1 Peter 3 Note

Spirits in Prison
This article has been published in Ministry, International Journal for Clergy. Copied by permission.
   "For Christ also died for sins once for all, 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; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water."  (1 Peter 3:18-20, RSV)*

   This is one of the difficult passages in the New Testament. What did Peter mean when he wrote that Jesus "being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison"?  The phrase, "in the spirit," may also be translated "by the spirit." The Revised Standard Version choice of "in the Spirit" is justified by its contrast to "in the flesh.: We see this obvious contrast also in 1 Peter 4:6. Yet, however we translate it, this text is not as clear as we might wish. It does plainly say that Christ was put to death "in the flesh" and raised to life in or by "the spirit" and that, in this "spirit" condition (or through the Holy Spirit) He preached to those who disobeyed before the flood.
   To understand what the passage says and doesn't say about the status of the unrepentant dead, we need to clarify whether Christ's preaching was before the flood (at the time of the disobedience) or while His body was in the tomb. By itself, the passage may be read either way. If the preaching was before the flood, we could see that our Lord simply slept in death while in the tomb. If He preached while His body was in the tomb, we could conclude that people who died in the flood were, in some way, still living in "hell" to hear the message. To answer, we will:

   1. Look at the meaning of being in the flesh and in the spirit.
   2. From Genesis, learn about Christ's ministry before the flood.
   3. Consider the situation of the "spirits" for the time Christ's body was in the tomb.

Jesus in the flesh or in the spirit
   Our Lord was put to death "in the flesh." This was the nature He had taken when He came as a baby in Bethlehem (Heb. 10:5). Thus from that time onward He was "in the flesh." Our passage says He preached in the spirit just as He was raised in the spirit. Does His preaching in the Spirit mean He did not have a tangible body? Let's consider His body after the resurrection:
   As they [the disciples and others] were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said o them, 'Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.' And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, 'have you anything here to eat?' They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them" (Luke 24:36-43; compare John 20:19-28).
   So although continuing to be "in the spirit" He was not "a spirit" separate from a material body (compare Mark 6:47-50). This means that He did not leave His body lying in the tomb to go elsewhere to preach as a spirit. In fact, just before dying on the cross He had said, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" (Luke 23:46).
   So what does being "in the spirit" mean? Pneuma, the Greek word for "spirit," has a variety of meanings. The correct one, in each case, must be determined from the context. We know that after the time of Christ's ministry on earth, He sent the Holy Spirit (John 16:7) who worked with Him in a special way. "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13, 14).
   As I see it, "in the spirit" here is Christ's way of working with the Holy Spirit who is the agency of direct influence on humans. Before Jesus returned to heaven, He promised to send the Holy spirit as "another Counselor" or helper-companion (John 14:16). The adjective, "another," indicates that, while on earth, He Himself had been the comforter. His time of the flesh began when He was born to Mary. According to Peter's statement, it continued to the time of His resurrection "in the spirit."

2. A time of preaching in Noah's time?
   Does the Genesis account of the Flood show a time of preaching which Peter may have been writing about?
   "Then the LORD said, 'My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.' . . . And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart." (Gen. 3:3, 6).
   Was this "spirit of the Lord," Christ in the spirit? We need to be careful not to go beyond what God has revealed especially in speculating about the nature of Christ. We do know that Christ existed before His incarnation. He was the I AM of the Exodus (Ex. 3:15; cf. John 8:58). Also He was with the Father at the time of creation (John 1:1). We know that the Holy Spirit speaks only the words which Christ gives Him, so the Spirit striving before the flood would likely have involved both the Son and the Holy Spirit. When Peter said that Christ preached in the spirit before the flood, he may well have had in mind the text we just read, about the Lord's spirit striving with man, giving His appeal through Noah (2 Pet. 2:3).
   Another element of our passage indicates that Christ's preaching could not have been while He was in the tomb. The text says "For Christ also died for sins once for all, 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; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison." He died one way and was raised another two events, two conditions. If He had already been "in the spirit" during His death, Peter would not have described him as having been raised that way in contrast to how He died. In other words, seeing Christ "in the spirit" on the day before His resurrection violates the natural reading f the text.
   Incidentally, the Greek word for "preach" is kerusso, which is commonly used for Christ's preaching to people on earth as He appealed to their hearts (for example, Luke 24:46, 47).

The "spirits" to whom Christ preached.
   Let's consider the "spirits" to whom Christ preached. Does their situation while He was in the tomb help us understand when the preaching may have occurred?
   First of all, let's find out who the "spirits" are. Then we will see whether their condition would fit the picture of being preached to. Christians usually think of them as disembodied individuals or angels Heb. 1:13, 14) but we have a better option. The Greek word is the plural of pneuma which has many meanings, as does the English word "spirit." One meaning of "spirit" is the spiritual, caring, or deciding aspect of a person which we often describe as their "heart." Thus we have such usages of the word as "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." (Matt. 26:41; cf. 7:21; 16:17; 1 Cor. 16:17, 18).
   Look at both definitions of "spirit" in our passage. Christ, "in the spirit" (before His sojourn on earth, in the flesh) pleaded, though Noah, with the hearts of the people (their "spirits"). Tragically all except eight refused to follow conviction with action.
   In what sense were the disobedient spirits "in prison" before the flood? By personal choice, the people refused the appeal of heaven. Thus their hearts of "spirits" were set against the invitation which would have freed them from the bondage of sin (Isa. 42:7; 61:1).
   We asked, Does their situation while Christ was in the tomb help us understand when the preaching may have occurred? We have seen how real people heard the preaching of Christ before the flood. Nearly all rejected the call of salvation. Next we ask, would they their spirits have been in a position to accept the call when Christ was in the tomb? The answer is No for several reasons.
   What do people do after they die? "And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment" (Heb. 7:27). The Bible does not teach a time of purgatory or limbo between death and the judgment. Reading our passage to say that Christ preached to conscious spirits implies that they could have made a decision to respond. Other Christians who read it this way fail to realize this implication.
   Giving the spirits of the flood victims an opportunity to repent between the times of the crucifixion and the resurrection, would have been unfair. All who died in sin before the call of Noah and after it would have been excluded from this opportunity. Peter, the author of our passage, learned, in the case of the Gentile Roman officer, that God has no favorites (Acts 10:34).
   Also could the dead ones have made a decision to accept the gospel? Note the following Scriptures:
   "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Eccl. 9:10).
   "Turn, O LORD, save my life; deliver me for the sake of thy steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can give thee praise?" (Ps. 6:4, 5).
   "For Sheol cannot thank thee, death cannot praise thee; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for thy faithfulness. The living, the living, he thanks thee, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children thy faithfulness. (Isa. 38:18). Also see Eccl. 9:5, Job 14:21, Acts 2:29-34).

   In view of the above, the only conclusion is: Peter's passage must describe Christ's appeal to people in the days of Noah and not a trip to hell to preach to spirits separated from their bodies. The reasons may be summarized:
Even after the resurrection, when Christ was in the Spirit, He was not a spirit that we might imagine could be separated from a body for preaching.
We know Christ was active before His birth in human flesh. He was an agent in creation and the I AM in the deliverance from Egypt. We may expect Him to have also been involved in the divine appeal at the time of the flood.
Preaching to only the flood generation would have violated God's principle of impartiality.
The unrepentant dead could not have heard or responded to an appeal because they cannot think, remember God, or hope for truth.
   Read the passage again in its context, with the verses before and after it. Its message is a simple one: We have hope in spite of suffering because Christ also suffered for our salvation overcoming flesh with spirit in the resurrection. This spirit was active in the appeals made during the time of Noah. Like the eight saved alive through the flood waters, we may respond to the call of Christ.

* Except as otherwise stated, all Scripture passages in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.
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