This is one of those passages that seems to give you more questions than answers. One minister I consulted said that in these five verses there are seven major interpretive challenges.
1.What does it mean that Jesus was “made alive in the spirit”?
2.Who are the spirits now in prison?
3.Where is this prison?
4.Where did Jesus preach to these spirits?
5.What did he preach to them?
6.How does Baptism now save you?
7.What does it mean to “appeal to God for a good conscience?”
I don’t know if I will be able to answer all those questions or any others that you may have rising from the text. I hope to do my best though. I’m certainly going try and accurately express what the Lord is saying here. And it is important that we do grasp what is here because this passage is all about one of the most important subjects in the whole Bible. It’s all about how sinners like us are reconciled to God.
You see, the people to whom Peter needed to be given some reassurance regarding their salvation. We’ve been talking about suffering. We’ve been looking at how we are strangers and outcasts in the world. And when the going gets rough, the owies can make you want to quit. Peter understood that. So in this passage he attempts to reassure his readers that the only way to avert God’s wrath and curse is through Christ.
I think this is something that is good for us to hear too, especially you young people. A lot of young people today are abandoning the faith. They are just dropping it because they don’t see the use of it. But I want to make sure you guys know that eternal life is found no where else.
How can you be sure that Christ is the only way to escape God’s wrath? Well, the only thing I can say is look to Christ himself. That’s essentially what Peter directs you to do. Peter points you to the cross, the words he preached, and the sacrament he instituted.
If you want to know how to avert God’s wrath, the best thing to do is to consider the death that Jesus died.
I. The death Jesus died 
That’s the first thing Peter does. In verse 18 he says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous.”
In this verse Peter tells says that Jesus died a vicarious death. That is to say, he died as a substitute. The word vicarious just means “substitute.”
Sometimes you will hear it said about a particular father that he is living vicariously through his kid. As his kid plays sports the father gets way too involved and starts pushing the kid to do more and more. Maybe he shouts too much at the games and yells at the referee all the time. When we say he’s living vicariously through his kid, we mean that he is trying to live his sports dreams through his kid. In other words, his kid’s sports become a substitute for his own.
Here Peter says that the righteous one, Jesus, suffered for (or in the place of) the unrighteous ones, that is us. So we are to understand that our salvation is complete. We do not have to fear the judgment of God because Jesus took it upon himself when he died on the cross.
So let me make sure you understand this: Those nails that pinned Christ to Calvary were supposed to be driven through you. You were the one who offended God. You were the one who was supposed to have died. Christ never did anything to deserve death. But there on Golgotha he stood in your place.
Now, there are a lot of delusions out there when it comes to this notion of the death of Jesus. They just don’t get it. Some people say that Jesus died just to show how great his love for us really is. But that’s the silliest thing in the world. If you were sitting on the beach and someone came running down the pier screaming, “I LOVE YOOOUUUUU!” and jumped in the water and drowned himself, would you say that is love? Of course not.
Maybe you can try this sometime when you are out on a date with your significant other. You can say, “Honey, do you know how much I love you? I love you so much I’m going to shoot myself.” Oooo! That’s really pouring on the romance!
Really though. That’s not what is happening on the cross at all. Jesus isn’t just showing you his love. He’s dying in your place. Yes, he is showing his love for you. But he is showing that love in that he pushes you out of the way and takes upon himself the full measure of God’s wrath that was due to you for your sin.
And please understand how important this is. This notion of a vicarious death is very important because it shows us how God’s wrath is satisfied. Now, because of what Christ has done, you can have communion with God. You can have eternal life because the debt that you owe has been paid. The red hot anger of God has been appeased because it was all consumed in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
You need not fear God’s wrath because of the death that he died. The proof is in his vicarious atonement. But if you need more assurance that God’s wrath is averted through Christ, you can look at the message he preached.
II. The message Jesus preached [19-20]
In verses 19-20 we see Jesus as a preacher. He fulfills his role as a prophet as he preaches to those spirits who are in prison.
Now if you would bear with me a bit. This part of the passage is a bit tough to wade through. I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to spare you the alternative interpretations. If you want them, you can find them in any good study Bible. I’m going to spare some time and give you what I think is the right interpretation. [Before I do I’ll just say that my interpretation is in keeping with many other major interpreters.]
With that said, let’s jump into it. Again, in verse 19 it says that Jesus went and preached to the spirits in prison. Now, the question is who are the spirits and what is the prison? I suggest to you that the spirits were the unbelieving people who existed back in Noah’s day. And the prison is hell. So he’s saying, all those people back in Noah’s day are now in hell. They were destroyed by the flood. They were swept off the face of the planet, and they are now forever consigned to their place of doom.
Are we good on that? Ok. Now we can move on to our second set of questions, which are probably a little more difficult: Where and when did Jesus preach to them? I suggest that it isn’t that Jesus went down into hell after he died and preached, as some believe. The Bible makes it clear that Jesus’ spirit went directly to heaven after he passed away. In the gospel of Luke, you remember that Jesus said to the theif on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” So Jesus could not have gone into hell and preached to these souls.
The construction of this sentence should be taken to mean that Jesus preached back in the days of Noah. The spirit of Jesus was active back at the time of the flood. While Noah lived Christ preached through him. Over in 2 Peter Noah is called a “preacher of righteousness.” So we have some confirmation on this.
Think about it this way: over the 65-75 years Noah spent building his boat he would have plenty of opportunities presented to answer the question, “Hey Noah, whatcha doing?” His response could only evoke a sermon, “I’m building a boat.” “Whatchya doing that for?” “It’s going to rain.” And you can see Noah pleading with people to repent and find their refuge in God.
But what does our text say? It says that the people to whom Noah spoke “did not obey” while God was expressing his patience. The whole time the ark was being built God was holding out his mercy. He was giving them the opportunity to turn from their wicked ways. But no. They wouldn’t do it. So, in the end, only eight persons, as is says, “were brought safely through the water.”
This is extremely tragic. Here was Christ making his appeal, but nearly no one listened. Yet, on the other hand, there is something wildly glorious. The glorious thing about this is that those eight people who did heed the message did survive! God was true to his promise. Those that heard the word of God and put their faith in it, those were the ones who were given the opportunity to live. Death could have swallowed them up, but it didn’t because they put their faith in what God had said, and they entered the boat.
And though this happened a long, long time ago, it has a lesson for us today. For I’m standing here today doing the same thing that Noah did. I’m telling you that there is a flood on the horizon! Not a flood of water, but a flood of fire. God has promised that he will judge the world someday. The Bible tells us that one day Jesus Christ is going to come again. And when he does there will be another world-wide cleansing. All the unbelieving people are going to be judged and they will be wiped from the face of the planet.
That is why you need to listen to the words Christ is preaching to you today. Jesus is here announcing the same message that he did in Noah’s day. He’s telling you that the only way you can survive the flood of fire and judgment is by repenting of your unbelief. Jesus says, “If you want to live, you need to turn from your sins and come to me.” He is calling to you now to do that. You may be hearing the tones of my voice, but the words are those of Christ. And he is telling you that there is only one way to escape the coming wrath. It is only through faith in him. No other god will save you. No other way will provide any sort of safety. Only by taking refuge in the death that he died will you be safe when he comes again in judgment.
And that is the essence of what we find in the sacrament of Baptism too.
III. The sacrament Jesus instituted [21-22]
In verse 21 Peter says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this salvation of Noah, saves you.”
Ok. Let’s pause there. What does that mean? Is Peter teaching Baptismal regeneration? Of course not. We have to keep in mind that the sacraments are signs that point to other realities. And sometimes the sign and the thing signified are so closely identified that they are used interchangeably.
Let me give you a different example. Let’s switch sacraments for a second. When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper he held up the bread and said, “This is my body.” Do we believe that the bread is actually the body of Christ? No. We believe that Jesus is speaking metaphorically. Here is a symbol. It represents his body. But we can speak of the symbol as if it was the real thing.
The same is done in this passage of 1 Peter regarding baptism. Baptism saves you in that the reality to which baptism points is effectual in its working. Baptism symbolizes the new life that comes through the Spirit. Our old life dies with Christ. The lifeless sinful nature falls away, even as dirt washes away with water. And we are raised with Christ to live for him.
The rest of the passage brings out this triumph as well. It talks about the resurrection and ascension of Christ and his being at the right hand of God, over and above all angels and powers.
Christ was not able to be kept in the grave. So you too, being united with him, will not be left in the dungeon of death. Christ has triumphed over sin, death and the grave.
That’s what your baptism points to. And that is why he can say “Baptism saves you.”
Now what should you take away from this? Take from it the assurance that your baptism brings. Your baptism is there to be a means of grace to you. It serves as a reminder of what Christ has done on your behalf. It is there to assure you that Christ is a sure savior.
Your baptism isn’t just something that happened in the past. You are supposed to meditate on the significance of it. As it says in this passage, it is not about washing dirt off your skin. It is there to remind you of the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit. It is to remind you of what faith can do. That’s what this passage means when it talks about this “appeal to God for a good conscience.” By faith you look to God for the removal of your guilt and shame. And your baptism reminds you that Christ does that for those who put their faith in him.
So, if you are struggling with assurance today—and that is a common thing. Many Christians struggle with having an assurance of their salvation. Its quite common. I mean, here we are, we talk about how sinful we are. And if you even gain a glimpse at how sinful you are, yes, it can be hard to think that God accepts you. And if you are concentrating on your faith, it’s the same thing. We have faith that is very small sometimes. Sometimes that faith doesn’t even seem to be recognizable it is so small. And you can question if you are really saved.
But if that’s the case, just remember what Christ is saying in this passage. Look back at your baptism. Remember the significance of it. Remember why Christ instituted this sacrament. It is there to confirm the abundant grace of God. It is to be that memorial that reminds you that God’s judgment is averted in Christ. God, by His Holy Spirit, washes all your sins away.
As I said before, Peter’s only goal in this passage is to point you to Christ. His one aim has been to remind you that Christ alone is your assurance when it comes to averting God’s wrath. I hope that I have accurately done that for you today. It is my hope that in looking to Christ's death, hearing his preaching, and remembering his sacrament that you know that Christ is the all sufficient savior.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.