By Christopher VanDusen
The Lord Jesus promised His twelve apostles that they would suffer persecution for following Him. The reason for this is that His people are God’s children, while everyone else are the devil’s children, and are opposed to all that God loves, including His children. Hence, all believers in Jesus are guaranteed to suffer persecution of some kind if they live righteously for any significant amount of time. This means that we’re called to suffer for doing good, rather than for doing what’s evil. Obviously, that’s the better option, but why is it better? And how do we remain committed to suffering for righteousness, rather than giving up, and doing what’s wrong to avoid being persecuted for our goodness? The apostle Peter answers these questions in 1 Peter 3:18-22.
1 Peter is a letter that Peter wrote to many Jewish Christians — whom he calls “aliens” — who were being mistreated by their non-Christian neighbors for their righteousness. They used to participate in the evil way of life that these non-Christians followed, but were now committed to doing what pleases God, and had therefore begun to do the opposite of what they’d done before. Thus, their unbelieving neighbors at least insulted them for their goodness, if not more than that. Knowing about this persecution, and that these believers were being tempted to sin, Peter wrote to encourage and instruct them on how to respond to this persecution.
In the first chapter, Peter describes the salvation that they’ve received from God. Then, he explains how they’re to live in light of knowing that God loves them, and has promised them eternal joy. He finishes the chapter by instructing them to love one another, since they’re now God’s children.
Peter begins the second chapter by forbidding the aliens from committing certain sins against one another, and commanding them to long to learn God’s Word, so they can become more like Him. Then, he describes how they’re doing this, and what the purpose of their lives on earth is — to proclaim who God is to their unbelieving neighbors. He ends this chapter by explaining how they’re to do this as citizens of their nation, and as slaves. Then, he begins the third chapter by applying this purpose to wives, husbands, and their churches. To conclude this section, he begins to explain how and why to suffer persecution from their unbelieving neighbors.
In this new section about persecution, Peter explains that they can’t be harmed spiritually or eternally if they’re passionate about pleasing God. On the contrary, he says being persecuted for righteousness is a sign of God’s blessing. Further, he forbids them from being afraid of this. Rather, they’re to set apart Christ as the Lord of the universe in their hearts, and to be ready to explain why they have hope while being persecuted. As a result of doing this, they’ll make sure they’re living righteously, so they shame those who criticize them. Peter says they should do this because it’s better to suffer for doing good than to suffer for doing evil.
In verses 18 to 22, he explains why it’s better to suffer for goodness than to suffer for evil:
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (ESV)
In this passage, Peter gives the aliens four reasons why it’s better to suffer for doing what’s right than to suffer for doing evil:
- Christ Suffered Once for Sins (v. 18)
- Christ Succeeded Over Spirits (vss. 18a-20)
- Christians are Saved by Submersion (v. 21)
- Christ is Sovereign Over Sovereigns (v. 22)
Christ Suffered Once for Sins
The first fact that makes suffering for righteousness better than suffering for evil is that Christ suffered once for evil:
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit . . .”
First, what does it mean that Christ suffered “for sins”? The word “sin” comes from a Greek word that literally means “to miss the target”, or “to fall short”. From what? From being like God by loving Him in obedience, and by loving others for their good. Any act that falls short of that standard of goodness is sin, and displeases God. Since God is just and good, He hates all sin, and must punish anyone who commits it. However, since He’s gracious and merciful, He sent His eternal and divine Son, Christ, or “the anointed One”, to take His punishment for others sins. He did this on a Roman cross, where He suffered for, or because of, sins. But how did He suffer? By being executed for doing what was right. In other words, He was persecuted for doing good, but He suffered for sins, or evil.
However, He didn’t just suffer for sins, but suffered once for sins. That is, this suffering was the only suffering for sins that was ever endured, and ever will be. The reason for this is that He suffered as “the righteous for the unrighteous”. To be “righteous” is to be pleasing to God, and to be “unrighteous” is to be displeasing to God. Hence, Christ suffered, not for sins that He committed, but for sins that the unrighteous had committed, were committing, and would commit.
Peter goes on to say that the purpose of Christ suffering for sins was so He “might bring [them] to God”. In New Testament Greek, when the word “might” is used like this, it doesn’t imply a possibility, but a certainty that requires something to happen. In this case, the action that was necessary for Christ to bring Peter and the aliens to God was His suffering for sins. But what does Peter mean by “bring us to God”? This refers to Peter and the aliens being reconciled to God, and coming into a peaceful and loving relationship with Him. Since Christ endured the suffering that they deserved for their sins, God no longer had any reason to be angry with them, or to punish them. So, He welcomed them into His family as those for whom Christ suffered.
Finally, Peter describes what resulted from Christ’s suffering. He was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit”. In order to suffer for sins, He had to be “put to death in the flesh”, or physically. However, He was immediately “made alive in the spirit”, or “spiritually” made alive. This phrase has two possible meanings. First, it may mean that the Holy Spirit made Christ alive. It seems more likely, however, that it means that Christ was made alive in such a way that He could do things without a body, since that’s what He does in the next verse.
Christ Succeeded Over Spirits
In verses 19-20, the second reason Peter gives for suffering for doing good being better than suffering for evil is that Christ triumphed over evil spirits:
“. . . being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.”
First, Peter says that Christ, who was alive “in the spirit”, “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison”. Obviously, these spirits can’t be good spirits, but must be evil spirits, since they’re “in prison”. But what did Christ proclaim to them? Figuring out who these spirits are will help us understand.
In verse 20, Peter explains why these spirits are in prison. Because they “formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah”. First, these spirits were disobedient “formerly”, or before they were in prison. Disobedient to whom? To God, who patiently waited in the days of Noah for them to obey Him. In order to understand what Peter’s talking about, we need to understand the story from Genesis 6:1-8, which says,
“When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 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 man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.
5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (ESV)
So, who are the spirits in prison that didn’t obey God when Noah was alive? They’re the “sons of God” who somehow (we don’t know how) had children with women. Notice that immediately after Genesis says women “bore children” to “the sons of God”, “the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (v. 5). Then, God says that He’s going to kill every person, except for Noah and his family. The implication is that the reason human wickedness is so great is because there’s been an unholy union between evil angels and people. Hence, we can conclude that what these spirits did was disobedience to God. In fact, Jude speaks of these angels in verse 6 of his letter:
“And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he [God] has kept in eternal chains . . . until the judgment of the great day . . .” (ESV)
Here, Jude calls the “prison” of these spirits “eternal chains”. However, this isn’t their punishment, but a holding place “until the judgment of the great day”, which will be their punishment. So, the spirits whom Christ “proclaimed to” were in prison because they disobeyed God by leaving their position and “proper dwelling”, and by dwelling with women, and having children with them. This resulted in greater disobedience to God, and yet God patiently waited for all these people to repent “while the ark was being prepared”.
Why was the ark being prepared? To save a remnant of humanity from being killed by God’s flood of the entire earth. That’s why Peter says only “a few” people “were brought safely through water”.
So, what did Christ proclaim to the spirits in prison? Well, these spirits had made mankind even more sinful, and had brought on the destruction of most people, since they were enemies of God. And this was done in disobedience to God, and in rebellion against Him. So, we can conclude that what Christ proclaimed to these spirits who had corrupted people, was that He had brought many people to God through His death and resurrection, and that He was going to finally punish them for their disobedience as their Judge.
How does this fit into Peter’s argument that suffering for good is better than suffering for evil? At least one way is that it shows that Christ defeated evil spirits who had wanted mankind to join them in their sin against God by enabling people to do good, instead of evil, through His suffering. Therefore, suffering for righteousness is a means by which evil is conquered.
Christians are Saved by Submersion
Peter’s third argument for the superiority of suffering for good over suffering for evil is that Christians are saved by baptism. After just saying that Noah and his family were “brought safely through water”, Peter says,
“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . .”
What does Peter mean by “baptism”? The Greek word literally means “immersion” or “submersion”, and isn’t only used in the New Testament to speak of immersion in water, but in other things, even people. However, Peter says that the baptism he’s talking about “corresponds to” Noah and his family being “brought safely through water”. That is, this baptism is similar to being saved from God’s judgment “through water”. Second, Peter says that this baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience”. The Greek word translated “appeal” literally means a “questioning” or “interrogation”. The idea is that this is a request to God for a good conscience, or a conscience that’s free of condemnation and guilt. Therefore, we must see that this baptism is the ceremony of being immersed under water when one first becomes a Christian.
Just as when Noah’s family was saved from God’s judgment through water, so “now” the aliens are saved from God’s judgment through being submerged under water as the symbol of becoming a Christian. How are they saved from God’s judgment? First, Peter explicitly says that it’s “not as a removal of dirt from the body”. That is, it’s not the act of getting dunked under water that saves them. Rather it saves them “as an appeal to God for a good conscience”. In other words, by being baptized into the name of God, they’re asking God to give them a good conscience that’s free from the knowledge that they’re an enemy of God who’s heading for eternal punishment, since they know that God has forgiven all their sins. Finally, baptism saves them “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. This means that it’s only because Jesus died for their sins and rose from the dead that God can forgive their sins. The emphasis is on His resurrection, since the fact that He was raised means that God accepted His sacrifice, and that He now lives in heaven to represent people before God, and pray for their salvation.
So, how does the fact that the aliens are saved by their baptism show that suffering for good is better than suffering for evil? Because they’ve now been saved from God’s punishment for their sins, and have clear consciences, so they have every reason to do good, rather than to do evil.
Christ is Sovereign Over Sovereigns
Peter’s final reason for the superiority of suffering for good over suffering for evil is found in verse 22, which says that Jesus Christ,
“. . . has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”
So, the final reason that suffering for good is better than suffering for evil is that Jesus is in “heaven”. This means that He’s in paradise. More than that, though, He’s “at the right hand of God”. In ancient times, being “at the right hand” of someone meant that the person was honored by him. In this case, the One who’s honoring Jesus is God the Father. And how has He honored Him? By causing “angels, authorities, and powers” to be “subjected to him”, or under His control.
Although the last two things could be referring to all “authorities” and “powers”, it’s more likely that Peter’s referring to different types of angels, since that’s what Paul does in Ephesians 6. The point of this verse is that, through suffering, Jesus was honored by God with the highest position in the universe, as Ruler of His enemies who had contributed to His suffering. In a similar way, the aliens will be rewarded by God for suffering for righteousness, since they belong to the Ruler of the universe, and of those who persecute them.
Remember Christ’s Suffering, Triumph, Resurrection, and Exaltation
So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, how does this passage apply to you?
First, you ought to be willing to suffer for righteousness because Christ suffered for your sins to bring you to God. If He suffered for your sins, how can you choose to sin to avoid suffering for righteousness?
Second, you ought to be willing to suffer for righteousness because Christ triumphed over those who had further corrupted humanity in rebellion against Him. Spirits like them are still at work, and lead people to sin, so how can you choose to do what they want us to do when Christ has triumphed over them?
Third, you ought to be willing to suffer for righteousness because, if you were baptized as your appeal to God for a good conscience, it saved you through Christ’s resurrection. Since you’ve been saved from God’s wrath, how could you choose to do that which He no longer holds against you, but forgave you for?
Finally, you ought to be willing to suffer for righteousness because doing so is the path to being honored by God, like Jesus was. Further, those who mistreat you for doing good are under the control of Jesus, so they’ll be punished if they don’t repent and trust in Him.
If you haven’t appealed to God for a good conscience by changing your mind about Jesus, and trusting in Him to save you from your sins, then you’re still an enemy of God, and are heading for eternal punishment. The good news is that Christ suffered for sins, and for the unrighteous, so He can bring sinners to God, just like you. Not only that, but God raised Him from the dead, and took Him into heaven as our Ruler. He now commands everyone to repent of their rebellion against Him, and to trust in Him as Lord and Savior from sin to receive His forgiveness, mercy, and peace. Please make sure you’ve done that, and then be baptized in water by one of His people as an appeal to God for a good conscience, and a profession of your faith.
All Scripture quotations are from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.