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JRP's Exegetical Compilation: 1 Peter 3:18-4:18

Part of my Exegetical Compilation series. Members are welcome to add links and further discussion below!

1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:5-6: the famous descent into hades by Christ to preach the gospel to those imprisoned for stubbornness there since the flood (apparently including rebel angels which had incarnated and died in the flood), so that although judged in their flesh as men they may still live in the spirit in accord with the will of God. (Part of Peter’s point is an ‘if this then that’ comparison: if Christ goes so far to preach the gospel to such super-traitors in hope that they may be saved from their sins, we should be expecting our current persecutors to be judged by Christ as well in both ways!)

Peter has been encouraging his Christian readers to live righteously even if they suffer for it, including the famous verse about being always ready to give a defense {apologian} to every one requesting from us an account about the hope in us with meekness and fear. The meekness and fear apparently apply to our attitude in defending the account of our hope, and is by context intended to imply good behavior on our part such that those who talk as though we are evildoers will be ashamed of having done so. For it is better (3:17), if God so wills it, for us to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.

Thus the context leads into verse 18 where Christ is presented as the example we should follow, Who also suffered for doing good rather than for doing evil:

Verse 18a: “Since [logically] Christ also previously actively suffered concerning sins…”

Christ also suffered thanks to sinners despite being innocent, although He didn’t just accidentally or inadvertently suffer against His will: He intentionally accepted the suffering. This is a bit of a paradox, since suffering necessarily involves reacting to something stimulating the reaction. But Christ knew it was going to happen, and acted in cooperation with what happened in various ways. Why?

Verse 18b: “…the Fair One [or the Just One] authoritatively for the sake of unfair ones [or unjust ones]…”

Christ cooperated with the suffering inflicted upon Him by unjust people, not only “over” them (in authoritative supremacy), but for their sake. By commending Christ to us as our example for patiently suffering unfair treatment from sinners, we’re logically expected to do so with the same intention in mind as Christ: for the sake of the unjust ones.

But there is to be no mere us-the-righteous vs. them-the-sinners! For we ourselves were also sinners (as Peter certainly affirms in context, including later in related statements) for whom Christ died authoritatively and intentionally. So Peter continues,

Verse 18c: “[Christ authoritatively died for the sake of unjust ones]… so that He (Christ) may be leading you/us (emphatically) to the God…”

We ought to be actively cooperating with unfair suffering for the same reason, so that those who unfairly cause us to suffer will be led to God, just as we were. We aren’t cooperating with Christ if we divorce such suffering (even though it is unfairly inflicted) from that intention and goal. This fits very well with the contexts preceding verse 18, too.

Verse 18d: “…He (Christ) being certainly caused to die in flesh (or to the flesh), yet being caused to live in spirit (or to the spirit)…”

A typical death and resurrection motif/statement, but as verse 19 will indicate being “caused to live in spirit” this time means something more like “yet was still alive in spirit”.

Verse 19 (which continues the previous sentence from verse 18): “…in which, being gone, He (Christ) also proclaims (or heralds or announces to the spirits in jail…”

“In which” connects directly by grammar to “spirit”, so in spirit not in flesh Christ is making a proclamation or an announcement of something to someone. And the proclamation or herald is made in parallel with some other proclamation by Christ (He “also” proclaims). And this proclamation occurs subsequent or consequent to Christ being gone from somewhere.

So Peter isn’t referring to something the pre-incarnate Christ did in the past, but to something Christ did after leaving somewhere relative to Peter: “being gone” implies being gone from ‘here’. And it’s something Christ did while alive in the spirit but not alive in the flesh. So it’s something Christ did after death but before the resurrection (which Peter affirms elsewhere).

To whom? To spirits in {phulak(i)ê}, in jail or in a place watched by guards.

This term is only used two ways anywhere else in the NT, where although relatively uncommon it appears a dozen times or so. It either means a time of night during which a guard stands watch, or it means a place of imprisonment or captivity guarded by someone technically hostile or in power over the one being restrained. (It refers to a birdcage once in Rev 18:2, but even then the imagery is applied as analogy for rebel or evil or despised things: “[Babylon the great, now fallen, has become] the dwelling place of demons and jail of every unclean spirit and cage of every unclean and hateful bird!”)

Any time the term doesn’t mean a watch of the night (or shepherds maintaining a protective guard over sheep at night in the Nativity), it always without fail means punitive imprisonment everywhere else in the NT, whether the imprisonment is regarded as fair or unfair.

So unless context here in 1 Peter indicates otherwise (which it does not), then the term should be interpreted similarly here: Jesus has gone in spirit to a jail of spirits to make a proclamation for some reason.

The next question would be what kind of spirits? Are they spirits which were unfairly imprisoned (perhaps like Christians or like Christ?–the term in the NT often refers to Christians, Christ or John the Baptist.) Or spirits which were justly imprisoned?

Verse 20a: “[Christ proclaims or announces something to spirits in jail]… to ones being stubborn once upon a time, a time when He (God or Christ, or both if Christ is God of course) patiently waited, the longsuffering of God…”

So the spirits in jail were ones that had been stubborn to God’s long-suffering at some time in the past. “Longsuffering” is a term in both the NT and the OT which always(?!) everywhere else refers to God’s intention to save sinners from sin and His unwillingness to punish them if possible. (A Calvinist might disagree with that term usage, but an Arminian would not; and even Calvs in my acquaintance realize the term almost always with perhaps only a couple of exceptions refers positively to God’s intention to save sinners! Indeed in one debate my Calvinist opponent admitted the term was used everywhere else except the portion under debate–not 1 Peter–to reflect God’s intention and attitude for salvation! And he was wary as a result about having to claim it meant nothing to do with salvation where we were discussing!)

Another grammatic point is that Peter uses the temporal comparison term {hote} to describe the stubborn rebelliousness of the spirits in prison. Every other occurrence of this term in the NT, including in the Petrine epistles, either clearly involves a known or future-expected difference in condition, or (in a few instances) can plausibly be interpreted that way (or else in a few other instances is paired with a negative modifier to indicate the situation hasn’t changed or isn’t expected to). In fact, whenever the term is ever used in reference to sinners in the past by any NT author, including Peter previously in 1 Peter 2, everywhere else the usage always contrasts former rebellion with current penitent obedience and salvation. If Peter uses the term here to talk about sinners who haven’t and aren’t going to repent (and without the negative modifier which would normally indicate a continued situation), it would be the one time anyone (including Peter himself) overtly breaks the pattern of usage in the New Testament.

At this point it really doesn’t matter in principle how long ago that was; what matters is what Christ’s intention was to proclaim whatever He did. Which hasn’t been directly mentioned yet, although Peter has tacitly expressed it by context earlier (more on that soon). But Peter goes on to explain who these spirits were:

Verse 20b: “[the time when the spirits were stubborn and God was longsuffering patiently with them]… in Noah-days, (while) the ark being constructed…”

The grammar is a bit glitchy here by English (and maybe Greek) standards, but Peter means the spirits were being stubborn back in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

So we’re talking narratively about the first rebel humans, or about incarnated rebel spirits, or both. Jewish typology generally regards the Flood (and so any scary large body of water) as being the prison of rebel demons, and Peter elsewhere certainly holds to the concept of human sinners being put in the prison of rebel angels. These could be presented as an example of how far Jesus goes to proclaim something to rebel spirits in jail: not just recent ones, but as far back as human history goes. And maybe including rebel angels.

Verse 20c: “…in which (ark) few – this is eight souls – were rescued-through, through water…”

At the time the ark saved only eight persons–and they were hardly sinless! Noah’s family were, by the double way of indicating “through”, catapulted to safety through the violent water that killed the other people (humans and incarnated rebel angels alike).

Note that it doesn’t matter overmuch how historical any of that was; the principle is what counts, and Peter is about to use it as a typological illustration anyway. But it’s a very unexpected typological illustration: Peter starts talking about how the water, not the ark but the water that killed the impenitent sinners, represents the same baptism by which we are saved into Christ!

And it’s definitely the water: the “to which” Peter says baptism is an “antitype” is a singular neuter direct article, so it ought to be referring back to another neuter singular noun or pronoun (or to another neuter singular direct article standing as a pronoun the way this one does. In Greek “the” often means “this” or “that” or “that which” or “the one” or “those” depending on its grammatic form.) The immediately preceding noun, “water”, is a singular neuter (even though it’s in genitive instead of dative form, but that makes no difference here as the reason for referring to it changes correspondingly). But “ark” (along with its connected verb, not incidentally) is singular female, not singular neuter! Nor is there another singular neutral topic nearby, before or afterward, to which “to which” could refer.

It’s possible that this is a grammatic error on Peter’s part; but even if “the ark” was being referred to, it could only stand for an object (a burial tomb?) being baptized by water. The water is still the baptizing subject, and the water is also the means by which (in the story) God kills the rebel humans and angels–to at least one set of whom Christ is now proclaiming something to them in their jail.

But proclaiming what?

Peter doesn’t specifically outright say, which has led to understandable confusion and differences of interpretation. But the local contexts before and after this verse all talk about one thing: salvation of sinners by God. That’s how Peter got into this statement in the first place, encouraging Christians to be kind and unresentful to pagans unjustly making Christians suffer despite being innocent of crimes, so that they can be led to God the way Christ led us to God suffering for us when we were unjust. The comparison is a “greater includes the lesser” type: if Christ voluntarily and even authoritatively suffers to death on a cross to save those unjustly condemning Him, among whom we must include ourselves, we ought to be willing to put up with any amount of social injustice against us, too, for the sake of the people who currently are what we used to be. In fact we can use what happens to us unjustly as an opportunity to give an answer in good conscience for the reason of our hope to those who are currently unjust so that they may be ashamed they have accused us of being doers of evil.

That was how Paul got into discussing Christ going in spirit after being put unjustly to death in the flesh, to spirits in jail who were justly slain and put there by God for being unjust but whom God patiently wanted to save from their sins.

And now, having talked about that, Peter says in 3:21 that the water that killed those sinners is a figure for the water that baptizes us and saves us. The most important way to think of that water, whether the water of the Flood or of our baptism, is not to focus primarily on the putting away of the filth of the flesh (although in somewhat related ways the water did that to the ancient human and angelic rebels just as it does for us), but rather we should present that water–the water of the Flood being a type of the water of our baptism–as somehow being part of “the answer of a good conscience toward God”. This phrase echoes what Peter said back in verses 15 and 16: how we answer those who unjustly accuse us of evil, in explaining the reason of the hope in us, involves us having humility and fear and a good conscience. But this answer of a good conscience must have something to do with connecting the water that slew and imprisoned justly punished rebel humans and angels, to the water that saves us in baptism. It also has to be connected to our salvation being accomplished through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (verse 21), which is itself connected (by application of a typical reference) to Jesus dying in the flesh yet being alive in the spirit.

In all this surrounding context, the only concept that makes thematic and narrative sense would be for Jesus to be preaching the gospel to the dead ones as spirits in jail, with an intention that even though they were slain justly in the flesh they may live to God eventually in the spirit: basically so that sooner or later they will be resurrected with Christ into the “eonian life” that Christ always had and which He shares with those who loyally follow Him.

This would of course require that any rebel angels and authorities and powers who aren’t yet loyal to Him shall be someday made subject to Him–including the ones who had incarnated themselves in human prehistory and were slain by God as rebels along with ancient human rebels. But then Peter appends the brief hymn-kerygma about Christ the resurrected One “Who is in the right-hand of the God, being gone into heaven, of Whom angels and authorities and powers are being subjected to Him!” (verse 3:22)

If Christ suffers over us in the flesh for the sake of our salvation, we should take up arms in the same mind and with the same intention as Christ toward the unjust. (4:1a) Peter goes on to talk about how we in Christ already suffer and have suffered in the flesh to cease from sin, putting away our former pagan misbehaviors that we previously indulged in. But Peter was also just recently talking about another group of unjust people who have suffered in the flesh for their unjust behaviors and attitudes. The same goal, from God’s perspective, must apply. Does that mean impenitence will be passed by? No, it wasn’t passed by for those dead ones, and won’t be passed by for currently impenitent people still alive in the flesh; and Christ is entirely ready to judge both the living ones and the dead ones! And so we come to 4:6:

Verse 4:6: “For into this, also for dead ones, a gospel is brought…”

“The dead ones” is in dative form, so it probably means “regarding dead ones” or “for dead ones” not “to dead ones” in a vector action sense. But {eis touto} is an accusative “in” so it does mean “into this” in a vector action sense. (The initial “for” in English is a post-positive {gar}, the placement of which settles some other grammatic issues here, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

But there are some much stranger grammatic issues. Why is “evangelized” a singular third-person verb? Like “he is” or “she is” or “it is” evangelized? Grammatically it couldn’t refer to “the dead ones”: they’re plural. Yet it’s also obvious that the evangel applies to “the dead ones” somehow (“that they may be being etc.”, which we’ll get to soon). So what is being evangelized?!

The root word for this term involves a gospel (a good message) being announced to someone. So the singular form of the verb is commonly regarded as applying to the gospel itself, not to whoever is being evangelized. However, there are examples such as Matt 11:5 which show that the term shifts into the plural when plural objects (“poor-ones” in this example) are the receivers of the gospel. (When the verb is in a middle voice the tense matches who is bringing the gospel.)

So since this verb is in passive singular, who or what is having the gospel brought to it/him/her? (The third person singular of this verb can work with any gender or neuter.)

“This” from “into this” is the nearest single noun or pronoun; but then that raises a new puzzle: what is “this” referring to? It’s a singular neutral pronoun; but there aren’t any single neutral nouns or pronouns nearby!

For this reason, translators have tended to supply a reasonable guess as to what “for in(to) this” means: “for this reason”! That does make contextual sense: since everyone shall give an account to Christ who is ready to judge the living and the dead, for this reason the gospel is announced or preached to the dead ones. But this interpretation runs into the grammatic problem that the verb ought to be plural if “the dead ones” are the object of the gospel.

And yet, the gospel is being brought for the salvation of the dead ones:

4:6b: “…so that they may be being judged, certainly according to (or down from) persons in flesh, yet may be living according to (or down from) God in spirit.”

“They” can only mean “the dead ones” here. And the gospel is being brought to something so that these dead ones may not only be judged in their flesh as a result of something men have done, but also so that the dead ones may be living in spirit as a result of something God has done.

And these dead ones are to be contrasted somehow with “living” ones" whom Christ is also ready to judge. Yet they are also to be contrasted somehow in the sense that the gospel is brought also to these dead ones not only to the living ones. We can be 100% sure the general conjunction {kai} not only means “also” here but that the also applies to “the dead ones” not to “In this”: because the {gar}, which in grammatic logic starts the whole clause (as our English “For” starts the clause), but which always runs after the initial word or phrase of the sentence or clause, comes after {eis touto}, but not after {kai}. If the {kai} was meant to apply grammatically to {eis touto} (as some translations put it “For this reason also” or “Also for this reason”), it would be included in that phrase somewhere, at the beginning or the end (so as not to split the prepositional phrase {eis touto}). In other words, the opening phrase would have read {kai eis touto gar} or {eis touto kai gar}, not what it does read {eis touto gar kai}.

If “living ones” from verse 5 means people already “living according to God in spirit”, then the gospel has already been brought to them and they have accepted it (even if Christ is still judging them according to their deeds). So the gospel is brought even to those dead ones whose judgment shall certainly come or has come in the flesh, not for any hopeless purpose but so the dead ones may also be living.

Yet while a reference to judging the living and the dead may involve God (and/or Christ, or God as Christ) judging the deeds of the saved and the unsaved, typically the phrase refers to the judgment of those who are living on earth at the coming of YHWH and also those who have died and so are resurrected to judgment: OT and NT prophetic reports of this coming judgment indicate that those being alive at the time of judgment are not all in God’s good favor but may well be judged and punished as rebels!

Peter’s phraseology is very similar to that of Paul’s in 1 Cor 5:3-5, where Paul judges the Stepmom-Sleeping Guy (as I like to call him) to whole-ruination of the flesh, handing him over to Satan thereby, so that the SSG’s spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus to come.

When this is combined with an argument from back in 1 Peter 3, on its own exegetical merits, that Christ went in spirit to the jail of spirits rightly slain in flesh and imprisoned for their rebellions, to proclaim something to them with a bearing on their salvation, the probability rises exponentially to a virtual certainty that Peter is talking about the gospel being preached to dead ones in spirit jail here, too. A conclusion strengthened by Peter immediately going on to declare:

4:7a, “Now the completion of all-things has come near.”

The spirits who are still rebelling are not completed yet; they are not yet truly submitted to the Son and in the Son to the Father. But Peter, as quote above 3:22, definitely expects this to happen by the power and authority of Christ.

(Notably, the term for “draw near”, literally “is at hand” (or more literally in choking or grasping range!), is one of the base-roots for eu-angelion! It is also the word often applied to “the kingdom of God” (or in GosMatt to “the kingdom of the heavens” where he is using an Aramaic euphamism for God).)

But none of this solves the riddle yet of what (singularly) is being evangelized in verse 4:6!–nor why it would be put as though the gospel is being proclaimed in or into whatever-this-is.

Looking back through the preceding context, the first singular neuter noun or pronoun is {h(i)ô} back at the beginning of verse 4:4. In one way that doesn’t help much, because that’s simply part of another introductory prepositional phrase, {en h(i)ô} “in which”! But that does suggest a connecting chain of ideas. If we can figure out what “in which” applies to, that would be strong evidence of the same thing also applying to “in(to) this” in verse 6.

4:4 has sometimes been translated “Because of this” or “for this reason” or “this is why”. That translation works well enough: it would refer back to the fact that Peter’s audience (whether Jew or Gentile) used to go do the wanton things the other Gentiles do, thus the pagans now think it strange that the Christians don’t run with them into the same puddles of excess anymore. But such a translation wouldn’t help solve the mystery.

Another older way of translating the term has been something like “wherein” (as the KJV puts it). That’s a little more literal, and so a little more particular, but generally the interpretation of the translation (so to speak) amounts to the same thing as before.

But for testing what the pronoun there (or a direct article “the” being used as a pronoun rather) might be specifically referring to, we may look back farther again. It doesn’t refer to any or all of that colorful list of lusty sins immediately prior, because none of those terms are neuter singular, and the list is itself never described by a term. Unless that term would be “the will of the nations” perhaps, but that seems more of a general thing that leads to such a list as a result.

Yet behold!–“the will” {to thelêma} happens to be singular neuter! And in fact, the only other singular neuter noun preceding this nearby refers to “the will of the God”!

Now, the will of the God hardly needs evangelization. But the will of the nations sure does!

It also fits the intermediate reference to a singular neuter something, too: it is because of the corrupted will of the pagans/nations/Gentiles that such people not only think it strange that Christians (and righteous Jews, one may suppose) don’t run into the same puddles as before, but that such people would also come up with slanders to explain such new behavior rather than being impressed by it!

So just as it is because of the corrupted will of fallen mankind that some such people will insist on inventing infamous falsehoods about those who are seeking to willingly cooperate with the will of God, the corrupted will is what is being evangelized so that even dead people who are certainly to be judged in the flesh (thanks in significant part to results of evil deeds passed down by other persons) may also come to live in the spirit despite having been already judged.

As I had previously argued, if 4:6 is properly translated “for this reason”, this would be no evidence against 4:6 referring to dead people (even those slain in judgment for their cries) as well as living people being evangelized with serious hope of their salvation. But even if 4:6 is properly interpreted to refer instead to the corrupted will being evangelized, this does not weigh against post-mortem evangelization either. If anything it might weigh at least a little more strongly in favor of it, since when the singular corrupted will (“the will of the nations”) is evangelized for the salvation of plural persons (“also regarding the dead ones”), this would imply total evangelization of all people, those who are alive and those already dead and (in regard to the flesh) already judged–even if, logically and properly, there is more judgment for them on the way so long as they continue in impenitence.

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1 Peter 4:17-18: An argument against my analysis of the relevant 1 Peter texts commonly appealed to from chapters 3 and 4, could be attempted from more extended contexts of 1 Peter (maybe including 2 Peter and/or Jude), or even from more extended contexts in the NT or even the OT; but there would have to be a principle argument provided to explain why one set of testimony should be interpreted in light of the apparently contrasting set instead of vice versa! Although in my experience I have found that several such portions, on their own merits without reference to these verses, do not testify to hopeless punishment (or any inadvertently hopeless fate either).

But since not long afterward Peter reminds his readers (4:17-18) that it is the season of the One (i.e. God) to begin the judgment from the house of God, with indications that have been interpreted as hopeless for some people, I will append this sub-part as a consideration of them.

“And if foremost (chiefly emphatically first) from us, what (is) the completion of the ones being stubborn as to the good news of God? Yet/and/but if the just one hardly is being saved (literally ‘is being saved toil-ly’), where shall the irreverent one and sinner be appearing?”

Obviously these statements are a how-much-more comparison of some kind. Just as obviously, the comparison is one of difficulty and even more difficulty. And just as obviously, the comparison is that even just or fair ones in the house of God are being saved with difficulty (which the adverb {molia} has to mean), so the unjust and ungodly are going to have an even more difficult time!

So it isn’t unreasonable to interpret these verses, in themselves and on the face of it, as indicating that the end-result of at least some people will be hopeless punishment–and even, due to the stress about the difficulty of saving even the few fair people, that a large majority will be too difficult for God to save from their sins (or perhaps that God won’t even try, although not necessarily because it’s too difficult).

A closer consideration however reveals peculiarities.

First, the gist of Peter’s statement indicates that even those people who are already morally good are saved with difficulty. The rhetorical point of including them for comparing those who are morally bad would be lost otherwise. But Peter doesn’t think that God only saves good people. In fact, in other undisputed contexts of the Petrine epistles (including undisputed portions of the disputed verses previously discussed), Peter emphatically affirms that God goes out of His way to save people who are not yet good!

Second, the “just one” is paralleled with “us” who are of “the house of God”. If by “us” Peter means people who are already Christians in the house of God, that would mean God has a hard time saving even Christians He has already saved. A hardshell Arminian might agree with that, the idea being that even a saved Christian may lose salvation from sin to any degree (and be permanently lost); but the logic here would amount to this: that God has a hard time saving even Christians He has already saved, much moreso saving people He has not already saved! It must at least not be impossible despite the harder hardship for God to save those whom He has not already saved, or no one would ever be saved at all!

On the other hand, a Calvinist could interpret “us” and “the just one” as referring to people whom God has originally committed Himself to saving. But then the logic of the passage is broken again: aside from Calvs generally insisting that it is easy for God’s omnipotent sovereignty to save whomever He intends to save (the point of tension being a question of when He does so and the extension of the process which He decides upon for His own sovereign purposes), Peter is talking about judgment beginning with and from the house of God. But in Calv soteriology no one begins in the house of God, nor begins by obeying the Gospel–or they wouldn’t need saving in the first place! And the elect are not themselves inherently righteous originally; in fact, Calvinists tend to regard any apparent righteousness before being saved as only a Satanic counterfeit.

This leads to the third point: the logic suggests that by “us” and “the house of God” and “the just one”, Peter is talking about religiously Temple-observant Jews who are not yet loyal to Jesus.

This would fit well with a number of other observations (as we’ll soon see); the main problem (as the fourth point) is that it would be an unexpected topical jump! The preceding and subsequent contexts for a long way in either direction are about Christians (“us” and “you”) being exhorted to keep on being righteous even in the various difficulties imposed by suffering. Why would Peter be jumping now to talking about how judgment is starting with Temple Jews and going on to irreverent pagans? Nor can Peter be simply holding such Jews up (whom he would have to be including himself and his readers among as “us”) as an example, contrasted to his audience, of coming hopeless condemnation from God (if these will be hopelessly condemned how much moreso those others): Peter talks about this group being saved (even if that’s difficult), and about this group contrasting with those who do not obey the gospel of God.

Still, the fifth point would be that interpreting “the just one” and “us” who are in “the house of God” as Temple-observant Jews does fit the previous context of talking about evil behavior as applying primarily or at least emblematically to “the nations”. Peter isn’t talking to his congregation about rebel Jews being emblematic of unjust ones; yet that happens, too, many places in the NT and also in the OT for that matter! There is even a famous incident in which Peter was directly involved, where a clearly just and fair man, a Jew specifically of the house of God, had trouble entering the kingdom of God.

And this brings us to the seventh and perhaps most important point. I find it interesting that the New American Standard Version translators treat Peter as quoting a scripture from somewhere else, not merely alluding to one–the text of 4:18 is printed in all caps except for the introductory conjunction {kai}. But the two verses they suggest, Proverbs 11:31 and Luke 23:31, clearly aren’t the source of the quotation at all!

There is however an anecdote in the Synoptic Gospels, in material traditionally understood to derive from agreed apostolic preaching (triple Synoptic sourcing, reflecting material the apostles agreed on as being how they would bring the gospel to the world), in which the apostles (probably including Peter but he was at least present to see their amazement) were stunned that a rich young synagogue chief was having difficulty, despite his clear actions indicating he was a fair man who truly cared about justice, entering the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:17-31; Matt 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30)

When this man, whom Jesus was fond of (Mark 10:21) went away grieving, for he was one with much property and could not bring himself to sell it and give it to the poor (although this may be misinterpreting afterward by the disciples, since the synagogue chief would have likely been troubled even more by Jesus effectively putting loyalty to Himself as keeping the first table of the commandments to love God alone and no one else!), Jesus looked around to them:

If it is hard for even those with all the advantages (whether wealthy, healthy synagogue chiefs or Jewish Christians) to enter into the kingdom of God–and Jesus even warned Peter and the other apostles, not long prior to this incident, that they themselves would not by any means be entering into the kingdom unless they changed their prideful attitudes!–the natural reply is that it must be even harder for those who do not have such advantages.

And again, notice how the imagery chosen by Jesus, being nauseous from too much food, fits ironically with Peter’s list of sins from “the will of the pagans” back a few verses earlier in chapter 4!

Readers checking the Gospel references for context may also notice that each Synoptic account features Peter specifically answering Jesus in prideful misunderstanding, that they the apostles have (unlike that rich chief) left everything to follow Jesus. But Jesus answers (Mark 10:30) that while those who do so shall receive back a hundred times now (and eonian life in the age to come), they shall also receive persecutions. Which has been a main theme of Peter’s epistle since back in chapter 3!

Many years later while writing this epistle, Peter (who certainly failed much harder than this, before and afterward!) has enough sense to identify himself and his congregation, “us”, as being among those who can be saved only with difficulty; but if he is only being humble about that in the epistle, why bring up the comparison with pagan behavior?

I suggest that the comparison with pagan behavior makes the most sense in the extended context of Peter’s history (per the Synoptic Gospel accounts), and per the preceding local context of 1 Peter (argued extensively for above, on its own merits), if it is a rabbinic form of allusion to the incident with the rich young synagogue ruler: Peter expects his audience to know the answer to the implied question of “if it is so difficult for people with all the advantages, then how could those other people ever be saved?”

“With mankind it is impossible, but with God all things are possible!”

(Whereas, by contrast, Christianity has traditionally answered the question instead with, “With God it is also impossible!” or else “It is impossible for mankind because God Himself never intended to do so in the first place!”)

Back to the Exegetical Compilation main thread.

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Members are welcome to add links below to other discussions of this material on and off-site, or to offer alternative interpretations pro or con.

Mel’s recent thread on 1 Peter 4:18 may pick up some comments, too.

Hi Melch
I found Jason’s thoughts amazing and informative.
I would like to come at this from an entirely different perspective. My thoughts concern the word ‘saved’ and its possible meanings. I am convinced that, in our modern western culture, we have an entirely different meaning (or baggage) placed on that word which can completely distort the message of the text. You may yourself have come across the idea of ‘three-fold salvation’ in which the NT scriptures refer to salvation of the body quite separately to that of the soul (mind) and again to that of the spirit (heart). If the tenses of the verbs are examined, it seems that, for the NT disciples, the past tense is used for salvation of the spirit (being ‘born again’ is how some would refer to this), the present tense is used for the mind (a continuing process) and the future tense is used for the body (we await the redemption of the body). Obviously this aligns with justification, sanctification and glorification.
So let’s look at this particular section of scripture.
The context of chapter 4 and 5 is the present-day earthly suffering of the church. It is my contention that if we rid ourselves of our modern western view of that word ‘saved’ (which, to our mind must always refer to the here-after and heaven and hell) and examine what it refers to in the context of Peter’s epistle and the on-going suffering to which Peter was alluding in these verses, then it seems to me that he is talking about ‘shalom’ or ‘well-being’ or ‘peace of mind’ or ‘the peace which passes all understanding’ which can be ours in the midst of our present-day turmoils.
In 1 Peter 4v18 (and in the light of the preceding verses) it seems to me that Peter is contrasting the ‘shalom’ that God can give to those who are suffering through no fault of their own (ie for the cause of Christ) with the difficulty of finding ‘shalom’ for those who have brought the suffering on themselves through their own mis-deeds.
When I re-read ch4 and ch5 with this in mind, it all seems to make much more sense and is something that I can relate to personally. I can put myself in both categories in that there are times when my suffering is undeserved and other times when my suffering is deserved. I think I can more easily receive God’s sweet sleep of the ‘saved and the blessed’ when my suffering is for a good cause.
For me, the context and meaning is all about the here-and-now, and nothing to do with the here-after.

On e-sword, Matthew Henry says this:

(my bold)

I hope this may be of some further help.

[PS Jason, Im not very good with links so I’ll copy but please amend as fitting]