Commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-22
On this First Sunday in Lent, we are invited to reflect upon water. The first reading takes us to the story of God’s covenant with Noah; the gospel reading recounts the baptism of Jesus in Mark; and this reading from 1 Peter may be read as a commentary on both. First Peter is addressed to “the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1). The author, being aware of the “fiery ordeal” that is taking place among the audience (4:12), writes this letter to provide pastoral guidance. It is unknown what kind of suffering the recipients of this letter are going through, but apparently, they are treated as outsiders (2:11).
The author comforts and encourages the audience in several ways. First, the author affirms their identity as God’s people. They are chosen ones: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2:9), through Christ. Also, the readers are urged to live in a certain manner as God’s people, which, interestingly, includes conforming to social norms.
Today’s lesson is a part of the section where the author discusses Christian duties (2:11–3:22), and some teachings here are indisputably troubling. Slaves are asked to submit themselves to the authority of their masters (2:18–25) and wives to the authority of their husbands (3:1–6). They need to endure pain even when provoked by injustice (2:19). These might express the author’s hope that such conformity would keep the readers from graver perils.
The author also provides theological reasoning. Christ’s suffering makes Christians’ suffering meaningful because “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (2:21). Suffering can even be a blessing when one suffers for doing what is right (3:14a).
The reading for today closes the section on Christian duties, and the emphasis on Christ’s suffering continues. The message that Christ suffered for sins is repeated. Yet it is noteworthy that this time, the author adds “once for all” (3:18; hapax in Greek, literally meaning “once” in a numeric sense). With this addition, the author makes it clear that Christ’s passion is not something imitable; the author is not asking the readers to accept their suffering simply as a way of emulating Christ. Instead, due to its distinctiveness, Christ’s suffering can be an encouragement for each and every Christian undergoing any kind of suffering. A brief description of Christ’s death and resurrection in verses 18–19 adds to the uniqueness of Christ’s suffering.
In verse 19, we see an early development of the doctrine regarding Christ’s descent to the dead. The author writes that in the interim between his death and resurrection, Christ “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” This is restated in 4:6: “The gospel was proclaimed even to the dead.” The identity and location of the dead are unclear, as well as why it matters to the author and the audience (or doesn’t) that the good news is proclaimed to the dead. We see that the Apostles’ Creed contains a line in which such an interim activity of Christ is succinctly stated: “He descended to the dead.”
Noah’s story is recalled because those who disobeyed and died in the days of Noah are “the spirits in prison.” The author’s interpretation of this story is interesting for two reasons. First, the focus is on God’s salvation, not on God’s judgment—“a few, that is, eight persons, were saved,” and second, those eight were saved through water, not from water. Water has saving power as it saved those eight righteous from the unrighteous.
The author expands on the saving power of water: baptism “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 Christ” (3:21). How does baptism save? It allows believers to participate in the resurrection of Christ. This author explicitly associates baptism with salvation and resurrection, and this understanding of baptism is not commonly found in the New Testament.
We can compare this with Paul’s view on baptism found in Romans 6:1–11. He notes that when we were baptized, we were baptized into the death of Christ, and just as Christ was raised from the dead, “we might walk in the newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Paul may give the nod to the idea that baptism can save. But for Paul, baptism is not yet directly joined to Christ’s resurrection because the coming of Christ is still pending. For the author of 1 Peter, by contrast, baptism actualizes our participation in the resurrection of Christ, and therefore, baptism saves. Water actually has saving power as it saves Christians from the unrighteous.
It is also interesting that the author does not necessarily equate cleansing with saving; baptism saves us “not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.” Baptism leads us to hold a good conscience. In 1 Peter, a clear or good conscience indicates the overall disposition of a believer, and this usage is found in the Pastoral Epistles (see 1 Timothy 1:5–6, 18–19). A good conscience characterizes a Christian way of living because it helps us discern that “it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17).
This reading from 1 Peter gives us three inspirations on this first Sunday of our journey to the cross. First, we are invited to reflect on Christ’s suffering, especially its distinctiveness highlighted by hapax in verse 18. The uniqueness of Christ’s suffering is what empowers Christians to endure their own suffering, rather than justifying it. Second, we can reflect on the abundant meanings of water. Water can cleanse, water can save, and water can sustain. Third, baptism is a reminder for Christians to lead a life of good conscience, choosing to do good even if it may bring suffering.