Text: 1 Pet 3:8-22
Physically attacked, socially isolated, emotionally abused, the first readers of this letter were Jewish Christian forced by persecution to flee from Jerusalem to the four corners of Asia Minor. But then, following the great fire at Rome in AD 64, they were faced with yet more persecution under the cruel tyranny of the emperor Nero. Rome was determined to rid its empire of those who refused to bow to Caesar – to eliminate from the face of the earth the ‘Christ-ones’, the Christians. Peter, the writer of this letter, had first-hand experience of persecution. Beaten and imprisoned himself, he had also seen fellow Christians die and the church scattered. He well understood the temptation to turn back, to give in. But he knew Christ, and nothing could shake his confidence in his risen Lord.
So Peter writes this letter to assure his readers of God’s great blessings to his people, and to offer guidance and encouragement in times of suffering. The question that is addressed in this chapter in particular, is ‘How are Christians supposed to behave in a world that is largely hostile towards them and their faith?’
You will notice that Peter has a lot of ‘bee’s in his bonnet’. V8: ‘be united’, ‘be sympathetic’; ‘be loving’; ‘be compassionate’; ‘be humble’. All these are to do with Christians’ relationships with one another.
Then, in v9, Peter gives some instruction on Christians’ relationships with those who do not share their faith, and indeed may be hostile towards them. He says, ‘be a blessing.’ Then v14, ‘Be unafraid.’ Again, v15, ‘Be prepared to give an answer.’ But not in blustering or aggressive manner: ‘Be gentle; be respectful.’
The trouble with these is that they are ‘apple pie and motherhood’ qualities: you can no more be against unity, sympathy, love, and compassion, than you can be against apple pie and motherhood. Our problem is not believing this stuff; it’s doing it. The good news is that Peter seems to be aware of our frustration, he therefore has a wonderful way of linking instruction with motivation:-
1. Be a blessing to others. Why? Because you will then inherit a blessing, vv9-12. ‘Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.’ Peter supports this with a quote from Psalm 34, which is curiously this-worldly in its promise of a blessing to those who bless others.
2. Do good to others. Why? Because they will then be less likely to hurt you, vv13, 16f. ‘Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?’ This is, of course, a relative, not an absolute truth. Members of a decent society, even though it is not a Christian society, will not generally go out of their way to harm people who are being kind to them.
3. In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Why? Because you will then have less to fear those who are hostile to you, v14f. ‘Do not be frightened. But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord’. The old hymn sums it up perfectly, ‘Fear him, ye saints, and you will then have nothing else to fear.’
4. Be willing to suffer for doing good, because in so doing you will be following the example of Christ, vv17-22. Being a faithful Christian in a faithless world will not always win you friends. Being able to state ‘the reason for the hope that you have’ will not always result in the conversion of a dozen grateful souls. Sometimes your very truthfulness and integrity will cause others to despise you. Jesus himself was hated more than anyone else, even though he did more good than anyone else.
Thus far, it’s been pretty much plain sailing. The wind has been behind us and we’ve been voyaging smoothly towards our destination in v22 and its exalted view of Christ, triumphantly seated at God’s right hand in heaven. But at this point we take a quick check of our bearings only to discover that two jagged rocks are looming in front of us. We’re about to come face to face with two of the most notorious ‘hard sayings’ in the whole of the Bible.
Verses 18-21 – ‘Christ was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when 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, 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.’
(a) ‘The spirits in prison’
- Who are these ‘spirits in prison’?
- When did Christ go and preach to them?
- What did Christ preach to them?
To be honest, no-one is sure exactly what Peter is going on about here. Wayne Grudem has a 36-page, industrial-strength discussion of the ‘spirits in prison’, and outlines no less than 5 different interpretations. The trouble is, they all tend to make Peter say things that aren’t taught elsewhere in Scripture. So let me run interpretation #6 by you:-
‘Don’t be afraid of suffering in a good cause. Those who persecute you may hurt you, but they can do you no real lasting harm. Christ himself, in suffering, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, suffered for doing good. And, though his suffering resulted in his dying in the physical realm, it led also to his being made alive in the spiritual realm. And in the spiritual realm he has now gone and preached the gospel via his apostles and evangelists to those who are in spiritual captivity. Among such spiritual captives had been those disobedient people in Noah’s day who tested God’s patience while the ark was being built. If a few people – eight in all – could be safely delivered from danger during those evil days long before the coming of Christ, how much more is our own deliverance assured now that his saving work is completed and he reigns supreme in glory?’
Fortunately, even though we may not be able to flesh out Peter’s thought here, the bare bones poke through very clearly: “Just as Christ suffered in his body but was raised triumphant in the Spirit, so he is an example to those who belong to him, who may suffer in this life but who share in his glorious triumph.”
(b) But we’re not quite there yet. There is just that little matter of ‘baptism that now saves you,’ v21. This tends to make us slightly twitchy. ‘Is Peter seriously asking us to believe that merely sprinkling or dunking someone in water will save that person’s soul?’ ‘Surely, we’re saved by faith,’ someone cries. ‘I thought we were saved by grace,’ asserts another. ‘But aren’t we saved by the blood of Christ?’ asks yet another. Well, of course, they’re all true. And we are saved by baptism, along with all those other things that baptism signifies. Certainly, Peter makes it quite plain that he is not thinking simply of the outward act of baptism, when he links baptism with ‘the pledge of a good conscience toward God.’
‘Just as Noah and his family were carried by the waters of the flood to safety, so Christian believers are carried by the waters of baptism to safety, baptism speaking of their having been buried with Christ with respect to their old sinful life, and their having been raised with him with respect to their new life in him. Baptism is a sign and seal of this new life in Christ, and a public confession that they belong to God.’
And so Peter finishes on his note of high triumph, v22. Whatever our troubles in this life, we are safe, because Christ is triumphant.
He has risen from the dead
He has gone into heaven.
He sits at God’s right hand
All things – all spiritual powers especially – are in submission to him.
Such, then, is the much-needed motivation that Christians need to behave as Christians in a largely hostile world. It is difficult to know how the crisis in our world today will pan out. It may be that events are being triggered that will lead to more hostility towards those who follow Jesus Christ as ‘the way, the truth and the life’? It may be that it will be harder to live faithfully as Christians during the next ten years than it has been during the last ten years. It may be that we will find ourselves in situations that look more and more like the situation into which Peter was speaking. If so, we will need his instruction and encouragement all the more, so that we may
- know what it means to live in harmony, sympathy, brotherly love, compassion and humility with one another
- know how to behave as Christians in a hostile and unfriendly world
- are prepared to give a gentle and respectful answer to those who may challenge us to explain the hope that we have
- look to Jesus, our Saviour, guide, example, and friend, who died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God; to Jesus, who is risen from the dead and who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand, with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow,
every tongue confess him King of glory now.
In your hearts enthrone him; there let him subdue
all that is not holy, all that is not true;
Crown him as your captain in temptation’s hour,
let his will enfold you in its light and power.
For all wreaths of empire meet upon his brow,
and our hearts confess him King of glory now.