This sermon is unusual for me because it’s about one verse, 1 Peter 4:6, which includes strange words about the gospel being “preached to those who are dead.” What does that mean? One thing it doesn’t mean, as I argue in this sermon, is that people get a second chance to hear and respond to the gospel even after they die. No, the time to receive God’s gift of salvation is now.
Sermon Text: 1 Peter 4:6
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In one of the two sermons I preached last Sunday morning, when I was talking about verse 1 and the connection between suffering and “ceasing from sin,” I said, “This is one of two difficult verses in this passage.” I didn’t have time to talk about the second difficult verse in last Sunday’s sermon. So I want to talk about that verse now, and next week we’ll look at verses 7 through 11.
Verse 6 says the following: “For this is why the gospel was preached to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.” The gospel was preached to those who are dead. What does that mean?
Let me begin by taking about two things it doesn’t mean.
First, it doesn’t mean that Peter is talking about those who are spiritually dead. That has been one way of interpreting this verse over the years. While it’s true, of course, that apart from Christ, we are spiritually dead, Peter has just said, in the previous verse, that God is going to judge the “living and the dead.” He gives no indication that he’s switching gears and using the word “dead” in a figurative way. No, when he refers to “preaching to the dead,” he’s talking about people who are now physically dead.
But what does that mean? The gospel was preached to the dead. Is he saying that even people who are now dead can hear can respond to the gospel and possibly reverse the sentence of their judgment—so that, even if they rejected God’s offer of salvation in Christ while they were alive—even if they are now in hell—they can get a second chance? Hmm… That’s a little trickier.
I completely understand why most of us Christians want this idea of a second chance after death to be true: Because then it wouldn’t matter how faithfully we are fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission.
Remember the Great Commission? Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus gave his disciples a commission, a specific task that he wanted them to fulfill—and in fact it’s a task that continues today with us present-day disciples: “Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” In the Book of Acts, Jesus restates this commission in a slightly different way, but the commission is the same: Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Obviously, we present-day disciples are no longer in Jerusalem or Judea or Samaria—we are somewhere between there and the “end of the earth.” Yet we know that in our particular corner of the earth—in Hampton, Georgia, and the surrounding area—too many people—too many people—are living their lives and dying having not heard the gospel—or even if they’ve heard it, they’re unconvinced by it—or even if they believe, intellectually, that it’s true, they haven’t let that truth penetrate their hearts, and they’re unconvinced that it matters very much. And chances are, they look at the lives of Christians they know, and they say, “See, it doesn’t matter very much to them… It hasn’t affected their lives very much… So why should it affect mine?”
Just yesterday, in a ceremony right here in this sanctuary, our very own Jack Holliday received the rank of Eagle Scout, which only about two percent of young men involved in scouting receive. It’s a high honor. And a couple of times during the ceremony, his scout leaders said, “Jack, you are now a marked man.” “For the rest of your life, you’re a marked man.” Why? Because for the rest of Jack’s life, other people will look up to Jack and hold him to a higher standard. No matter where he goes in life, they will have higher expectations for him than they have for others. And these words were so powerful, so emotional—some people were moved to tears; many others had a big lump in their throats while watching this ceremony. It was deeply moving.
It moved me: Jack is now a “marked” man. I like that!
Oh, brothers and sisters, how can we communicate this message to our young people, for example, when they stand for confirmation? What if we said to them, Do you know that by virtue of the commitment you’re making today—the allegiance you’re swearing today to our Lord Jesus Christ—you are a marked man or a marked woman. First, you’re marked in the sense that you are “sealed,” the Bible says, and “set apart” by the Holy Spirit, which indicates that from this day forward you’re a child of God—with a whole new set of responsibilities, including fulfilling the Great Commission. And whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, you are enlisted to serve in an army to fight a deadly enemy—Satan himself. You are now fighting in a spiritual war. So by pledging to take up your cross and follow Jesus, it’s as if there’s now a target on your back. Because Satan wants to do whatever he can to defeat you. To ensure that you won’t be successful in fulfilling your duty, to ensure that many people we know and love will not hear the gospel, will not repent of their sins, and will not be saved.
Many people— too many people—are dying apart from a saving relationship with God through Christ.
And if Jesus’ words are true and we disciples have a God-given responsibility to share the gospel, and the power through the Holy Spirit to perform this task, then we have at least some responsibility—at least a small measure of responsibility—for their eternal destiny.
But I know it’s easier for us not to think about that and tell ourselves, “No, no… People will get a second chance even after they die—a second chance to be saved.” And so we strip verse 6 out of its context and say, “The gospel was preached to the dead. See! It doesn’t matter that we’re not doing our job fulfilling the Great Commission very effectively: the gospel is going to be preached to the dead—and although we’re not told who’s doing the preaching, they’re probably better at it than we are!”
But this is not a good interpretation of verse 6. First, notice that this preaching to the dead is in the past tense: “the gospel was preached.” Grammatically, it’s something that has already been completed. The gospel is not continuing to be preached to the dead.
Besides, in context, Peter been talking about how, in their former life in paganism, these Christians used to take part in all kinds of sinful, idolatrous behavior. And now, because of their obedience to Christ, they no longer do so. Many of their friends and neighbors have noticed the change, and they have rejected them, ridiculed them—and persecuted them. “Maligned” them, Peter says. And one of the ways they were “maligning” them was pointing to those Christians who’ve already died and said, “What’s the point?”
“What’s the point of alienating your friends by turning away from what Peter calls their life of ‘sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry’? What’s the point if—after making this dramatic break with your former life—you still end up dead just like everyone else. Is that how God rewards you for being ‘righteous’? We all end up the same: dead as a doornail. So why not eat, drink, and be merry like everyone else?”
So this is what Peter is referring to in verse 6: Christians who heard the gospel when they were alive, repented and believed in Jesus, and they are now dead. To capture the spirit of Peter’s words, the NIV, which is a less literal translation than the ESV, adds the word “now”: people who are now dead. They weren’t dead when the gospel was preached to them; now they are.
Peter’s point is that by all outward appearances, it seems like their Christian faith was futile. After all, the Bible teaches that the “wages of sin is death”—that we all deserve the death penalty because of our sin. And yet, Christianity teaches that our sins are forgiven, that we’re saved from our sins. So why did these believers die? This is likely what Peter means when he says that they were “judged in the flesh the way people are.” Death itself is a judgment against sin, and their faith in Christ didn’t change the fact that they died.
So Peter might be talking about God’s judgment against sin. But he might also be referring to Christians who are judged by legal authorities and sentenced to death because of their faith. Peter himself would be judged like that: We know from Jesus’ prediction in John chapter 21, as confirmed by church history, that Peter himself was going to be judged, condemned, sentenced to death under the emperor Nero in Rome around A.D. 65. He was, like his Lord, crucified. And don’t you know that onlookers to his death must have thought, “What a waste! After all that, Peter ends up like everyone else… dead.”
Again, these Christians could have just enjoyed themselves while they were here, instead of turning away from their sin and living for Christ.
But here’s the good news, Peter says: While it’s true that these Christians were “judged in the flesh the way people are,” and they died as a result, they are actually still alive—in the spirit. And they’re not just alive; they’re experiencing life like they’ve never known before. We don’t know much about what heaven is like, but we know it’s going to be incredible. And Christians who die get to experience heaven right away. They don’t have to wait for it. They don’t have to go get punished in purgatory first.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, he was suffering in prison. And his imprisonment was so harsh, so brutal that he wasn’t sure whether he would survive it or not. And he was torn between living and dying: If he goes on living, he can continue his missionary work, continue to start churches, continue to bring the Gentiles to faith in Christ. But if he dies, that’s even better: “to live is Christ,” he said, which is really good, even though he’s suffering. But to die, he said… that’s even better. Because it means heaven.
We got a little “picture” of heaven in the news last week… But first some history…
On October 14, 2003, the Chicago Cubs were five outs away from winning their first National League pennant in 58 years. They had a three games to two lead in a best of seven series with the Florida Marlins. With one out in the eighth inning, a foul ball was hit to Moises Alou in left field. Alou ran over to the sidelines to catch what would have been an easy second out of the inning. Instead, a Cubs fan named Steve Bartman reached out to catch the ball and deflected it, preventing Alou from making the catch. The Marlins went on in that inning to score eight runs and win the game 8-3. The next game they beat the Cubs, and that was that: the “lovable losers,” the Cubs, continued to be cursed, or so it seemed. And Steve Bartman was booed out of the stadium that night. From Cubs fans’ perspective, he potentially cost them a world title. He went down as the most hated man in Chicago Cubs history.
Until last week… The Cubs won the World Series last year, and the Cubs owner did something unthinkable—and unthinkably gracious and loving: He presented Steve Bartman, the most hated man in Chicago Cubs history, with a World Series ring. Steve Bartman, who had been one the biggest goats in sports history—because of what fans considered an unforgivable sin—was now treated like the heroes who won the World Series. What did Bartman do to deserve this honor? Not a thing!
Does that sound familiar? This is, Peter says, the unseen reality of what happens to us Christians when we die. Because of our sins, we deserve nothing but punishment from God, nothing but God’s wrath, nothing but hell. But God loved us too much to leave us in that condition. Because God loved us and wanted to save us, which meant, for him, dying on a cross, we now receive nothing but love, nothing but mercy, nothing but sheer grace! Because of this grace, God the Father treats us exactly the way he treats his own Son—as a hero instead of a goat, as the biggest winner instead of the biggest loser.
If we’ve repented of our sin and believed in Jesus, we are Steve Bartman.
And God is calling you and me and Hampton Methodist to go find a bunch of other Steve Bartmans. To turn a bunch of losers into the biggest winners imaginable. To turn a bunch of goats into the greatest heroes.
Just last week, a retired pastor in our conference, Warren Lathem, one of the most successful Methodist preachers of his generation, posted the following complaint on Facebook. He said that now that he’s retired from full-time pastoral ministry, he gets to go and speak and preach at a lot of churches. And these churches, like our church, have prayer times, during which people often share prayer requests. And he said that he hears requests all the time for physical healings and physical safety—healing from sickness, healing after surgery, safety during childbirth, safety for police officers and soldiers. And he hears requests for comfort for people who are grieving for loved ones who’ve died. And there’s nothing at all wrong with these kinds of requests.
What’s wrong is what’s left unsaid: Rarely if ever has he heard anyone say, “I want to pray for my husband—my son, my daughter, my neighbor, my friend—who is lost. Who doesn’t know Jesus. Who isn’t saved. Who is in need of spiritual healing, healing for their souls, by the Great Physician. Who is in far greater danger than anyone suffering from cancer, or a heart attack, or a natural disaster, or violence. Why? Because the threat that this lost person is facing doesn’t just kill the body but sends the soul to hell.
And if you’ve been paying attention to the message of 1 Peter in this series so far, then you know that Peter is writing to a group of Christians who’ve already decided that what happens to them—physically, through persecution or even martyrdom—matters far less than their responsibility to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission to be witnesses in the world.
So let’s not be fooled: God’s Word tells us that what we do right now makes a difference for eternity. What we fail to do matters for eternity.
But make no mistake: if you believe in Jesus and accept this mission, this Great Commission, you will be a marked man or a marked woman.
Are you still willing to do it? Are you still willing to follow Jesus?
1. Matthew 28:19-20 RSV
2. Acts 1:8 ESV