Another puzzle (1 Peter 3:18-22)

When it comes to reading and interpreting Scripture, there are mysteries we’re unlikely to fathom. How does atonement ‘work’? Why does God wait? Will men ever figure out women? (OK, this last imponderable was borrowed from Proverbs 30:19, but still qualifies as a mystery.). There are also puzzles, groupings of words, phrases and sentences that lay out situations or conditions we don’t quite get. They must have made sense to first readers, but here, today, we’re scratching our heads. We try to solve these puzzles, and can use elaborate means for doing so–and at times we’re successful: what were conundrums a hundred years ago are now, with discoveries from archaeology, science, etc, more clear. But not all the time. There are still cases where we cannot make a definitive declaration. What then? We push as far forward as possible, try to discover as much as we can, welcome efforts to connect dots, and then pause to admit ignorance. And we hope our ignorance will be a temporary condition.

For a case in point, let’s look at 1 Peter 3:18ff. There are two broad approaches when coming to a text like this: one, skip over it lightly, or skip it completely; two, drill down. The first is part of what lies behind our tendency to create a canon within a canon–that is, to favor certain sections/books while avoiding others. The second feels like an exercise which only specialists can perform, the way only certain people can pull off yoga’s little thunderbolt pose. Plus, specialists disagree.

Is there some middle earth to occupy here? I think so. By adhering to a few basic ideas, I think we can discover some of what’s going on here (and in other, similar texts); at the same time, it’s also wise to acknowledge our limits. Not only that, but wouldn’t it be well to leave a few things for those who come after us to uncover?

So let’s move into this segment of the letter, and start with context. Peter’s ‘big idea’ in this section has been submission; he introduced this in 2:15, and the same word is used as this bit concludes at 3:22. Within that, Peter also examined suffering at the hands of unrighteous people, making it clear that harm incurred for doing good was honorable. This too, that wrongful treatment actually creates an opportunity for bearing witness in the midst of the difficulty, and Peter wants to encourage readers having this experience by appealing to the example of Christ (2:21).

Another part of understanding sections like this has to do with culture: what did Peter know because of how he was raised? What did his readers know? This is a tricky one to answer, because these people lived long ago and far away. We can fill in a few blanks, but not all. For instance, we’re fairly confident that they had more than a passing knowledge of OT history; further, it seems likely that certain OT stories were especially popular. We’re also reasonably sure that a body of material concerning Jesus was circulating (much of which was then incorporated into Gospel accounts) and that people were developing ideas as to what Jesus was doing, what Jesus meant. Theology was emerging, hymns were being written–evidence of processing and reflecting on the incarnation. Further, methods of interpretation and application–what we might lump under the heading of ‘hermeneutics’–were available and in use. Some of these bear similarity to what we use today, but there are differences, too. We can figure these methods out with a measure of confidence (there are enough examples to form reasonable opinions), but we do not necessarily repeat them for our own use.

Finally (while this is a long post, I’m summarizing and abbreviating a fair bit here…), we can look–as always–at the particular elements: the words and phrases in Peter’s writing. How do these get used elsewhere? What light does that usage shed on this section? Anything unusual in the passage under review?

Now, with all that in hand, let’s circle back to 1 Peter 3:18-22.

I’m going to hazard a few ideas here, admitting from the outset that not all the pieces for this puzzle lie on the table before us. However, neither must we leapfrog this chunk of Peter’s letter in order to land on something more solid. Off then we go.

For Christ died for sins–like Paul, Peter cannot stray too far from one of the faith’s central tenets: Christ died for sins. The ideas of grace, love, sacrifice, obedience–these make deep impressions on people keenly aware of their fate without God’s intervention. But the initial For is important, too, and it answers the why? implicit to what Peter has been saying in this section. Why treat others with gentleness and respect (3:16)? Why be prepared to give an answer for your hope (3:15)? Why should you be eager to do good (3:13)? All these questions–written as imperatives, but functioning more as invitations–find answers in Jesus. By following Him, we come to understand how a life like His is possible and worthwhile, and grow to want such a life ourselves.

the righteous for the unrighteous–Peter includes a not so subtle reminder that at one time, we were all unrighteous. In fact, only the obedience of Jesus makes righteousness possible for humans–and so we cannot boast of our own competence or find hope in our own efforts. We might think, once we have been covered by God’s grace, that somehow we are superior to others, or that their punishment is deserved. Not so. By appealing to Christ’s death, he reminds us that we needed that sacrifice, and that others–perhaps even those currently bent on persecuting Christ’s followers–will benefit from it, too.

He was put to death…but made alive–OK: now we get into Greek. I said earlier that hermeneutics can start looking like you need to be a Jedi Master before you can comprehend the Bible, and while I don’t want to pull the Greek card too quickly, I will suggest that there are times when specialized knowledge is beneficial. We hold to this when it comes to medicine, plumbing, law, or car repair–why not theology? The Greek bit has to do with what follows: does Jesus’ resurrection depend on the Spirit, who then is the agent behind Christ’s preaching (as NIV has it), or is Peter saying something else? I’m opting for the latter, taking this set of words to refer to Jesus’ willing death and miraculous resurrection, and to form a description of His ‘condition’ as He went and preached. As such, this would be a strong affirmation regarding the nature of  Christ (and Peter’s use of Christ rather than Jesus is probably significant, too–but I’m already running way over my work count here)–and may serve as a sort of doxology, calling for worship of Christ.

Noah’s up next, but before we plunge into that story arc, let’s pause on he went and preached. Went is a special word, more loaded than a simple form of ‘to go’. It deals with direction and  destination (it’s the verb used in John 14:2, 3); it’s travel with a purpose. That purpose? Paul describes it one way in Colossians 2:15, where the cross becomes the means by which ‘spiritual powers’ are put on notice. Peter is after the same idea here. Those evil forces opposed to God–and which fuel much of the cruelty Peter’s readers were going through–are on borrowed time. The death and resurrection of Christ make plain that God is ascendant, and that these other powers–graphically described as residing in prison–are of limited scope. It’s an encouraging word Peter offers here. The preaching Christ does is akin to the testimony His followers bear (recall 3:15), and so once more, they are not being asked to do anything their Lord had not already embraced.

And then, Noah, whom we meet after a somewhat odd tale about the sons of God and the daughters of men co-mingling (Genesis 6). It’s another of those sections people want to skip completely, or explain with various theories. It’s a puzzle. By going there, Peter is telling us something about his own understanding and his culture that is not immediately obvious, and so we proceed with caution. In a way, Peter’s move is like mentioning Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. If you’re from Chicago, or had the right English/History teacher in high school, you know that story; otherwise, it goes right past you. Noah, of course, is more widely known than that unfortunate woman and her livestock, but the point is similar: we’re not familiar enough with where Peter is coming from to catch the full import of his reference.

But we get enough. In Noah’s day, sin was rife. There was spiritual upheaval, in that spirits were causing all manner of foolishness. And Noah–called a preacher of righteousness in 2 Peter 2:5–spoke out against it. He was rescued from a desperate circumstance by God, and we can almost hear Peter say to his readers: and you will be, too. And lest you doubt God’s efficacy, look to your baptism. What did that indicate? Your allegiance to the One who died and rose again, your faith that His obedience will mean your salvation. So don’t lose sight; don’t let go.

Peter is not saying that baptism per se saves, but rather draws on a story to illustrate his larger point, namely that Christ’s resurrection  saves you (the It of verse 21 refers to baptism, but then explains what baptism is doing). And Jesus Christ now has gone (same verb as the earlier went) into heaven and is at God’s right hand, with all in submission to Him.

Whew. Now, at the end of this long–and yet still cursory–exploration, what implications might be drawn? Again, keeping in mind a partial understanding of what Peter is doing here, I’ll toss out a few suggestions.

First, let’s notice that Peter is keenly aware of what his readers are going through, and that he wants to encourage them. Your experience, he could be saying to them, as wrenching as it is, is not new. There has been a long history of people persecuting others for their faith. You can go back as far as Noah’s day to find society in tatters because of sin, and to see that despite all that, some clung to their faith. That story teaches us about God’s rescue of the faithful.

Second, there are times when we are especially aware of spiritual activity, and during those times, we can bear in mind that God prevails. In Noah’s day ‘the sons of God’ made their presence felt; Peter had witnessed numerous ‘power encounters’ as well. And in our day: might we say that it too is a time of wide interest in things spiritual? But no matter what prompts this interest, no matter what we see, hear, or feel, we can be confident that God is supreme, and that His Spirit is over all. We can know that because of the cross, the power of opposing spiritual forces–and it is considerable power–has been broken: Christ, the victor, has triumphed. This is not a ho-hum sort of statement, but rather one full of power. God wins, and while we feel pressure now, the outcome of this whole ordeal is not in question. There is, therefore, good reason for hope, which translates into grounds for peace and even joy.

Third, it is good and right to worship this Christ. We struggle against our lot in life, wanting more, wanting different, or better. But we must tame these restless hearts, which happens as we recognize and submit to the Lord. We might think that submission is not in our nature, but a better way to think of that is to recognize that submission is not natural. Fact is (if we accept the Bible’s story line), we were made by God to worship God–and worship is an act of submission. Our human nature, however, having been shaped by sin, recoils at such behavior. Jesus, by going to the cross, sets us straight and takes us back to original design. He clears a way through the deep weeds of sin, and walking this path, we find that submission is part and parcel of the journey.

Peter’s friends and readers live in a dangerous, difficult time. But they are also tied to a powerful, timeless Lord–and it is this tie Peter examines from many angles. He is working hard, this fisherman turned theologian, and you can sense the pastoral concern that oozes from his pen. Will these people hold on to faith? Will they trust this connection? This is what he advocates, hopes, prays.


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