Yesterday was the first Sunday of the season of Lent. Epiphany began with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, Lent begins with Jesus’ baptism in suffering. What kind of solace does the Apostle Peter give to Christians around 64AD who were being persecuted and killed at the hands of the wicked Caesar Nero?
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. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
Wherever there is suffering for the Gospel, the beauty of the Gospel is proclaimed.
The Nature of Suffering
We could deny that it exists, like some Eastern religions do. We could try and reinterpret it, that suffering is actually good, like popular psychology does. The short answer in the Judeo-Christian worldview is that suffering and pain are a result of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Given the choice to live life under God’s rule or under their own rule, suffering and pain resulted from choosing to throw off God’s rule and opt for our own.
But the suffering we experience isn’t by our decisions all the time, are they? And on a macro-level, the answer is still the same. The suffering we experience is because people choose to live their lives in reference to themselves and their kingdom. But that merely answers the question in the abstract.
I do want to put our suffering in perspective to our brothers and sisters around the globe. And specifically during this first 300 years of the church’s existence.
If you haven’t heard of it, there is a ministry called Voice of the Martyrs. It is a ministry that intercedes and seeks to relieve the suffering of our brothers and sisters all over the world. I went on the webpage on Friday to see about any news. These three stories were just posted on Friday:
Five Khmu believers in Laos were arrested and fined for holding a Christmas celebration on Dec. 15. The Christians had received permission from village authorities, but district officials arrested them after learning they had invited a pastor from a neighboring village. The five believers were held in prison for a few nights and fined about $600 before being released.
Christian widows whose husbands were killed in Islamist attacks are gradually returning to their coastal Kenyan homes. After an attack in June 2014 in which Islamists went door to door killing Christians, Naomi and her four children fled to her parents’ home in another village.
After focusing on an unreached area for the past 11 months, an evangelist has seen hundreds of Muslims come to faith in Christ. As a result, some have experienced persecution. A young married couple took shelter in a VOM-supported safe house for several months when they were kicked out of their family because of their Christian faith.
This is not about guilt, friends, this is about putting our lives in perspective. Putting our coconut milk latte with extra foam on notice.
Not only now, but the situation into which Peter was writing was even more tenuous. This epistle was written during the time of Nero’s reign (54-68). He was notorious for his extravagance and evil. He killed his own mother. And he accused the Christians for a fire that decimated Rome in 64. So Peter is writing to a group of believers wrongly accused of arson and being killed to rescue the skin of a wicked emperor. What comfort does he afford them?
The verses right before our passage tell us…and they really put into perspective how we ought to view suffering and pain.
“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”
Peter says you have one job: Honor Christ. Don’t try to figure out what God is doing. Just know he is pleased with you when you honor him.
And we come to our passage today that provides the support for suffering for doing good. For Christ suffered for sin. If it is God’s will for you to suffer unjustly, for doing good!…it is better. Because Christ suffered.
Our suffering is derivative of Christ’s suffering. He was the ultimate and perfect sacrifice for sins. We often can think of how thankful we are for being saved from our sins, but we forget the injustice at which it came. No cursing was found on his lips. He blessed those who scourged him. He forgave those who killed him. He loved to the uttermost. He was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
He suffered on account of sin. The Righteous One for those who are Unrighteous. While we were still enemies, Christ died for us. While we were still reviling and cursing, he bid us to come to him. When we were still kicking, he opened our eyes. So that we could see. So that we could be brought to God. He suffered not merely at the hands of others. He suffered in order to bring those very ones to God.
Jesus died. He actually died. His body got cold. A body in a morgue. But he was resurrected by the Spirit. The next layer of suffering Peter draws out is how God uses it to proclaim to those who are in prison to sin. Verse 19 has been a hot topic of debate. Who are these spirits in prison? The early church believed them to be the spirits in the realm of the dead. Scholars today believe them to be the angels that rebelled against God and God declared himself powerful over death in the Resurrection. The third option is the one the Protestant Reformers held. Through Noah’s faithfulness and suffering in the face of persecution, the Gospel of Grace and Judgment was preached. But there is a fourth option! My answer to this is that it is a little bit of all three. When Jesus was resurrected in the Spirit, he proclaimed his victory over demons and death. This victory was proclaimed to all things in heaven and under the earth. This victory was the final and full proclamation of God’s victory over principalities and powers (look at V.22!). Before Jesus came God had been whispering this truth of his victory through installments–Abel, Noah, Abraham, David. All those who had been vindicated through their suffering to declare God’s power and love were foretastes and preachers of this same victorious message Jesus proclaims in his resurrection.
But this is the tree branch. The great oak tree of Peter’s argument is that suffering proclaims the Gospel to a watching world. Noah is merely one example of the Gospel being proclaimed that God is King over all. And just as Jesus, through the Spirit was proclaiming the Gospel through Noah’s suffering…so also, the suffering the Christians are unjustly going through proclaims the Gospel in Rome. We see this in Acts 5 and 6 where the Apostles were beaten in (5.40) and “rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus” and then a few verses later we see that “the Word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly” (6.7).
Suffering demonstrates the worth of another. Not just enduring suffering, but embracing it as God’s means of sanctifying you and changing you and helping you see that he is more valuable than the comfort you seek.
The Nature of Baptism
This suffering is what is symbolized through baptism. Our second sentence and point. When we baptize someone, we submerse them under water. We don’t sprinkle. Why? It symbolizes the death they have undergone the Flood as it were. And then the believer is raised to life in the Spirit.
This has been a contentious issue for the last 500 years. I want to first remind us that the early church practiced both modes of baptism—baptism for infants and baptism after conversion. They allowed the parents to make the decision up as to what they would allow them to do. We see this in the life of St. Augustine—who his mother Monica deferred his baptism and he would be baptized as an adult.
But before that, we believe the first believers practiced baptism following conversion to Christ and it wasn’t until after the church became the state religion under Constantine that baptism became a rite for infants.
What is more, the witness of Scripture compels me in this direction.
I have many friends who are in other denominations and we disagree on this passage, but let me lay out for you a couple issues that make it impossible for me to baptize babies.
First, the issue of “baptism saving you.” If we stopped there, then we could say that baptism is salvific. But Peter doesn’t stop there, does he. Remember, there are a several layers to Peter’s sentence: V.21 Baptism, which corresponds to this [that is, Noah passing through the waters], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The text literally reads: “A good conscience in answer unto God.” And so, baptism is for those who answer God’s call to them.
This is why Baptism happens after someone has made a decision to follow Christ. This is his or her answer to God stemming from a good conscious decision to submit the life to Jesus.
Secondly, take into consideration the parallel itself. Those eight people on the boat with Noah had to decide to get on the boat. They weren’t coerced. They weren’t carried. They were told of the impending destruction, and they followed Noah onto the boat.
But this is also a branch on the tree of Peter’s argument, isn’t it? The Nature of Baptism is that we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord over all facets of my life. Jesus commands my destiny.
The point of the Flood was to wash the earth of its wickedness. The point of baptism is to show that we have been washed clean by the Spirit. Our soiled souls have been dipped in blood. They have been dipped in the ever-flowing river of God’s forgiveness.
At every baptism, the heavens open up. There’s a bow in the clouds reminding us that God has not and will not deal with us as our sins deserve. The clouds open up and declare you a child of God. Never to be orphaned. The heavens open up and proclaim that even your suffering proclaims the value and worth of your Savior. You may suffer for doing good, but God would remind you to flee to him and know that your one job. Your one job is not merely to do the right thing. It is to find your delight and satisfaction in Another—namely, Jesus, so that when you suffer, you will be counted worthy to suffer for that great name.
Questions to Consider:
Take time to pray for our brothers and sisters who are suffering and being persecuted around the world.
How does Jesus’ preeminent baptism in suffering bring solace and comfort in the midst of ours?
What’s the difference between suffering and suffering for the Gospel?
What steps of faith might God be calling you to take that you have been afraid to take because you do not want to suffer for the Gospel (loss of friends, notoriety, comfort)?