This sermon was preached on Easter Sunday before several baptisms and baptism reaffirmations, including the baptism of my son Adam.
For centuries, the church stood—never kneeled—on the Lord’s Day, as a sign that Christ had raised them up by his resurrection on the first day of the week. On this holy Easter morning, let us stand together, as those who are risen from the dead, lifted from the degradation of sin and death, and turn to the First Epistle of Peter, Chapter 3, Verse 18 (1 Peter 3:18–22):
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
This is the word of the Lord. Let us pray.
Almighty God, who raised Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it, raise us up also, that we might know the power of his resurrection, and live before you in righteousness and holiness all the days of our lives. Amen.
In just five verses, Peter proclaims the mystery of our faith.
First, Peter proclaims the mystery of Good Friday — “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” Jesus is the only truly Righteous One. All have sinned, except Jesus. All deserve to die, except Jesus. Yet in his great mercy, Christ came to die as a substitute for unrighteous sinners like you and me. Through his wounds we are healed! Through his sufferings, we are sanctified! Through his blood, we are reconciled to God! The outstretched arms of Christ on the cross are the bridge between a holy God and unholy sinners.
Second, Peter proclaims the mystery of Holy Saturday — Christ was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” Christ was put to death in the flesh—his human body died and was buried. But where did his human soul go, and what was it doing between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? Scripture teaches that Christ’s human spirit or soul remained conscious and descended to Sheol, also called Hades (Mt. 12:40; Acts 2:31). In spirit, Christ descended to the place of the dead, depicted in Scripture as the shadowy regions “under the earth” (Php. 2:10; cf. Eph. 4:9)—what Charles Wesley called “the dark domain.” This is so central to our faith that the Apostles’ Creed teaches us to confess as a matter of first importance that “he descended to the dead.” Hilary of Poitiers taught, “this is our faith … the lower regions.”
Christ was not tormented in Hades. Remember that in Luke 16, Lazarus and the rich man both died and went to the same general location. They were even able to communicate. Yet Lazarus was comforted at Abraham’s bosom while the rich man was in torment. Like Lazarus, the soul of Jesus was comforted in Paradise where Abraham and the souls of the Old Testament saints, like Noah, dwelled before the resurrection.
Peter tells us that, like Lazarus, Jesus preached across “the great chasm” that separated righteous souls from the souls in torment. He proclaimed his victory to the same souls who had mocked Noah’s preaching before the flood. Jesus went and preached to the spirits in prison “because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared.” The wicked ignored Noah the preacher of righteousness, but they could not ignore Christ the Conqueror of Hell.
The wicked ignored Noah the preacher of righteousness, but they could not ignore Christ the Conqueror of Hell.
Though the Old Testament saints were comforted in death, they were still held under the power of Death and Hades before the resurrection. Christ came to deliver the prisoners of hope from their exile. The Apostle goes on to say in Chapter 4 that “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead” (1 Pet. 4:6). While the body of Jesus lay lifeless in the tomb, the soul of Jesus was invading the house of the strong man and plundering Satan’s goods, the souls of the saints whom he had kept captive in the shadowy realms of the dead. Noah the persecuted preacher, and all the saints who had looked for Messiah, were vindicated by Christ’s descent to the dead on Holy Saturday and ushered into the heavenly places by his resurrection (Eph. 4:8; Zech. 9:11). Because of Christ’s resurrection, we no longer go to Sheol when we die, but to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord in heaven (2 Cor. 5:8).
He Rose Again
This brings us to our third point: Peter proclaims the mystery of Easter Sunday — “the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” It was Peter who preached at Pentecost that “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” Peter cites Psalm 16, where “David says concerning [Christ], ‘… you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption’” (Acts 2:31). God did not allow the body of Christ to see corruption—he did not allow it to decay in the grave. And God did not allow Christ’s soul to be abandoned to Hades or Sheol. On the third day, God raised his body from the grace, and his soul from “the dark domain” of Sheol. As Charles Wesley proclaimed,
Up from the grave He arose
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes
He arose a Victor from the dark domain
And He lives forever with His saints to reign
On the third day, he rose again, body and soul, putting Death and Hades under his feet. If Christ is risen, then death is defeated! If Christ is risen, then the power of sin has been broken! If Christ is risen, then the doors of hell have been broken down! If Christ is risen, then the keys to Death and Hades are in his hands! If Christ is risen, then the head of the serpent has been crushed beneath the Victor’s heel!
Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life
We Rise With Him
But mystery of mysteries, Peter does not proclaim the resurrection as a mere miracle to which we look back; he proclaims it as a reality in which we can participate, even now, through faith and baptism. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Peter writes, “Baptism, which corresponds to [Noah’s flood], now saves you … through the resurrection of Christ.”
Now listen very carefully: Peter is clear that baptism does not save us “as a removal of dirt from the body.” The mere act of washing with water does not save us. There’s nothing magical in the water. Rather, baptism saves us “as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Baptism is a sign of resurrection with Christ through the life-giving water of the Holy Spirit. Those who believe the promises of the gospel, which are sealed to them in baptism, receive Christ’s resurrection power through baptism as a channel or means of divine grace.
We all know the story of Noah’s flood: God judges the wicked world, but first, he calls a righteous people out from among them, and instructs them to prepare an ark. Then, as he delivered Israel through the waters of the Red Sea, God delivers Noah and his family safely through water. While they are still in the water, God sends his dove to assure them that sin has literally been washed away, and all is at peace. Then, when the floodwaters recede, he leads them out onto an earth that has been cleansed of evil.
God is once again calling a people out from a world that is destined for destruction and delivering them safely through water.
Peter says that this corresponds to baptism, which now saves us—that all those years ago in Noah’s flood, God was preparing to teach us something. God is once again calling a people out from a world that is destined for destruction and delivering them safely through water. The day is soon coming when the righteous wrath of God will be revealed against sin; yet, in his abundant mercy, God is inviting people into the church, the body of Christ, the ark of salvation, through baptism. He is delivering men and women, boys and girls, bringing them safely through water and sealing them with his heavenly dove, the Holy Spirit of promise. When Jesus returns, his baptized people will inherit a resurrected world, a new heaven and a new earth, cleansed of evil once and for all.
Don’t misunderstand: Baptism is no guarantee of final salvation. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul says that Israel’s passing safely through water in the Red Sea is also a type of baptism. “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Cor. 10:5). There are many who are baptized but ultimately perish. Yet to those who are baptized by faith, and persevere in faith—to those who look only and always to Christ as their hope in life and in death—baptism now saves us through the resurrection.
Christ is Lord in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” And his almighty power is being extended to you and to me. It is a power that delivers “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15). It is a power that breaks the bonds of sin in all its forms. It is a power that raises the dead in sin, and makes us new creatures in Christ Jesus: “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
For centuries, Easter has been the church’s favorite time to baptize. As we prepare to administer the sacrament of baptism this morning, listen attentively to Paul’s words in Romans 6:
Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
In baptism, we die with Christ; we are buried with Christ; we descend with Christ to the dark domain; and leaving our sin behind us, we rise with Christ to newness of life. Christ is risen; put off the old life of sin! Christ is risen; be made new! Christ is risen; stare down death! Christ is risen; rise with him!