Commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-22
If you’ve ever been to a church youth gathering you may well have seen a skit like this:
A young man, probably in high school, sits reading his Bible while “Jesus” stands, smiling and glowing, at his shoulder. In comes a friend who invites him (the young man not Jesus) to a party. The young man goes, with Jesus “ghosting” along behind.
At the party, our trouble-bound young man first accepts a glass of beer from a keg, then something to smoke, then a kiss with the hint of much, much more from a young lady. With each of these illicit acts, more ghostly figures appear and, hammer and nail in hands, they take hold of Jesus. A sip of beer leads to the first nail being driven home. Jesus looks imploringly at the young man, but to no effect. A drag of a cigarette (or worse) and BANG goes nail number two. Kiss and cuddle usher in nail number three. BANG! BANG! BANG! Jesus is crucified once more. The intended moral of this all-too-passionate play is that we take Jesus with us wherever we go, and with each of our sins Jesus suffers again at our hands. And suffers again. And again. And again.
In the midst of this performance 1 Peter 3:18 cries Cut! “Christ also suffered for sins,” says Peter, “once for all.” Once…for all. While this may seem a relatively small matter to get hung up on, it is not. Christ’s suffering over sin is a single and singular act. Its power and efficacy are not diminished over time. Christ suffered for sins — all sins — once; his suffering, death and resurrection have done sin in. Once and for all.
Now, we should certainly not suggest that sin is not sin, or that we should not struggle against sin, that sin is not serious, or that sin is not potentially deadly. It is. We should. It is and it is. But in the face of Christ’s suffering and death, sin is not the power that it once was. To suggest otherwise is to make light of the crucifixion, and what it really means for us.
1 Peter 3 follows this declaration about Christ’s suffering, making a connection between the Noah story and the baptism of all flesh as the source of salvation. For those familiar with the baptismal liturgies of the Lutheran tradition, this will be a familiar and perhaps obvious move. But connecting Noah and baptism is really a striking, surprising, and frankly, a somewhat unlikely move.
In the Noah story, the few righteous people are preserved, while those who have sinned (presumably by going to keggers and smoking) are washed away. God is wearied by the wickedness of humankind, with its every inclination “only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Is this really what we believe baptism is all about? Is this what happens in baptism, that the sinner in us is washed away? The inclinations of the average Christian heart seem to discredit this idea. If we are tempted to draw too close a parallel between the Great Flood and the sacrament of baptism, we would do well to take a step back and consider more carefully how 1 Peter 3:21 applies Noah as a metaphor. 1 Peter 3:21 describes baptism not so much as a cleansing (“not as a removal of dirt from the body”), but as an appeal on the behalf of the baptized to God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Thus baptism is not, for 1 Peter 3, a cleansing or a washing away of sin (or the sinner), but a claiming of the sinner by Christ Jesus.
“Baptism now saves you.” This phrase follows closely after the talk of Christ’s suffering. In Peter this cleansing is not tied as explicitly to the death and resurrection of Jesus as it is in Paul (cf. Romans 6:4), but the implicit connection is obvious. Christ suffered for all sins, and baptism is how we are joined to his resurrection: his victory over suffering, sin and death. Noah found favor with God in the face of the world’s wickedness (Genesis 6:6-8). Noah’s righteousness saved him. Baptism now saves you.
Like the Great Flood, the suffering of Christ is a one-time event. “It is,” to coin a phrase, “finished.” In baptism we find ourselves connected to the resurrection of Christ. Unlike Noah, the righteous man who is brought safely “through water” while the unrighteous are washed away, we are the unrighteous who are saved in the water. We are joined to Christ Jesus the righteous one who endured the suffering and death that our sins earned him.
At the end of the great western Unforgiven Clint Eastwood as William Munny stands over Gene Hackman’s character Little Bill Daggett, rifle raised and threatening. Daggett, already wounded, looks up at Munny and says, “I don’t deserve this. To die like this. I was building a house.” To which Munny replies, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” With a cold glint in his eye, Munny chambers a round, and pulls the trigger.
In sharp contrast to this scene stands the suffering Christ on our behalf, and the claim that Christ makes for us in baptism — not after we are cleansed, not on account of our righteousness, but in direct opposition to what we might deserve, another Noah and another flood and another drowning out of the sinner. Instead we are baptized in Christ’s name, delivered from the power of sin through his suffering, and so saved. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).