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Preached To The Spirits In Prison (1 Peter 3:18-20)

First Peter 3:18-22 is considered by many to be the most difficult passage to interpret. There are numbers of different interpretations that have been given about these verses. As we study the text, it is important that we make sure we do not come out of the context. These verses have been lifted from their context which brings about many of the different interpretations we encounter. Let us look at the verses surrounding this controversial text and see if it gives us some clarity about where Peter is going.

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:17; ESV)

Remember that Peter has been talking about how we handle suffering. Peter just concluded talking about making our suffering purposeful by honor Christ as holy in our hearts through our suffering and being able to defend the hope we have despite our suffering. We know that Peter is still on this topic in verse 18 of chapter 3 because the verse begins with the word “for.” We will come back to this in a moment. Let us look at chapter 4 and verse 1 and notice the topic of discussion. Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking… (1 Peter 4:1; ESV). The topic continues to be suffering. So we are couched between these two bookends concerning suffering. Unless Peter has taken a total detour and tangent from the topic, we can safely assume that 1 Peter 3:18-22 is also about suffering.

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. (NKJV)

18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20 who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, (NIV)

When suffering, do not forget that Jesus suffered. Jesus suffered, but not because of anything he had done wrong. He suffered to deal with our sins. He did not suffer because of his own sins. Jesus is the righteous. He suffered because we are unrighteous and needed our sins atoned. It is worth pointing out again that this text does not explicitly teach substitution. The point is simply that Jesus died on our behalf. He did it for us. The purpose of Jesus’ suffering us to bring us to God. Sin separates us from God. We cannot spend eternity with God with our wickedness attached to us. We are separated and Jesus died to deal with our sins so that we could be brought to God through his suffering. The connection is that Jesus suffered for doing good and we will also suffer for doing going. First Peter 3:16 reminds us that we will be reviled for our good conduct. Jesus endured the same thing. But before we can have a pity party for ourselves we must remember that Jesus did this for us. Before we think we are going through so much, let us never forget what Jesus has done for us. I think this is the purpose of Peter’s instructions here. We will suffer for doing the will of God. But never forget that the One we follow also suffered for doing the will of God and that suffering was for us. In fact, he was put to death for us. He was put to death and raised from the dead so that we would be reconciled to God.

Now this is where interpretations veer all over the place. Some teach that between the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection he went to the realm of the dead and preach to Noah’s contemporaries. Jesus either preached the gospel to save their souls or proclaimed the good news that he had been victorious. But there are just volumes of problems with this viewpoint. Allow me to point out just a few of these problems. (1) The scriptures do not teach any where that salvation can be obtained after death. Jesus himself in Luke 16 taught that there was no ability to change one’s eternal destination after death. (2) Why would Jesus preach only to Noah’s contemporaries? Are there not billions more that would have needed to hear the gospel? (3) If Jesus only made proclamation about his victory, why was this victory proclamation only made to Noah’s contemporaries who are lost? So Jesus did not after his death but before his resurrection preach to the dead who lived at the time of Noah but drowned.

Another view is that Jesus preached to fallen angels. The “spirits in prison” are understood to be disobedient angels. But we again have the problem of the scriptures never teaching anything to this effect. Further, the writer of Hebrews tells us that salvation is not extended to angels, but only to humans (Hebrews 2:16). Jude 6 tells us that disobedient angels are in everlasting chains awaiting judgment. There is no opportunity for salvation of disobedient angels.

I previously understood this text to be saying that Jesus proclaimed victory to those who had died. The problem is: why? Such a concept takes Jesus and places him in the selfish act of saying, “I won,” to those who have clearly lost. Further, we still have the problem why this declaration would only be made to those who were Noah’s contemporaries. But let us go back to the original theme and ask: what do these teachings have to do with suffering? How does this information help the reader who is suffering for doing good? Even if these interpretations have merit, the problem is that these interpretations only work outside of the context but do not fit the flow of Peter’s instructions on how to deal with suffering for doing good. So what is Peter teaching?

I think we have missed the focus of the text. We have become so consumed with the meaning of the spirits in prison and Jesus’ proclamation that we have missed how suffering fits into Peter’s point. Do you think Noah had a life of suffering? The scriptures declare him to be a preacher of righteousness. He lived in a day when the thoughts of humanity were continually wicked. Only eight people were saved from God’s judgment. Noah went around preaching to people to repent of their sins and warned them that it was going to rain so much that the earth would be flooded. It had never rained on the earth before. How much ridicule did Noah endure? How much mockery came his way year after year as he built an enormous boat to keep animals and people? Day after day, month after month, and year after year for 120 years, Noah and his family are building a large boat to save the world from a flood. Christ was preached through Noah to those who chose to be disobedient. I submit to you that this is the simplest way to understand the text. Jesus went and preached to those disobedient in the days of Noah through Noah himself and only eight believed. Peter used this language earlier in 1:10-12 where Christ spoke through the prophets about suffering and the subsequent glories.

So notice the picture: Jesus suffered for our sins unjustly because he was innocent. Though killed in the flesh he was delivered by God when he was raised in the spirit. Noah suffered as a preacher of righteousness. Though he suffered, he was delivered from the destruction of the earth by flood through the ark. Peter’s focus is on the fact that Noah preached but they disobeyed and only a few were delivered. But they were delivered despite the suffering endured. We will suffer unjustly for following Jesus but God will deliver us in the end for our faith.