Throughout this letter, Peter has sought to ground his readers’ hope in suffering in the person and work of Christ. He has pointed them to Christ’s example as an encouragement to abstain from the passions of the flesh and to instead live honourably before the unbelieving world (2:18–25). Now, having completed his application of that truth, he again points them to the example of Christ—this time to highlight that, in the end, God vindicated Christ’s gentle and non-resistant obedience (3:18–22).
These verses are some of the most debated in the New Testament. Who were “the spirits in prison” who were active in Noah’s day and what did Christ “proclaim” to them? In what way does “baptism … now save you”? It would take a sermon or two to unpack these truths, but for our purposes, we must stick to the main point: Christ’s vindication.
There is movement in this text: from Christ’s suffering (v. 18) to his exaltation to the right hand of the Father, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him (v. 22). The promise contained in these verses is that, if God vindicated Christ for his righteous suffering, he will vindicate all his children who suffer for righteousness’ sake. “Just as Jesus suffered as a righteous man and was vindicated, so too if the churches of Peter live righteously (as he has exhorted them to do), they will be vindicated and sit with Jesus in the presence of God” (Scot McKnight).
As we have previously recognised, the suffering of South African Christians today is not entirely analogous to the suffering that Peter’s readers were experiencing. In particular, South African Christians do not experience opposition from the government in the same way that first century Christians did. Nonetheless, Christians today still experience opposition from employers, spouses, and general enemies of the gospel to their faith. Peter calls us to respond as Christ did. He promises that suffering Christians will ultimately experience vindication similar to Christ’s.
But what does it mean to suffer righteously as Christ did? What principles can we draw from this text, and from the Gospel accounts, which record Christ’s suffering, that will help us in this regard? How can we suffer hopefully as he did so that we might experience vindication? Here are five lessons we should learn.
First, to suffer as Christ did, in hope of ultimate vindication, we must resist the temptations of the unbelieving world. Christ suffered as one who was “righteous.” He remained pure and unspotted despite every temptation to sin. This is highlighted perhaps most poignantly in the wilderness temptation but, throughout his life, Christ was tempted to give into the desires of the flesh. He steadfastly resisted. He was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. Though we cannot hope to live entirely without sin, we must get into the habit of resisting the temptations of the world around us.
Second, to suffer as Christ did, in hope of ultimate vindication, we must remain faithful to Scripture and live in light of its truth. If we suffer, it must be “for righteousness’ sake” (v. 14). “Righteousness” is simply doing what is right. We should suffer for doing what is right, not for doing what is wrong. This is how Christ suffered. He always did what pleased his Father. He lived a life of full obedience. We should do the same.
Third, suffering as Christ did, in hope of ultimate vindication, may mean losing relationships that are dear to us because obedience is a higher priority. Peter’s readers were experiencing this. Wives were mistreated by their husbands because of their commitment to Christ. Jesus once said that to love him is to hate your family. Our commitment to Christ must overshadow every other relationship, even if it means that we lose those relationships. When Christ suffered for the unrighteous, he did so alone. His closest friends abandoned him because he was committed to doing what God required of him. We must do the same.
Fourth, to suffer as Christ did, in hope of ultimate vindication, we should seek the fellowship and strengthening of those who are likewise committed to Christ. There is an account in John 2 in which “many believed in [Christ’s] name when they saw the signs that he was doing.” John adds, “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (vv. 23–24). He knew the fickleness of the crowds who were impressed only by his miracles. He therefore did not “entrust himself” to them but instead invested his relationships in those who were truly committed to God and his kingdom.
Fifth, to suffer like Christ means to root our hope firmly in that future day when ultimate vindication will arise. Jesus endured the shame of the cross because he looked beyond the cross (Hebrews 12:1–2). We will only endure suffering as Christ did if we look for ultimate vindication at “the day of visitation” (2:12) rather than in this life.
Ask God today to help you in your affliction to look to Christ and to look beyond the opposition you face in this world to the ultimate vindication that is promised in Christ.