At first glance, 1 Peter 3:18-22 is among the strangest in all of the New Testament.
The first verse is straight-forward and powerful:
“18For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit”
I like the NIV’s rendering of the last phrase of verse 18 a little better than the ESV (the translation I used here). The NIV translators choose to say “made alive by the Spirit.” This is exactly what Peter is referring to here. Jesus died, but was brought back to life, resurrected by the Spirit of God.
Verse 19 is the point at which the text takes a strange turn:
“19in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”
Who are the “spirits in prison?”
What did Jesus proclaim to them?
When did Jesus do this?
How is what Christ proclaimed in his resurrection applicable to “spirits” who disobeyed God in the days of Noah?
How does baptism save us?
There are numerous interpretations of this text, I came upon at least half a dozen. To be sure, the truths contained here are worth the energy it takes to excavate them.
There are some towering intellects, both historic and contemporary, that formed their own theories on this text, but whose treatment of it wasn’t reflected in the mainstream. Both John Calvin and R.C. Sproul postulated unique interpretations of these verses, but I didn’t find much traction for either of their viewpoints.
The broader context here is Peter’s encouragement of Christians who are facing suffering and persecution as exiles in the world. These 5 verses have a pretty straight-forward outline, as they point to what Jesus accomplished in his:
- Death (18a)
- Resurrection (18b-21)
- Ascension (22)
As you can see, the curious verses are contained in the resurrection portion of the passage. Before we get into the three theories, it is important to understand the point of this text:
Jesus died to bring us to God and he rose to bring God to us.Jesus died to bring us to God and he rose to bring God to us. Click To Tweet
This passage serves as encouragement for Christians who are facing suffering and persecution, and who (like Noah) feel outnumbered as exiles in the midst of a world bent on wickedness. The good news is that Jesus’ death brings us to God, and his resurrection and ascension brings God to us. As Jesus ascended the Holy Spirit descended, and he lives as “God with us” day after day, bearing witness to Jesus.As Jesus ascended the Holy Spirit descended, and he lives as “God with us” day after day. Click To Tweet
I start here because before we get into the details of the identity of “spirits in prison,” or try to figure out what it means that they disobeyed in Noah’s day, or wonder just how “Jesus proclaimed” something to them, we must realize the point of this text in context. We can “give a defense” of the “hope we have within us” (1 Peter 3:15), we can “suffer for doing good” (1 Peter 3:17), and we can “arm ourselves with Christ’s way of thinking” (1 Peter 4:1) because Jesus died, rose, and ascended into heaven ‘disarming principalities and powers in the cross’ (Colossians 2:15).
Glory to God!