1 Peter 3:15-22


On Christ's Descent into hell read both the Epitome , Tappert 492, and the  Solid Declaration , Tappert 610. Both articles are brief. Both breathe a childlike faith in the Scriptures. This doctrine bothered the ancient and medieval church and still bothers the church today. But the Formula of Concord states the truth simply. Since that time Lutheran theologians have explained this difficult text in more detail. For example, Stoeckhardt and Lenski. Stoeckhardt gives inordinately lengthy but thorough treatment to verses 18-22 in his commentary on 1 Peter. Lenski devotes 28 pages to these verses, less than Stoeckhardt's, but his commentary too, is good and trustworthy. With all due respect to Luther, it can be said that theologians since his day (and that of Chemnitz) have explained this matter more thoroughly.

Both Stoeckhardt and Lenski see verses 13-17 as one section, but which cannot be understood unless one studies what follows in verses 18-22. On verses 13-17 Stoeckhardt says: "Christians' suffering is not harm but rather gain."  But then he adds that this cannot be understood unless we go into verses 18-22. He states:  "In verses 18-22 follows a long, consistent sequence of words, in which Christ is the main subject. Here is found a comprehensive confession of Christ as it resounds in the Apostles' Creed. . . . The steps in Christ's humiliation and exaltation are mentioned in their historical sequence."  On the words "because also" , verse 18, Lenski says:  "This connects this section with the whole of verses 13-17."  And on verses 18-22 he says: "This piece (18-22) forms a sedes doctrinae and deals throughout with Christ."  The reading does not call for verses 13-14 and therefore are not treated here. But they ought be read before study on verses 15-22 begins.

1 Peter 3:15 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,

Rienecker: 'To venerate and adore Him' thus dispelling all fear of men. . . .  apologia, defense. The Word can also mean an informal explanation or defense of one's position (see 1 Corinthians 9:3; 2 Corinthians 7:11) and the word would aptly describe giving an answer to the skeptical, abusive, or derisive inquiries of ill-disposed neighbors . . . . in this letter 'hope' is used almost as an equivalent for 'faith' (1 Pet. 1:21).
Bengel: The hope of Christians has often moved others to inquiry.

Note that verses 14-15 quote Isaiah 9:12-13. By adding "Christ" to "Lord" the divinity of Christ is plainly expressed.

Lenski: This sanctifying of him means that we keep ourselves from sin and give the world no cause for slandering either him or ourselves. And it further means that we fear him alone, lest we sin against him by fearing people instead of him and by letting their threats disturb us from bowing to him alone. . . This is the 'living hope' of 1:3 to which we have been begotten again by God, the hope in God (1:21; 3:5).

Verses 13-14 inform us that Christians are to be fearless in a fearful and fear-causing world. This can be done only by regarding Christ as true Lord. Isaiah 8:13-14 (NASB) reads as follows: "You are not to fear what they fear or be in dread of it. It is the Lord of hosts whom you should regard as holy. And He shall be your fear, and He shall be your dread." 

How do we show our true fear and reverence for Christ? By being ready at all times to give a reason for the hope which is within us.

Stoeckhardt: Even a simple Christian, in whom dwells the Holy Spirit, is able to hold up before unbelievers some clear texts and principles of Scripture which they cannot contradict.

1 Peter 3:16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

This verse arrests our attention. It makes us stop and think. The phrase modifies "always be ready" in the previous verse. Our readiness to give an answer should be qualified and accompanied by our meekness and fear.

Bengel: Meekness is needed as respects ourselves; fear, as respects others; a good conscience, towards God. Fear in ordinary language means respect. . . . Meekness avails especially in our dealing with inferiors; fear, with superiors.
Stoeckhardt: With the words 'with meekness and fear' the apostle sets a limit to the Christians' zeal to witness. Your witness to Christ, your witness to divine truth should, without becoming excited, without becoming bitter towards your opponent, occur in a meek, quiet spirit. Be sure of your subject matter. Don't be disconcerted by any sort of contradiction, by disparaging remarks, by threats. . . . This is advice also for those who carry on theological apologetics and polemics.
Stoeckhardt: A good conscience has no bearing upon the act of witnessing but upon the Christian's way of life.

Well said. The good conscience of the Christian will give evidence of itself through the Christian's good conduct. Note that the word "good" is used of both the Christian's conscience and of his conduct. And note carefully the good conduct is caused by faith in Christ. Look at Galatians 2:20. Sometimes a person meets unbelievers who live a life of "good" conduct. But it is not motivated by Christ and His Gospel. And the difference between the good conduct of a pagan and that of a Christian will be noted in the meekness (humility) and fear (respect) when the Christian gives an answer to the inquirer. Insulters will be ashamed when they observe the humility and godliness of the good witness. This shame is good for them. By the grace of God it can lead to their repentance. Peter is not putting anyone down.

1 Peter 3:17 It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.

This verse is a mixed conditional sentence. The protasis ( "if" clause) is future less vivid and translated: "If the will of God should will (thus)." The fact that it takes this optative form indicates that this does not happen often.

We give our own translation: "To suffer because you are doing good is better than to suffer because you are doing wrong, if the will of God should thus desire." 

Lenski: The statement is entirely general and thus brings to a succinct axiomatic expression what has already been said in 2:15, 19,20. Also 3:14 and 4:14-19. Many are surprised to be made to suffer when doing good. Yet that is precisely what God's will wills in some instances.

Our old sinful flesh rebels much against the idea of suffering because we do that which is good. But it is necessary both for ourselves and for others.

Stoeckhardt: It is evident that 'doing good' corresponds to the preceding 'having a good conscience' and 'suffer' designates the category into which the conduct belongs. . . For Christians, suffering is not harm but rather gain.

That is important. Suffering was gain for Christ. He redeemed the whole world. The Christian's suffering does not pay for sin, but it, like that of Christ is gain. It honors God. Through it, God disciplines the individual. It impresses the unbeliever.

1 Peter 3:18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit,

Stoeckhardt: In verses 18-22 follows a long, consistent sequence of words, in which Christ is the main subject. Here is found a comprehensive confession of Christ as it resounds in the Apostles' Creed. . . . Christ, true God and true man, has suffered, was slain, was awakened from the dead, went unto the spirits in prison, arose, ascended into heaven, and is now sitting at the right hand of God.
Lenski: This piece (18-22) forms a sedes doctrinae and deals throughout with Christ. . . . In 2:21 Peter at once adds 'leaving behind for you a writing-copy.' Such an addition is not appended here. In 2:21 Peter presents Christ's sufferings as an example. In the present connection Peter does nothing of the kind. Here the sufferings of Christ are combined with his exaltation. . . . Here the great point is assurance for us when by the will of God we suffer for righteousness' sake. . . . In his exaltation he triumphed over the disobedient who were consigned to prison in hell. . . . 'Because also etc.' connects this section with the whole of verses 13-17.

Look at Hebrews 9:26 and 28. He offered only ONE sacrifice. "A just man in the stead of the unjust"  clearly teaches objective justification and the vicarious atonement for the sins of all men.

Then follows a purpose clause. He did this "in order to bring us to God."  Who is meant by "us" ? Anyone who reads it. Therefore it clearly includes all people.

And now follow two lines about which thousands of pages have been written. Two things happened to Him: He was put to death, He was made alive. Let Romans 4:25 guide you as to the meaning of the last two lines. Our salvation was accomplished by His death and His resurrection.

Before we say anything else we must remember that the death of Christ did not divide the two natures in Christ. Remember what was said at the Council of Chalcedon: "One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, WITHOUT DIVISION, WITHOUT SEPARATION."  The God-man died. The God-man was made alive. His body and soul were separated when He died. His body and soul were reunited when He was made alive again, BUT HIS NATURES WERE NOT DIVIDED.

Stoeckhardt: This is the Christology of all the apostles, of Paul, John, Peter: the eternal Word in the flesh of men; Christ, on the one hand, flesh, true, essential man; on the other hand, spirit, true, essential God, one Person in two natures. . . . Although Christ suffered and died as man, His suffering and dying were an act, an experience of the whole person, of the God-man. . . . 'Quickening by the spirit' refers to the glorified life of the exalted Christ. This concept makes sense only when we understand 'spirit' to be the divine nature. What then is the glorified life of Christ other than that now Christ's divine nature permeates His entire human existence, that Christ's human nature as a homogeneous organ now stands completely in the service of divine power and majesty? And so Christ by suffering death has entered into His glory. . . . Christ did suffer unjustly because of alien sins with intent of converting us to God. This should be motive for Christians to comply with the preceding exhortation to bear up well under suffering so that they, where possible, convert their opponents. . . . Christ does not appear here as a moral example but as a Forerunner upon the way of suffering unto glory.

"Being put to death in the flesh"  denotes the final step in His state of humiliation. "Being made alive in the spirit"  denotes the first step in His state of exaltation. The first stresses His humanity, but not to the exclusion of divinity.

"He was delivered for our offenses and raised again for our justification."  That is a deep mystery, incomprehensible to us. But it is true and constitutes the very essence of our redemption.  "Being put to death in the flesh" is peculiar to Christ's human nature, but is ascribed to the whole person.

 "Being made alive" is not identical to the resurrection. Look at the Apostles' Creed: "He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead."  Revivification of the entire person of Christ preceded descent into hell and the resurrection.

1 Peter 3:19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison

There have been so many theories about verses 19-20 that Stoeckhardt writes thirty-eight pages (Koehlinger's translation) on them, but only three and one-half on verses 21-22. Stoeckhardt does not hide the fact that Luther had difficulties with verses 19-20.

Luther: This is as curious a text and as obscure a passage as you will find anywhere in the New Testament, to the point that I'm still not sure what St. Peter meant.

The meaning is that the glorified Christ, according to both natures, made His descent. Our Lutheran fathers say that the order of events in this passage inform us that the descent occurred immediately after revivification but before the resurrection. The revivification preceded the descent in time, though it may have been only a split-second.

The word "prison" can mean only one thing: hell. They are called "spirits" because they have not yet been raised from the dead.

And now comes the word "to proclaim as a herald."  Some have thought it means either preaching the Gospel or a combination of Law and Gospel. But the words "in prison" rule that out.  "Preach," though used in the New Testament very frequently of preaching of the Gospel, is a vox media which means that it can be used in either a good or bad sense. Since the Scriptures know of no repentance after death and since "in prison" is here used,  "preached" can here mean only the preaching of condemnation, of doom, of damnation, Christ's victory over all forces of hell and evil.

Stoeckhardt: We have assumed that the words 'the spirits in prison' include all the spirits in prison, and out of this totality were brought into special prominence for a closer characterization those who once at the time of Noah did not believe. . . . This conduct of the contemporaries of Noah, this unbelief was the nature, the characteristic of all the spirits in prison, and their unbelief appears as the reason for their imprisonment, for their damnation. . . . The content and purpose of Jesus' preaching were equally fitting and proper for all the damned in hell.
Calov: Christ did not preach so that they would repent but because they had not repented.
Gerhard: The message is meant to be understood not just as a verbal warning but as a fact of judgment.
Hollaz: The message of Christ in hell was not Gospel but law, judgmental and frightful.
Stoeckhardt: This preaching of Christ concerns all unbelievers of the pre-Christian era who existed as spirits in prison upon His descent into hell. . . . His preaching also concerns all who during the NT era have not believed and were, therefore, damned.

1 Peter 3:20 who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water,

"Disobeyed" means more than the lack of faith. It means the disobedient rejection of the Gospel. "Waited" means eagerly to await with expectancy.  "Patiently" means the patience of waiting for repentance. (In this case it was 120 yrs.).

Bengel: 'Sometime', this 'sometime' and this 'long-suffering', of which he presently speaks, refers to all ages of the Old Testament, before Christ's death, God continued waiting, that men might believe.

He means that the destruction of unbelievers is merely an example of what happened to all other unbelievers. Then he gives two reasons why Peter chose this example:

  1. Never did more perish at once than at the deluge;

  2. By mention of water , Peter conveniently passes to baptism.
Lenski: Peter means to say that Christ did not make herald proclamation to those only who were disobedient at the time of the flood, but to all the spirits in prison, all these being such as were disobedient when the long suffering of God waited no less than 120 years, waited in vain, before sending the judgment. . . . That the proclamation was not evangelical but damnatory really goes without saying. . . The Christ whom the damned saw in terror in hell is the same Christ who is our hope in heaven.
Stoeckhardt: The preaching of the apostle Peter concerning Christ's preaching in hell is for those living on earth, for those who come to hear of it, an offer of salvation, the mightiest call to repentance, the most earnest exhortation to stand in fear of hell and to be on guard, to esteem the patience of God for their salvation. . . . We do not limit Christ's preaching to Noah's contemporaries but maintain that it is applicable also to unbelievers of other ages. . . . The flood and time before the flood appear often in the New Testament as type of the end of time and final judgment. . . . The distinguishing mark of Noah's time was unbelief. The promise of the flood. It was kept alive by the preaching of Noah. ., .The unbelievers who harass the Christians are the ones who suffer the harm. They must be punished in hell for their unbelief, for their enmity against Christ and the Christians.

1 Peter 3:21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

Which (water), an antitype, baptism, now saves also you etc.

Bengel: There were baptisms also among the Jews; but these purified the flesh, and were limited to this. . . . The Greek Scholia explained  "pledge" as an earnest, a pledge, a proof. It is characteristic of the godly to ask, to consult, to address God confidently. . . . The asking of a good conscience saves us; that is, the asking, in which we address God with a good conscience, our sins being forgiven and renounced. . . 'through the resurrection of Jesus Christ' modifies 'saves.'

Without the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, baptism would have no significance.

Lenski: The subject is 'water.' The preliminary apposition to water 'as a type' saves you now. . . . This is one of the passages (Titus 3:5; Mark 16:16) which says directly that baptism 'saves'. . . . Flesh-cleansing amounts to nothing, a good conscience is everything. ..The point of all this is the fact that in baptism God bestows something on  us . Peter calls this 'a good conscience toward God' and a glance at verse 16 shows the reason: men speak against us, but we keep the good conscience bestowed on us by baptism. . . . All of this is the direct opposite of the view that in baptism we bring something to God. . . . In baptism God extends the saving proffer of a good conscience toward him only 'by means of Jesus Christ's resurrection.' All those who deny that baptism is truly a means of grace which saves, are forced to say that in baptism we offer something to God.
Stoeckhardt: As the water of the flood delivered those eight souls, conveyed them, as it were, rejuvenated out of the flood to the emerging dry land, so the water of baptism transports us Christians into the new, glorified world which comes forth from the fiery judgment of judgment-day. . . . 'Baptism is not the putting away of the filth of the flesh' demands a continuation such as this: but baptism is rather an inward cleansing, an ablution of the conscience from sin, or what amounts to the same thing, gives him who receives baptism a good conscience before God. . . . The Greek word for 'answer,' as is universally accepted, has in forensic language become a technical term for 'agreement.' Contained in the original meaning of the word was the fact that the signing of an agreement began with the question: 'Do you solemnly promise?' This was eventually lost in idiomatic usage so that by this word as a legal expression the Greek came to think only of the legal stipulation itself. And this meaning fits admirably in our passage, the only one in which the word is found in the New Testament . Baptism is the stipulation, or, as says Luther: 'the covenant of a good conscience' in relation to or with God.

1 Peter 3:22 who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand--with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

Here we reach the climax. From these words come the words: "He ascended into heaven and sits at tile right hand of the Father."  Where is the right hand of God? Everywhere. The point is Jesus' exaltation, that His human nature now fully uses all the attributes of the divine. The God-man is total Victor.

Bengel: To Him angels are subject, and that too of all ranks, good or evil; and so also are men. . . . His sitting on the right hand of God involves a state of life glorious, eternal, and salutary for us. Acts 2:28; Romans 6:9-10; Hebrews 7:16,24,25; 1 Corinthians 15:54; John 14:19.
Lenski: No man saw the descent; the ascent was seen in its first stage, but not after the cloud enveloped Christ, when it became timeless. . . . The session at God's right hand is the supreme thought. . . . Christ in his human nature is at God's right hand. . . . Let the readers dismiss all fear of man (verses 14-15).

Well said. I should fear nothing or no one. Christ has conquered sin, death and the devil. He has declared total victory in hell over all hellish forces. And now all angels, good and evil, are subject to Him. Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect?

Stoeckhardt: Believing Christians, despite the fact that they still have much to suffer, are much better off than their adversaries, the unbelievers, who just because of their unbelief have an evil conscience and who, as it were, step after step see the sword of God's vengeance poised above them. . . . Christ, also as a man, shares the almighty dominion, God's regimen of the world. All heavenly powers are also subject to Him and serve Him. This Man at God's right hand can and will vigorously guard and uphold His small flock upon earth during the severe hardships of this present time until it has reached the blessed goal appointed. He can and will subdue and keep in check the anger and enmity of the unbelieving world, whose goal is the ruination of the Church. Everything is in His power.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A Epistle Texts, Festival Season Sundays, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1983, pp. 127-132. Used with permission.

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