Christ Also Suffered, Part 1 (1 Peter 3:18-22)

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Introduction

I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles once again to the book of 1 Peter. In our time together this morning we will begin to cover 1 Peter 3:18-22. If you do not have a Bible with you today, I encourage you to make use of one of the pew Bibles where you will find this passage located on page 1016.

This morning is the final Sunday in October, which means it is a very special Sunday for us as Protestant Christians. Wednesday of this week is October 31st, which is not only Halloween but also 501st anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. And, as we discussed last year, and a few other times before, it was Luther’s actions on that day which really kicked off the movement we now know as the Protestant Reformation. Yes, because of men like Luther, we have returned to a biblical understanding of the gospel, and a biblical understanding of the Bible as our sole authority in the Church.

Now, I don’t have plans to revisit last year’s sermon on Luther this morning, but I do find it humorous that on this Reformation Sunday, I am preaching on a text that Martin Luther described as “a strange text” and a passage that is more obscure “than any other passage in the New Testament.” This passage is so difficult, in fact, that after studying it, Luther famously said, “I still do not know for sure what the apostle meant.”1 And Luther isn’t the only one who has struggled with this passage. It is still regarded, by modern interpreters, as one of the most difficult-to-understand passages in the whole Bible.

Now, I knew this was a difficult text before I ever started to study it. And I thought I had arranged things where I wouldn’t have to preach it. I tried feigning an illness a couple of weeks ago and planning a hike last week that would set Lamar up to preach this passage for me. But last week Lamar not only preached a slam-dunk sermon that made me look like an amateur, but he also dodged this passage altogether and tossed it back to me like we’re playing hot potato with it. And so here I stand this morning with the responsibility of explaining a passage to you that men as brilliant as Martin Luther could not figure out.

But, if I was discouraged in my studies last week by what Martin Luther had to say about this passage, I was also encouraged when I remembered something that one of my favorite preachers, Alistair Begg, is fond of saying about the Bible—particularly when it comes to a difficult passage like this one. He often says, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.” In other words, when we come to a confusing section of Scripture, we ought not worry ourselves to an excessive degree about the obscure things that we cannot understand, but we should instead trust that God’s plain word to us in that passage is the main thing he wants us to understand. And that is undoubtedly going to be my approach with the passage before us today. Because, when read in context, there is a pretty clear message for us. And that is what I will focus on today. Yes, there are some confusing things, and I plan to spend some time discussing those next week. But this morning we are going to focus on the main things which, as Alistair Begg says, are the plain things. So, if you haven’t already, please turn with me in your Bibles to 1 Peter 3, and follow along as I read this very interesting passage from verses 18-22.

18 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. (1 Peter 3:18–22 ESV)

So, as I said, there are some pretty tricky things here. For example, who are the spirits in prison to whom Jesus went to preach? And where exactly is this prison? And when exactly did Jesus go to it and what exactly did he say? Well, we will talk about those things next week. So I hope you’ll come back. And what about the stuff Peter has to say about baptism in verse 21? What does he mean when he ways that baptism saves us? Should we forget preaching the gospel, and just try to get people to let us baptize them not caring about what they believe? Is that what Peter is suggesting? That the physical act of putting someone underwater is all that is needed to save them? Well again, we will talk about that next week, and I hope you’ll come back for that sermon.

But this week, we are going to focus on the plain things in this passage. And the plain things in this passage focus on the suffering of Jesus Christ and what his suffering has accomplished for us. Now, it is important that before we dive into verse 18, that we notice how it is connected to verse 17. In verse 17 Peter says, “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” And that is what we discussed in my last sermon from 1 Peter. We talked about the fact that sometimes we are going to suffer for righteousness sake or for doing good in this world. We talked about how we ought to be prepared to endure persecution for our faith and ready to explain to onlookers why we have hope in the midst of our suffering.

Well, after making that point in his letter, Peter wanted to remind the original recipients of this letter—people who were currently suffering for their faith—that their Savior suffered for doing good as well. Yes, after acknowledging the possibility that we, as Christians, might have to suffer for our faith, and might have to endure slander and reviling for what we believe, Peter begins verse 18 by saying, “For Christ also suffered.”

Brothers and sisters, we must never forget that our Savior was a suffering Savior. And we must always remember, that all the benefits we are currently enjoying, and will always enjoy as Christians, are possible only because “Christ also suffered.” So, instead of getting distracted this morning by the problematic things in this passage, I’d like to begin our study of these verses by looking at what Peter has to say about the suffering of Jesus Christ and what that suffering accomplished for us.

Christ suffered for our sins

And the first thing Peter tells us about Christ’s suffering is that his suffering was for our sins. Do you see that at the beginning of verse 18? Peter doesn’t just say that “Christ also suffered,” and leave it at that. But he tells why Christ suffered. And the first reason he gives is that Christ suffered for our sins. Yes, brothers and sisters, even though the Jewish religious leaders trumped up false accusations against Jesus and turned him over to Pontius Pilate. And yes, even though Pilate knew Jesus was innocent when he turned him over to the Roman soldiers who mocked him and beat him and crucified him. Yes, even though all those things are true, the ultimate reason Jesus suffered was because of our sin. This is what the Bible tells us here and in many other places. Yes, the Jewish leaders played a role in putting him on the cross. Yes, Pilate played a role in putting him on the cross. And yes, the Roman soldiers played a role in putting him on the cross. But so did we.

Yes, friends, Christ also suffered for our sins—for my sins and for your sins. And so, we are as complicit in the death of Jesus as those who were screaming “crucify him!” We are as complicit as the Jewish religious leaders who leveled false accusations against him. We are as complicit as Pilate who allowed the death of an innocent man. And we are as complicit in the suffering and death of Jesus as the Roman soldiers who beat him and nailed him to the cross. We are complicit because ultimately the reason Jesus suffered was for our sins. And that’s the first thing Peter tells us in this passage about Christ’s suffering.

Christ suffered in our place

But, Jesus didn't only suffer for our sins, he also suffered in our place. Yes, according to Peter, what took place on the cross was the righteous suffering for the unrighteous. That's the next thing Peter tells us about Jesus's suffering. Do you see it in verse 18? Peter says, ”For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous.” Yes, when he suffered on the cross—as a sinless, innocent man—he suffered in our place. He took the punishment we deserve. Yes, while Jesus died a death he did not deserve, he didn't die an undeserved death. It’s just that we deserved it, not him. He went to the cross as our substitute. The righteous for the unrighteous. That's the second thing Peter tells us in this passage about Christ’s suffering.

Now, what does it mean for Jesus to be righteous? And what does it mean for us to be unrighteous? Well when Peter says that Jesus suffered as a righteous man, it means that Jesus was not stained by sin like the rest of us. He was a perfect, unblemished sacrifice and that is what made his death an acceptable sacrifice for our sins in God’s eyes. It was, in fact, the only sacrifice that would do. The righteous had to die for the unrighteous. He had no sin guilt of his own, and he could, therefore, die as a substitute for us. And thankfully, according to 1 Peter 3:18, that is exactly what happened when Jesus suffered on the cross in our place. Since “the wages of sin is death,” someone had to die to atone for our sins. And, it is either going to be us, or it is going to be Christ in our place. Yes, either we trust in Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross, or we’ll pay the price for our sin on our own. Those are the only options.

Christ Suffered to bring us to God

Ok, so according to 1 Peter 3:18, Christ suffered for our sins, and he suffered in our place, and by doing so, he made it possible for our sins to be forgiven. But, did you know he had an even bigger purpose in mind? Yes, as wonderful as it is for our sins to be forgiven, did you know that by dying on the cross Jesus has done something even greater than that? Let’s read the verse again and see what Peter says about why Jesus suffered for our sins.

He says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” So there’s his purpose. Jesus suffered for our sins “that he might bring us to God.” You see, friends, one of the things sin has done is to separate us from God. God is completely holy, and he cannot allow anyone still stained by sin into his presence. As sinners, we have to be washed clean before we can come into God’s presence. And the only thing capable of cleaning us from our sin is the blood of the unblemished Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.

“But Jimmy,” you might be saying, “how can you be so confident in all of this. Isn’t this sort of an outlandish thing to believe? That someone could serve as a sacrifice for me and my sins?” Well, yes, it’d be hard for me to believe it too if Jesus didn’t keep his promise that he’d be raised from the dead. Yes, friends, the reason for my unwavering confidence in these things is because while Jesus was put to death in his flesh, he was also, according to the Gospels and according to 1 Peter 3:18, “made alive in the spirit.” In other words, he didn’t stay dead. And because he didn’t stay dead, I can trust that the things he said about his death are actually true. He really is the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world. He really did come, not to be served, but to serve others by giving his life as a ransom for many. Everything he promised is true, and because he has risen, I can believe what he says. In fact, I’d be crazy not to. Some people think Christians are crazy for what we believe. I say we’d be crazy not to believe a man who kept his promise to die and come back to life three days later. But maybe that’s just me.

Now, after telling us at the end of verse 18 that Jesus was “made alive in the spirit,” Peter goes on in verse 19 to tell us that it was in the spirit that “[Jesus] went and proclaimed (or preached) to the spirits in prison.” And this is where the difficult stuff in this passage begins, and we’ll come back to all this next week. Again, I want to focus on the plain message in this text before we dive into the difficult things, because I know that the difficult things have the potential to distract us from the main things.

Christ suffered to obtain victory over evil

But, before we wrap up for today, there’s one more detail in this passage about Christ’s suffering that I would like to cover. And we find it in verse 22. After mentioning his resurrection in verse 21, Peter tells us that Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” And what this means is that in addition to suffering for our sins, and suffering in our place, and suffering to bring us to God, that Jesus also suffered to obtain victory over evil. Yes, while it may have appeared that evil had won when Jesus died on the cross… and yes, while Satan and his army of fallen angels must have been celebrating as they watched the Son of God die, what they didn’t realize is that it was always God’s plan to use the suffering death of his Son to obtain victory over evil. What they didn’t realize is that by working and plotting to send Jesus to the cross, they were actually participating in their own demise. And now, Jesus is sitting on his throne in triumph over all his enemies—which includes all the demonic powers and authorities who are at work in this world. They are now all subject to and in submission to Jesus Christ who is Lord of all. And what this meant for the original recipients of Peter’s letter, is that while they may have currently been suffering in a variety of evil ways, their suffering would come to an end and they would soon know what it was like to reign with Jesus in victory over all the evil in this world.

Friends, in his suffering Jesus took away the sting of death, the power of sin, and the threats of Satan. None of those things rule us anymore as Christians. We don’t worry about death because, like Christ, we will be raised. While we still struggle with sin, it is no longer our master, and it cannot control us anymore. And while Satan is still very powerful and very dangerous, he is a defeated foe whose days are numbered—and he knows it! Yes, we are still going to suffer in this world. Yes, there is still a great deal of evil to endure. But no matter what we are facing, we can find encouragement in the fact that Jesus is on his throne and he has already defeated all the evil forces at work in the world. And the day is soon coming when we will get to experience this victory for ourselves. The day is coming where death will be nothing more than a distant memory from an era long ago. The day is coming when sin will be something that we can hardly even remember. The day is coming when Satan and all his workers of evil will be locked away forever in a place where they can do no more harm to God’s people. Yes, friends, that day is coming, and according to the Bible, it is coming soon.

Conclusion

So, let me ask you… Are you ready for that day? Are you prepared to see Jesus sitting at the right hand of God with all the angels, authorities, and spiritual powers in subjection to him? Friends, we are not talking about the meek and mild baby Jesus here. We are talking about a king more powerful than anything we can comprehend, and one day we are all going to stand before him, and we will do so either as faithful servants or rebellious traitors. And I assure you that on that day, you are not going to want to figure out that you have been living your life in rebellion to him. I assure you that on that day you are going to want to be on the side of victory and triumph. And since we don't know for sure when “that” day is going to arrive, it would be wise to not leave here this morning without knowing where and with whom you stand.

So where are you at today? Are you trusting in Jesus Christ and his suffering on the cross to bring you to God? Or are you closing your eyes and crossing your fingers while telling yourself that everything is going to work out fine? Where are you at today? Don’t leave here without being certain on this issue. The stakes are really high. Your eternity is riding on your decision.

Now, this has been a pretty short sermon from a very difficult passage. And part of what I have wanted to accomplish this morning is to show you the importance of making the plain things in a passage the main things in a passage. It would have been easy for us to get distracted by the difficult-to-understand things in verses 19, 20, and 21 while missing the very easy to understand message found in the beginning and ending verses from this passage. But to do so would have meant missing the main point of this section from Peter’s letter.

Now, with that said, next week we are going to come back to this passage, and after a brief review of what we have discussed this morning, I am going to try to tackle for you the more difficult things sandwiched between the two verses we have focused on today. But, I’m very serious when I say, “Don’t wait until next week to make up your mind about Jesus.” There is nothing in the remaining verses of this passage that is going to change the truth of anything I said today. So, don’t wait until next week to make up your mind about Jesus, because next week might be too late. The fact is, none of us knows what tomorrow will bring. But I do know that we have a Savior who suffered for our sins, suffered in our place, suffered to bring us to God, and suffered to obtain victory over evil. And this Savior is calling you now to trust in his work on the cross and give yourself fully to him. So, have you done that today? If not, what’s keeping you from doing it right now? Would you think about that as I pray?

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  1. Pelikan 1967: 113 quoted in Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 236. ↩︎