Do You Want Heaven for the Wrong Reason?

One of the questions that was asked — and that I’ll address here for just one minute — is: What do your markings mean? Because some of you have evidently been raised or have worked your way through very intentional, sophisticated Bible study tools where they say: “Underline this kind of word, circle this kind of word, do this one in green, do this one in red” — and everything has meaning.

Well, mine don’t. I just draw to draw your attention to things. There’s no meaning. Straight line, curvy line, circle — they don’t mean anything. It’s all just intended to help you look. Look at that. That’s why I underline. Look at that. If I underline, I mean look at it. That’s the meaning.

The other thing is I circle something and circle something else and draw a line between — they’re connected. Draw your attention to that. It is simply a way. Why I underline books and other things is it’s a way of focusing, it’s a way of heightening attention. So please, deliver yourself from the burden of trying to figure out a system. There isn’t one.

Better to Suffer

First Peter 3:17–18, we just looked at. “It is better to suffer for doing good.” I circled that just so you’d look at it. Just another comment. I find that in reading, our brains are generally really scattered and inattentive, and that anything we can do to help ourselves focus on specifics, the better. Most Bible reading is so vague and so general and so quick and so inattentive and so lacking in attentiveness to detail that this is just my way to help me slow down, focus in, take every word seriously, try to figure out their relationships, and see what I can see.

“It is better to suffer” — which is a strange-sounding connection — “for doing good.” All the more strange. Wow. “Better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will.” And I just argue that it can be God’s will and it is God’s will without him being cruel to you. I think I won’t go into all the other reasons for why it’s good. I’ve written on that so many other places and so many times. I just want to underline here that if you suffer, rejoice. “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” (1 Peter 1:6).

That little phrase: “if necessary.” “Though now for a little while, if necessary, you [are being grieved through] various trials [in order that] the genuineness of your faith” might redound to praise and glory and honor because it passes through fire like gold” (1 Peter 1:6–7)

That little phrase, “if necessary,” refers to God. If God deems it necessary for you. God doesn’t subject himself to the necessities of the world. The world is subject to the necessities as God views them as necessary. Which means that all of your sufferings, and there are many, the word is poikilos, many colored trials.

Just the diversity of trials. You think you’ve just had five trials and then here come five different ones, and you wonder, how many different trials can there be from the hand of a loving God? And the answer is more. The great challenge of faith is to believe that he’s the one who’s in charge of this. What a horrible thing if you thought that the bad things that came into your life for doing good were out of God’s control and just random. That would not be good news.

Christ Also Suffered

First Peter 3:18: “For Christ also suffered.” So it’s good for you, better for you to suffer, for Christ also suffered. There’s the most immediate connection. “For Christ also suffered.” That sounds like example and pattern, which it is, but here’s way beyond example and pattern, for sins. So yes, he suffered, and you can take heart from the fact that you’re joining your Master. If they call the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household? So join your Master in this calling.

But he has done something you don’t do, namely, he dies and suffers for sins. “The righteous,” amen, “for the unrighteous,” that’s us, “that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). This is one of my favorite passages on the atonement. Why? Because it answers the question, What is the ultimate good of the good news? There are many goods in the good news.

Forgiveness of sins and escape from hell and removal of guilt and imputed righteousness, and on and on and on the list would go. Much preaching is done to offer to the saints and to unbelievers who will believe, forgiveness of sins and escape from hell and go to eternal life and remove all guilt and have the righteousness of Christ counted as yours, and on and on.

The Ultimate Good of the Good News

These are glorious goods of the good news, but they are not the ultimate good of the good news. Every one of these right here are means to that. “He suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous” for this purpose, “that he might bring us to God.”

The reason forgiveness of sins is precious is because it gets sins out of the way between us and God. It’s not an end in itself. In the relationship, you don’t jump up and down, “I’m forgiven, I’m forgiven, and I don’t give a rip about the other person.” The forgiveness matters because now you can hug her again.

I’m thinking marriage and me and Noël. If I need to forgive, or more likely she needs to forgive me, when that happens, the marriage happens again. The forgiveness is just a means. Get sin out of the way, get anger out of the way, get fault finding out of the way. Get everything out of the way, and now we’re together. That’s God. That’s why Christ died. I wrote a book called God is the Gospel. That was the whole point of that book. Trying to get through the glorious goods of the gospel to the final good of the gospel, which is God. Bringing us to God is the ultimate goal, and he died to that end.

Words to Die By

So we are heartened in our own suffering here for, see that? For. So better to suffer if that should be God’s will because Christ died to bring you to God. So at any moment, if they’re about to take your life — say you get captured by ISIS, they put you in a cage and they say, “Tomorrow we’re going to cut your head off with a knife,” you can remember this “for.” “For it’s better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will” (1 Peter 1:17). If it’s God’s will that tomorrow I get my head cut off with a knife on a video dressed in orange, that will be better than if I sinned or if I forsook Jesus because Christ died to bring me to God. I’m going to God. Where else would you want to go?

That’s the way the logic works. That’s why these words are so precious. These are not toys for academic classrooms. These are words to die by. That’s why they matter. It is better to get your head cut off for doing Christian witness in Arab country or wherever because Christ died to bring you to God.

A Spiritual Body

And then “being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18) is a puzzling way to talk. I won’t go into detail, I’ll just tell you what I think it means. I think it means that flesh and blood does not inherit the kingdom of God, Paul said in 1 Corinthians, meaning not that you don’t have resurrection bodies. There’s going to be a resurrection body, and Jesus had a resurrection body, but that body is very different than this one. It’s called a spiritual body. A spiritual body.

So in the realm of the flesh like you and me, he died. There, he died. And when he came to life, he didn’t just come to life with that identical body. He came to life in the sphere of the Spirit so that his body, it appeared and it disappeared. He ate fish, so we know it was a real body. He said, “Ghosts don’t eat fish. Give me some fish.” He’s like, “I’m not a ghost. I’ll eat fish.” And yet he ascended into heaven and we will have a glorious body like his glorious body. So I think the distinction here is not that Christ was raised like a ghost and didn’t have a body, but rather, he had a spiritual body.

Jesus Went to Prison

Continuing. So he was raised, made alive in the Spirit. “In which,” in which spirit,

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. (1 Peter 3:19–20)

That’s very strange and one of the most unusual passages in the New Testament. I don’t want to get bogged down in the controversies because there’s a lot of controversy about what this means, about what it means that he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison. I’ll give you a few options because frankly, I’m not sure.

Proclamation to Spirits in Prison during Noah’s Time

It may mean that, as it said in 1 Peter 1:11, the Spirit of Christ was in the prophets prophesying in the Old Testament. That in the Spirit, he went in the days of Noah, Jesus went in the days of Noah, and he proclaimed to the spirits who are now in prison, unbelievers. He preached to them. He preached to those who are now spirits in prison.

So the picture is the Spirit in which he was raised was the same Spirit in which he went through the prophets like Noah, and he preached to the people in Noah’s day, and now they’re in prison. That’s one possibility. That’s not as common as the other.

Preaching in Hades for Liberation of Old Testament Saints

Another possibility is he went to Hades, or sometimes called paradise, where the Old Testament people are dead and waiting for something to happen. And he preaches the gospel there and the saints there, through his preaching, are liberated, and he takes captivity captive and he brings them all to heaven, these Old Testament saints who were waiting in Sheol.

Proclamation of Victory in Heaven over Fallen Angels and Unbelievers

Or third possibility, this is the one Tom Schreiner takes in his commentary, is that this is simply a proclamation in heaven of victory over the fallen angels and unbelievers who are in prison, in hell, and he proclaims his victory. I don’t know for sure.

Here’s what I do with a text like this. It would be nice to know all the details of what Jesus did between his death and resurrection, or if that’s what it’s referring to. But I want to know: Why did you go here? What are you doing, Peter? What’s this all about? Why even think of Noah?

You’re writing for exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and Bithynia, and you’re trying to help them suffer. And Noah? This right here, he’s going to relate this in a minute to baptism. But just up until now, what brought all this to mind? These spirits that are in prison “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” (1 Peter 3:20). What’s that about?

My take is he wants us to compare those days, or our days, with Noah’s days, and see if we get encouragement from those days. His whole goal here is to help people suffer. Help people be humble, strong, able to walk through reviling and not return evil for evil, and maintain solid full hope in the inheritance that is coming our way, so we’ll be the happiest people on the planet while we die for Jesus. That’s the goal of this letter.

And so he says there was a time in which massive numbers of people, only a few here are saved, so massive numbers of people did not obey. That’s the way these people feel in the Roman Empire right now. This empire is massively pagan and unbelieving. These little pockets of believers all around. Good night, you’re supposed to be the God of the universe, and you just have these enclaves of believers scattered out through this pagan Roman Empire.

This is daunting to think about. He says, “Well, remember Noah’s day, because they didn’t obey back then either.” God was being very patient in those days. Salvation was happening, things were getting ready for salvation, an ark was being built, and a few, very few, were brought safely through the water.

I don’t know any other way to say why he would include that here except to say, “You feel like a few? You feel like you’re about to be overcome with the flood of evil? You’re going to be okay. You’re mine. You’re my people. It doesn’t matter how outnumbered you are, it doesn’t matter how disobedient they are, it doesn’t matter how unlikely it looks that you could be the right ones and they could be the wrong ones. You are.” So I think that’s the gist. You’re going to be okay.

Passing Through Baptism

“Baptism, which corresponds to this,” coming safely through the water in an ark, “now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). So he’s saying they got saved by getting on a boat and passing through water, and you get saved by getting on a boat and passing through baptism.

I know that this can sound troubling because I think baptismal regeneration is heresy that is taught by the Catholic church and others. That is, when the water duly administered in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit by a priest ordained by the papacy puts water on that baby’s head, he is born again. I think that’s a heresy.

The question is, Does this teach it? “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now” — and the reason I do, by the way, is because of 1 Peter 1:23–25:

You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever. And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”

There is no new birth apart from the hearing and believing the word of God. I believe that’s what Peter teaches, and elsewhere.

So what does this mean? He immediately, as though he’s knowing my question, answers it. I just said it saves you. I said that, but I don’t mean as a removal of dirt from the body. When I say it saves you, I don’t mean that the water going over you and cleansing you is the material stuff by which you get saved. It’s not that kind of thing that I’m talking about.

Well, what is it then? “But.” So, not-but — we call this a negative-positive relationship. Not that, “but an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21). An appeal to God for a good conscience. Baptism is an appeal. Baptism is a prayer.

So immediately, you see what he’s doing. He’s saying it’s not the water, it’s not even the action, it’s the appeal. It’s the meaning. It’s the meaning. I’m standing on a baptismal pool here. I’ve baptized lots of people in this pool. Others have baptized. What’s the meaning of this moment when they go under the water and come up out of the water? The meaning is I, by my symbolic activity, am making an appeal to God. “I am dirty. Make me clean.” That’s how it saves.

I think Peter is protecting us and him from an abuse here, but he wants to say this because it corresponds back to the ark where they came safely through water. The ark is a picture of baptism because we’re coming safely through the flood of judgment. The flood was judgment falling on the world and all of its unbelief. Judgment is coming on this world, and if you want to be safe in this world, you identify with Jesus.

You die with him, you rise with him, and you get a good clean conscience through the blood of 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 3:22). This is what Tom Schreiner says. Jesus preached to the spirits. He went and he heralded the triumph of his resurrection that he has gone to the right hand of God. Angels, authorities, powers are subjected to him.

The point here, whether that’s right or not, what’s clear about 1 Peter 3:22 is that it is intended to give beleaguered Christians, who are few, like eight people coming through the flood and entering into a relationship with Jesus through baptism, it’s intended to give those people tremendous encouragement. That the one who was raised from the dead and whom you came up out of the water identified with is totally sovereign over this world.

“Angels, authorities, powers” — these are probably all wicked. “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). That’s this, and they are defeated. Every one of them has had his fangs pulled out. So they’re still slithering around like fangless snakes and they can make us pretty miserable, but they can’t destroy us.

So he’s just laboring to encourage aliens and exiles on the earth. That’s what he calls us twice in this book, three times I think. We are aliens and exiles. A flood of judgment is coming and people are making life hard for us. We feel so small and insignificant.

And he’s writing, “Your Lord, when he came out of the tomb, subjected all the demonic powers of the universe to himself. So if you think the devil’s alive and well in this world, he is. No, he’s alive, he’s not well. He’s got a mortal wound and he’s dying, and he knows he’s in his last throes. And of course, he can do a lot of damage, but God is triumphant.” That’s what we need to hear mainly.