, and Christ announced His win to His enemies.
Look at verse 19, in which He also went and made proclamation. Just like we are made up of body and spirit, material and immaterial, Christ the God Man also had body and spirit. While Christ’s body was in the grave, between His death and resurrection, Christ’s spirit went–meaning He went from one place to another. And He made proclamation. The Greek word is kerusso, for declaring an edict or heralding an announcement. It is not the word euangelizo (to evangelize) for declaring the Gospel, so we can infer that Christ was not ministering or witnessing here.
In the ancient world, heralds would come to town as representatives of their rulers to make public announcements, or to precede their generals and kings in their processions, celebrating military triumphs, announcing victories won in battle. Christ went to proclaim His victory to the enemy by announcing His triumph over sin, death, hell, demons and Satan. Verse 19 says Christ directed His proclamation to the spirits, not human beings–otherwise He would have used psuchai (souls). He uses the word pneumasin (spirits) a word the New Testament never uses to refer to people except when qualified a particular way, which it is not here.
All true believers know there is an ongoing cosmic conflict between holy, good angels and their fallen brothers, demons. Right when Satan tempted mankind and they fell into sin, in Genesis 3, God promised there’d come a day when the Messiah would triumph over Satan with a crushing blow to the head, despite the Messiah suffering a minor wound from Satan. Genesis 3:15 says, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel.” Called the proto evanglium, Latin for first Gospel, this verse describes the conflict and victory of the cross.
All throughout history, Satan has sought to destroy the seed line of the Messiah, tried to kill Jesus when He was newly born, tempted Christ in the wilderness, opposed Him in His ministry, and finally incited the Jewish leaders to crucify Jesus. The demons may have been celebrating their seeming victory in the wake of Christ’s death and burial, only to be profoundly and permanently disappointed. They must have been shocked when the living Christ Himself arrived in spirit at their jail.
You love this story, and so did Peter’s readers. The bad guys think they’ve won, the good guy was tortured then killed—“We got Him, we stopped Him.” They’re laughing, partying—it’s over, evil has triumphed! Then suddenly, the good guy shows up and tells them they’ve all been fooled and He has won and they’ve lost–good triumphs over evil, and it’s permanent. Peter tells us this scene takes place at their jail. The angelic spirits Christ proclaims to were, verse 19, “now in prison.” This is an actual place of imprisonment, not merely a condition.
But who are these angelic spirits and why are they in prison? Peter tells us–don’t miss the obvious in verse 20, “who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark.” Peter is clear–these demonic spirits were involved in disobedience during the time of Noah before the worldwide flood. Peter is clear here–take him at his word.
In fact, turn back to Genesis chapter 6 to read about these wicked angels who are jailed in a special place. Genesis 6:1 to 6 says, “Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, 2 that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. 5 Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.”
This scene is so depraved that when God saw it, He was grieved in His heart. There is some evil influence or evil interaction between evil spirits and human women at this time before the flood. In these verses, the sons of God are compared to the daughters of men. If they were human, they’d be called the sons of men. The phrase “sons of God” always refers to angels in the Old Testament. The contrast here is between supernatural beings and women–not Seth-ites, nobles, or kings as some say. These are heavenly spirits being contrasted with earthly women. The oldest Jewish and early Church views of this passage are that the sons of God were demons–fallen angels. These wicked spirits were drawn to females, whom they saw as beautiful in some perverse and lascivious way.
How can spirit beings marry women? It seems possible, if we remember demons can dwell in human bodies as they have done. Though the children were human, there was a pervasive evil influence on them, and sadly life had become so wicked, this demon influence was welcomed. Others believe the Naphilim were some sort of demon/human off-spring that corrupted the entire human race, except for Noah and his family.
Regardless, the human race was corrupted and wicked, and it was brought about by these demons who crossed a line. Is that certain? It is, if you believe the Bible, because this same incident is also talked about more than once, like in Jude 6 and 7, “And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day, 7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.”
These fallen angels and their heinous lifestyle were wiped out with the judgment of the flood. But they were not drowned, as demons can’t die–so they were incarcerated instead. They are (verse 19) now in prison. The Greeks called this jail Tartarus–not the sauce you put on fish, but the Alcatraz of the spirit world. It is not the lake of fire, not the final hell, but a kind of death row holding cell for the worst demons, called the pit—the abyss.
There they wait until the final Day of Judgment, when they will be cast with Satan into the lake of fire, the place originally created for the devil and his demons. Peter later calls this prison for these really bad demons who messed with the human race, the pits of darkness in 2 Peter 2:4, “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment.”
Most believe the same prison is also described in Revelation 9:1 to 2, “I saw a star from heaven which had fallen to the earth; and the key of the bottomless pit was given to him. 2 He opened the bottomless pit, and smoke went up out of the pit, like the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke of the pit.” What came out of that pit were creatures who tormented men for five months. And Revelation 9:11 tells us that Satan is their king. They have as king over them the angel of the abyss–his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in the Greek he has the name Apollyon.
So Peter is telling us that the Lord proclaimed His triumph over Satan, sin, death and hell to the very worst of demons, who disobeyed God in the worst manner in the days of Noah before the flood. The fallen angels’ long effort to demonize people, hinder the redemptive purpose of God and prevent the seed of the woman from crushing Satan’s head was ultimately foiled at the cross. Those wicked spirits were sent to the abyss because they overstepped the boundaries of God’s tolerance–they filled the earth with their wretchedness to such an extent that not even 120 years of Noah’s preaching convinced anyone beyond his own family to repent, believe in God and escape His judgment on the ark.
Because of the cross these demons must have thought that Christ had lost the advantage over them. But instead Christ appeared in their midst and proclaimed His triumph, like Colossians 2:15 says, “When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.”
Wow–demons, Satan, prison, end times, wickedness–sadly all of you have forgotten the main point of these verses. The point is, Jesus Christ was victorious over evil. Jesus suffered and died, but won the war. And just when the enemy was having their victory party after the cross of Christ, His spirit went to demon Alcatraz and declared to them that they had lost and He had won. Jesus is victorious over sin, death, and the power of Satan. And if you are reading this 2,000 years ago, you get the point–no matter what kind of hurt happens to you, no matter how you might suffer for following Christ, no matter if you’re persecuted, or slandered, you who are in Christ have won too!
Believers will suffer for doing what is right, but all suffering believers can be encouraged that their suffering is not a disaster or a loss, but the path to personal victory. We are on the winning team, and the outcome has already been decided.
1) Christ was victorious in His death for you–verse 18
2) Christ was victorious in His proclamation over His enemies–verse 19 to 20a
But for this to make a difference, for this to matter, for this to actually help you two things must be true.
#1 You must come to Christ alone, believing the just died for the unjust, that Christ is the only one who can bring you to God–you must exchange all that you are, for all that He is.
#2 You must moment-by-moment depend upon the Holy Spirit as you walk in obedience to God’s Word in everything. Is that you?