Yesterday I introduced 1 Peter 3:18-22 by asking, can one of the most mysterious passages in the New Testament help people who are feeling defeated in life? Today we are going to start studying Peter’s teaching in that passage to try to answer that question.
We have to remember that Peter is talking to Christians in the first century Roman Empire who were being persecuted for their faith. They were different from everyone else in their world. They were a small, small group who believed in a new religion, a new faith that is only about 30 years old, and thus the larger population thought Christians were in a cult. The Christians faced hardship because of that. Imagine the feelings of defeat that they might have been feeling.
If you were a Christian you had to deal with being accused of being in a cult, and then the bodily persecution started. People actually physically punished you. It got ugly as it so often does, to the point of beatings and death. Sadly, this still happens all over the world today, one group of people abusing another group of people because of a disagreement about their religion. When you are being disagreed with, or threatened about something so fundamental to your life as your faith, it can be quite discouraging, and leave you feeling defeated.
Peter knows this, and throughout 1st Peter we have seen him trying to encourage them. Here in chapter 3, verse 18, he is back at it.
He reminds them that Jesus also suffered. But he suffered for us, for our sins, for all people. His wasn’t just a small little suffering. Jesus, Peter says, was righteous, and he suffered for the sins of the unrighteous.
When he brings up that word “unrighteous” Peter is talking about people who sin. “Christ died for sins,” Peter specifies. This is a common biblical phrase that you will find in many places. What does it mean? Sin is best understood as anything that goes against the will of God. Thought or action. Big or small.
Why would Jesus have to die for sin? Because God is perfect, Scripture tells us, God cannot be in relationship with those who are imperfect and sinful. That’s bad news. This sin problem we have needs to be dealt with. God did deal with it, through Jesus, who himself was perfect. As Peter indicates, the righteous one died for the unrighteous ones.
Why would Jesus do something so sacrificial? “To bring you to God,” Peter says. That’s why Jesus died for us. God declares that Jesus’ death dealt with this sin problem so that we can be brought to God, to be in relationship with God. That is good news! He loves you. He wants things made right so that he can have a relationship with you! You know how sometimes in relationships things need to be made right before relationships can continue to grow and be healthy and thrive? Jesus did that. He made things right so that we could have a growing healthy relationship with him.
But here’s the thing. If Jesus stayed dead, that wouldn’t be so impressive. Anyone can die. There needed to be something else in order to break the power and consequences of sin. There needed to be something else to make things right. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the beginning of God making things right in the world.
That’s what Peter talks about in the second half of verse 18: though Jesus was put to death in the body, he was made alive by the Spirit.
He died, but he also rose again, he came back to life.
We call it the resurrection, and we celebrate it on Easter Sunday, the most important miracle of all. God’s power brought Jesus back to life, and through his resurrection, Jesus showed that he defeated sin, death and the devil. There is victory in Jesus!
Peter wants to encourage these defeated Christians to remember that Jesus won the victory! That is very good news!
He goes on to describe this further, but first, we need to deal with a little issue there at the end of verse 18. If you are reading the NIV 1984 edition, look at the phrase “he was put to death in the body, but made alive by the Spirit” that continues into verse 19 with the words “through whom”? What you’ll notice is a tiny little bold lower-case letter L after “through whom” in verse 19. That little letter L means that there is a text note.
Look down at the bottom of the page, find the matching letter L, and the note reads, “L 18,19 Or alive in the spirit, through which”. What that means is that the translators of this version of the Bible believe that there is another legitimate way to translate this phrase. That other translation provides a bit of a different understanding.
I would like to propose that the text note’s translation is more accurate than the translation in main text. In fact most other translations, like the New American Standard or the English Standard Version of the Bible, agree with the text note. So the best translation is that “Jesus was put to death in the body, but was made alive in spirit.” But what does this mean?
What that phrase means is that Peter is almost certainly not talking about the Holy Spirit, capital S, but instead Peter is saying that after Jesus died, he was made alive in spirit, lower-case s.
As we continue in verse 19 Peter says that after he was made-alive-in-spirit form, Jesus then went to preach to spirits in prison from the days of Noah. Huh?
Now this passage gets really wild. That’s where we’re headed tomorrow.