Due to the obvious difficulty of this passage, my sermon will be delivered in two parts today. The first part will handle interpretive matters (allowing, of course, for legitimate differences of opinion since good and godly men do disagree on what exactly this passage means) and the second part will look past all such differences and set forth points of application upon which all can agree.
Much of the confusion over how to interpret these verses seems, at least to me, unnecessary because the first word in vs. 18 ties these verses very tightly to the context: For Christ also hath once suffered for sins… The word for ties these mysterious verses back to the less-mysterious theme of the previous verses: keeping a clean conscience – and giving a good answer – when attacked by evil men. Christians can do that, because Christ also did that.
Christ was opposed by the ungodly and ultimately killed, but in all of it he kept a clean conscience and was, in the end, vindicated. He then proclaimed his victory over sin, death, and hell; leaving all his enemies ashamed and leaving all who follow in his steps, encouraged. That is a plain reading of the text and that is how it fits in to the broader context. As for specific points of interpretation, I will set forth three:
Interpretive Point #1
Christ Died for the Ungodly
vs. 18, For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God… Were Peter’s friends suffering? Christ suffered even more. Were Peter’s friends able to suffer well, knowing that it was God’s will and that he was well able to work it together for good? Most definitely, because Christ himself proved it possible through his own suffering and death.
Remember the great mystery of the cross: That greatest miscarriage of justice the world has ever seen (i.e., humanly speaking): the arrest, trial, conviction, and execution of Jesus Christ; was also (even at the same time) the singular event through which God saved his people from their sins.
The just for the unjust… Christ suffered such ill treatment not because he was guilty, but because he was innocent – the spotless Lamb of God – who went to the cross willingly as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sin. This atonement he offered in order to bring us to God (vs. 18) and when he succeeded – when reconciliation was accomplished – he cried out with a loud voice, so that all might know: it is finished.
At that very moment, sin’s debt was cancelled – death had lost its power – even Hell itself lost claim over our souls. For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God. This is the cross – Calvary – Christ and him crucified – and all who were present on that day could literally Behold the Lamb of God, but the next phrase in vs. 18 points us beyond the cross; to a realm – and to realities – which are unseen: being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.
As Christ’s body died, his soul – or his spirit – was quickened – made alive – energized – invigorated. His spirit was not carried to the tomb and buried… but rather, undertook a strange and glorious, work.
Interpretive Point #2
Christ Preached unto Spirits
vs. 19, By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison… This is where many become confused. This is where many interpretations become fanciful in their speculation. But let us restrain ourselves today and stay close to the text. What can we safely affirm?
First, we must affirm that it was Christ himself doing the preaching because the verse says emphatically: he went. However, it is also made clear that he did not do this physically, in the flesh. His body died and it was by the Spirit (vs. 18) that he preached.
Second, we must properly define the word preached. Because of the modern “invitation system” one might think that it involved some offer of a second chance, but this is not what the word preach means on a most basic level. It rather means to announce, declare, or proclaim. In the ancient world, the word described the work of the herald in announcing victory after battle. If you were on the winning side, his announcement brought assurance; but if you were on the losing side, it brought shame.
Remember again, that is the context here: vs. 16, Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsels accuse your good conversation in Christ. Will God do that for us? Definitely, because he did it for Christ by allowing him to preach unto the spirits in prison.
Who, now, are these spirits? vs. 20 tells us that it was that generation of sinners which were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah. Honest question: Why would God single out a single generation of lost souls and give them such special attention? A personal visit from Noah’s Saviour and Lord? A special announcement of their awful doom? Answer: Because that was the most wicked generation that ever lived.
When God looked down upon that generation and saw what they had done with his world, he regretted the day he made man. The world was filled with violence. The sons of God interbred with the daughters of men. There were giants in the earth in those days – Nephilim – and the mighty men which were of old wreaked havoc in all the earth. So corrupt was the world at that time, that there was only one solution: Start over; wash it all away and begin afresh.
Millions of lives lost – millions of souls damned. The few who were saved were mocked and accused incessantly, so it should not surprise us (remembering again the context) that Christ would vindicate them, even personally.
Imagine being one of the disobedient spirits in prison, thinking that God’s judgement was long past; only to hear the thundering voice of Noah’s Saviour proclaiming to men and angels: “Noah now reigns with me! Let the evil bow before the good; and the wicked at the gates of the righteous!” (Proverbs 14:19) O, what a blow it must have been to the spirits in prison; but, ah, what a blessing it must have been to Noah! Having endured over a century of their taunts, he stands vindicated by his Saviour and Lord!
That is what Christ did to Noah’s generation, but they were not the only generation that needed to learn of Christ’s victory, the world of men needed to know and the hosts of heaven also needed to know; hence:
Interpretive Point #3
Christ Rose Victorious and Ascended
Besides being quickened by the Spirit, Christ was physically raised from the dead and then received – bodily – into heaven. All who witnessed these events knew that they involved mysteries just as unfathomable as these previously considered.
Matthew 27 says when Christ died the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
Ephesians 4 also says: When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.)
While such verses may seem cryptic (and while we should certainly refrain from undo speculation), Peter helps us bring it all together: Christ died for the ungodly (reconciling us to God). He announced his victory from the cross and then proclaimed it in realms unseen. He then proved his victory publicly through his resurrection and even more conspicuously through his ascension into heaven.
vs. 22 leaves us there: He is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God – that all might know: angels and authorities and powers have all been made subject unto him. Yes, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:10-11).
That seems to be the plain reading and reasonable interpretation of this passage, so here concludes the first section of my sermon.
When it comes to the second part (i.e., the section on applications), it would seem that Peter wants us to think of our present situation in terms of ancient history. He wants us to remember Noah, his world, his ark, his salvation, and his clean conscience. So let’s think it through:
Applicatory Point #1
God’s Judgment is Coming
Though God’s judgment sometimes seems to tarry, we should never fall in with those scoffers who say, “Where is the promise of his coming?” because vs. 20 reminds us of how the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah (even for 120 years while that generation slowly filled up the cup of their iniquity). The moment they did, raindrops started falling and the flood soon came.
The same thing will happen once more; the only difference being: God will use fire instead of water. Application: God’s judgment is coming. So, as Jesus said, Therefore you also be ready. You can be and you should be because:
Applicatory Point #2
God Has a Few People to Save
While many might not like the sound of the word few, it is the word God gives us in vs. 20, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
This word few helps us to keep our hope appropriate. To be sure, if we were to step back and look at the entire history of man, we might well say, “God has saved many…” but most people tend to look at things from their own present situation, sometimes wondering (as Christ himself did): Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth? That is a good question to ponder, but it should never be the first. Noah, it seems, was content to know this: “That I have found grace in the eyes of the Lord and my family is entering the ark with me.”
The hard truth behind the word few would even make it into the ark. One of Noah’s three sons, Ham, did not fear God. Nevertheless, we should never obsess over such possibilities. Rather, we should just focus on the things God has given us to focus on:
Applicatory Point #3
God Has Established Means
By “means” we refer to visible things through which the invisible grace of God is communicated. In Noah’s day, it was an ark – a boat – a ship – through which they would be saved. In our day, we can think of it more in terms of the church. Like the ark, it is a safe place in which to hide – furnished with everything we need inside – until the day when God finally closes the door. The front door of the church is the sacrament of Baptism. We enter God’s covenant – we enter God’s house – through the waters of Baptism – and once inside, we are in the safest place in this world.
There are, of course, many differences of opinion when it comes to the proper recipients or the efficacy of Baptism and I certainly cannot settle those debates in a single sermon. I will however, offer two sub-points from these verses that support the Reformed view.
First, Baptism (like all covenant signs in Scripture) assumes and operates according the “household principle.” The promise is unto you, and to your children is what Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, because that has always been the promise: you and your children. This is why Noah brought his entire family with him into that means of grace called the ark. Yes, one of his sons and grandsons ended up cursed, but we must leave that to God. The household principle remains sacrosanct when it comes to sacraments.
Second, sacraments do not have the power to save anyone automatically or in every instance of administration. Peter acknowledges this in vs. 21 where he first says, baptism doth also now save us…but then offers an immediate and important qualification: (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.It is not the outward act of washing that saves a soul, but the inward effect that results in a good conscience.
Applicatory Point #4
God Offers a Good Conscience
Our need for a cleansed conscience is one of the most basic lessons taught by Baptism: It shows us that we are dirty and need to be washed clean. The cleansing God provides (as is made abundantly clear by these verses) is not sacramental water, but the blood of Jesus Christ. vs. 18, Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.
Do you want a clean conscience today? If so, the first step is to acknowledge that you are by nature – and by choice – unjust, unclean, and therefore unable to approach the holy God of scripture. Once you acknowledge that, you will be able to apprehend God’s mercy in Christ. Namely, that he died for sinners like you and through his death he conquered sin, death, and hell. That victory has been announced to men and angels that all may know and that you may know!
The final step toward a good conscience is to make use of the means which God has appointed for our salvation. He gave us the ark of the church and bids us to enter through the waters of Baptism. Once inside, he nourishes us with his word, he sits us down at his table, and he protects us from all the angry billows that always roll outside. He even protects us from our own uncertainties and doubts.
Sometimes, my dear friends, we are our own worst enemy when it comes to maintaining and enjoying the good conscience God offers. We obsess over our weaknesses, we allow our introspection to become morbid, we sometimes even get lost in self; but next time that happens, remember this passage.
Christ’s victory has been preached – to men and angels – to the dead and to the living – to those in prison – and to those in glory! Graves were opened, the dead were raised, he led captivity captive and gave gifts to men! So will you – little old you – now doubt? Hence, all such unbelief, and all hail to our Victor, the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen and hallelujah.