The life of Jesus is the most precious thing in all of existence. When it is offered, there is no limit to what it can “purchase.” If the entire universe was given in exchange for Jesus, it still wouldn’t be enough to “pay back” what he is worth. That precious life was given for you, to bring you back to God. There is no limit to how much forgiveness his life obtains for you. Nothing can stop this good news. Not even hell can block out the glory and grace of the gospel, though, of course, in hell, it makes everyone there more bitter and angry.
To listen to the sermon, click the play button:
For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen. To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 23
1 PETER #23. 1 PETER 3:18-20
Throughout this last section, Peter has been urging us to behave in certain ways. Prior to doing that, he laid out all of the wonderful things God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Now, after spending some time telling us how our trust in God’s promises should play out in our practical lives, Peter once more reminds us of what God has done. This time, he is focusing specifically on what Jesus Christ did for us. We are called to suffer patiently because of the joy that awaits us. Peter reminds us that Jesus suffered, and did so in far more significant ways.
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 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.1 Peter 3:18-20, ESV
This is the core of the gospel: that Jesus Christ died for our sins. There are dozens of verses in the New Testament that declare this:
1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.(1 Corinthians 15:1-4, ESV)
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
Though we cannot claim to be without sin, Christ was without sin, and yet he suffered. The term “the righteous” is singular, in Greek, and “the unrighteous,” is plural. In other words, it says he was “the righteous one,” suffering for “the unrighteous ones.” It is his suffering that reconciles us to God. His blood was shed to redeem us. Peter says that Christ’s suffering for our sins happened “once.” The point of that is that the process is complete. His one-time suffering is sufficient to cover all of your sins – all the sins you have ever committed, in addition to those you might still commit in the future. This is true, in fact, of every human being. The writer of Hebrews also insists that Jesus’ sacrifice was once, for all sins, for all time:
11 Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. 12 But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 13 There he waits until his enemies are humbled and made a footstool under his feet. 14 For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy.(Hebrews 10:11-18, NLT)
15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies that this is so. For he says,
16 “This is the new covenant I will make
with my people on that day, says the LORD:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”
17 Then he says,
“I will never again remember
their sins and lawless deeds.”
18 And when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices.
Some people might wonder how, exactly this could be. Jesus was just one person – how can the death of one person save all people? I want to say three things about this. First, it is not necessary that we understand it. What we are called to do is trust that it is true. Technically, a person might perfectly understand how this works in theory, but unless she trusts that Jesus’ sacrifice was made for her (and that she needs it), her understanding would not save her. Usually trust involves stretching beyond what you can understand or verify. It involves a kind of surrender.
Second, we can make a brief attempt at understanding – while knowing that full understanding may not be possible, and certainly isn’t necessary. Toward understanding the sacrifice of Jesus, we need to keep in mind that there has never been, nor will there ever be, anyone like Jesus Christ. He was entirely righteous, entirely perfect in soul and spirit. No human being has ever been that way. He is, at one and the same time, both human, and God. Because of righteousness, and because of his Divine nature, Jesus Christ is infinitely precious. Therefore, if the life of Jesus is offered in exchange, there is no limit to what can be asked in return.
As a thought experiment, imagine you walk into a convenience store with a million dollars in cash. You ask: “Is this enough for a candy bar?”
The convenience store owner (who happens to be honest) says, “Of course. It’s worth far more than a candy bar.”
“What about five candy bars?”
“Of course. You can have five candy bars for that amount of money!”
“What about a hundred?”
“Yes! Listen, there aren’t enough candy bars in my entire store to equal a million dollars. What you have is worth more than all the goods in this whole store put together.”
“How many candy bars can I get, from you, then?”
“Listen, Dude,” says the owner, “if you give me that million dollars, I will give you a candy bar any time you want, for the rest of your life. As far as I’m concerned, it buys you a lifetime supply.” (If you bought 10 candy bars every single day at $1.50 each, even after 100 years, you still would have used only about half a million dollars)
In our economy, a million dollars is worth far more than a candy bar – almost infinitely more. The life of Jesus IS worth infinitely more than anything else that might be compared to it. Similar to the way a million dollars could purchase unlimited candy bars for life from a convenience store, there is no limit to what the life of Jesus can “purchase.” So, no matter how many sinners are born into this world, the sacrifice of Jesus will always be enough, because he is infinitely valuable. Therefore he only had to make the one sacrifice, because the value of the entire universe, past, present and future, is still nothing compared to the value of the life of Jesus Christ.
To make it personal: the death of Jesus has purchased you forgiveness for all time. You can keep going back for more forgiveness any time you want. There is no end to the amount of grace that Jesus obtained for us.
The infinitely precious life of Jesus was given, of his own free will, for you. And me. And everyone. The Bible makes it clear that the sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient for every human being who ever lived, or will live. Not all human beings take advantage of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, but there is enough for everyone. It is offered to everyone. Keep that in mind: it is offered to everyone – that will be important a bit later in this message.
The third thing I want to say is that the Bible leaves us with a certain amount of what I call “mystery.” Not everything is fully explained. It is possible to speculate about some things, but not always to know. What the Bible does give us is enough knowledge to call us to trust in God.
Speaking of mystery, next comes a phrase that we might never fully understand in this life:
…being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah(1 Peter 3:18-20, ESV)
Bible scholars throughout the ages have been confounded by these verses. Martin Luther says this about them:
This is a strange and certainly more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament. I still do not know for sure what the apostle means. At first the words give the impression that Christ preached to the spirits, that is, to the souls who did not believe many years ago, when Noah was building the ark. I do not understand this. Nor can I explain it. Nor has anyone ever explained it. But if anyone chooses to maintain that after Christ had died on the cross, he descended to the souls and preached to them there, I will not stand in the way. These words could give such a meaning. But I do not know whether Saint Peter wants to say this.(Martin Luther, “Luther’s Works, vol 30,” The Catholic Epistles, pg 113. Concordia Publishing, St. Louis, MO, 1967.)
Let’s start with what we can know. In the Biblical worldview, the only place that might imprison dead spirits is hell. Therefore, I am partial to the theory that, in some way, Christ appeared in hell. This is the way it is worded in the Apostles’ Creed. The Apostles’ Creed, however, is not scripture, though virtually all Christians have accepted it for more than a thousand years as a true summary of our faith. In any case, if our punishment for sin is not only death, but hell, it seems to me that when Jesus was punished for our sin, in order to receive our penalty, that had to include hell. On the other hand, maybe the fact that His life is infinitely precious made the simple fact of his death alone (without hell) enough to pay for our sins. On the other hand (I have lots of hands) 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that God made Jesus, who knew no sin, to be sin, for us, and sin is punished by hell, which suggests that Jesus had to go to hell.
Getting back to the main point, concerning our text for today, most Bible scholars agree with me that at some point during the process of his death and resurrection, Jesus was present in hell in some way, either physically (if such a thing is possible) or spiritually.
I don’t think it is useful to wonder what length of time Jesus spent in hell. God’s existence, and, presumably hell, are outside of our experience of time. In a very real sense, Jesus might have spent both a mere moment, but also an eternity, in hell. The great Bible scholar R. Lenski reminds us:
In the other world time and space as we know both here on earth do not exist. Our minds are chained to both in their thinking and in their language; hence we ask so many useless questions where acts that take place in eternity and in the other world are concerned. In the other world no act requires time for its execution. This is really inconceivable to our minds; we are compelled to speak as if time were involved and must thus ever tell ourselves that this is not in fact the case. In this way we are kept from deductions that are based on our concepts of time, knowing that such deductions would be false.(Lenski’s New Testament Commentary; 1 Peter.)
The one thing we know for sure he did “while” he was there is that he proclaimed the gospel to the spirits of human beings, and perhaps other spiritual entities as well. Just a few verses later, Peter says something that shows he means what he wrote:
6 For this is why the gospel was preached even 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.(1 Peter 4:6, ESV)
Most commentators (including me) think that Peter mentions those who disobeyed during the time of Noah as an example of the sorts of spirits that Jesus proclaimed the gospel to. So, Peter might be saying: “He preached to spirits imprisoned in hell – like those who disobeyed during the time of Noah.” In other words, it wasn’t just those who disobeyed during the time of Noah, but all those imprisoned in hell who heard the proclamation of Jesus. [Peter uses Noah’s example also, because he wants to use it as a springboard to talk about baptism. But that will have to wait for another sermon. We still have plenty to deal with right now.]
These passages remind me of something Paul says in Romans:
23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. 25 For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, 26 for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.(Romans 3:23-26, NLT, bold formatting added for emphasis)
Like Luther, I want to be very tentative about how we interpret what Peter is saying. It would be very easy to give the impression that actually, it doesn’t matter whether or not you trust Jesus in this life, because if you go to hell, you’ll get a chance to repent from there. I don’t agree with that at all. Instead, I think there are two things happening.
First, and I say this very tentatively, if we look at 1 Peter 3:19, and then 1 Peter 4:6, and then Romans 3:23-26, we may have an answer to the age-old question about those who never had a chance to hear about Jesus Christ. It seems you can’t even avoid hearing about Jesus, even in hell. So, if somehow, someone is cut off from God because they never heard about Jesus, they definitely will hear about him in hell. 1 Peter 4:6 seems to indicate that people may have a chance to repent there – but, based upon what it says elsewhere in the Bible, they would have that chance only if they had no chance to hear and respond in this present life. This brings back to mind what I said earlier, about saying that salvation is indeed offered to every human being.
Second, (and I think I’m on firmer theological ground here) it seems to me that this is about the power and majesty of the gospel. The good news about Jesus is so powerful, that not even hell can keep from hearing it, not though they try to stop up their ears. My own theory is that hearing the gospel proclaimed will cause torment to most of the residents of hell, because they hate Jesus, and hate to be reminded of what he has done for all who were willing to trust him, hate to be reminded, in their pride, that they are wrong. In hell, the gospel is a reminder that the enemy has triumphed, totally and finally. Proclaiming the gospel in hell is the same as raising your flag over the land of your conquered foe. Even where he is rejected, Jesus is still the one in power. So Paul writes:
13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.(Colossians 2:13-15)
In the Colossians text above, it says that Jesus triumphs over the rulers and authorities, and puts them to open shame. “Rulers and authorities” is one of the ways the Bible describes evil spiritual entities (the devil and various types of demons). I think that when Jesus proclaimed the gospel in hell it was a triumph over the devil and his minions; it put them to shame – they couldn’t even keep Jesus, or the gospel, out of their own domain in hell. Even hell is under Jesus’ authority.
Your forgiveness is absolutely secure. You can’t sin more than the sacrifice of Jesus is worth. God’s grace is unstoppable: not even hell can keep the message out, and no one will be able to say they never had a chance to receive God’s salvation through Jesus Christ.