There are some texts in the Bible that are harder to understand than others. This morning we face one of the most difficult. Even Martin Luther the great Bible teacher said,
“This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament. I still do not know for sure what the apostle meant”
Some believe the text before us is the one that inspired the line in the Apostle’s Creed that says, “He descended into Hell”. (As an aside, let me point out that the phrase “descended into Hell’ is most likely mistranslated and should read “descended into hades or the place of the dead”. What the Creed actually affirms is the fact that Jesus really did die.)
So the question could be asked, “Why study this text?” The answer is simple: the Bible is God’s Word to us. Often in wrestling with the tough texts we can find some of the richest of truths.
The danger of any difficult text such as this is that we can focus so much on the difficulties that we miss what is clearly taught. It would be like a football player who is so enamored with one of the cheerleaders that he doesn’t see the pass thrown to him that could win the championship! We don’t want that to happen to us.
The Incredible Message of the Gospel
18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
This sentence includes the entire proclamation of the gospel. First, we are told that Christ died for sins. Christ did not die as a martyr who was ripped off and taken advantage of by “the system”. He had a purpose in dying. He died deliberately as a payment for our sin. We call this the “substitutionary atonement”. Jesus took our place and paid the penalty that belonged to us.
Second, notice that the payment was once and for all. In the Jewish system of sacrifice the people were familiar with the idea of a substitutionary sacrifice. The priests would offer sacrifices daily that served to pay for the sins of people. The thing is, you would spend the day offering sacrifices and you knew that the next day you would have to go back to work and do it all again because the cleansing was temporary and sin is a daily problem. It was kind of like a person who had the job of cleaning an office building with the knowledge that the next day it was going to need cleaning again.
What made the sacrifice of Jesus different is that it was final and complete. Once His sacrifice was offered, there were no other sacrifices necessary. Listen to what the writer to the Hebrews wrote about the sacrifice of Christ,
With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever.
13 Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. 14 Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. (Hebrews 9:12-15 NLT)
Peter explains how this is possible: Jesus was “righteous”. In other words, he was sinless; He was right before God. The only sacrifice that could finally and fully pay for sin would be a sinless sacrifice that was of such value that it could be traded for millions of people. Jesus as the sinless Son of God was the only one qualified to be that sacrifice; to serve as our “substitute”.
Some people are offended by all this talk. They call Christianity a “bloody” religion. They turn away from the blood and talk of sacrifice. They recoil at the notion that Jesus was sent by God to die for our sin. They say Christianity is too violent.
What they don’t understand is that we are supposed to feel a sense of revulsion. The sacrificial system reminded people of the true horror of sin. It showed them that sin was so horrible that death was the only payment.
We are often like a little child who wanders away from a campground or from a friend’s home in an unfamiliar place. The child is amused and distracted by all they are seeing. They don’t realize they are becoming lost and in danger. Suddenly, they realize they are hungry or they lose interest. They turn to go home and have no idea where they are. They are in grave danger and need someone to rescue them.
Just because we don’t see the danger doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just because we are “enjoying life” does not mean that we are not wandering into spiritual peril. We are lost and don’t know it. We are so lost that we need someone (Jesus) to rescue us. The only way to do this is to give His life as a payment for our sin. Yes, it is bloody . . . that’s because it is serious!
Third, notice that the price has been paid IN FULL. Jesus didn’t simply make a down payment and now we are left to make the payments. In other words, Jesus doesn’t say, “O.K. now I’ve paid your debt. It’s your job to live a holy life. If you don’t do so, you will be kicked out of God’s family.”
Instead the Bible tells us that staggering news: We are made right with God and will remain “right with God” because of the sinless life, the sacrificial death, and the triumphant resurrection of Jesus. This doesn’t mean we can now do whatever we want! If we really have trusted Christ we will know that true life is found only in Him. We will try to live holy lives because it is the best way to live.
Think of it like this. We are no longer like students who do their homework because they know if they don’t do their homework they might flunk the class. We are like the students who do their homework because they love learning! They do not see homework as a task to meet but as an opportunity for growth! The gospel changes our entire approach to life. We are no longer afraid of failing . . . we become obsessed with the glory and love of God.
The Triumphant Announcement of Victory
That is the easy part of the text. The verses that follow are where things get confusing.
He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20 who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.
The text raises a number of questions,
- When did this happen? Was it on Easter morning? Was it in the time between the death and resurrection of Jesus? Was it some other time?
- Who were these spirits in prison who disobeyed? Were they humans or angels?
- Was Jesus giving these people a “second chance” or was He announcing His victory over sin?
Let me say up front that there are all kinds of opinions. I am not going to tell you, “For almost 2000 years people have wondered about the meaning of this passage but . . . lucky for you…I have the answer!” That is foolishness. Let me share some of the best ideas.
As you read the passage in context it could be that Peter anticipates a question: “This salvation being described is great but what about the people who lived and died before Christ?” Peter’s answer: Jesus, by means of the Spirit, spoke to the imprisoned (those who were in sin) and through the prophets and many others proclaimed the truth that someone can be made right with God by faith in the promise and provision of God. Noah was among those through whom God spoke.
There is a second possibility. It is possible that Peter is saying that Jesus used the time He was in the tomb between His death and resurrection to proclaim the reality of redemption to a specific group of “prisoners”. This phrase about spirits in prison is used also in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6-7. In that case it refers to angels that had rebelled against God. Some scholars see this as referring to another difficult text in the book of Genesis 6 that is found (like in this passage) right before the story of Noah:
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.
Many believe these “Sons of God” were angels who became followers of Satan. They (in their perversion) attracted to the human women on earth. They possessed (as in demon possessed) various men (because angels are spirit and cannot have a physical relationship with women) and married these women. They produced children who possessed a new depth of evil. This act was the ultimate expression of the depravity of creation. The story of Noah and the worldwide flood come immediately after this text. The flood was God’s way of eliminating this evil on the earth.
Personally, neither of these interpretations is without difficulty.
Unfortunately some people erroneously conclude from this passage that there will be a “second chance” offer of salvation after we die. However, the Greek word for “proclaim” was not the word that meant to evangelize or preach the gospel. It is a word that means to announce. Jesus did not offer a chance to be saved, He announced that salvation had been accomplished. This caused anguish to some but to those who had believed in the promise and were waiting for it to take place, it was a message of great joy because it meant the door of Heaven was now open.
I realize this is all pretty bizarre and confusing. If you are like me, you wonder: “Why is Peter telling us this stuff?” Here’s what I think we need to see: the Victory that Christ gained on the cross was a victory that was cosmic. It affected not only you and me, but all of Creation. It may have seemed like an earthquake on the ocean floor but it created a tsunami that effected all of creation. The death and resurrection of Jesus were the decisive acts in defeating Satan and his armies. In Romans 8 Paul says,
20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now
The work of Christ has an effect much broader than its effect in your life and mine. He is the Savior of all that is created.
God’s Gracious Salvation
God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (20-21)
Notice first, the patience of God. He waited patiently for Noah to finish building the Ark. God’s judgment is not impulsive. It is well thought out. While Noah was building the Ark he surely was inviting people to repent.
Peter says, “eight were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also”. Only eight people (Noah’s immediate family) were saved. How does this relate to baptism?
Some say it means we must be baptized in order to be forgiven and made new. In Acts 2:38 it does say, “repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of your sins”. However, in at least five other places in the book of Acts repentance is mentioned as a prerequisite for salvation but baptism is not. Baptism is an outward declaration or demonstration of our trust in Christ. The water does not save us anymore than the water saved Noah. It was his faith in God’s promise that saved Noah and it is faith in Christ that saves us.
Peter is telling us: There is a choice that needs to be made. Peter reminds us that only eight people were saved by the Ark. That doesn’t mean others were not invited. I suspect Noah proclaimed the message of judgment clearly. God was (and is) wonderfully patient. The problem was: No one listened.
We face the same situation today. The Bible proclaims the possibility of forgiveness and a new beginning. It tells us that Jesus has done what is necessary for us to be brought into a fruitful and right relationship with God. He patiently invites us to place our faith in Christ. The question is: Will you listen or simply continue on your merry way?
The Current Reign of Christ
Throughout this passage Peter has been exalting the name and the work of Christ. If we put our focus on wicked angels, second chances, or a list of requirements for salvation we have missed the point. The focus is Christ! Peter concludes saying,
22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
Jesus is the One sent from God. He is the one who makes provision for our forgiveness. He is the One who rose from the dead. He is the one who announced victory and restoration to all of creation. He now is in Heaven where he sits at the place of honor. He has authority over all. He is the One we must follow.
Over the last several weeks we have talked about our responsibility to submit to those in authority. Jesus is that ultimate authority. He is in charge. All of creation submits to Him!!! Peter challenges us to bow before Him as the only sufficient Savior. He calls us to serve Him as the good and the ultimate Ruler over all. Everything else builds on this foundation.
This whole section began in the context of confidently enduring suffering. He tells us in verse 17 that it is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. How do these verses help us in the time of suffering or persecution?
First, they remind us that our Lord is the true Lord. He alone can vindicate us. He will strengthen us. He will always do what is right. He sits upon the throne as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. No matter how “out of control” things may seem, they are not “out of control” at all. The Lord has won the victory and reigns supreme. We can trust Him.
Second, we should endure times of suffering because Jesus has proved His love for us. He has suffered on our behalf. He has taken our penalty upon Himself. He has given us new life. We serve Him because He deserves our service. We serve Him because it is the highest delight of life to do so. We serve Him because we know that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
Third, we endure suffering for doing what is right because the world needs to hear the message of salvation. Jesus endured so we might become part of God’s family. Noah was faithful because he knew it was necessary to save his family and the creatures of the earth. In a similar way we must remain faithful even though we may be scorned and ridiculed on account of our faith. We do this because the world needs the message of Christ. We must make whatever sacrifice is necessary to save our friends and family.
We would do whatever we could to save the physical life of our family and maybe some of our friends. We would risk our own lives, we would spend all we have, we would donate organs, give our blood, bone marrow or anything else that could help. Peter is challenging us to have this same kind of intensity when it comes to saving them from spiritual death and destruction. He calls us to endure so people might see Christ in us. Our job is to magnify Him! Why? Because He is the One who loves us. He is the One we need. He is the One our family and our friends need as well.
You may feel that you are failing. If so, make whatever changes are necessary, and keep going. Perhaps your family member, friend, or neighbor will see through your faithfulness, the love of Jesus. Nowhere in the Bible are we told that this will be easy. We are only told that when someone we love comes to truly believe, it will all be worth it.
So hang in there beloved. Remember who is on the throne. Remember what He has done for you. Remember what is at stake. Then hang on, speak up, and remain faithful.