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1 Peter 3:18-22

This week’s scriptures are more thematically intertwined than we sometimes see in the lectionary. Water, floods, baptism, theophany. As we are settling into our journey through the season of Lent, these themes offer us some opportunities for contemplation.

First, let’s consider the theme of water. While we cross oceans without a thought today, in biblical times, passage through any body of water could be dangerous. Water was an agent of chaos, unpredictable and deadly. Even today, while we may feel that we have “conquered” water, its unpredictability still strikes unexpectedly and violently.

Yet this uncontrollable, unpredictable force of nature became an integral part of our salvation, a “means of grace” through the practice of baptism. 1 Peter 3 highlights the connection between the story of Noah and the ark where “eight persons were saved through water” (Isn’t it interesting that the narrative centers on the eight who were saved rather than everyone else who was destroyed?) and baptism, “which this prefigured.”

One of the themes of Lent is the reminder that we are but dust and ashes. We cannot save ourselves. The correlation between water, baptism, and salvation reminds us that salvation is not something we can control. Salvation is not a mechanism where we turn the lever and resurrection comes out; salvation is completely out of our control, something that happens to us, something that we can only surrender to.

The idea of surrendering to an unpredictable, uncontrollable force runs counter to our post-Enlightenment culture. We like to identify cause and effect, input and output. We like a world that makes sense. Lent reminds us that salvation does not make sense! It does not make sense that sinful humanity would ever be in right relationship with holy God. And yet, mysteriously, miraculously, God extends salvation to us through Jesus Christ. All we can say in the face of this completely uncontrollable, unpredictable gift of grace is, “Thank you.”

Another theme in today’s scriptures is theophany. We see significant moments of interaction between God and humanity—God’s covenant with Noah, the presence of Father, Son, and Spirit at Jesus’ baptism, and…Jesus preaching to the “spirits in prison?” Has anyone else ever stopped short at verse 19?

According to David Bartlett in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, the “spirits” seem more likely to be “supernatural spirits and not the souls of dead persons.”[1] People living in the time of Peter’s letter had much to fear. The world was alive with unexplainable supernatural forces. In the verses prior to the lectionary selection, Peter addressed Christians specifically, writing, “Do not fear what they fear” (3:14). Jesus’ proclamation to the imprisoned spirits was a powerful statement of his victory over sin and death. Everything that Christians might fear is now under the authority of Jesus.

In Lent, though we may come before God humbly, we still come. We are but dust and ashes and yet we boldly enter the presence of the Almighty God. These stories of interaction remind us that God shows up. God is present in our world. God is working in our world. All the things that may seem too big and too scary are under the authority of Jesus who even addressed spirits that have been imprisoned since the time of Noah. Peter’s words ring out powerfully today: “Do not fear what they fear.” God is with us.

This section ends with Jesus’ authority stated explicitly: Jesus Christ “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” Whether it’s mysterious spirits or powers of evil at work in our world, all is subject to Jesus Christ.

One final theme is baptism. Historically, Easter was a day for the baptism of new believers into the life of the church. Lent was a season of preparation. These scriptures offer an opportunity to remind believers of their baptism and also to highlight the importance of baptism for new believers. One aspect of baptism that may be challenging in our world today is the necessity of dependence on someone else. Maybe you have heard the phrase “a personal relationship with Jesus.” Well, there is no “personal baptism.” No one can baptize themselves. Even Jesus was baptized by John. Baptism is a humbling experience. When we are baptized, we are dependent on someone else to lift us back up out of the water. Just as we cannot control our salvation, we also cannot control our baptism. It’s done to us.

The passage in 1 Peter 3 is challenging and humbling, but it is also full of hope. Even during the season of Lent, as we focus on our own mortality, we still celebrate the resurrection every Sunday. That juxtaposition is present in this passage. We are swept up in the forces of nature and the forces of the world around us, and yet, we have received the gift of salvation from the one who has conquered sin and death and now sits at the right hand of God with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

As we contemplate 1 Peter 3, may we be humbled by our smallness in comparison to the world around us and cheered by the power of Jesus in comparison to this same world.


[1] David Bartlett, “The First Letter of Peter: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreter’s Bible,