Sermon Text: 1 Peter 3:18–22
Preacher: Pastor Brian Sauvé
Ok friends, we’re going to do some some precision theology today—some theology with some tight tolerances. I hope you’re ok with that. But lest we lose the glory in the midst of the exegesis, I’d like to set the stage this morning by thinking together about story.
Story is one of the places where the idea that human beings are nothing but advanced animals looks the most ludicrous. Humans are storytelling creatures, and this is one of those things that shows the yawning gap between animals and humans in God’s image.
It’s not just that there is a small gap—as if chimpanzees simply wrote worse stories than us, as if they wrote the Twilight series and us humans wrote The Lord of the Rings. Though that is quite a gap, it’s bigger than that. Humans tell stories; animals don’t.
Why is that? Because people, unlike animals, are made in the image of God—and God is a storytelling God. God is the arch-storyteller. And God’s stories aren’t confined to ink on pages; God’s stories leap into three-dimensional reality when he speaks. We are creatures embedded in one such story.
And fundamentally, that’s what the Bible is: the authorized version of the true story of the world, straight from the author. What on first glance appeared to be a collection of lots of stories turns out to be, on closer inspection, one, cohesive story.
What kind of story is this one story? There are lots of ways of answering this question: You could say the Bible is a story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration/re-creation. You could say the Bible is a story of bitter loss giving way to glorious victory.
But probably my favorite way of summing up the story of Scripture is that it is a King story. Like many of the best stories, the gospel, the Bible, is the story of a King.
That’s why humans are not just storytellers, but storytellers obsessed with king stories: King Odysseus regains Ithaca in The Odyssey, King Arthur at his round table, King Aragorn in Minas Tirith, High King Peter in Cair Paravel—humans tell stories because God is a storyteller; we tell stories of kings because God’s story is a King story.
We tell king stories because king stories are echoes of the story of the cosmos, the story of stories—a story we call the gospel, the good news of God’s work and God’s Kingdom. In our text this morning, 1 Peter 3:18–22, Peter let’s us look at this one story from four different angles.
1. He looks at the story of the gospel as the story of a King winning his Bride.
2. He looks at the story of the gospel as the story of a King glorying over his enemies.
3. He looks at the story of the gospel as the story of a King delivering and judging.
4. He looks at the story of the gospel as the story of a King reigning in triumph.
Now, this text—and you’ll see what I mean as we read it—is difficult. It has angular parts, confusing elements, and areas where there is definite disagreement among faithful commentators and theologians. And my plea to you this morning is not to miss the glory of the King and his gospel in the midst of that angularity and confusion. That said, lets read the text, pray, and get to work.
Number one, the story of the gospel is the story of a King winning his Bride.
The King Wins His Bride
The gospel is a story of a King who rescues his bride from death and through death, that he might be with her forever. Verse 18 puts it like this, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God...”
In that one verse, Peter gives us 4 elements in the plot of this story:
1. He tells us who the hero is: Christ, the King!
The reason, in fact, that I’m talking about Jesus with the label “King” this morning, is that word, Christ. Who is the Christ? What does that word mean?
To be the Christ is to be the Anointed Savior, the promised King of the Old Testament. Our English word “Christ” comes from the Greek Christos, which is the Greek word for the Hebrew Mashiach, from which we get our word Messiah.
The word literally derives from the idea of being an Anointed One. What does that mean? In the vernacular of the Old Testament, the most direct reference of an Anointed One is the King. As in 1 Samuel 10, Exodus 28, and elsewhere, we find that the Kings of Israel would be anointed with oil to show that they were anointed by God for kingship, for rule, to be led by the Spirit of God as they lead the people of God.
Using that picture, the prophets of the Old Testament promise an ultimate Anointed King, Messiah, the Savior, who would come and save his people by his own suffering and establish the unshakeable Kingdom of God, whose increase would know no end.
The Hero of the story of 1 Peter 3:18 is an Anointed King, the King of kings, coming to save in fulfillment of all of the ancient hopes of the Old Testament.
2. Peter tells us what the King did to save his Bride.
The King comes to suffer and die for his Bride. Peter tells us that he was “…put to death in the flesh.” He suffers death so that his Bride, facing death, could taste life. The King story of the gospel is therefore a story of vicarious, substitutionary suffering—a King who goes to the shameful cross of Roman execution to win his bride.
This story echoes through all of our king stories, doesn’t it? So Aragorn take the paths of the dead in order to save Minas Tirith in The Two Towers. So Beowulf dives into the underwater burial grounds to battle with death itself in Grendel’s mother. So a thousand kings in a thousand human stories lay their lives down for their people. The King dies to save her.
3. Peter tells us why she needed saving.
He suffered, why? For sins. Her sins. It wasn’t just suffering for her, in her place, to give her life where she was facing death. It was suffering the death that she deserved. It was the suffering of the righteous King for his unrighteous Bride.
We’re often very comfortable talking about Jesus coming to rescue us from our brokenness, to give us healing. We’re very comfortable talking about Jesus saving us. But we tend to like to leave that in the abstract: “Jesus died for me to save me.”
But what Peter forces us to do is to draw a straight line from the King suffering on the cross to our gossiping about our friends yesterday afternoon. To draw a straight line from the cross to the unforgiving bitterness we’re nurturing towards that person who wronged us. We don’t sin in the abstract; we sin in the concrete. We don’t sin in general; we sin in the specific.
The just had to die because we were unjust. The righteous had to die because we were unrighteous. There is no other way: Either he will die for our sins, or we will die for our sins. Either the King will be judged in our place, or we will be judged by the King.
4. Peter tells us why he saved her.
Why did the King die? To save his Bride, yes. To save her for what? He died to save the world, yes. But to save the world for what? And Peter answers, for himself.
He died to bring us to himself. Christ suffered, that he might bring us to God.
What this means is that you were made for God. Sin always wants to fashion some kind of god that is made for us—a god in our image and for our glory. But the true story behind every story, the story hiding behind every molecule and movement of the Universe is a God who makes a people in his own image and for himself.
What this means is that you can’t be satisfied with a god of your own making, in your own image. It’s impossible by design and by definition, because you were made for God. And what Jesus does is to bring us to God; to bring us back to God.
That’s the first angle of the gospel story that Peter gives us in this text. My favorite way of summarizing this way of telling the story is from Douglas Wilson, who says,
“Scripture tells us the story of how a Garden is transformed into a Garden City, but only after a dragon had turned that Garden into a howling wilderness, a haunt of owls and jackals, which lasted until an appointed warrior came to slay the dragon, giving up his life in the process, but with his blood effecting the transformation of the wilderness into the Garden City.”
But turn it over in your hand, and you can see the story from a whole different angle.
The King Glories Over His Enemies
The gospel is a story of a King who puts his enemies to open shame, glorying over them in his triumph. Look with me at verse 18 again (Read 18–20).
Maybe your first reaction is my first reaction to this verse. And my second reaction. And my third. “What on earth does that mean?” This is a tricky verse; everyone from Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin to MacArthur says so and reads it differently.
I honestly don’t have time to go into all three or four major theories about what Peter means, here. So I’m going to just state and defend what I think is going on.
In a sentence: When Jesus body was put to death, his Spirit, vibrantly alive—life itself—heralded his own victory over the demonic spirits imprisoned since the great flood. Or to put it differently, this passage is about Jesus gloating over his enemies after curb stomping them on the cross. Does that work?
In brief, the reason I believe this is what Peter is saying is fivefold:
1. Jesus said that he would be in paradise even on the very day of his crucifixion, not in Hell.
2. The word for “spirits” in the phrase “spirits in prison,” is only used once in the New Testament to refer to human spirits, but very often to refer to demonic spirits.
3. The popular idea that Jesus descended to hell to preach an offer of salvation to lost souls violates the clear statement of Hebrews 9:27, that is appointed once to die, then judgment.
4. The language Peter uses here corresponds very nicely with the language he uses in 2 Peter 2, where he talks about God’s judgment and imprisonment of fallen angels, also in context of Noah’s flood.
5. Contrary to the popular idea that here Peter refers to Jesus preaching the gospel to the Saints of the Old Testament, waiting for the work of the cross to free them, the word translated “preached” or “proclaimed” in verse 19 isn’t the word for preaching the gospel, but a word that bears the idea of victorious proclamation.
So bringing it all together, Peter is saying that, even as the demonic forces of darkness transpired to put Jesus on the cross, seeming to triumph over him, Jesus triumphed over them. They managed to have him put to death in the flesh, but through that very act, he was made alive in the Spirit. And in the Spirit, he gloated in his victory over them, proclaimed their destruction. The King triumphs over his enemies.
This is one of the great themes of the New Testament, that of the great victory of Christ on his cross over the Kingdom of Darkness and her demonic powers. This is a theme we see surrounding the cross over and over again. Colossians 2 says he put them to open shame. In 1 Corinthians 15, the saints gloat in song over that enemy, death, in its death throes, “Oh death, where is your sting? Where is your victory?”
This moment is what J.R.R. Tolkien termed eucatastrophe—a word he invented to describe the moment in all the best stories where you are pierced with intense joy as the Hero, who seemed to be crushed and through, triumphs.
The cross is the ultimate eucatastrophe, where Christ, the King triumphed over his enemies even as they gloried in his crushed heel. He snatched victory from their claws and crushed them under his bruised heel.
Continuing on the theme of Noah’s great flood, Peter gives us another angle on the King story.
The King Delivers & Judges
The gospel is a story of a King who rescues through the flood, cleansing his people even as he destroys their enemies. Look again at verse 20 (Read 20–21).
Once again, some angular parts, right? How does baptism save us? Haven’t we been saying for years that our baptism isn’t magic? That the water isn’t special? And again, we don’t have time to go deep in the weeds.
But to understand what’s going on, you need to understand what’s happening in Noah’s flood. Noah’s flood, recounted in the early chapters of the book of Genesis, is an example of something we see many times in Scripture, which is the theme of water judgment. Here’s the theme of water judgment: God deliverers his people through the waters even as he sends those waters to judge his enemies.
In Genesis 1, the Spirit of God hovers over the waters, creating Creation from water chaos and crowning it with man, his image on the land. But in Genesis 6, the world of man is so corrupt, so evil, that Moses records that the thoughts and intentions of the hearts of men was only evil all the time. And so God sent the flood to judge the world, cleanse it from the evil that covered his world.
But here’s the great gospel glory of the theme of water judgment in Scripture: God delivers his people through the waters of judgment. So God preserves Noah through the ark. See the pattern? God’s enemies, judged in the waters; God’s people delivered through the waters.
We see this pattern repeat in the Old Testament. In Exodus, wicked Pharaoh tries to be a god, commanding his own mini flood of judgment. He orders all the male Israelite babies to be drowned.
But God, who is just the most deliciously brilliant playwright, turns Pharaoh’s great flood on its head. First, he saves his people through the waters of Pharaoh’s flood. How? By having his faithful servant build an ark!
Seriously, when Moses’ mama builds a basket of reeds, Exodus calls it a tevah, which our English translates “a basket of reeds.” But in Hebrew, it is nothing less than the word God used to describe Noah’s boat: An Ark. Moses floats safely through Pharaoh’s imitation flood in a little ark.
But the irony doesn’t end there! No, when Moses grows up and leads his people to freedom from Pharaoh’s slavery, God again plays out the water judgment theme. This time, it’s at the Red Sea.
God parts the sea, and the people of God pass safely through. As Pharaoh’s army attempts to follow, God drowns them all in the waters of judgment. Do you see it? God delivers his people through the very water that he uses to judge his enemies.
Time fails to see the Jordan crossing and the Jonah story and the John the Baptist baptizing. What Peter wants you to see is that your baptism and my baptism is a sign of water judgment. It’s a recapitulation in miniature of the flood.
That’s why Peter can say unapologetically that “Baptism... now saves you.” He clarifies: “...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 from the dead.” It’s not the physical waters of baptism that saves, but the appeal of faith in the resurrected King, the identification with his death, burial, and resurrection in the waters of baptism.
Our baptism is a potent sign of our salvation and of the world’s judgment, just as the deluge of waters in Noah’s day was a potent sign of the world’s judgment and of Noah’s impending salvation through the very waters of judgment.
The King Reigns
The gospel is a story of a King coming into his Kingdom, a Kingdom that expands under his rule until every particle of the opposing kingdom, the kingdom of darkness, has been put to flight, subdued, and put under his feet. Verse 22,
“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 3:21–22
The King has saved his bride from death and through death.
The King has gloried in his victory over his demonic rivals.
The King has drowned his enemies in the waters of judgment, even as he saves his people through those same waters.
And now, the King has ascended to his throne to rule. Having conquered his enemies, the King rules his Kingdom from his heavenly throne, all lesser powers having been subjected to himself. This is one of the mega themes of the entirety of the Old and New Testament story of Mashiach, of the Anointed Savior-King.
“Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm!
God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted!
“The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.’
The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter.
Rule in the midst of your enemies!
“The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion,
to all generations.
Praise the LORD!
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
‘Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.’
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.”
“All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD,
and all your saints shall bless you!
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom
and tell of your power,
to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.”
“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
-1 Timothy 1:17
“To [Christ] be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
-1 Peter 5:11
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. And then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For "God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”
-1 Corinthians 15:22–27
The story of the cosmos is a King story, and it is glorious.
Let me leave you with four words of application in 30 seconds:
1. The King died, the just for the unjust, to bring you to God. Confess your sin and come to Christ, that he might bring you there. Accept no lesser substitute for the satisfaction of your soul than that for which your soul was formed: God himself.
2. Shout over your demonic enemies: Jesus triumphed over them and put them to open shame. Laugh with your King over the Kingdom of Darkness.
3. The King has judged his enemies through the very death and burial that they believed had crowned them with victory. Look to your baptism as a promise that God has cleansed your conscience in his blood, and a warning not to abandon your ark through the flood, lest the waters that bear you up in salvation sweep over you in judgment.
4. The King has ascended to his throne, where he is ruling all things for his glory and our good. Live, pray, rejoice, and love accordingly.
Pray as if the King is in Heaven, doing all that he pleases. Pray as if you have spiritual weapons to tear down strongholds. Pray as if you have a sword that cuts and flashes out to pierce hearts and slay dragons. Enjoy God’s gifts as if your King is smiling over you, a fountain of grace.
Look at suffering with immortal hope, as if your nothing can separate you from the love and mercy and sovereign hand of your good King—not sword, not famine, not nakedness. Not your sin. Not sin against you. Not persecution. Not anything.