The combination of sin and the Curse means that very person is born into a fallen environment and is at enmity with God. God’s design is that men and women be surrendered and comprehensive worshipers of Him, with the necessary effects that has for all of life. Jesus came to earth, of course, to create by His death, resurrection, and reign a New Humanity of worshipers for the glory of His Father. Through their sanctification, their prayers, and His work in the world Christ is gradually renewing the creation as He pushes it constantly forward towards the fullness of His kingdom. However, because we reside in a fallen environment that resist’s Christ’s reign, believers will be well-acquainted with suffering as they seek to live out God’s will in His world that has gone astray. Peter’s first epistle was written to teach believers how to rightly respond to the suffering they will face, and chapter 3 in particular highlights this response as one of faith in Christ’s victory over sin and hell through His salvation.
A. Christ is Victor Over Sin (v. 18a)
The context of verse 18 is the willingness of believers to accept unjust suffering for obedience to the cause of Christ. Peter speaks, for example, of setting apart Christ as Lord in the heart and keeping a good conscience so that unbelievers will be put to same for slandering Christians (vv. 15-16). This, then, is done because if one is going to be slandered, it is far better if it is because one is obeying God than if one is dong evil (v. 17). Then, note the “for” at the beginning of verse 18. Why set apart Christ as Lord? Why keep a good conscience so that unbelievers will have no grounds for accusation? Why is it better to suffer for well-doing? BECAUSE Christ died a substitutionary death for sinners, to bring them to God (v. 18)! Christ’s blood is the reason. This grammatical connection and the verse itself opens up a vast world of glory for those with eyes to see. The “for” shows both intent in Christ’s death and the responsibility believers have to live in a way worthy of the blood that was shed for them. The “for” also shows the effectiveness of Christ’s death, in that it purchased the ability believers have to obey Him in these ways. (Connecting their obedience to Christ’s death makes no sense if in fact the death did not actually grant enablement to them to do the acts of obedience.) Another aspect to “for,” as Heibert has noted, is that it highlights the modeling aspect of Christ’s death—we obey in response to unjust suffering because Christ, too, suffered (“also”; cf. 2:21-23). We follow where our Master has trod.
The “so that” is a purpose clause that reveals the main point of the death of Christ is to bring believers into a relationship with God the Father. The Creator of all things, the One to whom they were accountable and who gave them breath, the One who formed them as His image and charged them with cultivating His world under His Lordship exercised through His Word, and who calls them to worship Him comprehensively and wholeheartedly in every area of life, is their rejected Lord, their spurned Lover, their dismissed God. There had to be blood. Someone had to die to repair this relationship. The mercy in it is that it is the repudiated and loathed God who takes upon Himself the penalty earned by His rebellious creation. In great mercy and faithfulness He determines to still use these creatures to glorify Himself, and to bless them with the undeserved glories of a rich relationship with Him as their Lord, Friend, and Advocate. So the Son, who is Himself God, becomes a human being to represent the ones whom the Father chose. He will absorb their wrath—consume it all—that He might then bring them into a relationship overflowing with love, purpose, and filial devotion.
The text says Jesus died “for sins.” The wording is important. Like Matthew 1:21, where the Messiah is said to save His people from their sins, the idea is not sin as a principle or sin in general (other texts discuss Christ’s salvation in those areas), but individual, actual, personal sins. Jesus did not merely die for sin, but for sins. He literally, personally substituted Himself in our place for the wrath we deserved for real, actual, space-time sins. “Once for all,” of course, refers to His perfectly sufficient and atoning sacrifice—it only needed to be offered once. Once was enough. Such is the vibrant potency of the death of Christ. And “just” implies Christ’s total, perfect conformity to God’s limitlessly holy standard. In all He did, thought, said, and was in the depths of His being, He was sinlessly holy. This necessitates His absolute deity, for while believers stand righteous before God as well, their righteousness is imputed as a gift (and their practice is often not in conformity with their position, or their new holy nature which though perfect is also a gift). Christ’s holiness was underived, inherent, eternal, and entirely of His own doing. Christ needed no help to be sinlessly perfect. He simply was, and is, in Himself. Thus the Creator God offers Himself as a sinless sacrifice in the place of the unjust whom He dearly loved. Believers can stand fast in suffering because Christ has mercifully and mightily declared His victory over sin.
B. Christ is Victor Over Hell (vv. 18b-20)
Having died physically, Christ was nonetheless alive in His spirit (“spirit” here refers to Christ’s personal spirit, not the Holy Spirit). As with all people when they die, Christ’s death did not mean the cessation of consciousness or existence, but was merely the separation of the body from the spirit and soul. As a spirit being, the Lord made His way to the prison where the spirits of certain particularly wicked fallen angels were kept bound (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). I believe these are fallen angels who somehow took on human bodies, then mated with human women in an attempt to pollute the human bloodline of the Messiah (Genesis 6:1-4). Possibly these are (some) of the same beings as the “sons of God” to whom God handed over the Gentile nations at Babel—high-ranking angels whom God had charged with carrying out His affairs over various geographic regions but who fell with Satan and became the pagan gods to whom the Gentiles were enslaved (cf. Psalm 82, Deut. 4:19-20, 39; 32:8-9, 17; Psa. 96:5; 1 Cor. 10:19-21). Given His substitutionary death, which not only freed believers from slavery to sin and Satan (Eph. 4:8, Rev. 5:9), but was the means by which Christ accomplished victory over Satan (Col. 2:13-15) and the basis of His taking back the world depicted in Revelation 5:1-7, Christ went to proclaim His victory over these especially wicked spirits. One might ask why Peter highlights them, not demons in general or even Satan. I suspect it is because these fallen angels were acting at the behest of Satan, acting out a particularly diabolical phase of his attack on the rule of God. If Christ condemns them, then certainly He has won victory over the entire scheme of Satan and spells its and his ultimate doom. Also, given the other passages which declare the victory of Christ over the demonic realm, this passage gives us a glimpse at a specific application of that victory to a subset of demons.
Though believers reside in a world energized by demonic forces, and which seek their destruction, they can be unafraid because of Christ’s absolute conquering of Satan and Hell.
C. Christ’s Victory is in His Salvation (vv. 21-22)
Verse 20, speaking of Noah’s ark, declares that Noah and his family were “brought safely through the water” by it. The current section then draws an analogy between that and Christian baptism. But just what is that analogy? Some groups use this passage to teach that water baptism is necessary for regeneration—that somehow in baptism the blood of Christ is applied and that one is spiritually dead and under God’s condemnation until faith and baptism. But such teaching contradicts the clear truth that throughout Scripture, justification is secured by faith alone in the person and work of Christ—only faith unites us to Christ such that His perfect righteousness becomes ours and we stand before God welcomed and sinless. Instead, I agree with one pastor I read that Peter’s point is that just as the water “saved” Noah in that it was God’s clear means of rescue and separation from the ungodly world around him, so baptism saves us in the same way—not in any regenerative capacity, but in that water baptism symbolically separates us from our ungodly environment. The point of baptism is to publicly and openly declare one’s allegiance to Jesus Christ and one’s disassociation from the wicked world system. In both cases, water provided a decisive and clear line of demarcation between God’s people and the world. Baptism itself symbolizes the cleansing that makes the separation effectual—the appeal to God for a good (i.e., clean, forgiven) conscience, washed by the blood of Jesus and made sensitive to His directives and ways.
“Through the resurrection” is grammatically tied to “saves”; the separation and cleansing symbolized in baptism is only possible through the personal, total victory of Christ over sin, Satan, and death. The risen Christ, Peter declares, is also the ruling Christ, for His bodily resurrection paved the way for His authoritative seating in heaven at God’s right hand, after subjecting demonic forces to Himself through His cross-work. Having conquered them in death, He lives to make that victory total and sure. In identifying with Him through faith and baptism, Christians are assured that His victory will become theirs.
Sin has a stranglehold on the world system, but Christ has broken in to begin its reversal. God’s people participate even now in the beginnings of that and have an assured future in its completion. The tumult caused by holy people living in an unholy world is doubtless trying and scary, but Christians have an unbreakable relationship with a sovereign, glorious, and victorious Savior, who will soon triumphantly return and gloriously complete His two-thousand-year project of making all things new.