The apostle does not exhort the masters, as we find in the Epistles to the Ephesian and the Colossian saints; but he addresses wives and husbands in the next place, without speaking in particular to children and parents. The relation of wives, as of domestics, was one of subjection.
“Likewise, ye wives, [be] subject to your own husbands, that even if any are disobedient to the word, they may be gained without word through the behaviour of the wives, having beheld your chaste behaviour in fear; whose adornment let it not be the outward one of plaiting the hair, and of wearing gold, or of putting on apparel, but the hidden man of the heart, in the incorruptible of the meek and quiet spirit which is in the sight of God very precious. For thus also heretofore the holy women that hoped in God adorned themselves, being subject to their own husbands; as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose children ye became, doing good and not being afraid of any dismay” (vers. 1-6).
It is easy to understand, that, as with servants, so with wives, Christians who stand in the subject place might and must find frequent difficulty with heathen or Jewish superiors to whom they were so near. For the mind of the flesh is enmity against God; and it is provoked by what is of the Spirit in those whom they command. A Christian wife cannot give up a conscience toward God in matters of right and wrong; again she has objects of faith dearer to her soul than life which claim her allegiance and observance, in public as well as private ways utterly repugnant to unbelievers of every sort.
All the more is it incumbent on such believing wives as are bound to unbelieving husbands, that they should be truly and sedulously subject to their own husbands, wherever it is compatible with doing the will of God. Even in the O.T., where such unions existed, the wife was under obligation before God to be subject; whatever the rigour that the law required, whatever the horror inspired by idolatry. The eyes of Jehovah, they knew, were toward the righteous and His ears open to their cry. The face of Jehovah was against those that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
But the N.T, greatly strengthens the believer’s heart by the then revelation of the grace of Christ far beyond what could act of old. Not only does it fortify to suffer both for righteousness and His Name; it encourages faith by the sovereign grace which saved ourselves to look to our God and Father on behalf of others who need it no less than we once did. And if He sought and saved me, a lost sinner, may I not the more (from standing in so close a relationship) pray for my husband dark and dead as he is?
Here too the apostle gives a wise caution. The less spiritual Christian is too apt to forget the ways of divine grace in bringing ourselves to God, and to regard conversion as the simple effect of the truth, overlooking the various workings of the Spirit to give the word a root in the heart. The unbeliever as such slights the word and has no conception of its power when by the Spirit Christ is thereby revealed to the soul. The practical bearing has immense weight with one ignorant of God and of himself. But his conscience can value greatly, gentleness, lowliness, patience, obedience in another and especially that other his wife. He is well aware how unreasonable and unkind he has often been to her; yet she has borne it, and never complained, never reproached, but been as loving and dutiful as ever. He is forced to feel that there must be something that makes the difference in her faith which he often mocked. Hence is pressed “that even if any are disobedient to the word, they may be gained without word through the behaviour of the wives, having beheld their chaste [or, pure] behaviour in fear.”
It is not meant that one can be begotten of God without the word: 1 Peter 1:23 forbids such a thought as decidedly as James 1:18 and many other scriptures. But the moral weight and the gracious way of the wife tell on the hard husband; and he is won to hear, so much the more because she does not preach at him, as he calls it. How many have been thus gained to hear the gospel the day will declare. The modest purity he knows and values much, and this in fear, not boldness or self-confidence, but tempered by the dread of offending God or her husband. For here it seems put with all generality.
Next he turns to the external habits of a Christian wife, and urges the avoidance of frivolous and sumptuous ornaments Some may deride this: but it is their carnality or worldliness which governs. Has not the Christian to please Christ and do all things in His name? Our bodies are to be presented a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God; and we are not to be conformed to this age with its changing fashions of luxury and splendour, whatever station may be ours naturally. Christ is dearer, nearer, and more than all. And the Christian wives are not exempt. Their adornment is not the outward one of dressing hair, or wearing gold things, or putting on dress, which are alien from Christ and a shame to saints. The real ornament is the hidden man of the heart which He sees, in the incorruption (for outside all is corruptible) of a meek and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is of much price. None of these showy objects is so, nor could all Ophir buy it.
Therefore Peter was led to speak of ancients witnessing for God in this respect. “For thus also heretofore the holy women that were hoping in God adorned themselves accordingly, being subject to their own husbands; as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose children ye became, doing good and not being afraid with any dismay.” On God their hope rested, not on themselves. Sarah stood at the head of these pious matrons of Israel; but though not alone (for there were not a few saints of like spirit), she was far from forgetting the true ornaments that became saints.
Favoured as Christians were by Christ and redemption come, the wives now ought not to fall short either in moral adorning or in subjection. Sarah obeyed her husband and reverently addressed him (Gen. 18:12); she was not carried away by the common ground for vanity, though she had beauty more than most. Her children such wives now became as were doers of good and not frightened by any scare from propriety. Why should they be who know that Christ’s Father is their Father, and Christ’s God is theirs? Why be perturbed since He sent His servants to comfort them with the same peace He gave them? The enemy works by fear; God by His love in Christ against every source of alarm.
Hence as another wrote, even before love was fully manifested, when it was simply hoped for with confidence, souls “from weakness were strengthened, became mighty in war, made armies of aliens give way. Women received their dead by a resurrection; and others were tortured, not having accepted deliverance that they might obtain a better resurrection” (Heb. 11:34, 35).
Thus the apostle cites examples; and this from the earliest days of dealing with the called out pilgrims, which would have great weight with the Christian remnant of Jews.
Exhortation had been already given against all vanity and worldly show, but with due care that the outward apparel should express “the hidden man of the heart.” No doubt the open man of his house, the predominant partner, might enjoin and be entitled to her wearing jewels or other costly array in his sphere. But here women do not usually need a husband’s command. Here the word is for their own conscience. For it is not only that God, in contrast with man, looks on the heart: His wondrous light into which He called us gives the Christian woman the highest standard, and thereby enables her by grace to judge all inconsistencies in the incorruptibility of a meek and quiet spirit. This, however foreign to human nature, would not be lost even on a hard and exacting husband, Jew or Greek; for such might be the lot of those addressed, and of course the former most frequently, either of them on the watch too often to spy the faults of a Christian. But under any circumstances such a lowly spirit, seen in all its perfection in Christ, is of much price in the sight of God; and this is of all things most consolatory to the tried if faithful.
Changes many and great have passed over the world. But this fidelity led in olden days when Israel’s great progenitors dwelt in tents. Yet Sarah knew to her husband’s shame that her beauty commended her to a court and a King’s palace for a while, and royal gifts were lavished on him whose selfish fear exposed her to dishonour but for their Almighty protector. But thus aforetime also the holy women adorned themselves as became those whose hope was in God, instead of following the fashion of the world that fleets away. Sarah is singled out as obedient to Abraham, and paying him marked honour, notwithstanding the familiarity of wedded life, which too often has a contrary effect. This example is here set impressively before Christian wives.
But the terms employed are notable: “Whose children ye became, doing good and not being afraid of any dismay.” They were far from this in their unrenewed state. The Lord Jesus does not find, but makes, us what pleases God. Self-will reigns in those afar from Him, with ready resentment of all wrongs that may be inflicted, and submission induced through fear, self-interest, or amiability at best. What a change is wrought by the faith of God’s grace in Christ! Sanctification of the Spirit, setting apart to God in a new life now given, effects obedience, not legal but after the pattern of Jesus, and faith in the sprinkling of His blood. Thus did those Jewish matrons become Sarah’s children in obeying and honouring, each her own husband. It was a divine duty imprinted on the heart by their Saviour. Becoming Christians, they became Sarah’s children in deed and in truth. They were not merely lineal descendants, like the unbelieving Jews whom the Lord in John 8 reproached as being Abraham’s seed, not his children; else they would do the works of Abraham. They became Sarah’s children, “doing good and not afraid of any dismay.” On this side is woman apt to be weak.
Is there a gentle hint here of the occasion when Sarah laughed incredulously, as she covertly heard Jehovah promise she should have a son (Gen. 18:10-15)? How graciously the Spirit speaks openly of her comely bearing at that same time toward her husband! Yet did He not spare her then, when she even denied her derision. Here He only records her good conduct, and calls her children to remember it: “doing good and being not afraid of any dismay,” as frequent a cause as any other of untruth. For sudden perturbation of any kind is unfaithfulness in women professing godliness. Failing in dependence on God and communion, they fear to own the truth under such pressure. Is not the caution here given therefore seasonable and salutary?
The address to husbands is much shorter, as we can readily see and understand. Yet is there not a little for our instruction.
“Ye husbands, likewise, dwelling with [them] according to knowledge, awarding honour as to a weaker vessel — the female, as also fellow-heirs of the grace of life, that your prayers be not hindered” (ver. 7)
As the wife is called to subjection to her own husband, so is the husband to dwell with her “according to knowledge.” Thus the apostle reminds the Corinthian saints “we all have knowledge” (1 Cor. 8:1). It is characteristic of Christ to give spiritual intelligence which is far more. We do not await the day of the Lord to have divine light. We walk in the light as following Him who is the Light of life; we are already, all Christians, sons of light and sons of day; we are not, as we were, of night and of darkness. The Son of God is come and hath given us an understanding that we may know Him that is true. Loved of Him we are to walk in the same love; light in the Lord, to walk as children of light, for the fruit of the light is in all goodness and righteousness and truth. On the one hand we are to prove what is well-pleasing to the Lord; on the other, to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness but rather also reprove them, exposed as they all are by the light, for that which makes every thing manifest is light.
Favoured as the Jew of old was, compared with the heathen (no matter how civilized or refined as in Greece and Rome), Christianity gave an immense advance. But as one apostle, who had inwardly all knowledge beyond such as boasted, insisted that if he had not love, he was nothing, so here our apostle implies its necessity for the husband’s “dwelling together” with his wife. Hence to love their wives has the first and great place in the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians. To fail in such love is a breach of the relationship, and unworthy of a Christian. Alienation is a practical denial of the husband’s place. Faults there may be, haste, forgetfulness, shortcomings; but love as elsewhere, so here in a position so near and tender and peculiar, should have long patience and be kind; be not emulous any more than insolent and rash, nor be puffed up, nor behave in an unseemly way, neither quickly provoked nor imputing evil, and rejoice not at iniquity but rather with the truth. Love does not change nor weary; but we need not here say more. Only we must bear in mind, in thus “dwelling together,” the need that it be “according to knowledge.” The vanity of our knowing, which puffs up, is contrasted with love which builds up. And what a source of instruction is scripture for the difficulties of the home as well as of the way! Christ Himself, as the other apostle pointed out, is the standard.
But a few words follow which deserve every attention. The husband, as having the place of authority, is exposed to the danger of presumption and lack of consideration. Hence the force here of “awarding honour as to a weaker vessel — the female.” The very fact that such is her nature as compared with his own is the ground of the Spirit’s appeal to him who is given to be her protector. Has he never learnt his own weakness before God, and proved that in the sense of it by faith is his power through the grace of Christ? His therefore it is, never to despise, but to guide and cherish her and this in no suspicious spirit but the watchfulness of love, and the grace that pays her honour. But to apply this definitely to “allotting an honourable subsistence” to the wife, as Dr. Doddridge contended, has no more claim to be God’s mind than his similar use of 1 Tim. 5:17 for the elders.
Another consideration consists of a still higher plea: — “as also fellow-heirs of the grace of life, that your prayers be not hindered.” Though the married estate is essentially of the earth, yet those here in view were the redeemed of God, His children. “And if children, heirs also; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.” Husband and wife, being Christians, are appealed to as in a relationship by grace which shall never pass away. When Christ our life shall be manifested, then shall they exchange the present exposure to sorrow and suffering, in which we give God thanks, for that exceeding weight of glory, into which Christ has entered as our fore-runner, whilst we are waiting for Him. O dear brethren, recognise your blessedness, and count the heaviest trial but light affliction and momentary. Look not at the things that are seen but at the things that are not seen; for the things that are seen are for a time, but those that are not seen eternal.
More general exhortation succeeds.
“Finally [be] all like-minded, sympathetic, brother-loving, tender-hearted, humble-minded; not rendering evil for evil, or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, because hereunto ye were called, that ye should inherit blessing. For he that will love life and see good days, let him stop his tongue from evil and his lips that they speak no guile; and let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it; because [the] Lord’s eyes [are] on the righteous and his ears unto their supplication; but [the] Lord’s face is against evil-doers” (vers. 8-12).
It is Christ alone who makes these desires possible in those who are His. But less than this could not satisfy the apostle even in the presence of weakness and contrariety. They were called out of sin and ruin and misery to blessing, and were therefore to be the witnesses and channels of grace in a world and a race which had fallen under curse. They were already begotten again according to the much mercy of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ through His resurrection from the dead unto a living hope, unto an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and unfading, reserved in heaven for them; and they were blessed with other privileges of love, and holiness, and dignity in the highest degree, as we have seen, according to the fulness of Christ. For He that spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely grant us all things?
Thus it is plain that our duties flow from our relationships conferred by sovereign grace in Christ according to the glory of His person and the efficacy of His redeeming work. They are there fore not only beyond all price but unchanging; and they are the ground of our new responsibilities. Christ by His death met and closed our old responsibilities, in which we were lost; and by His resurrection He has ushered us who believe into an entirely new standing of soul-salvation and blessing, whilst here below, and waiting for the completion of His grace as to our bodies also and in heavenly glory. We can therefore without affectation and in the Spirit bless God, and are a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For He ever liveth to make intercession for His own. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? He that bore our sins in His body on the tree, lost and dead as we were in evil, lives also to make the fruit of our lives, our praises, acceptable to God. What that issues by the Spirit from our hearts and lips can have a place so high and momentous as our worship of God and the Lamb? No doubt love works here and downwards by the same Spirit; but we, if rightly feeling cannot but own that God has the first and nearest claim.
And if this be so, will not His working be all the mightier and purer when we consider our relations to one another, to say nothing of the claim of compassionate love toward a perishing world? The apostle calls all who believe to be “like-minded.” Rivalry, self-seeking, liking to differ or even thwart, is not Christ, but of the first and fallen Adam. When the eye of faith rests on all, Himself and those He loves, there is no difficulty. Naturally we see others’ faults and overlook our own; but this is the old man; it is the reverse of Christ, Who is our new life and Whom we are called to live. Members one of another, members of Christ, how unworthy not to be “like-minded?” If nature is opinionative, what does the one indwelling Spirit aim at and effect? If we live in Spirit, in Spirit also let us walk, not vain-glorious, provocative, or envious.
Being in such a scene of wretchedness as the world and with bodies not yet redeemed in which we groan, we are exhorted to be also “sympathetic.” Surely we may and ought to rejoice with those that rejoice; but far more frequent is the demand on our sharing the grief that abounds, and especially for righteousness or Christ’s sake. It is our common portion as Christians to suffer with Him, even if we may not have the experience of suffering for Him. In any case sympathy in these holy sorrows is sweet and strengthening.
“Brother-loving” is a plain call, as belonging to the same family of God. Are we not to love them personally beyond our affection to our natural kin, as the bond is deeper and of divine nature and everlasting? Assuredly the enemy strives continually to bring in contention and misunderstanding, and every other means of hindrance; but the duty is as incontestable as the relation. How it is to be exercised depends on each case, for which we need the word and Spirit of God. For as John clearly shows, it is no mere human impulse and must not clash with the truth of God or with obedience.
“Tender-hearted” suitably follows. There is no worth in God’s eyes if we love but in word or tongue, and not in deed and truth. We are to learn of Him who never relieved by power only, but His spirit entered into and bore up before God the infirmities and the diseases which He removed.
Nor is “humble-minded” the least though last in these qualities which the apostle sought to be in exercise. And where can we find its perfection but in the same Lord and Saviour? Nor could the days of His flesh be recalled without the vivid and humiliating remembrance of the sad contrast even in the honoured Twelve, so often and to the last disputing which of them should be accounted greatest. “I am meek and lowly in heart,” said He, and it was ever true. Man’s ambition was wholly alien. “Ye shall not be so; but let the greater among you be as the younger, and the chief as he that serveth.”
Again the apostle charges the saints not to return evil for evil, or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary to bless, “because for this thing were ye called that ye might inherit blessing.” So marked is the contrast of the Christian with Israel when they undertook to earn blessing by keeping the law; as the apostle Paul set before the saints in Galatia, who had made the same sad mistake. “For as many as are of works of law are under curse” (Gal. 3:10): not as many as broke law, but as many as are pledged to that principle.
It is by grace alone, that we, Christians, are saved, or any can be; and it is through faith, not of works. Called also to an inheritance of glory, are we not witnesses of blessing? We know that one of our own poets expresses what nearly all felt as unbelievingly as himself: “Man never is, but always, to be blest.” Christianity is the standing proof that they knew not the truth. It was the less wonderful in A. Pope, as he never rose out of superstition and dead form even to apprehend the gospel of God’s grace.
But grace gives the Christian to understand and make good the moral government God carries on with His children. The apostle in vers. 10-12 cites Ps. 34 for this even now; though Israel must await another day when their heart turns to Him whom they rejected in their unbelief. Evil and guile wholly misbecome the life of believers. If any dishonour their Lord like the Corinthians, they fall under His chastening; and this may take the shape of sickness and death. Nor is it only words that are warned against. He urges from that scripture that they should turn away from evil and do good, seek peace in practice, and this earnestly, because Jehovah’s eyes are on the righteous, and His ears to their supplication, whereas His face is against evil-doers. Now the mind of the saint is as truly to please God, as the carnal mind is not nor can be. The believer is in living relationship with Christ, the duty follows, and the Holy Spirit works in power to His glory.
Zeal for what is good is apt to disarm the honestly hostile; but in case it should not be so, how blessed to suffer for righteousness! Christ was perfect thus; in what was He not?
“And who shall injure you if ye become zealous of the good? But if even ye should suffer for righteousness, blessed [are ye]; and be not afraid of their fear, nor be troubled, but sanctify the Christ as Lord in your hearts, ready always for answer (or, defence) to every one that asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you, but with meekness and fear, having a good conscience, that in what they speak against you as evil-doers, they may be ashamed that revile your good behaviour in Christ” (vers. 13-16).
Man that is born of woman is of few days, as Job says, and full of trouble; he is fallen and sinful with death before him soon, and, after this, judgment for ever. Impossible to face his real state conscientiously without continual unhappiness and awful forebodings for all eternity. Nothing within or around one can afford him solid satisfaction, still less be acceptable to God who is good and does good. His goodness therefore leads to repentance, and effectually in Christ only; for herein was the love of God manifested in our case, that God hath sent His only-begotten Son into the world that we might live through Him. It is clear that, if we are spiritually dead as being all of us lost sinners, this is our first great want, to receive a new life that we might live to God; and this life, as it is seen in its perfection and fulness in Christ, so it is given by Him to every one that hears His word and believes [km that sent Him. The Son quickeneth whom He will; and thus the believer has life eternal, and cometh not into judgment, but hath passed out of death into life.
But God’s love as known in the gospel goes very much farther even now; for the believer might have life, life eternal, and be burdened by the sense of his past sins and of his present weakness and unworthiness. In the gospel God removes this distress by purging his conscience, and fills with peace through faith in Christ’s sacrifice. Therefore is it added in 1 John 4:10, Herein is love, not that we loved God (which we surely do as now living in Christ), but that He loved us, and sent His Son as propitiation for our sins. This alone is perfectly efficacious, and the Spirit seals us in virtue of it, so that we are brought into liberty and spiritual power by grace.
Henceforward, therefore, delivered from evil we become zealous of the good; and who shall injure us if it be so? The worst of mankind are struck when they see the proud rendered lowly, the violent meek, the quarrelsome peacemakers, the frivolous and pleasure-hunting grave, the corrupt pure, the covetous liberal, the careless or even blasphemous godly. But no doubt an evil eye under Satan’s power may refuse all moral evidence and impute ever so real change for good to hypocrisy, and only hate the more those who leave their own wretched and wicked ranks to follow Christ. They do therefore seek to draw His confessors into evil ways old or new; and if they fail in ensnaring, they will not fail to detract and persecute; for all that desire to live piously in Christ Jesus are surely persecuted, or (as our text says) “suffer for righteousness’ sake.” But “blessed are ye” says the word. It is God’s mercy and their honour, as delivered by Christ out of the present evil age according to the will of our God and Father.
Accordingly the saints are exhorted not to “fear their fear, nor to be troubled.” Why should they, who now are redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, and called out of darkness into God’s wonderful light? Calling Him Father (for such He truly is) Who without respect of persons judges according to each one’s work, they would pass the time of their sojourning here in fear, because they are so favoured and blessed, yet in a wilderness of trials and pitfalls and dangers. From “their fear” who hate and malign, once their own fear, they are set free by the Saviour; and they owe it to His honour not to be troubled, seeing that at His cost they are blessed supremely by His God and Father who is ours also. Instead of such unbelieving fear and trouble naturally, they can and do exult though now for a little while, if needed, put to grief by various trials, all of which His grace turns to account (Rom. 8:28) to those that love Him, to those that are called according to purpose.
What then is the resource and remedy? “But sanctify in your hearts Christ as Lord.” Sanctimoniousness in manner or outward acts, far from availing, is a snare and a shame unworthy of a Christian, as far as possible from pleasing God, though it may deceive himself if unwary and others too. But to give Christ the holy place due to Him, and supremely as Lord, in our hearts, truly pleases Him Who would have us honour the Son even as we honour the Father. Without Him thus constantly set up and apart in our hearts, we are exposed to any and every idol whereby the enemy deceives the world; but with Christ thus the object of our inmost affections, how kept and blessed! So we see the fruit and accompaniment in the words that follow, “ready always for an answer to every one that asketh you a reason (or, account) for the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” What account can creature give so satisfying, even to God, as the Lord Jesus and His redemption? In Him we have the righteousness found nowhere else, yea, we are become God’s righteousness in Him; so that, as the same apostle says (Gal. 5:5), “we through the Spirit by faith await,” not righteousness as if we were not justified, but “the hope of righteousness,” that is, heavenly glory with Christ. But this very blessedness, so undeserved by any, calls us to meekness and fear in confessing it, lest a rough or presumptuous spirit might dishonour the God of all grace or ourselves the recipients of His rich mercy.
In a fallen world and a sinful nature, with God on one side and Satan on the other, there must needs be suffering, and especially for the saint till Christ take His great power and reign. Satan is still the ruler of the authority of the air, the spirit that now works in the sons of disobedience. So far is the enemy from having lost his bad eminence, though defeated by our Lord perfectly dependent and obedient, it was by the world’s rejection of Him that he became the ruler of the world, yea, the god of this age, as we read in 2 Cor. 4:4. No doubt exceeding his commission by inciting the world to crucify the Lord of glory, he has, as it were, sealed his own everlasting ruin in that precious blood. For to this end, as to others of greater moment still, Christ died, that through death He might annul him that has the might of death. But the full execution of the sentence awaits (not the coming age merely, when the Lord will reign and he is shut up in the abyss, but) the end, when ha is cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the Beast and the False Prophet had been consigned a thousand years before; and they shall be tormented day and night for the ages of the ages.
Here in the present evil age (Gal. 1:4) the Christian pre-eminently is called to suffer, not merely under divine discipline when he fails, but because he has a new nature as possessing life in Christ, and is faithful to God. Why should the fact seem hard? This the apostle here meets and explains.
“For [it is] better, if the will of God should will [it], to suffer [for] well-doing than [for] evil-doing. Because even Christ once suffered for sins, just for unjust, that He might bring us to God, put to death indeed in flesh, but made alive in [the] Spirit” (vers. 17, 18).
How simple yet weighty and conclusive is scripture! Who that considers it, when declared, can doubt that it is better to suffer when we are doing well than when we deserve chastening for ill-doing? Yet it is not at first obvious to him who, feeling the iniquity done him, is apt to complain of the hardship. Christ suffered throughout for righteousness, for truth, for love; and we have it as our privilege to share these sufferings of His, as the apostle Paul pressed on his beloved Philippians; “To you was granted in behalf of Christ not only the believing on him but the suffering for him also, having the same conflict as ye saw in me and now hear of in me” (Phil. 1:29, 30). Peter too had already in 1 Peter 2:21 presented Christ as a model in this, but there as here, distinguished from that following in His steps, the foundation of all which He only could lay, in that He bore our sins in His body on the tree, that dead to sins, we might live to righteousness (ver. 24). So here the apostle turns to what is and must be solely His: “because even (or, also) Christ once suffered for sins, Just for unjust.”
For sins it was His alone to suffer. He suffered but once in this atoning way where none could follow; for it was not from man because He was faithful to God, but from God because of His grace to man, whatever it might cost in bearing God’s righteous judgment of man’s sins. For on His holy head Jehovah made to light, as Isaiah says, the iniquity of us all. “It pleased Jehovah to bruise him,” not only to put Him to grief, but “to make his soul an offering for sin.” Thus only could we be pardoned righteously and saved. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes are we healed. What pathos as well as force in the apostle’s cheer for suffering as doers of good and not evil, that He suffered for our sins once and once only I Let this suffice: so perfectly was it done, as He alone could bear that burden, intolerable to Him above all, yet borne by Him that they might be, as they are, borne away for all that are His. Let us therefore now suffer only for what is good on our part.
But there is more. Christ also suffered once for sins, Just for unjust. He was alone in that one act of suffering supremely at God’s hand. It was for unjust or unrighteous men. Alas! here all were unrighteous, all sinned; and those who by grace benefited through faith would be the first to own it of themselves. Henceforward they are righteous, and so live by faith, as through it they became so; nor do they forget that they believed on Him that justifies the ungodly, and thus their faith is reckoned for righteousness. Such was His grace.
Think too of the efficacy of His suffering thus, “that he might bring us to God,” not yet actually to heaven but meet for it, and therefore “to God” Who is far more than heaven. Christ on the cross cleared us from both our evil works and the evil root and sap, sin in the flesh that produces them. We are therefore no longer far from God but brought nigh, as he had said in 1 Peter 2, a holy and a royal priesthood with a better reality of nearness to God by the blood of Christ than the Aaronic priest had typically. To assert a sacerdotal class on earth now between the Christian and Christ is to deny the gospel. None can wonder who believe in the glory of His person who was put to death in flesh, and made alive, or quickened, in the Spirit. His death rolled away the evil before God, and His resurrection proclaimed the victory to faith.
If any one desire a fuller discussion of these remarkable expressions and of what follows, he may find help in a small treatise entitled, “The Preaching to the Spirits in Prison” (Weston, 53, Paternoster Row).
Here we have need of vigilance that we yield not to fancy, but be subject to the words of the Holy Spirit in their exact bearing and in accordance with the context. For they are often taken up loosely and with bias in favour of a preconceived idea or with a view to a desired end. To ensure light we need the single eye; and this can only be where Christ is the governing object. The relative refers to the Spirit in virtue of “which” Christ was made alive after His death. Now of course a very different fact is added, but equally dependent on the Spirit.
“In [virtue of] which also he went and preached to the spirits in prison, disobedient aforetime when the long-suffering of God was waiting in Noah’s days, while an ark was being prepared, in which few, that is eight souls, were brought safe through water” (vers. 19, 20).
We are here given to understand that Christ in the Spirit preached to those whose spirits are imprisoned because when they heard His warning they were disobedient; which time is fixed as before the flood which punished them here, as they are now kept like others for judgment hereafter.
The Greek preposition
ἐν is here required in order to accurately express “in” or “by” what power Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison. It was not in person but by virtue of the Spirit. This is remarkably confirmed by the language of Gen. 6:3: “And Jehovah said, My Spirit shall not always strive (or, plead) with man, for he indeed is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” Here we learn to what the apostle alluded, not only Christ in Spirit (and we know He was Jehovah beyond doubt), but the term of the long-suffering of God in Noah’s days. For to this the divine statement refers, not to man’s life, which even after the deluge was far longer as yet, but to His patient pleading while the ark was in preparation. 2 Peter 2:5, with 1 Peter 1:11, lends much help to the clearness of the sense intended; for as Noah is beyond any man of old designated “preacher of righteousness,” so we might expect for the power at work in him the same Spirit of Christ which in the prophets testified beforehand the sufferings Christward and the glories after these.
The truth meant in the passage is thus made quite plain and consistent, not only with the exact demands of the context but with the rest of scripture. There is if possible less difficulty here than with Eph. 2:17, where it is said of Christ, that “He came and preached peace to you that were far off, and peace to those that were nigh.” No sensible person sees more in this than Christ, not personally but in Spirit, preaching to Gentiles as well as Jews, after His ascension. This was plain enough; but in our text, lest it might be misunderstood by the imaginative or the superstitious, grace furnished the qualification “in which” [Spirit] He proceeded, not into the prison, as some have conceived, but preached to the spirits that are in prison. They were living men on earth when the Spirit pleaded with them in Noah’s days while preparing the ark.
With this precisely agrees “disobedient as they once, or aforetime, were,” during that long space of forbearing, compassion, and testimony. Again the structure of the phrase is the one proper to express the moral cause or reason why they are now in prison. Instead of penitence and faith, when Jehovah’s Spirit strove, they were disobedient: a fact which our Lord (Matt. 24:38, 39) turned to a warning like His servant here. A similar fate will befall the heedless at the coming of the Son of man in the consummation of the age. There is no room in doctrine any more than in fact or in the phraseology of Peter, for the strange notion of ancients or moderns that Christ in person went to Hades after His death for the purpose of preaching to the spirits there. The strangeness is heightened by the fact that the only ones said to be the objects of His preaching were that generation of mankind which had been favoured with the pleading of His Spirit in Noah. Such a favour when they were alive would much more naturally have weighed against the alleged visitation after death, even if other scriptures did not prove its needlessness for saints and its unavailingness for sinners.
The truth is that the fabulous notion of such a preaching by Christ after death in Hades contravenes all scriptural truth elsewhere, and is only extracted from the passage before us by violence done to its separate clauses and its scope as a whole, in no way carrying on the divine argument but interpolating a wholly incongruous interruption. For the only character given to those who heard the preaching is that they were then disobedient, as the ground of their imprisonment: a strange reason for singling these out for the favour of the Lord’s going to the prison on their account.
If it be an outrage on orthodox doctrine to suppose such a preaching to such an audience in such a place, condition and time, it is even more plainly opposed to the terms of the apostle, if one foist in the idea that the Lord preached to the O.T. departed saints. Not a word implies a believer among the spirits in prison. All attempts in this direction from Augustine down to Calvin, and near our day to Horsley, as to others since, are utterly vain. The clear bearing of the teaching is to contrast the disobedient mass of spirits (in the prison of the separate state for such) with the few who in the ark were brought safe through water.
The unbelieving Jews who objected to the fewness of the Christians were thus powerfully met, as well as their contempt for preaching as having no serious effect, whether believed or rejected. Was Christ acting now by the Spirit, instead of that manifestation of power and glory which they longed for in unbelief of what God is doing by the gospel? Let them remember how He wrought before the deluge, and how it fared with those who disobeyed His warning. There is thus no real difficulty in the passage when the general analogy of Noah’s days is apprehended; any more than in the details of the most correct text, with the strictest attention both to grammatical rendering and sound doctrine. No event in the O.T. could be found more apposite to warn scoffing Jews in the apostle’s day than that which befell the disobedient in Noah’s time of preparing the ark. How different the effect of Jonah’s preaching to the men of Nineveh! Yet their repentance was but transient, and the end of the great city followed. But the deluge was not all for those who rejected the Spirit of Jehovah that warned by Noah. Their spirits are in prison waiting for the judgment, wherein no one is just before God. They are lost for ever. It is only by faith that a sinner is justified. The disobedience of unbelief is final; it braves God’s mercy as well as His wrath; it is worst in such as have the scriptures.
The assumption of Christ’s preaching to the departed in Hades is a dream, which clashes not only with the truth in general but with this context in particular, rendering it in all the minute points of the words both halting and irreconcilable, when adequately looked into. The result too is an allegation extraordinary, suggesting a doctrinal inference at issue with God’s word everywhere else. For it attributes a work to Christ which is superfluous for saints no less than sinners; and for these last is apt to become the basis of a spurious hope, as inconsistent with all that our Lord when here declared for those that die in unbelief, as with that which the Holy Spirit has taught since redemption. Another evil effect of this misinterpretation is, that it sets ingenious minds to essay a shadowy confirmation from such texts in the O.T. as Psalm 68:18, Isaiah 45:2, Isaiah 49:9, and to deny that Paradise is heavenly in the N.T. One error leads to another and perhaps many. It is well to maintain the hope of the blessed and holy “first resurrection” at Christ’s coming; but there is very great harm in denying the intermediate bliss of the saints departed to be with Christ. Scripture! is perfectly plain and sure as to both.
The water of the deluge leads to the spiritual meaning of baptism in ver. 21: the figure of death judicially, whether for the world that perished thus; or for the believer’s salvation by grace through Him Who went down for our sins and rose that He might be the true ark for us. The water was the instrument of God’s judgment in destruction. Those in the ark were saved through it, but this only because they submitted to God’s word and were secured by the ark. But the ark prefigured Christ, not the church as some vainly imagine; for no such thing existed then, nor, if it had, could it have saved, but rather consists of those that needed the salvation which is in virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection.
“Which 24figure (or, antitype) also now saveth you, baptism, not a putting away of filth of flesh, but a request of a good conscience toward God through Jesus Christ’s resurrection; who is at God’s right hand, having proceeded into heaven, angels, and authorities, and powers being subjected to him” (vers. 21, 22).
It is of all moment to understand the mind of the Spirit; for superstition has caught at words here also to support its delusion. But we must read scripture in the light of other scriptures, as well as of the context, if we are to walk in the truth. All scripture, we may say, points to the Saviour and faith in Him for salvation of the soul. Nor is any part of it plainer as to this than the foregoing doctrine of the Epistle before us. Christ is pointed to as the quickener of men dead in trespasses and sine, Christ the Son in communion with the Father, made known in the Holy Spirit’s power through the word (John 3:5, John 5:21-25). So in the first chapter of our Epistle the apostle says, “Having purified your souls in obedience to the truth unto unfeigned brotherly affection, love one another out of a pure heart fervently.” How could this be, considering what man is naturally? “Having been begotten again, not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible, through God’s living and abiding word. Because all flesh [is] as grass, and all its glory as flower of grass; the grass withered, and its flower quite fell; but the Lord’s word remaineth for ever. And this is the word preached unto you.” Hence in James 1:12 it is written, “Of His own will He (the Father) begot us by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.”
These are but a few of many scriptures which one might cite from the Gospels and the Epistles; but they amply show that, as life is in the Son, so He is the giver of life to the believer, and this now not only for fellowship with the Father and with the Son, but for walking in the light, cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Baptism has its place of deep interest and importance; but scripture never attributes quickening to it. This is a very old and inveterate error of Christendom. All the so-called Fathers who speak of life-giving assign it to baptism. It was the error of darkened times long before the Popish day; and its necessity was founded on the wholly misunderstood words of our Lord in John 3:3, 5. This was so universal after the apostles that Hooker lays down, in opposition to Cartwright (Eccles. Poll v. § 59), “that of all the Ancient, there is not one to be named that ever did otherwise either expound or allege the place than as implying external Baptism.”
Now it is a striking fact that, beyond the allusion to the disciples baptising as John did long before our Lord’s death and resurrection, and His subsequent commission to baptise all the nations, the Gospel of John avoids even the mention of Christian baptism and the Lord’s supper. Its design was to bring out, not the hallowed institutions of Christianity, but the life eternal and the gift of the Holy Spirit with their precious issues. No institution is ever said to give life, nor can any restore the communion which indulgence in sin may have interrupted. In John 3 the Lord urges the absolute necessity of being born anew, that is, of water and Spirit, in order to see or enter the kingdom of God. Being by nature a child of wrath, a new nature is requisite. Water, as in John 15:3, Eph. 5:26, refers to the word of God brought home by the Spirit in faith and repentance. This Nicodemus as a Jewish teacher should have known, especially from Ezek. 36:25, etc.; whereas neither he nor any one else could have known of Christian baptism, instituted years after.
It is similar with John 6:53, etc., which means communion by faith with Christ dead for redemption, as verses 32, etc., speak of Him incarnate. The language in John 3 goes far beyond baptism, as that of John 6 far exceeds the Lord’s supper. This last ought to be evident to any one who bows to scripture. He who so applies this passage ought to affirm, that none can have life eternal without the Supper, and that none who partakes of it can fail to have life eternal: both statements as dangerous as they are false.
Still baptism is the expression and confession of part in Christ’s death; or as the apostle Paul puts it, “know ye not that we as many as were baptised unto Christ Jesus were baptised unto His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism unto death.” This is its meaning: Christ’s death, not life, both which are by faith in Him. So too in the Lord’s supper we announce His death till He come; for this is as it ought to be a constantly recurring feast, as Christian baptism is expressly once only. Christ must come, not by birth alone, but by water and blood with the Spirit given as witness. Till then Christianity could not be, because God had not been glorified nor sin judged in His death. He was straitened, however great His grace, glory, and moral perfections, till that baptism was accomplished. The Christian institution followed.
Baptism was as Peter taught “for remission of sins,” as we read in Act 2:38. Hence Ananias was sent to “brother Saul,” already having life in Christ risen, and bade him arise and get baptised, and have his sins washed away, calling on the Lord’s name. So here “Which figure,” for this it is, “also now saveth you, baptism.” But the apostle carefully adds, “not a putting away of flesh’s filth, but a request (or, demand) of a good conscience.” For the life of Christ given to the soul seeks and can be satisfied with nothing less. And as He Who is and gives us life eternal suffered for sins, we also receive the rich blessing of His death in all its value. It figures therefore not life, as says tradition ever dark and misleading, but salvation, the present salvation of our souls, and pledge of the glorious change for our bodies at Christ’s coming. Baptism sets forth our passing out of the fallen estate into the new standing of salvation “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” All was holy and acceptable in Him incarnate; but such was our guilt, such our ruin, that nothing short of His resurrection could bring us into salvation. “Verily, verily, I say to you, Except the grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit.” Remission of sins and salvation are thus part of our blessing. Baptism as the initiatory institution proclaims it; and so does the Lord’s supper throughout, as we wait for Christ; but it all depends on the efficacy of His death and resurrection to our faith.
We can thus see the consistency of the truth in Christ. For in Him God came down to poor lost sinners, that believing in Him they might live who were dead. But in Him dead and risen we come to God, cleared by His atoning blood and in the power and acceptance of His resurrection. And here it is that Christianity finds its basis and character. We are thus not merely safe, as all were who had life; but now we “are saved,” and become God’s righteousness in Him. Hence Christian baptism follows Christ’s death and resurrection. A good conscience toward God is the thing demanded, when we are alive in Him to God: our clearance by His work of redemption. “Request” or “demand” (not “answer”) is the true force of
ἐπερώτημα. And what a grand demonstration of it is in Christ on God’s right hand, the same Christ Who suffered once (it was enough) for our sins and bore them away, and proceeded in due time into heaven and its highest seat of honour, angels and authorities and powers subjected to Him, instead of disputing His righteous title. That they indeed pay Him divine homage, Heb. 1 declares according to O.T. prophecy; and the Revelation discloses in its visions of heavenly glory, seen by John and made known to us, to act now on our souls. For all things are ours, things present and things to come. Hay we profit by a privilege so wondrous!
We may remark too, that (though God was pleased to give au advance of privilege and truth by Paul in Rom. 6 and Col. 2, as compared with Peter’s testimony in this text), the words in Heb. 11:7 coincide with “now saveth you.” “By faith Noah, warned oracularly concerning things to come, prepared an ark for the saving of his house.” This was the figure. But the true salvation to which baptism points figuratively is of a divine and everlasting character on the foundation of Christ’s death and resurrection.
But it is needful to say that whatever be the place and value of baptism, the same Paul thanks God in 1 Cor. 1 that he baptised only a few at Corinth, lest any should say that they were baptised to his own name. How could he possibly say this, if thereby any get life eternal? And further, that Christ sent him not to baptise but to preach the gospel, by which, in 1 Cor. 4:16, he says that in Christ Jesus he begot them. Whereas in 1 Cor. 10:1-12 he warns them by the examples of Israel’s history, that neither baptism nor the Lord’s supper avails to hinder falling in the wilderness through unbelief and the sins to which it exposes. See also Heb. 3, 4.
The truly astonishing thing is, how any saint can have become so bewitched by human pretensions, and so dull to the infinite work of grace (engaging as it does all the Trinity to save a guilty sinful man), as to receive so evident a delusion of the enemy. As God in Christ alone could save, so nothing short of His power can keep souls through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. For salvation here (1 Peter 1:5), as often elsewhere, means the salvation of the body, and not only of the soul as in 1 Peter 1:9.
For those unbelievers who alighted the gospel through their zeal for Messiah’s glory to be manifested on earth, it was not without importance to point out how much more is the glory on high in which the Christian delights to regard Christ now. He “is at God’s right hand, having proceeded into heaven, angels and authorities and powers being subjected to him.” He will surely and in due time sit as David’s Son on David’s throne in Zion; and all Israel will repent, believe and be saved in that day. But the Jews, and the Gentiles too, who now see Him by faith have a better portion, as He has gone up into a higher glory. Nor can the unbelieving Jew gainsay the fact that David in Spirit attests it, saying, Jehovah said to my Lord, Sit on my right until I set thine enemies as footstool of thy feet. If He sits, as Psalm 110 assures, angels and authorities and powers are not disobedient like the Jews on earth to the heavenly vision, but, subjected to Him, break forth in glad and loud acclaim. And Christians even here and now worship in the Spirit Him who is thus exalted above. They believe and know Him there.
24 The Elzevir Edd., like Beza’s, and before all, the Complut., followed indifferent MSS. in giving
ῳ, which the Auth. V. adopted; but Erasmus, Colinaeus, Stephens, with whom agreed Wells, Lachmann, Griesbach, Scholz, and all modern critics, give
ὅ on fuller and better authority. The Revisers of course correct accordingly; but they are not very consistent in their rendering of
ἀντίτυπον. For the only other N.T. use of the word is in Heb. 9:24, there “like in pattern,” here “after a true likeness.” There seems no sufficient ground to translate differently in the two cases. “Figure” is the sense in both, as the A.V. conveys. Also I; A B P, many cursives, and the ancient versions have
ὑμᾶς, “you,” instead of
ἡμᾶς, “us.” There are curious omissions in the witnesses; as the Sinaitic, the cursive 78, and Aeth. omit
νῦν, “now,” is drops by several cursives, the Pesch.-Syr. and Arm., as well as Cyprian. Of lesser aberrations we need not speak. The true text emerges with certainty.