Commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-22
As is the case with much of the New Testament, when reading First Peter we find ourselves reading other people’s mail.
First Peter is a letter addressed to the “exiles of the dispersion.” It is not clear to what extent the audience is suffering — persecutions, physical or psychological, ongoing or sporadic. However, it is apparent that the audience is identified as outsiders of some sort. The writer sets out to affirm their identity as God’s people and to provide guidance for how to live during difficult times.
Given this framework, in 1 Peter 3 we find suggestions for how the assembly is expected to be in relationship with one another, beginning with husbands and wives and then extending to the entire community. It reads: “All of you have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). While these are all certainly admirable qualities for any community, some of the other directives appear to be an ancient form of the politics of respectability. Respectability politics is a strategy that is often employed so that marginalized groups are perceived as being socially aligned with the majority. As Brittney C. Cooper suggests, it enables such groups to minimize various threats and to “navigate a hostile public sphere.”1 The writer of this letter is advocating conformity to social norms; however, we do not know what prompted the letter or the communities’ response to it.
Perhaps to give meaning to the suffering that the community is experiencing, the writer reminds them that Christ suffered to bring all (the righteous and the unrighteous) to God. It is important to note that suffering is not to be glorified, but it is Christ who is glorified. At the end of 1 Peter 3, we see that Jesus’ death is not the end of his story. In fact the last four verses underscore three things: (1) the saving power of water, (2) the importance of a clear conscience and, (3) life after death.
The story of Noah is invoked. During this time “eight persons were saved through water” (1 Peter 3:20). I have always read the story of the flood as one where God saves Noah and his family from not by the water. I did not see it as a narrative that demonstrates the salvific power of water and thusly prefigures baptism. My narrow vision focused only on these eight people, representative of humanity, and the destructive power of water. Yet, the floodwaters cleansed and prepared the earth for a redeemed humanity. The writer’s aside “not as a removal of dirt from the body,” proves instructive for this understanding.
If we consider how we emphasize cleaning our own hands, we may see this point more clearly. Yes, we wash our hands to remove dirt, but why are clean hands so important? It is not simply for the removal of dirt from our bodies, but this washing protects us from viruses, illnesses, and diseases. Washing hands literally saves lives. So if cleaning our hands, one of the most extreme parts of our bodies can have such a tremendous positive impact on our health, our life; then how much more should we be concerned about a clean heart or as this writer suggests a good conscience?
A clear conscience
In 1 Peter 3:16, the writer admonishes the community to keep their conscious clear so that slanderers will be shamed. Again in 1 Peter 3:21 a good conscious is associated with the ritual of baptism. If cleaning your hands can save your physical life, cleaning your inner “person” or having a clean heart can surely save your spiritual life.
Conscience, often described as an inner voice or a guide, enables us to make right choices, propels us to choose the good. If we are to let our conscience be our guide, then our conscience must be clear and good. For a community where suffering is ever-present, their (our) lives cannot be directed by their (our) fear. Their (our) decisions must be informed by the hope that is found in the resurrection of Jesus. This hope comes from the confession of their faith exemplified through the act of baptism, this inner cleaning.
Because He lives!
The act of baptism itself mirrors Jesus’ movement from death to descent to ascent. This text tells us that the resurrected Jesus, alive in the spirit, made a proclamation to imprisoned spirits. Beyond death, Jesus faithfully and fearlessly proclaimed the Good News. He lived his mission statement not until the end but beyond time itself.2 If Jesus preaches to imprisoned spirits after his death, how much more should we share the good news to those physically and spiritually in chains? After all, this is choosing the good; it is doing what is right. The gospel lives beyond space and time (because he lives).
During the season of Lent, I am often reminded of a song by the gospel singer John P. Kee, “Because of Calvary.” At the beginning he poses this question: What’s the most important thing — him being born or him dying? The title of the song affirms his answer — it is Jesus’ death. Yet, I do not think the response to his query is simple. Like life, there are few things that are black and white; such dichotomies do little to address the gray areas of life where we spend the overwhelming majority of our time. And so this question has led me to another: What if the most important thing was not Jesus being born or Jesus dying, what if the most important thing is how Jesus lived?
As we move through the season of Lent, a most holy time of the Christian calendar, a time when it is just and good to reflect on the ultimate sacrifice made by Jesus. Let us also be mindful of the example he gave and gives us about living — the good news transcends death and space and time and continues to bring us closer to God.
- Brittany C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 3-4.
- I suggest that Jesus’ mission statement is found in Luke 4:18-19 when he publicly reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”