Prepare for Suffering

Explore the Bible Series

April 15, 2007


Background Passage: I Peter 3:13-22

Lesson Passage: I Peter 3:13-22


Introduction: In some ways, this is a very difficult lesson.  The difficulties relate to several matters.


  1. In my judgment, the lesson writer divided the lesson materials oddly.  Two weeks ago we studied the section on relationships within the home, and the lesson author chose to include verses eight through twelve in that section of material.  These verses seem to fit better with the paragraph we will consider this week. 
  2. The passage deals with a perturbing, sensitive issue: the believer’s response to unjust mistreatment.  As we have seen, this is a recurrent theme in I Peter, but the volume and clarity of the teaching does not make the application of the principles any easier for suffering Christians.  Few issues in life bring more perplexity to God’s people.  It often seems that the more one tires to live a godly life, the greater the opposition one encounters.  Any normal human being would struggle with nagging questions in light of these injustices.  Why do ungodly men always seem to “win”?  How should Christians respond when they are mistreated?  Why does God so often remain silent in the face of this kind of suffering by his people?  Will God ever arrive on the scene and vindicate his elect?  Why does he so often tarry in this vindication?  I do not pretend to have satisfying answers to these profound questions, but our present text does provide helpful insight into the purposes of God in these unpleasant circumstances and the believer’s duties when he encounters such hardships.
  3. Some interpretive problems attend this passage.  Three issues, in particular, emerge from a careful study of the text. (1) Peter seems to imply that Jesus did not physically resurrect from the dead in verse eighteen where he makes a distinction between Christ dying in the flesh and resurrecting in the spirit.  What does this mean?  Did Peter assert that Jesus’ resurrection was spiritual rather than corporeal?  (2) What did Peter mean when he referred to Jesus preaching to the imprisoned spirits (vv. 19-20)? (3) How should Bible students interpret Peter’s assertion that baptism saves (v. 21)? 


As we face complex passages, we must observe some basic principles of biblical interpretation.  For instance, all interpretation of the Bible should begin with careful examination of the grammar and vocabulary of the text.  Many interpretive problems melt away in the light of careful exegesis of the material.  Of course, most Christians do not have access to the original languages of the Bible, but many can consult very helpful resources that give insight into the grammatical features of a passage. Also, church members should give thanks for faithful pastors who have studied diligently and may have some expertise in deciphering the exegetical issues that arise.  Seek your pastor’s counsel about difficult texts and solicit his advice about useful resources to help you understand the Bible.


Another helpful interpretive principle focuses on determining the context of difficult texts.  Proof-texting can prove very dangerous in interpreting the Scriptures.  Remember that these epistles, for example, were originally read in their entirety.  Early Christians did not dissect these documents into isolated statements.  They read these epistles, no doubt, in the same way we read letters we receive.  Again, many interpretive quandaries clear up when one reads the passage in its appropriate setting, observing the author’s development of ideas.


Prudent Bible students also interpret difficult texts in light of clearer passages.  Conservative Bible students believe the Bible is a consistent, coherent document that does not contradict itself.  Sometimes a passage may not seem clear to Twenty-first Century readers.  The passage of time and ever-changing social circumstances have, no doubt, rendered some texts very difficult to understand.  When we engage these difficult verses, it proves helpful to consult passages that express doctrine clearly; then, we may find useful insights that help make better sense of more obscure materials.


As always, we will use these principles to help us navigate through this study.  The present study will not rehearse the precepts taught in verses eight through twelve, but Sunday School classes might find it wise to review these verses in light of Peter’s concerns about suffering (vv. 13-22)


I.                   The Blessedness of Suffering for the Sake of Righteousness (3:13-17)

A.    An important principle stated (v. 13): Some have interpreted this verse to mean that righteous behavior will exempt believers from harsh mistreatment, but this view flies in the face of the context. Instead, the passage affirms the righteous person’s security, even in the teeth of severe persecution. Peter followed the basic principle with a series of directives to guide persecuted Christians through their ordeal. Despite their sufferings, Christians will enjoy the blessing of the Lord (See Matthew 5:10-12).

B.     “have no fear of them” (v. 14b): Literally, the text says “Do not fear their fears.”  Peter loosely quoted from the Septuagint’s version of Isaiah 8:12-13, and the expression enjoins believers to refuse to fear their persecutors.   

C.     “in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy” (v. 15a): The Christian’s alternative to the fear of their persecutors centers on their regard for the Lord Jesus.  Focusing the heart on the lordship of Christ will help purge the suffering saints of an unhealthy fear of men.

D.    “prepared to make a defense” (v. 15-16): Peter continued the directive, “regard Christ the Lord as holy”, with an additional thought.  Part of this regard for the Lord entails readiness to defend the faith.  In particular, the text requires that believers give an account of their faith when someone asks them about the Christian’s hope in Christ.  This phrase may include informal queries as well formal inquests before governmental figures. This defense, according to the apostle, had to follow three principles.

1.      gentleness: This word indicates the defendant’s unwillingness to defend himself or attack his opponent; instead, he should aim to defend the gospel.

2.      respect: Peter Davids believes this word denotes respect toward God.  Christians answer their accusers gently because of the reverence of God.

3.      a good conscience: These persecuted saints needed to face their accusers with a clear conscience; thus, the indictments appear hollow and baseless.  Such groundless accusations will bring shame on the persecutors. Verse Seventeen contains a striking statement.  The text asserts that it may be God’s will for some Christians to suffer persecution.  The next paragraph expands this idea by highlighting the unjust suffering of the Lord Jesus.


II.                The Passion of Christ as an Example for Suffering Christians (3:18-22)

A.    The connection between Christ’s death and the sufferings of believers (v. 18): The word “also” connects this paragraph with the previous material.  The Savior died, not for his own sin, but for the sins of others.  He serves as the ultimate example of a righteous man suffering unjustly.  Furthermore, his misery was purposeful in that he died to bring us to God.  We must exercise some caution in interpreting the last phrase of the verse, “…but made alive in the spirit.”  The New Testament affirms the corporeal resurrection of Christ; that is, he did not, according to the testimony of the apostles, arise as a mere phantom.  Peter Davids provides a helpful discussion of this phrase, and he concludes that the words “flesh” and “spirit” do not denote two aspects of Jesus’ life; rather, they depict the modes of existence.  He died, according to the flesh, for the sins of his people.  He was made alive, according to the spirit, to bring regeneration to believers.

B.     Christ preaching to the imprisoned spirits (vv. 19-20): By any measure, this is a difficult passage.  Verse Nineteen begins with “in which” and connects this statement with the “in the spirit” of the previous verse.  In this spiritual, post-resurrection” state, Jesus preached to the imprisoned spirits.  Davids points out five possible interpretations of this verse.

1.      The spirits are the souls of godly people from the Old Testament era, and Jesus went to a place where these souls were held until Christ came to preach the gospel to them.

2.      The spirits are the people who died in the Noahic Flood, and Jesus went to Hades to preach to these souls. Those who hold to this view often assert that Jesus proclaimed the gospel to these spirits during the period between the crucifixion and the resurrection.

3.      The spirits are the fallen angels mentioned in Genesis 6:1ff.  In this view Jesus proclaimed judgment to these spirits, thus sealing their condemnation for eternity.

4.      The word “spirits” denotes the offspring mentioned in Genesis 6:1ff.  According to this position, these demonic beings continued to inhabit the earth until the death of Christ. 

5.      The spirits are the fallen angels, but the gospel was preached to them by godly Enoch.  Davids believes that the demonic beings of Genesis Six were imprisoned in Tartarus (See II Peter 2:4). Jesus went to this spiritual prison house and sealed the judgment of these demons by preaching the righteousness of God.  The notes in the Reformation Study Bible seem to favor this view as well.

C.     Baptism corresponds to Noah’s salvation through water (vv. 21-2): Just Noah was saved through the flood waters, so believers are saved through the waters of baptism.  Peter made clear that he did not mean that the mere rite of water baptism had saving effect; rather, he affirmed the effectiveness of baptism as an outward symbol of the believer’s union with Christ’s death and resurrection. The Lord’s resurrection led, of course, to the ascension and glorification of the master.  Our suffering will follow a similar pattern.  We too will suffer for the sake of righteousness, but, just like the Lord, we will experience the resurrection from the dead and eternal honor and bliss in heaven.