It Is More Than Whistling a Happy Tune

I. How to respond when you suffer for doing good – 1 Peter 3:13-18 – The life of Christ had been filled with compassion and care for the outsiders of society and had often been highly critical of, even confrontive to, the formal religious culture of the day as well as its leaders. In both of these tasks, whether compassion or confrontation, he nevertheless went about doing good. He prefigured the fullness of the work of redemption and its outcome by his forgiveness and healing and he displaced error and highlighted truth through his teaching and correction. All he did was worthy of the deepest gratitude, yet he was hated and very early in his ministry the religious leaders began to plot against him [Luke 4:29; 6:11] Though “good” never deserves unthankfulness, or hostility, or punishment, in an upside down world such is often the response. So we see Christ’s followers being instructed as to how to respond to this puzzling phenomenon.

A. 13 – He poses the question, “Who is there to harm you if you are zealous for doing good?” recognizing that it really is counter to any morally rational context of reality. Zeal to do good should only bring the gratitude of others. This, however, is not a morally rational world, but is hostile to holiness, ridicules that which is truly good [that is, things done with a conscious purpose of giving glory to God], and persecutes the life that is lived as a consistent witness against the moral perversity of this fallen age.

B. 14 – Peter reminds us that blessing, objectively from God and subjectively in a joyful spirit, does not come when the world approves of us and gives us its fickle status, but comes from a pursuit of righteousness. This is true joy, to know what is righteous and pursue it. He is building off the concept of verse 11, that seeing “good days” means turning from evil and doing good. Jesus said “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Matthew 5:6

C. 14b, 15 – Peter says that hope drives out fear. “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” – The Christian need have no fear of those that trouble them on account of righteousness. Perhaps he is recalling Jesus’ word to the disciples when he knew the Pharisees were pressing to justify killing him [Luke 11:53], “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.” Christ knew that this was the inevitable end to which his earthly path led, yet knew that it was not to be feared. “Regard [Sanctify or set apart] Christ as Lord” – Thus, the Christian, being forewarned as well as having the path of opposition that leads to death already trod, is to recognize that Christ the Lord has gone before us in this journey. Peter employs God’s words to Isaiah in Isaiah 8:12, 13 as textual support for this admonition which says “Sanctify Jehovah of Hosts, let him be your dread, let him be your fear.” Clearly Peter identifies the situations as similar and points to Jesus as the Jehovah of Hosts that encouraged Isaiah to steadfastness throughout a ministry filled with immediate threat and opposition and impending dread. Isaiah had said that the Lord would become a “trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem” and many would stumble on it. Peter had seen the Lord both as a sanctuary and as rock of offense and was well-experienced in both and thus qualified to give encouragement. Recognizing the holiness of our Lord and the infinite worthiness of Him above all those that so brutally contradicted Him, threats hurled toward the Christian should cause no distress but give hope, for we know that the crucified Lord is victorious. His ways and message had been opposed even prior to the incarnation, and now are so opposed, but a triumph far greater than any can even imagine has been accomplished and will be manifest palpably in due time. Meanwhile, “Make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Should any recognize that the Christian does not quake at the intimidating tactics of the godless, and asks why they seem unconcerned about being under such disapproval from worldly power, they are to be ready with a clear message about the hope that is in Christ alone.

D. 16, 17 – In giving this answer, let there be no haughtiness, arrogance, or even a trace of a vengeful spirit. This is for two reasons, One, the Christian recognizes that his hope has come to him by grace alone and due to no merit of his own. He has no warrant to put himself forth with airs of superiority, but only with the spirit of mercy. Two, he must give no cause at all for the unbeliever to point to a spirit of disrespect for authority, but they must see only “good behavior in Christ.” They must see only “doing good.” Opponents must have no foundation at all in the personal deportment of Christians to justify their slander and their attempts at causing harm. Rather, when the story is fully told, there must be ground only for shame on their part. Thus he reiterates to them all what he said earlier to slaves [2:20] that suffering for doing good is a gracious thing, vastly superior to suffering for doing evil.

II.  Christ suffered the most for doing good, and in doing so He did the most good. 18-22 The major point of the context is clear and simple.  Christians should endure persecution patiently because in the end their triumph is secure through Christ. That is the distilled message of the entire section of 3:13-22.  A secondary idea in the text, but primary in the larger theology of the passage, also is clear.  Jesus Christ has suffered, not for his own sins but for the sins of others for the purpose of bringing them to God. That suffering directly produces salvation. 

A. The leading idea that governs the meaning of this densely complex text is quite clear and at the center of the biblical gospel [18a]. It is set both in continuity and in contrast to our suffering for doing good. This is a revisiting of the example pointed to in 2:21-24, that is, that Christ suffered at the hands of the wicked while doing nothing but good. Also his suffering was much deeper than an affliction from the unjust of this world, it was actually in substitution for all the suffering that we have legitimately brought on ourselves by our wickedness. This was a once-for-all suffering that fully propitiated the divine wrath against sin. Notice the text does not say that he died as a just man at the hands of the unjust people of the world, but that he died the just for the unjust, he was their substitute in death. The result of this death was primarily that all obstacles to our fellowship with God were removed. The sentence of death and wrath hung over us, but Christ’s death brings us to God.

B. 18b – In my opinion, Peter has prepared us by many previous ideas to understand this thickly distilled passage. Here he states that Christ was put to death in his human nature, “the flesh” for it is in the human nature that reconciliation must be made, that propitiation must be fully consummated. Having accomplished that by his obedience, he is made alive [literally “in” or “by the spirit”]. He was not made alive in his spirit, either the human spirit or his spiritual glory as the eternal Son of God, for no coming alive of such was necessary, but the reference must be to his resurrection by the Holy Spirit [1:3, 1:21.] Peter emphasizes the work of the Spirit in bringing to full effect God’s eternal plan of salvation for the elect [1:2] and that he does it as a seal upon what Christ has accomplished. Look at 1:3 (“born again through the resurrection of Jesus . . .”), 1:11, 12 (Spirit of Christ . . . predicted the sufferings . . .”) (preached the good news by the Holy Spirit). See also the argument in 1:18-25 where we see the contrast between perishable gold and the Precious blood of Christ followed by a picture of the new birth not from “perishable seed,” that is, an introduction into the kingdom by merely human means, but from seed “imperishable,” that is, the Holy Spirit accomplishing this through the word of God (in the same way that the Spirit was connected with the preaching of the prophets and the preaching of the apostles). Even as in the flesh Christ, by the Eternal Spirit, offered himself to God without blemish [Hebrews 9:14], so, by the Spirit he is raised from the dead that he might bring to God those children that God has given him and put under his feet all those that have opposed this infinitely excellent execution of a perfectly contrived redemption, before the incarnation, during the incarnation, and now subsequent to the labors that Christ did during the time of his flesh on earth.

C. 19 – Now raised by the Spirit and glorified and energized by the Spirit in the incorruption and glory of his resurrection, he goes to make a proclamation to these opposing spirits. These are damned consciousnesses [2 Peter 2:4, Jude 6, Revelation 20:7] held under a judgment filled with misery and eternal loss, and the appearance of the glorified Christ in the full display of his unstinted possession of the Holy Spirit’s blessing and power, will be something of a seal upon them of the utter justness of their condemnation in opposing the message of a redeemer. This proclamation does not occur between his death and resurrection but by the Spirit at the time of his ascension when he leaves the gazing disciples as they are wondering if he will at this time restore the kingdom to Israel. He does in fact go immediately to those that oppose his reign with full evidence of his victory over them.

D. 20 – As an example of a peculiarly egregious manifestation of this opposition, Peter uses the people during the time of Noah. For one hundred years, the Spirit of Christ preached through Noah [cf. 1:11] with warnings and calls to repentance but he was not heard. The days of Noah are used as typical of the arrogant detached sinfulness of the world that refuses a call to repentance and merely continues life as an undisturbed pursuit of temporal pleasures and comforts, when eternal wrath is pressing to break out and consume all the adversaries of a Holy God [See Matthew 27:36-44 where the time of Noah is seen as indicative as to how unconcerned the world will be right up until the coming of Christ in that day of glory and judgment]. Peter could have used the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (which he does in 2 Peter 2:6ff), or the Egyptians during Israel’s captivity (as Paul does in Romans 9:14-18) or the false prophets during the time of Jeremiah, but he used the time of Noah because they were granted such a long time to respond in repentance under the power of such a severe threat of judgment that would involve the entire earth. Now, the Spirit of Christ proclaims to these imprisoned spirits of all times and places through Christ Himself, no longer emptied but glorified and given the name that is above every name, in preparation for that great day of universal confession of His Lordship.  Again, these spirits are so appropriately selected as indicative of human hardness and resistance, as well as the violent and rebellious irrationality of the opposition of the fallen angelic spirits, in that the ark of rescue was being prepared before their very eyes, “In which a few, that is, eight persons,  were brought safely through water.”

E.  21a – The saving work of Christ as an encouragement for perseverance must be borne in mind when we look at the waters of the flood that saved the eight and the antitype of baptism that now saves us.  Judgment and wrath for one is salvation for another.  The flood killed all other inhabitants but bore up Noah and his family away from all those that were condemned to die.  The death of Christ, his baptism of wrath [Mark 10:38-40], brought judgment upon him and showed the certainty of judgment for all who remain in sin, but bears up and away from condemnation those for whose sins he has died. One that submits to baptism, submits in heart and soul to the message that the symbol brings. Christ bore our sins in his own body on the tree. I bring no righteousness of my own and no excuses for my sin, but confess that his death under divine wrath was justly mine, and I therefore willfully and joyfully unite with his judgment of wrath that his resurrection in glory will be mine also. Peter goes on to explain

F.  21b – The text says that Baptism does not remove the moral filth connected with the flesh. The term flesh is not strictly isolated to the body but refers to the entire life that is lived through the means of the body. Peter and Paul both use it to refer to affections of both body and mind that oppose the holiness of God and continue to work in opposition to the Spirit even in the regenerate. E.g. see 2:11 in this epistle and Roman 8:4-13. and Galatians 5:16-26. Baptism as such does not remove the moral pollutions of our fleshly propensities. That is an operation of the divine Spirit. Rather, baptism affirms that we know that God has dropped his charges of condemnation against us because of Christ.  Baptism represents the confident reliance upon the judgment that Christ took for us, which judgment becomes our salvation.  Baptism itself is not the removal of the damnable filth, but is an expression that one believes that only the propitiatory death of Christ saves.  We also affirm our confidence that only the resurrection of Christ seals this transaction.  His death satisfied all the demands of God’s law so, as Peter preached at Pentecost, death had no legitimate claim on its victim.  The resurrection (“through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”) warrants the pledge, the affirmation after inquiry, of a good conscience unto God. “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14) In baptism we give a pledge of a purified conscience, based solely on trust in the full and free redemption of Christ. As a clear symbol of the saving reality, baptism stands as a perpetual witness to the historical substance of salvation and because of that connection is said to save us.

G. 22 – This verse carries out the thought of Christ’s resurrection by the Spirit, his proclamation to the spirits in prison, and his ascension to the right hand of God. Seeing, therefore, the end of the suffering of Christ, we must not fear but entrust ourselves to him who judges justly,.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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