1 Peter 3v18
On the last couple of occasions, we’ve covered 1 Peter 3v13-17. In those verses Peter was again thinking about believers suffering for Christ’s sake. So, in verse 14 he said: “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed”. He was pointing out that believers in Christ might well suffer for being good. You might be subjected to undeserved suffering. Then, in verse 17, he went on to say: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil”.
That’s the context behind what Peter goes on to say in the coming verses. It has to be said that from here to the end of the chapter is the most difficult passage in the letter to understand. However, it begins with some glorious words in verse 18 where Peter says: “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”. So, today, we’re just going to consider that verse and we’ll start to tackle the difficult bits next time.
The ESV begins verse 18 by saying “For Christ also suffered”. The NIV has: “For Christ died”. There are similarities and differences between those two translations. They are similar in that both speak of what Christ has done and both begin with the word “For”. That indicates that Peter is going on to give a reason for what he had just said. What had he just said? It was: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil”. So, what he’s going on to say relates to that. Before proceeding we need to address the differences between those two translations and work out what that phrase is saying.
The first difference is that the ESV includes the word “also” but it is omitted by the NIV. However, it is in the Greek text. So, Peter is indicating that there is some sort of similarity between believers in Christ and Christ Himself. What does Peter go on to say about Christ? Well, this is where we find the next difference between the translations. According to the ESV, Peter said that He “suffered”. So, the similarity is that believers in Christ suffer and “Christ also suffered”. However, according to the NIV, Peter said that He “died”. Why that difference? Well, in this instance it’s because some of the old manuscripts have “suffered” and others have “died”. It’s one of those very rare instances in which a change has crept in during the copying of the manuscripts and it is impossible to tell for sure which was the original – hence the ESV and NIV each plumping for different options. Given the context and flow of the passage, it seems to me to be most likely that Peter originally wrote “suffered” rather than “died”. The overall flow is “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered ”. Back in chapter 2 verse 21 Peter had said: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps”. There, he was saying that Christ’s suffering was an example that we have been called to follow. Now, in verse 17, he’s saying that we are to follow that example even if we’re suffering unjustly and in verse 18 Peter goes on to say that Jesus suffered even though He was righteous so He also suffered unjustly. Nonetheless, Jesus went on to triumph. Peter is using the fact that Jesus suffered unjustly but went on to triumph as an encouragement to believers to note His example and “follow in his steps” even if they suffer unjustly because following Him leads to sharing in the victory He has won.
So, Peter has drawn our attention to the similarity between believers and Christ in terms of facing unjust suffering. Jesus suffered in many ways during His earthly life and all of it was undeserved. But we must next notice that there is also a huge difference between us and Jesus because Peter goes on to say that Christ “suffered once for sins”. You see, Jesus suffered during His earthly life but His suffering culminated in that He “suffered once for sins”. Saying that He suffered “for sins” really means that He suffered “because of sins” or “on behalf of sins”. Paul said something similar in 1 Corinthians 15v3 where we read: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures”. Peter had already expressed the same idea back in chapter 2 verse 24 when, speaking of Jesus, he said: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed”. So, we have a very clear message that Jesus suffered for sin, died for our sin and bore our sin. The phrase “for sins” is used repeatedly in the Pentateuch to refer to the sin offerings of the Old Testament sacrificial system. The writer to the Hebrews points us back to the Old Testament sacrificial system and shows that the suffering of Jesus is to be considered in a similar way. In Hebrews 13v11-12 we read: “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood”. Just as animals were offered as a sacrifice for sin, so Jesus suffered as a sacrifice for sin.
The idea behind those sacrifices was that God’s just anger against the people’s sin was being satisfied so that they could be restored to a right relationship with God. The big words for those ideas are propitiation and atonement. That’s exactly what we sinful human beings need. Of course, the offering of animals didn’t actually accomplish that. Turning to Hebrews again, we read in chapter 10v1-4: “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins”.
The writer is very explicit in stating that animal sacrifices don’t do the trick. He said: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins”. That being the case, you might well wonder what was the point of them. Well, the writer had just said “But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year”. Then you might wonder what was the point of being reminded of sin if the prescribed sacrifices don’t work. Well, it’s because they pointed to a sacrifice that would work. The writer introduced this section by saying: “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities”. You see, the sacrifices prescribed under the Law weren’t the real deal but they foreshadowed the coming reality. They pictured the sacrifice that would do the trick. The writer to the Hebrews then goes on in the chapter to speak of Christ coming into the world to both offer that sacrifice and to be that atoning sacrifice.
From 1 Peter 3v18 we can note four points about the atonement that Jesus made. We see: its nature, its means, its purpose and its outcome.
The nature of this atonement
What we see here of the nature of this atonement is that it is ULTIMATE. In speaking of Jesus suffering for sins Peter says that He did so “once”. You see, the text says: “For Christ also suffered once for sins”. That obviously indicates a distinct and definite event that has taken place. That’s not the general suffering that Jesus faced and endured throughout His earthly life but a specific suffering for sin. That must be His death. Indeed, Peter goes on later in the verse to refer to His “being put to death in the flesh”. So, the word “once” points back to His death being a definite, historic event that took place.
However, the Greek word that has been translated as “once” doesn’t merely mean “once”. It doesn’t mean it happened once and it could happen again. It doesn’t just mean “one time out of several possible times”. It actually speaks of something being done “once and forever”. There’s a finality about it. It’s conclusive. That’s why the NIV has chosen to say “once for all”. The words “for all” are not in the Greek text but they have been included in an attempt to bring out the full sense of the Greek word. Unfortunately, “once for all” could give the impression that it means “once and for every person” but that isn’t the correct sense. It would have been more helpful to say “once and for all time” or “once and forever” indicating the finality of the atonement that Jesus made. Such finality is in marked contrast with the Old Testament sacrifices.
Look at Hebrews 7v27: “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself”. In contrast with the daily sacrifices, He offered Himself “once for all” or, better, “once and forever”. That’s re-emphasised in Hebrews 9v28 where we read: “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him”. You see, when Christ returns it won’t be “to deal with sin”. Why not? It’s because He’s already “been offered once to bear the sins of many”.
The contrast between the Old Testament sacrifices and the finality of Christ’s sacrifice is perhaps even more emphatic in Hebrews 10v10-14 where we read: “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified”.
So, Christ’s suffering on the cross was the ultimate, never to be repeated atoning sacrifice. He “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins”. In Roman Catholicism, the Mass is considered to be a re-offering of Christ’s sacrifice. Quite apart from the transubstantiation mumbo jumbo, the idea that Christ’s sacrifice is being made again and again shows a real failure to comprehend the finality of the sacrifice that Jesus made. In His own words from the cross: “It is finished”!
The next thing to notice is:
The means of this atonement
We see here that the means of this atonement is SUBSTITUTION. Having said that “Christ also suffered once for sins”, Peter went on to explain that He did so as “the righteous for the unrighteous”.
Speaking of Jesus as “righteous” is clearly telling us that He was without sin. Peter has already told us that back in chapter 2 verse 22 where he said: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth”. More than that, He was positively righteous and so pleasing to God in every way. However, there’s even more to it than that. What our versions don’t make clear is that Jesus is not just being spoken of here as “the righteous” as in our translations. He’s actually being spoken oft as “the righteous one”. The early church often referred to Him in that way. For instance, when Peter and John had healed a lame man, Peter then addressed the crowd. In the course of that address we read in Acts 3v14 that he said: “But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you”. He was referring to Jesus as the “Righteous One”. During Stephen’s speech before he was stoned to death we read in Acts 7v62 that he said: “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered”. Again, Jesus was referred to as “the Righteous One”. Paul, recounting how his sight was restored to him after his life changing encounter with the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus, quoted Ananias in Acts 22v14-15 as saying: “The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard”. Why did the early church so often refer to Jesus as the Righteous One? No doubt they were thinking of Isaiah 53v11-12 where we read: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors”. Referring to Jesus as the Righteous One not only spoke of the fact that He was sinless. It identified Him as the One who was chosen and appointed by God to be the sin bearer and to make atonement.
Having spoken of Jesus as the Righteous One, Peter then mentions “the unrighteous”. Whereas “the righteous” was most definitely singular “the unrighteous” is plural so Peter was actually saying that Jesus suffered as “the Righteous One for the many unrighteous”. That sense of the many unrighteous comes out clearly in Isaiah 53v11-12. Isaiah said that “the righteous one” would “make many to be accounted righteous” and then that “he bore the sin of many”.
So, the means of this atonement is the suffering in death of “the Righteous One for the many unrighteous”. In what sense was His death “for the unrighteous”? You don’t need to think for long to realise that the word “for” is used in many different ways. I looked it up in a dictionary and found 25 different usages listed! Most of those usages would make no sense in the context of this verse. A couple come close. They are “in exchange for” and “in recompense for” but the only one that really makes good sense is “in the place of”. That’s the means of this atonement. It was Jesus the Righteous One dying in the place of many unrighteous people. He was righteous so He certainly didn’t deserve to die. But He was also “the Righteous One” so He was intended to die in the place of the unrighteous. So, the means of this atonement was SUBSTITUTION. Jesus took the place of His people and paid the price of their sins. You might sometimes hear the expression “vicarious and substitutionary atonement”. Vicarious simply means “on behalf of” and substitution means “in the place of”. As our substitute, He took our place and so took our sin upon Himself. He then acted vicariously, on our behalf, by taking the punishment that our sin deserved. He could only do that because He had no sin of His own. His perfect righteousness made Him fit to make atonement for us. Paul sums it up beautifully in 2 Corinthians 5v21 where he says: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”.
The next thing to notice is:
The purpose of this atonement
It’s sometimes pointed out that atonement can be expressed as “at-onement”. It has a relational purpose. It brings about the restoration of a relationship and we see here that the purpose of this atonement is RESTORATION because, having said “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous”, Peter went on to say: “that he might bring us to God”.
The words “that he might” speak of purpose, intention, aim. What is that objective? Peter tells us it’s to “bring us to God”. The fact that we need to be brought to God reminds us of what people are like by nature. They are away from God. Apart from God. Separated from God. Estranged from God. Peter has described that state in various ways in this letter. He described it as “being in darkness”. Back in chapter 2 verse 9, speaking to believers, he said that God had “called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”. By nature, we were “in darkness”. In verse 25 of the same chapter, again speaking to believers, he said: “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls”. By nature, we were astray. We were away from God just as a stray sheep is away from the shepherd that it depends upon.
Why are people in that state? It’s because of Adam’s sinful rebellion against God. In response to that rebellion, God banished fallen mankind from His presence as we read in Genesis 3v23-24: “therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life”.
That might sound to be a harsh punishment but it was actually a gracious act. God chose to not destroy Adam as he deserved because He had a plan for restoration by means of the atonement to be made through the sacrifice of Jesus.
Paul often talks in terms of atonement having brought about access to God. The flaming sword barred the way but the atonement was God’s means of opening a way of access to Himself. So, we read in Romans 5v1-2: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God”. In Ephesians 2v18 we read: “For through him (that is Jesus who suffered that atoning death) we both (that is believing Jews and believing Gentiles) have access in one Spirit to the Father”. Then in Ephesians 3v11-12 we read: “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him”.
This idea of access is described in slightly different terms in Hebrews 10v19-22 where we read: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water”. That’s an allusion to the symbolism of the Temple. The Holy Place represented God’s presence in all His glory and the way into His presence was blocked by the curtain just as the way to tree of life was barred by the cherubim and flaming sword. But, what happened to the curtain when Jesus died on the cross? It was torn from top to bottom. His blood opened “the new and living way” to come into God’s presence.
It’s wonderful that in and through Christ we have access to God. It’s wonderful that He’s opened “the new and living way” but, it seems to me, that Peter is actually saying something more than that here. Notice that Peter said: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring us to God”. He’s not opened up the way for us and then left us to it. No, He’s opened up the way for us so that He can then actively bring us to God.
We see in all this that our salvation is entirely His work. It’s all His doing. He died once. He died in our place. Why? Was it to give us an opportunity to return to God? Was it to give us a chance to be reconciled to God? No! We see that it was in order that “he might bring us to God”.
In what sense does He “bring us to God”? Well, He brings us to know God. More than that, He brings us to a right relationship with God and into fellowship with Him. Ultimately, He will bring us into the very presence of God. So, we read in Hebrews 2v10: “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering”. You see, Jesus is “bringing many sons to glory” and, in this context, “glory” is where God is present in the fullest and most wonderful sense. Jesus encouraged His disciples by speaking to them in terms of taking them to His Father’s house. So, we read in John 14v1-3: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also”. You see, Jesus said that He would come again and take us to be with Himself in the Father’s house. His purpose was to bring us to glory!
So, the purpose of the atonement that Jesus made as He “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous” was in order that “he might bring us to God”. Did He succeed? Can He bring us to God? Well, the last thing to notice here is:
The outcome of this atonement
The last clause of verse 18 is where the passage starts to become difficult. Peter says of Christ: “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit”. I don’t want to get bogged down in the difficulties now. I just want us to close by seeing that, however we understand these words, the outcome of this atonement is SUCCESS. You see, He was “put to death in the flesh”. That speaks of an actual bodily death and it sounds like the end. It sounds like failure. It sounds like defeat. But it’s not because Peter goes on to say “but made alive in the spirit”. Yes, Jesus died. He had to if He was to make atonement for our sin but He is alive. He rose from the dead. What looked like failure was success. Apparent defeat became victory. Seeming disaster became triumph.
So, Jesus died once and that’s enough. He really took away the sins of His people so He can realise His purpose and “bring us to God”.
Dr. Steve Orr
Dr Orr has served the Body of Christ in the United Kingdom for many years and in various capacities (preaching, teaching, etc.,). Steve is a regular contributor to the pages of Christ My Covenant. His insights into the Word of God will serve you in your personal study of God’s Word. Learn of Christ!