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Stuart Chase - 4 September 2022

Victory in Jesus (1 Peter 3:18–22)

Christians can endure suffering for righteousness’ sake, not because Christ left an example to follow, but because Christ gained victory over the forces of evil and promises victory to all who are in him. First Peter 3:18–23 highlights victory in Jesus by showing us that this victory: (1) was purchased by Christ’s death and resurrection (v. 18); (2) was proclaimed by Christ’s ascension (vv. 19–21); and (3) is portrayed in Christian baptism (vv. 22–23).

Scripture References: 1 Peter 3:18-22

From Series: "1 Peter Exposition"

An exposition, by the elders of Brackenhurst Baptist Church, of the first epistle of Peter.

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Augustine once prayed, “O Lord, deliver me from this lust of always vindicating myself.” In his classic devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers quotes comments: “Such a need for constant vindication destroys our soul’s faith in God.” Instead, Chambers urges his readers to, as Jesus did, entrust themselves, in the face of injustice, to the one who judges justly.

I think Augustine was right to speak of the “lust” for vindication. When we are mistreated, everything in us wants to defend ourselves. Peter understood this. He knew that his instructions for his readers to submit to a hostile government (2:13–17), a hostile employer (2:18–20), a hostile spouse (3:1–7), and a hostile world (and perhaps even a hostile church) (3:8–12) were difficult to hear. He knew that the exhortation to submission would easily be drowned by the lust for vindication. But he exhorted his readers to submit by keeping their eyes firmly fixed on the example of Christ (2:21–25).

When we read Peter’s exhortations to submission in 2:11–3:12, everything in us wants to rush to the exceptions. I have been involved in more than one discussion in recent times surrounding those passages where the conversation has gone something like this: “Yes, we should submit, but—”

Peter removes our objections by pointing to Christ. Christ submitted to the ultimate injustice, not in some, impossible- or unnecessary-to-emulate way, but as an example to his followers in their suffering. It will not do to say that Christ suffered according to God’s redemptive plan but that we are not called to the same, because the text specifically tells us that his submission left us an example to follow (2:21).

Peter drives home his point in 3:13–17 by highlighting the need to honour Christ in good conscience even in the face of unjust suffering. “It is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”

The text before us today (3:18–22) focuses us again on Christ, but not as an example for us, as in 2:21–25. The point here is the uniqueness of Christ’s suffering, whose victory secured victory for all who are in him. In this text, Christians can endure suffering for righteousness’ sake, not by following Christ’s example, but by embracing his victory. The theme of this text, says Tom Schreiner, is Christ’s “victory over evil, a victory believers will share since they belong to him.”

Interpreters universally acknowledge that this is the most difficult text in 1 Peter, which has invited a range of interpretations. Difficult texts of Scripture can be dangerous. As Juan Sanchez says, “when a passage is hard to understand, we can make it say almost anything we want.” We must avoid that temptation. We must walk carefully through the text to understand what Peter is saying and then what it means for us. We will to that by following a threefold movement in the text. We learn here that victory in Jesus (1) was purchased by Christ’s death and resurrection (v. 18); was proclaimed by Christ’s ascension (vv. 19–21); and is portrayed in Christian baptism (vv. 22–23).

Victory in Jesus Was Purchased by Christ’s Death and Resurrection

Peter begins by reminding us that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (v. 18). In his suffering and resurrection, he purchased victory for all who are in him.

As I have said, Peter’s focus here is not that Christ left us an example to follow, though that was his focus in 2:21–25. Instead, the focus here is on Christ’s unrepeatable victory over the forces of evil, which secures the Christian’s ultimate victory over the same. Christians do not need to vindicate themselves in the face of injustice because they will ultimately be vindicated in their suffering because Christ suffered and rose again.

Peter begins: “For Christ also suffered.” The word “for,” of course, connects this verse to the preceding verses. We can confidently suffer for doing good, if it is God’s will, because of what Christ accomplished—because of his suffering and resurrection.

But lest the reader think that he is talking generically about Christ’s suffering in life, he adds that Christ suffered “once for sins.” The reference to suffering here is Christ’s suffering on the cross, which culminated in his death. To be sure, Christ suffered a great deal in his life, but Peter’s focus here is on Christ’s substitutionary suffering on the cross. That is why he doesn’t present Christ as an example: because we cannot suffer in the same way that Christ did. We do not suffer in a substitutionary capacity for the sins of others. Only Christ could do that.

Christ’s suffering happened “once.” When applied to Christ’s death on the cross, this term speaks of a one-time, never-to-be-repeated event. For example, the writer to the Hebrews writes, “Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:25–26). Christ’s suffering, as spoken of here, was a never-to-be-repeated event, unlike the hostility Christians face for their faith. Christians face ongoing hostility. Christ suffered once.

Peter strengthens his argument about the uniqueness of Christ’s suffering when he adds that Christ’s suffering was “the righteous for the unrighteous.” Christ’s righteousness alludes to his sinlessness (cf. 2:22). Christ’s righteousness is tied to his sinlessness throughout the New Testament. Unlike us, Christ suffered as a sinless sacrifice to take our sins upon himself as he credits his righteousness to those who believe in him. He suffered “for the unrighteous”—as a substitute. And he did so “that he might bring us to God.”

Before we move on, pause for a moment to consider the enormity of the truth laid bare here: Jesus Christ died as a sinless substitute to bring unrighteous sinners to God. Jesus Christ, and him crucified, is the means that God has provided for sinners to come to him. There is no other way. The only escape for sinners from the eternal penalty of sin is to trust in Christ, who died as a sinless sacrifice in their place. If you, feeling the weight of your sin, wish to escape God’s eternal death sentence, there is one way to do it: by trusting in Christ, the righteous one, who died for the unrighteous to bring them to God. Christ has made salvation certain for all who will trust in him. Christ died so that you might live. Will you trust in him?

Lest you miss what Peter means by Christ’s once-for-all suffering, he explains: “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” Christ came to earth as a human being and was “put to death” as a human being by human beings.

But that was not the end, for, having been “put to death in the flesh” he was “made alive in the spirit.” This brings us to the first difficulty in the text. Depending on which English translation you use, “spirit” may or may not be capitalised. The ESV and the NASB, for example, do not capitalise the word, while the CSB and the NKJV do. There is no linguistic rule that determines whether or not to capitalise the word. It is an interpretive decision.

There are two possible ways to understand the phrase “made alive in the spirit.” On the one hand, Peter might be saying that Jesus died physically but his spirit remained alive. According to this interpretation, it makes sense to keep the word uncapitalised. On the other hand, Peter might be saying that Christ died physically and then was raised physically from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, in which case it would make sense to capitalise the word. I interpret this to be a reference to Christ’s bodily resurrection by the power of the Spirit (cf. Romans 8:11). That interpretation seems to make better contextual sense, as I will explain in a moment.

Before we move on, however, let’s summarise Peter’s argument in this verse. We should be willing to “suffer for doing good” (v. 17) because of what Christ did—because he suffered once for all, the sinless one for sinful people, to bring sinners to God. In his suffering, his human body was killed but then raised back to life by the Spirit of God. In doing so, he purchased eternal salvation for all who would believe in him. A lifetime of suffering is but the blink of an eye compared to the eternal rest we will experience in Christ. Or, to put it in biblical terms, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Christ’s victory puts our suffering into perspective. When you suffer hostility for your faith, remind yourself that Christ secured eternal victory by his death and resurrection, which means that he will ultimately vindicate his suffering people. You don’t need to vindicate yourself because vindication will come through Christ’s victory.

But there is further reason that Christians should joyfully and hopefully endure unjust suffering: because Christ’s victory, having been purchased by his death and resurrection, was proclaimed by his ascension (vv. 19–20).

Victory in Jesus Was Proclaimed by Christ’s Ascension

In vv. 19–20, Peter furthers his argument about the uniqueness of Christ by speaking of his ascension, which served as a proclamation of his victory: “in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, 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.”

These verses begin with the phrase “in which,” which refers back to the “Spirit” who raised Christ from the dead. If the uncapitalised “spirit” is correct, then these verses might be interpreted to suggest that Jesus, in the period between his death and resurrection, preached in a disembodied state “to the spirits in prison.” This is an interpretation held broadly within the Christian church. As I have said, however, I take Peter’s words to be a reference Christ’s bodily resurrection.

In the power of the resurrecting Spirit, Christ “went” to do something. The word translated “went” is the same as the word translated “gone” in v. 22, where it clearly refers to the ascension. The word is similarly used of the ascension in Acts 1:10–11; John 14:2–3, 28; 16:7, 28. I think he’s using the word in the same way in v. 19. In other words, Peter is referring to Christ’s ascension, which we know to be a post-resurrection, bodily event. By his ascension, Christ “proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah.” Peter, in other words, is using the oft-utilised trinity of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension to point to his victory over the forces of evil.

Having established that whatever Peter is writing about is a post-resurrection event, a host of questions remains. What did Christ proclaim? Who were the spirits to whom he proclaimed? Why were these spirits in prison, and where was the prison? And what did these spirits have to do with Noah? I’m not sure I can answer all the questions, but let’s see what we can learn as we dig into the text together.

The word translated “proclaimed” is the New Testament term most often used for preaching the gospel. This has led some interpreters to argue that Jesus preached the gospel to these spirits as an invitation to believe it. We cannot, however,assume that “proclaimed” refers to gospel preaching without first considering the context. The word is usually, but not always, used of gospel preaching. I think this is an instance in which it is not. The context here is one of victory for, in the end, “angels, authorities, and powers” are shown to be “subjected to” Christ (v. 22). The proclamation here, therefore, seems to have been one of victory rather than a call to believe the gospel and repent—though Christ’s victory, of course, is gospel victory. Christ, who had been put to death in the flesh, was vindicated by his resurrection and, in his ascension, openly declared his victory to “the spirits in prison.”

But who were “the spirits in prison”? They are connected in some way to Noah. Some have thought that these were the spirits of people judged in the flood. Some think that Christ was preaching the gospel as a post-mortem opportunity to believe. However, the word translated “spirits,” especially when it is plural, is almost exclusively used in the New Testament of angels, and that is likely the sense in which it is used here, given the emphasis of v. 22. These particular “spirits” were “in prison,” which is a word usually used to describe physical prisons, though it also describes Satan’s prison during the Millennium of Revelation 20. Extrabiblical religious writings from the same period reveal widespread Jewish tradition that evil angels are imprisoned, awaiting the final day of judgement (see Jude 6).

These spirits or angels were those who “formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah.” God’s patience was manifested “while the ark was being prepared,” which Genesis suggests took 120 years (6:3). In the end, only eight people (Noah and his family) believed and were saved. This reference to the disobedient spirits in Noah’s time is perhaps the most perplexing part of this text, but there is probably some connection here to the narrative of Genesis 6.

Genesis 6:1–8 is itself a text wrapped in great interpretive controversy. The text speaks of a growing female population and “the sons of God” who “took wives” from among these “attractive” women. “The sons of God” were sexually active with “the daughters of men” so that “they bore children to them.” This narrative is all wrapped up in God’s assessment that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” God therefore decreed the destruction of humanity by a flood and gave Noah 120 years to build an ark for anyone who would believe. For 120 years, Noah preached as he built (2 Peter 2:5), but he faced only unbelieving hostility.

We could spend a great deal of time discussing various interpretations of Genesis 6, but that would not be a good use of time. Because “the sons of God” is a term overwhelmingly used in the Old Testament of angels, ancient Jewish and early Christian tradition held that “the sons of God” were fallen angels, who were sexually involved with human women (“the daughters of men”). This was a deep abomination to the Lord, who declared that he would give 120 years to see repentance wrought before bringing the flood on the earth. Noah would spend those 120 years building the ark, after which God’s judgement would fall.

Peter appears to be picking up on this tradition and using it as an example of God’s patience. There are a lot of questions surrounding that text and those events, but the main point appears to be that those 120 years were a time of hostility toward God’s faithful people (i.e. Noah and his family). And perhaps the spirits who so tempted humanity with wickedness, so that only eight people remained faithful to God, believed that they had won. In the end, however, God’s faithful servants were vindicated as God showed his victory over the unbelieving masses by bringing the floodwaters of judgement. And Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension sealed the victory for all eternity.

Peter’s point, which is connected to his readers’ suffering, is now beginning to unfold more clearly. Christ secured victory by his death and resurrection and, by his ascension, proclaimed his victory over the forces of darkness. He brings in Noah and the events surrounding the flood as an illustration of this truth. God’s patience while Noah was opposed did not mean defeat. On the contrary, God’s judgement in the flood signalled victory for him and vindication for his faithful people. In vv. 21–22, he now applies this to his suffering readers.

Victory in Jesus is Portrayed in Christian Baptism

In the closing verses of the chapter, Peter parallels the flood of Noah’s day with Christian baptism and shows how baptism points to victory in Jesus.

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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

(1 Peter 3:21–22)

Once again, these verses cause a fair amount of consternation, primarily because of the phrase “baptism … now saves you.” Does this suggest that baptism is the means by which God justifies sinners? Since this would contradict a host of other Scriptures, which point to salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, we must conclude that this is not Peter’s point. And we must again walk carefully through the text to understand what he is saying.

Peter argues that baptism (v. 21) “corresponds” to Noah’s deliverance through the flood (v. 20). The Greek word translated “corresponds” literally means “antitype.” An antitype is something that is represented by a symbol. In this case, the flood is the symbol and baptism is the antitype—the thing that the symbol represents. But in what sense was the flood a type or symbol of baptism? And, then, what does baptism have to do with offering hope to suffering Christians? Let’s consider this carefully.

The floodwaters of Noah’s day were God’s agent of death. Those who were submerged by the water died, while Noah and his family were carried safely on and through the water by means of the ark. Similarly, baptism is a symbol of death. When we submerge a Christian under water in the act of baptism, we symbolise their death and burial in Christ (Romans 6:1–4).

Interestingly, one of the many problems that non-Baptists had with the early Baptists is quite relevant here. Historian Michael Haykin records that Baptists were accused by non-Baptist Protestants of breaking the sixth commandment. Anglican rector William Burkitt argued that immersion was tantamount to murder because, “How many thousand persons strong and weak, old and young, would this plunging over head and ears in northern countries, and in the winter season infallibly destroy and make an end of?” The famed Presbyterian Richard Baxter added to this when he wrote,

The ordinary practice of baptising by dipping over head in cold water … is no ordinance of God, but a heinous sin…. The magistrate ought to restrain it, to save the lives of his subjects.… For, that which directly tends to overthrow men’s lives, being wilfully used, is plain murder. The ordinary or general dipping of people over head in the cold water, tends directly to the overthrow of their health and lives; and therefore it is murder.… I conclude, if murder be a sin, then dipping ordinarily in cold water over head, in England, is a sin.

South Africa is a slightly warmer climate, and we’ve not yet had a death by baptism in our church, but baptism is certainly a picture of death—and, in that sense, the flood was a picture of baptism. But baptism is also a picture of resurrection—as the baptised believer emerges from the water. In baptism, a person identifies with Christ’s death and resurrection. Unlike the wicked in Noah’s day, “believers survive the death-dealing waters of baptism because they are baptised with Christ, because they are united to him by faith. They are rescued from death through his resurrection” (Schreiner).

The resurrection connection is crucial to a proper interpretation of this text. The phrase “not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (v. 21) is somewhat parenthetical. This is reflected in translations such as the NKJV, the CSB, and the NIV. If we temporarily remove the parenthetical clause, the verse reads thus: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you … through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The emphasis, in other words, is on Christ’s resurrection power to save, not the act of baptism itself. Baptism is only effective in the Christian life inasmuch as it is tied to Christ’s resurrection. That is why baptism is absolutely ineffectual for unbelievers, and why Baptist churches typically require those who were “baptised” before their conversion to be baptised “again.” If you were an unbeliever when you were immersed or sprinkled, that was not baptism. Christians are baptised because Christians identify with Christ and trust in his resurrection power for eternal life.

In fact, there is a hint of this even in the type itself. Peter writes in v. 20 of “the ark … in which a few, that is, eight persons were brought safely through the water.” Noah and his family were rescued from judgement because they were in the ark. If they were outside the ark, the water would have been their instrument of death, but they were “brought safely through the water” because they were in the ark. Similarly, baptism only has whatever effect it has for those who are in Christ. In the same way that the Lord’s Supper is dangerous for those who do not trust in Christ (1 Corinthians 11:27–32), baptism might well be an instrument of judgement for those who do not trust in Christ as they are immersed under water. Baptism is not to be taken lightly! It is meaningful only for those who trust in Christ’s resurrecting power for their salvation.

But at this point, we must return to the parenthesis, because it is an important parenthesis. Peter argues that baptism saves “not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.” What does he mean here?

When your body is dirty, you use water to remove the dirt. Peter denies that baptism serves in that capacity. In other words, baptism is not the means by which God cleanses us from the filth of our sins. If you think that baptism will wash your sins away, you have a very poor theology of baptism. If you trust in baptism for your salvation, it will become for you an agent of destruction. It is equivalent to the people of Noah’s day trusting in the waters of the flood to save them! Our hope for cleansing does not lie in the act of baptism but in the person with whom we identify in our baptism.

Instead of baptism serving a cleansing purpose, baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience.” When we are baptised, in other words, and thereby openly identify with Christ, we appeal to him to empower us to walk before him with a clean conscience—that is, to live a life consistent with our convictions. When we are baptised, we do not ask for saving grace, but we do ask for sanctifying grace. As in the Lord’s Supper, in baptism you are reminded of the gospel that saved you and, as you are reminded, you ask God for the power to walk before him with a clean conscience. The difference is that baptism is a one-time act of identifying with Christ, while the Lord’s supper is an ongoing act of identifying with Christ.

In baptism, we appeal to God for a clean conscience, and we trust God to answer this appeal “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”

Peter brings everything back to the theme of Christ’s victory. Whatever complications surround a proper understanding of this text, the main point is not difficult to discern. His main point is that Christ suffered, rose, and ascended in victory over the forces of evil. His readers should therefore take heart that the forces of evil will not overpower them. Christians are promised victory in Jesus.

A proper understanding of baptism helps us in suffering because baptism powerfully portrays our victory in Jesus. When a Christian, for no other reason than that he trusts in Christ, is opposed by a hostile government, or a hostile employer, or a hostile spouse, or a hostile world, or even a hostile church member, he can look to his baptism as a reminder that Christ is on his side and has delivered him from the consequences of sin. He can allow his baptism to remind him of the victory he has in Jesus, which will put suffering in its proper perspective.

Are you suffering for your faith? Do you struggle to understand why God allows the hostile forces of the world to oppose you for your fidelity to Christ? Are you tempted to think that the hostility you face is evidence that God is against you? Then remember the gospel truths that you embraced and proclaimed at your baptism. Remember that you have been delivered from the deathly waters of God’s judgement because of the resurrection of Christ. Christ’s victory is, and forever will be, your victory. Remember your baptism and embrace victory in Jesus.


We all know the lust for vindication of which Augustine wrote. When we are opposed for our faith, we want vindication. And when vindication does not come, we are tempted to vindicate ourselves. Peter wants us, instead, to be willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake, if that that is God’s will, as we embrace ultimate victory in Jesus. For all its complexities, this text offers us at least two great exhortations.

First, this text urges us to believe in victory in Jesus.

In the world in which we live, it is easy to give up all hope of justice. We live in a society that apathetic to justice. Justice in our society is haphazard and, if it comes, it comes slowly. South Africa is a society of rampant corruption and while justice often appears blatantly obvious to us, it appears rarely to be exercised. Criminals perpetrate their crimes with seeming impunity. There is deep distrust among South African citizens in the justice system. We invest heavily in insurance and home security because we realise that something needs to be done—and it’s not going to be done by the criminal justice system. We know all-too-well the reality of Ecclesiastes 8:11: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.”

Our disillusionment with justice can easily extend to disillusionment with ultimate justice. As Scot McKnight observes, “we live in a day when many people have surrendered their belief in justice to the winds of modernity and relativism.”

Christians believe in justice, but our hope for justice lies in God’s promises, not in human institutions. Christians can and should be concerned about justice in this world. Statistics about rising crime—and, in particular, mistreatment of the most vulnerable in our society—should bother us. We should labour and campaign to see justice brought about. After all, we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. But as we do so, we do so with the decided focus that our hope for justice is ultimate, not temporal. While it is never easy, Christians can face injustice with hope because we know that all wrongs will one day be righted, that the guilty will be righteously judged, and God’s faithful people will be vindicated as the enter into everlasting life.

Second, this text urges us to live our victory in Jesus. Our belief in ultimate justice should change the way we live in the present. Living in light of our victory can look like a great deal of things. Let me suggest two.

First, we live in light of victory in Jesus through prayer. While the justice to which we look is ultimate, those who take Scripture seriously see that God is concerned about justice even in this life. When we see Christians suffering injustice for no other reason than that they are Christian, we should pray fervently for justice to prevail.

Second, we live in light of victory in Jesus through faithfulness. If you are a Christian who faces injustice for no other reason than your fidelity to Christ, keep persevering in faithfulness. Let me illustrate.

Perhaps you’re a Christian teenager facing the overwhelming pressure of your peers to cave to worldly philosophies on gender and sexuality. Your Christian views are considered outdated and you face mockery and exclusion because you remain faithful to Jesus. You feel the weight of having to fight off pressure to cave for the sake of acceptance and conformity. What does Peter say to you in this text?

Peter’s message is simple: Persist in faithful obedience as you look for the day of ultimate justice. Commit that you will not conform to sinful habits. Commit to remaining faithful to biblical truth. Be willing to endure, if necessary, exclusion and loneliness for the sake of fidelity to truth. Commit to finding friends are as committed to truth as you are. Live in anticipate of the day when God will vindicate those who have been faithful to him.

Your circumstances may look different, but the principle remains the same. Allow yourself to grow disillusioned with acceptance in this world and to grow enamoured with that day of final vindication—the day, in the words of Scot McKnight, “when all will be made right and all true virtues will appear for what they are: the will of God, now done on earth as it is in heaven.”

In his death and resurrection, Jesus purchased victory for his followers. In his ascension, he proclaimed victory over the forces of darkness. We now live in light of that victory knowing that, “as suffering was the pathway to exaltation for Christ, so also suffering is the prelude to glory for believers” (Schreiner).