I Peter 3:18-22
This is a notoriously difficult passage, with several possible interpretations. I am assuming that it is all part of Peter’s train of thought on suffering, although he does give us some fairly meaty theology in the process!
Substitutionary atonement (verse 18)
The ultimate example of undeserved suffering is the death of Jesus. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” In one single act of atonement, He dealt with all sin, for all time (Hebrews 9:27,28). He died in our place, as our substitute – the innocent One taking the punishment due to all the guilty. Without Him, we were alienated from God by our sins; but Christ died to bring us home.
Suffering and victory (verses 18-20)
Jesus was put to death at the hands of men; but by the power of God He was resurrected to a new life – a spiritual life (I Corinthians 15:44-49). Through His sufferings, He won a great and final victory not only over sin, but also over all those spiritual forces that were opposed to God from the beginning (Colossians 2:15). This spiritual war goes right back to the time of Noah (Genesis 6:1,2). The ‘imprisoned spirits’ (Jude 6) represent the spiritual ‘powers’ that have held sway over the human race since the dawn of history, and who still lie behind the human authorities that persecute God’s people. But they now know themselves to be ultimately power-less, because of what Jesus has accomplished (verse 19). His triumph and authority are absolute; He is now Lord of all (verse 22).
Baptism and judgement (verses 20-22)
The mention of Noah causes Peter to reflect upon God’s judgement. Just as the Flood was delayed until the ark was built, so God’s judgement on sin and sinners was delayed until it could fall upon Jesus Christ (II Peter 3:9). But in the end, only a tiny minority – Noah and his family – entered the ark. They passed through the waters of destruction safely because they trusted God and obeyed His instructions. This is now acted out by every believer, in baptism. We are no longer under a death sentence because we have already ‘died’ with Christ. And just as Noah and his family emerged from the ark into what was literally a new world, so we have been raised to life with Christ. Having joined ourselves to Him in our baptism, we are now beside Him, sharing in His victory and therefore secure for ever.