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133

XI

THE REWARDS OF SUFFERING FOR WELL-DOING

"For it is better, if the will of God should so will, that ye suffer for well-doing than for evil-doing. Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God; being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the spirit; in which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison, which aforetime were disobedient, when the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a-preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water: which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ; who is on the right hand of God, having gone unto heaven; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto Him."—1 Peter iii. 17-22.

The Apostle comes back to his solemn subject. Why are the righteous called to suffering? The question was perplexing these Asian Christians when St. Peter wrote. Previous ages had pondered over it, Job and his friends among the number; and men ponder over it still. St. Peter has suggested several answers: The faith of Christ's servants after trial will be found praiseworthy at the appearance of their Lord; to bear wrong with patience is acceptable with God; it is a happy lot, Christ has said, to suffer in the cause of righteousness. His next response to the question is more solemn than these: Suffering is sent to the righteous by the will of God. It never134 comes otherwise, and is meant to serve two several purposes: it is intended to benefit the unrighteous, and to be a blessing and glory to the righteous who endure it.

He shows that this is God's will by two examples. Christ, the sinless, suffered at the hands of sinful men, and for their sakes, as well as for all sinners; and though we only can approach the subject with deep reverence and use the language of Scripture rather than our own about the effect of suffering on Christ Himself, we are taught therein that He was made perfect as the Leader of salvation by the things which He suffered: and the Apostle here describes the sequel of those sufferings by the session on the right hand of God in heaven, where angels and authorities and powers are made subject unto Him.

But God's ordinance in respect of the suffering of the godly has been the same from of old. In the ancient world Noah had found grace in God's sight in the midst of a graceless world. He was made a witness and a preacher of righteousness; and the faithful building of the ark at God's command was a constant testimony to the wrong-doers, whose sole response was mockery and a continuance in the corruption of their way. But God had not left them without witness; and when the Deluge came at length, some hearts may have gone forth to God in penitence, though too late to be saved from the destruction. To Noah and those with him safety was assured; and when the door of the ark was opened, and the small band of the rescued came forth, it was to have the welcome of God's blessing and to be pointed to a token of His everlasting covenant. In this wise St. Peter adds once more to the consolations of those who135 endure grief and suffering wrongfully, and thus does he set forth the general drift of his argument. But the whole passage is so replete with helpful lessons that it merits the fullest consideration.

For it is better, if the will of God should so will, that ye suffer for well-doing than for evil-doing. For evil-doing suffering is certain to come. It cannot be escaped. God has linked the two together by an unalterable law. Such suffering is penal. But when the righteous are afflicted their lot is not of law, but of God's merciful appointment and selection, and is ordained with a purpose of blessing both to themselves and others. The words of St. Peter are very emphatic concerning God's ordinance: If the will of God so will. It is not always clear to men. Therefore St. Paul (Eph. i. 9) speaks of the mystery of the Divine will, but in the same place (i. 5) of the good pleasure thereof. It is exercised with love, and not with anger. It was the feeling1010   The LXX. translators use the word θέλωθέλω very frequently to translate such expressions as "to delight in," "to have pleasure in." Cf. Deut. xxi. 14; 1 Sam. xviii. 22; 1 Kings x. 9. with which God looked forth upon the new-created world, and, behold, it was very good (Rev. iv. 11). With the same feeling He longs to behold it rescued and restored. Such is the desire, such the aim, with which God permits trial and distress to fall upon the righteous. And that the sufferers may be kept in mind of God's remedial purpose herein, the Apostle adduces the example of Christ Himself: Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God. The suffering Christ should give pause to all questionings about the sufferings of His servants. Their lot may be hard to explain. But be their lives136 ever so pure, their purposes ever so lofty, "in many things we offend all," and need not murmur if we be chastened. But as we think of the sinless Jesus and His unequalled sufferings, we learn the applicability of the prophet's lamentation, "See if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow" (Lam. i. 12). The burden of the unrighteous world was laid upon the righteous Son of God, and this because of God's love for sinners. Herein was the love of God manifested in us. Sinful men were the material chosen for the display of the Divine love, and God sent His only-begotten Son into the world that we might live through Him. It was of God's ordinance and the Son's obedience that redemption was thus purchased. That we might live, the sinless Christ must die, and ere He died must be put to grief by the opposition of those whom He came to save; must lament and be hindered in His works of mercy by the want of faith among His own kindred, by the persistent sins of those cities in which His mightiest works were wrought; must shed tears of anguish over the city of David, which would know nothing of the things which belonged unto her peace. This was the chastisement of the innocent to gain peace for the guilty, that God might thus commend His love to men, and Christ might bring them back to the Father. And this bringing back is not the mere action of a guide. This He is, but He is far more: He helps those who are coming at every step, and as they draw near they find through Him that the Father's house and the Father's welcome are waiting for their return. Shall men complain, nay shall they not be lost in praise, if God will at all consent to use their trials to extend His kingdom and His glory, and thus make them partakers of the sufferings of Christ?137 Such a lot had been welcome to St. Peter: "They departed from the presence of the council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name" (Acts v. 41); and here in his epistle he publishes the joy of such shame, publishes it that others through all ages may suffer gladly, trusting their God to use the pains He sends to magnify His glory. The lesson is for all men at all times. Christ suffered for sins once; but once here means once for all, and proclaims to each generation of sinners that Jesus bore His cross for them.

Being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the spirit. The suffering of Jesus went thus far, that there might be nothing in the cup of human woe which He had not tasted. His spirit was parted from the flesh, as when we die. The body lay in the grave; the spirit passed to the world of the departed. But the triumph of death was short. After the three days' burial came the miracle of miracles. The dead Jesus returned to life, and that resurrection is made the earnest of a future life to all believers. Thus began the recompense of the righteous Sufferer, and the power of the resurrection makes suffering endurable to the godly, makes them rejoice to be conformed unto Christ's death and forgetful of all things save the prize of the high calling, which lies before them to be won. Nor was it with Christ's spirit during those three days as with the souls of other departed ones. He, the sinless One, had no judgement to await; His stay there was that dwelling in paradise which He foreknew and spake of to the penitent thief.

In which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison, which aforetime were disobedient, when the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah. At this138 point we come upon a twofold line of interpretation, occasioned by the difficulty which constantly arises of deciding whether πνεῦνα—"spirit" is to be understood of the Divine Spirit or of the spiritual part of man's nature as distinguished from the flesh. Those who have taken the words "quickened in the Spirit" of the previous verse in the former of these senses explain this passage of the preaching of Christ to the antediluvian world through His servant Noah. The Divine fiat had gone forth. The Flood was to come and bring destruction to the bodies of all but Noah and his family. But within those doomed bodies souls were shut up, and these the love of Christ would not willingly give over. They should hear, while still in their prison of the flesh, the offer of His grace; and should they repent, the waves which wrought destruction of the body might release them from the bondage of corruption. This was the purpose of God's long-suffering, which waited and appealed while the ark was a-preparing. Thus did the Divine Spirit of Christ go forth as a herald of mercy to the impenitent, proclaiming that for their souls the door of forgiveness was not yet closed.

Those, on the contrary, who refer "quickened in the spirit" to the human soul of Christ, take this text as an additional authority for the doctrine in the Apostles' Creed that our Lord's human soul after the Crucifixion descended into hell. Thus, they hold, His pure spirit went beyond this world to experience all that human spirits can know before the judgement comes. Thither He came but as a Herald. Death and the grave had no power to detain Him. In mercy to those who had passed away before the Incarnation, He brought the message of the mediatorial work which He had completed in His crucifixion. The sinners before the Flood139 are singled out for mention by St. Peter as sinners above all men, so sunk in wickedness that but eight were found worthy to be saved from the Deluge. Thus the magnitude of Christ's mercy is glorified. He who goes to seek these must long to save all men. And to carry this message of glad tidings is part of the recompense for the agonies of Gethsemane and Calvary, a portion of what made it a blessing to suffer for well-doing.

Up to the sixteenth century the latter exposition and application of the words found most favour, but at the time of the Reformation the chief authorities1111   It marks the time of this change of opinion that in the first form of the English Articles (the forty-two of 1553) the text 1 Peter iii. 19 was given as evidence for the descent into hell in Article III., but in the later form (the thirty-nine of 1563) the allusion to St. Peter's words was omitted. No doubt the divines of that time wished to do away with all that might be used to countenance the doctrine of purgatory. expounded them of the preaching of Christ's Spirit through the ministry of the patriarch. For the main argument with which St. Peter is dealing these applications, however interesting in themselves, are not deeply important. He wants to set before the converts a warrant for what he has said about the blessedness of suffering for righteousness. If we accept the application to Noah, the example is a powerful one. His sufferings must have been manifold. The long time between the threatened judgement and its accomplishment was filled with the opposition of sinners and their mockery and taunts over his patient labour on the ark, to say nothing of the distress of soul when he found his preaching falling ever on deaf ears. But his trial had its reward at last when the little band were shut in by God Himself, and the ark bore them safely on140 the rising waters. And if he could feel that any, though perishing in body, had by repentance been saved in soul, this would make light the burden even of greater suffering than had fallen to the patriarch, to know the joy which comes from converting a sinner from the error of his way and therein saving a soul from death.

And if we refer the words "quickened in the spirit" to the soul of Christ, parted from the body and present in the spirit-world, they are a link to connect this passage with words of the Apostle's sermon on the day of Pentecost. There he does speak of the Lord's descent into hell, and teaches how David of old spake thereof and of the Resurrection "that neither was He left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption" (Acts ii. 31). In this sense the quickening in the spirit is the beginning of Christ's victory and triumph. It is the earnest of eternal life to all believers. And how welcome a message to those who, like Abraham, had rejoiced in faith to see the day of Christ, to hear from His own lips the tidings of the victory won! Of the Herald of such a Gospel message, of Him who by His suffering delivered those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage, we may, with all reverence, speak as "being made perfect by becoming the Author of eternal salvation to all them that obey Him" (Heb. v. 9).

Wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved. The building of the ark was the test of Noah's faith, the ark itself the means of his preservation. In the patriarch's sufferings St. Peter has found an apt parallel to the life of these Asian Christians: the same godless surroundings; the same opposition and mockery; the same need for steadfast faith. But if rightly141 pondered, the Old Testament lesson is rich in teaching. Noah becomes a preacher of righteousness, not for his own generation only, but for all time. He suffered in his well-doing. Nothing stings more keenly than scorn and contempt. These he experienced to the full. He came as God's herald to men who had put God out of all their thoughts. His message was full of terror: "Behold, I do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh wherein is the breath of life from under heaven; everything that is in the earth shall die" (Gen. vi. 17). Few heeded; fewer still believed. But when the work of the messenger was over; when the ark was prepared, and the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened; when he and his were shut in by God, then appeared the blessedness. And if haply there had been any in whom he had beheld signs of repentance, how the thought that some souls were saved, though their bodies were drowned with the rest, would magnify the rejoicing of the rescued; and the overthrow of the ungodly would proclaim how little ultimate bliss there could be in evil-doing. All these things would come home to the hearts of the "strangers of the dispersion."

And were they few in number? Fewer still were those who stood with Noah in the world's corruption. But God was with him; he walked with God, and found grace in His eyes; and God blessed him when the Flood was gone, and by the sign of the covenant, the faithful witness in heaven (Psalm lxxxix. 37), has placed a memorial of the happiness of his well-doing before the eyes of mankind for ever. And it would comfort the believers if they kept in mind the object which St. Peter has so often set before them, and on142 which he would have them set their desire in their distress. There was hope, nay assurance, that the heathen world around them would be won by their steadfast well-doing to the service of the Lord. Christ did not send his followers on a hopeless quest when He said, "Go, baptize all nations." It was no material ark they were set to fashion; they were exalted to be builders of the Church of Christ. And to put one stone upon another in that building was a joy worth earning by a life of sacrifice.

Saved through water. But God appointed the same waves to be the destruction of the disobedient. With no faith-built ark in which to ride safe, the sinners perished in the mighty waters which to Noah were the pathway of deliverance. A solemn thought this for those who have the offer of the antitype which the Apostle turns next to mention! This double use which God makes of His creatures—how to some they bring punishment, to others preservation—is the theme of several noble chapters in the book of Wisdom (xi.-xvi.), expanding the lesson taught by the pillar of a cloud, which was light to Israel, while it was thick darkness to the Egyptians.

Which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism. Under the new covenant also water has been chosen by Christ to be the symbol of His grace. His servants are baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This is the door appointed for entrance into the family. But the waters of the Flood would have overwhelmed Noah, even as the rest, had he not been within the ark, and the ark would not have been made had he been lacking in faith. So in baptism must no more saving office be ascribed to the water. Even the Divine word, "the word of143 hearing, did not profit some, because they were not united by faith with them that heard aright" (Heb. iv. 2). Neither does the sign in baptism, though Divinely instituted, profit, being alone. The Christian, having been cleansed by the washing of water with the word, is sanctified by Christ because of his faith. The washing of regeneration must be joined with the renewing of the Holy Ghost. That Spirit does not renew, but convicts of sin those who believe not on Christ (John xvi. 8). In his salvation Noah accepted and acted on God's warning about things not seen as yet, and so his baptism became effectual. In faith, too, Israel marched through the Red Sea, and beheld the overthrow of their heathen pursuers. And baptism mixed with faith is saving now. Those Old Testament deliverances were figures only of the true, and were but for temporal rescue. Christ's ordinance is that to which they testified before His coming, and is coupled with the promise of His presence even unto the end of the world.

And that there may be no place for doubting, the Apostle subjoins a twofold explanation. First he tells us what baptism is not, then what it is and what it bestows. It is not the putting away of the filth of the flesh. Were this all, it would avail no more than the cardinal ordinances (with meats and drinks and divers washings) which were imposed of old until a time of reformation. Through them the way into the holy place was not made manifest, nor could be. True baptism is the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is a spiritual purification, wrought through the might of Christ's resurrection. And the Apostle describes it by the effect which it produces in the144 religious condition and attitude of him who has experienced it. The sinner who loves his sin dare not question his conscience. That witness would pronounce for his condemnation. So he finds it best to lull it to sleep, or perhaps deaden it altogether. But to him who, being risen with Christ in faith, seeks those things that are above, who strives to make himself spiritually purer day by day, there is no such dread. Rather by constant questioning and self-examination he labours that his conscience may be void of offence towards God and man. That man not only dares, but knows it to be a most solemn duty, thus to purge his conscience. So the effect of baptism is daily felt, and the questioned soul thankfully bears witness to the active presence of the Spirit, for the bestowal of which the Sacrament was the primal pledge.

Others have rendered ἐπερώτημα "an appeal," and have joined it very closely with the words toward God. These have found in the Apostle's explanation the recognition of that power to draw nigh unto God which the purified conscience both feels, and feels the need of. There are daily stumblings, the constant want of help; and through Christ's resurrection the way is opened, a new and living way, into the holiest, and the power is granted of appealing unto God, while the sense of baptismal grace already bestowed gives confidence and certainty that our petitions will be granted.

Who is on the right hand of God, having gone into heaven; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto Him. Now the Apostle turns back to his main subject. The righteous who suffers for, and in, his righteousness, may not only be a blessing to others, but may himself find blessing. We dare only use the145 words which the Spirit has supplied when we speak of Christ being perfected by what He endured. But the Apostle to the Hebrews has a clear teaching. He speaks of Christ as being "the effulgence of God's glory, and the very image of His person" (Heb. i. 3). Yet he tells that, "though He was a Son, He learned obedience by the things which He suffered, and became thus the Author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him" (Heb. v. 8). And he goes further, and teaches that this submission of Christ to suffering was in harmony with the Divine character and according to God's own purpose: "It became Him for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the Author of their salvation perfect through sufferings" (Heb. ii. 10). From all eternity Christ was perfect as the Son of God, but He has suffered that He may be a perfect Mediator. Why this was well-pleasing unto the Father it is not ours to know, nor can we by searching find. But, the sufferings ended, He is crowned with glory; He is exalted to the right hand of the Father; He is made Lord of all. This He taught His disciples ere He sent them to baptize: "All authority hath been given unto Me in heaven and on earth" (Matt. xxviii. 18). Having taken hold of the seed of Abraham and consented to be made lower than the angels, He has now been set "far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come" (Eph. i. 21). Thus does St. Paul teach even as St. Peter; and we may believe, though we fail to grasp the manner thereof, that through His humiliation our blessed Lord has been exalted, not only because He receives for ever the praises of the redeemed, but because He has wrought146 through His suffering that which was well-pleasing in the sight of the Father.

The whole clause before us is worthy of notice for another reason. It was doubtless written before our Gospels were in circulation, when the life and work of Jesus were only published by the oral teaching of the Apostles and their fellows; yet in a summary form it covers the whole field of the Gospel story. Those to whom this Epistle was written had been taught that Jesus was the Christ, had heard of His righteous life among men, of His sufferings, death, and resurrection, had been taught that afterwards He was taken up into heaven. They knew also that the baptism by which they had been admitted into the Christian communion was His ordinance and the appointed door into the Church which He lived and died to build up among men. Thus, without the Gospels, we have the Gospel in the Epistles, and a witness to the integrity of that history of Christ's life which has come down to us in the narratives of the Evangelists. And when all the contributions of the Apostolic Epistles are put side by side, we may easily gather from them that the history of Jesus which we have now is that which the Church has possessed from the beginning of the Gospel.


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