Sermon 07-16-17: “The Gospel, Noah’s Ark, and Christ’s Victorious Reign”

Today’s sermon deals mostly with what many scholars consider the most difficult verse in the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:19, which says that sometime after his death, Christ “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” This verse has been used as a proof-text for a part of the Apostles’ Creed that we United Methodists no longer say: “[Christ] descended into hell.” But is that what it means? This sermon will help us figure it out.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 3:18-22

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I personally have never shopped at IKEA, nor have I ever put any of their furniture together. My wife, Lisa, has, and she’s a champ at it. But I know from its reputation, that their instructions can be notoriously difficult: They’ve inspired memes and satirical articles. One Buzzfeed article was entitled, “Why Building Ikea Furniture Is Probably Satan’s Favorite Hobby.” Two years ago, when IKEA announced that they were assisting Syrian refugees by donating ready-to-assemble shelters, one Onion writer said, “Haven’t these people been through enough without the added struggle of assembling IKEA products?”

But we all know the frustration of trying to assemble something at home—I’m thinking of baby cribs, for instance—only to find that when we get through assembling it, there are these mysterious parts left over. And we don’t know where or how they fit in, and the prospect of taking it apart and reassembling it makes us want to use words that we wouldn’t want our pastor to hear—and you wouldn’t want your pastor to say.

Well, theologian N.T. Wright says that today’s scripture is a lot like that. We’ve assembled the main structure: Peter, as I said last week, is writing to encourage a group of Christians who are suffering persecution and even death for the sake of their faith in Christ. And so his words from 1 Peter 3:17 and 18, which I preached about last week, couldn’t be more helpful: Just as these Christians have suffered unjustly, so Christ suffered unjustly. In fact, God transformed the greatest evil and injustice the world had ever seen—which is the death of his Son Jesus on the cross—into the greatest good the world had ever seen: because it became the means through which everyone in the world could have their sins forgiven and be saved. And if God could work this kind of transformation with Christ’s suffering, think of what he could do with our own suffering! And indeed, Peter has written a lot in this letter about how God is redeeming our suffering—using it as a witness to the world and using it to make us into the people he wants us to be.

All of that makes perfect sense… But then we get to verses 19 and 20, and it’s as if we’ve built some IKEA furniture, only to find that we have these parts left over, and we don’t know how to make them fit. Since verses 18 through 20 are one long sentence, let me read them together: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God”—so far, so good, but now get this: “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 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.” Huh? Surely we can sympathize with Martin Luther—no slouch when it came to interpreting scripture—when he said of today’s passage: “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”[1]

These verses raise so many questions: When did Christ go and “proclaim” to these spirits in prison and why? Where is this prison? And who exactly are are these spirits—and what do they have to do with Noah and the ark?

Let me begin by focusing on a very popular interpretation. In fact, you can find evidence of this interpretation in our United Methodist hymnals, on page 881: the Apostles’ Creed, which we recite nearly every Sunday. Turn to it if you’d like. There are a couple of footnotes. One of them occurs after the line that reads, “[He] was crucified, dead, and buried.” Follow the asterisk: Originally, the creed said what? “He descended into hell.” This was not part of the earliest version of the creed; it was added later. But we Methodists used to recite that line until 1939, when the northern Methodists reunited with the southern Methodists.

But the biblical foundation for this line, “he descended into hell,” is based in large part on these strange and obscure verses from 1 Peter chapter 3.

Now, you’ve heard me preach before that Jesus experienced hell—for us, on the cross. I believe that strongly. I believe that in the moment that God “made him sin who knew no sin to be sin for us,” as 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us, the moment when he quoted Psalm 22, saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” he experienced separation from his Father in that moment. And separation from God is hell. But that happened while he was on the cross, not after he died.

But that’s not the kind of hell the creed is talking about when it says “he descended into hell,” and that’s certainly not what verses 19 and 20 refer to. And many Christians over the past two thousand years have interpreted these verses to mean that after Jesus was crucified and died, he went to this spiritual “prison”—which is hell or Hades—and he preached to the souls who were there; he shared the gospel with them; and he enabled them to repent of their sins and be saved. And if he did it for the souls of unbelievers who died during the time of Noah, surely he’ll do it again for others.

I had professors in seminary who interpreted it this way.

And this appeals to us, I think, because it holds out hope that non-believers who’ve died can get a second chance—that Christ will even go to hell itself in order to rescue sinners. And many of us have loved ones who’ve died as unbelievers—or at least loved ones we’re not quite sure about. So this interpretation gives us comfort; we like the idea of a second chance. I know I do!

The only problem is… it’s just not what scripture is saying here. It’s not a good interpretation.

First of all, why would Peter say Christ preached only to the spirits of people who were disobedient in Noah’s generation? People were disobedient not only in the time of Noah, but in the time of the Tower of Babel; in the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; in the time of Moses, Joshua, and the judges; in the time of Samuel; in the time of King Saul, King David, King Solomon; and throughout the time of the divided kingdom and in exile; and up until the coming of Christ. You get the picture: What about the rest of the disobedient spirits? If Christ’s mission was to share the gospel with the lost souls in hell, why single out the spirits of people who lived in the time of Noah, as he was building the ark. That’s got to mean something!

The second reason this isn’t a good interpretation is because of the thief on the cross in Luke 23: Remember, there was a criminal who was being crucified next to Jesus, who turned to Jesus in faith and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”[2] He doesn’t say, “But first I have to go to hell and preach to these spirits of these disobedient people.” No, Jesus indicates that the next place he’ll be is in heaven, not hell.

The third reason this isn’t a good interpretation is because of what Peter writes in verse 18: that Christ was “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” Some Christians have believed that “being made alive in the spirit” is what happened immediately after Christ died, and this was the time during which he went to hell. But that doesn’t make sense: if Jesus’ spirit was “made alive” after he died on the cross, it suggests that it wasn’t alive before then; or that his spirit was alive, but it died along with his physical body, and God brought his spirit back to life. But we believe as Christians that our soul doesn’t die; that it continues living even when we die. So that doesn’t make sense.

No… most Bible scholars today believe that “being made alive in the spirit” does not describe what happens to Jesus between his death and resurrection but to the resurrection itself. The apostle Paul refers to the same thing in 1 Corinthians 15, when he contrasts our “natural bodies” with the “spiritual bodies” that we’ll receive in resurrection. We will have real bodies—they’ll be physical, but more than physical as we know it. Paul tells us that they’ll be the same kind of bodies that Jesus has: Remember, Jesus could eat fish and be hugged, but he could also walk through locked doors and disappear and reappear at will. Jesus had a “spiritual body,” and so will we. So this is what Peter refers to when he says that Jesus was “made alive in the spirit”: it’s his resurrection.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Jesus tells a parable about hell in Luke 16, the Rich Man and Lazarus. And he describes a “great chasm” separating Paradise from hell, and he says that no one can cross from one place to the other. The rich man does not get a second chance, even though he wants one.

No… it’s clear from scripture that as much as we might want there to be a “second chance” for souls in hell, scripture rules it out. Now, there are a lot of questions about the afterlife that the Bible doesn’t answer. There are things we don’t know. We know that God will be a fair judge of who’s in heaven and who’s in hell, so of course we don’t presume to say who is in hell. For one thing, we often can’t know whether someone came to saving faith in Christ moments before death—like the thief on the cross, for instance.

But brothers and sisters, we are making a grave mistake if we believe that it doesn’t matter if we fail to witness to our loved ones, fail to share the gospel with them, fail to fulfill our Great Commission to make disciples for Jesus Christ—that doesn’t matter because, after all, our Lord will give them a second chance to respond to the gospel after they die. That seems like the worst kind of wishful thinking!

The only safe assumption is that people have time right now to hear and respond to the gospel. And time is running out. So our mission is urgent.

Our mission is urgent this week, as we share the gospel with the children whom God sends to us for Vacation Bible School. Let every one of us volunteers stay focused on one goal: sharing the gospel with these kids through our words and actions. We are not simply giving the children of this community a rewarding experience this week; we’re not simply giving their parents free baby-sitting for a week; we’re not simply playing games and singing songs and doing crafts with these kids. Everything we do this week is in hopes that these children will hear and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Nothing less than that.

We often talk about using Vacation Bible School to “plant a seed” of the gospel in the lives of these children and their families. And that’s a good and necessary start. These past few months, so many volunteers have been tilling the soil in preparation for this event, and by all means we’re going to plant a seed in the souls of these beloved children.

But let’s not be satisfied with merely planting a seed. Shouldn’t we be better farmers than that?

What about watering the garden, fertilizing it, weeding it? What about the harvest? Jesus didn’t say, “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are filled with seeds.” He said, “Lift up your eyes and see that the fields are white for harvest”![3] Let’s pray and work and pray and work and pray and work some more until we see the harvest!

O.K., so I’ve talked about what this scripture to isn’t saying. What is it saying? Here’s my best interpretation based on my research. Back in Genesis 6, immediately before the flood, the Bible describes the work of fallen angels—literally demons—that cooperate with humanity to create a lot of evil on the earth. And of course Satan and his evil forces continue to do great harm today. But the Greek word for “spirits” almost always refers to angels and demons, not to human souls. And that’s what I believe Peter refers to here—evil spirits.

And so, in Christ’s resurrection, Jesus sent the following message to these evil spirits: “You just lost. You thought that your evil work could derail God’s plan of salvation for this world, but you were wrong. I didn’t give in to your temptations; I remained faithful to my Father, and I did what I needed to do to defeat sin and death. I lived the life of perfect obedience to my Father that humanity was unable to live for itself; I died the death they deserved to die; and I suffered God’s wrath, which they deserved to suffer. And as a result, everyone who unites their life with mine—as represented through their baptism—will be spared the hell that you and Satan and all the other evil spiritual forces so badly wanted for them. You’ve been working to destroy them from the very beginning—as seen during the time of Noah—but my atoning death on the cross and my resurrection prove that you failed.”

Something like that, I believe, is going on here… And it just so happens that for whatever reason, the story of Noah and the flood was very popular and widely known in Asia Minor, where Peter’s churches are located—the story of Noah’s ark was well known even among Gentiles in the region. So much so that archaeologists have found non-biblical literature in the area that refers to Noah and the flood. They’ve found Roman coins that depict Caesar on one side and Noah and his ark on the other. And the locals in the area believed that Noah’s ark landed on a mountain in the area. So like any good preacher, Peter is using a story of great local interest to make a theological point.

Can you see how this message encouraged these persecuted and suffering Christians? Peter emphasizes that in the world before the flood—a world in which evil and violence were rampant; a world facing judgment for its sins—God saved a small number of people—eight to be exact, Noah and his family. And these Christians in Peter’s churches needed to know that they were in a similar situation: they were few in number, especially compared to size of the Roman Empire, which stood against them; but God had saved these believers, too, not simply from a flood but for eternity, through their faith in Christ and his resurrection.

One encouraging word for us is that we don’t have to be in love with large numbers. As we seek to reach the lost in our community with the gospel, even this week during VBS, maybe only a few will respond. That’s O.K. In the whole wide world of Genesis 6, Peter reminds us, only eight were saved. Large numbers are not a sign of faithfulness to God. But note: I said large numbers, not no numbers!

One more encouragement: Peter says that now that Christ has ascended to heaven, he is reigning—R-E-I-G-N, reigning—reigning over the world, not at some point in the future, after his Second Coming, but right now. All “angels, authorities, and powers” have been subjected to him. What does that mean?

It means that even Satan can’t do anything to us, except what our Lord Jesus allows him to do to us. Satan has a real but constrained amount of power to work in the world: In Ephesians 2, Paul calls the devil “the prince of the power of the air.” Jesus refers to him as a “ruler” in John’s gospel. But even this power is now subjected to Christ. This doesn’t mean that what Satan does to us isn’t evil and can’t harm us. These Christians in Peter’s churches were experiencing firsthand the evil that Satan was doing. But they could be confident, just as we can be confident, that, so long as we keep trusting in Jesus, God would transform it into something good for us and for our world.

Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 referred to his “thorn in the flesh” as a messenger from Satan sent to torment him. But then he also calls it a gift from Christ, given to him to keep him humble. So the Lord Jesus allowed Satan to do it, but then he transformed it into something good. This is what it means that even the devil is now subject to Christ.

So maybe you’re suffering right now… Anyone suffering? You can be confident that even if the devil didn’t cause your suffering—and he might have—the devil is at least doing everything in his power to make the suffering much worse.

But please remember who’s really in charge. Remember that it’s as if Jesus Christ has his foot on Satan’s neck, and he’s making him bend to his will. Our Lord will transform the worst the devil can do to you into something good. Just keep trusting in him.

1. “(1 Pet. 3:19-20) Where did Jesus go during the three days in the grave?” Evidence Unseen, Accessed 15 July 2017.

2. Luke 23:42-3 ESV

3. See John 4:35.

2 thoughts on “Sermon 07-16-17: “The Gospel, Noah’s Ark, and Christ’s Victorious Reign””

  1. FIRST
    I always wanted to do that.
    Thanks Brent. my pastor had similar msg today. “what are you fearing?” 1John says fear of punishment is not where we should be living.

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