Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
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Safely Home to God

1st Peter 3:18-22

 If you ever get to the point of thinking that you’ve got the whole Bible all figured out, and there are no more mysteries in it for you, then give a shot at tackling this passage and all the ones that are related to it.  This may be the most puzzling stuff in the Bible.  What exactly is Peter talking about in verses 19-20 when he says that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed God long ago in the days of Noah?  

 This is the passage that gives rise to the expression in the Apostle’s Creed that says “Christ descended to the dead” or “he descended into hell.”  So at least at some point in Christian history, this verse was considered to be very important.  

 Who are these “spirits in prison?”  When did Jesus preach to them?  And when he did, what did he say?  

 There are three possibilities set forth by scholars of the Bible.  The first is that the “spirits in prison” are the souls of the dead.  Some argue that Jesus descended into Hades, the realm of the dead, between his death and resurrection, and there he proclaimed a message to the souls of the dead.  What did he say?  Well, according to some, he proclaimed salvation to the righteous dead who had been waiting for his coming but never lived to see it.  According to others, he proclaimed eternal judgment on the wicked who rejected God.  And according to others, he made an offer of salvation to all those who did not live to see him in the flesh.  By that third view, the grace of God extends even beyond the grave, at least for those who did not have the chance to receive grace during their lives.  

 This was the favorite view of most Bible scholars in the first several centuries of the Church.  It may have been the first view on this passage.  And it has a certain attraction to it.  It proclaims that there is a wideness to God’s mercy, and we like the sound of that.  Before the days of Noah, there was no such thing as a covenant with God.  The first covenant with God is in Genesis 9, where God promises not to destroy the world by flood again and in return, people were to refrain from the eating of blood and from murder.  So there’s a certain attraction to the thought of God offering a “second chance.”

 The second view is that the Spirit of Christ, which of course existed before he became incarnate, before he took on flesh, preached to people about the righteousness

of God in the days of Noah.  Maybe even that the Spirit of Christ preached to people through the voice of Noah himself.  

 This was a favorite view of the Protestant Reformers.  And again, there’s something attractive to it.  It doesn’t leave any messy questions about the grace of God and where it ends.  It doesn’t leave any messy questions about where Jesus went after his crucifixion and before his resurrection.  It’s a very neat and tidy opinion, but that doesn’t make it correct.

 The third opinion, which has now become the most popular among Bible scholars, is that Christ proclaimed victory over the fallen angels, either before his resurrection or after his resurrection.  And there is evidence in the Bible that this may be the correct understanding.  

Genesis chapter 6 tells us that one of the evidences of wickedness before the Great Flood was that there were “fallen angels” who came down to earth and were actively leading people away from God.  And of course, the Scriptures also tell us that Satan is a fallen angel. 

That’s actually a pretty important thing to understand.  The Bible does not teach “cosmic dualism.”  Cosmic dualism is the idea that there is a “good god” and there is an “evil god” and they are locked in an eternal battle.  The Bible doesn’t teach that.  The Bible teaches that evil is not the opposite of good, but rather that evil is “turning away” from good, just as Satan turned away from God and persuaded others to do the same.  

According to the Jewish traditions of the day, Satan and these “fallen angels” were imprisoned by God.  And Christ, victorious on the cross, went to proclaim victory over them.  It is also true that in the New Testament, “spirits” usually refers to spiritual beings, angels, rather than to the souls of the dead.  And there are some other New Testament passages that seem to support this third view.  

Which one is right?  I have no idea.  I think all three have something attractive to them.  But all three views are also somewhat problematic.  And fortunately, understanding which one is correct is not necessary to understanding what is really the main point of this passage.  More than anything, this is just one of those strange puzzles of the Bible that remind us that we don’t have it all figured out.

But the main point of this passage is to proclaim the Good News about the work of salvation that God has done and about its power to save us from our sins.  We are now in the season of Lent, which is a season that reminds us about our sins and our need for a savior as we look forward to God’s work of salvation that is proclaimed in the next season, the season of Easter.

Verse 18 reminds us that Christ was without sin.  Sin leads to death, but Christ was without sin, so why did he die?  He willingly chose to endure death so that he could “bring us home safely to God.”  

He died in the flesh, but was raised in the Spirit.  What that means is that he died to earthly life.  He lived an earthly life, but on the cross he died to it.  But when he rose, he did not just come back to an earthly life, but he was raised to eternal life.  And this is the foundation of our salvation:  The gracious, saving death of Christ.  And the assurance of our salvation is his resurrection to eternal life.  

When we put our trust in Christ, we participate in his death to earthly life, and with it, his death to sin, and we participate in his resurrection to eternal life.  The outward and visible sign of this inward and spiritual grace is the sacrament of baptism.  We die to one kind of life and rise again in a new kind of life, and that is represented by baptism.

Peter relates baptism back to the story of the flood in Genesis.  In the flood, only a few were saved on the ark through the water, and in the same way, we are saved through the water of our baptism.  Now it’s not that the water itself saves us, but rather the grace of God that is revealed through the water and made effective through the faith that is proclaimed in baptism.  

Peter is telling us that the flood was an Old Testament symbol of baptism, with a few obvious differences.  In biblical scholarship, this is known as a type and an antitype.  Those words literally refer to a seal, the kind of seal that would be used to make an impression in wax to seal an official document, and to the impression left by that seal.  The type is the seal, the antitype is the impression.  Together they make a whole.  

In the flood, the water represents judgment.  Only a few are saved, the rest die by the water.  But in baptism, the image is reversed.  Water now represents salvation.  And many are saved by the water, and of course by what it represents.  The power of baptism to save is not the act itself, but the decision of faith that stands behind the act. 

When we are baptized, we are saying yes to God and God’s covenant.  It is an appeal to God for acceptance based on the terms of the covenant, which is faith in Christ as Savior and submission to Christ as Lord.

Obviously, in the case of infant baptism, an infant can’t make that appeal knowingly.  So in the case of infant baptism, the full response to God’s covenant comes later in Confirmation.  The meaning of Confirmation is quite simply that we are confirming God’s covenant for ourselves and claiming it as our own.

And what Christ has done, no one can undo.  As verse 22 says, he is in heaven, in the place of honor and authority, at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  In that place, all angels and spiritual powers bow before him.  

This leads me to think that maybe that third interpretation of verses 19-20, the one where Christ proclaims victory over the fallen angels, is the best choice of the three.  Christ is victorious over all spiritual powers.  As much as Satan might want to lead us away from God, he cannot take us away from the salvation of Jesus Christ.  We can turn our backs on Christ and choose to reject him, but we cannot be taken away.  What Christ has done, no one can undo, which is a sentiment that we hear proclaimed in Romans chapter 8, a favorite of many Christians: If God is for us, who can be against us?  

Even as we lament our sin in this season of Lent, even as we lament our choices that made it necessary for Christ to endure the cross, we still remember that sin and death no longer have dominion over our world because of Christ.  And if we participate in his covenant by faith, they have no dominion over us.  If we are in Christ, then we are free from the power of sin and death.

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