Commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-22
The author of 1 Peter addresses “the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood” (1 Peter 1:1-2). The exiles of the Dispersion are gentile Christians in Asia Minor who need encouragement and comfort in their harsh lives on the margins of the Roman Empire. The author assures them of the sustenance and success of Christian life rooted in Christly examples as well as God’s grace.
In 1 Peter 3:18-22, the focus is Christ’s innocent suffering for the unrighteous and the importance of Christian life imitating him. Christ’s suffering results from his challenging the power/ideology of the world, demonstrating God’s love for the marginalized. That is, Jesus was faithful to God and did not spare his life in demonstrating God’s righteousness or justice to the world. He proved God’s love through his faithfulness and righteous suffering for the unrighteous (recalling the image of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:11). Now the unrighteous may have a new life and hope in God through the grace of Jesus. Those who are baptized in the name of Jesus must live with the spirit of Christ as well as with the power of the resurrection of Jesus (see also 1 Peter 1:18-2:25).
Once and for all, to bring you to God
Scholars believe that 1 Peter was written in Rome during the last quarter of the first century, a decade after Paul’s letter to the Romans. We may understand 1 Peter better through intertext with Paul’s undisputed letters, which may have influenced the former. As Paul’s letters are infused by the message and power of the cross (for example, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 13:4; Romans 5:6-8; 8:3-4; Galatians 6:14-17), 1 Peter also talks about Christ’s suffering for sin, which is a matter of interpretation.
Based on Romans 5:6-8 and 8:3-4, Christ’s suffering for sin may be understood as his price for demonstrating God’s love to the world. In Romans 5:6-8, Paul says: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Christ’s dying for “the ungodly” applies to all (“dying for us”). Jesus loved God and unfaithful people and advocated for them. Ironically, he was crucified by the hands of evil because of his love of God and the world. That is, he defended the rights of the poor and marginalized and cared for them.
In Christ’s crucifixion are the grace of Jesus and the love of God. This idea is also found in Romans 8:3-4: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Jesus was treated like a sinner/criminal because he demonstrated God’s love and justice while challenging the wisdom of the world (see also 2 Corinthians 5:21). The above idea is conveyed in 1 Peter 3:18: “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,” which echoes 2 Corinthians 13:4: “For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.”
While his suffering for sins once and for all was a historical, salvific event, it does not exempt his followers from suffering for the gospel or risky journeys due to faith. This means people must turn to God as they repent. So, 1 Peter 3:18 says, Christ’s suffering is “to bring you to God.”
1 Peter 3:19-20 as an extraneous passage?
From a critical perspective today, 1 Peter 3:19-20 is not only hard to understand but extraneous to the message of the cross and its relation to Christian life. In this passage, Christ’s proclamation to “the spirits in prison,” who were disobedient in the days of Noah, seems out of context. The author of 1 Peter may have thought that Christ is concerned with the salvation of the spirits or the dead even if the context is unclear. This thinking may be seen also in 1 Peter 4:6: “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”
Baptism and salvation
Now Christian baptism saves people for new life. Baptism is not a mere ritual that cleanses the dirt from the body, but a new birth to God through Christ. A baptism is an event where one dies with Christ and lives to God, renewing their mind and heart. Then, they may live a new life in Christ.
Earlier in 1 Peter 2:4-10, the author reminds the exile Christians in Asia Minor that they are a special people of God. Therefore, they must behave differently from others. For example, 1 Peter 2:9-10: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Live as Servants of God.” Likewise, 1 Peter 3:8-9: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.”