Yesterday on the blog we introduced 1 Peter 3:18-22 as one of the most confusing and difficult passages in the entire New Testament. As we dive into this text this week, I hope to demonstrate how to rightly handle difficult texts using this passage as a test case. But first, let’s read that notoriously difficult text:
1 Peter 3:18-22—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.
The first step in rightly handling troubling texts is to affirm what is clearly taught. If you were with us in worship on November 8, you may remember in our pastoral prayer we thanked God that His Word is clear. This doctrine is called the clarity of Scripture. It does not mean that every truth in Scripture is equally clear, but that the most important truths are clear. That principle is on full display in our passage this morning. Even though there is much in our text that is confusing, there is even more that is clear. And the first step to rightly handling confusing texts is to zoom out and affirm all the things that are clearly taught. Let’s do that together.
Jesus is the suffering Messiah. Peter begins in verse 18, “For Christ also suffered.” That word “Christ” isn’t Jesus’ last name. It’s a word that means “Anointed One” or “Messiah.” Peter clearly teaches that Jesus is the Messiah. But Jesus wasn’t the victorious Messiah that many Jews expected. Peter is clearly teaching that Jesus is the Messiah that Isaiah foretold 700 years earlier when he wrote: “He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
Jesus’ suffering was unique. Verse 18, “For Christ also suffered once.” Peter is not saying that Jesus only felt pain once in His thirty-three years on earth. Jesus was a normal human being, which meant He hurt when He scraped His knee or stubbed His toe or got a splinter. When Peter says Jesus suffered once, He’s saying there’s something unique about the suffering Jesus endured on the cross. The author of Hebrews puts it this way: And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. (12) But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God (Hebrews 10:11-14). For those who repent and believe in the Gospel, there is no more price left to be paid for your sins. It’s done. It’s finished. Christ suffered once.
Jesus is our substitute. Verse 18, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous.” Jesus didn’t die as a hapless victim; He died as a willing substitute. We are sinners who deserve to die. But Jesus died in our place. He lived a sinless life and died a sinner’s death. Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:21—For our sake He [God the Father] made Him [God the Son] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. If you don’t trust in Jesus as your substitute, then you’ll be forced to bear the penalty for your sin on your own. But if you trust Him, you won’t bear an ounce of punishment.
The cross is the only way to be made right with God. Verse 18, “that he might bring us to God.” It is only through the cross of Jesus that any of us can be in a right relationship with God. That’s it. All roads do not lead to the same place. Having a sincere faith is not enough. Jesus put it this way in John 14:6—Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If there was any other way, the Father would not allow His Son to be crucified.
Jesus really died and really rose from the dead. Verse 18, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. Contrary to what our Muslim friends teach, Jesus didn’t merely pass out on the cross only to regain consciousness a few days later. He really died and was really resurrected by the power of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 puts it this way: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, (4) that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
Already in verse 18 we’ve seen several essential truths that are clearly taught. We can and should affirm without hesitation each of these truths. It gets a bit hazier moving forward, but there’s still more that we can affirm. . .
God really rescued Noah and his family from a flood. Verse 20, 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. The flood story isn’t some ancient myth. Peter believed that the flood really happened. Of course, Peter’s views would have certainly been shaped by Jesus Himself, who taught the flood as a real story that pointed to a future judgment (Matthew 24:36-44). Just as Noah and his family were lifted above the earth while it was destroyed with water, so too will God’s people be lifted above the earth to meet Jesus in the air while the earth is destroyed with fire.
Jesus ascended into heaven. Verse 22, “who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God.” Jesus didn’t merely dissolve and disappear into heaven in a disembodied state. In His physical resurrection body, He ascended into heaven. We believe that Jesus still exists (and will forever exist) in that glorified human body. As the angels said to the disciples in Acts 1:11b, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”
Jesus has authority over all powers. Verse 22, “with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” Every emperor, president, every king, every prime minister, every governor, every mayor, every CEO, every manager, every pastor, every parent, ever angel, every demon is subjected to the ultimate authority of King Jesus. All these truths are clearly taught in our passage this morning. Our job is to affirm that they’re true. Before we dive into anything else, we need to ask ourselves, do we affirm these truths that Peter clearly teaches? Which of these truths is hardest for you to believe? Are you willing to submit to God’s Word and affirm what is clear?