As 1 Peter 3 comes to a close, Peter uses an illustration from the earliest days of history, of the Flood and Noah’s acts of faith during that time. But before he gets there, he makes one of the most misunderstood statements of the entire letter. Take a look for yourself in 1 Peter 3:18-20.
Remember, this entire section of Peter’s letter has been on the subject of unjust suffering. He calls those who face persecution to bear it, and remember for whom they are suffering. He gives us the ultimate example, that of Jesus himself, and his suffering for our own sake. Christ triumphed over death. He was victorious! And his sacrifice was sufficient, once and for all.
That’s how Peter begins this passage, with the reminder that Christ’s death was a one time event that was good enough for all people, everywhere, and at any time. No longer were the repetitive sacrifices of bulls and goats needed. Christ was righteous, and did what only he could do, in order to bring us close to God. One of the interesting textual variants of this passage makes the statement that Christ “suffered” for sins once and for all. This conveys the thrust of this passage very clearly.
But Peter also implies that because Christ suffered, we should expect to suffer as well. And we should be willing to follow the example of Christ as he suffered for doing good, although Christ’s suffering was different in nature, due to the atoning sacrifice he made on our behalf, that we could never accomplish on our own. And that work is finished. The death, burial and resurrection fully accomplished our salvation.
Peter next states that he was killed physically, but made alive by the Spirit. Of course, this is the cross and the resurrection. But what Peter states next has puzzled readers for centuries. It is an obscure passage that even the likes of Martin Luther could not completely fathom. He stated: “This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament. I still do not know for sure what the apostle means.”
There are three main views of this passage and what it may mean. The first interpretation is that Jesus went to Hades and preached to the spirits of those who had been disobedient during the days of Noah. Most who hold this view believe that he did it while his body was in the tomb, but some feel that this happened after the resurrection.
A second view is that Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, inspired Noah’s preaching at the time of the Flood. This seems unlikely, because if they were alive for Noah to preach to them, then they weren’t “spirits” yet.
A third interpretation is that after the resurrection, Jesus preached to certain supernatural beings who had been disobedient during the days of Noah and the Flood. This view requires the being in Genesis 6:1-4 to have been fallen angels who procreated with humans. This is a difficult theory to support, because using one obscure and debated passage to explain another isn’t very solid. However, this view of the imprisoned spirits being fallen angels seems to be supported by 2 Peter and Jude, along with extra-biblical literature, such as 1 Enoch.
If this view is correct, what did Jesus preach to them? While it could have been the gospel message, the Greek word used here can also mean the proclamation of bad news. It is more likely that Jesus brought to them the bad news of his complete victory. This fits in with verse 22, which tells us that all spiritual powers have been made subject to Jesus.
The lingering question is why. Why did Jesus go to these spirits and proclaim his victory? Peter gives no answer for that. However, his words here give us two glimpses into the mind of Christ: first, he is victorious, and he has completely defeated evil for good. And second, until he returns, he has great patience, waiting for all to repent.
As he shares the illustration of Noah’s faith and obedience, as he built the ark, Peter reminds us of the basics of the event: all mankind perished, along with all other life on earth. Only eight people were saved on the ark, with representatives of all animal life. His use of the word “saved” is telling; Noah and his family weren’t just rescued. They were saved through the waters of the flood. And in the final verses of this chapter, Peter will tell us what that symbolizes.
Question: The spirits in prison were disobedient, and Christ proclaimed to them his victory. Are you more like one of those spirits? Or are you in line with Christ’s saving actions? If you need to make changes in your life, what is the first step? You can leave a comment by clicking here.