“Beloved: Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few people, eight in all, were saved through water. This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.” (I Peter 3:18-22)
In this beautiful passage our minds are easily diverted by the enigmatic verse in the middle of it: ”In it (the Spirit) he (Christ) also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark.” What in the world does this mean? That has been a matter of speculation for St. Augustine, for Origen, for St. Robert Bellarmine, and for countless others. For once, Martin Luther could speak for all:
“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.”
Surely, whatever the exact meaning, this verse is part of that great mystery we confess in the Apostle’s Creed: “…was crucified, died, and was buried. HE DESCENDED INTO HELL. On the third day he rose again…” In the Catechism we are told,
“Jesus, like all men experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the good news to the spirits imprisoned there… Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, but to deliver the just who had gone before him…The descent into Hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment….the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places” (CCC par 632-635)
That insight may have to be enough until this mystery gives way to sight.
However, on either side of that verse are several of the most powerful and important verses in Sacred Scripture, verses which tell us why Christ died, the difference it makes, and how we access for ourselves the blessings he came to give in his Passion and Resurrection. They begin with this: “Christ suffered for sins once (once for all time) the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.” I have always loved what I call the “so that” passages in the New Testament, the verses strewn throughout that follow the form “Christ died for us so that…” and then end in a beautiful statement of purpose, each highlighting a different dimension of Christ’s great gift. Another one of these, a beautiful one, is to be found just a chapter earlier: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”(I Peter 2:22-24) Still another is in I Thessalonians: “who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him”(I Thessalonians 5:10). Each is beautiful, but none is simpler nor more elegant than the statement here:
“Christ suffered for sins once for all…. that he might lead you to God.” (emphasis mine)
This Lent, may I suggest to you a particular devotion to practice whether you are praying before a crucifix or following the Stations of the Cross? Use these verses to remind you not only of what he has done, but why he has done it. Remember, too, that he has done it for you and give thanks.
May I suggest another practice as well, this one inspired by the last verses of this passage? In them it is clear that we begin to access the benefits of the Passion and Resurrection through the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is no mere symbol, but truly conveys the very thing it signifies, the cleansing of sin and rebirth in the Spirit. How do we miss this when it is so clearly said: “This prefigured baptism , which saves you now”.
All this is gift from God and none of our doing. However, we do play a role and have a grand responsibility in receiving these gifts. That responsibility is expressed in the phrase “(baptism) is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience”. The word translated here as “appeal” is the word “eperotema”. It is the technical word the Greeks used for the question and response clause of a contract that made it binding:
“The question was, ‘Do you accept the terms of this contract and bind yourself to observe them?’ And the answer before witnesses was ‘Yes’. Without that question and answer the contract was not valid” (Barclay, Letters of James and Peter, p245)
Clearly this is what is asked of us in baptism, a wholehearted “Yes” to the question, “Will you live for him who died for you?” It is a pledge we can renew each time we enter church, dip our fingers in the baptismal waters, and make the sign of the Cross. It is a pledge we can renew every morning as we rise from bed and every night when we retire. This Lent is the perfect time to make the intentional renewal of your commitment to follow and obey Jesus, the renewal of your baptismal pledge, a regular practice of your daily life.
May God bless you this Lent and please be assured that as you draw close to Him, He will draw close to you. Along with your other Lenten disciplines, please do consider the two I have mentioned. What could be better than to remember what he has done for us and why and then to pledge ourselves again to the one who “suffered for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might lead you to God.”
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.