A Bible Lesson on 1Peter 3:8-22

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

As we jump into the 3rd chapter of the letter, Peter is discussing how Christians ought to live as strangers and aliens in this world. In the portion of the book we’re jumping over, he talks about how loyalty to Christ ought to affect relationships with civil authorities, those whom a Christian serves as a slave, spouses, and brethren in the church. In the verses considered here, the primary focus is on how believers ought to think about and respond to persecution and suffering on account of the faith.

1Peter 3:8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.

9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.

These two verses are a summary of what has just gone before. They are not new thoughts.

Peter says first that believers are to have unity of mind/likemindedness/harmony. And, as Edmond Clowney put it, “The unity of mind that Christians are to show includes harmony of attitude as well as of understanding. … When the truth of Christ is affirmed in arrogance, it is denied.” The list of characteristics begins with unity/likemindedness and ends with humility/lowlymindedness. In the Biblical/Christian mind, these are closely and fundamentally linked.

Christians are to have sympathy for one another. This is participation in the misery and suffering that Christian people endure and encounter in this life. Life is arguably easier/more pleasant if we are “islands,” ignoring the difficulty around us. But we would be in a world of hurt if that was the attitude of Christ toward us, and His people are in the process of becoming like Him. This is much more than simply intervening to try to help “fix” another’s problem, it is purposely taking on the turmoil of life.

Christian love is “brotherly.” It is familial in nature. That speaks to its origin and to its permanence. It’s from God, as Christians belong to His adopted family. Just as (despite all human difficulty and stress) we never cease to be siblings to our siblings, Christians are always related to other believers. If we have any sense, we’ll reckon from that and live accordingly. We’ll live with tender hearts. We will live with compassion. Paul says much the same, again pointing to Christ as the origin.

Ephesians 4:32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Verse 9 says “No tit for tat, instead blessing.” That is the nature of the Savior and it’s the nature of His Kingdom. Jesus said that plainly in the Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5:38-48. The Apostle Paul says that repeatedly in his letters.

Romans 12:17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.

1Thessalonians 5:15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.

1Corinthians 4:12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure;

This is true both inside and outside of the Christian church. This is completely contrary to “the way the world works,” but it’s the nature of the Kingdom of God and that is true, real, and ultimate blessing. Peter then introduces a quotation from Psalm 34 with “For …”

10 For “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit;

11 let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it.

12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

Christian people know that they live before the face of God. They live knowing He is sovereign and just. They live knowing that their responsibility is not to look out for themselves, but rather to live as loyal subjects of their King and trust all to Him. (It’s a wonderful thing to know that we are not responsible to keep the earth spinning on its axis!)

13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?

This is a rhetorical question and the implied answer is “no one.” But this has to be reconciled with the fact that Jesus plainly warned those that would follow Him that they would be hated for their allegiance to Him and with the reality that these people to whom Peter writes already are (or very soon will be) facing intense government-sponsored persecution for the sake of Christ.

John 16:33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Peter is beginning this discussion of problem of persecution with emphasis on what is ultimately true. Christians are in the hand of God. Bottom line, no ultimate harm can come to those who are God’s. There may be persecution, yes, even death, but eternal harm, no.

The Old Testament is full of this kind of encouragement to God’s people.

Isaiah 50:7 But the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

8 He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me.

9 Behold, the Lord GOD helps me; who will declare me guilty? Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.

Psalm 56:3 When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.

4 In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?

And Paul has similar things to say.

Romans 8:31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?


14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,

“But even if,” Peter says. Peter is speaking as if persecution is a fairly remote or unusual possibility for those who are zealous about doing good. That’s interesting, again in light of the fact that these people are either in or on the brink of intense persecution. Peter’s not encouraging them to dwell on it. He’s not teaching them to make a big deal out of anticipating it or somehow figuring that preparations need to be made for it. Peter seems to be saying “Don’t be brooding over the possibility of suffering for the sake of the right. Live like it isn’t going to happen. If it does, don’t fear because all is in God’s hands and His grace is sufficient.”

The focus here is on God, not on any human threat. And if this was true for 1st century believers living in the increasingly hostile Roman Empire, how much more should it be true for us in the relatively safe US in the early 21st century?

Peter is quoting from Isaiah 8.

Isaiah 8:12 “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread.

13 But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.

Do not fear. The Old Testament Scripture points to reverence for the LORD Almighty as the antidote for fear. Peter says

15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,

Honor or set apart Christ as Lord. Put Him in a category by Himself as Lord. Worship Him and Him alone.

Be prepared to make a defense/give an answer, both to those who are hostile and would persecute you, and to honest inquirers drawn by the Holy Spirit to faith in Christ.

The word choice here indicates that the reply we are to be prepared to give in answer is one that is reasonable, that is, rational, coherent, understandable. The Christian is to have an examined faith in Christ, one that can be articulated both to the hostile and the friendly. And it is to be done with gentleness and respect. Gentleness is strength under control, not weakness. Respect is probably better translated “reverence.” Fundamentally this is directed at the sovereign Lord.

16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

In some ways, the ultimate argument or apologetic is the quality of one’s character and life. Our words are necessary and important, but what will finally silence malicious criticism by those who hate the Faith is exemplary conduct. Conversely, all of our words mean next to nothing when we deal with a person who has been ripped off by someone who claims to be a Christian.

17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

But again, if persecution comes, it’s not the ultimate tragedy. The ultimate tragedy would instead to be walking outside God’s grace and mercy and to get the just rewards of our sin. And again, Peter puts the issue of what we will face in this world in the hands of God. If God so chooses, you and I will suffer for doing good, but that is not something that ought to occupy our thoughts. Instead we ought to dwell on Christ’s work on our behalf. We wrongly set up suffering as an opposite of living in God’s blessing. It is not.

18 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,

The first half of this verse is one of the most compact and yet complete statements of the doctrine of atonement in the Bible. Christ died once (for all). Jesus’s death was unique. In what happened on the cross, sin was finally and completely defeated. God dealt with man’s sin in a way that is adequate for all sin, for all humans, for all time. Christ died for sins. It is the death of Christ that atones for the sin of man and makes possible the restoration of the lost relationship between man and God. Christ died the righteous for the unrighteous. The death of Jesus was vicarious. He took my rightful place and yours. Christ died to bring us to God. The word for “bring” is one that was applied in this time to admitting one to an audience with a King.

The last half of the verse and the next 2 make up one of the most disputed short passages in Scripture. Histories of conflicting interpretations go all the way back to the early church fathers. Augustine, for example, took issue with Oregin’s interpretation. Apparently the Greek is ambiguous in a number of ways and places in these verses. The differing interpretations revolve around the possible answers to 3 questions:

Who are the spirits in prison? Unbelievers who have died? Old Testament believers who have died? Fallen angels?

What did Christ preach? A chance for repentance? Completion of redemption’s work? Final condemnation?

When did He preach? In the days of Noah? Between his death and resurrection? After His resurrection?

Even to adequately lay out the various possibilities that have been suggested would take us afar from the main flow of this text. And the arguments for each are based on nuances of grammar that are probably beyond sensible consideration here. What I’ll do here then, is just offer one that seems to be consistent with the rest of Scripture and the context, and that was seemingly well argued in the commentary on 1Peter that I have found most helpful. That is the possibility that the reference is to unbelievers from Noah’s time, to whom the Spirit of Christ (alive in Noah) preached repentance before the flood.

19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison,

20 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.

Apparently, a perfectly legitimate rendering of verses 19 and 20 is “he went and preached to those who are now spirits in prison when they disobeyed formerly when God’s patience was waiting in the days of Noah”

In any case, the thought brings Peter to the picture of the ark. Noah’s time was a dark time. Noah’s family was the tiniest of minorities. The family members surely felt the sting of persecution from their neighbors as they preached and prepared for the flood. But God saved them through that dark time and situation. The application is that neither the early Christians nor we have it any worse than Noah and his family. We know the whole story. Noah had only a glimpse of redemption. God’s provision was sufficient for Noah and it’s sufficient for us.

21 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,

Baptism corresponds to/is an “antitype” of this. Just as a stamp has an imprint, the Old Testament flood and Christian baptism are in correspondence. We see in the flood God’s just wrath on a rebellious world. Noah and his family were saved through that wrath by faith, in that they believed and obeyed God. Christian baptism (in this analogy) pictures a death, the just punishment for my sin. But as God provided a way for Noah, He has provided a way for you and me. We’re saved and come through the flood unharmed by faith in Christ. Lest we think that it is the physical act of baptism that brings us through, Peter hastens to tell us otherwise. It’s not the physical washing that saves, but the appeal that the penitent sinner makes to God in faith. Baptism is “an appeal to God for a clear conscience.” We come to the end of ourselves and throw ourselves on God’s mercy, knowing that only He can set things right. In Peter’s mind, baptism is a sign or picture of a transaction that has taken place between God and a human being who has come to Him in faith, and this thing is not without its basis in real fact. It is by the resurrection of Christ.

22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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