Sometimes when you are trying to exegete (‘pull out’ what is there) a passage of Scripture you find an idea that appeals to you in a certain way. Under these circumstances it can be easy to settle for that interpretation of the text, without taking into account other vantage points. I tried to stay extremely pliable this last week as I examined the history, context, language, grammar, and theology of 1 Peter 3:18-22. The tricky portion, perhaps the trickiest portion of Scripture in the entire New Testament, is verses 19-20a:
…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…
Who are these “spirits in prison” and what was it that Jesus proclaimed to them?
The second theory that I discovered (and an early favorite for me) is what I will refer to as the Jesus Touchdown Dance. I’m sure you can guess why I like this theory. It’s because it is awesome.
It is not without support. Commentator I. Howard Marshall (The IVP Bible Background Commentary) and biblical scholar/pastor John MacArthur both ascribe to this theory. I believe I am the first to call it the “Jesus Touchdown Dance,” but I could be wrong.
Here is the theory:
In His death and resurrection, Jesus proclaimed victory over the demonic realm, putting the forces of evil ‘on notice’ that He has won. The ‘spirits in prison’ are fallen angels who worked to influence humans toward wickedness in Noah’s time (Genesis 6:1-4).
- Genesis 6:1-4 (widely believed to be the most obscure/difficult text in the Old Testament) is sometimes interpreted as emphasizing demonic activity prevalent in Noah’s time.
- 2 Peter 2:4-5 ties together both fallen angels (who are in chains of darkness) and Noah as a “preacher of righteousness.”
- 1 Peter 3:22 (a part of this immediate context) emphasizes the place of Christ above all “powers and authorities.”
- A major emphasis of 1 Peter is a call to endurance in the midst of suffering (which can include demonic influence through persecution).
- 1 Peter 5:8-11 talks about resisting the Devil.
- NT period Jewish Apocalyptic tradition (1 Enoch, etc.) shows there was a real sect within the early church which produced texts that would have read similar to this.
- Colossians 2:15: In the cross Jesus “triumphed over” principalities and powers.
As you can see, this theory has support both theologically and biblically. This is why I favored it early on. The idea that Jesus “spiked the football” on the faces of demons through his death and resurrection is both true and fun to preach. However, when we are trying to figure out the ideas contained in a certain text, the fact that something is true and biblical doesn’t mean it is actually a faithful reading of that given text. Yes, Jesus did triumph over the kingdom of Satan in his death and resurrection. But that doesn’t mean that 1 Peter 3:18-22 is saying that. Other biblical passages say it. The point in question right now is: What does 1 Peter 3:18-22 actually say?
Here is where this theory fails:
- Chronology: this point is big.
- The text says that Jesus “proclaimed” something to the spirits in prison because they formerly did not obey when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah. Why would God’s patience be waiting for fallen angels to obey in the days of Noah?
- Fallen angels didn’t have opportunity to repent in Noah’s time.
- In this sense, it is very odd that Noah would be brought into this passage.
- Genesis 6:1-4 is the only thing that ties together Noah and (supposed) demonic activity.
- This is precisely where this fails. Tying together “spirits in prison” from 1 Peter 3 with the Genesis 6:1-4 passage means basing our interpretation of the most obscure text in the NT on a specific (and unlikely) interpretation of the most obscure passage in the OT.
Yes, demonic activity does exist.
Yes, Christians are encouraged to endure through persecution and to resist the Devil and his forces in the letter of 1 Peter.
Yes, Jesus triumphed over all the power of the enemy in his death/resurrection.
However, 1 Peter 3:18-22 isn’t talking about the Touchdown Dance.
Tomorrow I will put forward the theory that I think holds the most weight in regards to the interpretation of this tricky passage.