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COMMENTARY ON 1 PETER Chapter 3

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Wives Are To Submit In Obedience To Their Husbands Who Are To Respond With Compassion And Care Because They Are Joint-Heirs Of The Grace Of Life (3.1-7).

Peter’s view of the new people of God (he never uses the term ‘church’ in the Greek text) as the sons and daughters of Abraham (compare Galatians 3.29) comes out almost unconsciously here. To him it was so certain a fact that it did not have to be dwelt on. Abraham and Sarah are the rock from which they were hewn (see Isaiah 51.1-2, and compare Galatians 4.21-31). And the theme of obedience continues as wives are called on to submit in obedience to their husbands, as Sarah did to Abraham. Abraham and Sarah provided a clear example of the rightness of the principle of the obedience of a wife to her husband, as one who was under his protection.

It is noteworthy that, as in the case of his words about the authorities, there is no suggestion here of wives being persecuted by, or of suffering because of, their husbands. No doubt some did (as no doubt some suffered under the authorities). But while Peter guards against it by his final advice to husbands, he clearly does not see it as relevant to the issue in hand. His central theme here is not one of suffering, but of obedience. The clearest example of obedience in suffering has been on the part of household servants.

As we shall see there are, in fact, hints in the narrative that suggest that this womanly ‘subjection’ may mainly have been seen in terms of sexual relationships. But that is a matter of interpretation.

3.1-2 ‘In the same way, you who are wives, be subject in obedience to your own husbands, so that, even if any obey not the word, they may without the word be gained by the behaviour of their wives, beholding your chaste behaviour in fear.’

Becoming a Christian clearly opened up new avenues of thought in people’s minds. The fact that in Christ all were equal had caused a revolution in thinking. Not only did it give slaves status, but it also gave ‘lower class’ women status. And it is apparent here, as it is apparent in Paul’s letters, that some Christian women were beginning to exercise their new found freedom to such an extent that they did not consider themselves bound to be obedient to their husbands. Thus he draws their attention to what, according to the Scriptures, their responsibilities are in Christ.

They are to be subject in obedience, because from the beginning that has been God’s ordinance. And in this regard they are to consider what effect their behaviour might have on their husbands, and indeed on wider society. If they behave chastely and demonstrate the fear of God they might well win their husbands to consider the claims of Christ without even having to say anything to them.

The point here is not that becoming a Christian has not altered their status. The point is rather that it has. Chastity was not a common feature of life in those days in pagan societies, and husbands had had to get used to the idea that their wives would indulge in a little licentious living (often disguised as piety - see Revelation 2.22), even if only in the temples, however little they liked it (and after all they did it themselves). But now here they found that their wives had suddenly become chaste and responsive to their husbands wishes. And all because they had become servants of Jesus Christ. It would impress them as nothing else could, and could well also win them to Christ. And to Christian wives that should be an important aim. Whereas if they simply instead turned their attentions towards Christian men it would have invalidated their witness.

‘If any obey not the word.’ That is they have heard it and rejected its message. Thus they are in no condition to listen to any testimony that she might give. But she is assured that if her life is her witness then such a witness might reach him in a way that the word had not. We are reminded of the exhortation of Jesus, ‘let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father Who is in Heaven’ (Matthew 5.16).

‘In fear.’ That is, because they walk in the fear of God. Compare 1.17; 2.18; and see 4.5. Christians are to live in the light of the fact that account must in the end be given for all their actions.

Notice also the contrast between the husband’s not obeying the word with the wife’s having effectively begun to obey the word. It is the main theme of Peter’s letter. The aim was that Christian obedience to the word should be the testimony of the church in every aspect of their living.

3.3-4 ‘Whose adorning let it not be the outward adorning of braiding the hair, and of wearing jewels of gold, or of putting on apparel, but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in the incorruptible apparel of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.’

Thus Christian women are not to waste their time and effort on dressing in a way that will draw attention to themselves or will attract men to themselves (compare Revelation 17.4), or will even attract the gods who are subject to such vanities (many women would make great efforts to make themselves presentable to the gods), but are rather to give time to revealing what is now in their hearts, expressed in terms of a meek and gentle spirit, something which is in God’s sight of huge value. Then they will win God’s approval. For while man looks at the outward appearance, God looks at the heart. Thus they must woo their husbands as those who are chaste, do good works and are godly (1 Timothy 2.10) and as a result at the same time greatly please God, by what they have become. And what they thus ‘wear’ will be incorruptible and everlasting. We have seen that Peter constantly draws attention to the need to seek what is incorruptible (1.4, 7, 18, 23). He had taken to heart Jesus’ teaching in passages like Matthew 6.19-21.

We can compare here 1 Timothy 2.9-10 which speaks of the responsibility of Christian women to ‘adorn themselves in seemly clothing, with modesty and sobriety, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly raiment, but, as becomes women professing godliness, with good works’ (compare Revelation 19.8). Ideas like these were no doubt well established in the ‘tradition’ of the worldwide church, but have been shaped here by Peter to fit this context. Ephesians 5.22-24 and Colossians 3.18 both contain instructions to wives, but without going into a similar depth, although in Ephesians it becomes an example of the relationship between Christ and His church and is based on the fact that the ‘husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church’. Both these relationships are founded in God’s purposes.

The total lack of sexual discrimination in his thinking is found in the fact that Peter can speak of ‘the inner man’ (masculine) of her heart. It is doubtful if a Rabbi could have spoken like that. He would have found some female equivalent. But to Peter, as to Paul, there was neither male nor female, all were one in Christ Jesus. His point is that in her inner being and heart she would be revealing that she was ‘equally as good as a man’ in a time of male domination.

3.5-6 ‘For in a similar way in the past the holy women also, who hoped in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose children you now are, if you do well, and are not put in fear by any intimidation.’

Peter now relates what their behaviour should be in terms of what the Scriptures reveal about godly women in the past. They too had hoped in God, adorned themselves modestly and discreetly, and obediently submitted to their husbands. And one example of this was the wife of the one to whom they now looked as their spiritual father, Abraham (Galatians 3.29). Sarah both obeyed Abraham and called him ‘lord’ (Genesis 18.12). So as the children of Sarah (compare Galatians 4.21-31) they should do the same. There may here be a contrast to the way in which they had previously addressed pagan gods as ‘lord’. Now they are to call only one their ‘lord’, the One Who is God’s representative, as Abraham was to Sarah.

(On the other hand all this may tie in with the looseness of their living before they became Christians. Previously they may well have indulged in ‘sacred’ sexual activities with pagan ‘lords’, for the temples were quite happy to practise deceit and find men quite content to mysteriously act as ‘gods’ so as to forward the women’s desires for ‘worship’. It will be noted that Genesis 18.12 does actually put ‘lord’ in a context of sexual relations and childbearing. Thus lordship and sexual relations were seen as going together. Then the point here might be that now the Christian women must only see their husbands as their ‘lords’ from that point of view).

‘Whose children you now are, if you do well, and are not put in fear by any intimidation.’ This is the first hint, following 2.18-25, of the dark clouds that lie in the background to their lives. The one possible ‘intimidation’ that might draw them from the way of living that he has described is the one that had previously influenced their lives before they became Christians, the pagan temples and their influence. Such temples and their priests would no doubt have used any pressure that they could to woo these women back, including possible curses and threats of what the gods might do to them. So the women must ‘do well’ and must not let the fear of this ‘intimidation’ replace the fear of the Lord in their lives. Then they will be true children of Abraham. This fits the context and explains why Peter does not feel that he has to add further background in order to explain what other kind of intimidation he might have in mind.

3.7 ‘You husbands, in the same way, dwell with your wives according to knowledge, giving honour to the woman, as to the weaker vessel, as being also joint-heirs of the grace of life, to the end that your prayers be not hindered.’

Christian husbands are to respond to their wives ‘in the same way’ (i.e. by being obedient to God) and to behave appropriately, for if they do not it will be a hindrance to their spiritual lives. Dwelling with their wives ‘according to (or ‘in accordance with’) knowledge’ may indicate:

  • Doing so ‘in lawful sexual knowledge’ (intercourse - compare Genesis 4.1; Matthew 1.25). It may thus be indicating that he too is to be faithful in his sexual relations.
  • Keeping in mind a recognised body of Christian moral teaching (‘knowledge’) about relationships, which he is being called on to follow.
  • Keeping in mind the then generally acknowledged ‘knowledge’ of women as the weaker sex held by all, especially in view of their no doubt continual pregnancies, so that he is tender and caring.

The ‘giving of honour to the woman as the weaker vessel’ indicates the general conception of the woman as the weaker vessel physically. She did not go to war or do the heaviest tasks, was often weakened by pregnancy, and tended to die younger (on average lower-class women expected in those days to die in their thirties, men in their forties). Clearly the definition must not be overdrawn, and circumstances have changed. But there is still some truth in it. If we want to be awkward we can rightly ask ‘weaker in what way?’ but Peter would simply be using a recognised expression for describing a woman living under the conditions of those days, and we will therefore leave the debate to others as it is irrelevant to the context. The idea of people as ‘vessels’ is found elsewhere (Acts 9.15; Romans 9.21-23; 2 Corinthians 4.7; 1 Thessalonians 4.4; 2 Timothy 2.20-21). It normally refers to them as being useful, or even breakable.

Peter then stresses that what men are always to bear in mind is the equality of both of them in God’s eyes, they are to remember that they are ‘joint-heirs in the grace of life’. This may be looking back to Genesis 1.26-27; 2.23-24, seeing them as those who have together received life from God, or it may have in mind their spiritual oneness in Christ as inheritors of eternal life. Either way it is describing their mutual compatibility and oneness, and indicating an equality rarely thought of outside the Bible in those days. Both will share an equal inheritance.

‘To the end that your prayers be not hindered.’ These words demonstrate the premium that God puts on a good marriage. Not to be in harmony in every aspect of their married lives will hinder their prayers. It is a reminder that when we do anything displeasing to God it affects our ability to pray acceptably. We may not notice the difference, but God does. We cannot lift up holy hands (1 Timothy 2.8) when we are at loggerheads with our partners. And the same is in fact true of all our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ (Matthew 5.23-24).

We note that no mention is made of the possibility of the man having a non-Christian wife. It is a reminder that being the female partner in a religiously ‘mixed marriage’ in those days was far more difficult than it was for a male, and required far more delicacy with respect to behaviour, and a firmer resolution in order to be a good witness. A husband would often expect his wife to conform to his ideas. But it does not, of course, indicate that Peter considered that a man in such a relationship had no responsibility for his wife. Simply that the same problems were not likely to arise.

All Are To Behave As Those Who Are Obedient With Regard To Each Other (3.8-12).

After briefly recalling admonitions he has already given (1.22; 2.22-23) Peter now sums up and expands on the section from the Scriptures, calling on all Christians, both men and women, slave and free, to behave rightly and openly in both word and deed. The Scripture in mind is Psalm 34.12-16 which appears to have been popularly used as a Christian guide, but is rendered rather freely so as to adapt it to the situation (as a popular preacher might do today).

3.8 ‘Finally, all of you, be like-minded, compassionate, loving as brothers and sisters, tender-hearted, humble-minded,’

Peter now addresses ‘all of you’ and outlines their required manner of life. They are to be at unity among themselves, walking in agreement on essentials, filled with love and compassion, gentle and tender, and humble. None are to push themselves forward, or think a lot of themselves, but are rather to support each other, think a lot of each other, and treat each other with thoughtfulness and consideration. In the words of 1.22 they are to ‘love one another from a pure heart fervently’.

‘Like-minded’ or ‘of one mind’. This does not mean just agreeing together. Terrorists are like-minded in that way. It means all having their minds set in the right direction, obedience to Jesus Christ, and seeking to serve as He served (Mark 10.43-45). We are to be like-minded with Him.

‘Compassionate.’ That is sympathising with each other in our problems and our heartaches. Showing loving concern for one another.

‘Loving as brothers and sisters’ is a reminder that we have all been begotten again by God into one family (1.3), and are to see each other as related, and are to maintain love one with another in peace and harmony, as in an ideal family.

‘Tender-hearted.’ Tender-heartedness, having the heart of a true shepherd, has often been lacking in the church. Far too many prefer to act as lords over the flock, and to be harsh to people ‘for their own good’. But if we do not weep with compassion, then we should not be judging at all. For Christians should be uplifting each other, not pulling each other down.

‘Humble-minded.’ It is one thing to be outwardly humble, quite another to be humble-minded. This involves genuinely seeing that in many things we may be wrong, and being willing to learn from others. It is seeing that it really does not matter what views we have, for example, on the second coming, because there is so much disagreement about the detail that we are all likely to be wrong. Rather we should be concentrating on the fact of it, and its implications for us and for the world today.

3.9 ‘Not rendering evil for evil, or reviling for reviling; but rather to the contrary, blessing; for to this you were called, that you should inherit a blessing.’

We are not to combat evil with evil, nor to revile those who revile us (compare 2.22-23), but are rather to respond to evil with good, and to reviling with blessing (speaking well of and hoping for the best for them), and this even in circumstances where the response will simply be further evil and reviling. We are not to sink to the level of our adversaries, but are to demonstrate the love of Christ in all our words and behaviour, expecting nothing in return. For this is what we have been called to be, those who follow in His steps and are like Him in all that we say and do.

And by doing this we will ‘inherit a blessing’, both now because of the joy, openness and peace that it will bring in our lives as we are at peace with God and with each other, with God speaking well of us, and in the future when we receive our inheritance, incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away which is reserved for us in Heaven (1.4-5).

3.10-12 ‘For,

“He who would love life,
And see good days,
Let him refrain 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.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
And his ears to their supplication,
But the face of the Lord is on those who do evil.”

The ideas behind Peter’s words here are taken from Psalm 34.12-16a. It will be noted that Peter does not cite it as a quotation, but simply takes the ideas expressed in the Psalm and introduces them as Christian teaching. He may well be citing a well known Christian hymn or prayer based on the Psalm (we can compare it with similar hymns and prayers based on Psalms today).

The two are here set side by side in order to bring out the similarities and the differences:

-------------Peter----------------------------------------------Psalm 34.12-16a (MT)---------

He who would love life, -----------------What man is he who desires life?
And see good days, ------------------------And loves many days that he may see good?
Let him refrain his tongue from evil, ---Keep your tongue from evil
And his lips that they speak no guile, ---And your lips from speaking guile
And let him turn away from evil, and do good; --- Depart from evil and do good,
Let him seek peace, and pursue it. -------------------Seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, ---The eyes of the Lord are towards the righteous
And his ears to their supplication, ----------------- And His ears are open to their cry
But the face of the Lord is on those who do evil. --The face of the Lord is against those who do evil.

It will be noted that he is here reminding us of his words in verse 7, ‘that your prayers be not hindered’. He is indicating further things that might hinder our prayers, and reminding us that God’s ears are only open to ‘the prayers of the righteous’. ‘If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me’ (Psalm 66.18).

There is a change of emphasis in the opening words. The Psalmist had in mind a long life in which he would see good. But he certainly also had in mind the quality of that life. Peter puts the emphasis on that quality. The one who wants to really love life and wants to enjoy ‘good days’ (we all know the difference between ‘a good day’ and ‘a bad day’, but the emphasis here is more in terms of the spiritual) will behave in a way that is pleasing to God. He will be obedient.

His continuing message is clear. We are to speak no evil, and do no evil, but are rather to seek peace and harmony. As with Jesus, there is to be no guile in our mouths (2.22). The words of a Christian are to be open, honest and genuinely loving, not censorious and judgmental, or deceitful. The aim should always be to win over each other in love and grace, not to defeat each other, and this should be true whether dealing with Christians or non-Christians. For we should always remember that all things are open to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do. He sees everything that goes on, both in our lives and in our hearts. This is both a comfort and a warning. In respect of those who are truly living righteously it will mean that He hears their prayers. In the case of those who are not behaving righteously, it will mean that God’s face is set against them.

They Can Go Forward In Confidence to Face Whatever Comes Knowing That The Victory Over Suffering Has Already Been Won (3.13-4.6).

Peter now encourages them in the face of opposition. They are not to be afraid when they suffer for righteousness’ sake, but are rather to set apart Christ as holy in their hearts, and ensure that they can give a good answer concerning Him to their adversaries, doing it with a proper attitude (meekness) and in the fear of God. They must however ensure that their own behaviour is right and correct, so that their conscience is clear about all that they do. For it is better to suffer for well-doing rather than for evildoing.

In this they are to remember how Christ suffered too. And why He did so. He suffered for well-doing, for He was suffering for sin, the righteous for the unrighteous that He might bring us to God. And after that He Who was dead was made alive, and proclaimed His victory to those fallen angels still in chains under God’s judgment. Righteousness had triumphed over unrighteousness. Good had triumphed over evil. The Obedient had triumphed over the disobedient. And as a result He was seated at God’s right hand with all angels and heavenly authorities and powers being subjected to Him.

These words serve to confirm that the problems of the church were connected with false gods and idolatry. For here he is combating their fears by assuring them of God’s victory over both. He is reminding them that when supernatural beings had previously interfered in God’s affairs they had been summarily dealt with, while the righteous had been delivered. And the same was true of all that had opposed Christ. Thus in their suffering, resulting from the attitude of those who worshipped false gods, His people could recognise that they were on the winning side, as their baptism, which indicated their right attitude of heart and conscience, confirmed. They were thus, by their suffering, having their part in the final victory. And even if they should die under persecution, they can be sure that they will then be made alive in the spirit along with Him (4.6).

3.13 ‘And who is he who will harm you, if you are zealous for what is good?’

The first principle is that if they are zealous for what is good (i.e. what has already been revealed as good in the previous verses), then no one will justly harm them. In the normal course of events they will be safe from harm. They can then be sure that if they do suffer it will not be because of their own deserts but within God’s special purposes.

3.14 ‘But even if you should suffer, for righteousness’ sake, blessed ones are you: and do not be afraid of their fear, nor be troubled,’

Nevertheless it is possible that they may suffer. For those who live righteously and follow the Righteous One (verse 18) are always likely to have to suffer because they are opposed by unseen foes, who influence the world against them.

To ‘suffer for righteousness’ sake’ was, for Peter, to suffer for the sake of the Righteous One (verse 18). They suffered because they were walking in His obedience (1.2). And when that happened they could be sure that they would be ‘blessed’, that is, spoken well of by God and rewarded with what is spoken well of, that is, with spiritual life and exaltation. That is why they need not be afraid of what their adversaries ‘fear’, or be troubled in their hearts (compare Psalm 64.1-2). In Peter there are two types of ‘fear’ (reverence, awe), the fear of God (1.17; 2.18; 3.2) and the fear of false gods (3.6), which will later be connected with the Devil (5.8). To live in awe of God is to be on the road of obedience (1.16). To live in awe of false gods is to be on the road of disobedience, as those ‘gods’ themselves were disobedient (3.20). And Christians were not to be afraid of what idolaters ‘feared’ because such things were already defeated.

‘Even if you should suffer, for righteousness’ sake, blessed ones are you.’ The wording bears a close resemblance to Matthew 5.10, the words of which were probably in Peter’s mind from the tradition. It indicates of course that they are blessed by God. In LXX the word regularly means blessed by God (see for example Psalm 1.1) and signifies religious exaltation because of God’s active blessing. They have become ‘blessed ones’ in contrast with the fearful ones.

3.15 ‘But sanctify in your hearts Christ as Lord, being ready always to give answer to every man who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear,’

So they are rather to ‘set Christ apart in their hearts as holy’, (or ‘acknowledge Him in their hearts as holy’), and as their ‘Lord’ (in contrast with the false ‘lords’ of idolatry), and be ready to give an answer to anyone who asked them for the reason for the hope that was in them. He is enjoining them to become sure of their own position, and of Who possesses them, (compare here 2.4-5), and to then be able to put it into words, so that they could set it reasonably before others, in order both to appease their masters, and in order to win others to Christ.

‘Set Christ as Lord apart in your hearts as holy.’ Christ as their Lord was to have full and total possession of them and the central place in their lives. People often had places in their houses set apart for the gods, such as a ‘god-shelf’. But the Christian looked on himself as the sanctuary of Christ his Lord. He was a ‘God-shelf’ on which Christ abode. He was the Temple of the Holy Spirit (2.4-9; compare 1 Corinthians 3.16; 6.19; 2 Corinthians 6.16-18; Ephesians 2.20-22).

In these days when the occult, which had so long been suppressed in the ‘Christian’ West, is again raising its head, we once again need to be able to refute it in positive terms by pointing to Christ to whom the whole spiritual world has been brought into subjection. The occult is a further attempt of evil spirits to break into the world and possess human beings. And we overcome them because Greater is He Who is in us, than he who is in the world (1 John 4.4). It is as a result of the coming of the Spirit and the arrival of the Kingly Rule of God that they can be defeated (Matthew 12.28). Thus we do it by having Christ set apart as holy in our hearts. But we do not approach the problem lightly. We do it in humbleness and the fear of God (compare Jude 1.9).

It is important to recognise that idolatry and the occult are not just human folly, they are also connected with evil spirits. ‘The things which they sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons (evil spirits)’ (1 Corinthians 10.20). This had long been recognised (Leviticus 17.7; Deuteronomy 32.17). Thus Peter was very much aware of what these churches were facing in areas where idolatry abounded. And he wanted them to stand firm in Christ.

There is an echo in verses 14-15 of Isaiah 8.12-13, ‘nor fear you their fear, nor be afraid, sanctify the Lord of hosts Himself and let Him be your fear’. But the cause of their fear was different from that in mind in Isaiah. On the other hand, in both cases the Lord was the antidote to their fear.

3.16-17 ‘Having a good conscience; that, wherein you are spoken against, they may be put to shame who revile your good manner of life in Christ, for it is better, if the will of God should so will, that you suffer for well-doing than for evildoing.’

And in this battle between good and evil only the righteous will triumph. Thus the Christians were to ensure that they lived in accordance with a good conscience, so that if any accusations were to be made against them, they could be shown to be patently false. For if they were to suffer for evildoing (compare 2.12, 20) then they would but be going in the way of the world and of the disobedient, and be receiving what they deserved. But if God’s will should so will that they suffer for well-doing, for righteousness’ sake and for the Gospel’s sake (whatever the false accusations), then that is clearly the better alternative, and proves that their sufferings have a purpose, and a new meaning.

‘If the will of God should so will.’ Note the emphatic nature of the phrase. God is seen as in control and fulfilling His will, and as positively and definitely acting in the bringing about of His will. This is not the thought of a fatalist saying fatalistically ‘it is God’s will’. It is the thought of one who is aware that God is positively working in the world, and that what is happening to these Christians is a specific part of His activity and purpose. Once the Son of Man has come to God and received the kingship and the glory (Daniel 7.13-14, 22-22), the saints of the Most High must suffer for righteousness sake in the process that leads to the establishment of His Kingly Rule. For it is this that will lead on to final triumph when they too share in His Kingship (Daniel 7.22, 27).

The Grounds Of Their Confidence In The Face Of The Powers That Are Against Them (3.18-21).

If we are to understand the significance of the verses that follow it is important that we recognise their context. It is a context of contrast. On the one hand are the people of God, who follow Christ, and worship God alone, on the other are the people who are attached to idolatry and the occult, and are opposed to the people of God. (Compare, ‘you turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God’ - 1 Thessalonians 1.9, and note Peter’s emphasis in 4.3) Thus the context is of those who follow Christ, as compared with those who follow false gods, whether gods of idolatry or of materialism. We must remember that the vast proportion of people in the world in those days were in fact totally involved with idolatry and the occult. It affected every part of their lives. They walked in fear of the quite arbitrary wrath of the gods. But at the same time they were strongly attached to them, especially the ones that they felt were favourable. That is why they fought so fiercely for them (compare Acts 19.27-28).

Today in the Western world the gods may be singers, musicians or sports stars, but the worship is still as intense. In view of this Christians were to make sure that if they themselves were attacked, any attack on them was not because of their sinful manner of life or their bad behaviour, but because they were walking in obedience to Christ and manifesting His righteousness in opposition to these powers of darkness (Luke 22.53; Colossians 1.13). They were to be able to say, ‘the prince of this world has come, and has nothing in me’ (John 15.30) And they were to remember that God’s method of defeating these evil powers and ideas would often be through suffering, a suffering which would strengthen their own faith and bring men to face up to and know the truth (1.7).

With this in mind Peter now summarises the triumph of good over evil, and of Jesus Christ over the powers of darkness. He has in mind the fact that Christians have been transferred from under the tyranny of darkness, into the kingdom of His Beloved Son (Colossians 1.13), and that it was through the victory at the cross (Colossians 1.14) that this occurred. For this was what the cross was all about, to bring men and women into obedience to God so that they might be delivered from being children of disobedience.

We have already seen that that was because He ‘redeemed us with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless and unblemished lamb’ in accordance with God’s eternal purpose (1.18-20) bringing us to ‘obedience to the truth’ (1.22), and because He ‘bore our sins’ so that ‘by His stripes we are healed’ (2.24) in order that we might ‘live unto righteousness’, with the result that we can be purified by being sprinkled with His blood (1.2). Now we learn that as a consequence of His suffering in our place, and His subsequent resurrection and resultant triumph, we can enjoy full deliverance from all the powers of evil and sin. And this is because God has under control all who stand against Him, as can be evidenced from the past by what He did to the angels who sinned.

Seeing it in the light of Daniel 7, the Son of Man has come out of suffering and has received the kingship, and the glory and the dominion, and through our suffering for righteousness’ sake as a result of our involvement in His service, and our obedience to His word, we also will share it with Him (Daniel 7).

One further point needs to be borne in mind as we look at these verses. In any difficult passage open to a number of interpretations as this one is, the best way to decide on which one is correct, all other things being equal, is by closely observing the grammar. We will now therefore consider one or two points of grammar that may aid us in discovering what Peter was trying to say.

  • 1). The ‘in which’ in verse 19 is a construction that nowhere else in the New Testament refers to a preceding adverbial dative. If this principle is followed ‘in which’ cannot refer directly to ‘in the spirit.’
  • 2). ‘He went’ in verse 19 is the same verb as in verse 22. All other things being equal this would suggest that the two must be interpreted in the same way as a literal journey of Christ (as verse 22 clearly is) occurring around the same time, e.g. ‘He went to the spirits in prison’ and ‘He went into Heaven’.
  • 3). The ‘through water’ in verse 20 finds its best parallel in ‘through the resurrection of Jesus Christ’ in verse 22.
  • 4). The verb ekeruxen can mean either ‘preached’ or ‘made proclamation’. Both usages are found both in the New Testament and elsewhere. See for example Revelation 5.2; Mark 1.45; 7.36; Luke 8.39.
  • 5). The term ‘spirits’, when used on its own without qualification, always elsewhere refers to ‘spiritual beings’ (e.g. Hebrews 1.7, 14; 1 Kings 22.21-23; Job 4.15; Isaiah 31.3 with 2 Kings 6.17; Ezekiel 1.12, 20, 21; 10.17; Zechariah 13.2 where a false spirit of prophesy is in mind). We may add to this the fact that the idea of spiritual beings in prison or the equivalent is found in Isaiah 24.21-22; 2 Peter 2.4; Jude 1.6; Revelation 9.1-11, as well as in external Jewish literature.

Bearing this in mind we will now consider the passage.

3.18 ‘Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,’

Once again we learn that when the Christian faces suffering he must bear in mind that Christ also suffered for sins. Suffering for righteousness’ sake is nothing new. It has been a part of following Christ from the beginning (see Matthew 16.24; John 15.20; 16.2; Acts 14.22; compare Hebrews 11). The fact that Peter says that He suffered for sins ‘once’, brings out that this suffering refers specifically to the cross. The Messiah suffered once as ‘the Righteous One’ (Acts 3.14; 22.14; Hebrews 9.26, 28) on behalf of the unrighteous (the Obedient One on behalf of the disobedient), and He did so in order that He might be our Mediator (1 Timothy 2.5; Hebrews 8.6; 9.15, 12.24) and bring us to God, by shedding the blood of the covenant for the remission of sins (Matthew 26.28). Compare the picture in Hebrews 9.11-12, 14; 10.19-20 which also speaks of His suffering, and the way back to God that results from it.

‘On behalf of’ (huper) indicates that He died in our place both as our substitute (Mark 10.45) and as the representative of all Who are His elect. It is to be noted here that our approach to God is made possible through His suffering, not through His resurrection, for without that suffering in which He bore our sin we would not be able to approach God. But His resurrection is then the evidence that He has accomplished His purpose and defeated the powers of darkness. It is the source of our confidence and of the life that we receive as a result.

The cross and the resurrection regularly go together, and we have here the emphasis that Christ Himself was ‘put to death in the flesh’, so that His life on earth was over. But then we also have the emphasis that He was ‘made alive in the spirit’. This was the indication that death had been defeated. The new life that He would give to all who became His was just beginning. His suffering was the action of men as they thought that they had done with Him (although within the purposes of God), His resurrection was the action of God. It does not say that He ‘became alive in the spirit’ but that He ‘was made alive in the spirit’. Thus after men had put Jesus to death, God ‘made Him alive in the spirit’. In other words although His body was dead, God gave Him a new spiritual body through which His spirit could live (1 Corinthians 15.44-45). This can only refer to the resurrection. (The same is also true if we translate ‘was made alive by the Spirit’. In fact it makes little difference for spiritual life is always finally the result of the Spirit’s working).

The verb ‘made alive’ is elsewhere used similarly in order to indicate resurrection. See for example 1 Corinthians 15.22; John 5.22. Compare also Romans 1.4. And in the context here the term ‘spirit’ signifies ‘supernatural’ life. Consider for example the parallel of the ‘spirits in prison’. Their supernatural existence is seen as in contrast with the supernatural spiritual life that He has received. See also 1 Corinthians 15.45, where He is made a ‘lifegiving spirit’; Hebrews 12.23, where we learn of ‘the spirits of righteous men made perfect’ who are in the after-life; Romans 1.4 where Jesus is ‘declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead’; John 6.63, where ‘it is the spirit that makes alive, the flesh is of no profit, the words that I speak to you are spirit and they are life’. Thus there is no reason for doubting that we have here a description of Christ’s resurrection (1.3, 21; 2.4) following His death (1.2, 19; 2.24). It would be totally unlike Peter not to mention the resurrection here (compare 1.3, 21; 2.4; 3.21), especially as he then goes on to describe the enthronement.

‘In the spirit.’ The idea is that He arose with a spiritual body in renewed spiritual life (1 Corinthians 15.44). This is not contradicted by Luke 24.39. There Jesus was not denying that He was ‘spirit’ (we know that in fact He is spirit - John 4.24), He was denying that he was a ‘ghost’. Thus we must not see Him there as denying that He had risen as a ‘supernatural’ spirit in a spiritual body, but simply as denying that He was a mere phantasm.

Alternately we may see ‘in the spirit’ as meaning ‘by the Spirit’, with the life of the Spirit contrasted with human life. Some would object that the parallel of ‘flesh’ with ‘spirit’ excludes this idea, but a similar parallel between flesh and the Holy Spirit can be found in Galatians 5.16 ff. and would make good sense here. On the other hand there it is the pull of ‘sinful flesh’ that is contrasted with the work of the Spirit, whereas here there would appear to be the deliberate intention of contrasting the death of His sinless human flesh with the making alive of His spirit as in 1 Corinthians 15.44-46, where it also refers to the resurrection. However, whichever way we view it, to be made alive by God is certainly to be made alive by the Spirit.

In the end it would be unwise of us to speculate too much on something which we cannot possibly fully understand, but it is difficult to see ‘made alive in the spirit’ as referring to some kind of experience that happened before the resurrection. Peter is hardly likely to be suggesting that not only had Jesus’ body died, but His spirit had also died in such a way as to need to be made alive again even prior to the resurrection. He would be well aware that Jesus had commended His spirit to God (Luke 23.46) and that when the body died the spirit did not die but returned to the God Who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12.7). His point here is rather therefore to emphasise the activity of God in the unique work of ‘making alive the spirit in a spiritual body’ through the resurrection following physical death (compare Isaiah 26.19; Daniel 12.2-3; John 5.28-29).

We can in fact compare for this whole process the credal hymn cited by Paul in 1 Timothy 3.16. ‘He Who was manifested in the flesh (He was put to death in the flesh), vindicated in the spirit (He was made alive in the spirit), seen of angels (He proclaimed His victory to angels, here seen in terms of the spirits in prison), preached among the nations (just as when, while the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, Noah as the preacher of righteousness preached to the nations), believed on in the world (the response of a good conscience towards God), received up in glory (Who is on the right hand of God, having gone into Heaven, angels and authorities and powers being made subject to Him)’. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Peter may be patterning his arguments on a similar credal hymn, while applying them in such a way as to get over his point.

3.19a ‘In which also he went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison,’

And it was thus in His spiritual resurrection body, which was the consequence of His obedience unto death, that He went and made proclamation to ‘the spirits who were in prison because they had been disobedient in the days of Noah’. It is the resurrection which gives point to this proclamation. As the victorious king He openly declares His victory to His prisoners-of-war. Here we have a contrast between the One Who was obedient unto death, and was therefore raised from the dead in a spiritual body and was free, and the bodiless spirits who had been and still were ‘disobedient’, and were therefore in prison. Note again how ‘he went to the spirits in prison’ parallels ‘having gone into heaven’, i.e. He then went into heaven (verse 22).

This is an assurance to his readers, and those who heard them pass on the message, of what the end will be of all those spirits who seek to interfere with mankind, including the ones causing their persecution. For these spirits in prison were the ones whom all knew had sought to break down the God-ordained difference between spirits and men in defiance of God. Now they were faced with One Who had broken down that difference, but in a way ordained by God, by becoming man and then being raised in a spiritual body, so that all men could enjoy full spiritual life. They had chosen the wrong way, the way of disobedience. He had chosen the right way, the way of obedience.

It should be noted in this regard that, in Scripture, when it is not in some way qualified and explained, the term ‘spirits’ always refers to ‘angels’ or ‘sons of the elohim’ (e.g. Hebrews 1.7, 14; 1 Kings 22.21-23; Job 4.15; Isaiah 31.3 with 2 Kings 6.17; Ezekiel 1.12, 20, 21; 10.17; Zechariah 13.2 where a false spirit of prophesy is in mind).

Partly in mind here may be Isaiah 24.21-22, where we also have a picture of all supernatural beings who have opposed God being put in prison. Here Peter provides a well known example from the past of where this had already happened. 2 Peter 2.4 (which emphasises Peter’s interest in this subject), along with the context here, can leave us in no doubt that this has in mind the ‘sons of the elohim’ (‘heavenly beings’) who sinned in Genesis 6.1-4 and helped to bring about a situation which could only be dealt with by the Flood.

However we interpret Genesis 6.1-4, and it probably indicates demon possession of an intense kind described in a folksy way, it demonstrates that the ‘sons of the elohim’ had in some way left their initial condition as spirits, that is, ‘their proper habitation’, and had sought to become involved in the physical world, something which was totally forbidden (Jude 1.6). This was why they had to be prematurely ‘isolated’. Thus Peter sees Christ’s visit to the spirits in prison as in the nature of a declaration to these supernatural prisoners of God of the failure of what they had tried to accomplish, namely the ‘taking over’ of the human race, and also a declaration to them of the sure and certain final defeat of their fellow-conspirators and of God’s equally sure final victory.

It is, of course, all put in pictorial terms paralleling how an earthly king might behave as he announces his triumph to his prisoners of war (verse 19), followed by a coronation and a ceremony where all swear fealty to him (verse 22). Spirit beings cannot, of course, be locked in physical prisons, nor would Christ need to physically visit them in order to convey the truth. It all takes place in the spiritual world. But the realities behind it are perfectly literal. This was what Jesus had accomplished through His cross and resurrection.

Why then should Peter introduce this idea here? The answer is firstly that it is preparatory to describing Christ’s further triumph over supernatural beings in verse 22, secondly it is illustrating to those who are suffering persecution because of the fanaticism of idolatrous demon worshippers that the evil spirits whom these fanatics worship have been defeated once and for all, as is evidenced by these particular well known examples, so that their own suffering will not be in vain. And thirdly it is also an illustration of the contrast between the Obedient One and the disobedient ones in accordance with Peter’s main theme.

It will be remembered that Scripture brings out from beginning to end that there are invisible powers affecting the progress in the world. Beginning with the mysterious power behind the Serpent (Genesis 3), it continues with the equally mysterious ‘sons of the elohim’ (Genesis 6.1-4); the powers behind Balaam (Numbers 22-24); the demons behind idols (Deuteronomy 32.17); the deceiving of David (the 1 Chronicles 21.2); the lying spirit who interfered at the time of Micaiah (1 Kings 22.19-23); the experiences of Job (Job 1-2); the revelations of Daniel 10; the onslaught on Joshua the High Priest (Zechariah 3.1-5); Jesus’ defeat of evil spirits (Matthew 12.28 and often); and so on. And in all God was in control. That is the message of the spirits in prison.

Note On The Spirits In Prison.

Some cavil at this interpretation and see this as referring to angels who sinned before the creation of man, or as referring to the spirits of men. The latter we must reject because nowhere else is the bare term ‘spirits’ without a qualifying genitive ever applied to other than angels.

With regard to the former there is in fact no Scriptural evidence that any angels, apart from Satan, did fall before the creation of man. No indication of date is ever given to the few accounts of when the angels fell.

On the other hand we do have grounds in the very literature which Jude 1.14-15 cites (the book of Enoch), for the idea that the first angelic fall took place in the days of Noah. Thus in the Book of Enoch (1 Enoch) we have the following description of the fall of these angels, who are called the Watchers, because they were watching over mankind:

“And it came about, when the children of men had multiplied, that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: 'Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children (6.1-3) --- And all the others together with them took unto themselves wives, and each chose for himself one, and they began to go in to them and to defile themselves with them (7.1). ---And again the Lord said to Raphael: 'Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness (10.4) --- bind them fast for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth, till the day of their judgment and of their consummation, till the judgment that is for ever and ever is consummated. In those days they shall be led off to the abyss of fire: and to the torment and the prison in which they will be confined for ever. And whoever shall be condemned and destroyed will from thenceforth be bound together with them to the end of all generations. And destroy all the spirits of the reprobate and the children of the Watchers, because they have wronged mankind. (10.12-15) --- And then will the whole earth be tilled in righteousness, and will all be planted with trees and be full of blessing (10.18-19) --- . 'Enoch, you scribe of righteousness, go, declare to the Watchers of the heaven who have left the high heaven, the holy eternal place, and have defiled themselves with women, and have done as the children of earth do, and have taken to themselves wives: "You have wrought great destruction on the earth, and you will have no peace nor forgiveness of sin, and inasmuch as they delight themselves in their children, the murder of their beloved ones shall they see, and over the destruction of their children shall they lament, and will make supplication unto eternity, but mercy and peace shall you not attain.” (12.4-6).

It will be noted that if we compare these words with Peter we have the ‘spirits in prison’ (1 Peter 3.19), compare ‘the prison in which they will be confined for ever’; the ‘committing to pits of darkness to be reserved to judgment’ (2 Peter 2.5) and ‘the new earth in which dwells righteousness’ (2 Peter 3.13), and in comparison with Jude here we have ‘the angels who left their first principality’ (they ‘left the high heaven, the eternal holy place’) and their resulting ‘everlasting bonds’ (Jude 1.6), and the fact that they dwelt in darkness. Furthermore in 1 Enoch 60.8 we have mention of ‘the seventh from Adam’ (compare Jude 1.14).

The same incidents are described more briefly in Jubilees 4.15; 5.1ff.; Testament of Reuben 5.6-7; Testament of Naphtali 3.5; 2 Enoch 18; etc. It was clearly havily emphasised in Jewish tradition.

We have only selected a few extracts from the text, but the full text makes quite clear that we undoubtedly have reference here to the events described in Genesis 6.1-2.

This is confirmed in 2 Peter. There Peter selects three incidents in Scriptural order, the fall of the angels, the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah. But the only fall of angels even hinted at in Scripture prior to the Flood, apart from that of Satan himself as hinted at in Genesis 3, is that found in Genesis 6.1-2.

End of note.

3.19b-20 ‘Who were previously disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.’

This confirms who these ‘spirits in prison’ were. Human beings are never spoken of in this way (as spirits in prison), while 2 Peter 2.4 confirms Peter’s interest in the angels who sinned in the time of Noah. And we should note that their disobedience and its punishment had taken place against the background of another time when the longsuffering of God was waiting for a response from a sinful people who were under the sway of demonic powers, and when there were eight righteous people who alone were obedient and preached righteousness (2 Peter 2.5). In accordance with God’s instructions they built an ark, and all the time that they were building it God in His longsuffering was giving an opportunity for men to repent. For God is longsuffering. He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3.9). But although He was patient none but the eight responded. However, whatever their sufferings they came through it, and in that ark they were saved ‘through water’, which as it were lifted them up to God, while at the same time that same water drowned the remainder, and the spirits were put in prison.

3.21 ‘Which water after a true likeness (or ‘echo’) also now saves you, (even baptism, which is not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation (or ‘answer’ or ‘consultation’) of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,’

The thought of the ark brought safely ‘through water’ brings his mind to the way in which Christians are brought safely through to God ‘through the resurrection of Jesus Christ’. Just as the water lifted up the ark in which the elect were held safe, so does the resurrection of Jesus Christ lift up ‘in Christ’ (compare 5.10, 14) all who are His. The thought of water also links the idea with baptism, although only by way of a parenthesis. He sees in baptism, which he pictures as illustrating the resurrection, an ‘echo of’, or a ‘likeness to’, the water that bore up Noah and his companions. Through the response of their consciences illustrated in baptism (the baptism of repentance), His people unite with Christ in His resurrection. They experience renewal of life (Romans 6.4; Titus 3.5). They are as it were saved through water, just as Noah had been, not by it washing them or cleansing them, but by it lifting them up to God in the ark of the risen Jesus Christ so that the response of their consciences can be examined in order to ensure their genuineness (compare verses 16-17 where it has in mind responsive obedience). And as a result they are saved through His resurrection power as they rise with Him and are seated with Him in heavenly places (Ephesians 1.19-2.6).

In the interests of sound exegesis it must be stressed firstly that this is the first mention of baptism in the letter, which strongly counts against interpreting the whole letter in that light, (as is done by some interpreters), secondly that it is merely introduced as a parenthesis brought to Peter’s mind by the thought of water, which counts against it as having been already in his mind, and thirdly that it does away with the idea that baptism is a means of washing and cleansing from sin. Rather is it to be seen as a picture of being raised out of death into new life in Jesus Christ (Romans 6.3-4). For apart from the possible exception of Acts 22.16 that is what baptism always signifies in the New Testament, ‘dying and rising with Christ’ or being ‘born from above’. It should also be noted in passing that as it is connected with the presentation of a good conscience towards God, baptism at an age of accountability is in mind.

‘Interrogation of a good conscience towards God.’ The word translated ‘interrogation’ can mean ‘response’ or ‘consultation’. Some have more tentatively argued for ‘pledge’. But, however we translate it, it clearly indicates a true response to God which passes examination (contrast- John 2.23-25). By being baptised we are pledged to God, and it indicates our response to Him in our consciences. But it is effective through the resurrection.

Brief Note on Acts 22.16.

Even Acts 22.16 does not necessarily see baptism as directly washing away sin, for in the Greek the verse is clearly divided into two sections, firstly ‘having arisen be baptised’, and secondly, as a distinct activity, ‘and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord Jesus’. It will be noted that the first half refers to what you have done to you (be baptised), the second to what you must yourself do (wash away your sins). No man ever baptised himself.

But how do you wash away your own sins? (The word is apolouow, not louow. Thus it is not the ritual washing. In LXX it only occurs in Job 9.30). Ananias probably had Isaiah 1.15-18 in mind, where there is the same command to ‘wash yourselves’, accompanied by the confidence that response to that command (repentance) by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ would ‘wash’ their lives and make them new. Note how in Isaiah 1 the emphasis is away from ritual (which has been put firmly in its place) to positive action. It would have debased Isaiah for Ananias to have suggested that a ritual would accomplish what he is demanding. It required a changed life.

Besides Ananias would have been well aware as a Jew that the washing (louow) with water in the Old Testament never cleansed, it only prepared the way for men to wait on God in order to be cleansed. It was the waiting on God that cleansed (you shall not be clean until the evening). In Isaiah’s terminology how a man did wash himself was by a changed life in response to God’s call. Thus his point is that by being baptised Paul will be expressing his repentance and his determination to begin a new life, and is then to put it into practise by ‘washing himself’ in a positive way, in the way that Isaiah describes, by living a new life under the Lord. This will then result in his sins becoming white as snow (Isaiah 1.18). But the idea that it results from a ritual act of cleansing is contrary to Isaiah’s whole thought. This is emphasised further by the fact that washing is not a concept directly connected with baptism elsewhere in the New Testament. In the New Testament washing is with the renewing word (Ephesians 5.26; compare 1 Peter 1.23), and results in the washing of regeneration (Titus 3.5) with the latter thought probably having spiritual rain in mind (Isaiah 32.15; 44.1-5; 55.10-13). That baptism symbolised the whole process of renewal by the Holy Spirit we do not doubt. That it represented washing and cleansing we doubt very much, however useful a picture it might make. It is not used in that way anywhere else in the New Testament.

End of note.

3.22 ‘Who is on the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, angels and authorities and powers being brought into obedience to him.’

And the final stage in this process was Jesus’ enthronement at the right hand of God in Heaven, with all angelic and supernatural powers being brought into obedience to Him. Here Peter does not distinguish good angels from bad. The point is that all heavenly powers are made subject to Him and have to acknowledge His rule (compare 1 Corinthians 15.24-25; Ephesians 1.21-22; Philippians 2.10-11) because He has gone into Heaven to the right hand of God.

So first we had Noah, ‘a preacher of righteousness’ (2 Peter 2.5), who was ‘delivered’ in the time of the condemnation of the rebellious angels, and who proclaimed righteousness to a disobedient and unrepentant people. He and his seven companions (the elect) were lifted up on the water by the ark while the rebellious angels were being put in prison and the race of men was being destroyed. Now through Jesus Christ the Righteous One and through His resurrection, He and His people will be lifted up to God along with Him in His resurrection (compare Ephesians 1.19-2.6), because He too has proclaimed righteousness, in His case to the disobedient and unrepentant angels who were imprisoned after the flood, while at the same time the powers in heavenly places have been made to bow the knee to Him, and have as a result been ‘brought into obedience’ (compare Philippians 2.10).

Peter got this idea of comparing the flood to the salvation in the end times directly from Jesus. Jesus also saw the Noah and the flood and the ark as illustrations of the end times prior to and leading up to His coming (Matthew 24.38-39). ‘As were the days of Noah, so shall be the coming of the Son of Man’ (Matthew 24.37). See also Luke 17.26-27.

The expression ‘brought into obedience’ need not necessarily mean that they had previously been in disobedience. It may simply refer to the practise of a newly crowned king receiving the fealty of his subjects, and thereby ‘bringing them into obedience’, some to be subsequently rewarded and others to be subsequently sentenced. But the main point is that whatever the previous situation, all in the heavenly sphere are now in obedience to Him because of His all-conquering power. Thus even among the angels God has been working to bring them ‘unto obedience’. And although it does not say so here, for it is Christ’s triumph not judgment that is finally in mind, the remainder of the world who were not lifted up in Christ, were left to perish in God’s judgment (see 4.7, 17-18) as those in Noah’s world were, as are also the angels who do not become truly and permanently obedient.

By this the persecuted people of God to whom Peter was writing were brought to see that the invisible powers who were responsible for their persecution (see 5.8; and compare 3.14) were already defeated through His cross and resurrection (compare Colossians 2.15; and see Colossians 1.16-17), while all other invisible powers were in submission to Him, and the consequence was that they had nothing else to fear (3.6, 14).

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