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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
1 Peter 3



Verse 1


(1) Likewise ye wives . . .—Third division of second prudential rule: subordination conjugal. Here, again, the form in the original is participial, joining this injunction on to 1 Peter 2:13; 1 Peter 2:18, where the word is the same in Greek, “wives, in the same way submitting yourselves.” Whether this imposes for all time upon Christian wives as complete a submission towards their husbands as is here enjoined might perhaps be questioned, because the special reason for the command in this place was to allay suspicions engendered by the boldness with which Christianity proclaimed the freedom of the individual. St. Peter has just been giving injunctions for absolute submission, even to injustice, on the part of slaves; and the progress of Christianity has abolished slavery altogether. The measure of the Christian wife’s submission may safely be left to her own enlightened conscience, guided by other passages of the New Testament not written, like this, for a special emergency.

Your own husbands.—This does not order submission to the husband in contrast to submission to other directors, but rather gives a reason for obedience. “The Christian wife that hath love to God,” says Leighton, “though her husband be not so comely, or so wise, or any way so amiable, as many others, yet because he is her own husband, and because of the Lord’s command in the general, and His providence in the particular disposal of His own, therefore she loves and obeys.”

That if any obey not the word.—Rather, in order that even supposing some (at present) disobey the word. “The word” is, of course, the Gospel, the declaration of the fulfilment of the prophecies in Jesus. And those who “disobey the word” are, according to constant usage, the Jews. The present verb is used of the Jews in Acts 14:2; Acts 17:5; Acts 19:9; Romans 10:21; Romans 11:31; Romans 15:31, besides St. Peter’s own use in 1 Peter 2:8; 1 Peter 4:17. The only places where it is distinctly used of others are Romans 2:8 (of Jew and Gentile together), Romans 11:30 (where the Gentiles are compared with the Jews), Hebrews 3:18 (of the Israelites in the wilderness), Hebrews 11:31 (of the men of Jericho), 1 Peter 3:20 (of the refractory antediluvians). In any case it must mean a wilful refusal to submit to the Word, in spite of being intellectually convinced. (See especially 1 Peter 2:8.) For every reason, therefore, it is more probable that the case here supposed is that of Hebrew (Christian) women, married to men of their own race who reject the gospel.

They also may . . .—The order here is not so neat as in the original, and it spoils the point to insert the definite article before “word.” It should run, In order that . . . through their wives’ conversation, without a word, they may (literally, shall) be gained. There is something almost playful in the substitution of “their wives” instead of “you,” and in the “without a word” contrasted with “the word” before. St. Peter seems to enjoy laying the little innocent plot. He was himself, as the Prayer Book reminds us, a married man. And what he means here, is not that those who have resisted the public preaching in the synagogues, should even without that public preaching be won; rather, that though the gospel as uttered verbally only provokes them to opposition, the gospel as submissively acted by their wives, without a word said on the matter, ought to convert them. “This model of submission and humility,” says M. Renan, meaning the Lamb of God, “is made by Peter the law for all classes of Christian society. The wife above all, without setting up for a preacher (sans faire la précheuse), ought, by the discreet charm of her piety, to be the great missionary of the faith.” The word rendered “won” keeps up the playfulness of that which goes before; it means “to turn a profit,” and there is just enough of ruse in it to make the enforcement of submission to a husband of opposed religious views seem an enticing little speculation. The tense of the original verb indicates that the scheme is certain to succeed. (Comp. Matthew 18:15; 1 Corinthians 9:19-20.) Archbishop Leighton points out that in Hebrew the name of the book of “Ecclesiastes; or, the Preacher,” is a feminine, and the same is the case in Psalms 68:11, and elsewhere.

Verse 2

(2) While they behold . . .—The same curious word as in 1 Peter 2:12, and the tense, which is ill-represented by “while they behold,” sets us at the moment of the triumph of the wife’s conduct, literally; having kept, or when they have kept an eye on your chaste conversation. The husband is jealously on the watch to see what his wife does who has embraced these foolish notions; at last he breaks down. Jesus must be the Messiah, or his wife could not have been so chaste! The adjective “chaste” is here to be taken in a large sense; it is the same which enters into the verb translated “purify” in 1 Peter 1:22, and it is implied that the “fear” (i.e., of the husband; comp. Note on 1 Peter 2:18) has been an incentive to this sweet virtue; “your life so immaculate in fear,” or even almost “so timidly pure.” Leighton says, “It is a delicate, timorous grace, afraid of the least air, or shadow of anything that hath but a resemblance of wronging it, in carriage or speech, or apparel, as follows in the third and fourth verses.”

Verse 3

(3) Whose adorning let it not be . . . .—The passage shows that the Asiatic Christians were not all of the poorer classes. Many of the wealthy Jewesses had joined them. The wealth of the Ephesian Christians about this time may be gathered from 1 Timothy 2:9, and of the Laodiceans from Revelation 3:17. Two things are to be noted about the advice here given. (1) It is not intended directly as a corrective of vanity. St. Peter is not bidding them beware of love of dress, although (as Bengel points out) the three words of “plaiting,” “wearing” (literally, putting round oneself), and “putting on,” are intended to convey the notion of elaborate processes in which time is wasted. But the main thought is, How are the husbands to be attracted? Not, says St. Peter, by any external prettiness of adornment, but by inward graces. (2) The Apostle is not forbidding the use of gold, &c. Leighton (himself something of a precisian) says, “All regard of comeliness and ornament in apparel is not unlawful, nor doth the Apostle’s expression here, rightly considered, fasten that upon the adorning he here speaks of. He doth no more universally condemn the use of gold for ornament than he doth any other comely raiment, which here he means by that general word of putting on of apparel, for his ‘not’ is comparative; not this adorning, but the ornament of a meek spirit, that rather, and as much more comely and precious; as that known expression (Hosea 6:6), ‘I will have mercy, and not sacrifice?” At the same time he is, of course, speaking of these things with studied contempt: and we may be sure he would have spoken with abhorrence of any adorning which partook of the nature of lying. Even in one of Xenophon’s works there is a charming passage where an Athenian gentleman expostulates with his wife on the folly of hoping to attract him by wearing high-heeled shoes and painting her face with rouge and white.

Verse 4

(4) But let it be . . .—The connection of the clauses is somewhat difficult, but is made more so by our translation of 1 Peter 3:3. Literally it would run, of whom let it not be, or, to whom let there not belong the outward adorning, but the hidden man of the heart. If we adopt the translation in the Authorised Version, it makes “the hidden man” an ornament to be worn in preference to the gold and braided hair, which would be both illogical, and dishonouring to “the hidden man.” What St. Peter says is, “Do not rely, for winning your husbands, upon ornamentation (which is but external), but upon character.”

The hidden man of the heart.—Not equivalent to St. Paul’s expression, “the new man” (Ephesians 4:24), but simply the inner self, the true self—i.e., the genuine moral character. It is more like St. Paul’s phrase, “the inward man,” and may, perhaps, have been adapted from, it. (Comp. Romans 7:22; 2 Corinthians 4:16; Ephesians 3:16.) According to his custom, St. Peter explains by adding the genitive, “of the heart.” (Comp. 1 Peter 1:13.) At the same time, the choice of that particular word, rather than “soul” or “mind,” gives warmth and affection to what might otherwise seem a bare moral or metaphysical conception.

In that which is not corruptible.—The sense is somewhat obscured by our insertion of “even the ornament.” Had it been “even in the ornament,” it would have been clearer, though not right even then. It is literally, in the imperishableness of the meek and quiet spirit, contrasting the abiding beauty of character with the “perishable” or “contemptible” nature of the ornaments just spoken of. So in 1 Peter 1:18, he spoke of “silver and gold” as “perishable.” The same kind of phrase is used by St. Paul in 1 Timothy 6:17, “trust in the uncertainty of riches”—i.e., in riches which are but uncertain things. So here, “in the imperishableness of the meek spirit” means in the meek spirit, which is not (like gold) a perishable thing. Yet the preposition “in” must not be taken as equivalent to “dressed in,” “adorned with;” the “meek and quiet spirit” is not a mere decoration of the “hidden man.” Neither, on the other hand, is it quite “consisting in,” as though “hidden man” and “meek spirit” were identical; for “the hidden man of the heart” would be bad in bad men, and good in good: see, for instance, our Lord displaying the hidden man of the Pharisee’s heart (Matthew 23:28). It is rather the particular mode in which St. Peter wishes the inward character to exhibit itself. We might paraphrase the whole thus:—“Let it not be with you a matter of external ornamentation—elaborate processes, and costly, but perishable, decorations—but let it be a matter of the heart, the character, the true self, manifesting itself in a constant tone of unassuming and imperturbable sweetness—an imperishable attraction.” The word “spirit” here is used, not in its strict metaphysical sense, but in the sense of a mood or general tenour and complexion of life; as, for instance, in Luke 9:55 (perhaps), 1 Corinthians 4:21, Galatians 6:1, and elsewhere. St. Peter assures us in this passage that moral characteristics gained in this life remain our characteristics in the next.

Which is in the sight of God of great price.—The antecedent to “which” has been variously taken. Is it “the meek and quiet spirit?” Is it “the imperishableness of the meek and quiet spirit?” Or is it “the hidden man of the heart exhibiting itself in such a spirit?” Each has something to be said for it, but the last seems nearest to the truth. The thing which is valuable in the eyes of God is the having such an inward character. Thus we might put a stronger stop at the word “spirit;” and this relative clause will be another instance of St. Peter’s favourite mode of speech noticed on 1 Peter 2:24. Such a possession will be not only attractive to the husband for the time, but has a permanent value as being esteemed by God.

Verse 5

(5) For after this manner.—Here we have not only the ground of the foregoing precepts, but also of the assurance that God sets a value on such embellishments. It had been accepted by Him in the holy women of old who hoped in Him, and would be accepted again. “The Apostle enforces his doctrine by example,” says Leighton: “the most compendious way of teaching.” By “holy women” he means, not only holy in character, but “sainted”—consecrated by their memories being recorded for our reverence in Holy Writ.

Who trusted in God.—It is a great pity that “trusted” should have been substituted for the original “hoped.” The position of Sara and the holy women of the Old Testament was one of expectancy, of looking forward to the fulfilment of a promise; and the description of them as such is intended to make the readers of the letter feel the difference of their position. To them the promise to Sara was accomplished. The expression contains a reference to the mention of God in the last verse.

Adorned themselves, being in subjection.—The imperfect tense of the verb means “used to adorn themselves.” They took daily pains thus to adorn themselves, and spent, perhaps, as long in the process as the other ladies over their toilette. The participle which is added explains more fully the “after this manner.” Their subjection was their ornament.

Verse 6

(6) Even as Sara.—A definite example of the general fact just alleged. St. Peter seems rather to have argued from what every one would feel must have been the case than from explicit records. Sara’s usual subjection is clearly seen in the one instance to which St. Peter refers (Genesis 18:12), where Sara, though not addressing Abraham, but speaking to herself, calls him “my lord.” People show their usual habits of mind more freely in speaking to themselves.

Whose daughters ye are.—A very misleading version, following the Vulgate. What St. Peter says is, whose children ye became, or were made. There was a definite period in their past lives at which they came to be—what they were not before—children of Sara. Have we not here, therefore, a distinct proof that these readers of the Epistle were Gentiles and not Jewesses? Not so. The phrase, “which hoped in God,” pointing as it does to the coming of the Messiah, prepares us to understand how these Hebrew women became Sara’s children. It was only by entering into her hope and attaching themselves to Jesus Christ, for whose coming she had looked. St. Peter has already been insisting on the nothingness of the fleshly descent, the “corruptible seed.” As has been pointed out on 1 Peter 1:24, this doctrine was not first taught by St. Paul, for St. Peter had heard it from the Baptist (Matthew 3:9) and from our Lord Himself (John 8:39). Whether persons were naturally Jews or Gentiles, they could not be children of Abraham without voluntarily becoming so by embracing his principles—i.e., by becoming Christians. The participial clauses which follow will need no change of translation, for they express not the act or process by which these ladies became children of Sara, but the condition on which they would remain her children. A very similar passage occurs in Hebrews 3:14 : “We have become partakers of the Christ, if (for the future) we hold,” &c. (Comp. also 1 Thessalonians 3:8; Hebrews 3:6.)

Do well.—See 1 Peter 2:12; 1 Peter 2:15; 1 Peter 2:20. The word means, of course, general good behaviour, especially in all wifely duties. As this is a condition of remaining Sara’s children, it is implied that it was a characteristic of Sara. Some critics would even put in a parenthesis all the words from “even as” to “ye are,” and attach these participles (as they are in the Greek) to the last clause in 1 Peter 3:5, thus: “adorned themselves, being in subjection to their own husbands (as Sara, for instance . . . whose daughters ye were made), doing well, and not being afraid,” &c. This is, however, somewhat cumbrous, and leaves the clause “whose daughters ye became” a little too bald.

Are not afraid with any amazement.—Though this translation is grammatically possible, it does not make such good sense as to translate, are not afraid of any alarm. It is, in fact, a quotation from or allusion to Proverbs 3:25, as Bengel points out, where “Be not afraid of sudden fear” is rendered in the LXX. by these same peculiar words. The “Wisdom” in that passage, which brings the calmness with it, is Christ, and it is Christ who must be understood in Proverbs 3:26 : “the Lord shall be thy confidence.” To be afraid of sudden alarms and panics argues a lack of trust in God’s providence and power, and would, therefore, be unbecoming the daughters of Sara, who “hoped in God.” The “alarms” which they naturally might fear are, of course, quite general, but especially here, we may suppose, dread of what their unbelieving husbands might do to them. (Comp. 1 Peter 3:13 et seq.)

Verse 7

(7) Likewise, ye husbands.—The subjection is not to be all one-sided, though the husband’s subjection to the wife will be of a different kind from the wife’s to him. We are hardly to take this as a separate paragraph from the foregoing, but rather as a corollary added to it, to correct a false impression that might otherwise have been conveyed.

Dwell.—Rather, dwelling. The participle is attached to the previous sentences, just as in 1 Peter 2:16; 1 Peter 2:18; 1 Peter 3:1; but St. Peter does not like to say to the husbands “submitting yourselves” (though it is implied in the “likewise”), and conveys the deference which the husbands are to pay under other terms: such as “according to knowledge,” “giving honour.”

With them.—The whole order of the sentences needs re-arrangement as follows: Ye husbands, likewise, dwelling according to knowledge, as with a weaker vessel, with what is female, apportioning honour as to joint heirs also of a grace of life. In order to understand this very hard passage, we must remember what is St. Peter’s object all throughout these instructions, viz., to commend Christianity to jealous watchers without. Here, therefore, we may well suppose that he is thinking chiefly of the case of believing husbands (Jewish) married to unbelieving wives (Jewish also), thus presenting the counter-picture to that of 1 Peter 3:1. And the first thing is that they are to “dwell with” these wives, not to divorce them, nor to cease from conjugal cohabitation with them; such harshness would lend very little attractiveness to the Christian religion among the Jewish homes to which the divorced wife would turn. (See 1 Corinthians 7:12 et seq.—a passage which must almost have been in St. Peter’s mind.)

According to knowledge.—This phrase, which is like an adverb, such as “scientifically, intelligently,” means that the husband is to study to enter into the whole bearings of the case, to take everything into account. Husband and wife will not get on together smoothly at haphazard, without pains taken to understand the situation. (See 1 Thessalonians 4:4; “you should know.”)

Unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel.—Or rather, as we now take it, as with a weaker vessel, with what is female. This explains the saying “according to knowledge.” The thing which the husband is specially to understand and take into account is that he is dealing with a thing less strong than himself. The whole of chivalry is in these words, and St. Peter (next after Christ) may be considered the founder of it. Weakness itself, by being weakness, has a claim upon the strong man’s deference and self-submission. The weakness here ascribed to the female sex is primarily that of the body, as we shall see when we consider the word “vessel,” though it may, perhaps, indicate frailty in other respects as well. If the word “vessel” is to be here a description of a “wife,” as some contend on 1 Thessalonians 4:4, in a sense in which it does not equally describe a husband, it is difficult to see with what the vessel is compared and pronounced weaker. “Dwell with the female as with a more delicate vessel or instrument” than what? If we answer “than yourselves,” it becomes clear that the husbands are, by implication, less delicate vessels. And this is the case. In the Note on 1 Thessalonians 4:4, it has been shown that the word “vessel” (whether as receptacle or as instrument) is a description of the body, or rather of the self as manifested in the body. The word in itself may be used to describe anything made to be serviceable—machinery, tackle and gear, pots and pans, and, in fact, any kind of apparatus or implement—and here it might be very fairly rendered, “as with a weaker thing or object.” That which is translated “the wife” is really a neuter adjective, and it is a question whether we are to supply with it the noun “vessel”—“with the female [vessel] as with a vessel which is weaker”—or whether it is to stand absolutely, “the female,” as we say “the good,” “the evil”—i.e., “that which is female.” The latter seems, on the whole, simpler and more forcible, as calling closer attention to the fact of weakness being inherent in the sex.

Giving honour.—The word for “giving” implies rendering a portion which is due. And what is here called “honour” is not to be understood only of the wife’s maintenance (as some say), though such is probably the interpretation of the word in 1 Timothy 5:17, and comp. Exodus 21:10; nor is the wife only to be honoured by being consulted in affairs of moment and put in charge of the household. The “honour” to be accorded to wives “as to joint heirs of a grace of life” is the same kind of “honour” as St. Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 4:4, says must be accorded to oneself. Indeed, from the juxtaposition of three significant words there, we can hardly escape the conclusion that St. Peter was remembering that passage of St. Paul, “that every one of you should know how to obtain possession of the vessel of himself in sanctification and honour.” It is that chaste respect for the wife which is meant in the Prayer Book by the phrase, “With my body I thee worship.” It means that the husband must not dare to take any liberties with his wife. Would the Christian husband be likely to approve his religion to the unbelieving wife if she found that he took a coarse view of the conjugal tie?

And as being heirs together of the grace of life.—There is here a very intricate question of readings, on which it depends whether the “heirs” are to be nominative or dative, the husbands or the wives. The present annotator prefers, on the whole, to follow Tischendorf, and read the dative, “paying respect as to persons who are also joint heirs (i.e., with you) of a grace of life.” Happily, it comes to much the same thing, the only difference being that in the one case deference is paid to the wife on the ground of her possessing a joint dignity with the husband, and in the other case on the ground that the husband does not possess his dignity except conjointly with the wife. That dignity which they conjointly “inherit”—i.e., possess as a gift from God—is called “the grace (or perhaps, a grace) of life.” This is generally interpreted to mean, “the gracious gift of everlasting life.” Undoubtedly, “life” is often used absolutely in the New Testament to mean eternal life—e.g., Matthew 18:8; and it gives a very intelligible sense, that the husband should reverence the wife as being equally with himself an everlasting soul. But this neither gives sufficient force to the conjoint nature of the possession, nor does it take into account the possibility of such a case as, in fact, we suppose to be here intended, viz., of a believing husband and unbelieving wife. Although, in a sense, “the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband” (1 Corinthians 7:14), yet not in such a sense as for them to be called conjoint possessors of eternal life. It seems best, therefore, to suppose that the “grace (or dower) of life” which husband and wife hold, not only in common, but conjointly, is life in the natural sense. This “grace,” this mysterious and divine gift—not apart from one another, but conjointly—they are privileged by the Creator’s primeval benediction (Genesis 1:28) to transmit. They have the power (no Archangel has the like) to bring human beings into existence. And in consideration that such is the dignity and the intention of marriage, a man may well be called upon to revere his partner in the great prerogative.

That your prayers be not hindered—i.e., the husbands’ prayers, not necessarily their prayers with their wives. It is easy to feel how the consciousness of having treated a wife with less awe than is indicated by the foregoing words would clog the man’s prayers, whether for himself or for his wife’s conversion—the latter being, probably, what St. Peter chiefly meant. Very likely he had in view what St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:5.

Verse 8

(8) Finally, be ye all.—A return from the special to the general. St. Peter has not, however, forgotten the purpose with which the former rules were given; his thought is still how to produce a right impression on the unbelieving world, although some of these injunctions touch only internal relations between members of the Church. “By this shall all men” says our Lord, “know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35); and, again, “That they all may be one . . . that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:21). Accordingly, this verse, like 1 Peter 3:1; 1 Peter 3:7, is attached to 1 Peter 2:13, and should be translated, Finally, being all.

Of one mind.—Or, unanimous. Though the Greek word does not occur elsewhere in the New Testament, the duty is enjoined often, e.g., Romans 12:16; 2 Corinthians 13:11; Philippians 2:2. It involves an agreement not only in doctrine but in practical aims, the affections of all being in the same direction. This unanimity requires expression to be conscious, and therefore it strikes at the root of the reserve by which Christian people do not open out their hearts to each other in the matter of religion. Such unity of mind is no product of indifference, which Leighton describes as “not a knitting together, but a freezing together, as cold congregates all bodies how heterogeneous soever, sticks, stones, and water.”

Having compassion one of another.—Literally, sympathetic. The word “compassion” has lost the meaning which it once had, and signifies little more than pity. Here the command includes the “rejoicing with them that do rejoice,” as much as the “weeping with them that weep” (Romans 12:15). The same word only occurs again in Hebrews 4:15; Hebrews 10:34.

Love as brethren.—Again a single adjective, fraternal, or, loving the brethren. For the meaning see 1 Peter 1:22, Notes.

Be pitiful.—Rather (omitting the word “be”), tender-hearted. So it is translated in Ephesians 4:32, the only other place where it occurs. It differs from “sympathetic “in being limited to yearnings over the afflicted. Strangely enough, in profane Greek, the word is only found to mean “strong-hearted.”

Be courteous.—The injunction is so charming, and so appropriate in the mouth of St. Peter, that one is almost loth to correct the reading, and substitute (undoubtedly the right word) humble-minded. This adjective brings us back to that mutual subjection and complaisance which is the main subject of all these rules. Comp. also 1 Peter 5:5.

Verse 9

(9) Not rendering.—So far St. Peter has been speaking of internal conduct. The two last adjectives, however, lead gradually into the wider field of conduct, and probably now he is thinking solely of relation to the adverse world. Among the Christians surely there would be no “evil” or “railing” to provoke a retort! “Evil,” in act; “railing,” in word. (See 1 Peter 2:23, and Romans 12:17.)

But contrariwise blessing.—No doubt a reminiscence of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:44). The word “blessing” here is not substantive, but a participle, opposed to “rendering:” “not rendering them evil or railing, but on the contrary blessing them.” Though the word is chosen as the exact opposite of the bad language used against the Christians, “blessing” may perhaps involve the opposite of unkind action as well. It is used for the conferring of benefits: (1) spiritual, in Acts 3:26; Galatians 3:8; (2) material, in 2 Corinthians 9:5, (Comp. 2 Kings 5:15; Joel 2:14 : Haggai 2:19.)

Knowing that ye are hereunto called.—Comp. 1 Peter 2:21. It should be, were called, viz., when St. Paul and others first preached to you. What, then, does he mean that they were called to? to the foregoing, or to the following? to blessing instead of rendering evil and railing? or to receive a blessing? The comparison of 1 Peter 2:21 seems to support the former, for there the “hereunto” points to what preceded. The argument will then be precisely the same as in that passage: “You ought not now to shrink from so hard a duty, for you were given clearly to understand, when you were admitted into Christianity, that you would have to act thus.”

That ye should inherit a blessing.—Rather, in order that ye may inherit a blessing. God had a purpose in calling them to so hard a task, and in now requiring of them the fulfilment of it; and that purpose is that they may receive a blessing. They must not think it an arbitrary hardship, or a restriction which will not in the end be found gainful to themselves. God’s full and eternal blessing is only to be obtained through such a course of self-suppression and of love even to those who hate us. The argument thus becomes more forcible, and the question which follows more appropriate, than if we adopt the other view, viz., “Bless, instead of retorting, for it is more suitable for men who are expecting to be blessed.”

Verse 10

(10) For.—St. Peter will show that he is not going beyond his book when he says that the blessing is only to be obtained by those who bless.

He that will love life.—The “will” here is not merely the future tense, but “he that hath a mind to love life.” St. Peter’s quotation, from Psalms 34:12-16, is not exact, according to either Septuagint or Hebrew, but the divergence is probably not due to a confusion of memory, but (as often) designed to bring out an additional significance. The Psalmist had asked merely, “What man is he that lusteth to live?” and he promises merely long life to self-restraint. The Apostle asks, Who cares to have a life worth having, a life which makes a man glad to live? This is the “blessing” spoken of in 1 Peter 3:9—not simply everlasting life, but a life of unruffled happiness. (Comp. Psalms 133:3.) This healthy enjoyment of life, the opposite of a morbid craving for death (see Ecclesiastes 2:17), is implied to be competent for any person to attain who “wills.”

“Serene will be our days, and bright,

And happy will our nature be,

When love is an unerring light,

And joy its own security.”

See good days.—“See” in the same sense as—e.g., Psalms 27:13; John 3:3; Hebrews 11:5—for to “experience”—consciously to enjoy or to suffer, as the case may be.

Let him refrain.—Literally, let him stop. The evil word is on the very tip of his tongue.

No guile.—“Guile” is often used, in a very wide sense, of almost anything wrong (see 1 Peter 2:22); but here, probably, the distinction is that “evil” means open railing and bitter speech, while “guile” may mean the words which are “softer than butter, having war in his heart” (Psalms 55:21).

Verse 11

(11) Let him eschew evil.—Literally swerve out of the way from evil. The two former clauses dealt with the domain of word; these two with the domain of action. It suits St. Peter’s intention better to take the verse, not as an exhortation to virtue in general, but as an instruction how to behave under provocation and in danger. The “good” which the man is to do is what is kind, not merely what is virtuous; and so, by contrast, the “evil” to be eschewed probably means chiefly what is malicious.

Seek peace, and ensue it.—“As much as in you lieth,” says St. Paul, “live peaceably with all men.” It is to be a matter of diligent search; and if it seems to flee away it is to be “ensued”—i.e., pursued. The active practical measures here prescribed confirm the surmise that “blessing” in 1 Peter 3:8 covered more ground than benedictory prayers.

Verse 12

(12) For.—Or, Because. In the Psalm there is no such connecting particle, but it is involved in the juxtaposition. The sense that the Lord’s eyes are over you is a sufficient reason for self-restraint under provocation: especially, perhaps, when we see that by “the Lord” St. Peter understands Jesus Christ. That this is the case is clear from his use of the same Psalm in 1 Peter 2:3. If Christ, the model of meekness under persecution (1 Peter 2:23), is watching, we not only need no passionate self-defence, but should be ashamed to use it. Was St. Peter thinking how once, while he himself was cursing and swearing at those who accused him of being a Christian, he felt the eyes of the Lord turn upon him? The thought of His eyes being over Us is chiefly that of guardianship.

Open unto their prayers.—Rather, are towards their prayer—i.e., directed towards it. Here, as in 1 Peter 2:3, the Prayer Book version has influenced our translation.

Against them that do evil.—There is no difference in the Greek between this preposition and that just rendered “over.” But the countenance of the Lord is over them that do evil things. He marks what they are doing. This is sufficient comfort when men injure us (1 Peter 2:23); sufficient warning not to injure in return. It is instructive now to turn and see the circumstances in which this lovely Psalm was composed. The moment was one of David’s extremest peril among an infuriated heathen population. The danger and dread he was in are shown in Psalms 56. Yet nothing can be brighter and more serene than Psalms 34. He had obtained life and days; and it was all through confidence in God on the one hand, and inoffensive self-submission on the other. Had he used violence—“shown spirit,” as we say—like the “young lions,” he would have come worse off. It seems to be for this cause that St. Peter deemed the Psalm so appropriate to his readers, misjudged and suspiciously watched (Psalms 56:5-6) by unbelievers, who only waited the opportunity to shed their blood (Psalms 56:1-2). But the striking change is that, whereas David’s trust in Jehovah was a trust simply in the Eternal Being without distinction of Persons, St. Peter bids the Hebrews of Asia read that Psalm into an act of faith in Jesus. We shall see the same thing in 1 Peter 3:15, as we saw it in 1 Peter 2:3. The force of the change will be felt by any one who reads through that Psalm, substituting (like the Rheims version) “our Lord” for “the Lord.”

Verse 13

(13) And who is he that shall harm you?—There is always a ring of scornful assurance in an interrogative introduced by “and:” “And who, pray?”

If ye be followers.—Rather, if ye make yourselves zealots. The phrase looks on into the future; not merely “if at present ye be.” And the word which means “follower” (i.e., imitator) is here a false reading for zelotes, the name by which St. Peter’s lesser namesake among the Apostles was known, probably because of his enthusiastic attachment to the old or to the new Law. The same zelotes is found in Titus 2:14 and elsewhere. The translation, “of Him which is good,” is perfectly possible, but does not quite so well suit the context. Some writers (Leighton among them) take the verse to mean, or at least to include, that when men see the goodness and loving-kindness of our lives they will not be disposed to hurt us. This thought is, however, foreign to the passage. It means that men and devils may try their worst, as they did on Christ, and cannot harm us.

Verse 14

(14) But and if ye suffer.—The old-fashioned phrase would read more intelligibly thus: Nay, if ye should even suffer. So far are men’s attempts to “harm” us (by acts of malice to property or good name, &c.) from really injuring us, that even if it should come to be a matter of “suffering” we are to be congratulated. What he means by this “suffering,” which is so much more than being “harmed,” may be seen from 1 Peter 2:21; 1 Peter 3:17; 1 Peter 4:1; 1 Peter 4:15. He means the horrors of capital punishment. He does not speak of this as something that was already occurring, nor as though it were something immediately and certainly impending, but as a case well supposable. There had then as yet been no martyrdoms in Asia. The letter is therefore earlier in date than the Apocalypse (Revelation 2:13). It is a noticeable point that in all St. Paul’s Epistles the word “to suffer” occurs but seven times, and nowhere twice in the same Epistle; whereas it comes twelve times in this one short Letter of St. Peter.

For righteousness’ sake.—Like the “suffering wrongfully” of 1 Peter 2:19. It is not as suffering that it is valuable.

Happy are ye.—Quite the right word: yet the use of it obscures the obvious reference to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:10). The reference to it is all the clearer in the Greek from the significant way in which St. Peter leaves his sentence incomplete, merely giving the catchword of the beatitude. We might represent it to ourselves by putting “Blessed” in inverted commas, and a dash after it. He makes sure his readers will catch the allusion. There is no part of our Lord’s discourses which seems (from the traces in the earliest Christian literature) to have taken so rapid and firm a hold on the Christian conscience as the Sermon on the Mount.

Be not afraid of their terror.—Here the translators might with advantage have kept the same word, and said (as in the original passage from which St. Peter is quoting, Isaiah 8:12), Fear ye not their fear—i.e., the thing which makes them fear; do not regard with dread the same object as they do. In the original, the persons whose fears Isaiah and the faithful Jews are not to fear are those who were in dread of Syria and Israel. Here the persons are not named; but, of course, according to this interpretation, “they” cannot be the enemies who try to harm the Christians, but, if any one, those of the Christians who, for fear of man, were beginning to abandon Christianity. The intention, however, is not to press this clause for its own sake, but to throw greater force upon the clause which begins the next verse. It argues carelessness about the passage in Isaiah to interpret, “Be not afraid of the fear which your foes strike into you.”

Verse 15

(15) But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts.—The tense of this and the two preceding imperatives shows that St. Peter meant this for advice to be acted upon at the moment of being called on to suffer. The passage, as it stands in Isaiah, runs literally, “Jehovah Sabaoth, Him shall ye sanctify, and He (shall be) your fear, and He your dread.” It becomes, therefore, very striking when we find that, without a shadow of doubt, the right reading here is, But sanctify the Lord the Christ in your hearts. How is it possible, except on the supposition that the Catholic doctrine is really a statement of fact, that a Jew like St. Peter should ever have come to apply to a Man whom he had known familiarly, a Man who had served him at table and had washed his feet, the words which Isaiah had said about the “Lord of Hosts?” This passage immediately precedes that which was quoted in 1 Peter 2:8, and (like that) is not caught up at random, but as coming in the great Immanuel passage. That presence of God which was the palladium of Israel in the days of Hezekiah has found fulfilment in “the Christ” now given. But what is meant by “sanctifying” Him? The phrase is not elsewhere used in the New Testament, except in the Lord’s Prayer; but in the Old Testament see Leviticus 10:3; Isaiah 29:23; Ezekiel 38:23. As to “glorify” God means (in word and deed) to recognise His glorious perfections; as to “magnify” Him means to recognise His greatness; as to “justify” Him means to recognise His inherent justice; so to “sanctify” Him means to recognise, in word and deed, His full holiness, and therefore to treat Him with due awe. This not only substitutes the fear of God for the fear of man (since they mutually exclude each other), but enforces purity of life, thus catching up again “that which is good” and “for righteousness’ sake.” This, adds St. Peter, is to be done “in your hearts.” This does not mean simply “with your hearts,” or “from your hearts” (i.e., inwardly, or, with all sincerity and devotion), but it signifies the local habitation where the Christ is to be thus recognised. That is to say: St. Peter, like St. Paul (Ephesians 3:17), acknowledges an indwelling of Christ in the hearts of the faithful; and this indwelling not merely subjective, consisting of their constant recollection of him, but real and objective: there He is, as in a shrine, and they must pay due reverence to His presence. The Apostle does, in fact, in those words “in your hearts,” purposely call attention to the difference between Isaiah’s use of the name Immanuel and the Christian meaning of it. To Isaiah, God dwelt in the midst of a people in its corporate capacity; St. Peter knew that, through the Incarnation, each individual Christian has God in him, united with him.

And be.—The better reading omits the connecting particle, so that we should put “being” instead of “and be.”

Ready always to give an answer.—This is the consequence of sanctifying Christ within by the worship of a pure life, that no moment, no questioner finds us unprepared to speak with freedom of our hope in Him. The word for “answer” here is apologia, an apology; not, of course, in the modern sense of an excuse, but a defence, the reply of an accused person, like the well-known Apologia Socratis, or the great modern Apologia pro Vita Sua, or the works from which Tertullian, Athenagoras, St. Justin, and others are called “The Apologists.” It does not mean that every person is bound to be able to state intellectually the nature and grounds of the Christian creed, though such a duty may, perhaps, be fairly deduced from the text. It does not say that every Christian ought to know why he is a Christian, but that every Christians own life ought to be so free from taint, so conscious of Christ enshrined within, as to cause him no misgiving in defending the faith from the calumnies (see 1 Peter 2:12) brought against it. The constant readiness, or freedom from encumbrance of sin, is the main point, “which intimates,” says Leighton, “it was not always to be done to every one, but we, being ready to do, are to consider when, and to whom, and how far.” Consciousness of impurity of life shuts a man’s mouth from defending Christian morality.

That asketh you a reason.—Rather, that demandeth of you an account. It does not mean inquirers about Christian doctrine, but those who call Christians to account for their profession of the Gospel hopes. Though it must not be exclusively so taken, St. Peter evidently means chiefly the being called into the law court to give account. Probably he is thinking of our Lord’s charge to himself and his co-apostles, in St. Luke 12:11. (Comp. Matthew 10:5; Matthew 10:16; Matthew 10:19.)

Of the hope that is in you.—More literally, with regard to the hope that is in you: i.e., with regard to the Christianity in which you share. It is, of course, quite a modern application to the text to see in this anything of the individual assurance of salvation. However fairly it may be argued that a Christian ought to know why he, personally, expects to be saved, it is not the thought of St. Peter here. Christianity is here called a hope, rather than a faith, as in Acts 28:20, Colossians 1:23, because, especially in times of persecution, so much of our creed has a future tinge.

With meekness and fear.—There ought certainly to be added a warning But before these words. The readiness of the Christian’s defence of himself and the Church from all moral aspersions is not to be marred by any self-exaltation or improper confidence. Archbishop Leighton says, “Not, therefore, blustering and flying out into invectives because he hath the better on it against any man that questions him touching this hope, as some think themselves certainly authorised to use rough speech because they plead for truth. On the contrary, so much the rather study meekness, for the glory and advantage of the truth.” The “fear” will be, in large measure, a dread of overstepping the bounds of truth or modesty in speaking of the Christian morals. The Acts of the Martyrs, with all their splendour, too often show how St. Peter’s cautious But was needed.

Verse 16

(16) Having a good conscience.—This strikes the key-note of the paragraph. How vigorously St. Peter repeats it! “Zealous for that which is good,” “for righteousness’ sake,” “sanctify the Lord,” “with meekness and fear,” “a good conscience,” “your good conversation.”

Whereas.—The word means precisely the same as in 1 Peter 2:12, where see Note.

They speak evil of you, as of evil doers.—Tischendorf follows one of the best manuscripts and the Pesehito-Syriac version in reading whereas ye are evil spoken of. It is easy to see how the ordinary reading would come in, from the similarity of 1 Peter 2:12; and we may pretty confidently adopt the emendation. In any case, the words “as of evil doers” should be removed.

They may be ashamed (or, confounded).—When? St. Peter is evidently thinking of the Christian at the bar of the curator or pro-consul, and the mortification of the delator, or spy, who had given information against him.

Falsely accuse.—Literally, insult, that is, “odiously calumniate.” The word occurs again only in Luke 6:28.

In Christ.—This is the nearest approach in St. Peter to a use of this word as a proper name. Still, it is not so. Other Hebrews, he reminds them in this word, were safe from persecution only by rejecting the national hope of a Messiah. It is simply because these men are “in Christ” that the heathens (perhaps also their fellow Jews) insult their conversation. The phrase “in Christ,” i.e., as members of the Church, occurs again in 1 Peter 5:10; 1 Peter 5:14, and the thought is common enough in St. John (e.g. 1 John 5:20), but it does not come in 2 Peter, nor in Hebrews, St. James, or St. Jude. Of course, St. Paul’s writings teem with it. It contains the converse side of the Incarnation doctrine to that involved in 1 Peter 3:15; we not only have the whole Christ dwelling in us, but He embraces us all; “Ye in me, and I in you” (John 14:20).

Verse 17

(17) For it is better.—There is a kind of ironical suppression in this comparison.

If the will of God be so.—A strikingly reverent phrase in the original, If the will of God should will it. This is, of course, to be taken only with the word “suffer,” which itself means, as in 1 Peter 3:14, to suffer capitally. St. Peter is thinking of the legal process of 1 Peter 3:15-16, coming to a verdict of “guilty.” He was himself daily expecting such a death.

For well doing.—Better, perhaps, as well doers. It does not necessarily mean, in the Greek, that the well doing was the reason of the suffering, but simply that it accompanied it.

Verse 18

(18) For Christ also.—This gives a reason for thinking it no such formidable thing to suffer when one is innocent. It has been tried before, and the precedent is encouraging. “It is,” says Archbishop Leighton, “some known ease to the mind, in any distress, to look upon examples of the like or greater distress in present or former times . . . As the example and company of the saints in suffering is very considerable, so that of Christ is more than any other, yea, than all the rest together.” If King Messiah (note that he does not call Him Jesus) could endure to be cut off (but not for Himself), was it for any one who clung to the promises to shrink from the like test?

Hath once suffered.—Even if we retain the verb, it should be suffered, not “hath suffered,” it is all past now; but much the better reading is died, which leaves no doubt about the meaning of “suffering” in 1 Peter 3:17. And this He did “once.” In this significant word St. Peter strikes out the main argument of a great portion of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 7:27; Hebrews 9:27; Hebrews 10:10). The thought that Christ suffered or died “once” conveys comfort to these Christians for several reasons: (1) because His death has, once for all, taken all terror from an innocent death; (2) because no Christian will have to die more than one death; (3) because one death, so soon over for ever, contains the further idea of happiness and peace beyond. The word “to die” in Greek is often used in a penal sense—“to be put to death”—and is to be so taken here.

For sins.—When the Apostle says “Christ also,” he raises a comparison between Christ and the Christian martyr. Now the parallel does not merely consist in the fact that both “suffer” or are put to death. Both are put to death but once. Both are put to death innocent: the martyr “while well-doing,” Christ acknowledged to be “just.” But this does not exhaust the likeness. The Messiah is said to be put to death “for sins.” Now this expression “for sins” (literally, in connection with sins) is that which is used to mean “as a sin-offering.” (See Romans 8:3; Galatians 1:4; Hebrews 10:6; Hebrews 10:8; Hebrews 10:18; Hebrews 10:26; Hebrews 13:11; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10.) If, therefore, “Christ also was put to death as a sin-offering,” it is implied that, in a sense, the Christian martyr is also a sin-offering, and (though in an infinitely lower degree) dies, like Him, “just for unjust.” This is a fresh encouragement to St. Peter’s first readers to meet death bravely. In what sense they can be sacrifices for other men’s sins we shall consider presently.

The just for the unjust.—That preposition “for” contains a volume of theology. Though it is not so weak a word as the one which occurs in the phrase “for sins,” it does not express the notion of substitution. (Comp. Note on 1 Peter 2:21.) It is simply “on behalf of.” As a substitute for the unjust, we make bold to say that (according to Holy Scripture, and the primitive fathers, and the conscience of man) neither the martyrs nor Christ Himself could have made atonement; “on behalf of” other men, the martyrs could very easily be said to die. It is, perhaps, a pity that the definite article has been inserted in our version. Though, of course, our Lord is the only human being who can in strictness be called just, St. Peter means the word here to cover others besides Him; “Christ also died, a just man on behalf of unjust men.”

That he might bring us to God.—Or, better, bring you; though it cannot be stated peremptorily in this case that such is the reading. (See Note on 1 Peter 1:12.) The substantive derived from this verb appears as “access” in Romans 5:2; Ephesians 2:18; Ephesians 3:12. A most important doctrinal passage. St. Peter says not a word about the Atonement in its effect upon the mind of the Father towards man. Though there is, no doubt, some deep truth in the phrase which occurs in the second of the Thirty-nine Articles—“suffered . . . to reconcile His Father to us”—it is a side on which the New Testament writers do not much dwell. It is too high a mystery for our minds to reach. The phrase is itself not Scriptural. The New Testament, as has been well pointed out, never even speaks of the reconciliation as mutual. The quarrel is treated as one-sided, so far, at least, as in connection with the Atonement. When, then, our Lord was put to death as a sacrifice for sins—a righteous man on behalf of unrighteous men—St. Peter explains these terms by the expression “in order that He might bring you to God,” not “in order that He might bring God to you.” The voluntary death of a righteous man upon the cross, in the calm calculation that nothing else would so attract sinful men to Himself, and thus to the Father who sent Him (John 12:32—this is the aspect of the Atonement which St. Peter sets forth. Perhaps on another occasion he might have set forth a different aspect; but now he is still thinking of the effect of Christian conduct upon the outer world, and his object is to make the Christians feel that they too can, in their measure, bring the unjust, the persecuting heathens and Jews, to God by innocent and voluntary deaths. Thus their deaths are carrying on the work of reconciliation; and what Christ did for them (“died for you”) they do for others. Well then may they be called blessed when they suffer (1 Peter 3:14).

Being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.—The interpreters of this sentence may be classified in two groups, according as they understand the fact referred to in the second clause to be (1) the resurrection of Christ, or (2) something which took place between His death and His resurrection. Now, if we could accept the translation in the English Bible, “by the Spirit,” it would be pretty obvious to accept (1); and we should point to such passages as Romans 1:4; Romans 8:11, to show that the resurrection of Christ was due to the action of the Holy Ghost. It would not be possible to follow Oecumenius, Calvin, Beza, and Leighton, in taking “the flesh” to mean generally the human nature of Christ, and “the Spirit” by which He was quickened to mean His own divine nature; for Christ has a human spirit as truly as a human body and soul, and it would be heresy to call His divine nature His spirit, as though it occupied in Him the position which is occupied in men by the human spirit. But, as a matter of fact, we cannot translate it “quickened by the Spirit.” It is literally, killed indeed in flesh, but quickened in spirit. Now, how can “quickened in spirit” be a description of the Resurrection? It cannot be answered (with Huther) that the “spirit” here means the resurrection body; for though that is indeed a spiritual body, yet it is playing fast and loose with words to identify “spirit” and “spiritual body.” If the resurrection body be only spirit, where is the resurrection? Neither would the antithesis be correct between “flesh” and “spirit,” if by “spirit” is meant the new form of body given at the Resurrection. Or, again, taking “spirit” in its true sense of the inward incorporeal self, could the Resurrection be described as a quickening of it? True, the spirit itself will gain in some way by its re-incorporation (2 Corinthians 5:4); but as the spirit has been alive all along, but the flesh has been dead, the contrast would be very forced to express death and resurrection by “killed in flesh, but quickened in spirit,” instead of saying rather “killed in flesh, but soon quickened in the same.” Thus we are driven to (2). As a matter of fact, there is nothing in the words to suggest an interval between the quickening and the killing. They both are parts of the same act, and both are used to explain the word “died.” It is a kind of apology for having used the word death at all (for we have seen that St. Peter’s object is to help the future martyrs to despise death, 1 Peter 3:14): “Died, do I say? yes, killed in flesh, it is true, but actually quickened to fresh energies in spirit by that very act of death.” (Comp. our Lord’s charge to the Twelve, Matthew 10:28.) But how can His death be said to have been a quickening of His human spirit? Some take the word to mean simply “preserved alive,” a word almost identical, being used apparently in that sense in Luke 17:33, Acts 7:19. The notion, however, would be too weak here; some energetic action seems required to balance “being killed.” That St. Peter is speaking of something not altogether peculiar to Christ, but common to men, may still be inferred from his saying “Christ also.” The doctrine, then, seems to be (as Bengel and others say) that the spirit, set free from the body, immediately receives new life, as it were, thereby. To purely spiritual realities it becomes alive in a manner which was impossible while it was united to the flesh. The new powers are exemplified in what follows immediately. So long as Christ, so long as any man, is alive in the flesh, he cannot hold converse with spirits as such; but the moment death severs flesh and spirit the spirit can deal with other spirits, which Christ proceeded forth with to do.

Verses 18-22

Depths of Mercy

Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God; … he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, … who is on the right hand of God, having gone into heaven; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.—1 Peter 3:18-22.

1. St. Peter’s Epistle might be called the Epistle of exhortation. It is a persuasive plea for a lofty, spiritual character. In this letter, the courageous though impetuous Peter, the practical Apostle, shows that he was capable of lofty flights, and that his conception of the Christian character was all-comprehensive and complete. To him the new man in Christ Jesus was no weakling, but a man of many parts, strength, and beauty. Again and again in this chapter he makes us feel that to him the salient feature of Christ’s life was His suffering. “A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” is the phrase that must occur to any one who reads this section with care. Then in many ways St. Peter urges his readers and hearers to express the same Divine quality. That example of God in Christ must be followed by the disciple. The disciple must not be surprised when in the growth of holiness and zeal for service there occur distressing and disheartening experiences. At such times the disciple must think of his Lord. Then he will recall incidents in that life which disclose the sufferings inseparable from that high following. This is the unity of purpose running through all the sentences of the paragraph.

The capacity of some people to bear pain, misfortune, disappointment, without breaking down, may be the most powerful agency for convincing others of the reality and value of the Christian life and it may be God’s way of touching other hearts. When they told our Lord that Lazarus was ill He said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified thereby.” If that was the purpose of Lazarus’ sickness it may be the purpose and explanation of your present trouble. Then it is worth bearing, and the man who believes that the chief end of life is to glorify God will not shrink from the course of pain. The man who would follow Christ must be willing, and even eager, to take on his own blameless shoulders the blame which belongs to another. He must be willing to open his heart to the sufferings that fall on other lives. He must be willing, in order to save another and to serve him, to become involved in the consequences of his wrong-doing. He must be willing, like the hero in Ralph Connor’s Prospector, to put himself into dangerous and equivocal positions, to endure suspicion and blame which rightly belong to another, in order that he may shield and save. There are still innumerable opportunities for the innocent to suffer with the guilty and for them, and the man who refuses to take them, who will shut the sufferings and sins of the world from his heart, who says, let us have a good time of comfort and ease, or of gaiety and pleasure, who says, the affairs of the people about me are no concern of mine, who makes it the first business of his life to avoid trouble and misunderstanding, is a stranger to the spirit of Christ. As long as there is suffering in the world, and sin, the Christian must share it. “Hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps.”1 [Note: Charles Brown, Trial and Triumph, 94.]

2. The Apostle has been speaking of the suffering patience of Christ, and urges the example of it upon his readers. But he shows that it was more than an example. It was an exhibition of redeeming power; it was a sacrifice for sins. Its purpose was nothing less than to bring mankind to the feet of God by the greatness of Divine love. Starting from a widespread belief in the extent of the Messiah’s work as held among the Jews, or from the direct teaching of his Master after His return from the grave, he speaks of that wider work in the gracious carrying of the great redemptive message into the under-world.

I have watched an insect making its way with some earnest purpose along the highway. I have watched its movements so long that I have become much interested in the success of its errand. I have seen when a loaded cart was coming up, whose wheel would have crushed the creature in an instant. I have laid a twig across its path, and compelled it to turn aside. Oh, how it stormed and fretted against my interference: if it could communicate with its kind, it would have a tale of hardship to recount that night, of some unknown and adverse power that stopped its progress and overturned its plans. Conceive, now, that intelligence should be communicated to that tiny being, and it should discover that another being, immeasurably raised above its comprehension, had in compassion saved it from death!1 [Note: W. Arnot, The Anchor of the Soul, 211.]


Suffering on Earth

“Christ also suffered for sins once.”

1. The death of Christ wan the outward expression of His mind and spirit.—It was not so much anything done to Him by wicked men or by God, as His own doing, a sacred act, the greatest of His works, and the profoundest of His parables. This act gave Him scope to show more clearly than He could in any other way all He was, and all He thought, felt, and believed. The Cross is the fullest exposition of the mind of Christ. As an expression of the world’s estimate of Jesus, Calvary was the verdict of ignorance, passion, and prejudice. It was a judgment to be repented of in fuller light. But think of Calvary as Christ’s judgment of the world! “Now is the judgment of this world.” The Cross is Christ’s verdict on the world, His sentence of death on the life that is born of the flesh.

The redemptive suffering of Jesus is the suffering of His heart. The virtue of His Passion lay in the spirit that He manifested. The human and material environment of the Master’s death has dominated our thought too much. I do not think that the material incidents of Gethsemane and Calvary were essential to our redemption. I believe that if Christ had never been betrayed by one of the twelve, He would still have died for our sins. I believe that if He had never suffered the brutal accompaniments of mockery and blasphemy, and the loathsome coarseness of contemptible men, He would still have died for our sins. I believe that if He had never been crucified, He would still have died for our sins. I believe that if He had finished His ministry in public acclamation, instead of public contempt, He would still have passed into outer darkness, into an unthinkable loneliness, into a terrible midnight of spiritual forsakenness and abandonment. He came to die, came to pass into the night which is “the wages of sin,” and what we men did was to add to His death the pangs of contempt and crucifixion.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, The Epistles of Peter, 140.]

2. In the suffering of Christ, God Himself suffered.—We behold Him in the Son of Man. We see the wounds of love in His hands and feet and side. This message also gives suffering a glory which transforms and exalts it. Since suffering is love’s highest privilege, clearly the Cross gives us the secret of much beauty and joy in the suffering life of earth. It is true that the Cross does not sanction wanton suffering. Not a jot of the passion of the Christ was without its end, not a pang of His travail shall be without its satisfying fruit. It is still a privilege to alleviate human suffering wherever we can, even as Christ did when He healed the sick, and fed the multitude, and restored the dead to the mourners. But there is suffering which is all-beautiful, and becomes holy and wonderful in the light which is shed upon it from the Cross. The suffering which is the throbbing pulse of love is not an evil, but a good. It brings us into mystical relation with the mystery of God in His atoning Son. Let us not lament, if we suffer for love’s sake. Wearing our crown of thorns, let us stand before the cross, and the music of the Divine love will give us a blessedness which is known only when love is glorified with wounded hands and feet.

Would a mother think her love satisfied if she did not, and could not, suffer with her suffering child? Nay, she would consider herself disgraced by her insensibility. Even if she but imagined herself too insensible, she would suffer pangs because of the imagined inertness and inadequateness of her love. If she were offered the gift of insensibility, the power of looking without a pang on her loved one’s suffering, not for worlds would she accept such immunity. And if she were told that God possessed such immunity, her mother-heart of suffering love would know itself greater than such a God. Yet the eternal God says: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.” The glory of God is His love. The glory of His love is that it is life. The glory of His life of love is that for love’s sake it could suffer infinitely, that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.”1 [Note: J. Thomas, The Mysteries of Grace, 54.]

3. The suffering of Christ was vicarious.—“He died, the righteous for the unrighteous.” “The just for the unjust” is an outrage on civil justice, which is based on individualism; “the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” But it is ground law of humanity, founded, as it is, on a community of life; “we are members one of another.” The many men are one man.

I saw the other day a sight which, happily, is rarer than it was—a man reeling through the street in the shamelessness of advanced drunkenness. People turned to look as he staggered past. I heard no laugh or jeer, but expressions of shame and pity on all sides. The sober felt for the drunken what he should have felt for himself; and by thus taking on them, even for a moment, a pain and a shame not their own they helped to replenish and preserve in the community that store of right feeling towards evil which is the safeguard of the unfallen and a very laver of regeneration for the sinner that repenteth. The man in the dock is sullen, defiant or indifferent, but some one in the court, mother or wife, feels for him all he should feel. As the sordid story of crime is pieced together, she burns in the fever of shame, and moans or faints as the pain of his sentence pierces her heart. The common conscience towards evil is daily repaired and strengthened by the sufferings of the just for the unjust, and a place of repentance for the guilty maintained by the sorrows of the innocent. Civil justice proceeds on the supposition that we are individuals merely, but every day’s experience proves that we are only individual members of one great whole, and that both in our sins and in our sorrows we very soon come to where the individual ends and the common life begins.2 [Note: J. Morgan Gibbon, Evangelical Heterodoxy, 88.]

4. The suffering of Christ reconciles men to God.—As a rivulet, after its toilsome, lonely progress past moor and forest, falls into the larger current of the river, as the river, after many windings and doublings, pours itself into the sea, so the soul, after the vain struggles of self-will, is reconciled to the river of God’s will, which is the river of life eternal. Reconciliation is harmony, agreement, atonement, and nothing else satisfies God or man. Punishment can never satisfy either the holiness of God or the conscience of man. The Divine holiness can be satisfied only with holiness, and “I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.” The homecoming of the prodigal quits all scores. Father and son are satisfied, and God is, in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself without reckoning their trespasses.

He suffered, “that he might bring us to God.” All that need be said about that gracious “bringing” is just this, that in Jesus, answering the call of His redeeming grace, men and women in countless numbers have turned their faces home, and are making their way out of the deadening bondage of sin into the “glorious liberty of the children of God.”

Far, far away, like bells at evening pealing,

The voice of Jesus sounds o’er land and sea,

And laden souls, by thousands meekly stealing,

Kind Shepherd, turn their weary steps to Thee.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, The Epistles of Peter, 142.]

5. Christ identifies Himself with us in suffering.—In our increasing grasp of the solidarity of the human race we have learned to look upon the human family as being one thing; and we know that the human family thrills throughout its wide extent under the power of this suffering of One for the many. All that you need is identification existing between the sufferers and those through whom they suffer. Well it is here. Our Lord, the Son of God, has become the Son of humanity; He has entered into that relation with the race, and with each member of the race, which a perfect community of nature involves. He is linked to all and each with the link of perfect love; and what exquisite capacities of suffering love always carries with it! He is the Head of the race, its Representative, the Second Adam. The whole race is re-gathered up in Him; and there is no possibility of identification between men like the identification that exists between the man Christ Jesus and us His brethren. It is because of the relation in which He stands to the race, that He died for us upon the Cross; and His death has all the wonderful effects which are assigned to it in Christian teaching, because it is a sorrow which is more fruitful than any other sorrow could be. I go to the Cross then, and I look to the Christ hanging there as my representative and dying that redeeming death.

They preach of a great Vicarious Anguish suffered for the world. Do they not know, rather, that it was suffered in and with it? that it was instead an Infinite Participance and Sympathy? that the anguish was in the world, and the Love came down, and tasted, and identified itself with it, making of the ultimate of pain a sublime, mysterious Rapture? That it is far more to feel the upholding touch of One who goes down into the deep waters before us, and to receive, so, some little drops that we can bear of the great Chrism, than to stand apart, safe on the sunny bank, while He passeth the flood for us, bringing it safely for our uncleansed feet for ever. That—not this—was the Pity and the Sacrifice; that is the Help and the Salvation; the Love and the Pain enfold us together; that is what the jasper and the crimson mean; the first refraction where the Divine Light falls into our denser medium of being; the foundation stone of the heavenly building. The beginning of the At-one-ment; till, through … the tenderer, peacefuller tints, our life passes the whole prism of its mysterious experience, and beyond the far-off violet, at last, it rarities to receive and to transmit the full white Light of God.1 [Note: A. D. T. Whitney.]


Ministry in Hades

“He went and preached unto the spirits in prison.”

1. This declaration is like a little window through which we look into a world unknown and almost unsuspected; and what is suggested by the glimpse through the window is so strange, it involves so many extraordinary possibilities, that one can hardly wonder that many extravagant theories have been raised upon it. It was the extravagance of these theories that led St. Augustine in the beginning of the fifth century to seek for some other explanation of the text altogether; and he maintained that there is no reference in this text to what is called the descensus ad inferos—a descent to the shades—but that it refers simply to the historical episode of Noah preaching to those who subsequently perished by the flood. And Luther, no doubt seeing what a tremendous pile of mediaeval superstition had been reared on the strength of the text, admitted St. Augustine’s view; and Protestants have largely followed Luther, and have declared that the passage simply means that during the time of the flood, or just before, Jesus Christ preached to those sinful men as He preached to sinful men in the time of His Incarnation. But the reference in 1 Peter 3:22 to the Ascension seems to suggest that the preaching took place after Christ’s death.

The weighty authority of R. H. Charles may be invoked to prove that the interpretation which accepts Christ’s mission to the dead fits in with our fuller knowledge of contemporary Jewish literature. It throws light on one of the darkest enigmas of the Divine justice. At the same time full justice will be done to the early Christian tradition that in some way or other Christ benefited the souls of the faithful departed. But it must be admitted that the bare statement of the Apostles’ Creed asserts only that Christ’s soul passed into the condition which our souls will enter at death, sanctifying every condition of human existence. Harnack writes that “the clause is too weak to maintain its ground beside the others, as equally independent and authoritative,” but, as Swete says, he fails to point out in what the weakness lies, while “to us it appears to possess in a very high degree the strength which comes from primitive simplicity and a wise reserve.”

Thus the consensus of theological opinion justifies the teaching of the poet of the Christian Year:

Sleep’st Thou indeed? or is Thy spirit fled,

At large among the dead?

Whether in Eden bowers Thy welcome voice

Wake Abraham to rejoice,

Or in some drearier scene Thine eye controls

The thronging band of souls;

That, as Thy blood won earth, Thine agony

Might set the shadowy realm from sin and sorrow free.1 [Note: A. E. Burn, in the Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, i. 716.]

2. Christ breaks through all barriers, and proclaims His Lordship in the realm of spirits. The “Keys of Hades” in the Book of Revelation serve to interpret “the proclamation to the spirits in prison.” Whatever the details may mean, the central picture in the Petrine passage is the triumphant march of the crucified Jesus through the domain of Hades. He is there taking command of the keys. He has come as Lord of the citadel, and makes His proclamation as such to the spirits in ward. The Monarch has come to take possession. Just as His coming into our earth shook our world with a new power, so His entry into Hades shook this shadowy realm with new forces. He grasped the keys of all Hades throughout all its mysterious boundaries, and not merely of a part of it. Therefore St. Peter writes only of a fraction of the whole “proclamation” and triumph, this portion having been chosen for the enforcement of a particular lesson—the lesson of godly Noah’s triumph over a turbulent and evil world. The Son of Man conquered the grave for the bodies of men, and took possession of Hades as Lord of the spirits of men. Therefore He will come to judge the quick and the dead alike. “For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son.”

The most primitive, or, at least, the earliest traceable, element in the conception of the Descensus would seem to be the belief that Christ, having descended into the under world after His death, delivered the Old Testament saints from that necessity of being confined in Hades which was thenceforward abrogated in the case of believers, and conveyed them to the Heaven which all believers have hereafter the right to enter.1 [Note: Friedrich Loofs, in the Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, iv. 661.]

3. Christ proclaimed the glad tidings of His Kingdom to those in Hades. He who came down from heaven “to seek and to save that which was lost” did not count His work over when He had finished it for the generation that then lived, or when He had laid the foundation of it for other generations thereafter; but He went also to those who had been so unhappy as to be born and to have died before He came. He went and continued His ministry among the spirits in prison. The Cross was set up, so to speak, in Hades. The promise to the penitent thief was not a promise to one; it was a promise to all who had gone before Christ and desired to know Him, who had died in His faith, in His love, but without the sight of Him;—it was a promise to all of them, that on that day He would bring rest and satisfaction to them. So we can think of Christ going there among all the dead, from Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, down to Isaiah and Micah, and John the Baptist—to all those who had been hungering for Him, expecting and longing for Him, to the souls of the great heathen, longing for they knew not what, but surely finding at last their satisfaction in Him.

It is impossible to shut Christ out of any region of His universe. He has a right everywhere. Hell and destruction are open before Him. He tracks “lost” man down to the deepest and darkest cavern. Even devils could not shut their gate of flame upon Him. He is “come to seek and to save that which was lost”; and I rejoice to believe that every “lost” child of Adam shall have at least the opportunity of accepting Christ’s mediation—that Christ’s great work has been published through the universe—and that even from hell’s floor of fire, clear up to heaven’s loftiest pinnacle of jasper, the story of redeeming love is known in all the pomp of its simplicity, in all the omnipotence of its pathos.1 [Note: J. Parker, Hidden Springs, 119.]

O the generations old,

Over whom no church-bells tolled,

Christless, lifting up blind eyes

To the silence of the skies!

For the innumerable dead

Is my soul disquieted.

Hear’st thou, 0 of little faith,

What to thee the mountain saith,

What is whisper’d by the trees?—

“Cast on God thy care for these;

Trust Him, if thy sight be dim:

Doubt for them is doubt of Him.

Not with hatred’s undertow

Doth the Love Eternal flow;

Every chain that spirits wear

Crumbles in the breath of prayer;

And the penitent’s desire

Opens every gate of fire.

Still Thy love, O Christ arisen,

Yearns to reach these souls in prison!

Through all depths of sin and loss

Drops the plummet of Thy cross!

Never yet abyss was found

Deeper than that cross could sound!”2 [Note: Whittier.]

4. Can we say anything as to the result of Christ’s preaching in Hades? Whatever the effect of Christ’s descent into Hades was for the ungodly, it would seem that His presence gave a higher status and a more vivid consciousness of blessedness to the holy dead. This appears inevitable. The revelation of the Messiah must have been to them a revelation of the deeper meanings and glories of their immortal life. His coming would make them share in the new and splendid development of the Kingdom of God which that coming involved. In the twilight land they too were waiting for His glory, and in His redemptive presence in the might of His victory they would rise into richer life. The godly of the old dispensation would be splendidly lifted into the glory of the new. Those who had been gathered to the “bosom of Abraham” would now know the higher blessedness of “being with Christ.”

In his Poem, “The Everlasting Mercy,” John Masefield gives the autobiography of a soul that sank to the lowest depths of sin. But Divine mercy pursued him in the vilest haunts and, in the person of a Quaker girl, hurled this appeal at the bolted door of his heart.

Saul Kane, she said, when next you drink,

Do me the gentleness to think

That every drop of drink accursed

Makes Christ within you die of thirst,

That every dirty word you say

Is one more flint upon his way,

Another thorn upon his head,

Another mock by where he tread,

Another nail, another Cross,

All that you are is that Christ’s loss.

Resistance was useless. The bolt yielded, and the power of love conquered in the prison of his soul. And this is what he says—

I did not think, I did not strive,

The deep peace burnt my me alive;

The bolted door had broken in,

I knew that I had done with sin.

I knew that Christ had given me birth,

To brother all the souls of earth,

And every bird and every beast

Should share the crumbs broke at the feast.

5. Does the possibility of new opportunity beyond this world diminish the urgency for missionary effort? If you object, as against this possible extension of mercy, that it will encourage sinners to go on as they are, in the hope of another chance by and by, the reply is that in exactly the same way you might object to the Gospel itself, that the death of Christ and pardon through His Cross is an encouragement to continue in sin that grace may abound. Men do argue that way, and St. Paul rebuked it by his solemn “God forbid.”

Then it is said, if the offer of salvation is to be made to the ignorant on the other side of death, what special urgency is there for strenuous labour in the present? That is how many men have reasoned, and how many reason to-day. If the unenlightened heathen are not swept into hell, the burden of the situation is lightened, and the strain is relaxed. It is a terrific motive to conceive that the unillumined multitudes are dropping over the precipice of death into everlasting torment. And that has been the conception of many devoted followers of Christ. One writer makes the terrible declaration that three millions of the heathen and Mohammedans are dying every month, dropping over the precipice into the awful night, swept into eternity! Swept into what? If they go out with unlit minds and hearts, are they never to see the gracious countenance of the Light of Life? “He went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” Does this destroy the urgency for foreign missions, and will it lull the heart of the Church to sleep? One may well ask where are we if the motive of our missions and ministry is to save people from the fires of hell?

The real missionary motive is not to save from hell, but to reveal Christ: not to save from a peril, but to proclaim and create a glorious companionship. Here is the marrow of the controversy, concentrated into one pressing question: Is it of infinite moment to know Christ now?

The love of Christ will always create missionaries. Raymund Lull was a gay and thoughtless courtier living a life of pleasure and of self-indulgence at the court of King James of Aragon. And one evening he was seated on his bed playing the zithern and trying to compose a song to a beautiful lady of the Court—a married lady, who rejected his addresses. While this gay, accomplished man was trying to compose the song, he thought he saw upon his right hand the crucified Saviour, and from the hands and the feet and the brow the blood was trickling down, and Christ looked at him reproachfully; he put down his zithern and he could not compose the song. Agitated, disturbed, and conscience-stricken, he left the room. Eight days after he had forgotten the event, but he had not forgotten the song; he took the zithern again, and began to finish the song—a song of an unrequited love. And he lifted up his eyes and saw again on his right hand the crucified Saviour with the blood trickling from the hands and the feet and the brow, a reproachful look in His eyes. The zithern was put aside again and this thoughtless creature said—“That is the greatest unrequited love in all the world. Let me sing some song to that.” He did not rest. He gave up his post at the Court, and became the great first missionary to the Moslems.1 [Note: R. F. Horton, The Hidden God, 61.]


Supremacy in Heaven

“Who is on the right hand of God.”

Christ is now on the right hand of God, and angels and authorities and powers are subject to Him.

1. In Him heaven obtains its highest vision of the glory of God. The God of redemption has become the centre of the heavenly places. Love is the highest expression of God, and grace is the highest expression of love. The God that sitteth upon the throne has to be reinterpreted in the light of the “Lamb that was slain.” Just as the Son of Man was the complete revelation of God upon the earth, so the ascended Christ is the complete revelation of God in heaven. The angels that looked upon the face of God in cycles past are learning anew the meaning of His glory, and ancient principalities and powers are learning from the enthroned Son the manifold wisdom of God. Once heaven rang with music to the Creator, and the morning stars sang together, and the sons of God shouted for joy. But now the highest music of heaven is praise to the Redeemer God, the Hallelujah Chorus to the “Lamb that was slain.” He has been exalted by the right hand of God to reveal the heart of God to the wondering hosts of heaven. For all heaven God is marvellously reinterpreted in the light of the atoning cross.

2. This was the fitting climax of so wonderful a career. It was not enough for Christ to conquer in the great fight, and to secure the fulfilment of His mission. He must receive a triumph. He must be crowned.

In his article on Dr. Chalmers Dr. John Brown has asked us to conceive of the reception which a great and good man is bound to get in heaven. “May we not imagine,” he says, “when a great and good man—a son of the morning—enters on his rest, that heaven would move itself to meet him at his coming?” Bunyan has given us a glowing description of the welcome given to Christian and Hopeful, as they drew near to the Golden City. But if heaven thus moves itself to welcome a great and good man, who shall describe the homecoming of the risen and victorious Christ? We know that the heavens resounded with song when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and the listening earth caught a faint echo of the strain. Surely the music, if not sweeter, was more exultant, when Jesus came back a Conqueror, with Calvary and the Cross behind, and the work of Redemption accomplished. Yes, angels and principalities and powers united in the shout, “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.” And He took His place on the throne of everlasting supremacy.

3. This was the enthronement of man. When Christ ascended on high, He brought our humanity with Him and placed it on the throne. Henceforth it is human nature at its best and purest that is triumphant and rules the universe. When we remember this, how cheerful and confident it should make us about the future. We need not fear to face life’s ceaseless battle. When we remember who occupies the place of supremacy, we can say

Some day love shall claim her own,

Some day fuller truth be known,

Some day right ascend the throne,

Some sweet day.

The true future of humanity lies in its realization of its glorious Head there upon the Throne, and we who know Him by faith must bring this home to others. In the wall of Constantinople still stands the gate through which the Moslem conquerors marched into the ancient Christian city which they were about to sack. The gate is walled up, and through that gate they say the Christian conqueror will enter for the Christian reoccupation of the city. So, as with Jerusalem, where the same fact is repeated, the “Golden Gate” in each case testifies to an ever-present fear that some day Jesus Christ will conquer. To the seer in lonely Patmos, separated from his fellow-worshippers on the Lord’s Day, doubtful, perhaps, about the future of the Church in a time of fierce persecution, comes the vision which in all ages has nerved the saint for witnessing and suffering, whether it be Isaiah or Ezekiel or Paul or Stephen, the vision of the invincible Sovereignty and present Glory of the Lord. Then, “what thou seest, write.” And the whole Book, with its glimpses of Christian history to the end of time, turns upon that opening vision as its pivot. It is the last written revelation which the world has had of that Glory. Thus St. John’s stewardship to the Church was fulfilled.1 [Note: T. A. Gurney, The Living Lord, 129.]

Depths of Mercy


Arnot (W.), The Anchor of the Soul, 197.

Brown (C.), Trial and Triumph, 123.

Butcher (C. H.), The Sound of a Voice that is Still, 71.

Carroll (B. H.), Sermons, 366.

Carter (T. T.), Meditations on the Suffering Life of our Lord, 148.

Cox (S.), Expositions, ii. 444.

Evans (T. S.), in The Anglican Pulpit of To-day, 440.

Eyton (R.), The Apostles’ Creed, 71.

Gibbon (J. M.), Evangelical Heterodoxy, 79.

Gibson (E. C. S.), in Sermons for the People, 251.

Gregory (J. R.), Scripture Truths made Simple, 149.

Gurney (T. A.), The Living Lord and the Opened Grave, 37.

Hicks (E.), The Life Hereafter, 34.

Horton (R. F.), The Hidden God, 81.

How (W. W.), Plain Words, ii. 187.

Kendrick (A. C.), The Moral Conflict of Humanity, 253.

Mackarness (C. C.), Sermons for the People, New Ser., iii. 249.

Meyer (F. B.), Tried by Fire, 135, 141.

Parker (J.), Hidden Springs, 115.

Plumptre (E. H.), The Spirits in Prison, 3, 111.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, ii. 73; ix. 361.

Simpson (J. G.), The Spirit and the Bride, 233.

Thomas (J.), The Mysteries of Grace, 103.

Thomas (W. H. G.), The Apostle Peter, 210.

Wilberforce (B.), Feeling after Him, 183.

Wilberforce (B.), Sermons in Westminster Abbey, 164.

Wilson (J. H.), The Gospel and its Fruits, 99.

Christian World Pulpit, xiv. 179 (Wagstaff); xlviii. 42 (Thompson); lxvii. 216 (Body); lxxiii. 317 (Gore); lxxvii. 307 (Roberts).

Church of England Magazine, li. 113 (Lester); lvii. 240 (Bryan).

Church of England Pulpit, xlvii. 256 (Silvester); 1. 98 (Wilberforce).

Churchman’s Pulpit: Good Friday and Easter Even: vii. 175 (Reichel), 178 (Pinder).

Keswick Week, 1899, p. 84 (Webb-Peploe).

Verse 19

(19) By which.—If “by the Spirit” had been right in the former verse, this translation might have stood here, though the word is literally in; for “in” is often used to mean “in the power of,” “on the strength of:” e.g., Romans 8:15. But as that former rendering is untenable, we must here keep strictly to in which—i.e., in spirit. This might mean either of two things: (1) “spiritually speaking,” “so far as thought and sympathy goes,” as, for instance, 1 Corinthians 5:3, Colossians 2:5; or else (2) “in spirit,” as opposed to “in the body”—i.e., “out of the body” (2 Corinthians 12:2; comp. Revelation 1:10), as a disembodied spirit. We adopt the latter rendering without hesitation, for reasons which will be clearer in the next Note.

He went and preached unto the spirits in prison.—There are two main ways of interpreting this mysterious passage. (1) The spirits are understood as being now in prison, in consequence of having rejected His preaching to them while they were still on earth. According to this interpretation—which has the support of such names as Pearson, Hammond, Barrow, and Leighton (though he afterwards modified his opinion). among ourselves, besides divers great theologians of other countries, including St. Thomas Aquinas on the one hand and Beza on the other—it was “in spirit,” i.e., mystically speaking, our Lord Himself who, in and through the person of Noah, preached repentance to the old world. Thus the passage is altogether dissociated from the doctrine of the descent into hell; and the sense (though not the Greek) would be better expressed by writing, He had gone and preached unto the spirits (now) in prison. In this case, however, it is difficult to see the purpose of the digression, or what could have brought the subject into St. Peter’s mind. (2) The second interpretation—which is that of (practically) all the Fathers, and of Calvin, Luther (finally), Bellarmine, Bengel, and of most modern scholars—refers the passage to what our Lord did while His body was dead. This is the most natural construction to put upon the words “in which also” (i.e., in spirit). It thus gives point to the saying that He was “quickened in spirit,” which would otherwise be left very meaningless. The “spirits” here will thus correspond with “in spirit” there. It is the only way to assign any intelligible meaning to the words “He went and” to suppose that He “went” straight from His quickening in spirit—i.e., from His death. It is far the most natural thing to suppose that the spirits were in prison at the time when Christ went and preached to them. We take it, then, to mean that, directly Christ’s human spirit was disengaged from the body, He gave proof of the new powers of purely spiritual action thus acquired by going off to the place, or state, in which other disembodied spirits were (who would have been incapable of receiving direct impressions from Him had He not Himself been in the purely spiritual condition), and conveyed to them certain tidings: He “preached” unto them. What was the substance of this preaching we are not here told, the word itself (which is not the same as, e.g., in 1 Peter 1:25) only means to publish or proclaim like a crier or herald; and as the spirits are said to have been disobedient and in prison, some have thought that Christ went to proclaim to them the certainty of their damnation! The notion has but to be mentioned to be rejected with horror; but it may be pointed out also that in 1 Peter 4:6, which refers back to this passage, it is distinctly called a “gospel;” and it would be too grim to call that a gospel which (in Calvin’s words) “made it more clear and patent to them that they were shut out from all salvation!” He brought good tidings, therefore, of some kind to the “prison” and the spirits in it. And this “prison” must not be understood (with Bp. Browne, Articles, p. 95) as merely “a place of safe keeping,” where good spirits might be as well as bad, though etymologically this is imaginable. The word occurs thirty-eight times in the New Testament in the undoubted sense of a “prison,” and not once in that of a place of protection, though twice (Revelation 18:2) it is used in the derived sense of “a cage.”

Verse 20

(20) Which sometime were disobedient.—The absence of the definite article here in the Greek (contrary to St. Peter’s usage in participial sentences—e.g., 1 Peter 1:5; 1 Peter 1:7; 1 Peter 1:10; 1 Peter 1:17) makes it possible to think that the spirits mentioned in this verse are not co-extensive with those in prison. It is, literally, to men who once upon a time were disobedient. Our Lord preached to the whole class of spirits in prison, of all times and races; and then, to magnify the bounty of this act, St. Peter instances a particular group of them, who were the most marked criminals of any, and whose case suggested a useful application. He has a reason for using the word “disobedient.” It would not describe all sinners, but those who had heard and been convinced by the word of God, but refused to accept it. (See Note on 1 Peter 3:2.) This was the case with those to whom Noah preached (2 Peter 2:5); and, in spite of their “disobedience,” Christ, after His innocent and sacrificial death, went in spirit and preached a gospel to them. Now, let it be recollected that St. Peter’s object through the whole of this section is to encourage the Hebrew Christians to be ready, through a good conscience, for a brave martyrdom, if need be. They are to think how their deaths, like Christ’s, may bring their persecutors to God. Nay—he seems to imply—their very spirits going forth into the world of spirits may conceivably carry a gospel of some kind even to Hebrew relatives who have passed away, like those Antediluvians, in the “disobedience” which was characteristic of the Jews. St. Clement of Alexandria, who derives the notion from the Shepherd of Hermas, gives his belief that the Apostles also, when they died, preached to those who had died before them; and though there is little that throws light on our occupation in the intermediate state, it can hardly be pronounced impossible for some spirits to be allowed to follow Christ’s example there by preaching to spirits in prison. Many expositors, afraid of the consequences of admitting that there could be a possible gospel for men who died impenitent, have supposed that the imprisoned spirits to whom Christ went were the less wicked people destroyed by the Flood; others that they were those who had some motions of penitence when the rain began to fall; but these ideas are foreign to the text, which only tells us that they “were disobedient,” and adds nothing to extenuate their crime. They are a typical instance of men who died “as evil doers” (1 Peter 3:17).

When once the longsuffering of God waited.—The word “once” has no business in the text, originating only in an ingenious but unnecessary guess of Erasmus. The clause serves to heighten the guilt of the poor sinners to whom Christ preached in prison. Not only did they die a judicial death for their extreme sensuality (Genesis 6:3; Genesis 6:11), not only did they disobey an isolated call to repentance from Noah, but continuously, through all the time of the building of the ark (traditionally 120 years), they went on refusing to listen. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed without a preacher to warn them, the Canaanites were annihilated without an offer of repentance, but these abandoned Antediluvians sinned in spite of the long ministry of Noah, and died impenitent. Both their wickedness and God’s longsuffering with them were embodied in Hebrew proverbs, which St. Peter’s readers would know, and yet Christ had a gospel for them.

While the ark.—Better, while an ark. It does not merely describe the period of the disobedience, but rather changes the thought altogether. We now turn from the destruction of the majority to the salvation of the few.

Wherein.—Literally, whereinto—i.e., by getting into which.

Few, that is, eight souls were saved.—The mention of disobedience calls up to the Apostle’s mind at once the vast number of Hebrews who rejected the gospel of Christ. As in 1 Peter 2:4 et seq., so here, he establishes the readers against the thought, “Can I be right and all these people wrong?” by showing that from the beginning it was always a small number who accepted salvation, and they should naturally expect it to be so now. It is better to be one of the eight in the ark than of the many disobedient in the water.

By water.—Or, through water. The very water which drowned the disobedient was the instrument of saving to those who believed, for it floated their ark. It cannot be denied that this is a little forced. So, in the same way, in 1 Peter 2:8, the same stone is to some a sanctuary, to some a stumbling-block. This pregnant word “water” leads on to the next thought.

Verse 21

(21) The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us.—There are two undoubted false readings in this sentence which must be cleared away before we can consider the meaning. First, the word “whereunto” is a mistake for the more difficult which; and second, it should be you, not “us.” We may then translate, either, Which baptism also, in antitype, doth now save you, or else, Which (water) also, in antitype, now saveth you—baptism. The first is less likely, both from the order of the words in Greek, and also because of the difficulty of calling the Flood point-blank a baptism. According to the second translation, the water through which Noah was saved is said in the present day (“now,” as opposed to “in the days of Noe”) to save us (the “you” is emphatic). It does so, in the same sense as we might say, for instance, that the sprinkling of the paschal blood saves us: that is to say, it foreshadowed something which does as a fact save us. This St. Peter expresses by the adjective which may be rendered “in antitype.” The thing it represented is Christian baptism. Where, then, lies the likeness between the two? Not merely in the identity of the element water, which serves but to arrest the fancy, and make one think of the deeper resemblance. One obvious point is that the number of persons accepting the proffered salvation at the present crisis is, as in the days of Noe, very small compared with those who reject it. The main thought, however, is not of the Christians, as a body or family (like Noe’s), being saved while others are lost. For each individual by himself there is a meaning in his baptism which is prefigured by the Flood; and the explanation of baptism which follows, and the opening of the next chapter, show that the Apostle was thinking chiefly of this individual application. As the passage of Israel through the Red Sea is described as a baptism (1 Corinthians 10:2) because it marked their transition from the state of bondage to a new national life, and left their enemies destroyed in the water, so Noe’s safe passage through the Flood is a type of baptism, because it was a regeneration of humanity, it was a destruction of the carnal, sensual element (Genesis 6:3. “he also is flesh”), it washed the human race from its pollutions, and man rose to a new and more spiritual existence for the time being, with the bow for a sign of a perpetual covenant made. So baptism is a destruction and death to the flesh, but a new life to the spirit. It must be observed how carefully St. Peter expresses the permanent effect of baptism by the present tense “saveth:” not “saved you,” nor “hath saved you;” it is a living and ever present fact, the “everlasting benediction of His heavenly washing;” it washes the neophyte not from past sins only, but from those which he afterwards commits, if only he still repents and believes.

Not the putting away of the filth of the flesh.—The Apostle is not cautioning his readers against the thought that baptism acted ex opere operato, as a charm, but he is telling them, on the contrary, that it is no external rite. He was writing to Jews, who were very familiar with ceremonial washings, or “baptisings,” which, though they symbolised a cleansing from sin, really effected nothing but to make the skin less dirty.

But the answer of a good conscience toward God.—An expression which has caused almost as much difficulty as any in the New Testament. The difficulty lay especially in two points: first, that the context was so involved as to give little indication what to expect; secondly, that the Greek word (eperôtêma) which is here rendered “answer” is so seldom found. and might easily take such various shades of meaning. (1) Touching the word itself, we may at once reject the translation “answer,” for it could only mean an “answer” in that sense in which “question” and “answer” are identical, both of them being “the thing asked,” the subject matter of both being the same; but so cumbersome a sense is not in keeping here. (2) Next we may consider the attractive theory that it means a “contract.” The form in which a contract was made was as follows: N says to M, “Dost thou promise?” and M answers, “I promise.” Now in Byzantine Law-Greek such a contract is known as an eperôtêma, or “questionment,” from the question with which proceedings began. And, as a matter of fact, the baptismal covenant has undoubtedly been entered upon from the earliest times with just such questions and answers. Tertullian speaks of this (De Corona, chap. iii.) as an ancient custom in the end of the second century. There are, however, three serious objections: first, that “the contract of a good conscience” is a somewhat vague and imperfect phrase, and far more difficult in Greek than in English; secondly, that there is no trace of the legal term eperôtêma until centuries after the date of St. Peter, or of Tertullian either; thirdly, that had eperôtêma been a recognised term for a “contract” in St. Peter’s time, we should have been certain to find this explanation in some of the Greek Fathers. (3) The usual meaning of the verb would lead us towards a less unsatisfactory conclusion. Eperôtân is “to put a question” for further information’s sake. And we may remark that the order of the Greek would strongly suggest that the words “toward God” should be attached (in spite of the analogy of Acts 24:16) not to “good conscience,” but to the word eperôtêma. Now, there is a constant use of the verb eperôtân in the Old Testament in connection with the name of God. In Joshua 9:14, Judges 1:1; Judges 18:5, and many other places, it means “to consult God,” “to inquire of the Lord,” to seek to Him for direction. Or, with a slightly different turn, it is used, as in Isaiah 19:3; Isaiah 65:1, for “to inquire after God,” in which sense it finds its way into the New Testament in Romans 10:20. Thus baptism would be said to be, “not the flesh’s putting away of dirt (for so it might be turned, though it is somewhat forced), but a good conscience’s inquiry at the hands of God,” or “a good conscience’s inquiry after God.” Observe that if the “good conscience” is the agent in this transaction, as here expressed, St. Peter would recognise (as in Luke 8:15) the man’s happy state of soul before baptism, and baptism would be the mode of his further approach to God. That this is good doctrine cannot be denied. (4) There is, however, another version for which a still better case can be made out: viz., “demand.” It is true that the verb eperôtân more frequently means “to ask” a question than “to ask” a boon, expecting a verbal response rather than a practical one; but it is once used in the New Testament in the latter sense (Matthew 16:1), and in the Old Testament also (as Psalms 137:3). And the only other instance of the word eperôtêma in inspired literature makes for this view. This occurs in Daniel 4:17, where the English has “demand,” and the Latin petitio. There is, indeed, almost as much difficulty in ascertaining the exact sense there as here; but, on the whole, it seems to mean the “demand” for Nebuchadnezzar’s degradation. This was evidently the meaning assigned to our present passage by the anonymous Father in the Catena, for, wrongly joining the words “through the resurrection” with eperôtêma, he says: “It teacheth also how we beseech of Him; and how? by confessing the resurrection of the Lord.” Taking, then, the rendering “demand,” a further question arises: Does St. Peter mean that baptism is the demand (made by God or the Church upon the man) for a good conscience towards God? or the demand made by a good conscience upon God, without specifying the demand? or finally, the demand upon God (made by the man) for a good conscience? Of these the second seems the weakest, because it leaves the nature of the demand so open, and because the notion of a good conscience previous to baptism is less suited to the context. The first would indeed give a vigorous sense. St. Peter would then be saying, “Have a good conscience (1 Peter 3:16), for, besides all else, it is your baptismal obligation, and in defiling conscience you forfeit your baptismal salvation;” but it labours under the defect of connecting “toward God” with “conscience” instead of with “demand,” and it is imperfect, moreover, in not demanding a good conscience toward men as well as toward God. The last seems both the clearest in itself, the best antithesis to the balancing clause, and the most in keeping with the context. It will then be: “Noah’s flood, in antitype, to this day saves you—that is to say, baptism, which is no cleansing of the skin from dirt, but an application to God for a clear conscience.” A “good conscience,” in this case, will not mean an honest frame of mind, but a consciousness of having nothing against you, such as would come to even the chief of sinners from the baptismal remission of sins. “Conscience” is used in this retrospective sense four times in Hebrews (Hebrews 9:9; Hebrews 9:14, and Hebrews 10:2; Hebrews 10:22); and, indeed, in 1 Peter 3:16 it meant “having nothing on your mind because of the past,” rather than “being sure that you mean well.” And how well this suits the context! The Apostle, from 1 Peter 3:13 to 1 Peter 4:6, is uttering the praises of a clear conscience, and warning from everything that could defile it. “With this,” he says, “you cannot be harmed; with this, you will be always ready to defend the faith when called to account. It was because He had this that Christ was able to atone for you and bring you to God, and to conduct His mission to the dead, and to give by His resurrection an efficacy to your baptism; and that baptism itself only saves you by the fact that in it you ask and receive the cleansing of the conscience.”

By the resurrection.—Rightly joined in our version with “doth save.” Baptism derives all its sacramental efficacy from the fact that Christ has, by the Resurrection, introduced into the world a new kind of life, which in baptism is imparted to the believer. The doctrine here approaches still nearer to that of Romans 6 than to that of 1 Peter 1:3. In the first chapter, the Resurrection of Christ was said to be the means and the moment of our regeneration, but baptism (though of course implied) was not mentioned, nor the death to sin. But here, as in Romans, these two take a prominent place. As humanity died to the flesh in the bad Antediluvians, and rose again, washed clean, in Noe, so to the believer there was in baptism a death to the flesh, and he rose again, with a conscience washed clean through the union thereby effected with the crucified and risen Christ. Note, again, that when the Apostle speaks of glories he uses the name of Jesus: when of sufferings, it is the title of Christ.

Verse 22

(22) Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God.—This verse (which partakes of the character of a doxology) serves two purposes. First, it carries on the history of Jesus Christ. How carefully, in spite of what seem at first irrelevant digressions, St. Peter holds his threads. Christ’s passion and death, activity among the dead, resurrection from among them, ascension into heaven, perpetual session in glory, follow one another in due order. The second purpose of the clause runs parallel to the first. St. Peter is teaching the entire conformity of the believer to the Lord. If the believer will but retain his good conscience, he may hope for a precisely similar experience. The Latin and several other good versions, together with several Latin Fathers, add a curious sentence after the words “on the right hand of God,” which runs: swallowing up death, that we might be made heirs of eternal life; but there is no sufficient authority for the sentence. The first notion of being “on the right hand of God,” taken, probably, from Psalms 110:1, seems to be that of occupying the highest post of honour possible, next after that of God—i.e., the Father—Himself It is not necessary here to consider what else may be implied in the phrase as to the conditions of our Lord’s human existence; but when we compare St. Paul’s statement, in Ephesians 4:10, about His now “filling all things,” we feel that these pictorial words, such as “heaven” and “right hand of God,” are intended to convey the notion that His humanity is now entirely without conditions, though still retaining all that is truly essential to humanity. It may be observed that, assuming (as even most sceptical critics do) the genuineness of this Epistle, we have here at first hand the deliberate evidence of one who had been perfectly familiar with Jesus Christ as man with man. By what stretch of imagination can we suppose that such a person could ever have invented, or have accepted from others this mode of speaking about his former Teacher, had he not been conscious of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus as simply historical facts, of the same order as the fact of His death?

Angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.—There can be no doubt that this whole verse is coloured by recollection of the circular letter which St. Paul had sent to the Churches of Asia, which we call the Epistle to the Ephesians. Perhaps the heresy which St. Paul lamented in that Epistle may still have lingered in existence, in cabalistic Jewish circles, among those same Churches when St. Peter thus wrote to them. He may, for the moment, be glancing away from his faint-hearted Hebrew brethren, who, in fear of persecution, were slinking back into Judaism, and turning rather to those Gnosticising Jews who began to abound in Asia, who made “genealogies” of æons, and gave Christ a place among them. In favour of such an opinion one might appeal to the vivid picture of licentiousness in the next chapter, and the development of the same, manifestly under Gnostic influence, in the Second Epistle and in the Apocalypse. From the expression “being made subject,” or, literally, having been subdued (or, subjected) “we may infer that St. Peter meant evil spirits, this being a crowning triumph of Christ, and not only a mark of His exaltation. We need not think that St. Peter, any more than St. Paul, is distinctly teaching that there are such grades of spiritual beings; he is probably only borrowing the titles from the heretics glanced at, and saying that, whatever unseen powers there are, whatever they may be called, they are now cubdued to Christ.


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Peter 3:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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Thursday, December 3rd, 2020
the First Week of Advent
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