So, one of the more frustrating events — there are many — but one of the more frustrating events in church history occurred in 1569 in Spanish-controlled Netherlands. And that would be the gray area, the lower part of Holland. The state church had banned re-baptism because it made infant baptism irrelevant. So, when Dirk Willems trusted Jesus and was baptized, he became a criminal and was eventually arrested. However, in a very ingenious way, he escaped from prison and made a run for it. Unfortunately, a guard spotted him and began chasing him. He saw his only way of escape across a partially frozen pond or lake in that area. And because he had been living on meager prison rations, he was light enough to just run right across the partially frozen lake, and it looked like he was home free. However, the guard chasing him was not so light or fortunate and fell through the ice and began crying out as he was drowning. And Dirk was torn. He turned back, rescued the man who was pursuing him, and then the burgermeister, the chief magistrate, was on the far shore calling, demanding that the guard rearrest Dirk Willems, and he rearrested him. And on May 16, 1569, Dirk Willems was burned at the stake for his faith in Jesus. All his property was confiscated by the king of Spain.
I said this story is frustrating and confusing, and it is on many levels. First of all, the reason for the arrest is bizarre — for baptism, really? The mode of execution — horrific! Burning at the stake. But most bizarre was Dirk Willems’s decision to turn back and save the life of the man who was pursuing him. There’s something inside of us, especially when he was rearrested, that screams, “That’s wrong!”
And the Bible would agree that what was done to Dirk was wrong. But Peter makes a scandalous statement in I Peter 3:17. So, this is the last verse in the paragraph, the section we covered last week. “For it is better …” I Peter 3:17,
“It is better to suffer for doing good if that be God’s will, than for doing evil.”
Now it’s scandalous because that implies several things. First of all, that God’s will, not just Satan, but God’s will might be that you do good and receive bad. And then Peter has the audacity to call it better. Which is better? To do bad and be free, or to do good and be fettered? “Doing bad” meaning you could save someone’s life and you don’t, yet you’re free, or to do good and be fettered?
And once again, Christian mindfulness changes everything because Peter slides in that statement “if that should be God’s will,” implying both that God at times wills that, but also that the normal way our world operates is “you do good, you get good. You do bad, you get bad at times.” Jesus even said tax collectors operate that way. If you’re nice to them, they’re generally nice to you. If you’re nice to the IRS, they’ll be not so nice to you. No, that broke down. Forget that illustration. But does God at times call his own to do good and to suffer for it?
And as we transition into this new section, specifically focusing on suffering, Peter’s been talking about it the whole book. But here he’s going to drill down even deeper into a theology of suffering. He gives us, in verses 18 through 22, some stunning reasons, or really you could describe it as he’s opening the hood of the car, and he’s pointing to the parts of the engine that are driving this way of thinking. And you’ll see it. It’s all tight. Verse 17, “It’s better to suffer for doing good.” Chapter 4 verse 1,
“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.”
Now in this passage, in between those bookends, comes some of the most difficult verses to interpret in all of the New Testament, and there are so many different interpretations for this. But although some of the technical parts can be confusing, the overall message is crystal clear. That’s why I want us to get this at the beginning, because when we … and if you’re visiting, I’m so sorry you’re here for this paragraph … no, hopefully, you’ll see that even when there are complex parts to the Bible, when we move back a little bit and look at the wide angle, the point Peter’s making is crystal clear, and we don’t want to miss that. How should we think when we do good and get bad? How should we think when you’re a Joseph, when God calls you to be Joseph and you say “no” to the temptation of Potiphar’s wife, you do the right thing, and you end up in jail? When Dirk Willems goes back and saves the guy’s life, and he ends up being burned at the stake for it? That messes with our minds, doesn’t it? That is like 1+1=7. It just doesn’t make sense, God. Are you there? Did you not see?
So, it’s really important for us to understand the mechanisms that drive this new way of thinking for followers of Jesus. There are four in this little paragraph. There are more elsewhere, but four in this little paragraph. So, four realities that drive this way of thinking.
Number 1, Jesus brings us to God through undeserved suffering. Verse 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.”
Jesus could have evaded suffering, but he, like Dirk, turned back and rescued his enemy. We have no righteousness in and of ourselves. If we’re gathering this morning in our own names, on the basis of our own works, somehow thinking we can impress God, we are hopeless! We come in the name of Jesus. He gave his life for his enemies, we, who did not pursue him. He pursues us for our good when we gave him bad.
Do you see the mechanism that drives this different way of thinking? It’s actually part of the DNA of followers of Jesus, that Jesus through his death, burial, and resurrection (that’s what he means by “made alive in the spirit,” second part of verse 18, “his resurrection”) it’s in the DNA of his followers.
Jesus touched on this in a little different way in Matthew 5:43.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same?”
Every day, God is pouring out kindness in his sunshine, in his rain, in the air we breathe to people who are cussing his name. Jesus is the apex of that mindset when he lives that out in giving his life to bring us to God into that DNA.
Number 2, Jesus preaches through his people in undeserved suffering. Verse 19,
“in which [that is, in the spirit] 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.”
What?! You can just picture Peter’s therapists grabbing Peter. “Peter! Stay on your meds! What are you talking about? You’re talking about Jesus, and then you’re talking about spirits in prison like this is some kind of zombie apocalypse, and then you’re talking about Noah and then baptism. What in the world?!”
So many questions! So, we’re going to focus on the main one, and then hopefully the other ones will fall in line. Who are the spirits in prison? Whom did Jesus preach to? There are many options depending on how you group the options. I’m going to limit them to three.
The first one has several versions. Option number 1 is just very general — unsaved people who have died. And again, several versions. Some people believe this is talking about Old Testament souls that are brought out of sheol into heaven. Some people teach this is … Roman Catholics, for example, teach this is supporting what? Purgatory. Other people just generally teach this is teaching a second chance. Jesus is going to people who have died, giving them a second chance to believe. Under each one of these three options, I want to give a strength and a weakness. The strength with this position, I think, is I want it to be true. I would do anything for it to be true, that people who die outside of Jesus get a second chance. That would be my “I want it to be true.” The weakness of this position is it doesn’t fit the context, both the immediate context, where he’s talking about suffering unjustly, and then the broader context of what the Bible teaches about death and judgment. Nowhere does it teach a second chance. Also, why would Jesus preach a second chance only to the people who were alive in Noah’s day or whatever this is referring to. He limits that. So, if it’s supposed to defend purgatory or some kind of second chance, it seems to be a very narrow slice of people who get to benefit from that. Why them? Why not everyone? It doesn’t, in my view, make any sense. I don’t think this is a serious biblical option.
Option number 2, fallen angels/demons, specifically demons who have sinned with the daughters of man described in Genesis 6:1-5. So, this position holds that the sons of God, which is a name for the demons, sinned with the daughters of man, and then the result of that later is described as these Nephilim, and that Jesus is preaching to their spirits. Now, the strength of this position is the word “spirit” does seem to apply better to demons than to humans because, as some have argued, any time the word “spirits” is associated to human beings, it typically has descriptions, descriptive words to it, like “spirits of the dead” or “spirits of the righteous.” There’s nothing like that here. Another strength of this position: in verse 19, the word “prison” is not the normal term for hell, but it’s closer to the word “haunt,” the haunt of demons, as described in Revelation 18:2. This is actually becoming the dominant position among evangelical scholars. Some of my favorite theologians take this position, and they’re way smarter than me. So, it’s kind of scary to say they’re wrong because they’re probably not wrong. I’m probably wrong. The weakness of this view, in my view, is that “humans in Noah’s time” fits the context much better, and he’s going to get to demons down in verse 22.
So, let’s talk about that third option, unbelieving contemporaries of Noah. And this position has a long history. It’s often called the Augustinian position because it goes way back to Augustine’s time and earlier. So, it’s almost a couple of thousand years old. The strength is it fits the context best, in my view. The weakness is that word “went” in verse 19. Did Jesus actually “went” somewhere? Did He go somewhere? And that would be one of the big questions.
So, let’s look at it again. Verse 19,
“in which [in spirit] he [Jesus] went and proclaimed to the spirits” And some translations actually add this word, I would encourage you to pencil it in on the side just to help your thinking,
If you add the word “now” mentally,
“proclaimed to the spirits [now] in prison, because they [what would warrant the “now”?] formerly did not obey.”
So, Peter is saying Jesus went, proclaimed to the spirits who are now spirits in prison. They were not spirits in prison when they formally 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.” So, what does this mean? Jesus in his pre-incarnate state … What does “pre-incarnate” mean? “Before he took on flesh.” So, as a spirit, [he] went and preached to the people in Noah’s day through Noah for 120 years leading up to the flood.
Now, some of you are thinking “Whoa, that seems like a stretch.” Well, Peter’s already used that language in this letter. 1 Peter 1:11, he talks about “the Spirit of Christ was in [the prophets].” So, the Spirit of Christ was preaching about his own coming before he came through the prophets. So, that’s essentially what he’s saying here is that Jesus was preaching through Noah’s proclamation, heralding, warning the people of his day that judgment is coming. And God is being patient, waiting, in the days of Noah.
So, imagine the scene. We know from Genesis 6, from the time God declared a flood is coming to the time the flood came was 120 years. We don’t know exactly if Noah was building the ark that whole time, but a big part of that time, construction was happening. And what this text seems to be highlighting is the fact for all of that time … Remember, the ark only floated for about a little over a year. So, the lifespan of the ark was primarily before the flood. It was this gigantic billboard, a cautionary tale, an object lesson. Why is that dude building a boat in the desert? And why is the boat the size of a mall? What is going on? And during that whole time, Noah is preaching to the people, warning them, “Repent, believe! Judgment is coming!” And what Peter is saying is Noah wasn’t doing that alone. Jesus was preaching through Noah while God the Father was waiting, giving them time after time to repent.
So, why? Here’s the big question — why does Peter write that here? What does that have to do with undeserved suffering? Look at the second part of verse 20.
“in which a few, that is, eight persons”
Who were they? Noah’s family. Noah and his family were brought safely through water. Do you see what Peter’s doing? Those details seem so irrelevant unless he’s still talking about undeserved suffering. You’ve got masses of humanity on one side of the scale. Eight people on the other side of the scale. The eight are crying out, “Turn to God! Repent, believe! Your lives are not going to continue the way they are right now. Judgment is coming!” And everybody thought Noah was crazy.
It was a time in Genesis 6:5 described by the Lord as,
“the Lord saw the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to His heart.”
So, we know this was a particularly vile period of time. Noah’s warnings were ignored, and based on extra-biblical sources, he was also mocked. Sources like the Sibylline Oracles, the Babylonian Talmud. Let me give you one example from the Oracles.
“When they heard him [Noah], they sneered at him, each one calling him demented, a man gone mad.”
So, if these extra-biblical sources are accurate, they’re not Bible, but if they are accurate, they are describing the undeserved suffering of Noah and his family, the price they are paying for being on the wrong side of that history at that moment. Jesus described this culture as oblivious to what God was doing. Luke 17:24,
“For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.”
Those are terrifying words. They all assumed that God was irrelevant. They all assumed that Noah was irrational. You say, “What does that have to do with undeserved suffering?” Think about it. Peter is writing to exiles, Christians who feel at times crazy, alone, like nobody believes this. What are we doing? They are fish swimming upstream. Do you know what that’s like?
Let’s do a little exercise. Think about a time when you were alone. I don’t mean just emotionally alone, but actually physically alone and felt completely different from everyone else. I know one example I thought of was I was on a mission trip in Russia, and I stayed, it was very short, but I stayed with a family who only spoke Russian, and my Russian is limited to “nyet.” That’s it. You can only get so far with that. I was praying earnestly for the gift of tongues. I wanted it so badly. So, we’re doing sign language for everything, and what’s weird is you love these people. They’re believers. They love me. But we had no way of communicating that at all. It just feels weird being in a place where you can’t really know someone, and they can’t really know you.
When I first became a Christian … I heard the gospel for the first time up in Canada, and later that week, my sister became a believer. We came back to a public school with thousands of students. It was huge! Didn’t know one other believer, not one. And that just feels weird. What is wrong with me? God, what are you calling me to? That is so strange.
And many of our brothers and sisters live in this every single day. They wake up to the shrieking sound of the Muslim call to prayer, wondering why is that not a call to prayer for me? What’s wrong with me? Or the Chinese believer sitting in a jail cell for no other crime than sharing the gospel with a neighbor, alone now, isolated, made to think “you’re crazy; you are crazy.” We have ministry partners right now who are in such sensitive situations we can’t even talk about them publicly. Lives on the line!
What Peter’s talking about is not a fairy tale. It’s not just something from church history. It’s the reality for many of our brothers and sisters around the world every single day. They tried to do good. They got bad. Jesus came for no other reason than do good. What did he do his whole life but good? And almost everyone in the crowd was screaming, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Noah seemed to have no other motive than warn people, love people enough to tell them there is a serious danger in view. He did good, and he paid dearly.
I think one of the big points Peter wants us to get here is if you’re trying to decide which is better, to do bad and go free or to do good and be fettered, if you do the math, it’s not going to work out. If you’re looking to numbers, polling, you know a finger to the wind, what’s in, trends, popularity, likes, it’s not going to happen. Based on the numbers, you’ll get it wrong. And that seems to be what he’s saying with this example, this vivid example from Noah — eight people, everyone else. They knew what it was like to try to do good and to receive bad.
But Jesus, right in the middle of that says, “I’m preaching through you.” In other words, “I will never leave you. I will never forsake you. I know what it’s like to be isolated. I know what it’s like to be alone. I know what it’s like to be misunderstood and misrepresented. And if you follow me, you will experience this, but I am with you, and I’m actually preaching through you, whether it immediately bears fruit or not.”
Number 3, Jesus provides a means of escape through undeserved suffering. Look at verse 20.
“because they [these spirits now in prison] 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. So, the ark provides a way of escape for those who believe through the waters of judgment.”
And this prompts Peter to apply this to the day. Verse 21,
“Baptism, which corresponds to this now, saves you.”
So, the waters of baptism are likened to the judgment waters of the flood. We are buried with him in death, and to keep us from concluding that the baptismal waters are actually regenerative or redemptive, Peter quickly qualifies with a negative and a positive. The negative, verse 21a,
“not as a removal of dirt from the body.”
The water itself … There’s no magical holy water that can actually purify your soul. You can actually be baptized and still bust hell wide open. That’s the negative. But look at the positive.
“but an appeal [a prayer] to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
So, what the ark was to the flood waters, Jesus’s resurrection is to the judgment waters.
All of us need an ark, and we’re all building. You might be building, trying to build an ark of good works that you hope will outweigh your bad works, and that’s going to save you in the judgment. Some people are building arks with their brains. You know, if I can just figure it out, I’ll be able to convince God. I’ll get this thing right. Some people are building arks with family lineage. “Look at my family. We just have this wonderful Christian family, and God must be impressed with that.” All those arks will sink. They will not hold. There’s only one ark that floats in the ultimate judgment. That is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. And that’s why he says here “an appeal to God [a prayer to God] for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
We go down with him. That’s what baptism pictures. Buried with him in the likeness of his death, raised with him in the likeness of his resurrection. Every time I baptize, I say those words because it’s that picture. Yes, it pictures cleansing, but it’s picturing the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. So, Jesus provides a way of escape. When I believe in him, his death becomes mine, his burial mine, his resurrection mine through faith. That’s that appeal to God for a good conscience.
Number 4, Jesus triumphs over all spiritual forces behind undeserved suffering. Verse 22,
“who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”
Now, “angels, authorities, and powers” usually refers to hostile, angelic forces, but it can refer to all angelic beings. Jesus ascends to what’s often called his “session.” It just simply means he’s sitting at the right hand of the Father, the place of preeminence. So, the point is there are no rogue angels or forces or powers in the universe who can operate outside of Jesus’s control.
Now, let that sink in. Can you imagine what that would feel like for Christians in the Roman Empire? There are pagan temples everywhere. There are demonic forces that seem to be all around them. They feel very alone, feel very out of control, and suddenly you hear the news that none of these can operate outside of the power of Jesus. So, therefore, as Peter ends his epistle, 1 Peter 5:8,
“be sober-minded; be watchful. [Yes] Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
So, he has not been finally destroyed. Well, what do we do? Verse 9,
“Resist him, firm in your faith.”
That’s such a weird strategy, isn’t it? This is a force, and you’re resisting him in faith. Why? Because he’s already defeated. That would make no sense if he wasn’t defeated. But he is so, therefore your faith that Jesus has triumphed, that Jesus calls us to follow him in suffering for doing good, but he has and will ultimately triumph. So, therefore, 1 Peter 5:6, right before that,
“humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
Some of you are in the time of suffering where you’ve done good, and it has not turned out in any kind of good way. And you’re like “what is going on, God?” And Peter’s saying, “at the proper time.” If you take a slice of Dirk Willems’ life, when he’s rearrested, you would say it does not pay to serve God. If you look at the millions of years that Dirk has rejoicing with Jesus, that dot on that timeline of what he did when he did good and got bad suddenly makes sense. That’s what Peter’s saying. Triumph is inevitable.
So, what does this mean to us? What do we do with this? Should we seek suffering? Should Christians want to suffer? No. No, we’re not masochists. It never says we like it. If you like it, you have another problem. Should we feel guilty if we are not currently in a season of suffering? No. Peter goes on, as we’ll see next week in chapter 4 verse 1, to tell us exactly what we should do with this.
“Arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.”
Arm yourselves. What does that mean? That means if you’re currently in a fairly stable season, use this time to arm yourself with a way of thinking that reflects the way Christ suffered in the flesh, not that our suffering is redemptive like his, but that we’re bringing our thoughts under his. We’re memorizing his Word. We’re filling up our thinking with the mind of Christ so that when … and for every one of us, if you’re a follower of Jesus, I promise you, it has come, or it is coming.
And one of the ways, I think the best way, we can arm ourselves is to begin extremely small. It’s easy for us to look at the Dirk Willems example and say, “Okay, would I [have] saved that person’s life? I don’t know.” But you don’t just do that. What God is so kind [to do], in training his own how to think and act in a way that Christ would call us to, is he puts us in mundane relationships — friendships, marriages, parenting, family — relationships where you do something kind and someone misunderstands that or misrepresents that or doesn’t thank you. It is impossible to love people and for this not to happen. Love is an undeserved-suffering magnet. It really is because you can’t love people without risk, and every time you love, that means they might not respond in the way that you had hoped, or feel is reasonable or is mutual.
Now, dealing with highly manipulative people is a different response. It’s still motivated by love, but there are wise ways to respond. But in normal relationships, I promise you, even this week, you’re going to have opportunities. And when your mind starts getting flooded with resentment or self-pity because you tried to do the right thing and it hasn’t worked. Or flashes of anger, and it makes justified self-centeredness seem justified. Doubts that barrage your mind when you try to do good, and it doesn’t work out. It just keeps coming back bad.
All of these are invitations from Jesus to say, “Come, follow me. Learn my way of thinking, my way of responding. It is counterintuitive.” And I’m just so thankful that Jesus trains us in ways that allow our love muscles to grow gradually so that when he calls you (and most of us will have those big moments, those Dirk Willems moments, where we are called to die to self and love in a truly sacrificial way), we’re ready; we’ve armed ourselves. So, let’s ask him for help in doing that. Let’s pray.
Father, thank you so much for these words that can be so confusing to us but the message that is so clear. Help us not get lost, lose the trees in the forest. We want to learn, Lord. None of us want to suffer, but we want to learn how to think like you. You are shaping us. You are changing us. You are transforming us. You’re making us into a people who are called to be very different from the culture we live in. And so, we need your Spirit to work in us, Lord. This is not natural. I naturally retaliate. I naturally get angry or slip into self-pity. I naturally hold onto resentments. But Jesus, by your Spirit, your grace is washing us, training us, renewing us.
And we pray if there’s anyone here or online who does not know you, that if they would just see the beauty of your love unlike any other love — no strings attached, no duplicity! You just gave yourself for us to bring us to God. May this be a day when they trust you. We thank you in Jesus’s name. Amen.