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TEXT: I Peter 3:18-22
SUBJECT: I Peter #10: Suffering Like a Christian
Several months ago, our brother preached a sermon on Witnessing, one of his main points being, 'If you witness for Christ, you will also suffer for Christ'. The suffering differs from place to place and time to time, but make no mistake about it: as long as the world has a problem with Christ, it will have a problem with His witnesses. Jesus Himself said--
If the world hates you, you know that it hated me before it hated you.
A disciple is not above his master.
Our brother is right: If you witness for Christ, you'll also suffer for Christ. In the world to come, this will not be true: then everyone will thrill to hear His name. But until that time, mark it down--
All who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
Whether the persecution is active or passive, subtle or crude, being snickered at or being thrown to the lions subtle or crude, this what we signed up for when we came to Christ. As Dietrich Bonfoeffer said--
When Christ calls a man, He bids him, 'Come and die'.
Die to himself, die to the expectations of other people, die to the dreams of popularity and a life without worries or pain.
If witnessing is fire, suffering is heat. The two can be distinguished; they cannot be separated. That we will suffer is given; but how we suffer? That's something else altogether. It's also the topic of today's text, I Peter 3:18-22.
SUFFERING, IMPRISONED SPIRITS, AND BAPTISMAL REGENERATION
Before we get to it, however, I ought to say something about interpreting the Bible in general. Like any other text, the Bible is made up of 'big ideas' and 'fine detail'. As much as lies within us, we ought to concentrate on both, but, if we have to choose, choosing the 'big idea' over the fine 'print' is always wiser, safer, and more edifying.
For example, in I Corinthians 15:29, Paul alludes to baptism for the dead. He doesn't explain it, no less command it, but he does mention it. Most people are humble enough to admit they don't know what it means--I don't know what it means, either! But Joseph Smith was not a wise man, and from one obscure and disputed verse, he constructed one of the distinctives of the Mormon religion, in looking up ancestors who died without LDS baptism and being baptized in their place.
I don't know how Mormons understand this passage, but I know this much for sure: They have given one dark verse a prominence it shouldn't have. Surely, if 'baptism for the dead' was central to the Gospel, it would be mentioned more often and in more detail than it is in the New Testament.
What's true of this 'baptism for the dead' goes double for the strange lines we find in vv. 19,21, that is--
Spirits in prison
Baptism saves us.
I will do my best to explain these lines, but they mustn't be allowed to become the focus of our attention. Whatever they mean, what the verses teach is this:
Accept suffering as a necessary part of witnessing for Christ in a world that wants no part of Him.
SUFFERING FOR CHRIST ASSUMED
The passage begins with an assumption: Christian witnesses will suffer for Christ's sake. At times, the Lord sharply limits the suffer. Just after the Day of Pentecost, for example, the church was popular, Acts 2:47--
Having favor with all the people.
If you continue reading Acts, you'll see that soon changes. By chapter 4, Peter and John are arrested and beaten; in chapter 7, Stephen is stoned to death; in chapter 8, Saul of Tarsus makes havoc of the church; James is killed by Herod; and, of course, Paul suffers all over the world for Christ's sake.
Favor and tolerance are the exceptions; hatred and persecution, the rule. Peter assumes we're going to suffer as Christians, and especially as we speak up for Christ in public.
SUFFERING FOR CHRIST DIRECTED
Knowing this will be our lot, Peter wants us to suffer in a distinctly Christian way. This starts with suffering for what is good and not for what is evil, v.17. Christian witnesses sometimes suffer--not for Christ Himself--but for the time and way and place they present Him. They witness when they should be working, for example; or they witness with a holier-than thou and a know-it-all attitude. This kind of suffering--Peter says--is
For doing evil [rather] than for doing good.
For most of us, this is not a problem; but for some it is, and they ought to check their egos and pray for wisdom before opening their mouths for Christ!
A second direction is even more important. Even though you will suffer for Christ's sake, you need to keep on witnessing, v.15. As Paul said, we need to--
Endure hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, we need to accept suffering for Christ's sake as God's will , v.17. As Reformed Christians, there's nothing we love more than 'The Decrees of God'. But one we're not so fond of is the one Paul names in I Thessalonians 3:3--
That no one should be shaken by these afflictions, for you yourselves know that we are appointed to this.
Speaking up for Christ is our duty, even when it's painful and costly. Most of us are not natural heroes; we shrink from a challenge rather than taking it by the horns. But witnessing is our challenge, and I, for one--cannot do it without a strong incentive. This is what Peter gives, beginning in v.18, the first part of which reads--
THE SUFFERING OF CHRIST
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God...
Rather than shaming us into witnessing, or lying to us (that it will be easy and always successful), Peter points us to the example of God's Greatest Witness, our Lord Jesus Christ.
He suffered, suffered in body and soul, suffered all His life, culminating with a painful and humiliating death. Christ suffered.
Why did He suffer? Peter is at pains to remind us of what we all know: Christ did not suffer for His own faults, but for us, for the good of the unjust.
What good did His suffering do us? It brought us to God.
Of course, our Lord's Atoning work is unique to Him; no sacrifice we offer for the good of others can reconcile them to God. But we should accept suffering--painful, humiliating suffering--in seeking the salvation of the lost. This is Peter's point! If Christ suffered all He did for us, we should be willing to suffer for others, to accept the ridicule and rejection to which witnessing so often leads.
THE GLORIES OF CHRIST
The Man who went to the cross for us is no longer there. He was put to death in the flesh. But then something happened: He was--
Made alive by the Spirit.
Many people take this to mean 'His spirit or soul lived on after the death of His body'. This is certainly true, but it doesn't fit into Peter's argument at all. What He's saying is, the Man who died on the cross was also raised by the Holy Spirit.
In other words, His sufferings didn't end with death; they ended with...victory!
Peter is suggesting that the same will be true for us. If you speak up for Christ, you'll be judged a fool--and worse than a fool! But God will reverse your judgment, just as He overturned the verdict passed on His Son. This is what Peter is hinting at here, and what Paul spells out in II Timothy 2:12--
If we suffer with Him, we will also reign with Him.
CHRIST IN NOAH
The fact that Jesus could witness in the teeth of cruel opposition doesn't mean we can. This is how we tend to think, and we're not alone: Peter's friends felt the same way themselves. Peter answers them, in a very curious way. He cites the example of another man preaching in a world every bit as hostile as their own--or ours. The man is Noah.
Most people know his story; if you don't you can read it in Genesis 6-9. Noah lived in one of the darkest times in human history, a time so disgusting that God was sorry that He had made man at all. The world was full of immorality and violence, and the number of saints had dwindled to eight--eight saved people in a world of millions! That's how bad things had become.
To save His people from the appalling wickedness, God commanded Noah to build an ark, a project that took him and his sons one-hundred years to complete. It may have taken him this long because, you see, Noah was only working on the ark in his spare time. The rest of his time was spent preaching! In his Second Letter, Peter calls him--
A preacher of righteousness.
This means he must have spent countless hours rebuking men for the way they were living and pointing them to a Righteousness God would give them through--
The Seed of the Woman.
Think of the odds against Noah. There were only eight righteous people in the world--and he was the one and only preacher! He must have been subject to every form of ridicule as people watched him build the ark hundreds of miles from the nearest sea.
But through all the laughter and rejection and threats, he soldiered on, both building the ark and calling sinners to repentance. How did he do it?
We might think he was an unusually stout man, or perhaps a man of exceptional faith. Both may be true, but Peter points us in another direction.
It wasn't just Noah who preached to sinners back in the day, but Christ preaching through Noah! This is what the disputed v. 19 means. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ preached through Noah, enabling the old man to stand up to the persecution and keep witnessing in spite of the indifference and hostility he met.
The spirits in prison, therefore, were once men living on earth, who having rejected the Gospel Noah preached to them, were, after the Flood in the prison of Hades or hell.
As for Noah's fate? It was the same as Christ's. He was hated and persecuted and suffered much in the world, but then he was vindicated--not raised from the dead as Jesus was, but--
Saved through water,
Saved through the waters of the Flood.
Peter wants us to find hope and courage through Noah, his struggles and his victory.
THE FLOOD AND BAPTISM
The Flood was a real event, occurring in a real time and place. Many ancient documents testify to it, most of whose people had no contact with Jews or Christians. Outside of the Bible, the Flood Stories got mixed up, of course, but they are recognizable, and that's hard to account for unless there really was a Flood!
Peter believes in a literal Flood, but he's not giving a history lesson. As one taught by Jesus, he knows that the entire Old Testament Scriptures points to Christ, including the Flood Story.
Of the many lessons he might have drawn from it, he chose the one best suited to further his argument. Here's what it is:
Just as Noah was justified and rescued by the waters of the Flood, so we are justified and rescued by the waters of baptism.
Does baptism itself save? Of course not, but what it symbolizes does save. What's that? The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. In this scheme, our baptism becomes a powerful reminder of what Christ did for us--and what it means to us as witnesses for Him.
Witnessing means we'll have to die with Christ, but it also means we will rise with Him and share in the power and glory of His Resurrection.
Ridicule and rejection are hard to take. We all want to belong, to be respected and well-liked. Sometimes witnessing is consistent with these things, but, most of the time, it is not. Most of the time, your witnessing will result in you being disliked and disrespected.
This means you will be tempted to shut up when you ought to speak up, and to speak vaguely when you ought to speak plainly. No amount of nagging or rebuking or playing on your guilt will free you from this fear. Only the Gospel will do that, and that's why Peter appeals to it.
He tells us to follow the example of Christ, but rather than leaving it there, he tells us what the example of Christ did for us: it brought us to God, that is it resulted in the forgiveness of sin and gave us a new heart, access to God and His favor, and a hope that will not disappoint.
He tells us to follow the example of Noah, but he also reminds us of Noah's end, salvation through water, a salvation that Christ has won for us as well and testified to it with our baptism.
He leaves us with God's Perfect Witness, Jesus Christ, at the right hand of God, with all His critics now made subject to Him. He offers us a place in Christ's victory.
Let us therefore, witness, witness boldly, witness wisely, and witness consistently. Let us witness in patience, knowing that any losses we incur in this world will be more than made up for in the world to come.
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