COMMENTARY ON FIRST PETER
" 3:18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared . . . " (1 Pet 3:18-20, NKJV)
Occasionally, we confront texts that simply will not fit into any preconceived interpretations of Scripture. The text before us is such a one. Because of that, it is easy to miss the point being made by the Holy Spirit, devoting endless time to an attempt to resolve what is supposed to be an apparent contradiction of the truth. With care, we must avoid being detracted from the message directed to us. We are being confronted with the inevitability of suffering. Only the measure and duration of suffering differ for believers. Now, after establishing this with great power, we are called to look to Jesus. His suffering is the ultimate suffering, beginning with His betrayal and concluding with His death. In all of this, He remained perfectly "just," or righteous. His sufferings were the result of our iniquities being placed upon Him. That is a truth that must never grow old to us. An understanding of it will hold us up when we do well, yet suffer for it. In the light of this, our own sufferings can be seen as a fellowship with Christ, and a prelude to our glorification. We need grace to ponder deeply Christ's suffering for us.
CHRIST ALSO SUFFERED FOR SINS
" 3:18a For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God . . . " NKJV The flames of persecution had been directed toward the church, and many believers had been "scattered" throughout various regions (1:1). The Spirit had moved Peter to write comforting words, assuring them of their high calling (1:2-3). They had been begotten to an incorruptible inheritance, reserved in heaven for them, and they were being kept by the power of God-even in their persecution (1:4-5). Not only that, their suffering had a purpose: in it, their faith was being tested, even though they were experiencing great "heaviness," or "grief." The Divine objective was for their faith to honor Jesus when He returns, and suffering was helping meet that objective (1:6-7).
From the moral point of view, their sufferings were unjust. In fact, those who caused them to suffer for righteousness' sake would be judged by God. However, it is not possible to survive suffering honorably while thinking only of the retribution that will be meted out by God upon our enemies. The Spirit summons us to ponder the greatest of all sufferings, namely those of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the consideration of His sufferings, we will find great solace, and strength to bear up under the assaults of men.
Remember, it is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil (3:17). Jesus is the ultimate example of that. He "suffered once for OUR sins." He Himself did good, yet suffered because WE did wrong. Much is made of this in Scripture, so it cannot be viewed as a mere point of doctrine. He "bore our sins in His body on the tree" (2:24). He "bore our griefs," "carried out sorrows," and "was wounded for our transgressions." He was "bruised for our iniquities," and "the chastisement for our peace was upon Him" (Isa 53:4-6). He died "for the ungodly" (Rom 5:6). God "condemned" our sin in the "flesh" of Christ (Rom 8:3). He "died for our sins" (1 Cor 15:3), which is never to be forgotten or minimized by saints.
The suffering of Jesus was precisely that: "suffering." The fact that He was God "manifest in the flesh" (1 Tim 3:16) did not minimize His sufferings. In fact, it actually accentuated them. That is why He recoiled at the thought of drinking the cup that was given to Him by the Father (Matt 26:39-44). So believers are not to imagine that having faith will relieve them of suffering. They are to look to Jesus, "Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 12:2). When they suffer because they are righteous, the consideration of Jesus will strengthen their hearts and enable them to endure to His glory.
Jesus suffered only "once" -or only during His tenure in this world. In this text, "suffer" includes the prelude to Christ's death, and His death itself. The "sufferings of Christ" cover the whole range of His redemptive mission. Much is made of this in Scripture, particularly in the book of Hebrews (Heb 7:27; 9:12,26-28; 10:12,14). The reason for Jesus suffering only once was that the purpose of His suffering was realized. Unlike the sacrifices of old, His suffering and death accomplished God's purpose.
The purpose is marvelously stated: "that He might bring us to God." That is a Divine commentary on "come unto God BY Him" (Heb 7:25). We do not come to God alone, or unassisted, but are brought into His presence by our Savior. This is part of Him being with us, "even unto the end of the world" (Matt 28:20). This also confirms the priority of coming to God. Jesus did not suffer to make us well or wealthy. His sufferings are not the key to marital bliss and social tranquility. They are rather designed to get us into the presence of the Lord, where there is "fulness of joy" and "pleasures for everymore" (Psa 16:11). Jesus declared He was the appointed means of us coming "to the Father" (John 14:6). If that is not accomplished, no satisfactory progress has been made at all.
Great men of God were noted for being in the presence of God. Both Enoch and Noah "walked with God" (Gen 5:22; 6:9). Abraham was "the friend of God" (James 2:23). Jacob was with God "face to face" (Gen 32:30). Moses talked with God "face to face" (Ex 33:11). Isaiah saw the Lord "high and lifted up" (Isa 6:1-3). All of these experiences were brief, and soon ended. Christ suffered that He might "bring us to God" in a lasting and fruitful way. The ultimate good came from His ultimate suffering!
DEATH IN THE FLESH, LIFE IN THE SPIRIT
" 18b . . . being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit." NKJV It is a most remarkable thing that "the Prince of life" was "put to death" (Acts 3:15). Elsewhere, it is written that Jesus was "crucified through weakness" (2 Cor 13:4), or in the weakest part of His constitution. This refers to the "body" God prepared for Him, and in which He bore our sins (Heb 10:5-10). He was "put to death in the flesh" in the sense of being "cut off" out of the land of the living, without seed or fleshly generation (Isa 53:8; Dan 9:26). "The flesh" refers to His human nature, in which He became identified with the ones He came to save (Heb 2:14). In His death, the union between His soul and body was severed for three days, for that is what death is. This is also confirmed by the words of Jesus, "Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit" (Lk 23:46). Jesus really died, laying down His life (John 10:17; 1 John 3:16). Because God was in the matter, His death is referred to as being "delivered up for our offenses" (Rom 4:25). The necessity of Christ's death is powerfully declared in Colossians 1:21-22. "And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath He reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in His sight."
Notice that this is an explanation of Christ suffering for our sins, the Just for the unjust. It is important that men NOT place the emphasis on Christ's agony upon the cross-although that was a very real and efficacious agony. Much surface preaching of our time places stress upon the brutality Jesus suffered before and during His crucifixion. These were foretold in remarkable detail in the 22nd Psalm. You will note, however, that the Gospel's do not elaborate on Christ's atoning death in these matters, only mentioning them briefly (Matt 16:21; 17:12; 20:19; 27:34-50; John 19:23-36, etc.). With great care, the Spirit develops within us a spiritual view of Christ's death, not one of mere fleshly sympathy. His "death" was the real point, and includes all of the associated sufferings that preceded it. The Epistles never elaborate upon the details of the physical sufferings of Christ, but place the accent on His death, in which the purpose of God was fulfilled.
The phrase "made alive by the Spirit" is pregnant with meaning. From one view, this was Jesus taking up His life again (John 10:17-18). From another, this was Jesus being raised "by the glory of the Father" (Rom 6:4). From yet another, it was His resurrection through "the Spirit of holiness" (Rom 1:4). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all involved in Jesus' resurrection. The same body that went into the tomb came out of it. It did not see corruption, and was raised impervious to death. While there were other resurrections prior to that of Jesus, there were none like His. He was, in a very real sense, "the Firstborn from the dead" (Col 1:18).
Jesus took hold of His life again. His Spirit entered again into His body, causing it to rise from the dead. Commenting on this, Peter says, "And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power"NASB (Acts 2:24). Because it was God's purpose, He is said to have raised Jesus from the dead. Because Jesus was charged with the responsibility of laying down and taking up His life again, He is said to have done it. Because the Holy Spirit is the quickening Agent of heaven, Christ's resurrection is declared to have been accomplished "by the Spirit." Just as every member of the Godhead was involved in Christ birth (1 John 4:14Father; Heb 10:5-9Son; Matt 1:18-20Spirit), so they were involved in His resurrection.
Christ was put to death in His human nature, but raised by His Divine nature. The point of this text is that what is born of God cannot be kept down. Just as Jesus came back from His suffering, so the saints will come back from theirs. Suffering is only a temporary experience, however lengthy it may appear. If we will ponder the suffering of Jesus in His flesh, it will equip us to bear up under any necessary grief we are asked to bear. "It is the Spirit that quickeneth," or makes alive (John 6:63). It was so with the Lord Jesus, and, in your measure, it will be so with you. Do not despair, dear believer, when you are asked to pass through floods and fire. They will not ultimately hurt you (Isa 43:2).
WHEN JESUS PREACHED TO THE SPIRITS
" 3:19 . . . by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared . . . " NKJV Here is one of the most controversial texts in Scripture. The words "by whom" refer to the Spirit. "He" who did the preaching is Jesus. To my knowledge, this is the only place in Scripture where preaching is said to have been directed to "spirits." The spirits are said to have been in a place of confinement: "prison." The particular spirits are identified as the ones who were "disobedient" while God awaited the preparation of Noah's ark.
It is traditionally taught that this refers to the Spirit of Christ preaching in the person of Noah prior to the flood. I consider this to be a most difficult position to support.
First, Peter later refers to this incident, adding some significant information. "For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead." (4:6). Note, these are not described as people who "were" dead," but who "are" dead. Also, "the gospel" was preached to them, and we have no record of Noah ever preaching good news of any sort. Before Noah ever started building the ark, God told him only eight people would be saved (Gen 6:18). There was no "gospel" for anyone else-not a solitary soul.
Second, the reason for the preaching is also given: "that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit." Admittedly, this is a difficult expression. It indicates that God's righteousness was upheld in sending the flood. Yet, His mercy was also vindicated in making provision for them to live before Him.
Third, It is good to remember there was no Divine law in Noah's day, and "where no law is, there is no transgression" (Rom 4:15). Again, it is written, "For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law" (Rom 5:13). This puts those during the days of Noah in a special category, not to be compared with people in our day.
Fourth, the passage says Jesus "went" and preached to "spirits in prison." The indication is that He did this between His death and resurrection. It does not seem reasonable to introduce the preaching of Noah at this time. The word "prison" is equivalent to "the pains of death," which were NOT able to retain Jesus (Acts 2:24).
Fifth, the text does not limit "the spirits" to those who actually died in the flood. Methuselah and his son Lamech died during the 120 years Noah was building (Gen 5:27), and nothing in Scripture indicates either of them were among those cursed by God. There were doubtless also infants and others who were not morally responsible.
Sixth, the word "preached" is the exact word used for Christ's declarations when He ministered among men (Matt 4:17,23; 9:35; 11:1). The single reference of the "Spirit of Christ" testifying in other personalities is also mentioned by Peter. He assigns that activity to the prophets who "testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow" (1 Pet 1:11). Nothing leads us to believe Noah ever so "testified."
Seventh, on Pentecost, Peter said Christ's soul as not "left in hell (hades)," or the abode of the dead (Acts 2:27,31). The preaching of reference doubtless took place while He was there. For all other spirits, it was a prison. However, it was not a prison for Jesus, for He made His exit from that realm at the precisely appointed time.
Behind this is the fact that God knows the hearts of all men. To assume that every person living during the building of the ark, or dying in the flood, was reprobate cannot be supported by the Word of God. Also, to assume that everyone heard Noah is absurd, for he was not a global evangelist but the builder of an ark. We know there are things to be learned after death. Abraham learned about Moses, who lived nearly 500 years later, after he died (Lk 16:29). Both Moses and Elijah learned of Christ's death after they died, of which death neither of them spoke while alive (Lk 9:30-31).
Here the Spirit has said enough to whet our appetites, but not enough to build a religious dogma. Undeterred by His sufferings, Jesus preached while His body was in the grave, announcing the Gospel to formerly disobedient spirits. We know nothing more than that of this event. It will glorify God to stand before Him having believed this text.