Good morning, church. Go with me to 1 Peter, chapter 3, starting in v.18. The passage for today is famously difficult to interpret, to understand. So, if you read the passage today and feel a little confused, that’s alright, you’re just joining the rest of us in our collective confusion.
I’ll be honest—I like the difficult passages, because they remind me of how vast our God is. We should approach the scriptures and religion with humility and confidence together, confident that our God has revealed himself in Christ and in the inspired word so we can truly know him, but in humility recognizing that we so often misunderstand and get it wrong. In other words, we should have open minds, but recognize the voice of our Lord who alone has the words of truth. It’s a balance that takes practice and wisdom, but as Chesterton writes, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
We’ve been in a series through 1 Peter for the past several weeks. It’s a letter written to people who are suffering and displaced, driven from their homes, who have lost everything they had and are trying to figure out how to live this Christian life even when their lives are a complete mess of sin and brokenness. Peter writes that, we are able to follow Christ even in times of suffering, when bad things happen in our lives, because Jesus, himself, suffered, and in his suffering, he is our example and he’s our hope. Because he was strong enough to wade through suffering, even into death, and come out of it into new life, free of sin and death.
Our confounding passage for today answers an important, confounding question: why would God allow his own children to endure suffering? And what is the purpose of all the suffering we go through in life? Let’s read it together. 1 Peter 3:18-4:6. […] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Lord, God. I have so often found, both in life and in my pursuit of you, that the hard paths are the most worthwhile. So I pray you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
Whenever you come across a passage in scripture that is difficult to understand, one that offends or confuses you, I would encourage you—don’t get weird with it, and assume you’re missing something a google search might give you; sit with it for a while. Look at the context, read the passages around it again, look for key images or repeated phrases, come talk with other Christians about it. In summary: read with faith in the goodness and steadfastness of God, and allow that faith to seek understanding.
Now, you may leave here today still with some questions, and I would encourage you to bring your questions into whatever small group you attend—Wednesday, Sunday; Kallee goes to both, so she gets to ask the most questions.
But for my part, let me break this passage down as best I understand it, knowing that God is infallible in his wisdom, but I am not. The first thing I want you to notice is the context of the letter—we’re still talking about suffering in a broken world, and Peter’s main point is this: If you follow Christ, there’s life on the other side of suffering. If you follow Christ, there is life on the other side of suffering.
Peter points to Christ as our example in our suffering, so when he talks, in v.18 about Christ being put to death, we should think about how Christ suffered in his life, even died. But he made it through his suffering and, v.22, came out to life on the other side. Not just a piddling existence, not a ghost of who he was, but real life, and life abundant. And if Jesus can make it through suffering and death, we can know that in Christ, vs.1-2, we are able to make it through suffering and death. Suffering in this life is only ever for a little while, so we as Christians should stay focused on the spiritual, v.2, on the eternal, because even if we suffer in this world, in this flesh, Jesus is able to make us come alive in our spirit, and eventually, on the other side of suffering, we will find life in him.
Peter’s using Noah here as an example of another time when the whole world seemed to have gone wrong—you feeling that in 2020? In Noah’s day, the world went wrong enough that the world basically destroyed itself—everyone around Noah had abandoned God. It was just him and his household following God, and as he’s pursuing the calling of God, his friends are actively mocking him. Even in that kind of world, through that kind of suffering, destruction, and isolation, God is able to bring his people through the storm, through the flood, to life on the other side.
So to Peter’s readers who are alone in their pursuit of God, surrounded by friends and family, a whole world that mocks them for trying to live the Christian life, v.4, many of them suffering under a broken government, with bosses and masters who mistreat them, even members of their own family mistreating them; into that situation Peter encourages people to keep following Jesus, and he will bring you through to life on the other side.
And for you here today, I want you to know that Christ is able to bring you through the suffering you’re experiencing right now, whatever it is. Even if your home was destroyed by the hurricane. Even if you’ve started seeking sobriety and trying to live the Christian life and everyone around you is mocking you. Even in the face of death and illness. Christ is able to bring you through the suffering we experience in this life, and bring us through to life on the other side.
I know there are days when it seems like there’s nothing left, and suffering is all that’s ahead of you. Some days, it feels like the sin in your life has won, and there’s no escaping from it. You’ve tried so many times to change, and every time you’ve failed, and you feel like there’s no hope for your life to be anything other than it is right now. It feels like you’ve made mistakes you can’t come back from. But Jesus went through everything you’ve gone through. He lost close friends, even family, and wept. He was a refugee, cast out of his home, he was without a place to sleep, he experienced hunger, he got tired, he was betrayed by a close friend. People called him a drunkard and a glutton. He was arrested, falsely accused, tortured, executed. And still, he rose from the grave. There was life for him on the other side.
Friends, there is life left for you. This is not everything your life will be. Sin and death cannot hold you, v.1, you will one day cease from sin. One day you will be changed. Maybe that day is today, maybe it’s tomorrow, and maybe it’s the day the Lord returns. But believe in Jesus, trust in Christ, follow him, and even if you follow him through suffering, through mocking, even to death, keep going. There’s life on the other side.
Secondly, Peter’s point is this: your suffering isn’t meaningless. Your suffering isn’t meaningless.
As a pastor, I have a lot of conversations with people who are suffering, and usually one of their greatest fears of people who have been through suffering is that the suffering in their life won’t mean anything, that it has no purpose, that there isn’t any reason for it. They’ll ask me, why God would allow them to suffer. And if someone ever asks you that, know that they don’t need an answer at that moment. They need you to sit with them, just be there, to be like the Holy Spirit and come alongside them in their suffering and bear some of the weight of whatever is bearing down on them, whatever is crushing them.
But in times when you can bear to hear it, you need to hear this truth: your suffering isn’t meaningless. Again, Christ is our example. God the Father allowed him to suffer what he suffered for our sake. He suffered once, the righteous for the unrighteous, so that he might bring us to God. From the first moment sin grew to death in the world, and Cain, having killed his brother cries out, “This is more than I can bear,” we’ve been crying out ever since, over and over again, throughout generations, “This is more than I can bear,” this sin, this death, this judgement. We hear it on our streets, even now, as brother kills brother—the sin and suffering in the world is more than we can bear. Christ came to suffer and die, the righteous for the unrighteous, because he was able to bear what we could not—our sin, death, judgement. He still bears it in our place, but he is strong enough. The Father could have spared Christ; Jesus didn’t have to suffer. But the Father allowed him to suffer for our sake, so we could be saved and know something besides suffering and meaninglessness.
This is still what God does in the world. He asks his children to follow Christ’s example and to bear what the suffering people around them cannot bear up. In in our small imitation, in our stumbling way, we seek as Christians to take up the burdens of others so they are able to stand up under the weight of sin and death, bring people to God, show them something in this world besides suffering and meaninglessness. You have to understand, everyone in this world suffers. It’s because of the sin and brokenness that we brought into our world. If you are in this broken world, you will face suffering.
We ask why God would let bad things happen to us—and that question has many answers. This is one: our Father is able to keep all of his children from suffering. We don’t have to suffer just like Jesus didn’t have to suffer—the Father could take us out of this world, take us out of this place. But he doesn’t. Why? He calls us to stay in this world, to live as a part of this world in the midst of sin and brokenness, not because he doesn’t love us, but because he also loves everyone else. We are here to proclaim his redemption. We are here for the sake of everyone else, to suffer alongside them, in hopes of bringing them into the life Christ offers. If you are still in this world, our Father has a reason and a purpose for you.
This is what Paul understood when he wrote that to die is gain, but it is better for us that he live. This is what it means to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ—not just that we would suffer in a meaningless sort of way, but that we would imitate Christ and suffer intentionally, knowingly, for the sake of the people around us. God allows us to suffer for the same reason he allowed Christ to suffer—it’s for the sake of everyone around us. So we can show them, in suffering, the power of God in the midst of sin and suffering to bring us life in the Spirit, and then eventually to bring us through suffering into life on the other side.
This is how baptism corresponds to Noah’s ark—baptism pictures our death; we are buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life. Jesus saves us through the water as he did Noah, but in baptism God our Father intentionally bears us into the flood, into the water, into death itself, so that we might be able to proclaim the life in the spirit to those who are perishing. In this Christ is our example, because he faced death and hell to bring life to us all. So we are called, as Christians, to plunge into death alongside the perishing in order to proclaim the life we’ve found in Christ.
This means that we, as Christians, are called to suffer, as we talked about last week. God’s will for us is not that we should pull back from the world and live cloistered, in Christian bubbles, sheltered from the sin of this world. He intends us to follow Christ into the broken places, into the dark places of our world, and wherever we see suffering, wherever we find darkness, to plunge in as in baptism, buried with Christ, to go under the flood, to find the people who are perishing and show them how to be raised to walk in newness of life.
Where in our city is there sin? Where is there darkness? Where would Christ go if he were here? Because he is here, he is really present in our church. We are his body. So where do we go? Under the water, into the depths, to tell people trapped there that there is a world above where you are able to see clearly in dazzling light and breathe free. There is life, there is hope in Christ. Your suffering isn’t meaningless.
Lastly, Peter tells us, the time that is past suffices. The time that is past suffices. Friends, if you came in here today seeking life on the other side of suffering, know that there is hope in Christ for the life that you’re seeking. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, or for how long, Christ raised a man from the dead. Don’t you think that he can raise you up from however deep you’ve fallen?
Peter writes, in v.3, “the time that is past suffices,” for living in sensuality, drunkenness, idolatry, sin. It’s a clear call, an invitation, to repent and believe and find life on the other side of suffering. I don’t know how long you’ve held onto the sin in your life, how long you’ve depended on it, how long you’ve lived the Christian life avoiding any kind of pain or suffering, but I do know this: the time that you’ve spent not following Christ on his road to the cross suffices. That time that’s past is enough. You may not have known it when you walked in, but God doesn’t do things by accident, and since God brought you here, you should know: today’s the day to make a start. The time that is past suffices. Even if you feel like you had no other choice, today you have a choice. The time that’s past was enough.
So many of us spend our whole lives waiting. We’re waiting for something to happen to us so our lives will change, waiting to get rich, or to find the perfect man or woman for our lives, waiting to graduate, waiting for rock bottom and not want the next hit, waiting for a revelation, waiting for—we’re not even sure what. People wait their entire lives to feel good enough to come to church, wait just a little longer to go into rehab, to go to the doctor, to begin pursuing something with your life. It reminds me of a few lines from one of AJ’s children’s books, where Dr. Seuss imagines a whole city just waiting, and he calls it the waiting place…
“…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
“Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.”
If you’re waiting for something today before you follow Christ on his road, I want you to know: the time that is past suffices. All the time you’ve spent doing other things—that was enough. It’s time now that you come home to the church. It’s time to follow Christ on his road.
He’ll lead you toward repentance, toward change, away from sin in you own life, and make you to stand on your own two feet under the weight of this world, into a life lived in the service of others. Down under the water we go in baptism to suffer for the sake of the world, just like Christ our example suffered. And up we come, raised to walk in the newness of life.
Baptism marks the beginning of our walk with Christ, but we have to learn, each day, to follow him back under the water, until the day he finally does choose to spare us from the suffering of this world and bring us into his life abundant. I long for that day, but for your sake, I’m glad I’m here in this world for the time that I have so I can invite you into the life Christ brings in the spirit even here, even now. The time that is past suffices for waiting. Choose, today, to follow him out into our hurting world, and through to life on the other side.