Christ Also Suffered, Part 2 (1 Peter 3:18-22)

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Introduction

I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles once again to the book of 1 Peter. In our time together this morning we will continue to cover 1 Peter 3:18-22. If you do not have a Bible with you today, I encourage you to make use of one of the pew Bibles where you will find this passage located on page 1016.

During our time together last week, we began to study this passage which Martin Luther described as “a strange text” and a passage more obscure “than any other passage in the New Testament.” And, I pointed out that it was not just Luther who had difficulty understanding this passage, but it is a passage that many modern interpreters of Scripture have found difficult as well. And so, I decided to focus our attention last week on the plain things in the passage before we dived off into the difficult-to-understand things this week. Hopefully, you remember the quote I shared last week from Alistair Begg who says that when it comes to understanding the Bible, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.” And, hopefully, as you look at this passage before us again this morning, you remember the plain things we found in it last week. But, just to be sure, let’s take a few minutes to review them before we dive off into some of the more difficult parts of this passage today.

Remember, last week we focused on four things this passage has to say about the suffering of Jesus Christ and what that suffering accomplished for us. And the first thing Peter told us last week about Christ’s suffering is that his suffering was for our sins. He told us that in verse 18 where he says that “Christ also suffered once for sins.” But, Peter also goes on to explain that Jesus didn’t only suffer for our sins, he also suffered in our place. Peter says, ”For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous.” In other words, when Jesus went to the cross, he took the punishment we deserve. Yes, when he went to the cross, he went as our substitute. The righteous for the unrighteous. That’s the second thing Peter tells us in this passage about Christ’s suffering.

But, Jesus didn’t only suffer in our place for our sins so that they might be forgiven because Peter tells us that Jesus also suffered so “that he might bring us to God.” Yes, as wonderful as it is for our sins to be forgiven, it is even more wonderful that by dying in our place, Jesus has made it possible for us to be reconciled to God. As I often say, one of the things sin has done is to separate us from God. God is completely holy, and he cannot allow anyone still stained by sin into his presence. And so, one of the things Jesus has done for us through his death is to cleanse us from our sin so that we can come into the presence of God. That is what Peter means when he says that Jesus suffered “that he might bring us to God.”

And after mentioning the resurrection in verse 21, Peter tells us that Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” And, as I said last week, what this means is that in addition to suffering for our sins, and suffering in our place, and suffering to bring us to God, that Jesus also suffered to obtain victory over evil. What this means is that right now, Jesus is sitting on his throne in triumph over all his enemies—which includes all the demonic powers and authorities who are at work in this world. Yes, through his suffering Jesus took away the sting of death, the power of sin, and the threats of Satan. And the day is coming, when Satan and all his workers of evil will be locked away forever in a place where they can do no more harm to God’s people. Yes, friends, that day is coming, and according to the Bible, it is coming soon.

And, this is all wonderful news. It is what we call the gospel. And as difficult as some of the things in this passage are to understand, the gospel message is plainly and clearly on display for us here. And we should not miss that. We should not allow ourselves to be so distracted by the problematic things in this passage that we miss the beauty of the gospel spelled out for us here.

But, it is still my responsibility to help you understand the rest of this passage. And so, that is what I will attempt to do with the remainder of our time together this morning. For example, look at verses 19 and 20. Just who are the spirits in prison to whom Jesus went to preach? And where exactly is this prison? And when exactly did Jesus go to it and what exactly did he say? These are some of the things that have troubled readers of the Bible for centuries and are still a struggle for us today. And so, I’ll do my best this morning to help us understand what Peter was trying to communicate.

But, before we dive off into these things, let me remind you that it is okay for us not to understand every detail of the Bible. Remember, the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things. And if we could understand everything about God, he wouldn’t be God. I can’t even understand everything about my wife. Why should I expect to understand everything about an infinite God and his work in this world? Does that make sense? So, don’t get too hung up over the fact that we are going to walk away from this passage today with many questions still unanswered. Be thankful that there are some things about God and his Word that you cannot understand—because that’s part of what makes God who he is.

So, let’s read this passage again, and then focus our attention on verses 19 and 20 for the rest of the morning. Beginning in verse 18, Peter says,

18 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. (1 Peter 3:18–22 ESV)

Jesus’s Message To The Spirits In Prison (vv. 19-20)

So, in verse 19, we are told that sometime after his death, Jesus went and proclaimed some message to a certain group of individuals Peter identifies as “spirits in prison.” And, as I mentioned earlier, this raises a few questions. First, when did this take place? Was this something that happened between his death and his resurrection? Was it after his resurrection but before he ascended into heaven to take his place on his throne? Or, what is something he did as part of his ascension?

The second question that we are confronted with in this passage has to do with the location of this prison. Yes, just where exactly is this prison located? Where did Jesus go when he went to deliver a message to these spirits in prison? Did he go to hell between his death and resurrection as many have believed? For those of you familiar with the Apostles’ Creed, you know there are some versions that say he descended into hell. Is that where he went? Or was Peter talking a prison in some other place?

And what about these spirits in prison? Who are they? Verse 20 gives us a little bit of information here when it says that these spirits are those who “did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah.” Is Peter talking, then, about all the people who were killed in the flood? Is that who Jesus went to? If so, why them? Or, does Peter have something else in mind when he says that Jesus “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison?” Are these the spirits of people, or is he talking about something else? Well, that is the third question I’ll try to answer this morning.

The fourth question we’ll look at today regarding this passage has to do with what Christ said to these individuals—whoever they were. Now, the problem is, Peter doesn’t tell us what Jesus said—not directly at least. But, if we can identify the individuals to whom Jesus went, then we might be able to take a stab at what he would have said. So that’s what we’ll try to do today.

Now, throughout history, there have been three main ways people have understood verses 19 and 20. And what I’d like to do, is describe those three different ways, and then make an argument in favor of one of them. Admittedly, it is not going to be a strong argument because there are real problems with each of these positions, but I believe that one of these positions is more likely than the others and I want to explain why. Then after I do that, I want to take just a few minutes and tell you how you can be encouraged by this passage today, no matter what you end up believing or disbelieving about these three different interpretations.

Interpretation #1: Christ Descended To Hell Before His Resurrection Where He Preached To Those Who Died In The Flood

So, the first main way people have understood verses 19 and 20 is by suggesting that what Peter meant in these verses is that between the time of Jesus’s death and his resurrection—the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday—Jesus descended to hell and preached to the spirits of those people who were disobedient to God in Noah’s day and died in the flood as a result. Some who hold this position believe that Jesus simply went to announce his victory over sin, evil, and death. While others believe that he went, not just to announce his victory, but to proclaim the gospel, thereby giving these individuals (and maybe everyone else who was present in that prison) a second chance at eternal life. That is the first way these verses have been interpreted.

Interpretation #2: Christ Preached Through Noah

The second main interpretation of these two verses is that when Peter says Jesus “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” that he meant Jesus was preaching through Noah to the people living in Noah’s day. In his other letter, in 2 Peter 2:5, Peter does refer to Noah as a herald of righteousness—which means that while Noah was building the ark, he was also preaching the people of his day. And so, what many people believe Peter is suggesting in these two verses from 1 Peter 3, is that it was actually the spirit of Christ who was preaching through Noah to the people who would eventually die in the flood. These people were, therefore, imprisoned in their sin. And, according to this view, that is how Christ went and proclaimed a message to the spirits in prison. Through Noah, Christ went and proclaimed the gospel to people in Noah’s day who were imprisoned and controlled by their sin. That’s the second main way people have understood this passage.

Interpretation #3: Christ Announced His Victory To Fallen Angels After His Resurrection

Now, the third way people have understood verses 19 and 20, is by seeing the “spirits in prison,” not as human beings, but as the disobedient fallen angels who have already been imprisoned by God for their disobedience—specifically those fallen angels who were at work in the days leading up to the flood. Those who hold this view believe that Christ’s message to them was one of victory and judgment for the evil they had done in this world—again, particularly the evil they had done in the days of Noah when nearly every human being was wiped off the face of the earth. There is a lot of biblical support for this view, and it is, in fact, the view that most modern students of the Bible hold to today, and it is also the view I think is probably correct. That is not to say that there aren’t any difficulties with this view, but it seems to me that there are many more hurdles to clear with the other two interpretations than there are with this one.

For example, it is very difficult to make the claim that when Peter uses the word “spirits” in verse 19 that he is referring to human beings. The reason this is difficult is because that is not how this word is normally used in the New Testament—particularly in when it is in the plural form. (And you are going to have to bear with me this morning, some of what I am going to share is necessarily going to be sort of technical.) Yes, in all but one instance, the New Testament authors use the word “spirits” to refer to supernatural beings like angels, and particularly to fallen angels or demons. So, it would be very unlikely that Peter would use the word here to describe human beings—whether those to whom Noah preached while they were alive on this earth or the spirits of those who died as a result of the flood. That is just not how the Bible uses this word. So, it makes much more sense that Peter is talking about demonic beings when he uses the word “spirits,” not people.

Additionally, while the word “prison” is used by the Bible to describe the place where human beings are held and punished for crimes on this earth, it is never used to describe a place where they will be punished after death.1 Never, not one time. But, the word “prison” is used in Revelation 20, to describe the place of Satan’s confinement after Jesus returns. And in 2 Peter 2:4, Peter (the same Peter who wrote this letter) says that “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment” (2 Peter 2:4 ESV). Now, I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a prison to me. And do you know what Peter starts talking about in the very next verse from 2 Peter 2? He starts talking about Noah and the people who perished in the flood. So it seems he has the same sort of thing in mind both here and there.

So based on just these two things—that the word “spirits” refers almost exclusively to supernatural beings, not humans, in the New Testament, and that the word “prison” and the concept of prison is never used in the New Testament to describe a place of human punishment after death, but is used to describe the place of punishment for Satan and his fallen angels—that would be the safest route for us to take in 1 Peter 3:19-20 as well. The safest thing to do would be to see the spirits as fallen angels or demons who were working to wreck the world right before the flood and to see the prison as a place where God confined them for the evil they had done.

Now, the other reason I believe that this third interpretation is correct—the interpretation that says Christ announced his victory to fallen angels after his resurrection, not to living human beings in the days of Noah, nor to the dead and imprisoned spirits of human beings in hell sometime between his death and resurrection—is because this passage seems to suggest that the timing of this event was after Jesus’s resurrection not before it. And in my opinion, the timing of all this was probably in conjunction with his ascension.

Notice how verse 18 says that Jesus was put to death in the flesh and made alive in the spirit, and how in verse 19 it was in this state of being made alive in the spirit that Jesus then went and proclaimed this message to “the spirits in prison.” This is not something Jesus did while he was dead, it was something he did while he was alive. And the thing that made him alive was the resurrection.

And something else that is not clear in our English translations, but is very clear in the Greek, is that the word translated as “went” in verse 19 (“in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison”), is the exact same word that is translated as “has gone” in verse 22 where Peter says that Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” And in verse 22, Peter is clearly talking about Jesus’s triumphant ascension into heaven—something that took place well after the resurrection as well. So, in my mind, the place Jesus went in verse 19, is the same place he that he “has gone” in verse 22. And the place where he has gone in verse 22, is not down to hell to preach to human beings, but up into the heavens to announce his victory to the evil spiritual beings whom God has imprisoned somewhere in the heavens. Remember, Jesus’s victory wasn’t really complete until he had defeated death through his resurrection. And it wasn’t until he was seated on his throne, that his triumph over evil would have been abundantly clear.

Application

Now, I could say more, but I am going to stop here because, the truth is, there is always going to be a lot of debate about these different possibilities—and none of them really affect what Peter is trying to say to us in this passage. Remember, Peter was writing to people who stood out from the rest of society because of what they believed. They were small in number compared to the unbelieving people around them who were rejecting God, rejecting the gospel, and persecuting God’s people. And in that sense, the original recipients of Peter’s letter were very much like the eight people—Noah and the seven other members of his family—who were saved by God on the day he judged the world with a flood. And, what Peter wanted to remind his readers is that they weren’t the only ones who had ever known what it was like to be outcasts in the world because of their faith in God. In fact, Noah and his small family lived through a time where they were the only believers in the whole world. And Peter was writing this letter to remind his persecuted readers that when the day of God’s judgment came upon the world in the form of a flood during Noah’s day, safety wasn’t found in numbers then either. Safety was found in the ark. And, while we are not going to dive into it today (we’ll do that next week), the salvation found in the ark, was always intended by God to be a picture of the salvation that is found today in Jesus Christ. That’s why Peter can say in verse 21, “Baptism, which corresponds (to the salvation experienced by Noah and his family in the ark), now saves you.” Obviously, that statement brings up more that we need to talk about, and we’ll do it next week. But the message that I want you to take away from this passage today, is that because Christ has won the victory (a victory he has announced to the spirits in prison), we can be confident in the salvation he has promised us, even when it seems that the whole world thinks we are crazy—as crazy as Noah when he was building the ark and gathering the animals. Just like in Noah’s day, safety isn’t in numbers. Safety isn’t found through agreeing with popular opinion. Safety is found in Jesus Christ. That’s the main message I’d like for you to take away from this sermon today.

Conclusion

But, before I close let me say one other thing about this passage. It is common when talking with people about the Bible today, to hear them say something like, “Well, the Bible can be interpreted in all sorts of different ways, and people can, therefore, pretty much believe what they want to believe about it. And because of that, we don’t really know what it means, and we shouldn’t try to tell anyone else what it means.” But, friends, that is a very ridiculous thing to say. Yes, there are parts of the Bible where sincere Christians have and will disagree over the meaning of a passage. But, for the vast majority of the Bible, the meaning is more than clear. Yes, the main message of the Bible is abundantly clear if we are willing to be honest about what it says. Yes, while the Bible contains problematic passages like the one we have studied this morning, the main message in the Bible is really not hidden or confusing, and there is really not any room for alternative interpretations.

And we must remember that while people may reach different conclusions about the meaning of passages like the one we have studied this morning, that doesn’t mean there is ever more than one correct meaning. We might, because of language difficulties, or the passage of time, or a lack of knowledge about ancient culture, struggle to understand what the original author meant, but the original authors weren’t ever confused about what they meant when they were writing. And, for the most part, the original recipients of these books and letters weren’t confused about the meaning either. So, while we may come across passages like this one where there are a few possible ways to understand them, the truth is, there is only one correct way to understand them. There’s no, “Well, that’s what it means for you, and this is what it means for me, and that’s just fine, it can have different meanings for everyone.” That’s not how it works. Every passage in the Bible means what it means whether we understand it or not. And just because we can’t understand some parts of the Bible, doesn’t mean that we can pretend that the whole thing is open for interpretation.

For the most part, the Bible is very clear. God created human beings, and we were unique among the rest of his creation because we were created in God’s image. We started off with a very special relationship with God, but when presented with a choice to obey God or rebel against him, we could not resist the temptation to be our own god. This rebellion upset the whole created order and set us at odds with God and at odds with one another. And the rest of the story in the Bible is about what God has done, and is doing, to fix the mess we have made. And that is why, Peter tells us in verse 18 that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” Yes, Jesus came to earth on a rescue mission. He came to save sinners. And friends, no matter what people want to say about the Bible, this message is more than clear and not up for debate. Jesus Christ died to save sinners. And because of what Adam and Eve have done, and because of what have done, we are sinners in need of salvation. We too are great sinners in need of a great Savior—a great suffering Savior who died that he might bring us to God. There is no confusion regarding this. This is the plain message of the Bible; this is the main message of the Bible.

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  1. Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, vol. 37 of The New American Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 187. ↩︎