1 Peter 3:18-22 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.
There are a handful of New Testament verses that cut straight to the heart of the Christian faith. 1 Peter 3:18 is one of them. We’re going to look under the hood of it a bit this morning, but I want to make sure that doesn’t cause us to miss the simple, glorious reality it communicates: As followers of Jesus we are to suffer in a manner that is pleasing to God and a blessing to others because that’s what Jesus did; even to the point of dying on the cross to save us from our sins.
Let’s pray, then, that God would use this simple verse to awaken or reawaken us to absolutely amazing glory of the greatest news of all time. Let’s pray that some would receive this news for the first time this morning and therein be brought to God! And let’s pray that the rest of us would experience all the gratitude, humility, joy, and motivation for action that the gospel demands.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN JESUS’ SUFFERING AND OURS
In many ways, 3:18-22 is the hardest passage in 1 Peter. Before we get to the really hard stuff, however, Peter grounds all of it in the good news of salvation in Jesus. As we work through the trickier portions of this passage in the coming weeks, it’s important—indeed, vital—that we read them in light of v.18, the greatest news of all time. Understanding this passage and the greatness of that news begins with Peter’s understanding the relationship between Jesus’ suffering and the suffering of his followers.
In 1 Peter 3:13-16 (the verses immediately preceding our passage), Peter charged his readers to continue doing good (zealously) even when they were made to suffer for it. In v.17 he gave one of the reasons for his charge: because it’s better than the alternative. In v.18 (our passage for this morning) he gave one of the reasons why it’s better: because (“for”) that’s what Jesus did. It’s better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil “For Christ also suffered…” in that way. Christians must be willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake because it’s better than suffering for unrighteousness’ sake, and we know that because Jesus left us that example.
Remember, Peter is writing to real people in a real season of suffering. The point of his letter is to instruct them on where God is in all of it and on how that ought to effect their response. Their suffering, Peter wrote, is known by God, endured with God, and even willed by God for his good purposes. They ought to respond, therefore, in hope and not despair; in love and not in bitterness; with blessing and not justice; in holiness and not sinfulness; that is, according to the example of Jesus and not the world.
The fact that suffering Christians have in Jesus an example of how to suffer well is good news. And yet, as you probably already know, Jesus did more than merely set an example of suffering for doing what’s good. He did that (perfectly), but he also suffered (death on a cross) to save sinners. “For Christ also suffered once for sins…”. His suffering served as an example and as a substitute sacrifice. He showed Christians how to suffer well and suffered death because we don’t. The fact that sinners can be brought to God on account of Jesus’ suffering to death is what takes this passage from good news to the greatest news. And therefore, that’s where we’ll spend the rest of our time this morning.
THE NATURE OF JESUS’ SUFFERING
One of the remarkable aspects of this short, simple verse is how descriptive it is concerning the nature of Jesus’ suffering, who Jesus suffered for, and what his suffering accomplished. Let’s read the verse one more time and then begin by considering the nature of Jesus’ suffering.
1 Peter 3:18 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…
In this single verse, Peter gives six key aspects of the nature of Jesus’ suffering.
First, He suffered.
Jesus really suffered physical persecution for walking in righteousness. This is a constant theme in 1 Peter.
1 Peter 1:10-11 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied … predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.
1 Peter 2:21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you…
1 Peter 2:23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten…
1 Peter 4:1 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking…
1 Peter 4:13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings…
1 Peter 5:1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ…
We cannot miss the fact that Peter repeatedly links the suffering of his readers to the suffering of Jesus. “You are suffering to be sure,” Peter wrote, “and your suffering grieves me. However, in your suffering do not forget that the Object of our faith also suffered and in far greater ways. Don’t turn inward, therefore. Don’t lose hope. He did not call you to go anywhere he didn’t go himself. Consider his sufferings and find strength.”
Second, He suffered once for sins.
The fact is, Jesus suffered many times over the course of his public ministry. He was repeatedly physically, emotionally, and spiritually abused…at the hands of strangers, friends, and political and religious enemies. Even a quick read through the Gospels makes this clear.
What, then, does Peter mean by “he suffered once”? The key is in the next two words, “for sin”. Jesus suffered many times for righteousness’ sake, but on the cross he did in one act of suffering what countless years and countless animals could not do. That is, Peter means to highlight in this verse the fact that unlike the old sacrificial system where animal sacrifices were offered over and over and over again (at times with around 250,000 at a time), never fully paying for sins, Jesus accomplished completely in his final suffering.
The nature of Jesus suffering is such that on the cross, he defeated sin and made a way for man to be brought back to God. Jesus suffered once for the sins of man.
Third, he suffered for righteousness.
Another crucial aspect of the nature of Jesus’ suffering is that his suffering, along with the rest of his life, was lived in perfect righteousness. He was in the fullest sense of the term, righteous. That is, he was completely sinless in his nature and actions.
Even under the old sacrificial system of the Jews God required animals without blemish (Lev. 1:3; 1 Peter 1:19). Only spotless animals were acceptable as sacrifices. Jesus was, as Peter himself wrote in chapter 1, “without spot or blemish.”
Jesus lived, suffered, and died as the Righteous one. And only a truly righteous sacrifice would be acceptable to God. The greatest news!
Forth, He suffered for sins according to the will of God.
The fourth remarkable and necessary aspect of Jesus’ sacrificial, sinless suffering for sin is the fact that it was all done according to the will of God. We see this in the second word of the verse, “Christ”. Christ isn’t Jesus’ last name. The Christ (or Messiah) was God’s promised savior.
The promise of the Christ first appears subtly but unmistakably in Genesis 3:15 when God cursed the serpent for deceiving Adam and Eve saying, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he [the offspring of the woman, the Christ] shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
A little later, through Moses, God revealed (Deuteronomy 18:15 ) “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers- it is to him you shall listen…”.
Perhaps the most well known and appropriate passage (for this morning is) on the fact that Jesus’ sacrificial suffering was according to the will of God is Isaiah 53:3-5. There we read that [the Christ will be] “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…5 he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.
Earlier in the NT, in Acts 3:18, we read Peter himself drawing from these verses stating, “What God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled [in Jesus, the Christ]”.
And earlier in 1 Peter (1:20), Peter stated this explicitly, “He [Jesus] was foreknown [by God] before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake…”.
If we are to understand the nature of the sufferings of Jesus we must understand that he experienced them according to the will of God.
Fifth, suffered to the point of death in the flesh.
What’s more, fifth, his sufferings were truly to the point of death. Jesus really died in his human nature; that is, in his flesh. His body stopped working, his lungs stopped breathing, his heart stopped beating, the electrical signals in his brain stopped firing, etc. Long ago God had declared that the wages of sin was death (Genesis 2:17) and for sin Jesus suffered, died and was buried. “Being put to death in the flesh,” in order to pay the wages of sin, was also part of the nature of Jesus suffering.
Finally, sixth, his suffering led to death…and then resurrection.
The sixth and final aspect of the nature of Jesus’ suffering mentioned by Peter (in this passage) is that although Jesus was “put to death in the flesh,” he “was made alive in the spirit.”
There are two main ways to interpret this clause. It is likely Peter either meant that: 1) Jesus died in the physical realm as a pathway to greater life in the spiritual realm, or 2) Jesus was physically killed by mankind, but resurrected to new life by the Holy Spirit.”
Scholars have spent a great deal of time debating these two possibilities. Either way, however, the key to understanding Peter’s use of the phrase is that Jesus rose from the dead. That is, deciding between options 1 and 2 isn’t as nearly as crucial as standing in awe at the fact that death could not hold Jesus. He died, but did not stay dead.
On the cross Jesus suffered for a final time and died. In that one act he defeated sin once and for all. Three days later he rose from the dead providing perfect, indisputable evidence that he was who he said he was and did what he said he’d do.
Jesus really suffered. In his final act of suffering (death) he defeated death. He lived, suffered, died, and rose from the dead in perfect righteousness. And he did all of this according to the will of God. When we suffer, Peter means us to draw these things to our mind and find direction, strength, and hope in them.
But who stands to gain from this? For whom did Jesus suffer once? Who are the beneficiaries of the suffering of the Righteous One?
THE BENEFICIARIES OF JESUS SUFFERING
There are two answers to that question. The first answer is explicitly stated in this passage. Jesus, the righteous, died for the unrighteous. That is, Jesus died once for the sins of sinners.
Grace, that is truly good news.
If you and I apply for a job at the Minnesota Twins, the key qualification is that we know how to play baseball. If we apply for a job at Medtronic, the key qualification is knowledge of chemistry. If we apply for a job at Target, the key qualification is an exceptional understanding of home goods. If we apply for a job at the U of M, the key qualification is a PhD in something. And if we want to benefit from the sacrificial suffering of Jesus, the key qualification is NOT athletic prowess, creative/artistic ability, academic brilliance, or exceptional religious practice. Instead, it’s an acknowledgement of our sin.
If there is one qualification that you, I, and all mankind meet it’s that we are sinners. We can sin well. And it is for sinners alone that Jesus suffered.
The second answer, though, is not stated in this passage. Who benefits from Jesus’ suffering? The consistent answer in 1 Peter (1:5, 7, 9, 21; 5:9) and throughout the NT (Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 3:9) is all those who receive the greatest news in faith. That is, the sacrificial sufferings of Jesus, the greatest news, is for all who will trust in Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection!
Non-Christian, that offer stands for you right now. Acknowledge your sin before God, turn from it, and place your hope in Christ alone. God will receive you in this moment. You will benefit from the greatest news. And Christian, rejoice that you were brought to faith. Praise God for his grace. Worship him in the knowledge that he gave you eyes to see and ears to hear this news and through it brought you into salvation through Jesus.
All of this leads us to one final question, what is the greatest news?
THE BENEFIT OF JESUS’ SUFFERING
I love, really, really, really love that Peter, led by the Holy Spirit, chose to answer this question as he did.
For many years Christians have been taught, usually by the Church, for reasons that undoubtedly range from ignorantly well-intentioned to knowingly diabolical, that the greatest news is that if you pray a prayer, sin a bit less, connect with a church on some level, and believe in Jesus in some mystical, undefined way, then all your worldly desires will be fulfilled in heaven. If you do these things and miss your pet, you’re told that Fluffy is waiting for you in heaven. If you do these things and you like golf, well, you should see the grass in heaven. If you do these things and money is tight….you get the idea. The worst form of this fake gospel tells you that if you do these things (and send a lot of money to the pastor) you can have all these things now.
Grace, if this is your idea of the greatest news—that you can have everything you’ve ever wanted in this world—you don’t understand Peter or the gospel he proclaimed. If this is your idea of the greatest news, you still do not have eyes to see. If this is your idea of the greatest news, if these things are the greatest things you can imagine, you do not know God.
Of this idea, one of the most piercing paragraphs that I’ve ever read is this (God is the Gospel, John Piper. 15):
The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?
If your answer to that question is “yes,” you do not yet understand the greatest news. For the greatest news is that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, [and here’s the key] that he might bring us to God.”
Grace, the greatest news in the world, the greatest news in the universe, the greatest news of all time, is that through the sufferings of Jesus, sinners like you and I can be brought to God; the singularly infinitely glorious God for whom our souls were made, the One being who can truly satisfy us, the One in whom are pleasures forevermore, the only One who can deliver on his promise of everlasting life.
Nehemiah 9:5-6 “Stand up and bless the LORD your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise. 6 “You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you.
Psalm 29:1-10 Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. 2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness. 3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over many waters. 4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. 5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. 6 He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. 7 The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. 8 The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 9 The voice of the LORD makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare, and in his temple all cry, “Glory!” 10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
Job 5:9-16 God…does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number: 10 he gives rain on the earth and sends waters on the fields; 11 he sets on high those who are lowly, and those who mourn are lifted to safety. 12 He frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success. 13 He catches the wise in their own craftiness, and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end… 15 But he saves the needy from the sword of their mouth and from the hand of the mighty. 16 So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts her mouth.
Psalm 40:5 You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told.
Grace, the greatest news, Peter wrote, is that Jesus Christ, the righteous, suffered, died, and rose from the dead for all of the unrighteous who would receive him in faith in order that he might bring us to that God, to delight in and glorify forever and ever.
And so we end where we began. Let’s pray, then, that God would use this simple verse to awaken or reawaken us to absolutely amazing glory of the greatest news of all time. Let’s pray that some would receive this news for the first time this morning and therein be brought to God! And let’s pray that the rest of us would experience all the gratitude, humility, joy, and motivation for action that the gospel demands.