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Bible Study on 1 Peter 3:13-20a (September 6, 2010)

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Bible Study: 1 Peter 3:13-20a for Sally

This epistle was probably written between 70 and 90 A.D. St. Peter or an elder writing in his name, is sending this letter from a sister church in Babylon, (the code word for Rome after it destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D.), to the churches in the five Roman provinces of Asia Minor, because the Christians had already disbursed into those regions and were converting the people there. St. Paul had preached and established churches in these provinces about 60 A.D.

Christianity was a despised foreign religion to the Romans and families became furious when their members converted to it. Because Romans were patriarchal, they feared that the new religion would disrupt their strict hierarchy and women would misbehave. Romans felt that Christians would introduce immorality, especially adultery, insubordination in the household, and sedition against the state.

In 64 A.D. a huge fire burned in Rome and the people suspected that Nero had started it. We still say, “He fiddled while Rome burned.” To undo the suspicions they had against him, he blamed it on the Christians, hung them on crosses, covered them with skins of animals, and let dogs tear them up. He acted the part of a charioteer driving among them.[1] At night they lit up the crosses so that the Christians became human torches to light up the slaughter. It backfired on Nero, because the Romans thought that it was less a punishment, than the satisfaction of the ferocity of one man, Nero.

Christians have a deep love for one another, which disturbed the hard and fast hierarchy of the Roman household. The Roman father could kill or raise his children, could execute a disobedient son, and break his children’s marriages if he willed.[2] If he had this kind of power over his family, imagine the power he had over his slaves! But the slaves were becoming Christians as well as many of the women.

In these early Christian persecutions, which were not yet official and systematic as later under Emperor Decius in 250 A.D. and under Diocletian and Galerius (302 A.D., ending with the edict of Milan in 313), Christians could have been tempted to fight back, or in the freedom of the Gospel, really disrupt the Roman sense of morality.

So they can’t be of help if they suffer because of wrong-doing, but only if they suffer for righteousness or Christ’s sake. They should rejoice if they have been chosen to suffer, to carry the cross of Christ (verse 13). They should not fear what the Romans feared, but they should fear God (14). Here Peter is referring to Isaiah 8:12: “Do not call conspiracy” – I believe the word “sedition” is here implied, “what they call sedition.” Because Christians honored and obeyed the emperor, they just wouldn’t worship him. But the Romans required that they worship him, too, so they called them seditious.

Christians were to fear God and in their hearts sanctify Christ as Lord (15). They could not do that as required by the Romans for Caesar, but only give him outward honor and obedience. Deeper still, we pray: “Hallowed be Thy name.” That requires us to live a holy life, because what we do either blemishes or lifts up and makes holy the name of our Father in Heaven. Our sins take away from the good name of Jesus Christ.

That so-called preacher in Florida, packing a gun, and threatening to burn Qur’ans on 9/11 dishallows Christ’s name, as do all those who identify Islam with extremism, as if all Christians were like the K.K.K.

What sense does an apology or defense of our faith make, if we persecute others? And when people notice the good faith that is within us and the deep love we have for one another, our readiness to forgive, our willingness to suffer for the unrighteous, then we tell people about who has changed our lives: we too are sinners and even though we don’t deserve it, we are saved by grace. We don’t boast. We are all sinners and fallen short of the glory of God. But Christ died for us on the cross even though we were still sinners. Body guards take a bullet for dignitaries, but Christ took a bullet, so to speak, for someone worthless, a completely sinful nobody, like me. Somehow we have now died with him and entered a new life with him. Our testimony, our witness must be told with gentleness and reverence.

We need to stay on the moral high ground to keep our consciences clear (16). People won’t be redeemed if we are punished because of a scandal we’ve committed. A kid stole a bike and was punished by his father. “How the righteous must suffer!” he complained. Of course, “no good deed goes unpunished,” – but then the bottom drops out for that sort, because like Nero, they discover that their ferocity against the innocent backfires. Disfavor like burning coals, gathers over their own heads.

Christ suffered and died on the cross for us – the sinners that we are, so we, too, have to carry the cross for others, rejoicing in our suffering. In this way Christ turned our hearts to God and we need to do the same by becoming a Christ to the sinners of today, our neighbors.

Verses 18 and 22, commentaries think may have come from an old hymn. “Christ was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (18). Our old Adam and Eve die in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross (and also in our baptisms), and we are raised up with Christ into the spiritual life. We are already getting a preview of the coming attractions on the other side.

Luther writes: “Christ is spiritual flesh and blood, not according to the external senses. He does not sleep and does not wake. Yet he knows everything and is everywhere. This is how we too shall be. He is the First Fruits, the beginning, the First Born of the spiritual life….He is the first who arose and entered into the spiritual life. Thus Christ now lives according to the spirit, that is, He is true man, but he has a spiritual body” (Luther’s Works, vol. 30, page 112).

Our baptisms are like Noah’s ark that saved us from the death we lived and awakens us to live in the life given us by the resurrection of Christ. We too have become truly human and we await our spiritual bodies, having become children of God, with God as our very own dear Father.

Getting into verse 19, Luther writes: “This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament” (page 113). He claims that he cannot understand it. “But if someone chooses to maintain that after Christ had died on the cross, He descended to the souls and preached to them there, I will not stand in the way” (LW: 30, page 113). This, of course, aligns with the Apostles’ Creed: “Christ descended into hell. On the third day he arose again, etc.” But Luther is not certain that the apostle wants to say this.

The risen Christ no longer preaches in a physical voice, but spiritually, Luther explains. Christ speaks to our hearts, preaches inwardly, in our hearts and souls. Luther notes that the text does not use the word “descended.” It says, “in the spirit, in which also he went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the times of Noah” (verses 18-20). It says Christ just went and preached to the spirits in prison. Luther: We are commanded to preach in our bodies physically and orally. When we do, Christ himself comes, is spiritually present, and speaks and preaches to the hearts of the people, right while pastors and preachers proclaim the word physically and orally into the ears of the people. Luther: “Then Christ preaches to the spirits who are in captivity in the prison of the devil” (LW: 30, page 114). So Luther still understands this in a spiritual sense.

Now we see time in the sense of the past, present, and future. Spiritually from eternity, all times are present to God. “To the Lord, one thousand years are like one day and one day like a thousand years” (2 Peter 2:8). (I’m still following Luther here.) So Christ could also preach to the unbelievers in the time of Noah.

Now from another commentary: these unbelievers in Noah’s time were singled out because they were examples of the most evil sort. They were “sons of God,” who “saw that the daughters of human beings were beautiful and took wives for themselves, all that they chose” (Genesis 6:1-2). My thought: I think this could refer to divine kingship of old. Kings and emperors called themselves “sons of God,” for example, Thutmose, son of the god Toth; Amunmose, son of the god Amun; Ramses or Ramose, son of the God Ra. Caesar too want to be called divine. Moses never said he was a son of God, but the servant of God, Ebed Yahweh and stood up against the Pharaohs, (in Egyptian “Pharaoh” means “house of the king.” In ancient times, the “divine kings” gathered up all the women for their harems and then made the men their soldiers, so they would be killed and be without them. Solomon, for example, had a thousand wives. But Christ would preach spiritually even to such greedy, murderous, evil, and fallen sinners.

[1] See Documents of the Persecution of the Church: and Lost Gospel of Judas

[2] See Family Values in Ancient Rome:


Written by peterkrey

September 8, 2010 at 5:13 pm

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