For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, in which he also went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison who in the past were disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah while the ark was being prepared. In it a few—that is, eight people—were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (not as the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.1 Peter 3:18—22
The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, composed in 1647, is this: “What is the chief end of man?” Do you know what the answer is? It says our “chief end,” our reason for existence, “is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”And for the Christians Peter was writing, having a heavenly, eternal perspective was all important if they were going to persevere as believers while going through persecution.
Beginning with today’s passage, we see more and more references to the future God has for his people, to what Peter calls eternal glory in Christ. He really wants them to understand what it means to live now with eternity in mind. And our passage this morning gets to the heart of what this means.
Our passage begins with this verse: For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. So here we’re reminded of Jesus’ death and resurrection—and the significance of them both. And one of the reasons I love this verse is how Peter expresses the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection: to bring you to God. Do you hear that? To bring you to God. To bring us to God. To bring sinners—like you and me—to God. But what does this mean?
In other words, Jesus didn’t suffer, die, and rise again so we could go to heaven when we die in some vague, pie-in-the-sky sense. He did it all so we could once again be brought back into right relationship with God. That’s the point.
It was Pastor John Piper who said it best in his book God is the Gospel: “People who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there.” In other words, Jesus isn’t merely the means to eternal life; he is eternal life.
Put another way: the goal of the cross is not forgiveness; the goal of the cross is reconciliation, a restored relationship. Forgiveness is the means to reconciliation. Because a restored relationship with God is our greatest need.
Living to be with God is only possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Here’s the thing, something that we can forget sometimes: being a Christian is not about being polite, good or nice. It’s not about following religious rules. It’s about being brought from death to life. Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous. You see, I think it’s the case that often as people we don’t understand or sufficiently grasp a simple truth: it’s not about a few bad things we occasionally do. It’s about the fact that we are rebels. Apart from Christ, we are enemies of God. We don’t only commit sins; we are sinful through and through.
However—and this is a huge, life-changing, world-altering, ground-shaking however—it also tells us just how magnificent, just how awesome, just how deep and profound God’s love is for us. Because he didn’t leave us to ourselves. He didn’t abandon us. He acted to save. He sought us out.
You see, the cross and death of Jesus is not an accident of history. In John 10:17—18, Jesus says: The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.
Let’s put it this way: the cross didn’t happen to Jesus; Jesus happened to the cross. No one took his life; he gave his life. And he did it so we could be brought to God. Look at what Paul says in Ephesians 2:4—5, 18: Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved . . . For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Think about that. Access to the Father. What do you think that means? Even after we’ve been forgiven, we have access. Even after we’ve put our trust in Jesus, we have access. So the whole reason Jesus did what he did was so that we could have access to the Father by one Spirit. Fellowship with God. Friendship with God. An intimate relationship with God. Because of Jesus, we have such access now.
Skye Jethani, in his book What’s Wrong with Religion? 9 Things No One Told You About Faith, writes: “Jesus removed our evil that keeps us from God by taking it upon himself on the cross. His death opened the way for us to be with God. For those who desire God more than anything, the cross is the best news imaginable. Through it we have been freely given what we never could have acquired on our own.” In other words, living to be with God is only possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Why are Jesus’ death and resurrection necessary?Why is reconciliation—a restored relationship—the goal of the cross? What might it look like to live to be with God? What does it mean to be with God even now?
The next few verses in our passage are some of the strangest, most difficult to understand in the NT. Scholars and preachers don’t all interpret what they mean the same way. Here they are again: After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. As to the identity of the imprisoned spirits and what exactly Jesus proclaimed to them, we can’t be entirely sure. But I will suggest a possibility. If these spirits are those of the people who died in the flood, then they died because of their sin, their unrighteousness, because they did not believe Noah and that God would judge them. And when Jesus went to these imprisoned spirits it was to declare his victory over sin and death.
The passage continues: In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. Not all were saved in Noah’s day.
Here’s the hard truth: Living to be with God is not something that every person wants. There are people who persistently refuse and resist the good news of God in Jesus, no matter how clearly and compellingly we present it.
There were disobedient people in Noah’s day and there are disobedient people in our day. John 3:19—20 says: People loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.
In 2 Thessalonians 1:8, Paul talks about those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. Of them he says, They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
When we read passages like this, we should do so with humility and much prayer. They should sober us. They should remind us that when we reject our very source of life—God himself—that there are consequences.
Some think God is unjust or unfair. But look at our passage: God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. It makes me wonder: if even one person in the days of Noah had repented, would they have been allowed on the ark? Whatever would have happened, the key for us is what it says about God: God waited patiently. It makes me think of Abraham’s question: Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?
If living to be with God is not something that every person wants, God will respect and not override their freewill. Now, I know my saying this doesn’t answer all of our hard questions. But for now let’s ask: do we trust God to do what is right? Do we believe Scripture when it says God waited patiently? Because it says that elsewhere in the NT too. In 2 Peter 3:9 we read this: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. And here we see God’s heart.
And I think, like Jesus, we’re called to proclaim the good news to those who are still imprisoned in disobedience and sin. Not because we’re perfect. Not because we have it all together. Certainly not because we’re now completely free of sin ourselves. But because we’re beggars showing other beggars where to get the bread of life.
Why might someone resist the good news of Jesus? Is God being unjust or unfair to shut out the disobedient from his presence? Why or why not? How does God show his love to those who resist his offer of relationship? How can we show his love?
The last part of our passage says this of having a clear conscience before God: It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
Think of the picture this paints. Jesus Christ, the one who came, suffered, died, and was raised is now at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. Though he suffered for being faithful to God’s calling in this life, he is now exalted, victorious, glorified, at God’s right hand forever. This means that the difficulties of following Jesus in the here and now are not the end of the story. Living to be with God is our greatest need and our greatest hope. Is Jesus where you get your hope for eternal life?How should that hope affect your life here and now?What are you doing to share that hope with others?