Suffering of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:18-22)

64 Custom

The 1 Peter 3:18-22 is arguably the most challenging passage in the entire list and maybe in the entire New Testament itself. This Christological text might have contained fragments of an ancient hymn (among others in the list: 1 Peter 1:18-21; 1 Peter 2:21-25; 1 Peter 3:18-22; 1 Peter 5:5-9). It is also similar to 1 Tim 3:16. The common gist of these fragments is suffering and hope, which is also the central testimony of the whole letter. This scope helps readers to overcome current sufferings which are seen, compared to the future glory, as merely temporal.

The text is an interruption of the discourse in 3:17, which is then resumed in 4:1. The moment at which Peter stops in 1 Peter 3:17 is that it is actually “better to suffer for doing good, if God’s will wishes, then for doing evil (κρεῖττον γὰρ ἀγαθοποιοῦντας, εἰ θέλοι τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ, πάσχειν ἢ κακοποιοῦντας [kreitton gar agathopoiúntas, ei theloi to theléma tú theú, paschein é kakopoiúntas ]).” To reason out this attitude, Peter uses the example of Jesus, who also unjustly suffered for doing good and whose course is certainly worth following (1 Peter 2:21).

The hymn starts with that Christ “suffered for sins (περὶ ἁμαρτιῶν ἔπαθεν [peri hamarión epathen])” (1 Peter 3:18) which is designated by the word πάσχω [paschó] and was also used in the previous verse. Note the usage of the word ἅπαξ [hapax] signaling once and for all action-result which is sufficient. The whole hymn is introduced with ὅτι [hoti] conjunction, which provides the reason for Peter’s claim in 1 Peter 3:17.

What is important is that this suffering was not fair as is indicated by the phrase “just for unjust (δίκαιος ὑπὲρ ἀδίκων [dikaios hyper adikón])” thus reflecting the unjust reality of Peter’s readers. Peter also clarifies the reason for the suffering as “to bring you to God (ἵνα ὑμᾶς προσαγάγῃ τῷ θεῷ [hina hymas prosagagé tó theó]).” What is also vital for the readers to hear is that although “he was put to death in flesh, he was made alive by Spirit (θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκὶ, ζῳοποιηθεὶς δὲ πνεύματι [thanatótheis men sarki dzóopoiétheis de pneumati]).” Again, this is something serving well to build the hope in the readers that the last and victorious word will have their God.

The second and the most problematic section (1 Peter 3:19-20) is concerned with the place where Jesus did go after the resurrection in Spirit. This section starts with prepositional phrase “in which (ἐν ᾧ [en hó])” connecting the following thesis with the Spirit. The thesis of this section is that “he went to preach the spirits in prison (τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν [tois en fylaké pneumasin poreutheis ekéryxen])” which is then further elaborated (although still enigmatic). With this text, there is a lot of preunderstanding. Therefore, we must leave open the difficulty of the text and be reserved to any overstated speculations. 

Unfortunately, the keywords φυλακῇ, πνεύμασιν, πορευθεὶς of the thesis are not further qualified. It is difficult to connect the sense of these words with the idea of Jesus descending to hell to preach to the dead people (descensus ad inferos theory). Interestingly, similar words also occur in 1 Enoch 12-16, suggesting the identity of the spirits as fallen angels. The original readers were probably aware of some tradition using the idea communicated within the text that is not, however, explicitly implied in it.

Nevertheless, as we proceed to the next section of 1 Peter 3:21, we can observe that 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 1 Peter 3:21 are used as a typological device (note the word ἀντίτυπον [antitypon]). In this way, the readers are typologically compared with Noah as is suggested by these words: ὀλίγοι (ὀκτὼ ψυχαί) - ὑμᾶς, διεσώθησαν διʼ ὕδατος - σῴζει βάπτισμα. This comparison points to the token of faith that is in the original case the ark (κιβωτός [kibótos]) and in the typological case baptism (βάπτισμα [baptisma]). Any idea of purific function is dispelled by Peter when he explains that it is “not the removal of the filthy flesh, but a good conscience by an appeal to God (οὐ σαρκὸς ἀπόθεσις ῥύπου ἀλλὰ συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς θεόν [ú sarkos apothesis rypú alla syneidéseós agathés eperótéma eis theon]).” The instrument (διʼ [di]) for that is “resurrection (ἀναστάσεως [anastaseós]).”

The last section portrays Jesus as an absolute ruler developing further the instrumental action of resurrection (1 Peter 3:22). The focus is again Christological describing three actions pertaining to Jesus: “right side of God (δεξιᾷ θεοῦ [en dexia theú])”, “going to heaven (πορευθεὶς εἰς οὐρανὸν [poreutheis eis úranon])”, “subordinating (ὑποταγέντων [hypotagentón]).” The first action refers to coregent aspect of Christ’s position (Ps 110:1; Matt 26:64; Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69). The second action speaks about his ascension after the resurrection (Mark 16:19; Acts 1:10). Lastly the third about his supremacy over “angels (ἀγγέλων [angellón])”, “authorities (ἐξουσιῶν [exúsión])”, and “powers (δυνάμεων [dynameón])” (reflection of tradition of Ps 8:7b; 1 Cor 15:27; Heb 2:5-9; Eph 1:22). These realities put Jesus in the supreme position, which is essential for the readers to realize. This enables them to see his power (Matt 28:18) in what they are going through.

This text is fascinating. Some of its parts (especially 3:18b and 3:22) suggest hymnic nature while they are interspersed with other ideas specific to the Peter’s discourse. It is difficult to assume any hymnic background with certainty. Nevertheless, the Christological stress still remains apparent. It must be reiterated that it is crucial for Peter not only to ensure his audience about power and merits of Christ but also to give their cause a transcended value that is rooted in the supreme position of resurrected Jesus.