The Triumphant Christ

1 Peter 3:18-22

This is the hardest passage in the New Testament.

That’s what my Greek professor said when we were studying I Peter in seminary. I recall him saying that there are so many possible views about these verses that it is impossible to be certain what they mean. The problem partly relates to the Greek text itself (What exactly is Peter saying?) and partly to the interpretation of the text (What does Peter mean?). When Martin Luther commented on this text, he said something along the lines of, “I’m not sure what Peter means in this passage.” Many other commentators have said the same thing.

Let me see if I can make the problem clear to you. Here is a list of the topics Peter covers in just five verses:

  • Christ died for sins once for all to bring us to God.
  • He died and was made alive spiritually (or in the Spirit).
  • He preached to the spirits in prison.
  • Those spirits disobeyed during Noah’s day when the ark was being prepared.
  • Only eight people were saved in the ark.
  • They were saved by water.
  • The water symbolizes baptism.
  • Baptism saves us.
  • But not by outward washing but by the pledge of a good conscience toward God.
  • Baptism saves us by the resurrection of Christ.
  • Christ now sits at God’s right hand.
  • All spiritual powers are now subject to him.

Just to write the list out makes it seem confusing. What exactly is Peter talking about here? So let’s shorten the list a little bit:

  • Christ died.
  • He preached to the spirits in prison.
  • Eight people were saved in the ark.
  • The floodwaters represent baptism.
  • Baptism saves by the resurrection of Christ.
  • Christ now sits at God’s right hand.

That’s better but it is somewhat unclear. The one thought that runs through this passage has to do with Jesus Christ. Peter wants to stress that just as Christ suffered unjustly, even so we may suffer unjustly. And he uses Noah’s story almost as a “side illustration” as if to say, “What happened to Jesus (and to Noah, by the way) can and will happen to you.” So if we move the part about Noah to the side (for the moment), we are left with four statements about Jesus Christ:

  • He died (v. 18).
  • He preached (v. 19).
  • He rose from the dead (v. 21).
  • He sits at God’s right hand (v. 22).

This passage is all about Jesus. Note how what starts with suffering ends with triumph. We miss the major point if we dwell on the part about Noah’s flood. Just remember this: Noah suffered rejection but in the end was vindicated. That’s a small illustration of what happened to Jesus in a big way. He was crucified, but now sits at the Father’s right hand. And both those stories illustrate what happens to those who follow Christ. What starts with the “agony of defeat” (unjust suffering) ends up with the “thrill of victory” (vindication through the triumphant Christ). That’s the major thrust of this passage. Peter presents us with four elements of Christ’s triumphant victory.

I. He Died For Our Sins

“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (v. 18).

Peter affirms five important facts about the death of Christ. First, it was a horrible death. The word for “died” in verse 18 speaks not just of physical death, but of awesome suffering. Last year when Mel Gibson released “The Passion of the Christ,” he was widely criticized for the brutality with which he depicted the death of our Lord. In response to that criticism, he released a “recut” version of the movie on Friday. It’s six minutes shorter because he cut out part of the scourging scene and part of the crucifixion scene. He also changed some of the audio and the angles of certain shots to soften the shock of the film. But 2,000 years ago, no one could soften the crucifixion for Jesus. What they did to him was far worse than any Hollywood movie could portray. Second, it was a sacrificial death. He died “for sins.” Note carefully how Peter puts it. He did not die for his own sins, for he never sinned. He was the only perfect man who ever lived. Jesus died for our sins. Third, it was an unrepeatable death. When Peter says he died “once for all,” he means Christ’s death was sufficient for all time and therefore could never be repeated by anyone else. Not even Christ himself could die again for our sins. What the blood of bulls and goats could never do, Jesus did in his death on the cross. Jesus died on the Jewish Passover. Scholars suggest that 250,000 sheep would be killed each year at Passover. But that great river of animal blood could never duplicate what Jesus accomplished when he died on the cross for us.

Fourth, it was a substitutionary death. His death was “the righteous for the unrighteous.” He took our place, he bore our shame. He paid the price for all our sin. Let me illustrate. For the last few weeks, I’ve been training the men at First Watch on Thursday mornings in the “Bad News-Good News” method of sharing Christ. The first point of the Good News is “Christ Died for Us” and the Scripture is Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That’s a wonderful truth, but how do you explain it to people? I told the men to use this illustration when they are talking with someone about Christ: “Let’s suppose that you have cancer, and your cancer is so far progressed that the doctors have told you there is no hope. All methods of treatment have been exhausted. There is nothing else they can do. Without a miracle, you will die. So I come to you and say, “I’d like to help you out. I want to take every single one of your cancer cells out of your body and put them in my body.” You look at me with a mixture of puzzlement and incredible joy. The very thing that is killing you is about to be removed from your body. After you say that to the person, you then ask this question, “If that were possible, what would happen to me and what would happen to you?” The answer is, “I would die and you would live.” Why? Because I took the thing that was causing your death and placed it on myself, and I died as your substitute.

That’s what Jesus did for us. He took the penalty for our sins and he placed it on himself. This explains why Christ had to die. He did not die as a good example, and he didn’t die to teach us how to live or how to die. He died because he took our punishment on himself. A little chorus says it this way:

He paid a debt he did not owe,
I owed a debt I could not pay.
I needed someone to wash my sin away
And now I sing that brand new song: Amazing Grace
For Jesus paid the debt that I could never pay.

Fifth, it was a reconciling death. He died for our sins, in our place, that he might bring us to God. In the Old Testament, there was a thick veil that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. The veil was a visual reminder that no one but the High Priest could come into God’s presence, and he could only come once a year, and only on the Day of Atonement, and only with the blood of a bull or a goat. When Jesus died, the veil was ripped apart, signifying that his death opens the door for anyone who believes to come to God.

II. He Preached to the Spirits in Prison

Most of us don’t think of Jesus as a preacher, but he was. Matthew 4:23 says that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom.” Luke 20:1 says that in the last week before his crucifixion, Jesus “was teaching the people in the temple courts and preaching the gospel.” So Jesus was most definitely a preacher. That’s what makes this passage so fascinating. Verse 19 tells us very explicitly that Jesus went and preached to “the spirits in prison.” Now there are many questions about this. Who are these “spirits” and when and where and how did Jesus preach to them? Verse 20 gives us part of the answer. These spirits in prison “disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” That helps a little, but not a lot. We know from the book of Genesis that in the days before the flood, evil had completely taken over the world. God sent the flood in response to the rampant, uncontrolled wickedness of those days. Men not only rejected God, they did so defiantly, openly and violently. How did the world God created go bad so totally and so quickly? Genesis 6:1-2 (NASB) offers one answer. “When men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose.” There are several explanations for those verses. The oldest interpretation suggests that the phrase “sons of God” refers to angels who rebelled against God (we would call them demons), inhabited human bodies, married human women, and gave birth to the “nephilim” of verse 4 who roamed the earth as ancient tyrants and bullies. On its surface, the view seems strange and even bizarre but it is, in my judgment, what this passage is teaching. For one thing, the term “sons of God” in the Old Testament in all its other occurrences always refers only to angels. And this interpretation accords very well with Genesis 3:15, which emphasizes Satan’s long “war” against the “seed of the woman” that will eventually produce the Messiah. What better way to destroy the coming Messiah than to so utterly corrupt the human race through the introduction of demonism? And this truly is the oldest interpretation. This is how the Jewish scholars who translated the Old Testament into Greek (the Septuagint) understood the text approximately two centuries before the birth of Christ. And this interpretation helps us understand two cryptic passages in the New Testament.

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly (2 Peter 2:4-5 NASB).

And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day, just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire (Jude 6-7 NASB).

Both passages describe a very drastic judgment upon certain angels who not only sinned but “abandoned their proper abode.” Note that in the first passage, the angels are mentioned first, then comes Noah and the flood. In Jude the phrase “just as” joins the angels with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. And what was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah? It was a form of “gross immorality” that consisted of going after “strange flesh.” That’s not just a reference to homosexuality. Genesis 19 tells us that the men of Sodom and Gomorrah were ready to rape the two angelic visitors who appeared in human form. Put it all together and it looks like this: In the days before the flood, certain angels rebelled against God and entered human bodies in a form of demon-possession, taking for themselves human wives. The resulting cohabitation produced a form of evil offspring that roamed the earth as giants, tyrants and workers of enormous evil. For this hideous sin, the angels were sent to the pit of deep darkness and the world of Noah’s day was wiped out in the great flood.

It helps to remember that in the Gospels, we learn that demons crave bodies to inhabit. When the “legion” of demons was cast out of the Gadarene demoniac, they begged to be allowed to enter a herd of pigs (Mark 5:1-20). Since we know such things are possible, it should not surprise us that the total rejection of God led to bizarre sexual sin and an outbreak of evil unprecedented in world history.

It should not surprise us that the total rejection of God led to bizarre sexual sin and an outbreak of evil unprecedented in world history.

Now where does that leave us with regard to 1 Peter 3:19? I personally believe that Jesus preached to those demonic spirits and proclaimed his ultimate victory over them. To say that he “preached” to them does not mean that he offered salvation to them. Salvation is for humans, not for angels or demons. The verb “preached” means to make a public announcement. It’s what a herald would do when he went from city to city announcing the king’s decrees. I believe that Jesus, either between his death and resurrection or after his resurrection, proclaimed his victory to those demon spirits that rebelled so greatly against the Lord in Noah’s day.

III. He Rose From the Dead

In verses 20-21 Peter uses the story of Noah and the ark to explain the great salvation Christ brings to the world. He points out that God “waited patiently” for 120 years while Noah built the ark. Since Noah was also a preacher, we know that while he built that massive ship, he preached continually to his contemporaries, warning them to escape the coming judgment. Everyone ignored him except his own family. When the flood came and covered the whole world, only eight people got into the ark—Noah, Mrs. Noah, their three sons and their wives. That’s it. Everyone else was too busy. They were marrying and giving in marriage and eating and drinking (Luke 17:26-27). What was it like in Noah’s day? It was “business as usual.” While Noah patiently built the ark and warned men of coming judgment, they laughed at him and said, “It will never happen.” Noah lived in a day very much like our own—an age of skeptical unbelief and casual unconcern. The more Noah preached, the more his contemporaries mocked him. They refused to believe that anything like a worldwide flood was possible. The notion was so ridiculous that they could not take Noah seriously. With each passing day old Noah looked like more of a fool than the day before. But finally the heavens opened and the rains came down. When Noah entered the ark, I’m sure his neighbors pounded on the door and said, “Noah, we’re sorry. You were right and we were wrong. Open up. Let us in.” But it was too late.

Peter then explains how this story illustrates salvation. First, the water represents God’s judgment. The water in Noah’s day destroyed the entire world except for Noah’s family. It was the water of judgment that wiped out the old world. Second, the ark represents God’s salvation. Note what Peter says about the ark: “In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water” (v. 20). They were saved “through water,” but if they had been “in” the water and not “in” the ark, the water that saved them would have destroyed them. The water wiped out the old world and delivered them into a new world. Third, the water symbolizes baptism. What does Peter mean? Let me answer a question with another question. How much water actually touched Noah and his family. None at all. The water that “saved” them never touched them. The water only “saved” them because they were already in the ark. Baptism by itself cannot literally save anyone. It is Christ who saves us. Baptism cannot literally by itself wash our sins away. We must come to Christ by faith to be saved. But baptism is crucially important because it is the pledge of a good conscience to the Lord. Baptism is like pledging allegiance to Jesus Christ. It’s the moment in which we “cross the line” and take our public stand for the Lord. In many Muslim countries, Christian converts are not persecuted until they are baptized. In Sudan and Libya and Niger and Saudi Arabia, baptism can be a life or death decision. It means you’ve decided to leave the old world behind and get in the Ark of Salvation—the Lord Jesus Christ.

The issue is not “Have you been baptized?” but rather “Have you become a follower of Jesus?” We are not saved by water literally any more than Noah was saved by water literally. But the same water that destroyed others saved him and his family because they were in the ark.

The issue is not “Have you been baptized?” but rather “Have you become a follower of Jesus?”

Then Peter adds one final phrase when he says we are saved “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (v. 21). Aren’t you glad Jesus rose from the dead? We do not worship a dead Jesus this morning. If we did, our hopes and dreams would have died with him. We worship a risen Christ. And now we see how perfect the picture really is. The waters of the great flood picture the waters of baptism, and the waters of baptism point to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Those of you who have seen me baptize someone know that every time we baptize, I always say that baptism is a “sermon without words.” When a baptismal candidate stands before me, that person represents Jesus dying on the cross. Lowering them into the water represents Jesus buried in the tomb. Raising them out of the water represents Jesus rising from the dead. The whole gospel is found in every baptism, and every baptism preaches the gospel message.

IV. He Ascended Into Heaven

Peter closes his testimonial with a final soaring statement about our Lord “who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him” (v. 22). In the Bible, the right hand is the position of honor and authority. To be at God’s right hand means you are in the preeminent position, the highest spot in all the universe. Christ is now in heaven because his work of redemption on earth is now complete. And by his death and resurrection, he has subjected all spiritual creatures to his sovereign power. The Greek verb translated “submission” means to line up under someone. It’s a military term. The devil has to line up under Jesus and take orders from him. Though he fights against him, he knows he cannot win.

In heaven, Jesus is Lord!
In hell, Jesus is Lord!
All over the universe, Jesus is Lord!

One day we will all bow down and worship him. Why don’t we get started right now?

The battle has been won, the war is over, Jesus is the Victor. And the great God of the universe has become a man, and that man died for me. Our Lord sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, and the demons and the devil himself must bow down before him. But this is the best of all—the one who died for me now rules the universe, and he is my friend. He made the shining sun, he formed the twinkling stars, and he put the golden moon in its place. He is the triumphant Christ. He is the Savior of the world. And he is my friend.

The battle has been won, the war is over, Jesus is the Victor.

Do you know him? That’s the great question. Jesus has triumphed over sin, death and all the demonic force of hell. Do you know him? He has triumphed and now sits at the Father’s right hand in heaven. Do you know him? He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lord. Do you know him?

A Letter from Lonnie

Recently I received a letter from a prisoner who had read my book, An Anchor for the Soul. Here is part of what he wrote:

Dear Pastor Ray,

May I talk to you for a second? My name is Lonnie and I’m an inmate in prison for armed robbery. I’m only 17 years old and they gave me 10 years without parole. And I tried everything to get right with God. I got saved. I asked God to come in my heart, and I read a book that I never know about—the Holy Bible in 6 months. I found out about your book, An Anchor for the Soul. I read the book in 7 days=one week. This book is the best book I ever read and I can understand it and the book gave 10 Commandments, gave a prayer, gave questions. Chapter 8 is my favorite chapter in the book—"Coming to Christ.”

Then Lonnie included a prayer in his letter:

I am so grateful to Christ that in your eyes, I am no longer guilty. Thank you for all you did for me. Thank you, Lord, for making me clean and whole. Amen.

PS Forgive my handwriting. I did not finish high school and I was an A & B student.

Love,

Lonnie

Think about what he wrote in his prayer: “I am so grateful to Christ that in your eyes, I am no longer guilty.” Can you say that? Do you have that assurance in your heart? “Thank you, Lord, for making me clean and whole.” Can you say those words and mean them? Has the Lord ever made you clean and whole? If you can’t say those words, you may go to church every Sunday, but you’re worse off than Lonnie who is in prison for the next ten years.

Last night I attended the Men’s Night Out at the Wheaton Sports Center. When I walked into the meeting area and saw a friend across the room, I called out, “Hey, Mike!” He turned around, saw me and smiled, and instead of replying, “Hi, Pastor Ray,” he just shouted, “Run to the cross!”

What a great message that is. Run to the cross! That’s what Lonnie did. That’s what we all need to do. It’s too bad that sometimes we have to end up in prison or in some other kind of trouble before we do what we should have done all along. As we close this message, I’d like to suggest a simple prayer of confession and faith that you could pray. Remember that we are not saved by prayer. It is Christ who saves us. But prayer may be the means by which our faith reaches out to him. Here is the prayer:

Dear Lord Jesus, I need you in my life. For too long, I’ve tried to live without you. I know I am a sinner and have broken your holy laws. Lord Jesus, I truly believe you are the Son of God. Thank you for dying on the cross in my place. Thank you for paying the penalty for my sins. Thank you for rising from the dead on the third day. Here and now, with all my heart, I trust you as my Savior and my Lord. Come into my heart and save me. This is my prayer, In Jesus’ name, Amen.

If that prayer expresses the desire of your heart, I encourage you to pray it out loud. Put it in your own words. Write it out and then sign it. Put it where you can see it. If you have prayed that prayer, I’d love to hear from you. Send an email to: ray@keepbelieving.com.

Jesus triumphed over sin, over death, over the demons, and he provided salvation for all who will trust in him. Today he reigns from the Father’s right hand in heaven. Someday soon he will return to reign on the earth. He is the triumphant Christ. Trust him! Love him! Serve him! Worship him! Amen.

2005-03-13-The-Triumphant-Christ

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Ray Pritchard

RAY PRITCHARD

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