Scripture readings: Gen. 9:8-17; Ps. 25:1-10; 1 Pet. 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15 Sermon by Ted Johnston from 1 Pet. 3:18-22 (drawing on commentary from Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary and David Wheaton in The New Bible Commentary)
Serving God in Tough Times
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, the season in which, through prayer and introspection, we prepare for Holy Week. Our Epistles reading today is from 1 Peter, where the apostle reminds us that when times get tough, we all need hope. The apostle Peter wrote this letter to early Christians facing persecution, offering them hope with an important and powerful reminder about who Christ is, and about who they are in Christ. These truths encouraged them, and encourage us today, to keep serving God, even in tough times. Let’s read 1 Pet. 3:18-22:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. (1 Pet. 3:18-22)
Interpreters wrestle with some of the issues addressed here, and though we won’t resolve them all in this sermon, we’ll seek to embrace the core message of hope that Peter offers—a message that revolves around three particular ministries in tough times: Jesus’, Noah’s and our own.
A. Jesus’ ministry
Jesus is the perfect example of serving God faithfully no matter what. Peter describes Jesus’ ministry from four perspectives: his death, proclamation, resurrection, and ascension.
1. Jesus’ death (1 Pet. 3:18a)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1 Pet. 3:18a)
Having mentioned in 1 Pet. 3:17 that it is better that Christians suffer for well-doing rather than evil-doing, Peter now gives the supreme example of Jesus the Righteous One who suffered terribly for the evil-doing of others. In doing so, he gives one of the most succinct, yet profound statements in the New Testament concerning the atonement. Through his ministry, Jesus resolved once and for all the problem of humanity’s broken relationship with God. As our representative and substitute, Jesus brought us back to God. He did not suffer and die because of his own sins, but because of ours.
Being the Creator of all, Jesus, through his Incarnation, represents all humanity. His death is thus our death—when Jesus died, we all died; when he rose, we all rose; when he ascended to the Father, we all ascended. Jesus, our representative and substitute, gained for us all a place in God’s family as his beloved children. In Christ, we are adopted into God’s life and love—an adoption that we then, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, personally experience.
Because of who Jesus is and because of what he has done for us, we, by the Spirit, may come boldly to God’s throne where we have, in Christ, and by the Spirit, open access to God’s marvelous grace to meet our daily needs. All this is ours because Jesus came among us as one of us and was willing to suffer to the utmost in order to serve us.
2. Jesus’ proclamation (1 Pet. 3:18b-20)
He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water… (1 Pet. 3:18b-20)
Jesus ministry of serving us continued after his crucifixion. Peter notes this by addressing the ministry Jesus conducted between his death and resurrection. We don’t know much about that period, but we know that Jesus was fully human and fully God and that God cannot die. Jesus, in his humanity, lay dead in the tomb, but where was he and what was he doing in his divinity? 1 Pet. 3:19 seems to provide a glimpse of at least part of the answer—what early Christian creeds call Jesus’ “descent to the dead” and sometimes “the harrowing of hell.”
In his divinity, Jesus “descended” into hell—the realm of the dead—the “prison” where certain “spirits” were being held awaiting judgment. These spirits are either unforgiven human sinners (specifically those who rejected God’s warning in Noah’s day), or fallen angels who had a role in the rebellion during Noah’s time. The idea of fallen angels seems to fit the context best. Jesus’ message to these imprisoned spirits was probably an announcement of his victory over Satan and the demons. Peter’s point in mentioning this is that this victory that Jesus won is ours. How? Through our sharing in Jesus’ victorious resurrection from the dead.
3. Jesus’ resurrection (1 Pet. 3:21)
…and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ… (1 Pet. 3:21)
Jesus’ resurrection plays a key role in his continuing ministry and it is in the resurrected Jesus that we have hope. Here Peter relates this hope to Noah as a type of our baptism. More about that comparison later, but note here the great importance of Jesus’ resurrection. It declares that he is God, that his work of salvation is complete and is accepted by the Father, and that through that work, death has been conquered.
It is our sharing in Jesus’ resurrected life that brings us salvation. We should think of salvation as a relationship, not a mere event or single moment in time. It is our continuing sharing in Jesus’ life that now saves us. And it is the risen Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, gives us that life, which includes giving us a share in his power to live for God and to serve God as part of a ministry of all believers.
4. Jesus’ ascension (1 Pet. 3:22)
…who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. (1 Pet. 3:22)
Sadly, the doctrine of Jesus’ bodily ascension is often overlooked or a least minimized. But here Peter gives it prominence. Forty days after his bodily resurrection, Jesus (God-in-the flesh-now glorified) ascended to heaven where he sits “at God’s right hand”—a reference to his exalted status. All humanity, in the person of Jesus, our representative and substitute, sits with Jesus in his heavenly exaltation.
From heaven, the ascended Jesus is ministering to us, with us and through us as our High Priest and Advocate. Jesus, himself, is the “place” prepared in heaven for all humanity (John 14) and we reign in life with the ascended Jesus who reigns over all, including all “angels, authorities and powers” (apparently a reference to the evil hosts of Satan). By embracing and expressing this exalted position that is ours in union with Jesus, in our struggles we do not fight for victory, but from victory—the mighty victory our Lord has already won for us in his death, resurrection and ascension.
B. Noah’s ministry
Let’s return to these verses now noting Peter’s discussion of Noah’s ministry. In Peter’s day, Noah was held in high regard among Jews and Christians. Jesus referred to Noah in Matthew 24, and Peter mentions him in 2 Peter 2 and 3. Noah is also named as a hero of faith in Hebrews 11.
Here Peter points to Noah as a positive example of faithfulness in ministry in tough times. As “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5), Noah ministered for 120 difficult years. Early Christians remembered how Jesus said the “end times” would become increasingly like the “days of Noah” (Matt. 24). As they saw persecution increasing, they no doubt remembered that warning. Now Peter wants them to remember Noah’s faithful example in serving God even when times are tough, and ministry seems to bear little fruit. Indeed, what counted for Noah was not success (only seven people heeded his warnings!), but faithfulness.
There is another connection to Noah here. Peter saw in Noah’s flood a type of Christian baptism. Just as the flood buried the earth in judgment and lifted Noah and his family up in the ark to safety, so too baptism pictures burial with Jesus and being lifted up with him in his resurrection to new life.
In the way Noah and his family were saved by faith because they believed God and entered into the ark for deliverance, so too sinners, by repentance and faith, participate in the life of Christ, who saves them. Thus, Peter can say that Noah and his family were “saved through water” (1 Pet. 3:20). This does not mean that baptism itself saves us, but it means that Jesus, through his death and resurrection saves us (1 Pet. 3:21). Baptism pictures who Jesus is and what he has done to include us in his resurrected life.
According to Peter, having a good (clean) conscience is vital in this (see 1 Pet. 3:21 and 1 Pet. 3:16). In the early church, those about to be baptized were asked if they pledged to obey God and serve him, renounce the devil and break with their sinful past. If they had reservations about this, or deliberately lied about it, they would not have a good conscience. Similarly, if, under pressure of persecution, they deny their baptismal pledge (and Peter knew something about denying Jesus!), they would not have a good conscience. Peter is thus reminding us of our baptismal pledge—not to burden us, but to encourage us to be faithful to our commitment to Christ, including ministering with him even in tough times, like Noah did.
C. Our ministry today
Through the examples of Jesus and Noah, Peter points us toward faithfulness in serving God in our day—particularly when things get tough. Let’s note his key points:
1. Expect opposition
In a world living in the darkness of minds alienated from the God, we can expect people to resist our efforts to serve Jesus. Jesus himself, though perfect, was mocked and crucified. If the Just One who committed no sin was treated that way, we should expect to face opposition as well, since we are far less than perfect. We must be careful, however, that we suffer because of well-doing, not because we have disobeyed our Lord.
2. Seek faithfulness not success
Noah served God for decades yet only eight people (Noah plus seven other family members) were saved from the Flood. Nevertheless, God honored Noah for his ministry. To the world, Jesus appeared a total failure when he died on the cross, yet his death was a supreme victory. His cause today may seem to fail, but he will accomplish his purposes in this world and he will do so through our faithful service. And so, we seek faithfulness, leaving the numbers (and other signs of “success”) to the Lord of the harvest—remembering that the great harvest comes at the end of this age.
3. Be encouraged by Christ’s victory
Jesus’ victory over sin, death and all other obstacles is pictured in our baptism. Water baptism pictures our baptism in the Spirit, which is what unites us to Christ. It is through the Holy Spirit’s ongoing ministry and by his power that we live for Christ and minister with him. Opposition to our ministry is energized by Satan despite the fact that Jesus has already defeated him. And so, we approach ministry, despite its hardships and disappointments, with confidence and a clear sense of victory.
4. Baptism is important
Our baptism identifies us with Christ and gives testimony that we have broken with the old life and will, in Christ, live a new life. The act of baptism is a pledge to God that we will follow him no matter what difficulties arise. Some people make too much of baptism by teaching that it is a means of salvation, but some minimize its importance. If we have not been baptized already, we should be as an act of trust and obedience toward our Lord. Then we are to live the “baptized life”—a life of sharing with Jesus in his ministry, trusting in Jesus who is our salvation. In him we are safely delivered forever from all that can harm us.
Participating actively in the life we have in Jesus will sometimes bring difficulties, even persecution. But be encouraged—Jesus is far greater than any of the difficulties that we will face. Don’t worry about “success”—instead, seek faithfulness, like Noah did. And remember that Jesus is at God’s right hand in heaven and you are seated in that exalted place with him. Share in his victory and in his faithfulness. “Hang in there”—trust in God no matter what. Take up your cross and follow Jesus. Amen.