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I PETER 3:18-20

In our last number, Brother J. W. Livingston called for our views on I Peter 3:18-20:

“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waiting in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.”

In our attempt to comply with the request of our brother to give our views on this text, which has puzzled those of more light and understanding than we possess, we hope we may not be left to darken counsel by words without knowledge, or to embarrass, instead of edifying, those who honestly enquire after the truth. We frankly confess that the latter part of this text has been very dark and obscure to our mind, and what we shall present on the subject is only to be regarded as our views, until at least the reader shall find them sustained by the testimony of the scriptures.

In the context, the apostle has been treating upon the new and spiritual birth, which is of incorruptible seed, by the word of God which liveth and abideth forever; in distinction from that birth which is of corruptible seed, or of the flesh, which (like grass) is corruptible, and the glory of which is as the flower of the grass, which must also perish, or fall away. The subject of this new birth, like the living and ever abiding word from which it proceeds, must live and abide forever; and those who are so born, as new born babes, desire the sincere milk of the word (that is, of the word of God which liveth and abideth forever), as it is congenial with the production of the new birth which is by the same word. Having drawn the line between the distinct elements of which the Christian, in his present state, is composed; the one of the flesh, which is grass, corruptible, mortal, and perishable; the other, of incorruptible seed by the word of God, and therefore, incorruptible and abiding, he goes on to show that in our earthly and fleshly standing, the relationship in the flesh is not annulled, nor changed by our new birth; the production of the corruptible and that of the incorruptible seed are brought into personal identity, for the time being, but still in opposition to each other, insomuch that the spirit wars against the flesh and the flesh against the spirit; or, the corruptible against the incorruptible, until the grass shall wither, and the flower thereof shall pass away. Having defined this subject in the most lucid manner, Peter proceeds to show some of the obligations which are binding on Christians in their personal relations to each other and to mankind, in the flesh, as well as what is enjoined on them as children of the spiritual and immortal birth. In their spiritual identity they are “a chosen generation” - to show forth the praises of him who hath called them out of darkness into his marvelous light. In their flesh they are admonished to have their conversation honest among the Gentiles, and to submit to every ordinance (or constitutional law) of man, for the Lord’s sake; whether it be to the king, as supreme, or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil doers. Honor all men, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the King. “Servants,” that is Christian servants, for Peter as an apostle has nothing to do with any but Christians, “be subject to your masters, with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.” The same as Christians in their fleshly relations are bound by the laws of Christ to be loyal to kings and governors, or to whatever form of constitutional government they may be placed in the providence of God, to let every soul be subject to the higher power. “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands,” and in all our fleshly relations, to observe the same rules and authorities which would be binding on us if we were not Christians. And as this fidelity is enjoined on all Christians, not only to the good and gentle, who may have dominion over them, but also to the froward; the apostle admits that a faithful obedience to these laws of Christ will, beyond all doubt, subject them sometimes to suffer unjustly from the dominion of tyrants, still he says it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well-doing, than for evil-doing, and then adds the words of our text, giving us a pattern and example in the person of our divine Lord and Master.

“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust.” He would not call on his children to suffer unjustly from the froward and tyrannical, who may have a brief authority over them, if he had not himself suffered the just for the unjust. The will of God was so that Christ should suffer, though holy and harmless, and separate from sinners; although no guile was found in his mouth. He did not object to drink the bitter cup, which was pressed to his holy lips, saying that he had violated no law, transgressed no rule that was binding on him, but recognizing his Father’s will in the matter, he said, when pressed with the unutterable agony, “If it be possible, let this cup pass, nevertheless not my will, but thy will be done.” Learn then, ye suffering Christians, to bear with patience so far as men are concerned, and when reviled, revile not again. Christ suffered for sins - not for sins which he had committed, for he knew no sin. Holy, pure, spotless and immaculate in every respect, he was emphatically just, but he suffered for the sins of the unjust. He was crucified by wicked hands, of those whose wicked hearts were full of violence. But who were they? The Jews and Romans! The men of Israel and the Gentiles were the immediate agents in the bloody tragedy on Calvary!

“But knotty whips and jagged thorns
In vain do I accuse;
In vain I blame the Roman bands,
And the more spiteful Jews-

‘Twere you, my sins, my cruel sins,
His chief tormentors were;
Each of my crimes became a nail,
And unbelief the spear.”

The sufferings of Christ were vicarious. He suffered the just for the unjust. The Lord has laid on him the iniquities of all his people. He was delivered for our offences, and was raised from the dead for our justification. And he has himself said, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” The chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed. The sufferer was personally just, but those for whom he suffered were legally unjust. He was as a lamb without spot or blemish; but those for whom he bore the penalty of the divine law were guilty sinners, and by nature, children of wrath, even as others; and the object or design of his sufferings was that he might bring us to God. “All we, like sheep, have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” There was no other way to bring us to God, or to reclaim us from our wanderings, but by redemption; and none but Jesus had the right of redemption, he being the nearest of kin; and none but Jesus had the ability to redeem us to God, for there is salvation in none other. It was not possible that the blood of bulls or heifers could purge us from our sins, and in our sins we could not see God. The design then of the atonement was special, definite and exclusively for his people. The iniquities which were laid on him he has put away by the sacrifice of himself; he bore them in his own body on the tree; and by one offering he has perfected them that are sanctified.

“Being put to death in the flesh”. The second Adam, which is the Lord from heaven, was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, that he, by the grace of God, might taste death for every one for whom he was delivered up. The Word which was with God, and which was God, in whom was life, (that life which is the light of men) was made flesh, and dwelt among us. His flesh was indispensable for the work of redemption. He took not on him the nature of angels, for in the nature of angels he could not taste of death for men. For men in the flesh he was to die, and to represent them in the flesh in which they were sinners, he must be made flesh, and stand before the law in the likeness of sinful flesh. He was, therefore, made of a woman, made under the law, that he might redeem us from under the law. Bear in mind the theme of the apostle in the connection of our text, the flesh and the spirit, the incorruptible and the corruptible seeds - the flesh which is grass, and the word of God which liveth and abideth forever. The Word of God, which is the fountain of all our spiritual life, the Lord from heaven, etc., to represent us in the flesh and die the just for the unjust, must be made flesh, or take on him a fleshly body that could suffer and die, in which to be put to death. “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same, that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death; that is, the devil, and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” He was put to death in the flesh, not in the spirit which liveth and abideth forever, for that aside from his flesh was immortal and could not die; and hence his assumption of flesh, that he might taste death, or be put to death in the flesh. By the term flesh, in regard to what Christ took on him for the purpose of suffering, we understand according to Christ’s own explanation to be ‘That which is born of the flesh;” namely, the seed of Abraham, or that which his children are partakers of; soul, body, and all that Adam was, when man became a living soul. Before he took on him a body in which to suffer and a soul which was poured out to death, or which was made an offering for sin, (Isa. 53:10) he was the Lord in heaven, and the anointed Mediator, in whom all the Church of God was chosen, and in whom God had blessed them with all spiritual blessings, before the foundation of the world. But for the suffering of death he took the same nature on him, in which his people had sinned, a body in which he bore our sins, a soul that was exceedingly sorrowful even unto death, and a spirit which could be troubled, could groan, and which he committed to his Father, when he yielded up the ghost on the cross. His whole person, including soul, body, and spirit, was just, holy, and pure. The holy thing which was conceived in the womb of the virgin, and born of her, was unblemished, undefiled, spotless, and pure, although he was made sin for us, or in other words, all the sins of his people were laid upon him, and he was legally held responsible for them, and did suffer the full weight and penalty of the law to the complete satisfaction of Eternal Justice, for them, the same as though they had been committed personally by him; for the Lord had laid them on him, and he was able to put them away by the sacrifice of himself. It was in his being found in fashion as a man in the flesh that the law could recognize him as the legal representative of his people in their flesh, in which they had sinned, and in the flesh to put him to death. The importance of the doctrine of the incarnation is most vital, for John testifies that, “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is of God; and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is not of God; and this is that spirit of anti-Christ, whereof ye have heard that it should come: and even now already is in the world.” God was manifest in the flesh. All fulness dwelt in him. All the fulness of the Godhead dwelt in him bodily; and all the fulness of his Church also dwelt in him, and is complete in him who is the head of all principality and power. The spirit of Immortality, the power of an endless life by which he is made a priest forever after the order of Melchesidec, was in him, as the life which was with the Father and was manifested, I John 1:1,2. And which God hath given to us in him, I John 5:11,12. He was put to death in the flesh.

“But quickened by the spirit.” By what spirit was he quickened? By the spirit of life and immortality which was made flesh and dwelt among us. That spirit which is the fountain and source of regeneration of which Peter is treating in connection with our text, and which he distinguishes from all flesh which is grass, which is corruptible, which can die or which is mortal. His flesh qualified him to die; but his flesh, in itself, aside from the indwelling, the Eternal Spirit, through which he offered himself without spot to God, had no power to raise from the dead. It is the Spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing. “God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the spirit,” etc. His simply dying in the flesh did not of itself demonstrate his divinity; for all flesh is grass, all die, all flesh is subject to death; but the power of his resurrection shows that Christ was in that flesh; and being quickened by the Spirit, justifies the character which he assumed, and proves that he is the Son of God, and the complete Savior of his people. The spirit which raised him up from the dead is not only a life producing spirit, but it is life itself. Thus Paul, in discriminating between the flesh and the spirit, says, “And if Christ be in you, the body is dead, because of sin: but the spirit is life, because of righteousness. But if the spirit that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his spirit that dwelleth in you. Rom. 8:10,11. Thus clearly identifying the spirit that quickened the crucified body of Christ, and which dwells in us by regeneration now, and which shall ultimately resurrect the mortal bodies of all who are born of that incorruptible seed, by the word of God which liveth and abideth forever. In this flesh, like grass, even Jesus could bleed and die - pour out his soul, yield up his spirit, and slumber with the dead; but in the Eternal Spirit of life and immortality, he had power to take up his life again, and destroy death, and swallow up death in victory. His crucified body was raised up from the dead, by this quickening spirit, and by this quickening spirit, in regeneration, all the saints are born of incorruptible seed by the Word of God, and by this self same spirit the mortal bodies shall finally be clothed in immortality - and be fashioned and made like unto his raised and glorified body. “For whom he did foreknow, them he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” The spirit which brought again from the dead the body of our Lord Jesus Christ is the same spirit that now dwells in all who are born of God, by which they are sealed unto the day of redemption, to-wit: the redemption of our body. And it is called the spirit of the Lord God, which is upon him, by which he is anointed to preach glad tidings to the meek, etc., Isa. 6 1:1, and that “By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” The spirits in prison were those unto whom Christ was anointed to preach good tidings, whose prison doors he came to open and whom he came to deliver out of their prison houses. If they were not prisoners, they would not need deliverance. They were prisoners, yet they were prisoners of hope, Zech. 9:12. As Paul says, “In hope of eternal life which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began.” They were captives, sold under sin; lawful captives, but Christ has led their captivity captive, and received gifts for men. In one general view, all whom Christ came to redeem were prisoners, and his ministry to them all is by the same spirit of the Lord God, by which he was raised up from the dead, and his preaching or proclamation of deliverance to them is by that spirit; whether we understand it as applicable to his personal manifestations in their individual experience respectively, or through the prophets, apostles, evangelists, teachers, and pastors, or by whatever gifts the saints are edified; for, there are different gifts, but all by the same spirit, and that is the spirit of Christ. The prophets sought diligently to know what, or what manner of time the spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it spake of his sufferings and of the glory that should follow. This spirit is that with which the apostles were endowed from above, and which came upon them like a mighty rushing wind from heaven on the day of Pentecost. And, in short, if any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of his.

“These spirits which were in prison, were sometime disobedient.” And in all time, until called by grace, of every redeemed child it may be said there has been a time in which they lived in disobedience to God, and in opposition to this spirit of life, of truth, of holiness - and the apostle refers to an instance in the days of Noah, when the ark was being prepared. The spirit of Christ was then in Noah, who, by it, was a preacher of righteousness; but his preaching by that spirit was resisted by the antediluvians. And Stephen charged the Jews, “Ye do always resist the Spirit, as your fathers did, so do ye,” etc. And all who oppose the truth as it is in Jesus, do also in like manner resist the spirit. We do not, of course, mean that God, the Holy Ghost, attempts to operate on their hearts, and they successfully resist and prevent him. Such a sentiment would represent the sinner as being stronger than God. But the spirit of Christ as it exists in all the saints is opposed by the flesh which warreth against it, and by the world which cannot receive it, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him. Christ came and preached to you, dear brother, and to you, dear sister, when your spirit was in prison; when arrested in your mad career of sin and folly, quickened and made sensible that you were a guilty sinner against a holy God; when you, as a prisoner, were under arrest, and brought before the awful bar of Justice; when you were compelled to plead guilty to every charge; when your sins were set before you, and Justice with uplifted sword demanded satisfaction, and your mouth was stopped, and you stood guilty before God - were you not bound hand and foot, so that with your hand you could do nothing to expiate your guilt, and with your feet you could not run away from or escape the avenger of blood? Strong chains of darkness bound you in your cell, and you could not open the prison door. Were you not then a spirit in prison, until the anointed Jesus came and preached peace and salvation, life and liberty to your captive spirit?

And are there not seasons with old Christians when they find themselves shut up as with hewn stones, so that they cannot come forth, and the prison none can open until Jesus by his spirit comes to preach to you?

He went by this spirit and preached unto the spirits in prison, when he entered the dark domains of death, when he dwelt among the dead. This was loud preaching to them; it told them that he had bowed his heavens and come down, that he had descended to the lowest parts of the earth; that the iron gates were opened to him, and that he had come to destroy death and the grave, and to deliver them who were all their lifetime subject to bondage through fear of death. When he arose, he opened the doors of death, and destroyed the power of the grave. And as he arose as the first-fruits of them that slept, he gave the assurance that he would also quicken from the dead, and in due time raise up and glorify the redeemed bodies of all his saints who sleep in the dust of the earth.

To illustrate this bearing of our subject, the apostle uses the figure of the ark, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved. This he calls a figure; and as a figure, sets forth the doctrine of salvation through or by grace. As Noah and his family were preserved from the destroying waters of the deluge in the ark, so Christ and all the spiritual family are saved from wrath, in the church of God. And as, while the ark was being prepared, some were disobedient; so while God is gathering into his church the heirs of immortality, some are disobedient, and some who are called by grace are conscious that they were in that number.

“The like figure, whereunto baptism doth also now save us.” Just as the temporal deliverance of Noah and his family in the ark was a figure of salvation by grace, so is also christian baptism a like figure, signifying the same thing. Baptism cannot save us from the curse of the law, or the blood of Christ might have been spared; neither can it put away the filth of the flesh, which is grass, but it is the answer of a good conscience toward God. It is in answer to an eternal principle implanted in us by an incorruptible seed; it shows our willing subjection and allegiance to Jesus Christ, and our joyful espousal of his cause, and open profession of his name. And at the same time sets forth the doctrine of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, and of our being buried with him by baptism into death, that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, we also are to walk in newness of life.

Brother Livingston, we have made rather a long article of this, but if any thing herein written shall be of service to you, or to any of our readers, we shall have cause to be thankful to God. May you and they carefully and prayerfully compare our views with the infallible standard of truth, and endorse our views only so far as they are clearly sustained by the scriptures of truth.

Middletown, N.Y.,
July 15, 1861.

Elder Gilbert Beebe,
Editorials Volume 5
Pages 23 - 32