Most scholars consider
this letter to be written long after the death of Peter, because of its
style of Greek, You wouldn't even expect a fisherman from Galilee to
know how to read and write, but very high style of Greek, the
circumstances that the letter suggests, and many other reasons, but
nevertheless it contains several passages that have been deeply
cherished by the church over the years, regardless of who wrote it.
Chapter 2, verse 9, a very familiar verse: "But you are a chosen race, a
royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people". And one of my
favorite verses in chapter 3, also verse 9: "Do not repay evil for evil
or abuse for abuse, but on the contrary repay with a blessing".
But this short letter also has a number of passages that are a little
"challenging". There is at the end of chapter 2 a long section where
slaves are told to accept the authority of their masters, even those
masters who are very harsh to them. That's a troubling passage. Then
there is the famous text about husbands honoring their wives as the
weaker sex. Which is about as politically correct as tweeting a picture
of your lower torso in shorts to your would-be female fans. You know,
that may work for Calvin Klein, but it didn't turn out so well for
Representative Anthony Wiener (if you're following that little
controversy -- I love his non-denial denial: "I don't know if that's
really a picture of me or not").
The text I find most problematic, however, given all that we learned on
that pilgrimage to the world of Paul about Caesar being honored as the
Son of God, the Lord & Savior of the world, is here this author, telling
us in chapter 2 verses 13 to 17, that we are to accept the authority of
every human institution, including the Emperor as supreme, and the
readers are told to honor the Emperor.
Now, I take that as clear evidence that this letter was written before
the end of the first century when Emperor Domitian would repel any
notion of honoring the Emperor, with his reign of terror to eradicate
the Christian 'menace' from the Empire. Indeed, it was likely that
subsequent period of persecution which made the primary message of this
letter -- suffering for doing good rather than evil -- so powerful. By
emphasizing Christ as the model for us (the innocent victim who suffered
for the sins of others), the author of first Peter makes it quite clear
that the path of redemption not only for us but for the whole world lies
not in perpetuating and escalating evil (and the violence that causes
suffering), but in the willingness to follow the way of Christ, the way
of the cross. To endure the suffering without retaliating. To stand up
to it. To non-violently resist. As the elder of the church says in this
letter: "With gentleness and reverence, thereby in your good conduct in
Christ, putting to shame those doers of evil".
The very heart of
non-violent resistance to injustice, which Martin Luther King Jr. taught
to the world, is right here in this text for this morning. Where we
read: "Do not fear what they feared, do not be intimidated. Keep your
conscience clear so that when you are maligned, those who abuse you for
your good conduct may be put to shame, for it is better to suffer for
doing good than to suffer for doing evil".
And then to illustrate the completeness of the redemption that comes
through this way of Christ, the text takes what appears to be for us a
rather bizarre turn, but in fact is a great illustration of the ultimate
victory over evil. And it's a piece of our tradition we've largely
ignored. I refer to what is known as the harrowing of Hell. How many
have any notion, when I'm saying the harrowing of Hell, what the heck
I'm talking about? One :). Don't be ashamed, I didn't either. But if you
go home and 'Google' it, you will find images like this:
This is taken from the famous Chora Church in Istanbul, a fresco from
about the 12th or early 13th century. The church itself is now a museum,
and is a wonderful window into that ancient church in that community. It
just so happens when I was there in 2003 that I was standing next to
Dominic Crossan, on that tour I took, as he described for me what this
was all about. Up to that point, I had no awareness of this ancient
"Harrowing" is an old-English word. "To harrow" means to plunder, or to
rob. This is the portrayal of Christ plundering hell, or the abode of
the dead, by taking them out of it (I'm going to explain that in more
detail in a moment). Like most Christians in the West, I was only aware
of the vague assertion that is made in the Apostle's Creed (that we
don't use, only occasionally), which says that Christ was crucified
under Pontius Pilate," descended into Hell", and then rose on the third
Like most Protestants, I had never given much thought as to what that
belief means, mostly because I don't believe in Hell as an actual
metaphysical reality in the first place. So to talk about Christ
descending into something that I don't believe exists, just is a
non-starter. And in that, I follow the reasoning of John Calvin, the
great Protestant reformer, who saw Christ's descent into Hell as what he
experienced on the cross. So, 'hell on earth', so to speak. And this
story of the plundering of Hell, Calvin considered to be a children's
fable. And hence, in the West, that story, that tradition, has fallen
out of favor.
But even children's fables have a point, have a lesson about life, don't
So I want to reflect with you on just what I think that we have to learn
from this ancient tradition.
Now, we all know Jesus
was crucified on Friday, right? And he arose on Sunday. So the question
is: what the heck was he doing in the meantime? Playing solitaire there
in the tomb? Working on a crossword puzzle? Maybe he and Gabriel were
off on a magical mystery tour of the universe. Was he in a no-man's
land? Or a no-God's land? Waiting for Sunday morning?
Well, 1 Peter gives us a clue in this text, this is that bizarre turn I
was talking about. When it says "he was put to death in the flesh but
made alive in the spirit, in which he also went and made a proclamation
to the spirits in prison, who in former times. . . " and then it refers
to the people who died in the flood during the days of Noah.
The Gospel of Peter (I'm sure you read it daily), an ancient text, one
of the lost gospels from the mid-second century, that was rediscovered
in the 20th century (we only have a single copy of it), tells the story
of the resurrection, the moment that Jesus comes out of the tomb. It's
the only written account we have of the actual resurrection, of Jesus
coming out of the tomb. And it describes Jesus being assisted by two
(presumably) angels, and a voice that comes out of the heavens and asks
"Have you preached to those who have fallen asleep?" (meaning the dead).
And a voice from the cross answers: "Yes".
So in other words, we have, then, from the tradition of Peter (taken as
a whole), this tradition of the story of Jesus preaching to the dead
while he awaits his resurrection. Well, then what happens?
Well, everyone knows that Jesus rose alone, right? By himself. Maybe
with a little help from the angels, who rolled away the stone, etc. But
still, he's the only one who arose out of the tomb. Right?
You should know better
by now, than to trust me when I ask rhetorical questions like that :).
Read your gospel, in this case Matthew 27 (you may want to follow along
in case you don't believe me), verse 51, "At that moment [the moment
Jesus dies], the curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to
bottom, the earth shook, the rocks were split". Sound familiar? Verse
52: "The tombs were also opened, and many bodies of the saints who had
fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the
tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many".
Huh. That's not a story we tell too often on Easter morning. Probably
because it sounds like a children's fable, a fantastic story, who could
believe things like this?
Well, you put that story together with 1 Peter, and you throw in Paul's
assertion that Christ is the "first fruit" of the general resurrection,
and you get a picture that looks pretty much like this:
So here's the way these ancient artists (maybe better described as
theologians, they just happened to use a paintbrush and mosaics, instead
of words), imagined this plundering of Hell. Now, the first thing you
need to know, Jesus goes to Hell, but it's not the same concept of Hell
that we have, as the place of eternal punishment. In the Old Testament,
it's a place called Sheol, typically, and it's a place of the dead, the
abode of the dead. It's simply where the dead are in a non-existence.
Jesus goes to this place and the first people he brings out are Adam (on
the right) and Eve (on the left). And when you see pictures of these
kinds of images of the harrowing of Hell, it is always Adam and Even.
He's holding them (it's hard to see in this picture, but it shows a
little better in some others I'll show in a moment) by the wrists. It's
a way of showing that this is solely the action of Christ, not the will
of the people of the dead. It's solely through the action of the risen
Christ, bringing them out. Notice they're coming out of sarcophagi -- on
our pilgrimage a few weeks ago, we saw many examples of these ancient
tombs (coffins, really).
On the right, you see the gentlemen with the shepherd's staff? Who would
that be? Abel. Remember the story of Cain and Abel? Abel is the
shepherd, Cain is the farmer, and Cain gets jealous of Abel and kills
him, because his offering is more pleasing to God. That's Abel, the
first martyr, and next to him is John the Baptist, the last martyr in
the Biblical story before the death and resurrection of Jesus. And
behind them are all the other martyrs. So it's a way of saying that
Jesus is leading the martyrs.
On the left, on the other side, are a couple of Kings, they have crowns
on their heads (probably David and Solomon), and then more folks behind
them. Jesus is standing on the broken down gates (not quite so evident
here, but again, wait for some of the other pictures), and there's a
body underneath that, presumably the image of Satan. Jesus now treading,
you know, on Satan. And above, in Greek, is "Anastasis", which is the
Greek word for resurrection.
So, you see these same themes in all the other images of the harrowing
of Hell. This from a Greek monastery, a mosaic made in the 11th century:
Adam and Eve, the gates of Hell down below. A King and Queen, not David
and Solomon this time, probably the King and Queen of the current era.
Why? Well, who paid for this? A little privilege thrown in there. And
typically, Jesus often shown with a cross, here an older style cross.
This is another mosaic
from the 12th-century in a cathedral in Venice, again Adam and Eve, now
you can see clearly the body of Satan underneath the feet of Jesus:
A fresco in Florence
from the 14th century:
A host of saints there, Adam is the first, Eve right behind, demons over
there, and demons underneath the broken down gates.
A 15th-century icon by the leader of the school of icons in Moscow in
the 15 century (Donisuis was his name):
Same images. One of my favorites, the great German wood carver Albert
Durer (you see his initials in the bottom right, AD):
And here you see Adam and Even clearly, because they're nude, protecting
themselves, and Jesus is leading John the Baptist here by the wrist,
once again. Notice the demons underneath the gates, and the way that's
A 16th-century icon, Russian icon:
And so forth. Now, lest you think this is a long-lost tradition of the
ancient church, there are modern stained-glass windows from a Coptic
church in San Diego, with the same image, Jesus leading Adam and Eve out of the sarcophagi, the
broken-down gates that he's standing on, and so forth.
Now, keep those images in mind as I quickly show you a few examples of
how Western artists portray this. Part of the point I'm making here is
that this tradition has been kept alive in the East, in the Orthodox
tradition. And now let's look at the West. Bellini -- 15th century
Notice Jesus is semi-nude, denotes divinity. And instead of the people
being led out of the the abode of the dead, we have the other people
familiar from the story of the Resurrection -- the guards and disciples,
Grunewald, a famous German artist:
Jesus here is so bright he's whited-out in the resolution of this
picture, but that is the risen Christ behind the blazing sun, and the
cowering guards underneath. This is an alter piece in the church in
Rembrandt (17th century):
Portrays Jesus as the Gardener, there's Mary Magdalene, the angels of
the tomb, a little hard to make out there.
Ruebens (17th century):
A very muscular Jesus, coming out of the tomb.
Note how these images are getting more realistic.
And here is the story of doubting Thomas, a little gruesome there,
inspecting the wounds of Jesus.
Stained-glass windows, of course, another way Jesus is often portrayed.
Here with Mary Magdalene:
The risen Christ, out-stretched arms. Here the risen Christ with the
cowering guards beneath:
And so we imagine
Jesus. So think about that image that we have of Jesus being raised from
the dead. How do we picture Jesus?
This one kind of looks like a California surfer dude:
Buff, ready to take on the world, surf's up.
Now, contrast that with the way the resurrection is portrayed in the
I want you to particularly note you see the exact same things, this is a
very modern icon, note the words above the head of Jesus, not now in
Greek, but in English: "The resurrection of Christ".
In the West, the harrowing of Hell became separated from the
resurrection, and it was a story told on holy Saturday, and it became
easy to just skip over it and leave it out. In the East, this image of
the harrowing of Hell was COMBINED with the Resurrection and is very
much still a part of the resurrection story.
Keep in mind that icons are not objects which are worshiped. Think of
them as worship aids. Nor are they considered to represent historical or
physical reality, and hence they don't even try to make the pictures
look like photographs, but rather they are windows into the spiritual
world. Thus, no orthodox believe -- then or now -- would see this and
say "Well, that's the way the Resurrection really was, if you had a
video camera, this is what you would have captured". No, this is a
figurative representation of a spiritual reality.
So whether one considers this place of the abode of dead, be it Hell or
Sheol, to be a real place or an imagined one, or perhaps a condition
experienced in this world (as Jesus did on the cross), there are
spiritual truths for all of us to learn from this ancient tradition of
the harrowing (or plundering) of Hell.
And here are some of the ones that I see when I see these images, you
may see your own:
First, resurrection is not a solo act. Rather, it's a communal one. A
closer examination of the biblical record reveals it never was about
only Jesus. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, if the dead are not
raised, then Christ is not raised. Resurrection is, to quote the motto
of the Three Musketeers, "all for one and one for all".
Second, resurrection is intended for all humanity, represented by Adam
and Eve. Now, is this a portrayal of the doctrine of 'universal
salvation', that all are saved? Probably not -- if it were, we would
also see Cain next to Abel, and Herod next to John the Baptist. But it
comes pretty darn close, doesn't it? Because if Adam and Eve are
included. . . .they're not just the first to sin, they're the ones that
introduced sin into the world. If they are included, who can be
And in the story, here in 1 Peter, it's all those who drowned in the
flood that are included, that Jesus goes to preach to. And by the way,
when we think of Jesus preaching, we should think not in terms of
leading to conversion, but think in terms of his sermon in Nazareth
(told in Luke 4), when he says "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, I
have come to proclaim good news to the poor, and to set the captives
free". That's what this image is -- setting the captives free from this
abode of the dead.
Third, resurrection is not just about eternal life, it is about divine
justice, that extends to (and especially to) the martyrs of the past.
Crossan calls this the "truth and reconciliation commission" of the
past, where all the past deeds are brought to light and the martyrs are
vindicated. Abel and John the Baptist, then, represent all those who
wrongly suffered. Not only then is Christ vindicated by the
resurrection, but anyone and everyone who suffers for doing what is
right is vindicated. God's justice is so complete, so great, it extends
even to the dead. And even to us.
Fourth, resurrection, then, is not about the goodness of our lives, but
about the character of God. Justice for those who wrongly suffer and
forgiveness for all the rest.
So if this is a true picture of that spiritual reality, a true picture
of what the resurrection means, of what the character of God is, then
the question which remains is this: how do we reflect that character of
How do we participate in the resurrection?