In 1884 George Seurat painted A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It’s a large work that is over six feet tall and 10 feet wide. The amazing thing is that it is painted completely in small dots of pure color. It’s a process that we are well familiar with but rarely think about. TV’s, computer screens, even our smartphones use a similar technique to create pictures filled with color and texture. As we approach our next step through 1st Peter, it’s vital that we keep the larger picture in mind or all we’ll see is confusing dots of color.
Welcome to the 17th installment in our walk through 1st Peter. Today’s passage may seem a bit large and daunting at first. It may also seem a bit confusing and may seem to challenge well-understood theology of salvation and the resurrection. Scholars and Theologians count some of today’s verses as the toughest nut to crack in all the New Testament writings. We are not going to spend much time trying to crack the nut but will instead take a step back to see it in connection with the rest of God’s story.
Peter wrote to the persecuted readers of Asia Minor – “Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong. For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.” (1 Peter 3:13–22, NASB95)
Big Picture – God wins
It’s important to see Peter’s main concern for writing this letter. His readers are persecuted and harassed. They perhaps doubt God in the face of their suffering. Peter has reminded them several times of Jesus ultimate victory in his death and resurrection. He has talked about the difference between suffering for doing wrong and suffering for righteousness. Themes he again highlights in this portion of the letter. Peter again points to Jesus as our ultimate example to follow in the face of suffering, mockery, and persecution.
In the big picture, Peter sees that God wins, or more pointedly that God has already won through Jesus. That fact is to comfort his readers. They may suffer, they may even die, but ultimately, in the end, God wins, and justice prevails.
To paint his picture of God’s ultimate victory, Peter uses some very small and perhaps unusual dots of color. The first dot that catches our attention is the statement, “having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” Pulling this dot, or any of the dots to follow, out of context leads to great error. In the greater context of Christ’s death and resurrection Jesus physically suffered and died. He also carried our sin, the penalty of which is death.
It’s hard for us to grasp the fullness of Jesus’ death. This was more than just his physical body ceasing to function. Death separated Jesus from God the Father, something He had never experienced before. We are born spiritually dead, Jesus never experienced that until the cross. Jesus’ resurrection was not just physical but spiritual as well. His resurrection conquered both physical death and eternal spiritual death.
The next dot is Peter’s statement that Jesus, “went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient.” Peter connects this with events directly before the judgment flood of Noah. Who were these spirits and what did Jesus proclaim? Theologians disagree. The most probable answer is fallen angels held captive. Jesus proclamation being one of final victory over their rebellion. This is arrived at within the context of the final verse in this passage, “who (Jesus) is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.”
The final dot we are going to consider is Peter’s statement on baptism, “Corresponding to that (Noah’s Ark), baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience. This sounds strange to evangelical ears since we see baptism as more symbolic than functional. Let’s avoid the conflicts about baptism and its purpose and step back to see the larger picture of God’s grace.
Baptism is a work of grace and not a function of legalism. It is part of salvation’s story and is, above all else, a matter of obedience and conscience. Baptism is a choice, it is a witness, it is a dedication, it is recognition of God’s work in our life, it is a seal upon on hearts, and it is a recognition of change. Baptism is one part of the whole picture of our salvation and God’s grace.
Ready for Reality
Amongst all of these theological dots, Peter presents some pointed and practical advice for his readers. He begins with a reminder “Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed.”
Here are the others in bullet point style:
- Do not fear their intimidation but
- Set your heart apart for
- Always be ready to explain your hope in Christ with honor and gentleness.
- Keep a good and clean conscience.
- Christ also suffered for doing right.
How are we to react and respond when intimidated, mocked, threatened, or persecuted because of our faith in Christ? Peter’s clear. Don’t fear them but honor Christ in all things. In other words, don’t let fear drown out our hope. That’s the game-changer Peter was pivoting on. Our hope in Christ means everything. Hope is the one thing the world can’t understand, reconcile, or reason away. Hope changes our perspective, empowers our living, and guides our prayers. Our hope in Christ is a lamp for the world to see.
As mentioned above Peter closes this section by confirming that Jesus “is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.” God isn’t just going to win in some end-of-era future, Jesus has already won. He’s conquered death, hell, and the grave. Seeing this truth is at the heart of Peter’s encouragement and Paul’s prayer to the Ephesians. “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:18–23, NASB95)
I too pray that for you and me. I pray that our eyes are opened, and our heart enlightened to our reality in Christ and the hope of His calling. That we would perceive and understand the richness of His love and grace towards us. I pray that we would see the treasure around us in the souls buried in the dirt of sin. That we would each day more fully grasp the truths of Christ’s death, resurrection, kingdom, and authority. That, taking all of these things together, we would more and more set apart and sanctify Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Lastly, I pray that we would see the dots but also see the gigantic picture of God’s salvation story.