The Bible’s Hard Parts (I Peter 3:18-22)

It’s all right to admit that we don’t know what something means.

In fact, the people who are sentenced to listen to us week after week, year after year, might appreciate that kind of intellectual honesty.

Case in point. I Peter 3:18-22….

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison,

Who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.

And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you–not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience–through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

Who is at the right hand of God, having gone away into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.”

Now, the brackets surrounding this passage give me no trouble–the first part about Jesus dying for our sins, the just for the unjust, and the last line about His ascension and glorification in Heaven. It’s those in-between parts that leave us gasping for air.

Furthermore, I’m not alone. I seriously doubt if there is a single passage in the Bible that has put gray hairs in more heads than this from the Apostle Peter.

What’s funny about it is that at the end of II Peter, the apostle gently takes Paul to task for saying “some things hard to understand,” insights which good people differ on and which “the untaught and unstable distort.” This comes from a man who has topped even the Apostle Paul in that obfuscating art!

So! What is a pastor or teacher is to do when faced with such a passage?

Study it out.

Often the more difficult scriptures–the ones which do not yield their fruit at the first tap–are the richest and most promising.

So, a faithful student of the Word will want to study a text which seems to elude him, think deeply about it, and read as much from others as possible. He’ll want to ask other ministers, teachers, and professors for their views on that text.

Bear in mind, as always, that doubt is egotistical. Once doubt about something settles in and begins to take root, it convinces us there is no answer to the questions it has raised. This is rarely so. In my case, some of the best insights to Scripture and most memorable lessons in life have come from passages that drove me up the wall at first, but which eventually opened to reveal treasures and blessings.

Recognize that good people differ.

If we insist on slamming everyone who disagrees with our interpretation as ignorant and Bible-denying–as we’ve all seen some do–then we are part of the problem and not being helpful at all.

We do well to hold to the old formula: “In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

If you choose to “take a pass” on this scripture, no one should blame you.

Only the immature thinks he has to have an opinion and a “word from God” on every matter. The older one gets and the more mature he becomes in the faith, the more he/she sees the importance of simply saying, “I don’t know.”

Even the Apostle Paul said of a matter, “I have no word from the Lord on this subject” (I Corinthians 7:25). In the same passage, he says, “But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that….” (7:12). He has the intellectual honesty to differentiate his words from God’s Word. O, that every preacher might follow his example.

One fellow said about his preacher, “My pastor’s not always right, but he’s never in doubt.”

There are hard passages in the Bible to explain or defend. Period.

I’ll go so far as to say anyone who disagrees with that statement needs to read his Bible.

Jesus said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” Some of His followers stumbled over that. “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” (John 6:54,60)

We cannot escape the fact that the Lord phrased this redemptive truth in a provocative manner. It was indeed a “hard saying.”

I sat in a Cincinnati auditorium one Saturday night a generation ago and heard the notorious atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair debate a Church of Christ minister. It was not a good evening for Christian apologists or any honest truth-seeker.

The minister, obviously trained in classical debating, would respond to O’Hair’s rants, then make some points himself and throw out questions for her. But when Mrs. O’Hair took the podium, she ignored her opponent altogether. If she had heard anything the man had said, there was no evidence. All her time was spent reading Scripture passages she found offensive and scoffing at them. Her supporters, perhaps 25 people lining the front rows, would laugh and ridicule along with her.

It was a classic case of “casting one’s pearls before swine” (Matthew 7:6).

One story in particular tickled the scoffers. II Kings 2 gives the account of Elisha succeeding the prophet Elijah as God’s man on the scene. Then we read:

“Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, ‘Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!’

When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number.”

What are we to make of that strange story? For one thing, such a story ought to put to rest forever the bogus claim that the Bible was compiled by a committee intent on safeguarding the stories and the doctrines of the Church. No editor would have let such a story remain in the text if given a choice. It’s there and we are stuck with it, for good or ill.

Some would say the man of God was just learning the power of his words, and this must have had an unnerving, unsettling effect on him. Maybe so. But why don’t we have a few words–something!–disapproving of what Elisha did? It almost reads as though God approved what the hairless prophet did.

Although I don’t believe that for a moment. And neither do you, I’m guessing.

The point here is simply to say that there are indeed “hard sayings” in the Bible which we are hard-pressed to explain, defend, justify.

If you are preaching through I Peter and choose to ignore 3:19-21, I wouldn’t blame you.

Now, if you are doing a verse by verse study of the book, you have no choice but to deal with it. But if you are bringing a series of sermons, you will naturally stress some passages more than others. This is a good one to leave for another time. What “other” time? The time when you get a handle on understanding it.

I need to say something here. My pastor understands this passage. Well, he says he does. (This is the place for my favorite Facebook symbol: 🙂 In fact, he wrote a doctoral essay on it. When a pastor friend recently asked me what the passage meant, I referred him to Pastor Mike Miller who answered him patiently and well. But it was not my answer. Because I don’t have an answer that satisfies me. Not yet, at any rate.

Some things we will leave with the Lord for another day. Or “The Day.”

The old hymn said, “We’ll understand it in the bye and bye.” Regarding some of our puzzles and questions on the Word of God, I’m convinced that is when the answers will come and the issues will be settled.

That is not to say that God is the author of confusion. It is to say, however, that I wish Peter or Paul had not been in such a hurry at certain points and cleared up some matters. I wish they had held news conferences at which probing questions could have been asked.

That said, I expect the Lord told us exactly what He wanted us to know and let it go at that for a reason. What those reasons were, I’m not completely sure. Part of it has to do with forcing us to “walk by faith, not by sight.” And to stay with the main message of Scripture, not being sidetracked by lesser issues.

Mark Twain’s word fits here. Asked what he thought of certain obscure passages from the Bible, he said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts I do understand.”

Let us stay with the main message and be wary of majoring on minor issues and obscure texts.

2 thoughts on “The Bible’s Hard Parts (I Peter 3:18-22)

  1. Joe your article reminds me of one of the reasons that I love Billy Graham so much. He was being interviewed on Larry King (one of many times…Larry has always been intriqued by Billy) and Larry asked him a difficult question about God. Billy without hesitation or embarrassment said simply “I don’t know.” There are some ‘celebrity’ preachers that I could never imagine being humble enough to say that.

  2. It’s also important to note exactly what the Bible says and doesn’t say. For example, in the bear passage above, it doesn’t say the bears killed anyone, merely “tore” them. (I cked Hebrew, btw.)

    Note there were 42 boys at least – a street gang? And if they taunted Elisha, how likely is it they taunted the bears? In other words the bullies ran up against a bigger pair of bullies. One interp only, and it doesn’t deal with the implication that the prophet called down judgment on them.

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