Yesterday we handled what has been called “the most obscure passages in the New Testament” at LifePoint. We came upon the text in our journey through 1 Peter. I wrote about this text last week, in anticipation of preaching it yesterday. In the context of a sermon on a Sunday morning there is only so much time you can give to the various theories involved with a text like this, particularly because the verses in question were only a portion of the entire passage being preached. So for the geeks among us, I am undertaking a 4-part “spirits in prison” series this week on 2thesource.
My goal here will be to outline the three major theories that I found in my study of this text last week. To be clear, there are numerous interpretations of this text, I came upon at least half a dozen. 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 text is part of 1 Peter 3:18-22, the portion in question is italicized:
For 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, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because 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. 21 Baptism, 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, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
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 this week, it is important to understand the point. As I stated yesterday, I believe the point of this text is: Jesus died to bring us to God and he rose to bring God to us.
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 bring God to us. As Jesus ascended the Holy Spirit descended, and he lives as “God with us” day after day, bearing witness to Jesus.
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!