1 Peter 3v18-20
Last time we concentrated on 1 Peter 3v18. Now, that is a wonderful verse. It’s thrilling for believers in Christ because it speaks so clearly and directly of the atonement that Jesus has made for us. However, it also leads into what is undeniably the most difficult passage in the letter. From the very first moment I decided to preach through 1 Peter I knew that this tricky passage was looming at some point in the future and now that moment has arrived!
We read in 2 Peter 3v15-16: “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures”. So, Peter said that some of Paul’s writings were difficult to understand but it’s tempting to say that Peter is a fine one to talk! That’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black! Speaking of 1 Peter 3v18-22, Martin Luther said: “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 meant”.
When we looked at verse 18 we saw that Jesus suffered and died on the cross in order to make atonement. Peter said that Jesus suffered “for sins”. We particularly noted four things about that atonement. We saw the nature of that atonement: it was ULTIMATE because Peter said “For Christ also suffered once for sins”. We saw the means of that atonement: it was SUBSTITUTIONARY because Peter said “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous”. We saw the purpose of that atonement: it was RESTORATION because Peter said that He did so “that he might bring us to God”. Lastly, we saw the outcome of that atonement: it was SUCCESSFUL because Peter spoke of Him “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit”.
We stopped at that point because I didn’t want the difficulties that lie in this passage to distract us from the wonderful truths of verse 18. Consequently, we didn’t really consider what the end of verse 18 actually means. We were content to say that “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” indicates the success of the atonement that Jesus made. That, of course, is true but it is also the point at which the passage starts to get complicated and it leads straight into the difficult words in verses 19 and 20 where we read: “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 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”.
It would be no exaggeration to say that I’ve been wrestling with this passage for several months. Part of that struggle has been with trying to understand what the passage means and part has been with trying to decide how to go about presenting the passage. Because it is such a difficult passage, it goes without saying that many different interpretations have been suggested. Some are fanciful to say the least and can quickly be dismissed. Others are more credible but none are without some problems. Most commentators tend to outline a number of the most commonly held views and then present the numerous arguments for and against each one. I’m not sure that there’s a lot of value in doing that and it would be very time consuming to do so. So, rather than getting bogged down in the arguments for and against a number of different views, I’ve decided to simply explain the interpretation that I’ve come to feel most comfortable with. It doesn’t exactly coincide with any of the main views. I’m not claiming that it’s the result of my own brilliant insights and analysis and deductions as I’ve been greatly helped by John Brown’s commentary on 1 Peter. Neither am I claiming that I’ve discovered the magic key that miraculously unlocks the passage. I wouldn’t be dogmatic about it because, as with all the other interpretations, it’s not without some difficulties but I feel more comfortable with it than any other view that I’m aware of. I’ve entitled this sermon “The power of gospel proclamation”. The reason for that might not immediately be apparent but I hope it will be once we’ve explored the passage.
Before we attempt to unravel the passage let’s make some preliminary observations.
Firstly, as always with any attempt to interpret a Biblical passage, we need to remember the context. The section from verses 18 to 22 begins with the words “For Christ also”. That tells us that it points back to verses 13 to 17 and provides a basis for what Peter had been saying there. What had he been saying there? He’d been talking about suffering “for righteousness’ sake” and saying that “it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil”. So, our interpretation of verses 18 to 22 must be such that it provides an encouragement to believers who are suffering for their faith in Christ.
Secondly, although we stopped at the end of verse 18 last time, that is actually mid-sentence. Peter’s thought process continues into verse 19 and onwards. Therefore, how we interpret verses 19 and 20 is very dependent on how we understand “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” in verse 18.
Thirdly, it might be significant to note that verses 19 to 22 seem to refer to things about Jesus that were subsequent to or dependent upon His “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit”. Whatever we understand by “being put to death in the flesh” and “made alive in the spirit” they seem to be linked. They’re two simultaneous occurrences. They belong together. Then verse 19 says: “in which he went and proclaimed”. His going and proclaiming, however we understand that, seems to be subsequent to His “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit”. It follows on from that. It is dependent on His having been “made alive in the spirit”. Then, verse 21 speaks of “the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. So, having been “put to death in the flesh” He was subsequently resurrected or made alive in the flesh. Following on from that we read in verse 22 that He “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God”. That speaks of His ascension to heaven and then His reign in heaven. So, His going and proclaiming and His resurrection, ascension and heavenly reign all seem to stem from or flow out from His having been “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit”. That’s the source of it all. So, that also suggests that to understand verses 19 to 22 we first need to establish what “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” means. Let’s try to do that.
The ESV translates the end of verse 18 as “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” but the NIV and NKJV both have “being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the spirit”. The fact is that, linguistically, it could be either “in” or “by” in each case. So, other possible translations would be “being put to death by the flesh but made alive by the spirit” or “being put to death by the flesh but made alive in the spirit”. We need to start by deciding which of those four permutations is most likely to be correct.
A minority of commentators take the first phrase to be “being put to death by the flesh”. In that case, they’re understanding it to mean that Jesus was “put to death by human beings”. Now, it is undoubtedly true that He was “put to death by human beings”. Peter said as much in his sermon on the day of Pentecost. Look at Acts 2v23 where he said: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men”. However, describing that as “being put to death by the flesh” seems an awkward way of expressing it. Taking the phrase to be “being put to death in the flesh” seems a much more natural expression and would then simply mean that He died bodily. His body was put to death. That also seems to make sense given that Peter goes on in verse 21 to speak of “the resurrection of Jesus Christ”; that is His being raised to life bodily.
If we’re right in concluding that “being put to death in the flesh” is the correct translation, then it’s reasonable to take it that “but made alive in the spirit” is also correct as it seems unlikely that “in” would suddenly change to “by” in the space of one sentence. So, I take it that the correct translation is “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” as we have in the ESV. I think we’ll also find further support for that conclusion as we continue in the passage.
I don’t think that anyone would have difficulty in accepting that “being put to death in the flesh” means that He died bodily but what are we to understand by “made alive in the spirit”? In order to answer that question, we first need to establish what is meant by “the spirit” in this context. If you read the commentators, you’ll find that there are three schools of thought on that. Some take it to refer to The Holy Spirit, some to “the spiritual realm” and others to “Jesus’s spirit”. Given that we’ve decided that “in the spirit” is more likely than “by the spirit” it seems unlikely that Peter has the Holy Spirit in mind here. Also, there seems to be a clear contrast between “the flesh” and “the spirit”. In view of that contrast, since “the flesh” refers to His body, it seems most likely to me that the term “the spirit” here refers to His spirit.
If that’s so, how are we to understand “but made alive in the spirit”? After all, His spirit was already alive. It didn’t die when He was put to death. When a human being dies their body is no longer alive but their spirit or soul lives on. Well, the Greek word that’s been translated as “made alive” is zoopoieo and, besides meaning “to make alive” or to “give life”, it can also mean to “increase life”. Thayer’s Greek lexicon describes that sense as to “endue with new and greater powers of life”. Now, if Peter was using the word zoopoieo in that sense, he would be saying that when Jesus suffered to make atonement, although His body died, His spirit was simultaneously, in some sense, made even more alive than it was before. His spirit had new and greater powers of life as a direct consequence of His suffering and dying on the cross.
In what sense was His spirit made even more alive than it was before He suffered on the cross? Perhaps we get a clue if we look at 1 Corinthians 15v45 where we read: “Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit”. “The last Adam” refers to Jesus Christ and we’re told that He “became a life-giving spirit”. The man Christ Jesus wasn’t always “a life-giving spirit”. That’s what He “became”. How? Surely, it was through His atoning death on the cross. The idea is perhaps similar to what we see in Hebrews 2v10: “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering”. Jesus, the founder of our salvation was made “perfect through suffering”. That’s not suggesting that He was sinful in any way before He suffered. It’s saying that through His suffering on the cross He was perfected as the Saviour. It is only by suffering that atoning death on the cross that He is able to save. That’s what gave Him the power to be able to actually give new life and save from sin.
Jesus was very aware of the consequences that would flow from His death. So, we read in John 12v23-24 that He said: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”. He was alluding to His own death and the fact that it would result in much fruit being borne. Then, in John 12v32-33, He went on to say: “””And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die”. Again, He was speaking of His death. The fruit of it would consist of people being drawn to Him. To what end? Well, following His atoning death, He’s made more “alive in the spirit”. He’s become “a life-giving spirit”. So, people are drawn to Him that they might receive life from Him. The New Testament is full of references to new life and eternal life being given by Jesus and being received from Jesus. For instance, in John 17v1-2, looking at Jesus’ high priestly prayer as He faced the cross, we read that He said: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him”. He can give eternal life. In John 10v10 He said: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”. John 6 speaks of Him as “the bread of life” who “gives life to the world”. For the sake of time we’ll not look at it now but it’s worth reading through later. You’ll find that it’s full of the wonderful truth that there is eternal life for all who come in faith to Him.
John adds his personal testimony to the truth of Jesus’ words when he says in 1 John 5v11-12: “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life”.
So, Jesus is able to give eternal life as a result of Him being “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit”.
Moving into verse 19 we read: “in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison”. That’s how the ESV puts it. Other versions have “by whom” or “through whom”. They’ve used “whom” because they’ve decided that verse 18 is saying that Jesus has been made alive by the Holy Spirit. However, the ESV is correct. The Greek text does actually say “in which”. That gives us further confidence that we were right in thinking that Peter had been saying that it was Jesus’ spirit that had been made alive. So, in that enlivened, invigorated, life-giving spirit we’re told that “he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison”. How are we to understand that? Well, seeing the words “proclaimed” and prison” in the same sentence immediately make me think of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth when He read from Isaiah 61. We read in Luke 4v17-21: “And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing””.
So, Jesus was claiming that He was the one who had been promised who would “proclaim liberty to the captives”. In view of that, when Peter said that Jesus “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” we can take it that what He proclaimed was “liberty”, freedom, deliverance. From what? Well, notice this is proclaimed to “spirits in prison” so it’s a proclamation of deliverance from spiritual captivity. Therefore, I take it that “spirits in prison” is a reference to natural, fallen, sinful human beings. We are by nature “spirits in prison”. That’s a very striking image! The Greek word for “spirit” is “pneuma” which means a breath or breeze. It conveys an image of unbounded freedom. Think of Jesus saying that the wind blows where it will. It is unshackled. We talk approvingly of a “free spirit”. We intuitively feel that that’s the way it ought to be so there’s something tragic or even grotesque about an imprisoned spirit. That’s a picture of the awfulness of the captivity of sinful men. We are naturally captive to sin and death. Paul described that natural condition in Ephesians 2v1-3 where he said: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind”.
How are you set free from being captive to death? It’s by being made alive. So, Paul continues in verses 4 to 6 by saying: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”.
To summarise so far, Jesus died bodily but His spirit was made more alive so that He became a life-giving spirit. As such He went and proclaimed liberty to lost sinners. That begs the questions when and how did He go and proclaim? The flow of verses 18 and 19 suggest that He “went and proclaimed”following His death. The fact that the text says that He was “made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed” suggests that He “went and proclaimed” spiritually rather than physically.
Those two observations, coupled with subsequent New Testament history, suggest to me that the phrase “he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” is referring to the proclamation of the gospel to the world by His church. So, after His resurrection and before His ascension, we read in Matthew 28v18-20 that Jesus said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”. After that, He ascended and the Holy Spirit was poured upon the church. Then what happened? Well, we read in Mark 16v19-20: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs”. They preached everywhere as commanded but it was the Lord who worked and confirmed. Jesus was proclaiming “liberty to the captives” through His people.
In Ephesians 2v17, speaking of Jesus, Paul said: “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near”. Clearly, Jesus hadn’t preached in person to the Ephesian Christians. Some had heard the gospel through other Christians before Paul went there and many more would have heard it when Paul was there. Christ had proclaimed it to them but it was through the instrumentality of His people.
In Romans 15v18-19 Paul says: “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ”. You see, Paul preached and worked but he was very clear that any gospel fruit was what Christ had accomplished through him. That was Jesus proclaiming to “to the spirits in prison”.
You might well think that could be a feasible interpretation of verses 18 to 19 but what about verse 20? Doesn’t that throw a spanner in the works by saying that He went and proclaimed in the days of Noah? I don’t think it does because I don’t think that is what verse 20 is saying. The ESV has: “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” but the Greek text does not have “because they”. It should simply be “who formerly did not obey”.
The phrase “spirits in prison” is appropriate for all people in all ages ever since the fall. People today are “spirits in prison”. So were the people in Peter’s day and in Noah’s day. Peter is really making two statements here concerning “the spirits in prison”. Firstly, he’s saying that Jesus “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison”. Secondly, he’s saying that what particularly characterised the “spirits in prison” in Noah’s day was that they “did not obey”. That’s not to say that He went to “the spirits in prison” in Noah’s day. To help understand the sense of the sentence construction you might make a statement such as “Theresa May went to the Americans who formerly were our enemies in the days of the war of independence”. That’s a true statement but it certainly isn’t saying that Theresa May went to America in the eighteenth century! Likewise, saying that Jesus “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah” isn’t saying that He went in the days of Noah.
If that’s so, why does Peter mention “the days of Noah” at all? Well, firstly notice that word “formerly”. That means “before”. Before what? Surely, it’s referring to before the death of Christ. As we’ve seen, this passage began with the atoning death of Christ. A contrast is now being made between before and after His death. Since His atoning death things have changed. We have an indication of what has changed if, secondly, we note the emphasis on the fact that only a few were saved in Noah’s day. That it really was just a few is emphasised by Peter saying “that is, eight persons”. Few were saved. Few responded and that was the case throughout Old Testament times. Listen to the words of Isaiah in chapter 49v3-5: “But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God””. You sense his frustration and despair at declaring God’s message and being ignored. Or again we read in Isaiah 53v1: “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”. It’s a rhetorical question isn’t it and the answer is clearly “very few” at best. The point is that formerly, before Christ came, such as in the days of Noah, “the spirits in prison” were generally unresponsive to the proclamation of the salvation that God offered them. They “did not obey”. In Peter’s day and onwards, as a result of Jesus’ atoning death and His having been made alive in the spirit He has been proclaiming powerfully and effectively to “the spirits in prison” through the preaching of the gospel by His church. How different it was on the Day of Pentecost when Jesus “proclaimed to the spirits in prison” through Peter’s preaching and 5000 were saved in one day! Since then Jesus has “proclaimed to the spirits in prison” through the preaching of the gospel throughout the whole world. We see the ultimate result of that in Revelation 7v9-10: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”.
So, what an encouragement to Peter’s suffering readers! They might be suffering “for righteousness’ sake” but they had been set free by the Lord Jesus Christ who said in John 8v36: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”. They’d been made alive by Him so that their present lives were abundant and they’d received eternal life through Him. He suffered and died but has been resurrected and “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God”. His suffering led to glory, not just for Himself but ultimately for all who follow Him. That is surely a great encouragement to us too, to keep going despite all that this world might throw at us. Knowing what He has done for us and is doing in us and is preparing for us is surely a great incentive to keep trusting Him and serving Him and declaring the gospel message to those who are currently “spirits in prison”.