1 Peter 3 v 13 – 4 v 6
It would be all too easy to get thoroughly bogged down in this study trying to unravel who the “spirits in prison” are etc. It might prove an interesting discussion for some, but probably not particularly edifying for most. A Bible study is not the place to try and resolve all the questions thrown up by these verses – not that the questions are uninteresting or unimportant, but the study would be better used to look for the main points, and to help each other feed on the Word and apply the truths to our lives. I hope doing a slightly larger chunk will force you to look more at the wood rather than the trees, the thrust of the passage rather than the puzzling details.
Peter has been calling us to “live such good lives among the pagans…” (2:12), and has been outlining what such a good life looks like. It has been clear a number of times already that living a good life won’t necessarily be an easy life, and the thread running through these verses seems to be the issue of suffering for doing good: Peter spells out the convictions to hold on to, and examples to look to, when following Christ is costly.
Verse 14 acknowledges that sometimes doing good will not win the world’s favour, in fact we might suffer for it, but our confidence is still that no one can harm us, because we can be sure (v.12) that “the eyes of the Lord” are on us. That confidence should make us not fear what the world might do to us, but fear Christ – reverencing Him in our heart as Lord. One important way we show that we fear God, not man, is that we are ready to speak about our faith (actually, and strikingly, “our hope”) even under hostile questioning, which seems the likely scenario in the context. We’re to speak with “gentleness and respect” and to keep a “clear conscience” before God, knowing that ultimately we will be vindicated, whereas our accusers will on the final day be “ashamed”, and the little we might suffer now for doing good is far preferable to the suffering then for those who have done evil. It is our hope which gives us confidence in the face of persecution.
This hope rests on the work of Christ. His suffering was his pathway to glory and will surely bring us to glory. His suffering was sin-bearing, substitutionary, and sufficient (hence “once”), and led to His exaltation to God’s right hand, and by His death He will surely “bring us to God”.
There are different ways of understanding v.19, I have changed my mind over the years, but I don’t think it is worth getting bogged down with it. Perhaps (and this is how the NIV leads us to understand it) it most likely refers to Christ’s proclamation of victory over demonic spirits after the resurrection when being exalted to “God’s right hand” (v.22), with every power and authority put under His feet. The “spirits” would seem to be the angels spoken of in Genesis 6:1-4, but I don’t think it matters if the group aren’t totally clear who the spirits are – most commentators aren’t completely sure – we can still grasp the main point: Christ’s triumph over all the powers of evil, which assures us in the midst of persecution of our ultimate vindication.
The reference back to Genesis 6 allows for a further encouragement from the example of Noah. Noah’s family were a strange minority in an evil world, but they were saved. In saying the waters of baptism save us (v.21), he of course means not simply the outward act, but what it symbolizes: “the pledge of a clear conscience towards God” through our union with Christ. Whereas Paul particularly links baptism to our union with Christ in his death (Rom.6:4), Peter seems to have especially in view how baptism points to our union with Christ in his resurrection, and therefore the new life and sure hope that is now ours.
In view of Christ’s suffering and all it achieved, we should “arm ourselves with the same attitude”, which is to resolve to go the way of suffering because it is the way of holiness. We are done with sin now and want to live for the will of God. The world will heap abuse on us that we refuse to live its way, but Peter reminds us whose opinion ultimately counts. God will have the last word. Verse 6 speaks of Christians who have died: the world might think the Gospel ultimately did them no good at all, they died as everyone does, but actually the Gospel brings confidence of life beyond death.
Used with the permission of St Ebbe’s, Oxford