Christ-Centered Suffering (I Peter 3:13-22)
Passage: 1 Peter 3:13–3:22
New Life in the Same Old Place
This morning God wants to speak to those of us who have ever suffered. Anyone here like that? He wants to speak to us about both how we look at our suffering, and how we live in our suffering. He wants to correct our course, he wants to encourage our hearts, and he wants to fill us with hope. Anyone interested in that? If you are turn with me to I Peter 3.
II. The Passage: "But in Your Hearts Honor Christ" (3:13-22)
Listen to what Peter writes here in 3:13-22:
13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil.
18 For 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, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 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. 21 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, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
Now, there is lot here, especially when one considers that we are dealing with a couple parts of this passage that are some of the most difficult verses in the Bible to interpret.
But the only we are going to make sense of what Peter is saying here, the only we are going to hear what God has for us this morning is by being very careful to hold on tightly to Peter’s overall message in this section and in this book.
A. Establishing the Problem: Suffering as a Christian (3:13, 14, 17, 20)
What we first need to do is think about the readers’ circumstances, the issues in their lives that Peter is addressing here.
I believe verses 13, 14, 17, and 20 all make it clear that the issue Peter wants to address, in terms of their circumstances, is the fact that they are suffering; they are suffering because of their faith in Christ. Verse 15 makes it clear these believers were being questioned. According to verse 16, they were being slandered and reviled because of their faith.
And when in verses 19 and 20, Peter takes his readers back to the days of Noah, I believe he is doing this to show the parallels between his readers and Noah and his family. The righteous before the flood were “few” (v. 20), and they lived in an age of disobedience, even as God waited patiently, enduring those who did not obey.
Remember, the whole theme of this book is built around the concept of Peter’s audience, his readers being “spiritual exiles or aliens” in this world because they have been born again in Jesus. The have become exiles in the land of their birth. They have become aliens without even leaving their homes, because they are no longer living according to the system of this world. Therefore, like Noah, they are a minority seeking to honor God in a age of disobedience, while God waits patiently.
Have you ever suffered as a spiritual stranger? Have you ever been alienated because you are an alien for Christ? Anyone who is follower of Jesus, anyone who responds to the call of the cross, to lose their life in order to save it, to deny themselves and follow Jesus, will suffer in this world. It may come from a family member or a neighbor or coworker or an employer or a spouse, or even a someone at church.
Some of us have been or will be slandered because of our faith. Some of us have been or will be rejected because we want to be righteous. Some of us have been or will be rebuked because we are lovingly standing for God’s truth. We might be looked at like we have two heads. We might be passed over for a promotion. Our gentle encouragements might be labeled as “preachy”. And some in this country, but many in other lands, will be beaten, and threatened, and even killed because they are living for Jesus.
In so many ways, some explicit, some subtle, there is always friction when one is living out new life in the same old place we call ‘the world’.
I think this passage even speaks to those who suffer more generally. If you are not suffering as a result of your sinful choices, then while you may not be able to directly connect your suffering to the fact that you are a follower of Christ, you are still suffering as a follower of Christ. It may be suffering related to your relationships. It may be financial. It may be related to the trials of the past, or challenges in the present, or uncertainty about the future.
No matter how you’re suffering, God has something to say to you this morning through Peter. So what can Peter say to his readers in the face of such difficult circumstances?
B. Establishing the Perspective: Honoring Christ as Holy (3:18, 20-22)
Look again at verses 14 and 15…But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy…
Did you see Peter’s main encouragement here? Here’s what he says to these people who are being slandered, reviled, and threatened: “Get even!” No. “Just ignore them.” No. “Tone it down.” No. “Take a survey and find out what people would be comfortable with.” No. “Give up”. No. This is what he says, “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy”. Really? That’s his advice? But what does that mean? Honor Christ as holy? Does this involve candles and chants? “Christ…is…holy” [chanted]. No, it’s much better than that.
First of all, it should come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading this letter from the beginning. As they wrestle with reality of suffering for their faith, Peter is pointing them back to the object of their faith.
Remember what he told them in chapter 1: In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
And he went on in chapter 2 to encourage slaves who were dealing with harsh masters. Peter writes: But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
Peter is once again, here is 3:13-22, he is once again directing the eyes of their heart to Jesus Christ. Verse 15: but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy…
I want to show you how significant this is by asking you turn with me to Isaiah 8. Take a look at verses 11-13.
11 For the LORD spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: 12 “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. 13 But the LORD of hosts, him you shall regard as holy… (Isaiah 8:11-13)
Sound familiar? Peter is using the language of Isaiah 8 to encourage his readers here as they are tempted to be, like ancient Judah, fearful in the face of outside opposition. But instead of saying “the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy”, Peter writes, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.” Is that astounding? Well, it all makes sense because Jesus is God in human flesh.
But what does it mean to honor Christ as holy? And how does that help us as we are facing difficult times? Well in the context here, the contrast is between fearing our opponents and honoring Christ as holy, or setting Christ apart, or revering Christ, or sanctifying Christ.
The question Peter is really asking here is this: “From whom are you taking your cues? Who’s setting the agenda here? Who’s in charge?” If we are looking first to some supposed authority or power that our opponent has, or that our circumstances have, we will respond with fear.
But if we are looking first to Jesus, then we will be strengthened in faith. But what does it mean to look to Jesus? It means living our lives in the reality of who He is and what He’s done for us.
And look at how Peter goes on throughout the rest of this section to tell us why we should honor Christ as holy, and how that should inform our response to suffering. What is Christ-centered suffering?
1. In light of His righteous and redemptive suffering (3:18a)
First of all, we honor Christ the Lord as holy in light of his righteous and redemptive suffering. Look at the first half of verse 18:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…
Let’s remember the context here. Verse 17: For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil. That’s what Jesus did, isn’t it? He suffered for doing good according to the will, the plan of God.
And he suffered as one who was not striving to be righteous. He suffered as one who is righteous…perfectly righteous.
But is suffering was purposeful. He suffered “for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” Notice the pronoun there: “us”. Jesus suffered in order to reconcile us to God as those who were unrighteous, as those who did not obey God.
So if Peter wants his readers to take their cues from Jesus and not their opponents, then they need to be encouraged that there suffering can also be righteous and redemptive. Remember 2:12: Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Our prayer is that as we suffer we will shine, so that God will use our faith to give our opponent faith. This is righteous and redemptive suffering.
2. In light of His spectacular and spiritual transformation (3:18b)
The second thing Peter shows his readers here is that we should honor Christ the Lord as holy in light of His spectacular and spiritual transformation. Listen again to verse 18 in its entirety.
For 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…
As they wrestled with their own suffering, Peter’s audience had to remember that Jesus suffered to the point of death. Yes, He was slandered and reviled. But ultimately, he was put to death in the flesh, as verse 18 reminds us.
But even death could not stop the power of God. Even though Jesus was put to death in the flesh” on that Roman cross, he was afterwards, “made alive in the Spirit”. This is not referring to his human spirit, because our spirits do not die when the body dies, therefore, they do not have to be “made alive”. What this means is that Jesus was resurrected with a new, transformed, spiritual body, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
When we suffer in this life, we need to remember that there is a transformation awaiting us, if we have trusted in Jesus as our only hope. As Paul described in I Corinthians 15: Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (v. 49) One day we also will be made alive in the spiritual realm, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our bodies will be raised up with Christ and transformed. What a great encouragement as we suffer in this flesh. One day, it will all be different.
As the Apostle John put it: but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (I John 3:2)
3. In light of His proven and powerful salvation (3:20, 21)
But if we skip down to verses 20 and 21, we also find a third way in which Peter is directing his readers to Jesus. We should honor Christ the Lord as holy in light of His proven and powerful salvation.
This is only complimenting and expanding on the last point. When we suffer, no matter how difficult our circumstances seem, no matter how strong our opposition appears, no matter how the cards seemed to be stacked, God will ultimately rescue us.
And the way he explains this is by taking his readers back to the days of Noah. Jesus talked about these last days being like the days of Noah in Matthew 24 and Luke 17. Peter will go on in his next letter to talk about how God “did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly” (II Peter 2:5)
This is similar to what he describes in verses 20 and 21. For Peter’s first readers, they needed to know that, even though the suffered now, that suffering could never separate them from God’s purposes. God’s salvation is proven and powerful.
One day, God’s judgment will come, just as it did when God flooded the earth. But Peter’s audience needed to be encouraged that they would be rescued from this judgment, just as Noah and His family were rescued through the ark.
And that’s the parallel Peter draws here. When you honor Christ the Lord as holy in the midst of your suffering, you must remember that the resurrection of Jesus Christ give you newness of life. Peter tells us here that baptism is what “corresponds to this”, to this salvation through water.
Even through we are immersed in the water of judgment, we die with Christ, we are raised up and preserved because of Christ’s resurrection.
As Peter makes clear in verse 21, he’s not talking about the actual water that removes dirt from the body. He’s talking about that ritual as an expression of faith. We appeal to God for a good conscience when seek His forgiveness through Christ. Baptism is a tangible act that we have done that very thing. And as Peter tells us here, it should be a reminder to us that we will be rescued through the resurrection of Jesus.
Death could not hold him. And our suffering will not hold us, if we are in Jesus by faith.
4. In light of His absolute and authoritative position (3:22)
Finally, look again at verse 22. Peter tells that we should honor Christ the Lord as holy in light of his absolute and authoritative position. Peter points them to Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
Even though we feel burdened, Jesus is at the right hand of God. Even though we feel attacked, Jesus is at the right hand of God. Even though we feel overwhelmed, Jesus is at the right hand of God. Even though we feel like we can’t go in the face of such suffering, Jesus is at the right hand of God.
When we feel like our circumstances are too powerful, we need to remember that “angels, authorities, and power [have] been subjected to him.” They are under His feet. And we belong to Him.
But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy…brothers and sisters, friends, take your cues from Jesus, in light of who He is and what he’s done.
III. Suffering but Shining
And when we do this, as we do this, our practice will change right along with our perspective. So what is the result when one honors Christ like this in the midst of suffering? Let me see if I can sum it up like this:
When our hearts are set on the reality of our incomparable Jesus, we will have hope in our suffering, and will be ready to reach out fearlessly for Christ, in both word and deed.
Let me show you how I put this statement together. First, verse 14 reminds us that we do not need to fear those who stand against us or the circumstances that seem overwhelming. We can be fearless in regard to such things. And verse 15 speaks about the hope that is in us because of Christ. How could we not be hopeful in light of everything we’ve seen about Jesus and His deliverance?
And if we are looking to our Lord in this way, we should be eager to live for our Lord.
It appears, based on Peter’s qualifications here, that at least some in these churches were actually suffering because they were doing stupid things.
They were probably acting arrogantly toward those who questioned them. They were probably being judgmental in the face of criticism. They were probably (see verse 9 above) reviling right back when they were reviled.
This is why Peter encourages them to be “zealous for what is good” in verse 13. He mentions their “good behavior” in verse 16 and “doing good” in verse 17. This is why he reminds them about the importance of having a “good conscience” in verses 16 and 21.
And right from the outset, Peter reminds them in verse 13 that in most cases, in most places, doing the right thing will cultivate goodwill not opposition. Not always, but quite often. Suffering should not hinder our eagerness to obey. It should strengthen it. Suffering should not keep our focus on ourselves, it should cause us to look for opportunities to do good for others.
This is why in verse 15, Peter calls them to be prepared to share about their hope when questioned or accused. Notice the instruction here is not “make a defense”. It is “be prepared to make a defense”. Are you prepared? If you are filled up with the vision of Jesus Christ that Peter has given us here, how could that not overflow through our mouth when someone asks us about our hope?
As you take time to think about Christ the Lord as holy, also think about how you would tell others about Him when they see that hope in you. Preparation is not unspiritual.
The whole point I think Peter wants us to see here is that opposition should not keep us from loving our opponents; suffering circumstances should not keep us from opportunities for service. That’s why we speak, and why we speak with “gentleness and respect” (v. 15) We are to be set apart, but shining. We are spiritual exiles (ch 1), but also spiritual priests (ch 2). That is Christ-centered suffering.
Now, you may have notice that I did not talk about 3:19. I did this deliberately, because oftentimes, this cryptic verse can dominate the interpretation of this passage. I think it’s enough for me to tell you that “the spirits in prison” mentioned in 3:19 are either the people who did not obey in Noah’s time (who are “now” spirits in prison), that is, the Spirit of Christ spoke through Noah, or, these are evil spirits, the powers that worked in Noah’s opponents. In this case, Christ’s message to them would have been an announcement of victory.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter in terms of the overall message. This one verse either illustrates God’s desire to reach out with a message of hope in an age of disobedience, a message that may be scorned, or this verse reminds us of Christ’s ultimate victory over those forces that oppress the righteous. Either way you look at it, both of these points are made in other places in the letter, and don’t affect the overall call to face our suffering with eyes fixed on Christ the Lord as holy.
And when our hearts are set on the reality of our incomparable Jesus, we will have hope in our suffering, and will be ready to reach out fearlessly for Christ, in both word and deed. (x2)
It’s all possible because Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. He redeemed us by His suffering to that our suffering might be redeemed, in order that others might be redeemed through His life in ours.