Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Are Christians being persecuted for their faith today? We could certainly answer that in some places in the world they are. It was just over five years ago that 21 Coptic Christians were martyred by the Islamic State in Libya. How about here in North America? Well, we are not being thrown to the lions or taken off to be executed. We enjoy a freedom to gather together as Christians and worship our Lord. However, because of our faith, our obedience, and refusal to participate in the sins of our society, Christians often face ostracism, ridicule and contempt by others. This happens in schools, at places of employment, and even among families. Can you think of times when your commitment to the Christian faith was the cause of some ill treatment? With Bible-believing Christians in the minority, we face an increasing pressure to conform to society’s beliefs and standards. We can’t even watch the news or enjoy many forms of entertainment without being exposed to perspectives at odds with Christian faith and morality. So, despite not being persecuted in an overt or life-threatening way, Christians in North America nonetheless face challenges and at times injustices because we are Christians. In the face of these challenges to our faith as Christians, St. Peter the Apostle offers us a perspective which will help us to endure whatever society might throw at us.
Jesus Was Your Substitute
Peter was writing to Christians who knew what it was like to face social pressure and hostility. But they also faced the threat of physical, state-sponsored, persecution and even death. They were about to suffer even though they had done nothing to deserve it besides being Christian. So, Peter wants to offer them some help and encouragement. He wants to remind them of something that will give them a proper perspective on what they are experiencing.
In one sentence Peter reminds them of what Jesus did and how effective it was: “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God,” (v. 18) No person was less deserving of suffering than Jesus of Nazareth. Even his sharpest adversaries couldn’t find anything to pin on him. So, in the end, Jesus’ execution was illegal, based on trumped-up charges. Yet, Jesus, who was perfectly righteous and without sin took the place of us unrighteous sinners. Yes, the condemnation and execution which Jesus experienced, he bore because it was what we deserved. He died to take away our sins. Sin is the reason Jesus died, but not his sin; he was absolutely sinless. He was just; but he gave himself, out of indescribable love, to suffer for criminals; for the unjust; for your sake, in your place, as your substitute. He lived the life we should have lived, and he died the death we should have died. Jesus was a perfect sin-offering for the sins of others. In the Old Testament, sin-offerings were made repeatedly. But Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all time, never to be repeated. No other sacrifices are necessary. The sin of the world was a burden that none but Jesus could bear; he took it upon himself, and made atonement for it by his death.
Jesus was perfectly righteous, with no sin of his own, and yet he suffered death as our substitute. That is why, if we are his, we have boldness to enter into the the very presence of God by the blood of Jesus. The goal of this work was to “bring us to God”. If Jesus brought us to God that means we are away from him. We were estranged from God because of our own evil and injustice. Apart from God there can be no holiness, no happiness, no true life. Separation from God means darkness, misery, death. But we can be restored to God. Reconciliation is the message of the Gospel. Our Lord Jesus accepted humiliation, shame, death, and abandonment in your behalf, so that your broken relationship with God might be restored. Christ died for you because God loves you, and offers you forgiveness.
The Outcome of This
Jesus’ death was not a defeat, but the once-for-all sacrifice that atoned for sin. While it is true that Christ was “put to death in the flesh,” that is he was physically killed, it is also gloriously true that he was “made alive by the Spirit.” The crucifixion was followed by the resurrection. Peter is describing Christ’s triumph. Not only is sin atoned for, but death is defeated and the grave has lost its power. By the power of God, Jesus was raised from the dead and that triumph over death is the hope of suffering Christians.
After the resurrection, Jesus ‘preached’ to ‘the spirits in prison’. What Peter is saying here is that the victory over the Devil and all the dark forces of evil has in fact been won—through the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Yes, Christ’s victory even extends over the Devil, and the devil has no more power over us. The Risen Christ made a definitive announcement to the evil spirits. They had been judged. What little power they had was broken. He announced their impending doom. Jesus the Messiah has fulfilled the scriptures of Israel by defeating all the spiritual powers in the world, the ones who were responsible for wickedness and corruption since the beginning. Now, Jesus has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God. Jesus’ victory is complete. Jesus is seated in the highest place of authority and power. Now everything and anything, even those things we cannot even see, much less control, must submit to Jesus Christ as Lord.
This gives considerable encouragement to the little groups of Christians who face persecution from their own local authorities. The comfort for us Christians is that the Saviour in whom we have placed our trust has complete control also over our most fearsome enemies. They cannot overpower us. With such a Saviour there is no reason to be afraid of anyone who would seek to harm us with insults or threats. For the Christians who are often in conflict with an unbelieving society, it is of immeasurable comfort to remember that Jesus has already defeated Satan, Sin, and Death, and so there is nothing that anyone can do to us.
How Is This Applied to You
Just like Noah and his family were saved from the hostility of a godless world, and water was involved in his deliverance, so Christians should appreciate that they too are saved from evil through water – the water of Baptism. Peter says explicitly here that Baptism now saves you. Baptism saves! Many Christians have been uncomfortable with this idea. But Peter is clear. Baptism does not save because it’s a physical washing or outward ceremony. It’s not magic. It is not enough that we have water poured on our heads. Baptism saves not because of some special ceremony, nor because of the water which was used. All this has nothing whatever to do with why baptism saves. “How can water do such great things? It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God, which is in and with the water, and faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water, and no baptism,” (Sm. Cat., art. 4). For baptism to save, we must believe the Word of God’s Promise attached to Baptism. To receive the blessings and benefits requires faith. The point is, that through and by means of baptism we are united to a living and risen Christ, and in Him we become alive to God, and dead to sin (Rom. 6:4–11). That victory which Christ has won over Satan, Sin, and Death is now ours.
Peter says that a clear conscience is what we look for in baptism. It does not exist before baptism, but it is received and effected by baptism. Throughout our lives, whenever our conscience accuses us of guilt before God and makes us afraid of God’s wrath, our baptism gives us the assurance that we cannot be condemned by God. Baptism gives us a clear conscience because it contains an appeal, a request, made to God for forgiveness, on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection. Without Jesus’ resurrection there would be no baptism, no salvation, no conscience-cleansing to comfort us when we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake—in fact, there would be no righteousness at all. Because Jesus rose we have proof of his success in our behalf, and we know our consciences cannot rightly accuse us.
Christians are looked upon by people in our society as being a little strange. The world does not understand our faith. They don’t like it. We make them feel uncomfortable. We remind them that there is a God who is looking down on all of us and seeing how we’re doing. People don’t want to be accountable to anyone but themselves. So don’t be surprised when the people of this world look for opportunities to make fun of us Christians, or focus on our flaws and foibles, in order to dismiss our faith. Don’t be surprised when society opposes and persecutes Christians.
To reorient our thinking, Peter reminds us that Christ suffered and died for us. He was raised to life again, he proclaimed his victory over the devil, and has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand. He is the Conqueror; we share his triumph through Holy Baptism. There is nothing in this life that can take away the triumph that you have in Christ Jesus your Lord. The fact that Christ has died for our sins, was resurrected, and has Conquered Satan, Sin, and Death, means that we can have courage to face whatever society throws at us.
“Take they our life,
Goods, fame, child, and wife,
Let these all be gone,
They yet have nothing won,
The Kingdom ours remaineth.”
(A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, stanza 4).
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.