Category Archives: 1 Peter

1 Peter 3:19: Proclamation to spirits in prison

(image courtesy Himandus.net)

By Spencer D Gear PhD

1 Peter 3:18-20 reads:

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, 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 (ESV).

1.  Difficult to interpret

Martin Luther (AD 483 – 1546)[1] made a profound statement about his text in his commentary on 1 Peter:

This is a strange text, and a more obscure passage, perhaps, than any other in the New Testament, for I do not certainly know what St. Peter means. At first sight, the words import as though Christ had preached to the spirits — that is, the souls which were formerly unbelieving at the time Noah was building the ark; but that I cannot understand, I cannot even explain it. There has been no one hitherto who has explained it. Yet if any one is disposed to maintain that Christ, after that He had suffered on the Cross, descended to these souls and preached to them, I will not dispute it. It might bear such a rendering. But I am not confident that St. Peter would say this (Luther 2009, of 1 Peter 3:18-21, emphasis added).

These are among the most difficult verses in the New Testament to interpret. Commentator, D. Edmond Hiebert, observed, ‘Each of the nine words in the original has been differently understood’.[2] They are difficult because of these three questions that need answers:[3]

(a) About whom was Peter speaking when he wrote of the ‘spirits’ to whom Christ made this proclamation (v. 19)?

(b) When did this proclamation happen (v. 19)?

(c) What was the content of the proclamation? Was it a Gospel announcement or something else?

(d) When did these ‘spirits’ fall through disobedience?

Let’s examine some possibilities:

1.1 Christ preached to the dead

Those who interpret ‘the spirits in prison’ this way maintain that during the time between Christ’s death and resurrection he went to the realm of the dead and preached to Noah’s contemporaries:

This group is subdivided by various opinions on the nature of this proclamation. (1) Christ’s soul ministers an offer of salvation to the spirits. (2) He announces condemnation to the unbelievers of Noah’s time. (3) He announces good tidings [good news] to those who had already been saved (Blum 1981:241).

Briefly, let’s look at these 3 views. Firstly,

1.1.1 Christ offers salvation to those in the realm of the dead

This would possibly harmonise with that statement in the Apostles’ Creed:

… He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell….
[4]

In 1 Peter 3:19 it states that Christ ‘went and preached to the spirits in prison’. Does this refer to Jesus’ descent into hell, as in the Apostles’ Creed? Not at all. I haven’t found any biblical evidence for that conclusion. There is no biblical support for Christ between his death and resurrection or between his resurrection and ascension going down to Hades/hell.

Some suggest that Christ in his spirit preached to Noah’s contemporaries. Let’s wait to see what the biblical evidence demonstrates.

1.1.2 Pre-existent Christ and Noah’s generation

The second interpretation maintains that Christ, before he came in the flesh at the Incarnation, ‘preached in the time of Noah to Noah’s sinful generation’ (Blum 1981:241).

1.1.3 Christ proclaimed to the ‘disobedient spirits’

This third interpretation identifies the ‘spirits’ as the fallen angels to whom Christ proclaimed his victory on the cross. When did this proclamation take place? There are two options: (1) During the three days when Jesus descended into Hades, or (2) During his ascension.

This third position seems to be the option that Peter teaches in 1 Peter 3:18-4:6. ‘After Christ’s death, he made a victorious proclamation to the fallen angels’. This is defended and developed in this passage that goes through to 4:6 (Blum 1981:241).

Kistemaker agrees:

Recent commentators teach that the resurrected Christ, during his ascension to heaven, proclaimed to imprisoned spirits his victory over death. The exalted Christ passed through the realm where the fallen angels are kept and proclaimed his triumph over them (Eph 6:12; Col 2:15). This interpretation has met favorable response in Protestant and Roman Catholic circles and is in harmony with the teaching of the Petrine passage and the rest of Scripture (1986:147-148).

See also Barnes’ Notes on 1 Peter 3 for a detailed discussion of v. 19.

2. Take note of these facts

screneRed-small The main purpose of vv 18-22 is stated in v. 18? What is it? ‘For Christ also suffered’ (NIV). This is further emphasised by the preceding verses (vv. 13-17).

screneRed-small  This is the teaching in v. 18 that provides the reason for patient endurance (vv. 13-17).

screneRed-small According to v. 18, ‘to bring you to God’ was the reason for Christ’s death.

2.1 Problems with NIV translation[5]

The NIV translates v. 18 as, ‘For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit’.

screneRed-small The NIV translates Spirit with a capital ‘S’. So, was Jesus’ body crucified and he was made alive ‘in the spirit’, small ‘s’? The ESV, Geneva Bible, LEB, NABRE, NASB, NRSV, and RSV translated as ‘spirit’ with a small ‘s’. Literally the Greek means, ‘Put to death in flesh, made alive in spirit’. Therefore, Blum (1981:242) gives this technical reason for rejecting the NIV translation

To translate one member of the antithesis [body vs spirit] as a dative of sphere or reference and the other as a dative of cause is inconsistent. It is best to take both as datives of reference (or “adverbial” or even “of sphere”) and to translate both “in the sphere of” (Blum (1981:242).

Thus the better translation of v. 18 would be one such as the NRSV, ‘He was put to death in [with reference to] the flesh, but made alive in [with reference to] the spirit’. Thus, grammatically, the small ‘s’ spirit is more consistent than capital ‘S’ Spirit.

3. When was the proclamation made?

Verse 18 says Jesus had been ‘made alive’, so this proclamation took place after his resurrection. I can’t find biblical evidence to support Christ’s ‘descent into hell’ between death and resurrection.

So Jesus must have gone to where these were located. We are not told where it was so we should not speculate. We can’t walk into a room of some confined space and discover these fallen, disembodied spirits.

The same verb, ‘went’, is used in verse 19 as verse 22.

4. What was the content of the proclamation?

Simon Kistemaker quoted Dalton:

What is meant by the word preached? The verb stands by itself, so that we are unable to determine the content of preaching. In brief, only the fact of preaching, not the message, is important. That is, we understand the verb preached to mean that Christ proclaimed victory over his adversaries. In his brevity, Peter refrains from telling us the context of Christ’s proclamation. We would be adding to the text if we should interpret the word preached to signify the preaching of the gospel. “Hence we may suppose with reason that it is the victory of Christ over His adversaries which is emphasized in 3:19, not the conversion or evangelization of the disobedient spirits.”[6]

4.1 The verb used tells something

The usual Greek word ‘to evangelise’ (euangelizw) is not used here but keryssw, which means ‘I proclaim/herald’. So the choice of the latter verb means that Christ came, not to preach the Gospel to spirits. What could that proclamation be?

There are no thoughts of salvation for lost angels in the NT (see Heb 2:16 and 1 Peter 1:12).

4.2 Who are the spirits (in prison)?

This is one of the easier parts to interpret. Verse 20 states ‘they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared’ (ESV). So at the time of Noah, these beings were disobedient and the Flood judgment came.

This judgment of the Flood is a warning to human beings that there is going to be a judgment of the disobedient, unrighteous world at Jesus’ second coming. This is stated in verses such as Matt 24:37-41 (ESV) and 2 Peter 3:3-7 (ESV). Noah’s ark that saved 8 people from the flood waters is a symbol of the salvation available in Christ right now.

First Peter 3:20 states who the ‘spirits’ are. They are those people who ‘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’ (ESV).

They were not angelic spirits but the spirits of the disobedient people who died at the time of Noah’s flood.

5. The nature of the prison

Eminent evangelical Lutheran scholar, R C H Lenski wrote of 1 Pet 3:19,

The Scriptures know of only one ‘prison,’ that confines ‘spirits,’ namely, hell, ‘hades,’ ‘the gehenna of the fire’ (Matt. 5:22; 18:9). To call this [prison] the realm of the dead; is to give a strange meaning to the word, ‘prison’ for all the dead are supposed to go into this fictitious place, the realm of the dead. Note 2 Pet. 2:9, 10, in fact all of 2 Pet 3:4-10 (Lenski 1966/2001:163).

(image courtesy Storming the Gates of Hell)

Another commentator wrote: ‘The prison confining the unbelieving spirits is not a reform school, but a penitentiary for life’ (Engelder 1945:381).

It is not clear whether Jesus did the preaching to spirits in prison at the time of Noah or at the time of his Incarnation.[7]

However, the prison refers to Hades and Gehenna/hell. See Prov 27:20; Matt 5:25; Luke 12:58 where ‘prison’ is a type for hell.

In hell, so this is taken, in Proverbs 27:20; compare with Matthew 5:25 Luke 12:58, where prison is mentioned as a type or representation of hell. There are similar expressions in 2 Peter 2:4-5; Jude 1:6.

6. Two main understandings

From the time of the early church fathers until the twenty-first century, there have been two main interpretations of 1 Peter 3:19:[8]

6.1 Firstly, Jesus preached to the departed spirits NOW in prison.

Our Lord, through Noah, preached repentance to the people of Noah’s time. There is no association with the doctrine of ‘descent into hell’ in this interpretation.

6.2 Secondly, what Jesus did when his body was in the grave.

This is the most popular interpretation from the Fathers to Luther and a large number of contemporary interpreters. It is claimed that ‘this is the most natural construction to put on the words “in which also” (i.e. in spirit)’. It is associated with Jesus’ being ‘quickened in spirit’.

So, he went from his death and the spirits were alive when Christ preached to them. His spirit, ‘disengaged from the body’, went to the place of other disembodied spirits and proclaimed certain news. The content of this proclamation was not stated but 1 Peter 4:6 (ESV) points to Gospel preaching:

For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

The prison is not ‘a place of safe keeping’ for both good and bad spirits. Although ‘prison’ is used 28 times in the NT, not once is it a place of protection but twice (Rev 18:2) it is used as ‘a cage’.

7. Conclusion

Verses 18-19 demonstrate that Jesus was put to death with reference to the body/flesh and was made alive with reference to his spirit, thus pointing to Christ’s death and resurrection.

The proclamation made is not of the Gospel because of the verb used kerussw (not euangelizw). It is an announcement – maybe of the victory by Jesus – to those unbelievers who did not obey with repentance in the time of Noah. However, the exact content of the proclamation is not stated in the text.

Congolese town crier

Jesus did not descend into Hades and make a Gospel proclamation to the fallen angels. However, he went to the ‘prison’ where deceased spirits were and made an announcement like a town crier would do in the first century.

‘The spirits in prison’ refers to the people who had died and were now in hell/Hades, awaiting judgment. The prison is a representation of hell. However, the people in the ‘prison’ are those who did not repent in Noah’s day and died. Their spirits went Hades.

8. Works consulted

Blum, E. A. 1981, ‘1 Peter’ in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (vol. 12), Frank E. Gaebelein (gen. ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Engelder, T 1945. The Hades Gospel, Part 2. Concordia Theological Monthly, June, 374-396. Available at: http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/EngelderHadesGospel2.pdf (Accessed 30 October 2019).

Hiebert, D E 1984. First Peter: An Expositional Commentary. Chicago: Moody.

Kistemaker, S J 1986. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of James, Epistles of John, Peter, and Jude.[9] Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.

Lenski, R C H 1966/2001. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John, and St. Jude. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers (© 1966 Augsburg Publishing House).

Luther, 2009. The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude Preached and Explained (Tr. E H Gillett). The Project Gutenberg EBook (online). Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/29678/29678-h/29678-h.htm (Accessed 10 September 2019).

9.  Notes

[1] Dates from Encyclopaedia Britannica (2019. s.v. Martin Luther).

[2] Hiebert (1984:226) (in Kistemaker1986:141 n 54).

[3] The first 3 questions were suggested by Blum (1981:341).

[4] Christian Reformed Church 2019. Apostles’ Creed (online). Available at: https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/apostles-creed (Accessed 9 September 2019).

[5] These details are from Blum (1981:242).

[6] Dalton (1964:155) (in Kistemaker1986:142 n 59).

[7] A T Robertson. Available at: https://www.studylight.org/commentary/1-peter/3-19.html (Accessed 30 October 2019).

[8] These 2 points are based on Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers. Available at: ibid.

[9] Note that this commentary does not present continuous numbering but reverts to new numbers with each Bible book. The numbers for Jude are continuous with 1 & 2 Peter.

Lazarus and the Rich Man (illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach).

Copyright © 2019 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 31 October 2019.

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Hope for a Hopeless Australia

Salvation gives you hope that is out of this world (1 Peter 1:13)

Image result for Clipart Hope Christ's second coming

(image courtesy Pinterest)

By Spencer D Gear PhD

In today’s values, this verse could be mutilated to say something like: “Don’t let your feelings be judged by anybody. In your thoughts and actions, be open-minded. You do whatever brings you pleasure right now. Set your sights on your self-esteem and go for it with gusto.”

I’m using ‘hopeless’ as an adjective for the wrong direction in which Australians, as a nation, are seeking hope. We seek it in:

blue-arrow-small Consumerism. We are a materialistic society seeking pleasure in things. ‘Australians spent up to $2.4 billion at the Boxing Day sales [2017]’.

blue-arrow-small False ethical standards. Ethical values by government and individuals – in the main – are decided by personal or government choice. There is no overall absolute standard by which moral decisions are made (e.g. Ten Commandments, Sermon on the Mount). We see this with the legalisation of prostitution, abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage, exaltation of same-sex relationships, transgenderism, and defacto relationships. Every one of those ethical values is refuted by the Christian Scriptures but relativism dominates ethical decisions at both national and personal levels.

All About Philosophy provides this explanation:

What is ethical relativism? Relativism is the position that all points of view are equally valid and the individual determines what is true and relative for them (sic). Relativism theorizes that truth is different for different people, not simply that different people believe different things to be true. While there are relativists in science and mathematics, ethical relativism is the most common variety of relativism. Almost everyone has heard a relativist slogan:

  •  What’s right for you may not be what’s right for me.
  •  What’s right for my culture won’t necessarily be what’s right for your culture.
  •  No moral principles are true for all people at all times and in all places.

Ethical relativism represents the position that there are no moral absolutes, no moral right or wrong. This position would assert that our morals evolve and change with social norms over a period of time.

The problems with relativism are:

3d-gold-star (1) In allowing all people to choose their own values, there is no value that can be prohibited because ethics are left up to personal choice. Why should murder be wrong if a person is allowed to choose his or her own values? From where do those standards come?

3d-gold-star (2) The logical consequences of relativism are that it gives licence to all kinds of extreme behaviour such as paedophilia, DV, Hitler’s holocaust, the mass shootings in Christchurch NZ and Sri Lanka, murders, lying, stealing, adultery and all kinds of immoral acts (by God’s standards).

They are some of the problems when there are no absolute standards. All nations need absolutes to make legislation and apprehend criminals.

· Australia’s Christian foundation is demonstrated each day when the President of the House reads a Christian prayer. Christian values brought to Australia by the First Fleet and enshrined in the Australian Constitution: ‘Humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God’.

God’s view is radically different.

1. God’s view of hope

God commands Peter’s readers, you and me to “set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed” (v. 13). These persecuted believers of the first century “were to set their hope completely, with finality, on the grace being brought to them in connection with Jesus Christ’s revelation” (Blum 1981: 52).

When the going gets tough and you are persecuted for your faith, your salvation means that you place your hope completely on the future grace that you will receive when Christ is revealed. When will Christ be revealed again?

We know he was revealed at his birth, death and resurrection. But these believers are told that they must place their hope on the grace “that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (ESV). It was future for the first century church and it is still future for us.

It undoubtedly refers to Christ’s Second Coming (the Parousia). We read about it in I Peter 4:13, “But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”

Or, 1 Cor. 1:7, “Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” Also 2 Thess. 1:7, “and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.”

During these tough times, you will need one another especially. That’s why Scripture teaches:

We must not quit meeting together, as some are doing. No, we need to keep on encouraging each other. This becomes more and more important as you see the Day getting closer. (Heb 10:25 ERV).

2. What is hope?

Our hope is NOT based on the temporal, but on the future revelation of the Lord Jesus. It is sometimes said of Christians that “they are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” Folks, the true Christian is one who is not half-heartedly, but completely and fully, setting his/her hope on the Christ who is to come.

Stephen Spencer states that:

Hope is waiting in confident expectation for God’s promises in Christ, summed up in the gospel. Hope is fundamental because the gospel concerns God’s culmination of his redemptive work, “the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed” (1 Pet 1:13 NRSV), the “hope of glory” (Col 1:27). Most of what for which we trust in Christ remains yet future (Rom 8:24b)….

Christians hope “by faith” (Gal 5:5). Faith trusts in God’s promises, while hope expects what is to come….

Christians’ most cherished hope is Christ’s personal, bodily return in judgment and blessing[1]

We are of great earthly good, because our hope is set on Him and his coming to rule and reign forever. If you set your hope on anything in this world, you are on a sinking ship. Chuck Colson’s view is that “the culture in which we live is nearly lost” (Colson 1994, p. x). What a tragedy that so many Christians have their hope on the sinking ship.

If you set your hope on who will win the election, you’re on board the Titanic – a sunken ship.

In order to “set your hope completely” on God’s grace at Christ’s second coming, Peter tells his persecuted readers that you must do two things:

Flower11 First, you are “preparing your minds for action” and

Flower11 Second, “exercise self-control” (1 Pet 1:13 NLT).

3. Simply stated

Hope is not a hope so, maybe, perhaps, it could be, or possibly!

It means you look forward, with anticipation, to Jesus’ second coming, the end of this wretched world, and ‘we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth. Godliness will live there. All this is in keeping with God’s promise’ (2 Pet 3:13 NIRV).

It is not a hope-so but the guarantee of God’s grace coming to believers at the Second Coming of Christ with the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth.

Until then, what are Christians to do? See 1 Pet 1:13:

Foward  Prepare your minds for action, and

Foward Exercise personal and church self-control.

4. Notes

[1] Stephen R Spencer 2005. Hope. In Kevin J Vanhoozer (gen ed), Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 305-307.

5. Works consulted

Blum, E. A. 1981, ‘1 Peter’ in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (vol. 12), gen. ed., Frank E. Gaebelein, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids,
Michigan.

Hope Butterfly Clip Art

Copyright © 2019 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 22 April 2019.

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