Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. 1 Peter 3:18
This passage is about more than suffering. It’s about more than unjust suffering. It’s about unjust suffering that you really don’t deserve, but you’re being blamed for it. That happened to the early Christians. They were convenient scapegoats. It happens today. When you find yourself in that hard place, what does the gospel say?
We need to know, because one criticism of Christianity is that it’s intolerant, socially harmful, even violent. But look how the gospel coaches us in unjust suffering. Nowhere does the apostle Peter tell us to settle the score. Just the opposite. He tells us to accept the insults and blows of unjust suffering. That doesn’t define foreign policy for our nation. But it does define the Christlike policy for our own lives. When we are made into scapegoats, the gospel directs us to Jesus: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example…. When he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:21, 23). That is not a sidebar to the gospel. It is the center. Unjust suffering was how he loved us and saved us. What is our most intense need in all of life? Not to make other people suffer for their sins. We need Someone Else to suffer for our sins. That is the message of the Bible from cover to cover.
People can pervert Christianity into something violent. But you don’t have to pervert Islam, for example, to make it violent. Just be true to Islam, and you will be violent. And the purer your Islam, the more violent you will be. The great message of Islam is not God dying for us, God suffering at our violent hands for our guilt to remove every barrier to his love pouring out upon his enemies.
Secularism too has violence built into it. Humanism looks to human potential for heaven on earth. But it creates hell on earth, and it cannot not do that. Secularism absolutizes the human will. There is nothing above to judge human power. That led to the guillotine of the French Revolution. It led to Vladimir Lenin, whose motto was “Who? Whom?” Who will dominate whom? It’s the law of the jungle. You think I’m exaggerating? Listen to Arthur Leff, the agnostic law professor at Yale:
All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that, if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should…. As things stand now, everything is up for grabs.
Obviously, Islam and humanism could not be more opposite to each other in some ways. One is religious, the other secular. One is medieval, the other modern. But they both unleash the fallen human heart.
The gospel is the only alternative to human violence: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example” (1 Peter 2:21). We Americans need to stop beating each other up, humble ourselves, and follow Christ. The whole world needs to be saturated in the gospel. We Christians need it. It’s why Peter wrote this.
The apostle Peter shows us how beautiful it is to follow Christ. It’s not easy. But it is beautiful. And the more undeserved your suffering is, the more beautifully you can show who Jesus really is. Let’s think it through.
For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. —1 Peter 3:17
If you follow Christ, you will suffer. Of course, if you don’t follow Christ, you’ll suffer infinitely more. But this verse clearly shows that the Prosperity Gospel is wrong. The Prosperity Gospel says it is God’s will that we succeed and stay healthy and win and stay on top. But the Bible is saying it might be God’s will that we suffer, even when we do good. That isn’t easy. It wasn’t easy for Christ, but it was beautiful and powerful and redemptive:
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, 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 water. —1 Peter 3:18-20
This is a difficult passage. What is Peter saying? The key is verse 18: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” At the cross, Jesus received into himself all the wrath we deserve for our sins. He was righteous. We are unrighteous. But in his great love he paid off the entire debt of our sin. That’s how he brought us back to God. Undeserved suffering can be redemptive. That is Peter’s point. God can use unjust suffering in our lives to bring more people to himself. Here is a truth we need to remember every day: Whenever the gospel moves into a new person’s life, it has cost someone something. Jesus himself accepted that. His love for the undeserving becomes real to people as we display it today. It’s powerful. Let’s not be discouraged.
We parents need to remember this, when our teenage kids break our hearts. Some kids are a great joy. Others turn away, and blame us for it. If that happens to you, remember the power of accepting unjust suffering. It might be the only thing to bring your child back. Don’t lash out. Keep praying, keep loving. There may come a day when your child finally breaks and finds in your Christlikeness a powerful incentive to come back.
Peter sees the redemptive power of unjust suffering throughout the Bible. He goes all the way back to Noah. What is Peter saying here about Noah and the flood? It makes sense if we take two steps in our thinking. One, we should understand that “the spirits in prison,” in verse 19, are the people of Noah’s day. They are now dead and awaiting final judgment. Peter is not saying that Christ preached to spirits in prison in Noah’s day; he is saying that Christ preached to people in Noah’s day who are now “spirits in prison.” It’s like saying, “Queen Elizabeth was born in 1926.” But in 1926 she was a princess, not a queen. She became the queen in 1952. But it’s okay to say, “Queen Elizabeth was born in 1926.” We know it’s just a way of compressing together facts that actually spread out over time. So, Peter is saying that Jesus preached to the people of Noah’s day—though not all of them listened.
That takes us to the second step in our thinking. When the apostles read the Old Testament, they saw Jesus on every page. They saw the entire Old Testament as a vast landscape of persons, events and institutions profiling Jesus ahead of time, telling the world what kind of Messiah to expect. We tend to read the Old Testament as inspiring stories we should imitate—Daniel in the lions’ den, and so forth. That’s not wrong. We should follow the Old Testament’s examples. But the good news is that Jesus did that perfectly for us. But the apostles read the Old Testament at that deeper level. So when Peter reads about Noah’s great flood, he sees Christ there.
What was Noah doing? Building an ark for a flood few people believed was coming. His life was prophetic. Elsewhere Peter calls Noah “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:7). Noah wanted to help people to get ready. He built an ark they could step into and be saved. But most people thought he was wasting his life. So that was Noah—a man doing the right thing, offering people salvation, and he suffered for it.
Isn’t that a picture of Jesus the Messiah? Peter sees Jesus speaking through Noah. The people who rejected Noah were really rejecting Jesus. That’s why they are now “spirits in prison.” They’re lost forever, because they rejected the voice of Christ. Here’s what that says to us today. When you and I speak for Christ, he is speaking through us. If you are misjudged, he is being rejected. Some people might blame you for their anger, but it’s Jesus in you they’re reacting against. Are you perfect? No. But was Noah? Jesus comes to our city today through imperfect people who suffer wrong for his sake.
What matters most in our lives is not popularity. We just want to make sure that nothing hinders our relationship with God. Our baptism symbolized that:
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, 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 3:21-22
Peter looks at the flood back then, he looks at Christian baptism today, and he sees a parallel. Coming to Christ through baptism is like getting into the ark. We are saying to him, “Even as this water trickles down my body, I am appealing to you to wash my heart deep within.” Peter calls it our “appeal,” in verse 21. It’s our heartcry to God for mercy. That is all God asks. It’s all we can do. It’s all we need, because our Savior is the most powerful person in the universe: “He is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities and powers subjected to him.” Whatever cruel things others may say, the King of the universe rejoices over you. Still, that takes courage and resolve. So Peter helps us:
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. —1 Peter 4:1-6
Unjust suffering is not only redemptive for others; it’s also good for us. Following Jesus is dangerous. So we need the attitudinal armor of verse 1: “Arm yourselves with this way of thinking.” Bishop Festo Kivengere had to flee Uganda in 1977, after his Archbishop was murdered by the dictator Idi Amin. After Kivengere escaped, a reporter asked him, “If you were in a room with Idi Amin, and you had a gun, what would you do?” Kivengere answered, “I would give the gun to him and say, ‘This is your weapon. My weapon is the love of Jesus.’” “Arm yourselves with this way of thinking.”
And it works. This armor really works—at the level of our deepest need. Peter continues, “…for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” Peter can’t be saying that suffering makes us perfect. What does he mean? Let’s put this in a social context, where it belongs. Verse 4: “[Unbelievers] are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.” So Peter is not talking about suffering in general but getting laughed at and cold-shouldered and excluded because Jesus is changing you. And Peter’s point is, that humiliation is not bad. It helps us make a clean break with our old ways. Getting ridiculed doesn’t make us perfect, but it shows us whose side we’re on now. That is so good for us.
But sometimes we’re not courageous and wholehearted. Sometimes we’re more like Augustine. Do you remember how Augustine prayed, before Jesus saved him? He prayed, “Grant me chastity, but not yet.” Let’s all admit it. Some sins dangle before us as too interesting to reject decisively. We hang back. We rationalize. We delay. So Peter gets up in our faces in verse 3: “You have spent time enough in the past doing what pagans like to do” (NLT). So we’re flipping channels on the TV and we stumble onto something bad, something we shouldn’t watch. And we think, “I need to know about this. I need to be aware of what’s going on today. I’ll consider this ‘research.’” But God is saying, “Enough is enough! You know more about sin than you need to know. Even if your old friends tease you about being naïve and uninformed, you’re not naïve about sin. It’s the will of God you barely understand. How about researching that?” Does anyone else know what I’m talking about? Or am I the only one God needs to say that to? How do you need to obey God by a clean break with your past?
I love how the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1648 defines repentance. Here’s the question: “What is repentance unto life?” That is, what kind of repentance makes us feel alive? Here’s the answer:
Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God with full purpose of and endeavor after new obedience.
If your Christianity amounts to maintaining your status quo, your current level of growth, you are not in repentance. Repentance takes us into new obedience, unprecedented obedience, obedience we don’t even think we’re capable of right now. But the more we apprehend the mercy of God in Christ, the more we traction we get for change. It is so freeing to venture into new obedience.
Peter concludes with something to keep us going. Verse 6: “For this is why [the final judgment, verse 5] the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.” This is another difficult verse. But keep in mind that Peter’s pastoral concern here is persecution. The Christians he’s writing to are being maligned, because they don’t party any more. (By the way, it’s great to remember that these early Christians were converted party animals) But now their old friends think they’re fools: “What good does it do you being a Christian? You miss out on the fun, and then you die like everybody else. Why not eat, drink and be merry while you can?”
That is a good question. Why not eat, drink and be merry while we can? The answer is right here in verse 6, where Peter is saying basically this: “Jesus isn’t robbing us of life. The whole reason why the gospel is preached to us, as it was preached to our fellow believers who are now dead, is to give us a life unbelievers can’t begin to understand. They might malign us now as morons; but if we follow the gospel away from the sewers of paganism and to the fountain of the living God, we will live now and forever. He promises us pleasures forevermore, with joys that outperform pagan orgies a bazillion times over!” So many of us know that from intense personal experience.
God is calling us to accept unjust suffering, as Jesus did, so that his redemption can spread to others. The cross is all we need to make an impact on our city. When we are misunderstood and misjudged, we can show the non-violent, non-retaliatory love of Jesus, because that’s how he loved us when we were his enemies. That brought us to God.