On 1 Peter iii. 19-22, to iv. 6
by Henry Dyer
The context of this passage helps to the understanding of it. The apostle has just before been teaching Christians to expect to suffer for righteousness sake, and not to be dismayed at it; and adds, in v. 18, that in this they are but like Christ, who when He suffered for sins "to bring us to God," suffered as a "just" one, even "to death" itself, as to the flesh, and all His quickening, and His life was by the Spirit, and in the Spirit; not in the flesh; thus making Him an altogether spiritual, and not a carnal Saviour; the whole end or fulfilment of our faith in Him being, as respects this life and this world, "the salvation of our souls" and not at all that of our bodies. Hence the word *souls" no less than five times in this epistle. See ch. i. 9; ii. 11-25; iii. 20, and iv. 19.
Full of this most flesh-withering truth, the apostle's mind reverts to God's work in the world in past ages, even back to the antediluvian age, and not only teaches us that it was all of it by Christ, but also that Christ in working it, was the same flesh-rebuking One then as now; and that all the salvation He testified of then, was for the spirit, and not for the flesh even as now. For it was "by the Spirit," says the apostle, that He went and preached "in the days of Noah"; also, this preaching of a re-incarnate Christ—a Christ in the spirit—was also addressed To spirits, even as His present preaching is to men's spirits, to subdue and to instruct and bless them.
And surely this was true of the preaching Christ in Noah's days. It offered nothing to the flesh; it ministered joy and rest to nothing but the souls of those who received it. The believing it led Noah, and those with him, to give up houses and lands, and all they possessed, and to shut themselves within the narrow limits of the "Gopherwood" ark, trusting that God would care for him and them, when there was, as yet, not a sign of the coming deluge, which did not burst on the fair and attractive scene around till seven days after. See Gen. vii. 10. Surely this was "suffering in the flesh," even as it also was to Abraham, in after days, to leave his country and kindred, not knowing whither he went. A touching sight, indeed—Noah, the family man, of six hundred years old, quitting all he possessed for value he put on God's word and God's favour, and thus voluntarily enclosing himself and those dear to him in the narrow vessel: and that in spite of a six hundred years connection with it all!
No wonder "the spirits" of the antediluvians around him rejected this flesh-crucifying testimony, and "were disobedient" to it, and would not receive it though "the long-suffering of God waited" for them, through the days of Noah. It was too humbling—too much in the Spirit for them—and too much unlike all the prevailing sentiments and habits of the days they lived in. They were too much charmed with the scene around them of men who were "giants in those days," and "men of renown" (Gen. vi. 4), to allow of their yielding to so spiritual a testimony. But Peter skillfully reminds us, his Christian readers, in order to help us in our present time of endurance, that those proud and towering spirits of those days are now " in prison;" they have lost, not gained by their insubjection; as Jude also reminds us that the flesh indulging ones of Sodom and Gomorrah may, by faith, be even now seen as enduring the vengeance of eternal fire (Jude 7). Wickedness of the spirits of Christ-rejectors is Peter's point, as lusts of the flesh is Jude's. Esau-like, they despised the spiritual boon because it was too pure and heavenly for them to value it. But they have lost, not gained. They despised God's well-provided ark, and would not enter it, which would have borne them upward above all doom and death to, as it were, a new earth: and now they are imprisoned in chains of darkness forever. They would not have the shutting-in of the ark, they must have the prison house of hell.
But there was a happy result from this testimony of Christ in Noah's days, as well as a solemn and condemning one. "A few, that is eight souls, were saved by water"; and in this the apostle sees a lively image of ourselves as Christians—the "little flock"—the saved ones-of the present time. In the fewness of their number, in its being "souls" that were saved, and its being through water, the apostle perceives an analogy to ourselves, and especially in the last point of the three—viz., through water.
The early Church had all been baptized as soon as they believed—they were a company that had come up out of water. They had seen in this command of Christ a spiritual truth; it was to them the outward result of the request (see Greek) in them of "a good conscience toward God, by the resurrection of Christ".
But more than this, believers' baptism had proclaimed to them the judgment and coming doom of this busy and boasting world around them. As one says in a hymn upon believers' baptism:—
"Death to the world we here avow,
Death to each fleshly lust;
Newness of life our portion now,
A risen Lord our trust."
Our blessed Lord had said, in John xii. 31, in anticipation of His death— "Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the Prince of this World be cast out;" and here in this Epistle of Peter, His saved Church—the little flock—are taught to see Christ, the Risen One in whom they have believed, as their ark, who has borne for them, from below and from above, the floods of death; and in whom they even now know themselves to be, "more than conquerors" over a hostile world, that can indeed "kill the body, but after that has no more that it can do".
Hence, the result of Christ's work now is similar to the result of it in the days of Noah—viz., a few (comparatively) saved. And saved only in their souls, and by a character of salvation that dooms the world around them to a flood of judgment; a salvation, too, which convicts all who despise or neglect it of disobedience, and to faith shows all such to be, instantly on their death, "in prison"—or as Jude expresses it, "under chains of darkness"—even as, while on earth, in the days of their unbelief, they had "the wrath of God abiding" on them (John iii. 36), and were "the lost," whose "minds the God of this world had blinded". (2 Cor. iv. 4.)
In the beginning of chap. iv., Peter carries on this view of what Christians are in Christ. "Suffering in the flesh" is still the subject, and is seen to be true in heaven, of Christ, who once thus suffered for us; and that which is true of Him being in God's sight, also true of us. Every Christian is therefore described as one "that hath suffered in the flesh," and has thereby "ceased from sin," just as Paul teaches in Rom. vi. 18. He became "free from sin" the moment he believed. To get this "mind," says Peter, is to get yourselves "armed" against any longer giving way to the "lusts of men" all your remaining days on earth, and will make you to be such as the men of the world think to be "strange" and "speak evil" of. But Christ, who is thus your truly spiritual Saviour, will soon be their Judge, both of the then "living" and of all "the dead" of similarly rebellious character in ages past.
And in order to judge men in that day—even the unbelieving dead of all ages past—He will only have to point them to believers of the very gospel preached to them whom they well knew during their own day on earth, but whom they in their day thought to be "strange" people, and "spoke evil" of them. Thus will the Judge of the living and dead gather up the results of the gospel preaching of each generation of men, and will judge the guilty dead "according to men in the flesh," even those who were men of their own time; and this, says Peter (v. 6), was one reason why the gospel was preached to each generation of those now dead—namely, that they might, at a glance, see themselves to be without excuse, as they behold seated alongside of the Judge, in the day of The Great White Throne, "men in the flesh" of their own time, whose obedience of faith they refused to follow, and whose flesh-crucifying godliness of life they "thought strange," and "spoke evil of," and hated.
How solemnly, for instance, will the sight of an Abel condemn a Cain!—that Cain to whom God had said, "If thon doest not well, sin (i.e., the sin-offering) croucheth at the door"—thus pointing out to him the same way of coming acceptably to God as that by which his own brother, Abel, had come. How conclusively will the very appearance of Noah and his family among the blessed in that day silence all self-justifying, or even self-excusing, in the raised antediluvians, when their re-quickened memories call back the days of the ark they saw him build, and for which they thought him "strange," and "spoke evil" of him. Thus, also, will Esau in that day be silenced by seeing Jacob—whose denying of himself the "mess of pottage," because of the value he had for "the birthright," which the huntsman of the field so mocked at. In that day, Eli's sons will hold themselves inexcusable for all their sinful handling of God's things, in the presence of that Samuel whose life was one continual testimony to them, and who could say—what they, with all their priestly office, could not say—"Behold, here I am: whose ox have I taken, or whose ass? or of whose hand have I received any bribe?" (1 Sam. xii 3.) Thus, also, kingly Saul will stand condemned by the suffering patience of his son-in-law David; and all the prophets will confront the different generations of those to whom their lives testified, as well as their lips and their writings, and will silence them. And Peter teaches us that this was one object of the gospel testimony in all these different past generations —viz., that refusers of it "might be judged according to men in the flesh" —that is, that men in the flesh of their own day and time on earth, might, so to speak, be Christ's "line and plummet" by which he should condemn them, and sweep away their "refuges of lies". Oh, then, what manner of persons should we be all our days among men, in order that God, by our lives, may condemn the world. As Solomon says (Prov. xxvii. 11), "My son, be wise, and make my heart glad, that I may answer him that reproacheth me".
But Peter adds another and a happier object of the preaching of the Gospel in every by-gone age as well as in the present age—viz., "that men by it might live according to God in the spirit," that is, that they might see God in us by beholding our joys "in the spirit," suffer whatever we may in the flesh, and thus be drawn to eternal life. As John says (1 John iv. 12)—"No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another" (and loving each other did in those days cost Christians something, even as it does now), "God dwelleth in us" and men may thus know him. And again (John xiii. 35)—"By this shall all men know (whether they profit by knowing it or not) that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." Thus is it true that the Gospel has been preached in all ages past that men might live in the spirit by the display thus made to them in the lives of the godly, of what a God of grace and love our God is.
Short, in every age, has been the sojourn of the righteous among the ungodly as a witness to them, it is true, and short, indeed, the Church's sojourn now will be; but long enough either to condemn them for unbelief, or to be a channel to them of divine life and of knowledge of God. But let it be remembered that the power of this testimony in the earth, either to quicken men or to condemn them, depends on its clearness far more than on the length of its continuance. Brief, indeed, were our blessed Master's "days of His flesh," but long enough for Him to be able to say, "I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness," John xii. 46. And He could also say, John xv. 22—"If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin." Such was the twofold bearing and the twofold result of our blessed Master's short visiting of men as a day-spring from on high and a "sufferer in the flesh".
Let us be diligent and faithful, that the Church's short time of the visitation of the Gentiles, may in some goodly measures similarly tend towards leading them to "glorify God" in this their "day of visitation." See 1 Peter ii. 11, 12.