Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, July 24, 2021
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A Victory Assured

Mark 1:9-15 and 1 Peter 3:18-22

We are now in the season of Lent. Lent consists of the forty days leading up to Easter, and it has been celebrated by the Church at least as far back as the third century, and perhaps earlier. It is a time of prayer, fasting, and self-denial. In the early Church, it was a time when new believers would be prepared for baptism on Easter Sunday. It was also a time when Christians who had fallen into serious sin or denied their faith in the face of persecution were restored into the fellowship of believers.

The length comes from the forty days of testing that Jesus endured in the wilderness before he began his ministry. And those forty days echoed the forty years Israel spent in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land, and the forty days that the prophet Elijah spent in the wilderness before hearing from God on Mt. Sinai.

Isn’t Lent kind of a downer, though? I mean, really, who wants forty days of fasting and self-denial! Who wants to think about their sins for forty days? But we can’t feel the full joy of Easter if we don’t also feel the weight of our sins. We want to rush to the happy ending. But the painful and difficult journey is also part of the process. Without the cross, there is no empty tomb. Without suffering, there is no triumph.

Now, let’s talk about this passage from 1 Peter, which, frankly, is one of the most difficult texts in the whole Bible. It has given rise to one of the lines in the ancient creeds of the Church: “He descended to the dead” or “He descended into hell.” But is that really what it’s saying here? Like so much about this text, we just don’t know for absolute certain.

It starts out easily enough: “Christ was without sin and yet he suffered when he died for the sins of all.” This is meant as an encouragement to a church that was suffering. Peter was writing to Christians in Rome at the time of the Emperor Nero, one of the first emperors to persecute believers. Many of them were suffering unjustly, and Peter reminds them that when we suffer unjustly, we are following in the example of our master, Jesus. He suffered physical death, but he was raised by the Spirit, and the same will happen to those who love and serve him.

Then comes the hard part: “He went and preached to the spirits in prison, those who disobeyed God in the days of Noah.”

What does that mean? Who are the spirits in prison? When did Jesus preach to them? When he did, what did he say? There are three main schools of thought about this passage.

First, there is the conveniently easy answer: Christ preached through Noah to people before the flood. In Hebrew tradition, there was almost always a lot more to the

story than we find in Scripture. While the Bible doesn’t say anything about it, the Jewish people believed that Noah repeatedly preached a warning to people as he was building the ark. He warned them about the coming judgment. But people didn’t listen. Some have suggested that it was the Spirit of Christ that inspired Noah, and so Christ was speaking through Noah to these people.

It’s a convenient, easy answer. No loose ends to worry about. And like most convenient, easy answers, it’s probably wrong.

Second, there is the comforting answer: Christ preached to the souls of the dead, either between his death and resurrection or after his resurrection. Maybe he spoke to all the souls of the dead and offered them salvation if they would receive him. Maybe he only preached to the souls of the righteous dead and assured them of his victory over the power of death.

To do this, Christ descended to the place of the dead, which should not be read as “hell.” In Hebrew thought of the day, the place of the dead was Sheol, the place where they awaited the final judgment. In Latin, it was called Hades, in Greek Tataros. Hell, in Hebrew, was Gehenna, the place of the final judgment.

It’s a comforting answer because it suggests that maybe there is some hope for those who reject Christ in this life. Maybe they get a “second chance.”

But it’s problematic. For starters, there is nothing else in the New Testament to suggest that there is any kind of “second chance.” And second, it says Christ preached to the spirits. In the New Testament, spirits always refers to angelic beings, either angels or demons, which are fallen angels. Soul is the word used to refer to the non-physical part of a human being. There may be a couple places in the New Testament where spirit is used for human spirit, but in those cases, it’s always qualified in some way. If it just says spirits, then it’s referring to spiritual beings, angelic beings.

And third, there is the difficult, but also comforting, answer: Before or after the resurrection, Christ preached to fallen angels, proclaiming his victory over them, and perhaps also, a message of judgment upon them.

Let’s go back to the source material, Genesis 6. Genesis 6 says, “The sons of God saw the beautiful women of the human race and took them as their wives…. In those days Nephilim lived on the earth, for when the sons of God had intercourse with women, they gave birth to children who became heroes in legends of old.” Later on, the word Nephilim is used to describe a race of giants, such as Goliath.

What does that mean? I don’t know. I’m pretty no one really knows. But, in the first century, most Jewish rabbis thought that Genesis 6 referred to the fall of angels.

These rebellious angels encouraged the rebellion of human beings against God, the great wickedness described there. After the flood, they were imprisoned, either in the air or under the ground. In Hebrew tradition, Enoch, the fellow who “walked with God and was no more,” proclaimed God’s judgment on them. This was the contemporary Jewish understanding of that chapter, and so it would be Peter’s understanding of it. In 2 Peter 2, he talks about fallen angels in hell, awaiting judgment.

What I think Peter is saying here is that Christ is victorious over these fallen angels, these rebellious spiritual beings. In verse 22, he says, “all angels, authorities, and powers bow before him.” At this time, most Jewish people believed that there were spiritual powers at work behind worldly powers, either angelic or demonic. So there would be a demonic power at work behind Emperor Nero, the Roman emperor at this time who put Peter to death. Given what we know of Nero, that seems quite reasonable. Christ is victorious over them. He is victorious over the spiritual forces behind the persecution of Christians.

And so are we. Peter mentions the flood and moves from there to baptism. The flood is used as an “antitype” of baptism. Often we see images from the Old Testament repeated in the New, and we call those types. Well, the flood here is an antitype, a reverse image. Just as many died because of the water of the flood, so many will be saved by the water of baptism. It’s not the water itself. As Peter says, the water itself only removes dirt. Rather it is the “appeal to God for a clean conscience,” that is the faith demonstrated in baptism. In our tradition, we practice infant baptism, but we do so understanding it is not complete until it is confirmed with personal faith later on.

Baptism is a covenant. A covenant is a way that two parties who are not family become family. That’s why marriage is a covenant. Through baptism, we are incorporated into the family of God. We are identified with Jesus through our baptism, with both his suffering and with his victory. Not only is Christ victorious over the spiritual powers of darkness, but we are as well in him.

As I said at the start, this is a strange passage. And I can’t say with certainty that I understand every part of it. But the parts I do understand are comforting. Christ is victorious, and because we are in Christ, we are victorious, as well. Any victories the world might win against Christ are only temporary victories. His triumph is eternal, and so is our triumph in him.

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