RPM, Volume 20, Number 21, May 20 to May 26, 2018

Christ's Salve for Suffering Saints:
Noah, Baptism, and Triumph
in 1 Peter 3:18-22

A Sermon on the
Epistle Lectionary Reading for Today

By Michael Anthony Milton, PhD, MPA

President, The D. James Kennedy Institute of Reformed Leadership The James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism, Erskine Theological Seminary Due West, South Carolina

Today I am going to address the power of baptism. We do not have occasion for a baptism this morning. Moreover, I am not preaching through a series on, for example, the Sacraments of the Church (though baptism is one of the two enduring signs and seals of God's grace, given in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Christ and continues throughout all time). Indeed, I am preaching on the power of baptism because I am moving through the Epistles for this time in the life of our church. And the selected Epistle reading that much of the Church, around the world, is using, this Lord's Day, is 1 Peter 3:18-22. I have found in my pastoral and preaching ministry that it is often spiritually advantageous to preach on a matter that is unconnected to any broader theme. Thus, the text must stand on its own in our minds. We are not preaching baptism, for instance, because today is "baptism Sunday," or "Worldwide Baptism Day." I am neither against such thematic preaching (nor am I advocating it). Rather, I am stating a fact of the matter: isolating a text and preaching it, quite apart from any other connections, can (and I say, "can" with emphasis upon using such an opportunity) allow for more focused attention on the meaning of the text.

Our text today is 1 Peter 3:18-20. It contains some of the most pastorally essential truths set within some of the difficult passages to interpret. But, if we are prayerfully patient and spiritually awake, I believe that we are in for a remarkable blessing from God.

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, 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. 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 3:18-22 English Standard Version of the Holy Bible).

Into the Text and its Meaning for Today

Don't count on the culture of this present evil age to "stand up, stand up for Jesus." They are more likely to tell Christians to "sit down and be quiet." And that would be a nice reaction. A culture created through the base desires of this present evil age can never be counted on to stand up for Christ or His people. Such an observation is not a martyr's syndrome. Our antagonistic society is merely a fact of history.

Recently, the Winter Olympics held in South Korea became a veritable world stage for the twisted but efficient propaganda advancing the corrupt and bloody North Korean regime. Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the sinister dictator, Kim Jong Un, a co-conspirator in unprecedented brutality, became the darling of the press as she caught the cameras of Western media. Who would turn the investigative light of the journalists upon the plight of suffering saints in this country; a country where its capital city was once called "the Jerusalem of Asia?" The answer is regrettably this: Persecution of believers doesn't sell papers or get the best ratings.

But God knows. God knows their suffering. God knows the plight of Christians in Egypt, in Iran, in China, and in similar hostile nations around the world and throughout history. God knows. And God knows the increasingly untenable cultural assault on the Word of God, the Christ of Scriptures, and those who follow Jesus as Lord. And what of your struggles and your suffering for the Lord? Perhaps, in your own family? Perhaps, at your job? Perhaps, even a battle in your heart? God knows. And God has a Word from Another World for you and me. That Word, today, comes from 1 Peter 3:18-22.

Peter wrote his epistle to the "elect exiles" in Asia Minor. These "resident aliens" were undergoing sufferings, which was but a prelude to a season of persecution that they, likely, could never anticipate. 1 "How shall we live in such times?" 2 Peter answers that question. Trust in the Word of God preached to you (1:10-12). Fulfill your calling as "obedient children" (1:14). Remember your identity as a "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession …" (2:9). Submit to the authorities, whether civil or familial, without disobeying God and thus suffer for what is right, not what is wrong (2:13-3:17). And identify your suffering with Christ who is our vindication in persecution. The ruling motif of the Gospel is that the One who suffered and died also rose again and ascended into heaven. So, too, live your life in the confident hope of the Gospel. Peter "drills deeper" on that theme. He expertly weaves together the evil of the days before Noah, the Flood itself, those eight souls who were saved, with the Christian sacrament of baptism, to remind every exile of their heart-home and their heroic journey there. The Sacrament of Baptism is used by Peter to minister to persecuted and suffering saints in the churches of Asia Minor. The Sacrament became a living testimony to a sure hope.

Despite the enigmatic "problem passage" about Jesus preaching to the "spirits in prison," (3:19), the message of the Apostle Peter is both pastoral and plain: we are vindicated in our suffering through Jesus who has conquered suffering and death. Persecution does not make suffering holy in and of itself. Nor do God's promises guarantee "your best life now." Nothing precludes the Lord's miraculous intervention. God's teaching in this passage does, however, indicate that the persecution and suffering of Christians not only have meaning, but it also has a visceral faith-strengthening remedy for the shattered spirit. The ruling motif of the Gospel, of Jesus' death and resurrection, is, now, existentially connected to the suffering of His People. This is Good News for our brothers and sisters in North Korea. It is Good News for believers in secular-saturate European Union. It is good news for you and me. Indeed, for us, 1 Peter 3:18-22 means this:

In Jesus, our Redeemer, the destructive power of the floodwaters in Noah's time, is transformed to the healing waters of baptism in our time.

How so? This extraordinary passage provides at least three soul-healing insights into Peter's usage of baptism to illustrate perseverance and ultimate vindication.

The first two verses of our passage provide the first healing insight:

Baptism's power is confirmed in God's activity in history (vv. 18-20).

It is crucial for us to remember the broader context of this passage. Peter is writing to these exiles from the diaspora, believers from Jerusalem, as well as believers from throughout the Empire. The general context of this passage is about suffering. The immediate context is related to the apostle Peter's gift of theological reflection and spirit directed critical thinking. Peter wants them to see that their affliction has meaning in Jesus Christ. Another reason I bring up this morning to be careful about context is that we have one of the most difficult passages in Scripture before us. If it is not the most difficult, it is undoubtedly one of the most contested. Men of goodwill disagree, but evangelical scholars of goodwill might not talk to each other! No. I am facetious. Verse 19-20 is a challenging passage to interpret. So, we do well to give attention to the more popular views on Peter's phrasing. I feel sure that if you heard the entire lection read publically, your mind would have been arrested by this language: "In which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison" (verse 19). 3

We read that our Lord Jesus "Christ 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." Then, Peter introduces this statement about spirits in prison. Verse 20 continues with Peter's line of thought. Peter tells us that these are the spirits that "formally 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 the water." So, whatever your view of that one passage is, you have a sacred obligation. You must compare your position of that isolated phrase with Peter's full teaching: on the destruction of unbelievers in Noah's day, despite God's patience in waiting for them to repent, the salvation of eight souls—Noah and his family—and how they were brought safely through the flood. The waters that destroyed the others lifted them and carried their Ark to ultimate safety.

There are three significant positions and then variations on the themes. The first position taken is that Jesus went into the realm of the dead, that is, hell, and preached two the rebellious spirits who did not listen to know was righteous preaching and who perished in their sins. Again, there are variations on each theme. One of the varieties of opinions would be that Jesus preached the truth of his resurrection; thus, His messianic identity and those spirits in prison heard and were saved. Others reject this view as being on the edge of the heresy of universalism. The second-chance sermon is an unknown message in all the Bible. And how does this make sense with the rest of Peter's teaching? Christ's salve applied to the souls of suffering saints remains the central theme. Introducing an idea about going to Hell during the death and the resurrection to preach to them seems untenable to many of us. A second popular interpretation is that Jesus Christ descended into Hell and proclaimed the gospel to the fallen angels. This position takes "spirits" ("pneumata") in verse 19 to mean "fallen angels," that is, demons. This view depends upon a Jewish understanding of the realms of heaven and hell at the time and necessarily assumes that the readers were familiar with the Book of Enoch, one of the pseudepigrapha. Should we expect Peter to assume that his broad readership knows the facts about the Book of Enoch? This interpretation, also, seems tilted towards Judaic scholars who spent their own lives studying such things. It seems a bridge too far for the rest of us. The third view is an Augustinian view and one that was held by many of the Reformers. This interpretation of 1 Peter 3:19-20 asserts that the problematic phrase about Christ's preaching to the "spirits in prison" must be connected to the immediate contextual theme of Noah' preaching. Thus, as Wayne Grudem unpacks it:

"In the spiritual realm of existence Christ went and preached through Noah to those who are now spirits in the prison of hell. This happened when they formerly disobeyed when the patience of God was waiting in the days of Noah while the ark was being built." 4

I find this paraphrase by Dr. Wayne Gruden (of Phoenix Theological Seminary) to be most fitting for the rest of the passage as well as following the rule of interpreting the harder comparing it to the easier, the cloudy by the clear. Thus, Peter is saying that just as Jesus Christ, the eternal Second Person of the Trinity, preached the gospel, in His spirit, through Noah, to those unrepentant who were lost. Noah and his family were saved. So, also, in Christ Jesus, we may be kept secure through the floodwaters of persecution. However, Peter does a paradoxical twist: he shows us the gospel truth that the floodwaters which destroyed the earth but which saved Noah are like unto baptism, the sign (the visible expressing the invisible), and seal (the authoritative stamp) of God's grace that saves us. So, God has acted in history to demonstrate that the baptismal engrafting into his kingdom is a sign of salvation that is already at work in the world. Even amid our suffering we may identify ourselves with Christ through our baptism. Our baptism it is a beautiful sacrament that continues the command of God to separate ourselves out from the world by a sign, no longer the sign of circumcision of the flesh, but a sign of the circumcision of the spirit, which is baptism. Another something else we must see in this passage about the power of baptism:

Baptism's power is connected to God's purposes today (vv. 19-21)

Peter writes the resident aliens of Asia Minor to encourage them in their suffering. And so, the Apostle Peter applies the truth of baptism for today. He says,

"Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of direct the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ …" (21).

Once again, we have a passage that could potentially be problematic. The first part of Peter's statement says "baptism, which corresponds to this [meaning the salvation of Moses and his family out of the floodwaters by the God-provided Ark], now saves you …" We must have a full reading of the text within the context. Peter is not saying that the ceremony or the rite of baptism saves a person's soul. He is saying that baptism signifies, in a glorious way, the activity of God in the world today. Neither is baptism something that is of secondary importance. We are to go to the work and baptize. Baptism is not our sign, but God's sign to us, just as the Old Covenant sign was. This is His sign that He has rescued us out of the flood waters of judgment through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The import of this for these persecuted believers was to see that even death could not overturn the Ark of their salvation.

Today, my beloved, let the knowledge and assurance of God's activity in your life preserve your heart and mind unto peace. You may be experiencing enormous anxiety, inconceivable pressure, and some reading this may even be facing death. But if you are in Christ's, if you are identified with Him, then, by the Word of God, you are safe forever. That is the power of baptism. It is the saving, preserving testimony of God to you! You may be going through trials, but you must remember that you are secure within the Covenantal waters of God, a flood that destroyed the unrepentant but saves you.

And this is what we want to say explicitly and finally:

Baptism's power is conveyed through God's Redeemer forever (vv. 19-21)

Peter ties all of this together by demonstrating that baptism's sign of salvation is ultimately and finally sealed by Christ who is at the right hand of God. Peter is saying that Jesus is with us no matter how desperate our circumstance may be.

I remember a dear lady that I visited in a chemotherapy ward of a hospital. One of my parishioners was an oncologist and wanted me to meet this precious lady. There she was, the IV in her arm, delivering the hoped-for remedy for cancer that was devastating her body and almost certainly taking her life. As I came by and her doctor introduced me as his pastor, she began to smile from ear to ear. "Why, I must tell you, Pastor: your parishioner here is just one of the finest men I have ever met." My friend, the oncologist, was a little embarrassed. I quickly agreed with the lady in the faux-leather, chemo-recliner. She had taken my hand, but now, readjusted herself in the chair. She spoke again, with cheerful weakness. "Yes sir, this fine doctor is such a blessing. In fact, Pastor, my cancer has been one of the greatest blessings in all my life." I blinked. "Now, I may not beat this cancer, but God has already beat it. He has blessed it! He has used it to glorify Himself and bring such tremendous spiritual blessings to me. It was through this experience, and through the testimony of your flock, that I came to rededicate my life to the Lord. I live for Him, and I will die for Him. What a blessing! Pastor, tell me: how are you doing today?" I looked down, trying to locate the right response, but there wasn't anything to say. I smiled but figured I was not worthy to respond to this angel on chemo. At that point, I knew why my friend, the oncologist, wanted me to take time to go with him in the chemotherapy ward that day. He wanted me to see the power of the baptism of the Holy Spirit on the life of this woman. It was vindication to him: he would do his all, use all his learning and all the technology and medical break-through at his disposal to seek to save her physical life. But if it did not avail, the flood would not destroy her soul. The tide would only transport the ship of her soul to glory. His Spirit was doing a miracle that no drug could do: Christ was giving hope for a new life.

And that is what Peter wanted for those "elect exiles." And that is what God wants for you. Your suffering is vindicated in the victory of Jesus over death. Your anguished soul is now soothed by the presence of the resurrected and ascended Savior in heaven, making intercession for you this very moment.

My dear friend, do you believe He is able? Do you believe He is desiring? Do you believe? This is not a case of faith seeking to understand. This is faith sprinkled with the holy water of a river running through the midst of heaven's valleys.

"… with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to Him" (v. 22). The things that would hurt us are now subjected to the ruling motif of the Gospel: that which is intended to kill is used to bring life. That which seeks shame brings honor. That which seeks to drown us, allows us to float to eternal safety. Saint Peter was applying that salve to the saints then. The Holy Spirit is applying that Gospel salve to you today.

The Protector of our Souls

We have noted the power of baptism that is used by Peter to speak of the believer's triumph amid suffering. It is through baptism's power: a profound, enduring, spiritual energy that is confirmed in God's activity, connected to God's purposes, and conveyed, by saving faith, in God's Redeemer.

So, now, we are stunned by another school shooting. Mass murder in suburban, upper-middle income schools seems always to be the next "Fox News Alert." One child connected to our family was there (I suspect that some of you had some degree of connection, too; the nation is smaller than we think). The little girl hid in a closet as the maniacal murderer went about his gruesome work. We are now hearing the inevitable stories of heroism and bravery: like the coach who took the bullets to save his students. Then, there was, also, the Junior ROTC boys who fashioned a bunker out of desks, boxes, and Kevlar mesh, to protect their fellow students and, then, found primitive weapons to defend their charge. During incredible suffering, there are always stories of courage and stories of grace.

During our own inevitable suffering, there is one narrative over all others: the story of Jesus Christ protecting His own "students." Our glorious Warrior from Eternity has barricaded our souls against the onslaught of evil by His blood and His righteousness so that no devil may reach us. He has fashioned a crude instrument, a Roman cross created for execution, to be used as a weapon that has destroyed the ultimate ability of Satan to touch us.

Yes, we must never forget that while the rain falls on the just and unjust alike, the just—the justified through faith in Jesus Christ—are forever preserved in the Ark of our Salvation. And in true Gospel paradox, the waters that would drown us have become the covenantal rivers of grace that wash and cleanse us, and signify a new life that will never end.

Let this Good News of Jesus Christ wash over your wounded soul this day and make you well. May the flood be turned to holy water in your life. May your baptism unleash the power of ten thousand floods to guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus now and forever more.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.


"The Spirits in Prison: 1 Peter 3:18-20." The Old and New Testament Student 11, no. 6 (1890): 380-80. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3157484.

Granbery, John Cowper. "Christological Peculiarities in the First Epistle of Peter." The American Journal of Theology 14, no. 1 (1910): 62-81. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3154903.

Grudem, Wayne. 1 Peter. Vol. 17, 20 vols. The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, edited by Leon Morris. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2007.

Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon. Resident Aliens : A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know That Something Is Wrong. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989.

McKnight, Scot. 1 Peter. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1998.

Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live? : The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2005.


  1. I am thinking of the phrase and the thesis in one of the best modern volumes on Christianity and culture: Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know That Something Is Wrong (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989).
  2. See Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2005).
  3. But we must not allow a problem passage, a part, to obscure the message of the whole.
  4. Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, vol. 17, 20 vols., The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2007), 265.
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