Monday, November 01, 2010

Living for Christ in the Days of Noah - 1 Peter 3:19-22

I prepared an analysis of the interpretive difficulties of this passage, which is available here.


The Rare Book Division of the New York Public Library is home to one of the oldest globes in existence. Called “The Lenox Globe,” this 500 year old hollow copper ball, 4.4 inches in diameter, shows the world as it was thought to be in those early days of discovery. Across the unexplored territories of the Pacific, there is written a Latin phrase that translates into English as “Here Be Dragons.” No one is sure what prompted this phrase to be written there, but it served as a warning to seafarers of the dangers that may be encountered in charting unexplored territory and the caution that needed to be exercised.

The Bible can by no means be considered unexplored territory. In the two millennia since the New Testament was completed, this book has been studied, scrutinized, and analyzed by the world’s most brilliant minds. Still, in its pages one occasionally comes across choppy waters that pose certain danger for interpreters, and we must be cautious when we encounter them lest we fall prey to the twin dragons of error and heresy. First Peter 3:19-22 might well be marked in our Bibles with the warning, “Here be dragons,” for it has proven to be one of the most difficult passages (if not THE most difficult) in all of Scripture to understand.

Since today marks the 493rd anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses to the Wittenburg Church door, igniting the fires of the Reformation, it is fitting that we should consult with him about this text. Luther, one of the most brilliant men to ever handle the Word of God, has this to say about this 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] Luther’s words should both encourage and caution us as we attempt to interpret this text.

There are several questions raised in these verses that interpreters have struggled to answer over the centuries. Who are the spirits in prison? What kind of prison are they in? When did Christ go to make proclamation to them? What did He proclaim to them? In what way can baptism be said to save us? Interestingly, it seems that we have more answers than questions. One scholar has counted at least 90 different interpretations of verses 19-20 alone. All of these alternative interpretations essentially reduce to variations on three major perspectives. I am not going to turn this into an academic lecture in which I compare and analyze these views, but if the subject interests you, I have prepared a very lengthy analysis of them in writing and it is available on the resource table in the back of the sanctuary. I would recommend that to you, because as you read notes in your Study Bibles or other reference works, you will very likely encounter views which are much different from the one I have taken on this text, and you may benefit from seeing the supporting argumentation of how I came to hold the view that I will share in this message.

The Bible tells us that Noah’s ark came to rest after the flood upon the mountains of Ararat. This region was in close proximity to the Christians to whom Peter was writing in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. You may remember a news story from back in April of this year which reported an alleged discovery of the ark in the Turkish mountains. Whether that was really the ark or not, we may never know, but it is in the right place. This mountain range would have been visible from at least two of the regions Peter specifies in the opening verse of this letter: Galatia and Cappadocia. The story of the ark was a well known biblical account in that region long before the first Jews and Christians settled in the area. Several accounts of the flood were commonly told in that region, perhaps each being a corrupted version of the story found in our Bibles. Additionally, a prominent city in Asia Minor had been named after the ark, and ancient documents from the region make frequent reference to Noah and the flood. Some time after this letter was written, a series of coins were minted in the region depicting Noah and his wife. So, perhaps by introducing Noah in this passage, Peter is making an appeal to an account that was familiar and of interest both to his audience and their neighbors.

In many ways, the situation of the Christians who received this letter was similar to that of Noah in the days before the flood. God had announced a coming judgment and made a way of salvation available. But rather than turning to God in faith for salvation, the people continued in their sins and ridiculed the righteous for believing in the promises of God. That was the situation in Noah’s day, and it was the situation in the days when this letter was written. Many Christians in the world today, and increasingly we ourselves, find that the present situation is not altogether different. In Matthew 24 and Luke 17, Jesus said that His second coming would be “just like the days of Noah.” He said that in those days, “before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away.” This is how it will be in the last days. We don’t know when that will be, but we know that every day we are one day closer to the end. Peter’s original readers were living in the land of Noah, and in days that were very much like his. We are living even closer to the “days of Noah” that Jesus promised would come. And like the original recipients of this letter, and like Noah himself, we are to live for Christ in the midst of these days. As we do, this text presents us with assurances that we have to keep in mind.

I. As we live for Christ, we are Christ’s minority.

At 5:00 last night, I pulled up the headlines of the day on the web. Shootings, killings, robberies, assaults, terror attempts, armed conflict, missing persons – you saw the same stories. And then there was the email I received from my missionary friend in South Asia telling of a Christian church planter in his city whose home was intruded in the middle of the night by a gang. After stealing this man’s most valuable possessions, the gang dragged him out of town, tied him to a tree, and beat him. This world is a mess. Bad news is everywhere because sinful people are everywhere. That is the way it was in the days of Noah, and in the first century when Peter wrote this letter.

Genesis 6:5 records for us the condition of the world in Noah’s day: “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Then we read in verse 11 that “the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence (the Hebrew word is hamas, “terror”). God looked upon the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.” But in the midst of that wicked society, one man lived differently. You might say that it was because Noah was such a good man that God chose to use him, but that would be wrong. Genesis 6:9 does say that Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time, but his righteousness was the result of his relationship with God, not the cause of his relationship with God. In the verse immediately preceding, Genesis 6:8 we read that “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” The Hebrew word translated “favor” here is chen, and is often translated as “grace.” It has to do with the idea of a superior showing unmerited kindness to an inferior. The adjective form of this word, which we might render gracious is used only to describe God. It is because God is gracious that Noah found favor with Him, and God’s grace worked in Noah’s life to make him righteous and blameless.

God was the sovereign initiator, calling Noah out of a wicked and corrupt generation to live for Him, serve Him, and speak for Him. And this is the way God has always worked. He always works with a remnant that He calls out by His grace. After the flood, we find in Genesis 10 that Noah’s descendants fan out and become 70 nations all over the world. But of these 70 nations, in Genesis 12, God chooses one. Abraham was living in a culture of pagan idolatry when the Lord called him out by His grace and made him righteous. Abraham’s descendants became a chosen remnant in the world that God would bless and, through them bless to the world. And so it has gone down through the ages. Sinful human beings, as wicked and corrupt as they were in the days of Noah have filled the world. And from their midst God has always called out a small group for Himself, by His grace and for His glory.

Peter’s Christian brothers and sisters in Asia Minor were a remnant like the family of Noah. Surrounded by a sinful society, they were the minority group that God had chosen to bless and bring blessing through. They were aliens and pilgrims in the world, and the people around these believers were hostile to them. In the opening verses of this letter Peter mentions of the “various trials” that they are experiencing (1:6). As the letter unfolds we find mention of their adverse circumstances, even up to this very context. In verses 14-17, Peter speaks of suffering “for the sake of righteousness,” intimidation, slander, reviling, and suffering “for doing what is right.” While the Bible does not record any hostility that Noah ever endured, it is not hard to imagine that he would have been ridiculed, mocked and slandered while the ark was being built. In fact, Jewish legends had been passed down for generations that said this.

Many dream of a day when we will achieve a utopian society where everybody gets along and good moral values prevail in the world. That day is coming, but not here and not now. All promises or attempts to make it happen here and now will fail. The human condition is not changing, and therefore, until Christ consummates His Kingdom, there will always be a majority of people who have no interest in God’s will, God’s ways, or God’s Word. But if you are a follower of Christ today, you have been called out of that multitude to be a minority remnant whom God will bless and through whom God desires to bless the world. Are you frustrated or discouraged that you live in the midst of so much wickedness? Does it sometimes seem that you are all alone, or at least significantly outnumbered? This must not surprise us, for God has always chosen to work with a remnant that He chooses by His grace, and whom He makes righteous for His glory. We will experience hostility and harsh treatment from unbelievers and those who are disobedient to Him. We may be a maligned minority, facing hostility from those around us, but we are God’s minority, chosen by His grace in Christ and called out for the glory of Christ.

II. As we live for Christ, we are Christ’s messengers.

As we read the Bible, one thing that always stands out is how God uses average, ordinary people to accomplish His purposes. The men and women God uses are never depicted as superhuman. We see their strengths and we see their flaws. Just consider the two men who feature prominently in this text. Noah’s story ends in Genesis 9 with him drunk and naked and shamed. Peter is seen in the Gospels as a man with a big mouth and a hard head. God’s plan has always been to use ordinary human beings. So when Jesus gave the Great Commission to the Church, and commanded people like you and me to go into all the world sharing His Good News, He was not choosing Plan B. God is going to make Himself known to the world through us, His people. That is Plan A, and there is no Plan B.

Throughout 1 Peter, the Apostle has been encouraging the suffering believers in Asia Minor to be faithful in the task of sharing Christ with their neighbors. Though they are undergoing “various trials” (1:6), Peter exhorts them to keep their behavior excellent (2:12), to submit to every institution of human authority (2:13), to “patiently endure” their unjust suffering (2:20), to not return evil and insult in kind but with blessing instead (3:9), and to always be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks” them to give an account for the hope they have in Christ (3:15). This may have been intimidating for those Christians. After all, it is intimidating for us, is it not? On Wednesday night, we studied how even Moses made one excuse after another to get out of being God’s messenger in the days of the Exodus. But if you were there, or if you’ve studied that text, you remember that every one of Moses’ excuses was met with the assurance that God would equip, enable, and empower him for the task. When Moses protested that he was not eloquent, but slow of speech, God said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? … Is it not I, the Lord? Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say.”

Peter reminds his friends that as they live for Christ and speak for Christ, they need not be fearful or intimidated for it is actually Jesus Himself who will speak through them. Where do we get that idea? That is the entire point of Christ preaching to the spirits who disobeyed in the days of Noah. In 2 Peter 2:5, Noah is called “a preacher of righteousness.” He was not just building the ark, he was preaching to his generation, warning them of the judgment to come and offering them salvation in the ark. But Peter says here that, though the words were coming through Noah’s mouth, it was the Lord Jesus Christ who was doing the preaching. It was “in the spirit,” that is, in Christ’s glorious, eternal, spiritual nature in which He had always existed, that He went and made proclamation to Noah’s generation. And in the same way, the first century Christians of Asia Minor could draw comfort, encouragement, and strength from the assurance that Christ would speak through them as they made a defense of their faith.

Like them, we too have received the Holy Spirit if we have been born-again. God lives in you in the person of His Spirit. Jesus said in Acts 1:8 that this is the key to you being His witness. In Mark 13, Jesus spoke to His followers about difficult days that were coming. He talked about how they would be brought before governors and kings to testify of their faith in Christ. But Jesus said that this must happen in order for the gospel to be preached to all the nations. And He reassured them that when those days come, they were not to worry about what they would say. He said, “Say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit.” Now, you and I may never be brought before governors and kings to testify, but every day we find ourselves face to face with others who need to hear the testimony of Christ. And as Jesus said, we are not to worry about what we will say, but instead we must trust that the Spirit of Christ is going to speak through us in that moment. Just as He did through Noah, just as He did through the first century believers, so we can have assurance that Jesus will speak through us to others to make Himself known.

The message has never changed. Noah’s generation, Peter’s generation, and our generation must be confronted with the truth of God. There is a judgment coming. You say, “Oh, that message is not popular today.” Let me ask you: Do you think it was popular in Noah’s day? Was it popular in Peter’s day? It’s never been popular, but it has always been true. Peter says in 3:22 that our Lord Jesus Christ has gone into heaven, and He is seated at the right hand of God, exalted over all angels, authorities and powers. In 4:5, Peter says that the people who are harassing Christians in his day “will have to give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” Christ was preaching through Noah to the people of his generation that a flood of judgment was coming in which every single one of them would perish unless they entered the ark to be saved. That was the same message for the people of Peter’s day, and it is the same for the people of our day as well. We will all stand before the exalted and eternal judge to give an account. And all of us are deserving of condemnation because of our sin. But God has graciously made a way of salvation. Christ has become our ark of salvation. If we would escape the judgment to come, we must come to Him by faith, in repentance of our sins.

The ark was a demonstration of the salvation that a few people, a minority of eight people in Noah’s day, had received by the grace they had found in the eyes of the Lord. And he says in 3:21 that we have a corresponding demonstration of salvation in our day. We do not show evidence of God’s saving grace by boarding an ark, but by coming through the water of baptism. When Peter says that “baptism saves you,” he is indicating that baptism’s relation to salvation is the same as the ark’s relation to salvation. What was that relation? Noah’s salvation was not obtained by entering the ark but by experiencing the grace of God. The ark was the evidence, the demonstration, of that salvation. So our salvation comes, not through the action of baptism, but through the transaction of grace that is signified in baptism. We are saved by God’s grace, through the atoning work of Christ in His death and resurrection.

On the basis of what Christ has done for us, we “appeal to God for a good conscience.” That is, we confess to Him that we are sinners deserving of nothing but wrath, but we appeal to Him “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” for the cleansing of our guilt and the covering of His righteousness. And this salvation is not obtained by, but visibly demonstrated in our passage through the waters of baptism. In baptism, we demonstrate the death, burial and resurrection of Christ which makes our salvation possible; we depict the death and burial of our old way of life and the new life that Christ has granted to us by His grace; and we display our hope of a resurrection from the grave just as Christ arose.

Christ is speaking through us to the world, making His promise of a coming judgment and His gracious offer of salvation known. As the patience of God was waiting in Noah’s day, He is waiting in our day. 2 Peter 3:9 says that God is not slow in keeping His promises, but patient, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. The door of salvation stands open for all who will enter in through Jesus Christ, just as the door of the ark remained open until the day that the rain began to fall. But the Bible says in Genesis 7:16 that the Lord closed the door of the ark on that day. The door of salvation is open today, but one day it will close. Jesus said it will be like the days of Noah. Everyone will be going about their business thinking all is well, and in a moment they will find themselves under judgment. And when that day comes, those who have continued in disobedience and unbelief will join the multitudes of Noah’s generation in their eternal prison of condemnation. But those who have turned to Christ in response to His offer of grace will join Noah and the Church in the ark of salvation and be carried safely before the eternal throne of the exalted Christ.

We began with an illustration concerning the Lenox Globe, that medieval sphere that was marked with a warning: “Here Be Dragons.” But we have now charted the territory and found that this text is perhaps not at all like the Lenox Globe, but rather like the Psalter Map of the 13th Century. The arresting feature on that magnificent map of the world is the Lord Jesus Christ, enthroned over the entire world and attended to by His angels, with the dragons as His footstool. This is the picture we see in this text. Christ is at the center of it all. Our attention should be captivated by Him, not by the dragons of difficult sayings. Those words exist by His inspiration, and they ultimately point us back to Him. He is not obscured by them but is exalted through them. He speaks through us, His church, calling a sinful society to repent and turn to Him and be saved.


[1] Martin Luther, Commentary on Peter & Jude (trans. & ed. John Nichols Lenker. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1990), 166.

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