Readings: Psalm 34:12-16; 1Peter 3:8-22; 1Peter 3:13-22 (text)
|May 10, 2009||Download this sermon (PDF)|
If God is good, why is there suffering and evil in this world? This is one of the most common questions all throughout human history. Already in early biblical history, when Job suffered, his wife and his friends questioned God’s goodness and even his existence.
Atheists, whom Psalm 14:1 says are fools, use this reasoning to say that there is no God. But it is perplexing that even Christians often have it half-right when they answer this question: God is sovereign over good, but he has no control over evil and suffering. They think that by denying that God has control even over evil, they protect God’s goodness and holiness.
But this is unbiblical. God is sovereign over both good and evil.
As the King of the universe, God controls every movement of galaxies, the sun, moon and stars, and the earth itself. He controls the affairs of mankind, even the hearts of the rulers of this world.
And he also controls every act of His creatures—whether good or evil. Does this make God responsible for man’s sinful deeds? Of course not, because God, in his perfect holiness, cannot sin (Num 23:19; 1Pet 1:16). He wills not only the good deeds of men (Phil 2:13), but also their evil deeds (Acts 14:16). He uses man’s willful sins to accomplish his purpose in saving his people: through Joseph’s brothers (Gen 50:20), through Pharaoh of Egypt (Exod 14:17), and through the Jews who killed Jesus (Acts 2:23). God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is a paradox that belongs to the realm of “the secret things” of God (Deut 29:29).
God’s almighty power blesses mankind with peace, prosperity, and health. But how can we understand the fact that a good God also afflicts us with wars, disasters, and diseases? He destroyed the whole earth with a flood (Gen 7:23), and reduced Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes with fire from heaven (Gen 19:24). He was the one who sent the Babylonians to fight and destroy Israel (Hab 1:5-11). He causes earthquakes (Psa. 60:2), storms (Psa 83:15; 89:9; 107:25), famines (Gen 41:28-30; Jer 14:11-12), pestilence (Exod 9:15), and disasters on the earth (Psa 46:8; Amos 3:6). God summarizes all these in Isaiah 45:7, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity.”
Thus, when a typhoon like “Chan-hom” comes and brings death and destruction, Christians must acknowledge that God’s sovereign, almighty power is at work.
What is the root cause of all these evil and suffering in the world? It is sin. Paul says that ever since the Fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden, the whole creation has been groaning in pain, waiting to “be set free from its bondage to corruption” and for the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:19-23).
This is the reason why Christ came down from heaven: in order to deliver us from the bondage of sin and death. And not only us, but the whole creation. Leaving his riches and glory in heaven, his whole life on earth was a life of suffering and humiliation.
As the perfectly righteous man, he suffered for us who are sinful. But God rewarded him for his perfect obedience to his Law. At his resurrection, he was victorious over Satan, sin and death. At his ascension into heaven, he was given the glory due to him and was given his promised inheritance: a people who will be called by his name—Christians—his own treasured possession. Not one of his people will be lost.
And when the Holy Spirit gives us faith and repentance in Christ, he unites us with our Savior and Lord. In this union, we are united to him in his sufferings and victory over sin and death. As he suffered, we also suffer. But in his victory, we are also victorious people.
Today, I preach to you the Word of God under the following theme: United to Christ in Suffering and Victory. We will consider:
1. Suffering Unjustly (3:13-17)
2. Victory over Suffering (3:18-22)
Peter begins his letter in Chapters 1 and 2 with an affirmation of our status as God’s elect, a holy nation, his own treasured possession. As a chosen race, we are called to salvation and to holy living. He then encourages believers to live lives worthy of this gift of salvation in our earthly relationships as citizens of the community, as employees or workers, and as husbands and wives.
As we begin our text in verse 8, he again exhorts us to holy living, “have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.“ All of these have to do with our relationships with the world and with our Christian brethren. Later, in Chapter 4, we will study just how we are to live among both hostile unbelievers and believers in the church.
Then, in verse 10, he has a difficult word for us: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” This is an echo of Christ’s teaching in the Beatitudes:
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you ( Matt 5:11-12).
We remember Jesus’ hard words in the Sermon on the Mount. We even think that they are impossible for us to do: if someone slaps you, turn the other cheek; if someone steals your clothes, give the rest of your clothes to him. Jesus even says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). If they persecute you, hate you, curse you, beat you, love them. How difficult and impossible is this?
But many Christians throughout history were able to do this. As believers during the early church period were burned, flogged, fed to the lions, beheaded and hung, they sang songs of praise to God and prayed for their persecutors. Stephen, while he was being stoned to death by the Jews, prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them“ (Acts 7:60). Guido de Bres, author of the Belgic Confession of Faith, told his prison warden before his execution, “You are my friend; I love you with all my heart.”
These examples are what we can rightly call, “loving your enemies.” They have become our examples of believers living out Christ’s prayer while he hung dying on the cross his enemies prepared for him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Peter further explains this godly response to evil by quoting Psalm 34:13, 14: the righteous must “keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it.“ To our enemies, we are to speak in love, do good, and seek peace.
But the Christian pilgrims’ suffering for righteousness is not the end. Can you see the parallel between Jesus’ and Peter’s words? Peter must have remembered his Savior’s words because both of them say that there is reward in suffering unjustly for righteousness’ sake: blessing from God.
In his quotation of Psalm 34:15, Peter tells us of another blessing to those who suffer unjustly: “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.“ Our reward is God himself: he sees our troubles and he cares for us. When we pray for comfort and deliverance from our troubles, God hears and comforts us.
For many Christians, especially during the early church and the Reformation periods, the reward was obtained in heaven, not on earth. Many of them did not see their reward on earth. On the day of his execution, Guido de Bres encouraged the other prisoners,
My brothers, I am condemned to death today for the doctrine of the Son of God, praise be to Him. I would never have thought that God would have given me such an honour. I feel the grace of God flowing in me more and more. It strengthens me from moment to moment, and my heart leaps within me for joy.
Even today, there are many Christians in India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and China who never see their reward in this life. They obtain their blessings—the crown of life and their dwelling-place with God in heaven.
Jesus knew about this blessing. As well as Stephen, Paul, Peter, the early church martyrs, Guido de Bres and thousands of other Protestant Reformers, and today’s martyrs all over the world. How can they love their enemies and rejoice in their sufferings? God’s Word assures them of the glory that awaits, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us“ (Rom 8:18); and “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison“ (2 Cor 4:17).
Why was Peter so bold in his assurance? What was it that drove Guido de Bres to say that he is honored by God and his heart leapt for joy in the face of his execution? It was their hope in the resurrection of Christ. As he was beaten after proclaiming the Gospel, Peter remembered the words of Christ, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell“ (Matt 10:28). Peter echoes Christ, “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” People may beat, kill and destroy our bodies, but in Christ, they cannot destroy what is more important: our souls. And in the end, even our bodies—beaten, sick, crippled, tired, corrupted—will be renewed and glorified, just as the Christ’s body was after the resurrection.
And when people ask us why we have this hope, let us tell them why in love, humility and patience: because Christ suffered, we also suffer; and because he was raised from the dead, we too will be raised from the dead, even if enemies kill us. In this way, we honor God and Christ our Lord.
Victory over Suffering
For Christ, his suffering and death was not the end.
In 1971, one of the Broadway hits was a liberal heresy called “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The play portrayed Jesus as only a man, who even had an intimate relationship with Mary Magdalene, who sang, “I don’t know how to love him, I don’t see why he moves me, he’s just a man, just any man.” It ended in his death on the cross.
But Jesus was raised from the dead. He was victorious over Satan, sin and death. After the Righteous One suffered for us unrighteous ones, Jesus brought us to God.
Verses 18-22 are some of the most debated verses in the New Testament. Did Christ really go down to hell? If so, when did he do this? Who are these “spirits in prison”? What was the purpose of his preaching to them? What is the connection between Noah and our baptism? Does baptism really save? Let me summarize different views about this text.
Jesus’ Descent into Hell
Many Christians today believe that Jesus literally went to hell after his crucifixion. Roman Catholics say that he went to a place called limbus patrum to escort Old Testament saints like Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc., from that holding place to their rightful home in heaven. They were held there because Christ has not yet completed his mission. Lutherans teach that Jesus went down to hell to declare his victory over death and sin and over Satan and his demons.
Two views should be singled out as completely unbiblical. The first is that Jesus preached the gospel to those in hell to give them a second chance to escape from hell into heaven. Nowhere in Scripture it is taught that dead unbelievers will be given a second chance. In fact, Hebrews 9:27 plainly states, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” The second view that must be thoroughly rejected is that espoused by today’s prosperity gospel preachers like Benny Hinn and Kenneth Copeland. The teach that Jesus actually went down to hell to assume the nature of Satan and suffer the wrath of God, “He allowed the devil to drag him into the depths of hell as if he were the most wicked sinner who ever lived… [Christ's] emaciated, poured out, little, wormy spirit down in the bottom of that thing [hell].”
Only a couple of interpretations are worth noting as having Scriptural basis. One is that the spirits are the fallen angels who have been cast into hell waiting for judgment day. Majority of the New Testament use of “spirits” refers to supernatural beings rather than people (Matt. 8:16; 1 Tim. 4:1; Rev. 16:13-14). And the word “prison” is used elsewhere as a place of punishment for Satan (Rev. 20:7) and other fallen angels: God “cast them into hell and committed them to chains” (2 Pet. 2:4) and he has “has kept [them] in eternal chains” (Jude 6).
The second view is the historic Protestant view before all these other teachings arrived. The Reformers say that the Spirit of Christ preached through Noah to disobedient, rebellious people, who were now (that is, in Peter’s day) spirits suffering God’s judgment “in prison,” that is, hell. In his second epistle, Peter calls Noah a “herald (or preacher) of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5). Earlier in his first epistle, Peter says the “Spirit of Christ” was speaking through the Old Testament prophets, who “inquir[ed] what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Pet 1:11), so Noah could be one of those prophets. Peter is making the analogy between Noah’s situation and his own. Just as Christ preached through Noah to an ungodly and disobedient world, so was Peter preaching to hostile, unbelievers. Those who listened to Noah—seven people in his family—were saved by the Ark, just as those who will believe Peter’s preaching of Christ. And both groups of people are very small, persecuted minorities in their own time.
The controversy over Jesus’ descent into hell stems from the Apostles’ Creed’s line that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell.” The Nicene Creed (325) has the “burial” of Christ only, while the Athanasian Creed (430) has the “descent” only, evidence that the “burial” of Christ was regarded in the same vein as the “descent” of Christ. The historic Protestant view then developed from the early church view of a symbolic or metaphorical descent into hell. This figurative view espoused by Calvin and the majority of other Reformers is reflected in the 16th and 17th century Reformed confessions:
Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 44 (1563):
Q. Why is it added: “He descended into hell?”
A. That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ my Lord, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which He suffered in His soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell.
Belgic Confession (1561) Article 21:
He presented Himself in our place before His Father, appeasing God’s wrath by His full satisfaction, offering Himself on the tree of the cross, where He poured out His precious blood to purge away our sins, as the prophets had foretold… He suffered in body and soul, feeling the horrible punishment caused by our sins, and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground. Finally, He exclaimed, My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? All this He endured for the forgiveness of our sins.
Christ did not literally go down to hell. He suffered the equivalent of all the elect spending eternity in hell.
The Flood and Water Baptism
Then Peter has some more things to say in verses 20-21 that confuses many Christians today:
… when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (emphasis added).
Peter qualifies “baptism… now saves you” with two clauses. The first is in a negative-positive qualification. He says that it is not an outward ceremonial washing of the body, and it cannot remove a person’s moral filthiness. This then is a warning and an exhortation to them and to us that being baptized is not just a ceremonial ritual, but a beginning of a life of removing or “put[ting] away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Pet 2:1), and “abstain[ing] from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Pet 2:11). This is why Peter says that at our baptism, we also make vows to God to live holy lives which would result in “a good conscience.”
The second qualification is that the efficacy of baptism is entirely dependent or “through” the resurrection of Christ. This is one of the three redemptive acts of Christ that Peter mentions here: his death (v 18), resurrection (21) and ascension (22).
Thus, the effectiveness of our baptism is qualified by two things. First, the outward sign must be accompanied by inward reality, that is, a holy and righteous life. Second, without the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, baptism is meaningless and in vain.
Peter also says that the family of Noah’s ordeal during the flood was a type or foreshadow of New Testament baptism, the antitype or fulfillment. God used water not only to destroy the unbelieving world, but also to save Noah and his family of eight. Water used in baptism is also symbolic of our salvation when we are cleansed of all our sins. Through water—as well as through the resurrection—we are being brought by Christ to salvation. Just as a few were saved through water during Noah’s day, we who are baptized into Christ are saved through his resurrection (and not through baptism).
This is an interesting analogy of the waters of the flood and the waters of baptism today. How does Peter’s analogy square with the common belief that immersion is the only mode of water baptism? Who were saved during the great flood? Who were immersed in the water? Paul also makes this analogy in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 between the crossing of the Red Sea and baptism, “For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” He calls the crossing of the sea a “baptism into Moses,” that is, the Israelites were united into Moses, their redeemer from slavery in Egypt. Who were saved in the crossing, and who were immersed in the water and perished? In both cases, God poured or sprinkled water on those who were saved, but immersed unbelievers in the waters of death.
Dear friends, you who have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are united to him not only in his life of suffering and in his death, but also in his resurrection and ascension.
You suffer in this life because of sin. You die because death is the result of sin. This is the bad news for you. Christ suffered and died in his earthly life, not because of his sin, but because of your sin. And you who are united to Christ by faith have had your old body of sin crucified with Christ so that you would no longer be enslaved to sin.
And because of his perfect bloody sacrifice on the cross as atonement for your sin, God raised him from the dead. This is the basis of the salvation that is signified in our baptism.
This is the good news for you: that not only are you united to him in his suffering and dying unjustly for your sin, but also in his glorious resurrection. This is your hope as you continue in your pilgrimage in this perishing world of pain and persecution.
Like Christ, you are also victorious over sin and death. Live as pilgrims and strangers in this world who put away all unrighteous and ungodliness, and in the end, you will triumph for eternity over all your momentary sin and suffering. AMEN.