The Risen Christ is the Victorious Sufferer
Passage: 1 Peter 3:18–3:22
The Risen Christ is the Victorious Sufferer
This week, we come to the most difficult paragraph in the entire letter of 1 Peter. In fact, 1 Peter 3.18-22 is one of most difficult passages in all of the NT! There is much debate over how to interpret this paragraph. And th3 debate is well-deserved! As you can tell from reading the passage together, there is some hard stuff in these verses! So, as we proceed this morning, let’s do so with humility. Let’s be humble enough to acknowledge publicly and openly our complete need for God’s help in understanding this passage! Now, this should be our attitude every week as we come to the text of Scripture. This is God’s Word, not ours. So, we need his Spirit’s help in interpreting and applying what we read. That’s our mindset every week. But this week, with this difficult text, let’s be especially aware of our humble need for the Spirit’s help.
And let’s be humble enough to acknowledge that Christians in good conscience can and often disagree over how to interpret this passage, particularly vv19-20. I will offer my interpretation this morning, and I will do my best to apply it to our lives. But there are other options that good Christians hold to. So, let’s be humble about our conclusion.
But that humility doesn’t mean that we should refrain from offering our views. Part of the reason God has given us hard passages is to make us dig for the truth. And often, it is these hard passages that yield the most rewarding fruit in study. In some sense, that is the case this week. The more we dig this morning, the more we will find encouragement and insight and truth that delights the heart.
Even though this passage is hard, it makes an important point. The point of this paragraph is this – Christ suffered in death, but through his resurrection and ascension, he has proclaimed victory over all evil forces. Let me repeat that. Christ suffered in death, but through his resurrection and ascension, he has proclaimed victory over all evil forces. That’s the point of vv18-22. And that means this paragraph has something very encouraging to say to Christians who suffer as well. Because Christ passed through the grave and is now at the Father’s right hand, believers have no reason to fear any suffering they might experience here and now. Instead – and here’s the truly amazing point – believers can be assured of their own victory through the once suffering but now victorious Jesus Christ.
Now, because this passage is so difficult to interpret, I have a very simple approach this morning. I want to begin by connecting this week’s passage to last week’s. And then I want to offer a verse-by-verse exposition of the passage, making application at each point along the way. A very simple approach, but one, I hope, that is not really that much different from what we normally do! So, we begin with the connection to last week’s passage.
Vv18-22 are closely connected with vv13-17. The two paragraphs are tied together logically in the flow of the letter. See how v18 begins with the word for? That tells us the two paragraphs are closely related. How are they related? To answer that, we need to remind ourselves of what we saw last week. V13 marked the beginning of Peter’s intentional focus on preparing his readers to suffer as Christians. Through chapter 2, Peter called his readers to honorable conduct in the world. Then in 3.13, he began to prepare them to suffer that honorable conduct.
Peter’s first step in preparation was to help them think rightly about suffering. Remember? Suffering in the present cannot ultimately the believer. In fact, it leads to God’s blessing. That’s how believers should think about suffering for righteousness. That right thinking leads to the right response. Believers should not fear other people, but instead should set apart Christ as Lord and be ready to give a defense for his lordship. That was the thrust of last week’s passage – we must think rightly about suffering so that we might respond rightly to suffering.
In this week’s passage, Peter gives us the theological foundation for vv13-17. Vv18-22 explain and support Peter’s teaching in vv13-17:
How is it true that suffering cannot ultimately harm the believer? Because Christ suffered and was exalted through his resurrection. His resurrection secures our resurrection.
How is it true that suffering for righteousness leads to blessing? Because Christ suffered in death, but through his resurrection is vindicated and exalted as the Lord of the universe.
How is it that believers can live without fear of others but instead honor Christ as Lord? Because through his resurrection and ascension, Christ has taken up the position of authority at the Father’s right hand, where he ever reigns as the Lord of all things.
So, you see how vv18-22 are the foundation of vv13-17? They explain and support the points from last week’s passage.
Now, as Peter enters v18, his focus is still on preparing Christians to suffer for righteousness, but this week, he has a distinct emphasis on encouragement and hope. Vv18-22 are full of truths about Christ that should encourage believers as they face suffering themselves. So, last week, we were challenged with how to respond in the midst of suffering. This week, Peter encourages us with truths about Christ’s victory over suffering. Specifically, as we work through these verses, I think we see four truths about Christ’s victory that encourage suffering Christians. Let’s work through the passage, verse-by-verse, in order to see those encouraging truths.
Christ Suffered for Us to Bring Us to God
First encouraging truth – Christ suffered for us, to bring us to God. We see this in v18: “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.”
Peter begins this paragraph by acknowledging our common experience with Christ. He says that Christ also suffered. So, right from the start, Peter encourages these suffering Christians that they are not alone; Christ also suffered. This should be an encouragement to any Christian who suffers for righteousness – you are not alone. If you lose your job because of your commitment to do what is right, you are not alone. Christ also suffered. If you lose your reputation or standing among friends because of your faith in Christ, you are not alone. Christ also suffered. If you are mocked for the righteousness, you are not alone. Christ also suffered. Don’t miss the encouragement of this simple point. Suffering is not a sign of God’s displeasure with his people. Rather, when we suffer for righteousness, we should remember that Christ also suffered. Whatever difficulty we are destined to endure, we never endure it alone. Christ also suffered.
But Peter quickly moves on from our common experience to emphasize Christ’s unique suffering. Yes, we are encouraged that Christ also suffered, but the heart of Peter’s encouragement runs deeper than that. If we will pay attention to Peter’s description of Christ’s suffering, then we will find that deeper encouragement. Note that there are five unique aspects to Christ’s suffering in v18:
Number 1 – Christ suffered as a sin offering. Note where Peter says Christ suffered for sins. That particular phrase for sins often refers to the sin offering in the OT, and that is Peter’s point as well. When Christ suffered and died, he did so as a sin offering.
Number 2 – Christ suffered once as that sin offering. Note Peter specifically says Christ suffered once. Christ’s offering wasn’t like the offerings of the OT, which were done over and over and over. No, when Christ suffered as the sin offering, he did so only once. That means his offering was greater than the OT offerings; his sacrifice was sufficient where the OT sacrifices were insufficient. Christ’s offering is never repeated because it was perfect and complete.
Number 3 – Christ suffered as our substitute. Note Peter says Christ suffered, the righteous for the unrighteous. When Christ offered up his life, he was not paying for his own sins. He was sinless; he was righteous. He was paying for our sins, for the sins of the unrighteous. Just as the lamb on the temple altar shed it’s blood for the sins of God’s people, so also Christ has shed his blood for the sins of his people, the church.
Number 4 – Christ suffering brought us to God. Why did Christ suffer once as the sin offering for the sins of his people? So that he might bring us to God. The word communicates the idea of access. Sinners have been given access to God the Father through the suffering of God the Son.
Number 5 – Christ’s suffering led to his resurrection. Note at the end of the verse, Peter uses two phrases. The first one is “being put to death in the flesh.” That is a reference to Christ’s death, his moment of suffering. Then Peter says – but made alive in the Spirit, or we could say made alive by the Spirit. That is a reference to Christ’s resurrection. Christ suffered death in the flesh; he was killed. But by the power of the Spirit, his suffering led to his resurrection! No other person has suffered death only to be resurrected. Christ’s suffering is unique in that it leads to his resurrection.
Now, if we step back and look at all those unique aspects together, that’s where we find Peter’s encouragement. Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice of himself for sinners has brought us to God. We belong finally and securely to God, and nothing can change that. But how do we know that we belong to God and nothing can change that? Because Christ was made alive by the Spirit! Because of the resurrection! Christ’s suffering was unique in that he perfectly and completely accomplished the salvation of his people. This means his people can have hope in the midst of their own suffering. Though you may suffer now – losing job, losing reputation, mocking, even death for some – none of those things will ultimately harm you, because you belong to God. And that is a blood-bought, resurrection-sealed reality. Nothing can shake it because nothing can change the fact that Christ conquered death and rose from the grave.
Christ’s unique suffering should give believers an unshakeable, fearless hope in the face of suffering. When you tempted to turn back from righteousness out of fear of what others might do to you, remember this – Christ has brought you to God, and nothing can change that. Not even what they might do to you in the here and now. Therefore, you can gladly and joyfully give yourself to righteousness and not fear what might happen to you.
So, that is Peter’s first encouraging truth – Christ suffered for us, to bring us to God. And nothing can change that rock-solid, blood-bought, resurrection-sealed truth.
Christ’s Resurrection Proclaims His Victory Over All Evil Powers
Second encouraging truth – Christ’s resurrection proclaims his victory over all evil powers. We see this in vv19-20. Follow along – “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 the water.” So, here is where it gets difficult. As we look at these two verses, there are three key questions that we have to wrestle with: One – How should we understand Christ’s journey? Peter said he went; where did he go, what does that mean? Two – who are these spirits, and why are they in prison? Three – what did Christ proclaim to these spirits? Those are the key questions before us.
Let me give you a summary of my interpretation first, and then let me show you how I get to that interpretation. Even though these verses are hard, they make an important, encouraging point. Here’s my interpretation – as the resurrected Christ, Jesus proclaimed victory over demonic powers who had been imprisoned for pursuing wickedness on earth during the days of Noah. Let me repeat that – as the resurrected Christ, Jesus proclaimed victory over demonic powers who had been imprisoned for pursuing wickedness on earth during the days of Noah. That’s what I think this verse means. For the all the obscure stuff, don’t lose sight of the main point – Jesus is victorious over all evil powers. That’s the meat. I know there is other stuff to chew on, but don’t lose sight of that – Jesus is victorious.
Now, let me show you how I get to that interpretation. In trying to understand hard passages of the Bible, here is a good principle – let Scripture interpret Scripture. Use clearer passages of the Bible to interpret harder passages. We can actually do that here, in this very paragraph. If you look closely, v22 is similar to v19, and v22 is much clearer than v19. By comparing the two verses, we can come to an interpretation. So, three points of comparison:
Comparison #1 – in v22, Jesus has gone into heaven. The word has gone in v22 is the same as went in v19, in the original language. Since it’s the same word in the same paragraph, it makes most sense to conclude they refer to the same thing. So, in v22, the reference is to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven. Therefore, v19 also refers to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven. The point of the passage is not that Jesus descended into hell, but that he ascended into heaven in victory.
Comparison #2 – in v22, angels, authorities, and powers are subjected to Jesus. That is, they are put under his authority. The spirits in v19 most likely have the same identity as those beings listed in v22. They are evil, demonic powers that have been put under Christ. This is the overwhelming usage of spirits in the NT; it refers to demonic forces. Now, why are they in prison? V20 tells – they were disobedient during the days of Noah. I think this is most likely a reference to Genesis 6, where I take it, fallen angels pursue ungodly relationships with human women and thus spread evil all over the earth. That was the standard interpretation of Genesis 6 in Peter’s day, and I think it is the best explanation of why these spirits are in prison in 1 Peter.
Comparison #3 – in v22, the demonic forces are subjected to Jesus. That is, he defeats them; he’s victorious over them. I think that helps us understand Jesus’ proclamation in v19. He’s not proclaiming the gospel to the dead in hell. Rather, he’s announcing his victory over all forces of evil through his resurrection and ascension.
So, based on those comparisons, I think the best interpretation is that these verses are about the resurrected Christ proclaiming victory over the forces of evil. And that’s really the important point. Despite the difficulties, these verses give us an exalted vision of the Victorious Christ. He has suffered in the flesh, being put to death on the cross. That moment of suffering appeared to be the moment of victory for the forces of evil. Yet, exactly the opposite is the case! Through his suffering, he has been exalted in resurrection. And he now ascends on high, to the right hand of the Father. And as he ascends again to the Father, his resurrected life proclaims victory and triumph for God and the gospel! He was not defeated in death. No, his death set the stage for his victory! That is what we have in these glorious verses of Scripture.
As we reflect on this Victorious Christ, think of all the encouragement for suffering Christians. Because Christ defeated evil powers, we can face present suffering with confidence. We don’t have to fear being overwhelmed by evil in our own lives. Why? Because we belong to the Crucified, Risen, and Ascended Christ, and he has defeated all forces of darkness! There is nothing that can harm us, if we are zealous to follow this Christ. He has shattered the powers of evil. Therefore, no evil could ever possibly steal us from Christ’s victorious grip.
But there’s more. Because Christ defeated the forces of evil, any suffering in the present is ultimately temporary. In his wisdom and providence, Christ allows his people to suffer in the here and now. His victory is not fully consummated in our lives; we still suffer. And we saw last week, this is because often times, suffering for righteousness most powerfully reveals Christ’s glory. So, in his wisdom, Christ still allows his people to suffer. But as we endure that suffering, we can do so with the knowledge that it is only temporary. There will come a glorious day when the sky will split and the ascended Christ will descend once more to gather his people and consummate his victory over sin, death, and the devil. That day is coming and it is coming soon. That means all suffering here and now is temporary. All evil is temporary. Take hope, suffering Christian. These trials will not last forever. Your victorious King will soon return to consummate what he has surely accomplished – your everlasting salvation and joy in him.
But there’s even more. Because Christ defeated the forces of evil, we have assurance that the end of our suffering will also be victory. The pain of suffering for Christ will be real and intense in this life. It will; Peter never minimizes that. But in the midst of that real and intense pain, there is the assurance that the end is victory. As you endure suffering for Christ, there is no doubt where your road ends. It ends in victory. Why? Because we are tough and determined and able to endure? No, but because Christ’s suffering ended in victory.
Oh, praise God for hard passages like this one! What sweet fruit that nourishes the soul. So, that’s our second truth – Christ’s resurrection proclaims his victory over all evil powers.
Through Christ’s Resurrection, Believers Have an Appeal before God
Now for the third encouraging truth – through Christ’s resurrection, believers have an appeal before God. Look at v21. “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.” So, v20 ended with the reference to Noah and the flood. That leads Peter to make a connection between the flood and baptism in v21. His point is this – a believer’s experience in baptism corresponds to the experience of Noah and his family in the flood. The connection works like this:
In the flood, the water represented death and God’s judgment on sin. Noah and his family were saved by taking refuge in the ark, which delivered them safely through the watery grave of the earth. Now, here’s the connection. In baptism, the water also represents death, or we normally say the grave. The believer is put under the water, symbolically put into the grave. Now, if you stay down under the water in baptism, you’ll die, right? So, the believer is then raised up out of the grave through the resurrection of Christ. That’s the point. Baptism is a picture of the believer taking refuge in the ark of Christ, and in that Ark that was greater than Noah’s, the believer is delivered from death and into God’s salvation.
Peter quickly prevents any misunderstanding by giving us two clarifying comments. Note that Peter says, “not as a removal of dirt from the body.” In other words, the act of baptism doesn’t save anyone. Nobody is born again because we immerse them in water. The physical act doesn’t do anything spiritual. But then note Peter says, “but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” That’s the correct understanding of baptism – it pictures a person’s faith in the death and resurrection Christ. Baptism signifies a person’s appeal to God for a good conscience, an appeal based not on our works or our goodness or even on our baptism, but based on the resurrection of Christ.
So, when a person puts their faith in Christ and comes to be baptized, that moment signifies their appeal to God through faith in the resurrection of Christ. Baptism pictures that person saying, “God, accept me, not because I deserve to escape the grave, but because I believe in the One who went to the grave for me and rose again for my justification.” Just as Noah and his family were delivered from a watery grave through the ark, so also the believer is delivered from the grave through the death and resurrection of Christ, a deliverance that is vividly pictured in baptism.
Now, listen to this encouragement. Whenever a sinner appeals to God through faith in the finished work of Christ, God always hears that appeal. God always listens to the sinner’s humble cry of faith. Those who take refuge in Christ by faith will always be delivered from the wrath of God. Always. We will not always be delivered from our earthly suffering. We may face trials and tribulations today, but we know what the last day holds – salvation. Through Christ’s resurrection, we have an appeal before God. Let the certainty of that appeal encourage and sustain you in the midst of suffering for Christ in the here and now.
The Risen Christ Reigns Now Over All Things
And now our final encouraging truth – the Risen Christ reigns now over all things. Look at v22 – “Christ has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” Peter closes by returning to the main idea of the entire paragraph. The Christ who suffered is now the Christ who has been resurrected. And he has ascended again to the right hand of the Father. And there, all powers have been subjected to him. He is victorious and reigning now over all things, even over those powers that cause suffering for his people.
One of the more difficult aspects of suffering for righteousness is that it tends to create difficult questions in the believer’s mind. Maybe the most difficult question is, “Where is God in the midst of this? Where is Christ when I am suffering?” This verse gives us the answer. He is reigning now, over all things. He is risen from the dead, he has ascended to heaven, and he is at the Father’s right hand. He is not absent. He is not powerless. He is not pre-occupied. He is risen and reigning and working all things out for your good.
And you can have confidence that your road of suffering for Christ will end in victory because his road of suffering for you ended in victory. He suffered death in your place, and he rose again in victory over the grave. He sits now in heaven, sovereignly ruling everything in your life. So, as you suffer for him, you can do so with unshakeable hope because he suffered for you. Your great hope in the midst of suffering is not that you will be able to endure. It’s not even that the suffering will end. Rather, your great hope is that Christ suffered for you, to bring you to God. And that is where your life is now – in God’s hands. Even when you suffer for righteousness, your life is in God’s hands. And though you suffer for Christ now, you can do so without fear, knowing that what awaits you is not death or defeat, but resurrection and exaltation. Why? Because the Christ who suffered for his people has been raised and is seated at the Father’s right hand. Those who belong to him will surely be exalted as well.