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The Righteous for the Unrighteous – 1 Peter 3:17-22

1 Peter Bible Study Notes Week 13

For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits — to those who were disobedient 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, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand —with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. 1 Peter 3:17-22 NIV

Additional Reading: Genesis 6:1-18; 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6.

Things to Think About

Where is Jesus?
Why could Jesus be the Saviour?
Who are the “imprisoned spirits”?

Suffered for Sins – 1 Peter 3:18

Peter, again, gives his audience the example of Jesus’ suffering (that is, his death) as the supreme example of suffering. He writes that Jesus died “for sin” (peri harmation). “This phrase in the singular is commonly used to describe a sin-offering, e.g. in the LXX [the Septuagint] of Lev. 5:7; 6:30 (cf Rom 8:3; Heb 10:6, 8).” (Stibbs 1983:141) Jesus died a sacrificial, atoning, propitiatory death. Unlike the never-ending sacrifices and sin-offerings in Leviticus, however, Jesus’ death was a one-time event, effective for all time.

Once and For All – 1 Peter 3:18, 22

I have not had much experience with Roman Catholic theology, so I was surprised to learn this year that some Roman Catholics believe that Jesus is forever suffering on the Cross.[1] In contrast to this belief, several New Testament writers assert plainly that Jesus died once and for all, and that he is now very much alive and seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven.

The Greek word translated as “once”, or “once and for all”, in verse 18 is hapaxHapax can simply mean “once”, as in a single occurrence, or it can mean “once and for all” with the idea of “a single occurrence that is decisively unique.” (BDAG 2000: 97)

The writer of Hebrews uses hapax three times in Hebrews 9:26-28 with the idea of a single, decisively unique occurrence. Ephapax is strengthened form of the word and can mean “taking place once to the exclusion of any further occurrence.” (BDAG 2000:417) The writer of Hebrews uses ephapax emphatically in Hebrews 7:27; 9:12 and 10:10 to describe Jesus’ once and for all sacrificial, redemptive death on the Cross. Jesus is no longer the suffering and dying sacrifice but our living High Priest and heavenly intercessor (Heb 10:12).

The writer of Hebrews was not the only writer who used the expression “once and for all”.  Paul also used it in Romans 6:10:

“For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all (ephapax); but the life he lives, he lives to God.” Romans 6:9-10

John writes that when Jesus had shed his innocent lifeblood on our behalf, he said with his final breath, “It is finished” (John 19:30).  “It is finished” was a common expression in business and meant that a debt had been paid in full.

The message of the New Testament is that the penalty for our sin has been paid in full, for all people, for all time, by the one completed sacrifice. There is no need for any further sacrifice.  Jesus is no longer on the cross!  Death no longer has control or mastery over him.  Jesus is alive!

The Righteous One – 1 Peter 3:18

Jesus could be our redemptive sacrifice on the cross because he was sinless and righteous. A sinful person is unable to pay the penalty for sin. The world needed a righteous person to fulfil the righteous requirements of the Law (Rom 8:5) and redeem the world from sin. Peter had previously described Jesus as the lamb without blemish or spot. That is, Jesus was the sinless sacrifice whose precious blood had brought redemption (1 Pet 1:18-19).  Jesus is the righteous one: the just one who died for the sake of the unrighteous and the unjust (plural).

Redemption and Reconciliation – 1 Peter 3:18

Redemption brings many wonderful benefits. Because our sins have been paid for and dealt with, Jesus can bring us, or lead us, to God. Sin made us enemies of God, but now that we are reconciled with him, we can have a close relationship with him. We have become his beloved children (1 John 3:1).

For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Romans 5:10

This verse in Romans 5:10 again shows us the importance of understanding that Jesus is alive and no longer suffering on a cross.

Flesh and Spirit – 1 Peter 3:18

1 Peter 3:18 says that Jesus was made alive in spirit. Paul wrote that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead now lives in us. The Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death and also powerfully lives in us and unites us with Jesus (Rom 8:11).[2] However, this is probably not what is meant in verse 18. Most scholars believe that the flesh and the spirit refer to the two different spheres of Jesus’ incarnate life. The sphere of flesh was the sphere of Jesus’ human life before his resurrection; the sphere of spirit is the sphere of his post-resurrection existence. It is in the sphere of spirit that Jesus went and proclaimed his victory to the imprisoned spirits.

Preaching to Imprisoned Spirits – 1 Peter 3:19-20a

I have relied heavily on Karen Jobes’ scholarship and expertise in understanding and explaining 1 Peter 3:19-20; and the following few passages are mostly made up of quotes from her commentary on 1 Peter.[3] I recommend reading Jobes’ full investigation and discussion of these verses in her commentary.

“One common understanding of the passage is enshrined in the Apostle’s Creed in the words, ‘he descended into hell’ which by virtue of their placement within the creed suggests it happened between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.” It appears, however, that the expression “the ‘descent’ was at one time merely a graphic way of referring to burial, or the ‘descent’ in to the grave, and it is still so understood by the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q & A 50).” (Jobes 2009:236)  So we can fairly safely rule out this understanding. “A second ancient understanding is that the preincarnate Christ preached repentance through Noah to the sinful people of that generation, who were about to be judged. . . . [T]he passage has been understood a third way by the majority of commentators: that it refers to Christ’s victory proclamation following his resurrection[4] as he ascended to take his rightful place in heaven as ruler over all.” (Jobes 2009:236/7)

“It is highly debated whether ‘the spirits’ are the souls of deceased people or demonic beings.” (Jobes 2009:243) 1 Enoch 12-16 (cf Genesis 6:1-4) and its tale of “the Watchers, who were fallen angels who abandoned heaven (12:4), slept with human women (15:3), and produced children, referred to as ‘giants’ from whose bodies ‘evil spirits’ have come . . . appears to offer a background that fits well with 1 Pet 3:19-20. . . . If this is the assumed tradition behind 1 Pet. 3:19 then the spirits to whom Christ preached should be understood as fallen angels and/or demonic spirits.” (Jobes 2009:244) Christ proclaimed his victory over these spirits, and quite probably over all the powers of darkness (Col 2:15; 1 Pet 3:22).

In both Genesis 6:1ff and the extra-biblical Enoch-Noah tradition, the narrative of the fallen angels is the preface to the Noah story.[5] (Jobes 2009:251)  Peter uses the imagery of the story of Noah in his comments about salvation and baptism in 1 Peter 3:20-21.

Salvation and Water Baptism – 1 Peter 3:20-21

Some scholars regard Peter’s reference to baptism and Noah’s ark as part of a baptismal liturgy. I am not convinced by their arguments.  I think that one of Peter’s main objectives here was to encourage the Christians in Asia Minor who felt outnumbered by their hostile pagan neighbours. Peter reminds the Christians that only eight people were saved during the flood, while the rest of mankind perished; and likewise, only a few people in the present time will be baptized and saved, and escape God’s eschatological judgement.

“Just as the flood spoke of judgement, which those in the ark were saved from, and saved by, in order to enter a new world, so the water of Christian baptism speaks of the death which fell upon Christ, a death due to sinners, which believers are saved by, and through which they enter into enjoyment of new life before God.” (Stibbs 1983:144)

In New Testament times new believers were baptized soon, sometimes immediately, after coming to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, so conversion and baptism were seen as the one saving event.[6]  As well as signifying salvation, water baptism was also seen as an initiation rite into the family of God, that is, into the Church.

Peter reminds his audience of the pledge, or answer, they made when they were baptized. “This most probably refers to the questions and answers customary in baptism.” (Stibbs 1983:144)

Peter makes it plain, however, that it is not in the outward sign of baptism that we are saved.  It is Christ who saves us through his death and resurrection. Water baptism does not remove “moral filth”. It is because of Jesus’ sacrifice and our abiding in his moral precepts and commands that we can we live as children of God in moral uprightness (John 15:1ff).

Jesus is the victor and not the victim. Jesus was triumphant and is now in heaven at God’s right hand, with angels, authorities and powers (all spiritual hierarchies) in submission to him. And so the Christians in Asia Minor can put their confident hope in Christ as Saviour, and know that they will be vindicated through, and saved from, God’s Judgement. Just as Christ’s suffering is eternally rewarded, so the present suffering of Christians will be eternally rewarded. 


[1] Some Roman Catholics also believe that Jesus is forever a baby in a manger. More about this here.

[2] Jesus’ resurrection from death was, in fact, achieved by the Triune Godhead working together. Other New Testament verses say that God raised Jesus to life.  In John 10 Jesus says that he has the power to lay down his life and to take it up again.  God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Jesus himself all worked together in accord to bring Jesus back to life.

[3] Jobes (2009:237) notes that the entire passage of 1 Peter 3:18-22 “is fraught with problems that obscure its interpretation—text-critical problems, grammatical ambiguities, lexical uncertainties, theological issues, as well as the question of what literary and theological background the author is assuming.”

[4] A few scholars believe this proclamation took place during the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection.

[5] These fallen angels (demonic spirits) are also mentioned in Jude 1:6 and 2 Peter 2:4.

[6] For instance: the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:36-38), Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:47-48), Lydia and her household (Acts 16:15); the Philippian jailer and his household (Acts 16:33-34).


This flower was named “Passion Flower” by Spanish missionaries working in South America who saw the crucifixion of Jesus symbolised in its structure.  © Simon Rudolf (Wikimedia)

Week 12: Pursue Peace – 1 Peter 3:8-16
Week 14:  Dead, and Done with Sin – 1 Peter 4:1-6 
1 Peter Bible Studies series

Related Articles 

Jesus is no longer on a cross 
What happens when you become a Christian?
At the Foot of the Cross

5 thoughts on “The Righteous for the Unrighteous – 1 Peter 3:17-22

  1. I have recommended this piece for October’s Biblical Studies Carnival, which is being hosted by Bible Literature Translation this month.

  2. Wow, Thanks Kristen. How can I find out more about this?

  3. Thanks for your comment Pascual. It’s good to hear from someone who has a lot more experience with Catholic beliefs. I’m happy to hear that the belief is not accepted by all Roman Catholics.

    I have edited my footnote and added the word “many”, but I will keep my statement in the main section which says, “a Roman Catholic belief is that Jesus is forever suffering on the Cross.”

    I wish you well in your ministry.

  4. i am a roman catholic and i take exception to the statement that roman catholics believe that “Jesus is forever suffering” and “forever a child in the manger”. The fact that many Catholic faithful sincerely believe these things to be true due to lack of proper and accurate catechism and even due to the tolerance (even encouragement?) of some priests and catholic teachers for various reasons, do not mean that these are accurate tenets of the Roman Catholic faith / doctrine. These inaccuracies became part of popular practices in roman catholic communities in various parts of the world – there are those who also believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary is God…

    some roman catholic faithful still persists in these doctrinally wrong practices due to lack of guidance by their leaders… in the philippines for example, a visiting priest in a manila squatter community long ago was almost mobbed by catholic mass-goers when he tried to explain that mama mary is not God…

    we have so much to do among our ranks, but definitely it is not part of the roman catholic doctrine that Jesus is “always suffering” or “always a baby in the manger”…

  5. i think the roman catholic doctrine on the “paschal mystery” and the sacrament of the eucharist as the “making present” sacramentally the suffering of Jesus is a very difficult roman catholic teaching that is beyond the grasp of so roman catholics, even by some priests who spent years of theological study in the seminary… and is often simplistically understood as “Jesus forever suffering in the cross”…

    it seems the easiest way to teach the doctrine of the “eucharistic sacrifice” is to say that Jesus continually suffers in the cross through the eucharist. some populist homilies would venture into the more loose (poetic?) explanation saying that Jesus continues to suffer through the persecuted church, through the suffering and death of those who die for Jesus and for the Gospel. Liberation theology tried emphasize on this last aspect… to the detriment of the true appreciation of the paschal mystery.

    As a roman catholic, i have always believed that Jesus died for our sins, and redeemed us once and for all… no other sacrifice is needed, as you have stated. (I have been taught this teaching by my parish priest and parents since i was a child)… thus, it is against this background that the mystery of the roman catholic eucharist as “making present in a sacramental way” (zikkaron) the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus should be understood. Again, to the simple mind, this is quite difficult to understand, and popular catholicism always takes refuge in the easy way of understanding due to the inferior quality of formation and acceptance (catechumenate?) to the church…

    I thought theological discussions and dialogues with theologians of other religions purified and clarified so many roman catholic doctrines / popular practices, such as the catholic ideas (belief?) of limbo, salvation by grace alone, the proper place of Mary in the economy of salvation, the concept of suffering, etc… lately, it seems that Vatican had been more open to discard fiction in favor of the biblical…

    thanks for the kind reply to my comment.

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