William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

The Saving Work Of Christ (1 Peter 3:17-22; 1 Peter 4:1-6 (1 Peter 3:17-22)

3:17-22;4:1-6 For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be the will of God, than to suffer for doing wrong. For Christ also died once and for all for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but he was raised to life in the Spirit, in which also he went and preached to the spirits who are in prison, the spirits who were once upon a time disobedient, in the time when the patience of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being built, in which some few--that is, eight souls--were brought in safety through the water. And water now saves you, who were symbolically represented in Noah and his company, I mean the water of baptism; and baptism is not merely the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge to God of a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, because he went to heaven, after angels and authorities and power had been made subject to him.

Since, then, Christ suffered in the flesh, you too must arm yourselves with the same conviction that he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, and as a result of this the aim of such a man now is to spend the time that remains to him of life in the flesh no longer in obedience to human passions, but in obedience to the will of God. For the time that is past is sufficient to have done what the Gentiles will to do, to have lived a life of licentiousness, lust, drunkenness, revellings, carousings, and abominable idolatry. They think it strange when you do not rush to join them in the same flood of profligacy and they abuse you for not doing so. 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 the dead, so that, although they have already been judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the Spirit like God.

This is not only one of the most difficult passages in Peter's letter, it is one of the most difficult in the whole New Testament; and it is also the basis of one of the most difficult articles in the creed, "He descended into Hell." It is, therefore, better first of all to read it as a whole and then to study it in its various sections.

The Example Of The Work Of Christ ( 1 Peter 3:17-18 a)

3:17-18a For, it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be the will of God, than to suffer for doing wrong. For Christ also died once and for all for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.

Although this passage is one of the most difficult in the New Testament, it begins with something which anyone can understand. The point that Peter is making is that, even if the Christian is compelled to suffer unjustly for his faith, he is only walking the way that his Lord and Saviour has already walked. The suffering Christian must always remember that he has a suffering Lord. In the narrow compass of these two verses Peter has the greatest and the deepest things to say about the work of Christ.

(i) He lays it down that the work of Christ was unique and never need be repeated. Christ died once and for all for sins. The New Testament says this same thing often. When Christ died, he died once and for all ( Romans 6:10 ). The priestly sacrifices in the Temple have to be repeated daily but Christ made the perfect sacrifice once and for all when he offered himself up ( Hebrews 7:27 ). Christ was once and for all offered to bear the sin of many ( Hebrews 9:28 ). We are sanctified through the offering of the body of Christ once and for all ( Hebrews 10:10 ). The New Testament is completely sure that on the Cross something happened which never needs to happen again and that in that happening sin is finally defeated. On the Cross God dealt with man's sin in a way which is adequate for all sin, for all men, for all time.

(ii) He lays it down that that sacrifice was for sin. Christ died once and for all for sins. This again is frequently said in the New Testament. Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures ( 1 Corinthians 15:3 ). Christ gave himself for our sins ( Galatians 1:4 ). The function of the High Priest, and Jesus Christ is the perfect High Priest, is to offer sacrifice for sins ( Hebrews 5:1 ; Hebrews 5:3 ). He is the expiation for our sins ( 1 John 2:2 ).

The Greek for for sins is either huper ( Greek #5228 ) or peri ( Greek #4012 ) hamartion ( Greek #266 ). It so happens that in the Greek version of the Old Testament the regular phrase for a sin-offering is peri ( Greek #4012 ) hamartias ( Greek #266 ) (Hamartias, Greek #266 , is the singular of hamartion, Greek #266 ), as, for instance, in Leviticus 5:7 and Leviticus 6:30 . That is to say, Peter is laying it down that the death of Christ is the sacrifice which atones for the sin of men.

We may put it this way. Sin is that which interrupts the relationship which should exist between God and men. The object of sacrifice is to restore that lost relationship. The death of Christ upon the Cross, however we explain it, avails to restore the lost relationship between God and man. As Charles Wesley put it in verse:

No condemnation now I dread:

Jesus, and all in him, is mine!

Alive in him, my living Head,

And clothed in righteousness divine,

Bold I approach the eternal throne,

And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

It may be that we will never agree in our theories of what exactly happened on the Cross, for, indeed, as Charles Wesley said in that same hymn: "'Tis mystery all!" But on one thing we can agree--through what happened there we may enter into a new relationship with God.

(iii) He lays it down that that sacrifice was vicarious. Christ died once and for all for sins, the just.for the unjust. That the just should suffer for the unjust is an extraordinary thing. At first sight it looks like injustice. As Edwin H. Robertson put it: "Only forgiveness without reason can match sin without excuse." The suffering of Christ was for us; and the mystery is that he who deserved no suffering bore that suffering for us who deserved to suffer. He sacrificed himself to restore our lost relationship with God.

(iv) He lays it down that the work of Christ was to bring us to God. Christ died once and for all for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God. The word for "to bring" is prosagein ( Greek #4317 ). It has two vivid backgrounds.

(a) It has a Jewish background. It is used in the Old Testament of bringing to God those who are to be priests. It is God's instruction: "You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the door of the tent of meeting" ( Exodus 29:4 ). The point is this--as the Jews saw it, only the priests had the right of close access to God. In the Temple the layman might come so far; he could pass through the Court of the Gentiles, the Court of the Women, the Court of the Israelites--but there he must stop. Into the Court of the Priests, into the nearer presence of God, he could not go; and of the priests, only the High Priest could enter into the Holy of Holies. But Jesus Christ brings us to God; he opens the way for all men to his nearer presence.

(b) It has a Greek background. In the New Testament the corresponding noun prosagoge ( Greek #4318 ) is three times used. Prosagein ( Greek #4317 ) means to bring in; prosagoge ( Greek #4318 ) means the right of access, the result of the bringing in. Through Christ we have access to grace ( Romans 5:2 ). Through him we have access to God the Father ( Ephesians 2:18 ). Through him we have boldness and access and confidence to come to God ( Ephesians 3:12 ). In Greek this had a specialized meaning. At the court of kings there was an official called the prosagogeus, the introducer, the giver of access, and it was his function to decide who should be admitted to the king's presence and who should be kept out. He, as it were, held the keys of access. It is Jesus Christ, through what he did, who gives men access to God.

(v) When we go beyond these two verses, further into the passage, we can add two more great truths to Peter's view of the work of Christ. In 1 Peter 3:19 he says that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison; and in 1 Peter 4:6 he says that the gospel was preached to them that are dead. As we shall go on to see, this most probably means that in the time between his death and his resurrection Jesus actually preached the gospel in the abode of the dead; that is to say, to those who in their lifetime had never had the opportunity to hear it. Here is a tremendous thought. It means that the work of Christ is infinite in its range. It means that no man who ever lived is outside the grace of God.

(vi) Peter sees the work of Christ in terms of complete triumph. He says that after his resurrection Jesus went into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to him ( 1 Peter 3:22 ). The meaning is that there is nothing in earth and heaven outside the empire of Christ. To all men he brought the new relationship between man and God; in his death he even brought the good news to the dead; in his resurrection he conquered death; even the angelic and the demonic powers are subject to him; and he shares the very power and throne of God. Christ the sufferer has become Christ the victor; Christ the crucified has become Christ the crowned.

(1) The Descent Into Hell ( 1 Peter 3:18 b-20;4:6)

3:18b-20 He was put to death in the flesh, but he was raised to life in the Spirit, in which also he went and preached to the spirits who are in prison, the spirits who were once upon a time disobedient in the time when the patience of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being built.... For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, so that, although they have already been judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.

We have already said that we are here face to face with one of the most difficult passages, not only in Peter's letter, but in the whole New Testament; and, if we are to grasp what it means, we must follow Peter's own advice and gird up the loins of our mind to study it.

This passage has lodged in the creed in the phrase: "He descended into hell." We must first note that this phrase is very misleading. The idea of the New Testament is not that Jesus descended into hell but that he descended into Hades. Acts 2:27 , as all the newer translations correctly show, should be translated not: "Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell," but, "Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades." The difference is this. Hell is the place of the punishment of the wicked; Hades was the place where all the dead went.

The Jews had a very shadowy conception of life beyond the grave. They did not think in terms of heaven and of hell but of a shadowy world, where the spirits of men moved like grey ghosts in an everlasting twilight and where there was neither strength nor joy. Such was Hades, into which the spirits of all men went after death. Isaiah writes: "For Sheol cannot thank thee, death cannot praise thee; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for thy faithfulness" ( Isaiah 38:18 ). The Psalmist wrote: "In death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can give thee praise?" ( Psalms 6:5 ). "What profit is there in my death if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise thee? Will it tell of thy faithfulness?" ( Psalms 30:9 ). "Dost thou work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise thee? Is thy steadfast love declared in the grave, or thy faithfulness in Abaddon? Are thy wonders known in the darkness, or thy saving help in the land of forgetfulness?" ( Psalms 88:10-12 ). "The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence" ( Psalms 115:17 ). "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going" ( Ecclesiastes 9:10 ). The Jewish conception of the world after death was of this grey world of shadows and forgetfulness, in which men were separated from life and light and God.

As time went on, there emerged the idea of stages and divisions in this shadowland. For some it was to last for ever; but for others it was a kind of prison-house in which they were held until the final judgment of God's wrath should blast them ( Isaiah 24:21-22 ; 2 Peter 2:4 ; Revelation 20:1-7 ). So, then, it must first of all be remembered that this whole matter is to be thought of, not in terms of hell, as we understand the word, but in terms of Christ's going to the dead in their shadowy world.

(2) The Descent Into Hell ( 1 Peter 3:18 b-20;4:6 Continued)

This doctrine of the descent into Hades, as we must now call it, is based on two phrases in our present passage. It says that Jesus went and preached to the spirits who are in prison ( 1 Peter 3:19 ); and it speaks of the gospel being preached to the dead ( 1 Peter 4:6 ). In regard to this doctrine there have always been differing attitudes amongst thinkers.

(i) There are those who wish to eliminate it altogether. There is the attitude of elimination. Some wish to eliminate it altogether and attempt to do so along two lines.

(a) Peter says that in the Spirit Christ preached to the spirits in prison, who were disobedient in the time when the patience of God waited in the days of Noah, when the ark was being built. It is argued that what this means is that it was in the time of Noah himself that Christ did this preaching; that in the Spirit long ages before this he made his appeal to the wicked men of Noah's day. This would completely do away with the idea of the descent into Hades. Many great scholars have accepted that view; but we do not think it is the view which comes naturally from Peter's words.

(b) If we look at Moffatt's translation, we find something quite different. He translates: "In the flesh he (Christ) was put to death, but he came to life in the Spirit. It was in the Spirit that Enoch also went and preached to the imprisoned spirits who had disobeyed at the time when God's patience held out during the construction of the ark in the days of Noah." How does Moffatt arrive at this translation?

The name of Enoch does not appear in any Greek manuscript. But in the consideration of the text of any Greek author, scholars sometimes use a process called emendation. They think that there is something wrong with the text as it stands, that some scribe has perhaps copied it wrongly; and they, therefore, suggest that some word should be changed or added. In this passage Rendel Harris suggested that the word Enoch was missed out in the copying of Peter's writing and should be put back in.

(Although it involves the use of Greek some readers may be

interested to see how Rendel Harris arrived at this famous

emendation. In the top line in italic print, we have set down

the Greek of the passage in English lettering and beneath each

Greek word its English translation:

thanatotheis ( Greek #2289 ) men ( Greek #3303 ) sarki ( Greek #4561 )

having been put to death in the flesh

zoopoietheis ( Greek #2227 ) de ( Greek #1161 ) pneumati ( Greek #4151 )

having been raised to life in the Spirit

en ( Greek #1722 ) ho ( Greek #3588 ) kai ( Greek #2532 ) tois ( Greek #3588 )

in which also to the

en ( Greek #1722 ) phulake ( Greek #5438 ) pneumasi ( Greek #4151 )

in prison spirits

poreutheis ( Greek #4198 ) ekeruxen ( Greek #2784 )

having gone he preached.

(Men ( Greek #3303 ) and de ( Greek #1161 ) are what are called particles;

they are not translated but merely mark the contrast between

sarki, Greek #4561 , and pneumati, Greek #4151 ). It was Rendel Harris'

suggestion that between kai ( Greek #2532 ) and tois ( Greek #3588 ) the

word Enoch ( Greek #1802 ) had dropped out. His explanation was that,

since most manuscript copying was done to dictation, scribes were

very liable to miss words which followed each other, if they

sounded very similar. In this passage:

en ( Greek #1722 ) ho ( Greek #3588 ) kai ( Greek #2532 ) and Enoch ( Greek #1802 )

sound very much alike, and Rendel Harris thought it very likely

that Enoch ( Greek #1802 ) had been mistakenly omitted for that reason).

What reason is there for bringing Enoch ( Greek #1802 ) into this passage at all? He has always been a fascinating and mysterious person. "And Enoch walked with God; and he was not; for God took him" ( Genesis 5:24 ). In between the Old and New Testaments many legends sprang up about Enoch and famous and important books were written under his name. One of the legends was that Enoch, though a man, acted as "God's envoy" to the angels who sinned by coming to earth and lustfully seducing mortal women ( Genesis 6:2 ). In the Book of Enoch it is said that he was sent down from heaven to announce to these angels their final doom (Enoch 12: 1) and that he proclaimed that for them, because of their sin, there was neither peace nor forgiveness ever (Enoch 12 and 13).

So then, according to Jewish legend, Enoch did go to Hades and preach doom to the fallen angels. And Rendel Harris thought that this passage referred, not to Jesus, but to Enoch, and Moffatt so far agreed with him as to put Enoch into his translation. That is an extremely interesting and ingenious suggestion but without doubt it must be rejected. There is no evidence for it at all; and it is not natural to bring in Enoch, for the whole picture is of the work of Christ.

(3) The Descent Into Hell ( 1 Peter 3:18 b-20;4:6 Continued)

We have seen that the attempt at the elimination of this passage fails.

(ii) The second attitude is limitation. This attitude--and it is that of some very great New Testament interpreters--believes that Peter is indeed saying that Jesus went to Hades and preached, but that he by no means preached to all the inhabitants of Hades. Different interpreters limit that preaching in different ways.

(a) It is argued that Jesus preached in Hades only to the spirits of the men who were disobedient in the days of Noah. Those who hold this view often go on to argue that, since these sinners were desperately disobedient, so much so that God sent the flood and destroyed them ( Genesis 6:12-13 ), we may believe that no man is outside the mercy of God. They were the worst of all sinners and yet they were given another chance of repentance; therefore, the worst of men still have a chance in Christ.

(b) It is argued that Jesus preached to the fallen angels, and preached, not salvation, but final and awful doom. We have already mentioned these angels. Their story is told in Genesis 6:1-8 . They were tempted by the beauty of mortal women; they came to earth, seduced them and begat children; and because of their action, it is inferred, the wickedness of man was great and his thoughts were always evil. 2 Peter 2:4 speaks of these sinning angels as being imprisoned in hell, awaiting judgment. It was to them that Enoch did, in fact, preach; and there are those who think that what this passage means is not that Christ preached mercy and another chance; but that, in token of his complete triumph, he preached terrible doom to those angels who had sinned.

(c) It is argued that Christ preached only to those who had been righteous and that he led them out of Hades into the paradise of God. We have seen how the Jews believed that all the dead went to Hades, the shadowy land of forgetfulness. The argument is that before Christ that was indeed so but he opened the gates of heaven to mankind; and, when he did so, he went to Hades and told the glad news to all the righteous men of all past generations and led them out to God. That is a magnificent picture. Those who hold this view often go on to say that, because of Christ, there is now no time spent in the shadows of Hades and the way to paradise is open as soon as this world closes on us.

(4) The Descent Into Hell ( 1 Peter 3:18 b-20;4:6 Continued)

(iii) There is the attitude that what Peter is saying is that Jesus Christ, between his death and resurrection, went to the world of the dead and preached the gospel there. Peter says that Jesus Christ was put to death in the flesh but raised to life in the Spirit, and that it was in the Spirit that he so preached. The meaning is that Jesus lived in a human body and was under all the limitations of time and space in the days of his flesh; and died with that body broken and bleeding upon the Cross. But when he rose again, he rose with a spiritual body, in which he was rid of the necessary weaknesses of humanity and liberated from the necessary limitations of time and space. It was in this spiritual condition of perfect freedom that the preaching to the dead took place.

As it stands this doctrine is stated in categories which are outworn. It speaks of the descent into Hades and the very word descent suggests a three-storey universe in which heaven is localized above the sky and Hades beneath the earth. But, laying aside the physical categories of this doctrine, we can find in it truths which are eternally valid and precious, three in particular.

(a) If Christ descended into Hades, then his death was no sham. It is not to be explained in terms of a swoon on the Cross, or anything like that. He really experienced death, and rose again. At its simplest, the doctrine of the descent into Hades lays down the complete identity of Christ with our human condition, even to the experience of death.

(b) If Christ descended into Hades, it means that his triumph is universal. This, in fact, is a truth which is ingrained into the New Testament. It is Paul's dream that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth ( Philippians 2:10 ). In the Revelation the song of praise comes from every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth and under the earth ( Revelation 5:13 ). He who ascended into Heaven is he who first descended into the lower parts of the earth ( Ephesians 4:9-10 ). The total submission of the universe to Christ is woven into the thought of the New Testament.

(c) If Christ descended into Hades and preached there, there is no corner of the universe into which the message of grace has not come. There is in this passage the solution of one of the most haunting questions raised by the Christian faith--what is to happen to those who lived before Jesus Christ and to those to whom the gospel never came? There can be no salvation without repentance but how can repentance come to those who have never been confronted with the love and holiness of God? If there is no other name by which men may be saved, what is to happen to those who never heard it? This is the point that Justin Martyr fastened on long ago: "The Lord, the Holy God of Israel, remembered his dead, those sleeping in the earth, and came down to them to tell them the good news of salvation." The doctrine of the descent into Hades conserves the precious truth that no man who ever lived is left without a sight of Christ and without the offer of the salvation of God.

Many in repeating the creed have found the phrase "He descended into hell" either meaningless or bewildering, and have tacitly agreed to set it on one side and forget it. It may well be that we ought to think of this as a picture painted in terms of poetry rather than a doctrine stated in terms of theology. But it contains these three great truths--that Jesus Christ not only tasted death but drained the cup of death, that the triumph of Christ is universal and that there is no corner of the universe into which the grace of God has not reached.

The Baptism Of The Christian ( 1 Peter 3:18-22 )

3:18-22 For Christ also died once and for all for our sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but he was raised to life in the Spirit, in which also he went and preached to the spirits who are in prison, the spirits who were once upon a time disobedient in the time when the patience of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being built, in which some few--that is, eight souls--were brought in safety through the water. And water now saves you, who were symbolically represented in Noah and his company, I mean the water of baptism; and baptism is not merely the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge to God of a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, because he went to heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been made subject to him.

Peter has been speaking about the wicked men who were disobedient and corrupt in the days of Noah; they were ultimately destroyed. But in the destruction by the flood eight people--Noah and his wife, his sons Shem, Ham and Japheth, and their wives--were brought to safety in the ark. Immediately the idea of being brought to safety through the water turns Peter's thoughts to Christian baptism, which is also a bringing to safety through the water. What Peter literally says is that baptism is an antitype of Noah and his people in the ark.

This word introduces us to a special way of looking at the Old Testament. There are two closely connected words. There is tupos ( Greek #5179 ), type, which means a seal, and there is antitupos ( Greek #499 ), antitype, which means the impression of the seal. Clearly, between the seal and its impression there is the closest possible correspondence. So there are people and events and customs in the Old Testament which are types, and which find their antitypes in the New Testament. The Old Testament event or person is like the seal; the New Testament event or person is like the impression; the two answer to each other. We might put it that the Old Testament event symbolically represents and foreshadows the New Testament event. The science of finding types and antitypes in the Old and the New Testaments is very highly developed. But to take very simple and obvious examples, the Passover Lamb and the scapegoat, who bore the sins of the people, are types of Jesus; and the work of the High Priest in making sacrifice for the sins of the people is a type of his saving work. Here Peter sees the bringing safely through the waters of Noah and his family as a type of baptism.

In this passage Peter has three great things to say about baptism. It must be remembered that at this stage of the Church's history we are still dealing with adult baptism, the baptism of people who had come straight from heathenism into Christianity and who were taking upon themselves a new way of life.

(i) Baptism is not merely a physical cleansing; it is a spiritual cleansing of the whole heart and soul and life. Its effect must be on a man's very soul and on his whole life.

(ii) Peter calls baptism the pledge of a good conscience to God ( 1 Peter 3:21 ). The word Peter uses for pledge is eperotema ( Greek #1906 ). In every business contract there was a definite question and answer which made the contract binding. The question was: "Do you accept the terms of this contract, and bind yourself to observe them?" And the answer, before witnesses was: "Yes." Without that question and answer the contract was not valid. The technical word for that question and answer clause is eperotema ( Greek #1906 ) in Greek, stipulatio in Latin.

Peter is, in effect, saying that in baptism God said to the man coming direct from heathenism: "Do you accept the terms of my service? Do you accept its privileges and promises, and do you undertake its responsibilities and its demands?" And in the act of being baptized the man answered: "Yes."

Some use the word sacrament. Sacrament is derived from the Latin sacramentum, which means a soldier's oath of loyalty on entering the army. Here we have basically the same picture. We cannot very well apply this question and answer in infant baptism, unless it be to the parents; but, as we have said, baptism in the very early church was of adult men and women coming spontaneously from heathenism into the Church. The modern parallel is entering upon full membership of the Church. When we enter upon Church membership, God asks us: "Do you accept the conditions of my service, with all privileges and all its responsibilities, with all its promises and all its demands?" and we answer; "Yes." It would be well if all were clearly to understand what they are doing when they take upon themselves membership of the Church.

(iii) The whole idea and effectiveness of baptism is dependent on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the grace of the Risen Lord which cleanses us; it is to the Risen, Living Lord that we pledge ourselves; it is to the Risen, Living Lord that we look for strength to keep the pledge that we have given. Once again, where infant baptism is the practice, we must take these great conceptions and apply them to the time when we enter upon full membership of the Church.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

- William Barclay's Daily Study Bible