Thief in the Night
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
1 Peter 3:18-22
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits — 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand —with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. (NIV)
A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the NT, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means. – Martin Luther
It is not surprising that the world around us does not care to talk or think seriously about the Day of the Lord. They have suppressed the truth about God in their unrighteousness. They scoff as the idea of judgment and joke about hell and use the only wise God’s name in mindless exclamation. It is not surprising that the world around us thinks of the hell fire and brimstone preacher as a fool from a bygone era.
The glory of God, the reality of sin and judgment, and the required price of redemption are all pushed away as irrelevant, idiotic, and useless in this technological age. That we would need a Savior, that we would need God’s grace seem strange and distant. They live to eat drink and be merry. This life is all there is, they try to convince themselves, and getting along here, and enjoying this time, is all that really matters. It is not surprising that they think this way.
But what is devastating to see are people who claim the name of Christ who seem to have no more reverence for God than the pagan unbeliever. The Day of the Lord does not weigh upon their minds and hearts. They live as if this life is all there is, and getting along here and enjoying this time, is all that really matters. The glory of God and price of redemption and rarely occupy their thoughts. Work and retirement and hobbies and family obligation and sports teams and entertainment and what’s for lunch occupy all their thoughts from day to day.
On the Day of the Lord, when Jesus Christ the victorious savior and Lord suddenly appears who will be awake to what really matters in this world? Who will be awake and sober and ready? Brothers and sisters are we among those who have put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation? Do we love the gospel as our supreme treasure? Are we those whose minds and hearts are fixed upon Jesus, so that He is indeed all our hope? Are our lives here shaped by that hope so that they are characterized by faith and love? or are they characterized by earth bound dreams and selfishness without a thought for God our Maker and Redeemer?
Getting our Bearings
Background: Peter is addressing people who are facing persecution and potentially death for their faith in Jesus Christ. Why should this matter to us? We are not facing persecution. Brothers and sisters, if what Peter is trying to do here makes you want to yawn, I plead with you to consider that the years of relative peace and freedom we have experienced in this place may very soon evaporate. This letter is designed to get us ready to suffer well as Christians and to die well as Christians. Will you and I have the kind of authentic faith that will willing and able to suffer for the sake of Christ when the sword is aimed at us? Peter is writing to help us get ready.
Context: Peter has just instructed these saints that they should not fear those who would harm them (because truly they can’t harm them – not really). They will be blessed indeed. Instead, they are to set Christ apart as Lord of heaven and earth in their hearts and always be ready to explain why they are so filled with hope in the face of so much pain – Jesus Christ and His work are to be ready on their lips.
Structure: Now Peter plans to make the point that since our Lord Jesus Christ suffered we must arm ourselves with the same way of thinking (4:1). And we will come to that point next time. But before Peter makes that point he pauses and adds a thought in this section (18-22).
Reason: The thought that Peter adds serves to undergird our confidence that we will indeed be blessed by God even if we experience suffering now. Peter is strengthening our hope as we are looking present pain square in the face. That seems to be why he added this 5 verse section.
Content: The question is what is the truth he puts forward for us to consider? There are some very clear things that Peter says here and there are some very difficult to understand things as well. Let’s start by trying to get a handle on what Peter is up to, by focusing on his broad point even as we consider some of the more difficult details.
Road of Redemption: from suffering to glory (18-20a)
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,
So, let’s think about what Peter is doing here. He is focusing in on Christ and what He did to bring us to God. He is laying out the road on which the King and Builder of the House walked in His work of redemption.
Did our Lord avoid suffering when He came?
Did our Lord refuse to get His hands dirty?
Or refuse to stoop and bear the burdens of others? No, He bore them to death.
He walked a road of many suffers in obedience to the Father and He ultimately gave His body up, being put to death to bring us to God. The Righteous One gave Himself for the unrighteous.
So, the road of redemption began with great suffering, but it did not end in defeat. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit. He rose triumphant over the grave and verse 19 says, “…He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey…” We’ll come back to these “spirits in prison,” but for now let’s focus on what Jesus did. He suffers and dies then rises triumphant over sin and death and then goes and proclaims or heralds – What does He herald? The text does not say, but I think we can safely say He heralded His victory over sin and death. He proclaimed His triumph.
If you drop your eyes down to the end of verse 21 and into verse 22 Peter is speaking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who (verse 22) has gone into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to Him. So I think it makes sense that after Jesus’s resurrection He went and proclaimed that victory over all His enemies.
So the road of redemption was a road of suffering resulting in victory and authority and power over all things.
Now lets just pause and consider who these “spirits in prison” are. There are a number of theories, but I am not going to spend the time to lay out all the arguments for each view because I don’t think it really effects Peter’s main point too drastically – which is what we really want to understand this morning. I myself am still with Luther on this question. Just who did Jesus go and proclaimed to? I am not fully confident that I know for sure. But here is my humble opinion:
Spirits in Prison
We know from other portions of Scripture that angels who sinned were imprisoned. 2 Peter 2:4 says, “…God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into Tartarus and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgement.” How exactly is a spiritual (personal, non-material being) imprisoned? What are the nature of the restraints? We are not given a lot of detail here, but we are told that they are kept until the judgment. In Revelation 20 Satan himself, the ancient serpent, is seized and bound for a thousand years and thrown into the pit and shut and sealed in. This is called a prison in verse 7. His binding is said to be “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years are ended.”
I mention all this to say that these “spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey” sound an awful lot like the fallen angels. And I am inclined to think that these fallen spiritual beings are the ones over whom Christ proclaimed His victory, especially as verse 21 and 22 speak of Jesus having gone into heaven and is a the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to Him.
I think we often fail to realize the spiritual warfare that is going on in the universe. Christ’s victory was not a victory of muscle. It was not a victory of physical force. It was a victory over sin and and sin’s consequences. It was a silencing of Satan, the accuser of the brethren. It was a victory of God’s Justice and His Grace. Yes it was a victory of might – moral might.
And, so Christ went in the strength of His moral perfection, having paid for all our sin, and having satisfied Divine justice, He when and proclaimed His victory over all the demonic hosts. All their wicked schemes and accusations against God’s people have utterly failed because of Christ’s perfect work.
That’s what I think Peter has in mind.
But let’s not loose sight of the forest because of the trees. Peter’s broader point is that the Road of Redemption which our glorious Lord walked was a road that began in sorrow and suffering and death, but resulted in resurrection and ascension and glory. He won. Even as Christ walked the road of suffering and pain and humiliation and failure by worldly standards and came to a brutal death the result was life and glory and honor and authority over all things!
Now, why is Peter telling us this? Again, it is to strengthen our hope as we face painful circumstances. It is to gird up our confidence that we also will indeed be blessed by God if we are clinging to our Lord Jesus, the Victor – even if all our life in this world is pain and failure and opposition.
Now I believe, what Peter does next is to put our suffering in the context of God’s sovereign purposes.
So, Peter reminds us in verse 20 of the black backdrop of the Bible – Noah and the Great Flood. It is of utmost importance that we keep the Genesis Flood always in our thinking because it is meant to serve as a poignant reminder of what every person on the globe deserves: complete destruction.
The fact that God does not wipe every living thing off the face of the earth right now, is grace – God is patiently enduring evil for a purpose: to save His people. He is allowing this rebellion to continue because his people are being gathered from every tribe, tongue and nation.
I think it is important to realize that the Genesis Flood was a worldwide flood, destroying the entire human race, save for eight people. And, keep in mind that conservatively, given their longevity, the population of the earth in Noah’s day was probably over a billion people – not something we think about much. (see Morris and Whitcomb’s, The Genesis Flood).
Now, Peter emphasis here seems to be that just as 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 – so today, the entire world deserves judgment because they are in rebellion against God and hostile toward His people – but just as in the days of Noah, God is enduring evil to save His people, but make no mistake He will destroy the wicked. Even if you are 1 in 125 million who fears the Lord, remember that the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the Day of Judgment (2 Peter 2:9).
So, even as the world laughed at Noah, so they very well may laugh and mock you – or worse. When unbelievers scoff at your priorities and pursuits and your faith as a Christian and laugh at the idea of a coming judgment, do not think that the Lord has abandoned you – He is working a great salvation as in the days of Noah.
So, Peter has traced our Lord’s road to glory, showing that though he endured many sufferings the result was glory honor and power. He beat the power of sin and death and rose to the Father’s right hand with every conceivable enemy having been subjected to Him.
And now Peter has placed our suffering in the context of God’s sovereign purposes. God is patiently allowing evil to continue and his people to suffer, but the Lord will surely rescue the godly and punish the wicked.
Connection to Christ
And so in verse 21, Peter connects these sure facts to us. He says,
“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”
What does Peter mean, baptism… now saves you? It is not the physical act of immersion that saves us, as Peter says, this is not about removing dirt from the body. Christian Baptism (ordained by our Lord Jesus) is an outward expression of a spiritual reality. It is an appeal to God, on the basis of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, on the basis the ruling and reigning Lord of heaven and earth and over every demonic accuser, for a good conscience.
What we did when we were baptized into Christ Jesus (or what you should now do, if you have not been baptizes in to Christ Jesus) is to cry out to God asking Him to clear and clean your conscience by means of Jesus victory over your sin and the death it deserves.
Just as Noah, was brought safely though the flood, being hidden in ark, we are brought safely through the coming judgment by being hidden in Christ. Noah trusted God and entered the ark so we are to trust God by banking on Christ.
Confident Hope and Authentic Christianity
So even as the entire world goes with “the great sin drift” we can confidently say, the Lord is my helper, I will not fear, what can man do to me – because our Lord Jesus the Righteous One rose from the grave having died to bring us to God and has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
Suffering Christian, you will be blessed. Do not fear, but honor Christ as Lord and be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that you have.
As Schreiner summarizes this section: Believers have no need to fear that suffering is the last word, for they share the same destiny as their Lord whose suffering has secured victory over all hostile powers.
This morning I hope the mighty victory of our Lord strengthens you in tangible ways.
I hope that Christ’s road of suffering resulting in victory emboldens you to…
- do what is right regardless of the consequences in this world, knowing that your reward is secure in heaven. I don’t know what kind of pressure you have in your life to cut corners, impress your boss, keep a friend, etc. You do not need to take matters into your own hands. God has said do right, and He will work all things together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.
- share your faith with that person you work with or that you see at the library all the time who does not yet know Christ and seems to think nothing of the Day of the Lord. We are not yet in glory because there is still work to be done. And you and I have nothing to fear for the Lord has secured for us and eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison(2 Cor 4:17).
- lay your life down here, not for money or pleasure or fame, but for the good of others and the glory of God. It is as we consider the mighty and sure victory of our Lord that we will become more and more like Him in our love for one another and our willingness to suffer that others may be blessed.