In this study we continue with the third of the three parts of the body of 1 Peter in which Peter exhorts the recipients about Christian suffering. In the last study, we studied 3:18b-22, one of the most difficult passages in the entire New Testament. In the verses immediately preceding that passage, we saw Peter once again talking about living righteously, a theme that has been present consistently throughout the epistle. He challenged us to sanctify Christ in our hearts, that is, to set him apart as the final authority for our lives at the core of our beings. In the meantime while suffering, and especially while being persecuted, we must be prepared to defend our faith. And we should do it with “gentleness and reverence,” or “respect” (NIV).
Then in the last study we moved to 3:18b-20. We discussed several major questions. The first question arose from Peter’s statement that Jesus was made “alive in the spirit.” The question was, does “the spirit” refer to Jesus’ human spirit, or to the Holy Spirit? I concluded that Peter meant Jesus’ human spirit. Thus the phrase has to do with Jesus’ humanity remaining alive as a spirit in the intermediate state following his physical death.
The second question was, who were the “spirits” to whom Jesus preached. Were they the spirits of human beings, or spiritual beings? I favored the view that Peter meant human beings, specifically those humans who didn’t obey God in the days of Noah and who were destroyed in the flood.
The third question was, what did Peter mean by the “prison?” Was it the part of hell (tartarus) that has been prepared for wicked angels, according to 2 Pet. 2:4, or the part of hell (gehenna) where the spirits of wicked humans dwell? I favored the latter.
Finally, fourth, we asked, what it was that Jesus proclaimed to the spirits in prison? Was it a message of judgment, or of the gospel? Because I favored the idea that the spirits were human spirits, I leaned towards the view that it was a message of the gospel rather than judgment.
We also discussed the passage’s relationship to the line in the Apostle’s Creed that says, “He descended into hell.” I concluded that it is possible there is a direct relationship, that the line may have been added to the creed, because of 1 Pet. 3:19.
Finally we discussed Peter’s mention of the sacrament of Baptism. Peter declared that the saving of Noah’s family at the time of the flood was a “figure” of baptism. That is, the Old Testament salvation of Noah’s family by water was a type of the New Testament salvation by water, Baptism. So we talked a bit about typology. As the floodwaters lifted Noah’s family to safety, because of Noah’s faith in what God had told him; likewise today, Baptism symbolizes our faith in the resurrection of Jesus, which saves us.
We noticed that Peter went on to say that the saving factor in the New Testament situation is not Baptism per se, but Christ’s resurrection. It is our faith in the resurrection of Jesus (expressed in our Baptismal vows) that saves us.
Finally we saw Peter make three closely related statements in verse 22. The first was that Jesus had “gone into heaven.” Of course that was a reference to Jesus’ ascension. The second was that Jesus “is at God’s right hand.” That means that Jesus, by virtue of his resurrection and ascension, has returned to his place of power in the Godhead. And the third was that the “angels, authorities and powers” are subject to Jesus. That completes the review.
All right, please turn to 4:1-11, which continues Peter’s exhortations regarding Christian suffering. First, 4:1-2 must be interpreted according to its context. The “therefore” in verse one points us back to the previous paragraph, where Peter declared in chapter three, verse eighteen, “Christ suffered for sins.” Of course that suffering took place on the cross. Then Peter said, in verse 21, that Baptism symbolizes our salvation that comes through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Then here in 4:1 Peter says, “Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body [literally in the flesh] arm yourselves with the same attitude [or mind], because he who has suffered in his body [again literally in the flesh] is done with sin” (NIV). Remember, these people to whom Peter was writing were suffering persecution. And Peter exhorted them to have the same mind that Jesus had when he suffered.
And Peter tells them why in verse two: “As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.” Our faith isn’t really complicated. We believe in Jesus, and suffer if necessary, in order to be done with sin and live the rest of our lives for the will of God. Anyone can understand that. Not everyone is willing to do it, but everyone can understand it.
The “Gentiles” in verse three are the unbelievers. That is because the early Christians adopted Jewish language to describe their Christian experience. Peter already had told them to be done with sin. And now he gives them some specific examples of the sin they are to avoid: “living in licentiousness [debauchery in NIV], passions [literally lusts], drunkenness, revels [orgies in NIV], carousing, and lawless idolatry.” That’s quite a list.
And notice verse five. What we see there is more common than you might think. When a person receives Christ for salvation, it usually means a change in behavior. And old friends often don’t understand why we don’t want to do the old sinful things anymore. But behavior is important, because as we see again and again in the New Testament, sinners and saints alike will be judged according to their works. As Peter puts it, in respect to the sinners, they will have to render an account to the one who “judges the living and the dead.”
Now notice how the last clause of verse five sets up verse six. God judges both the living and the dead. And then he says, “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”
Now this verse is controversial like the verses we studied in the previous study. Indeed many scholars tie this verse into their interpretation of 3:18b-22. If one takes the line of interpretation that I’ve taken, then this verse supports that interpretation. That is, if the spirits to whom Jesus made his proclamation were the spirits of human beings, then this verse suggests that the proclamation he made to them was the gospel.
If, however, one takes the other view that the spirits to whom Jesus made his proclamation were spirit beings instead of the spirits of human beings, then this verse does not support my interpretation. I say that, because in verse four he was just talking about dead human beings. Thus the context clearly indicates that Jesus preached the gospel to dead human beings.
But there still is a big problem with interpreting this verse as a preaching of the gospel to dead human beings. Remember that 3:18b-22 did not say what Jesus proclaimed to the spirits in prison, whoever they were. It could have been a message of judgment or good news. But here in 4:6 the word Peter used specifically means to preach the gospel. He was saying that Jesus preached the gospel to the dead.
Now the theology of many evangelicals will not allow for that. They believe that the eternal destiny of every human being is determined by the time of their physical death. To suggest that Jesus preached the gospel to dead human beings implies that they could have accepted it and been saved. That is not possible for persons who hold the theology that one’s destiny is settled by physical death. So they must have another interpretation.
For example, some say that Peter meant spiritually dead people rather than physically dead people. Again the context is critical. It will not allow that interpretation. Jesus just mentioned the physically dead in verse five, so most scholars agree that he preached to physically dead people.
Some scholars who hold to that theology, but who admit that Peter meant that Jesus preached to physically dead people, say that he preached to them while they were still alive (Selwyn). That certainly would solve the problem, but again the plain sense of Peter’s words are that the preached to dead people.
Peter Davids deals with the problem by admitting that Peter was saying that Jesus preached to dead people, but he insists that those dead people could not have made a positive response. Well, again that solves the problem, but at what cost? What would be the point in Jesus’ going to the place of the wicked dead and preaching the gospel to them, if they could not give a positive response?
The truth is the Bible nowhere says that everyone’s eternal destiny is settled by the time of physical death. That theology flows out of the Augustinian/Calvinistic conviction that God determined who would and would not be saved before the foundation of the world. In that theology those whom God has chosen to be saved always hear and respond positively to the gospel before they die. The rest either do not respond positively, or never hear the gospel, because they were not among the elect.
The rest of us believe that we can say “No” to God. God chooses everyone, and it is up to us to accept that election or not. Certainly many wicked dead had their chance to accept the gospel while alive and refused. They had their chance to be saved, and God doesn’t need to give them another chance. But many other wicked dead never had that privilege. They never heard the gospel. They had no chance to be saved while physically alive. And it is consistent with the character of God as love for Jesus to preach the gospel to those persons after their physical death to give them an opportunity to be saved.
An element that needs to be taken into account here is the fact that Peter doesn’t say Jesus preached the gospel to all the dead. He just says Jesus preached the gospel to the dead. So it is consistent with the language of the passage to understand him to have preached to those dead who never had a chance to be saved.
Some of those scholars who believe that our eternal destiny is settle by physical death will say that any opportunity to be saved after death is giving people a second chance. That is not true. Many people never had any chance. Therefore their first chance is coming after death. It is not a second chance.
Next, in verse seven Peter tells us to always keep the end time in view. And then in that context he gives a series of exhortations. So we now turn to verses 7-11.
Peter begins in verse seven by saying, “The end of all things is near.” This is a consistent theme in the New Testament. And it’s been true for every generation of Christians. We are to live every moment with the end time in view. And as we do so, we are to do five things. First, we are to be sober minded. The NIV says, “clear minded.” He is talking about steadiness of mind.
Second, we are to discipline ourselves for the sake of our prayers. The NIV translates it be “self-controlled so that you can pray.” The point is we must be steady and sensible in our living so that we can be effective in prayer.
Third, Peter mentions the command we see so often in the New Testament, “ love one another.” This is critical, because as James says, “love covers a multitude of sins.”
Fourth, “be hospitable to one another without complaining.” Many opportunities for hospitality exist; and providing it should be something that gives us pleasure rather than our seeing it as a chore.
Finally, fifth, “serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” Of course he was referring here to the gifts of the Spirit. And he gives two broad categories as his examples rather than a list of gifts. The first category he mentions is that of the speaking gifts such as prophecy and teaching. “Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God.” And the other category is that of service. “Whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies.” And Peter reminds us that the overall purpose is to glorify God.