“For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.” (1 Peter 4:6, NASB95)
People judge us. They base their evaluations upon their own standards, and we rise and fall according to how we align with those standards. What we do in the flesh before them is how we are judged by them. When we walk in step with them we are accepted, and when we don’t we incur their wrath. But as those who have trusted in Christ we are to continually be reminded that they are not our judge. They may be able to harm our flesh, but they have no control over our spirit and our eternal hope.
In this light verse 6 is a reasonable continuation of the verses immediately preceding it, and it is for this reason that in most translations that break passages into paragraphs they include verse 6 with the first five verses of chapter 4. It is the capstone of hope.
“Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you; but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.” (1 Peter 4:1–6, NASB95)
By the time of Peter’s writing of this letter, which was most likely thirty plus years after Christ’s crucifixion, persecution of Christians had become commonplace. While we know of historical events that made this persecution more focused and even legal, Peter does not point here to any specific action. Rather, he points to their persecution as a generally present and even widespread evil. The reality is that there were those who had heard the gospel, responded in faith for salvation, and who subsequently were put to death because of it. This did not speak to the entirety of those who had died, but it did speak to some with whom they could relate.
Peter was encouraging his readers with the same truth that had sustained those who had gone before them into eternity. Regardless of their cause of death, physical death is the most that man can bring on other men. No man can destroy that which God has made alive. One of my favorite passages in this regard is found in 2 Corinthians 4:7-18 where we read,
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you. But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak, knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:7–18, NASB95)
Paul referred to the powerful treasure given to us by God as being contained in earthen vessels. God did not choose to make us impenetrable in the face of persecution, but to make us fragile so that in our fragility His power might be demonstrated. It doesn’t matter what man does, we have Christ in us, and when we are persecuted for His sake it is His power that is seen in our human frailty. Paul went on to encourage his readers to not lose heart knowing that as these bodies in which we are housed fall apart, that what lives for eternity—our inner man—is continually renewed every day. Paul went so far as to call the worst of what man can do to us “momentary, light affliction.” It may in reality be very intense and seemingly unbearable, but what lies beyond is beyond all comparison. Everything we see and everything that others can touch is temporal or limited in time and space, but that which we cannot see and in which we hope is eternal.
Peter’s words point to this same truth and unite his readers currently undergoing persecution with those who had gone before them. Their vessels may have been broken, but what was released in the process is the glory of God so that they would all live according to the will of God. Even for us today this truth is still the same. We live with the same hope and we can be encouraged with the same knowledge that just as God was faithful to bring to Himself those who have gone before us, so is He faithful to bring us as well.
“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;” (1 Peter 3:18, NASB95)