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Calvin's Commentaries  
The First Epistle of Peter
(Volume XXII)
1 Peter 3:17-18  
17. For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well-doing, than for evil-doing.  
17. Praestat enim benefaciendo (si ita fert voluntas Dei) pati qu_m malefaciendo: 
18. 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:  
18. Quia et Christus semel pro peccatis passus est, justus pro injustis, ut nos adduceret Deo; mortificatus quidem carne, vivificatus autem spiritu. 
 

17. For it is better. This belongs not only to what follows but to the whole context. He had spoken of the profession of faith, which at that time was attended with great danger; he says now that it is much better, if they sustained any loss in defending a good cause, to suffer thus unjustly than to be punished for their evil deeds. This consolation is understood rather by secret meditation, than by many words. It is what indeed occurs everywhere in profane authors, that there is a sufficient defense in a good conscience, whatever evils may happen, and must be endured. These have spoken courageously; but then the only really bold man is he who looks to God. Therefore Peter added this clause, If the will of God be so. For in these words he reminds us, that if we suffer unjustly, it is not by chance, but according to the divine will; and he assumes, that God wills nothing or appoints nothing but for the best reason. Hence the faithful have always this comfort in their miseries, that they know that they have God as their witness, and that they also know that they are led by him to the contest, in order that they may under his protection give a proof of their faith. 

18. For Christ also. It is another comfort, that if in our afflictions we are conscious of having done well, we suffer according to the example of Christ; and it hence follows that we are blessed. At the same time he proves, from the design of Christís death, that it is by no means consistent with our profession that we should suffer for our evil deeds. For he teaches us that Christ suffered in order to bring us to God. What does this mean, except that we have been thus consecrated to God by Christís death, that we may live and die to him? 

There are, then, two parts in this sentence; the first is, that persecutions ought to be borne with resignation, because the Son of God shews the way to us; and the other is, that since we have been consecrated to Godís service by the death of Christ, it behoves us to suffer, not for our faults, but for righteousnessí sake. 

Here, however, a question may be raised, Does not God chastise the faithful, whenever he suffers them to be afflicted? To this I answer, that it indeed often happens, that God punishes them according to what they deserve; and this is not denied by Peter; but he reminds us what a comfort it is to have our cause connected with God. And how God does not punish sins in them who endure persecution for the sake of righteousness, and in what sense they are said to be innocent, we shall see in the next chapter. 

Being put to death in the flesh. Now this is a great thing, that we are made conformable to the Son of God, when we suffer without cause; but there is added another consolation, that the death of Christ had a blessed issue; for though he suffered through the weakness of the flesh, he yet rose again through the power of the Spirit. Then the cross of Christ was not prejudicial, nor his death, since life obtained the victory. This was said (as Paul also reminds us in 2 Corinthians 4:10) that we may know that we are to bear in our body the dying of Christ, in order that his life may be manifested in us. Flesh here means the outward man; and Spirit means the divine power, by which Christ emerged from death a conqueror. 

1 Peter 3:19-22  
19. By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;  
19. In quo et iis qui in specula (vel, in excubiis, vel, carcere) erant spiritibus, profectus prsedicavit; 
20. Which sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water.  
20. Quum inereduli fuissent olim, quum semel expectabatur Dei patientia in diebus Noe; dum apparabatur arca, in qua paucae, hoc est, octo animae servatae sunt per aquam. 
21. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us, (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:  
21. Cujus figura respondens baptismus, nos quoque salvos reddit, non abjectio sordium carnis, sed bonae conscientiae examen apud Deum, per resurrectionem Jesu Christi: 
22. Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels, and authorities, and powers, being made subject unto him.  
22. Qui est in dextera Dei profectus in coelum, subjectis sibi angelis, et potestatibus et virtutibus. 

19. By which also. Peter added this, that we might know that the vivifying power of the Spirit of which he spoke, was not only put forth as to Christ himself, but is also poured forth with regard to us, as Paul shews in Romans 5:5. He then says, that Christ did not rise only for himself, but that he made known to others the same power of his Spirit, so that it penetrated to the dead. It hence follows, that we shall not less feel it in vivifying whatever is mortal in us. 

But as the obscurity of this passage has produced, as usual, various explanations, I shall first disprove what has been brought forward by some, and secondly, we shall seek its genuine and true meaning. 

Common has been the opinion hat Christís descent into hell is here referred to; but the words mean no such thing; for there is no mention made of the soul of Christ, but only that he went by the Spirit: and these are very different things, that Christís soul went, and that Christ preached by the power of the Spirit. Then Peter expressly mentioned the Spirit, that he might take away the notion of what may be called a real presence. 

Others explain this passage of the apostles, that Christ by their ministry appeared to the dead, that is, to unbelievers. I, indeed, allow that Christ by means of his apostles went by his Spirit to those who were kept as it were in prison; but this exposition appears incorrect on several accounts: First, Peter says that Christ went to spirits, by which he means souls separated from their bodies, for living men are never called spirits; and secondly, what Peter repeats in the fourth chapter on the same subject, does not admit of such an allegory. Therefore the words must be properly understood of the dead. Thirdly, it seems very strange, that Peter, speaking of the apostles, should immediately, as though forgetting himself, go back to the time of Noah. Certainly this mode of speaking would be most unsuitable. Then this explanation cannot be right. 

Moreover, the strange notion of those who think hat unbelievers as to the coming of Christ, were after his death freed from their sin, needs no long refutation; for it is an indubitable doctrine of Scripture, that we obtain not salvation in Christ except by faith; then there is no hope left for those who continue to death unbelieving. They speak what is somewhat more probable, who say, that the redemption obtained by Christ availed the dead, who in the time of Noah were long unbelieving, but repented a short time before they were drowned by the deluge. They then understood that they suffered in the flesh the punishment due to their perverseness, and yet were saved by Christ, so that they did not perish for ever. But this interpretation cannot stand; it is indeed inconsistent with the words of the passage, for Peter ascribes salvation only to the family of Noah, and gives over to ruin all who were not within the ark. 

I therefore have no doubt but Peter speaks generally, that the manifestation of Christís grace was made to godly spirits, and that they were thus endued with the vital power of the Spirit. Hence there is no reason to fear that it will not flow to us. But it may be inquired, Why he puts in prison the souls of the godly after having quitted their bodies? It seems to me that fulakh< rather means a watchtower in which watchmen stand for the purpose of watching, or the very act of watching. for it is often so taken by Greek authors; and the meaning would be very appropriate, that godly souls were watching in hope of the salvation promised them, as though they saw it afar off. Nor is there a doubt but that the holy fathers in life, as well as after death, directed their thoughts to this object. But if the word prison be preferred, it would not be unsuitable; for, as while they lived, the Law, according to Paul, (Galatians 3:23,) was a sort of prison in which they were kept; so after death they must have felt the same desire for Christ; for the spirit of liberty had not as yet been fully given. Hence this anxiety of expectation was to them a kind of prison. 

Thus far the Apostleís words seem to agree together, and with the thread of the argument; but what follows is attended with some difficulty; for he does not mention the faithful here, but only the unbelieving; and this seems to overturn the preceding exposition. Some have for this reason been led to think that no other thing is said here, but that the unbelieving, who had formerly persecuted the godly, found the Spirit of Christ an accuser, as though Peter consoled the faithful with this argument, that Christ, even when dead, punished them. But their mistake is discovered by what we shall see in the next chapter, that the Gospel was preached to the dead, that they might live according to God in the spirit, which peculiarly applies to the faithful. And it is further certain that he repeats there what he now says. Besides, they have not considered that what Peter meant was especially this, that as the power of the Spirit of Christ shewed itself to be vivifying in him, and was known as such by the dead, so it will be towards us. 

Let us, however, see why it is that he mentions only the unbelieving; for he seems to say, that Christ in spirit appeared to those who formerly were unbelieving; but I understand him otherwise, that then the true servants of God were mixed together with the unbelieving, and were almost hidden on account of their number. I allow that the Greek construction is at variance with this meaning, for Peter, if he meant this, ought to have used the genitive case absolute. But as it was not unusual with the Apostles to put one case instead of another, and as we see that Peter here heaps together many things, and no other suitable meaning can be elicited, I have no hesitation in giving this explanation of this intricate passage; so that readers may understand that those called unbelieving are different from those to whom he said the Gospel was preached. 

After having then said that Christ was manifested to the dead, he immediately adds, When there were formerly unbelievers; by which he intimated, that it was no injury to the holy fathers that they were almost hidden through the vast number of the ungodly. For he meets, as I think, a doubt, which might have harassed the faithful of that day. They saw almost the whole world filled with unbelievers, that they enjoyed all authority, and that life was in their power. This trial might have shaken the confidence of those who were shut up, as it were, under the sentence of death. Therefore Peter reminds them, that the condition of the fathers was not different, and that though the multitude of the ungodly then covered the whole earth, their life was yet preserved in safety by the power of God. 

He then comforted the godly, lest they should be cast down and destroyed because they were so few; and he chose an example the most remarkable in antiquity, even that of the world drowned by the deluge; for then in the common ruin of mankind, the family of Noah alone escaped. And he points out the manner, and says that it was a kind of baptism. There is then in this respect also nothing unsuitable. 

The sum of what is said is this, that the world has always been full of unbelievers, but that the godly ought not to be terrified by their vast number; for though Noah was surrounded on every side by the ungodly, and had very few as his friends, he was not yet drawn aside from the right course of his faith. 

When once the long-suffering of God waited. This ought to be applied to the ungodly, whom Godís patience rendered more slothful; for when God deferred his vengeance and did not immediately execute it, the ungodly boldly disregarded all threatenings; but Noah, on the contrary, being warned by God, had the deluge for a long time before his eyes. Hence his assiduity in building the ark; for being terrified by Godís judgment, he shook off all torpidity. 

21. The like figure whereunto. I fully think that the relative ought to be read in the dative case, and that it has happened, through a mistake, that o{ is put, and not w=|. The meaning, however, is not ambiguous, that Noah, saved by water, had a sort of baptism. And this the Apostle mentions, that the likeness between him and us might appear more evident. It has already been said that the design of this clause is to shew that we ought not to be led away by wicked examples from the fear of God, and the right way of salvation, and to mix with the world. This is made evident in baptism, in which we are buried together with Christ, so that, being dead to the world, and to the flesh, we may live to God. On this account, he says that our baptism is an antitype (ajnti>tupon) to the baptism of Noah, not that Noahís baptism was the first pattern, and ours an inferior figure, as the word is taken in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the ceremonies of the law are said to be antitypes of heavenly things, (Hebrews 9:4.) Greek writers apply the same word to sacraments, so that, when they speak of the mystical bread of the holy Supper, they call it the antitype. But here there is no comparison made between the greater and the less; the Apostle only means that there is a likeness, and as they commonly say, a correspondence. Perhaps it might more properly be said to be correspondency, (ajnti>strofon,) as Aristotle makes Dialectics to be the antistroph_ of Rhetoric. But we need not labor about words, when there is an agreement about the thing itself. As Noah, then, obtained life through death, when in the ark, he was enclosed not otherwise than as it were in the grave, and when the whole world perished, he was preserved together with his small family; so at this day, the death which is set forth in baptism, is to us an entrance into life, nor can salvation be hoped for, except we be separated from the world. 

Not the putting away of the filth of the flesh. This was added, because it might be that the greatest part of men would profess the name of Christ; and so it is with us, almost all are introduced into the church by baptism. Thus, what he had said before would not be appropriate, that few at this day are saved by baptism, as God saved only eight by the ark. This objection Peter anticipates, when he testifies that he speaks not of the naked sign, but that the effect must also be connected with it, as though he had said, that what happened in the age of Noah would always be the case, that mankind would rush on to their own destruction, but that the Lord would in a wonderful way deliver His very small flock. 

We now see what this connection means; for some one might object and say, ďOur baptism is widely different from that of Noah, for it happens that most are at this day baptized.Ē To this he replies, that the external symbol is not sufficient, except baptism be received really and effectually: and the reality of it will be found only in a few. It hence follows that we ought carefully to see how men commonly act when we rely on examples, and that we ought not to fear though we may be few in number. 

But the fanatics, such as Schuencfeldius, absurdly pervert this testimony, while they seek to take away from sacraments all their power and effect. For Peter did not mean here to teach that Christís institution is vain and inefficacious, but only to exclude hypocrites from the hope of salvation, who, as far as they can, deprave and corrupt baptism. Moreover, when we speak of sacraments, two things are to be considered, the sign and the thing itself. In baptism the sign is water, but the thing is the washing of the soul by the blood of Christ and the mortifying of the flesh. The institution of Christ includes these two things. Now that the sign appears often inefficacious and fruitless, this happens through the abuse of men, which does not take away the nature of the sacrament. Let us then learn not to tear away the thing signified from the sign. We must at the same time beware of another evil, such as prevails among the Papists; for as they distinguish not as they ought between the thing and the sign, they stop at the outward element, and on that fix their hope of salvation. Therefore the sight of the water takes away their thoughts from the blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit. They do not regard Christ as the only author of all the blessings therein offered to us; they transfer the glory of his death to the water, they tie the secret power of the Spirit to the visible sign. 

What then ought we to do? Not to separate what has been joined together by the Lord. We ought to acknowledge in baptism a spiritual washing, we ought to embrace therein the testimony of the remission of sin and the pledge of our renovation, and yet so as to leave to Christ his own honor, and also to the Holy Spirit; so that no part of our salvation should be transferred to the sign. Doubtless when Peter, having mentioned baptism, immediately made this exception, that it is not the putting off of the filth of the flesh, he sufficiently shewed that baptism to some is only the outward act, and that the outward sign of itself avails nothing. 

But the answer of a good conscience. The word question, or questioning, is to be taken here for ďanswer,Ē or testimony. Now Peter briefly defines the efficacy and use of baptism, when he calls attention to conscience, and expressly requires that confidence which can sustain the sight of God and can stand before his tribunal. For in these words he teaches us that baptism in its main part is spiritual, and then that it includes the remission of sins and renovation of the old man; for how can there be a good and pure conscience until our old man is reformed, and we be renewed in the righteousness of God? and how can we answer before God, unless we rely on and are sustained by a gratuitous pardon of our sins? In short, Peter intended to set forth the effect of baptism, that no one might glory in a naked and dead sign, as hypocrites are wont to do. 

But we must notice what follows, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By these words he teaches us that we are not to cleave to the element of water, and that what is thereby typified flows from Christ alone, and is to be sought from him. Moreover, by referring to the resurrection, he has regard to the doctrine which he had taught before, that Christ was vivified by the Spirit; for the resurrection was victory over death and the completion of our salvation. We hence learn that the death of Christ is not excluded, but is included in his resurrection. We then cannot otherwise derive benefit from baptism, than by having all our thoughts fixed on the death and the resurrection of Christ. 

22. Who is on the right hand of God. He recommends to us the ascension of Christ unto heaven, lest our eyes should seek him in the world; and this belongs especially to faith. He commends to our notice his session on the Fatherís right hand, lest we should doubt his power to save us. And what his sitting at the right hand of the Father means, we have elsewhere explained, that is, that Christ exercises supreme power everywhere as Godís representative. And an explanation of this is what follows, angels being made subject to him; and he adds powers and authorities only for the sake of amplification, for angels are usually designated by such words. It was then Peterís object to set forth by these high titles the sovereignty of Christ.