1 Peter 3:18-22 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.
While we were on vacation we were able to worship at a couple of different churches. They were good churches, but I left each with a greater love for Grace. I’m glad to be back here with you all.
Also while on vacation I was able to listen to Matt and Kyle’s sermons. They did a great job handling the Word of God. Matt has a great ability to take important sections of scripture and explain them in ways that are easy to grasp. And Kyle has a way of connecting doctrine with feelings and actions that I greatly appreciate. We are all blessed to have such qualified and gifted men to lead us and watch over our souls. On a personal note, I’m exceedingly thankful for their service to my family and me; enabling us to go on a longer vacation in the knowledge that things were in good hands.
With all of that, welcome back to 1 Peter. In spite of the fact that we’ve not been here in a month, we’re not going to mess around in the kiddy pool. We’re diving straight into the deep end with “spirits in prison” (3:19). This passage is, of course, one of the blessings and challenges of expositional preaching. Who would choose to preach on it if not for a commitment to teaching the whole counsel of God? Indeed, I have to imagine that in all the churches in the world this morning the ratio of 1 Peter 3:19-20 sermons to John 3:16 sermons is astoundingly low. And yet, 1 Peter 3:19-20 is just as inspired as John 3:16 and, therefore, God means us to understand and love and apply it.
At the end of the sermon here’s what I hope you leave with (because I think it’s the essence of Peter’s meaning): Jesus’ total victory means that our acts of faith-filled obedience will never be in vain. And as a result, I hope you are all challenged and encouraged to suffer in ways that flow from and point to the gospel.
Let’s pray, then, for God to bring clarity, love, and action.
THE POWER OF THE GOSPEL IS UNMISTAKABLE AND UNPARALLELED
Next week we’ll close chapter 3 by looking at mainly at v.21 and a NT understanding of baptism. This sermon will focus on vs.19-20 (and 22).
[Jesus was] 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.
There are a handful of NT passages that seem hard to understand upon first reading. I remember coming across Jesus’ discussion with a Canaanite woman (in Matthew 15) about dogs and food scraps for the first time and being utterly confused.
Matthew 15:25-28 [A Canaanite woman] came and knelt before [Jesus], saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Again, on the surface, this might seem like a challenging passage. In reality, however, its meaning isn’t difficult to discern with a little research.
There are another handful of NT passages, though, that are not only immediately difficult to grasp, but remain so even after a good deal of study. Our passage for this morning is one such passage.
Of it, in his commentary Luther wrote, “A wonderful text this is, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the NT, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means”.
As we will see, understanding the overall purpose of the letter and the surrounding context (especially v.18) is the key to understanding what Peter meant and, more importantly, why he wrote it at this point in the letter. In other words, if we are to ever understand this passage we must keep in mind the fact that the gospel of Jesus is our example, aim, and strength for faithful suffering.
PREACHING TO SPIRITS IN PRISON (AND OTHER HARD PASSAGES)
With that, let’s look again at 1 Peter 3:19-20. (For context, we’ll begin with v.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.
By all accounts, the specifics of these verses are difficult to understand with certainty.
One of the commentators (Grudem) I read this week noted that there are five common interpretations offered by scholars today. In the four commentaries I studied (Piper, Grudem, MacArthur, and Schreiner) I found three of the five argued for. Each of the interpretations seeks to answer the same basic set of questions (Grudem):
- Who are the spirits in prison? The answers suggested are unbelievers who have died, Old Testament believers who have died, and fallen angels.
- What did Christ preach to them? Again, the suggested answers are a second chance for repentance, the completion of his redemptive work, and the final condemnation of those to whom he preached.
- When did Christ preach to the spirits in prison. Some suggested that it was in the days of Noah, between his death and resurrection, and after his resurrection.
It is from the various possible combinations of the answers that the five main interpretations of this passage come. Now here’s the question we are faced with whenever we come to a passage like this one: If the brilliant and godly men (certainly more brilliant and godly than me) that I read this week cannot agree on the specific meaning of these verses, what hope do we have this morning?
To that question I’d like to offer a general set of principles that we’d all do well to apply whenever we encounter difficult passages of scripture.
- We must remember that there is a single right interpretation. The fact that the right interpretation isn’t always readily available, and the fact that good and godly scholars cannot agree on the right interpretation, does not change the simple reality that God meant something specific when he inspired every passage of the bible. We cannot, therefore, let our uncertainty produce indifference (don’t care), relativism (means something different for each of us), or skepticism (cannot be known) in us.Practically speaking, our passage has a single right interpretation. Whether it’s one of the five offered by commentators or something else entirely, we simply cannot deny that Peter did mean something specific under the inspiration of God for the good of his people.
- God does not mean the passage to be confusing for his people. That is, God did not inspire, and Peter did not intend to write misleading, ambiguous, or unhelpful words. This is known (as we’ll soon see in Berea) as the clarity of Scripture. Believe it or not, see it or not, our passage for this morning is clear.
- While scripture is always clear, our minds aren’t. Sin has not corrupted the word of God, but it has corrupted our ability to grasp it as God intended. We do not know all that there is to know, but even if we did, we do not know how it all fits together, but even if we did, we would not love and obey it as we ought.This is in some ways like waking up with bad eye allergies. Over the past few years I’ve developed some nasty spring allergies that all seem to settle in my face. Without medicine I wake up each morning with my eyes utterly filled with goop. Under these circumstances, when I wake up and look over at Gerri she appears much more blobby than normal. It’s unsettling at times. And yet, as you all know, in reality she is just as beautiful as ever. The problem is with my eye sight, not her appearance.Again, then, whether or not we are able in this life to gain appropriate confidence in our answers to the questions above, we must constantly wrestle over it in the knowledge that our struggle to understand, appreciate, and obey is the result of a problem in us, not the passage.
- While some reply to hard passages with despair (what’s the use?), pride (obviously this passage has problems), and surrender (I guess I’ll never know), God’s people must respond differently. When we encounter difficult passages like this we must proceed with hope, humility, and persistence. Our hope is in the fact that the passage (rightly understood) is good and true and helpful to God’s people. Our humility is in the facts that we are finite and fallen in our nature and that our understanding on any level is entirely owing to the Spirit of God. And our persistence is in the fact that God often sees fit to bring greater clarity through greater study and prayer.Practically, spend time in this passage this week. Familiarize yourself with the different possible interpretations. Test them against the rest of God’s word. Pray over the text, acknowledging your need for the help of the Spirit. Discuss it in your DG. And above all rejoice in the certain knowledge that God has something very good for his people in this passage.None of that guarantees that we will come to a proper understanding, but it does guarantee that we will approach it in a manner pleasing to God.
- Our final confidence in, and insistence upon, our interpretation (of this passage or any passage) ought to be directly proportional to (1) the importance of the doctrine being taught and (2) its prominence throughout the bible. In other words, taking strong and definite stances about minor and isolated matters is unwise at best.The simple fact here is that there are very few passages that talk about imprisoned spirits (although there are more than I thought before studying this passage) or Jesus’ ministry to them. Further, none of the commentators I encountered suggested that God’s glory or mankind’s salvation hang on their interpretation. Again, that does not mean that this passage is insignificant, just that we ought to give it the weight that the bible does (which is relatively little compared to God’s sovereign rule, man’s sin, Jesus’ sacrifice, salvation through faith, everlasting life, etc.).
- Finally, and most practically, when the ability to land confidently on a proper interpretation of a passage alludes us, our best bet is to zoom out until we come to a place of clarity. Once there, we can then joyfully embrace and obey that truth as we continue to seek the Spirit’s help in coming to a greater understanding.After spending a good deal of time in this passage one of the five interpretations certainly seems to me to be more likely (I’d be happy to share with any of you who ask). And yet I hold that opinion loosely and am eager to be persuaded otherwise. On the other hand, if we zoom out just a bit, I have a clear and joyful conviction concerning the main point of the passage that I’ll not easily surrender.Whatever Peter meant by what he said, he said it to communicate the reverence, obedience, and perseverance-producing reality of the total victory of Jesus over all his enemies, for the salvation of all his people. Again, Peter’s point in the entire section is that his readers (the elect exiles; the suffering saints; the persecuted Christians) ought to continue on in faith, willingly laying down their lives if necessary in order to point to that which Jesus accomplished by doing so himself.
The fact that Jesus had the ability to go anywhere to proclaim anything to anyone is truly remarkable in light of the fact that he hadn’t been born (by some accounts) or had already died (by the rest)! As you may have figured out, neither of those are normal. Both are awe inspiring—which was Peter’s main point as an encouragement to his suffering readers.
The fact that Jesus had the ability to proclaim a message (whatever it was) to imprisoned spirits (whoever they were) ought to amaze us as it either happened in centuries prior to Peter’s time in order to point forward to the glory of salvation in Jesus, or it happened in the heavenly realms where mere men cannot go. Again, both are amazing beyond comprehension—which was Peter’s main point as a source of confidence for his suffering readers.
The fact that Jesus’ proclamation was one of repentance and salvation, certain judgment, or ultimate victory (all of which are true even if Peter only meant one of them in this passage) ought to astound us—which was Peter’s main point as a challenge, motivation, and source of praise for his suffering readers.
And the fact that our preaching in the face of harsh opposition (as with the preaching of his readers) always comes after Christ’s victory over every enemy ought to embolden us to share the victory of Jesus. Indeed, as he writes in v.22, Jesus Christ, “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him”. Our faithful suffering is never apart from this great reality—which was Peter’s main point as a source of courage for his suffering readers.
Therefore, while the specifics of the passage may elude us, the point of it does not. Grace, 1 Peter 3:19-20 exists to remind suffering saints (persecuted Christians) of the facts that, as v.22 makes crystal clear, 1) Jesus’ suffering was not in vain, 2) death could not hold him, 3) he now reigns supreme over all the universe (in both the physical and spiritual, human and angelic realms), and that 4) therefore God’s people need not despair when we encounter various fiery trials, but are instead freed to love and bless others (even and especially those who cause our trials).
THE TOTAL VICTORY OF JESUS
By simply backing up a few steps it becomes plain what Peter’s point was in sharing what he did. Therefore, while we wrestle through the meaning of the particular claims of this passage, we do so in great joy in the knowledge that the main point is the total victory of Christ and the good news that is for all of God’s people regardless of our circumstances.
We simply cannot forget that Jesus Christ “has gone into heaven and [STILL TODAY] is at the right hand of God, with [ALL] angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”
Grace, if Jesus victory was so certain and so complete that he was able to proclaim it to disobedient, imprisoned spirits, whom shall we fear? If God is sovereign enough to tie that victory and its proclamation to the faith and salvation of Noah and the disobedience and judgment of the world, who can stop us? What can get in our way of proclaiming the same victory? What other power and strength do we need to accomplish the mission that God has given us? What other person and event is more worthy of our hope? What other message and mission is more worthy of our lives? What other god is more worthy of our affection? What other king is more worthy of our allegiance? And, therefore, as it relates to the letter as a whole, what other approach to suffering makes more sense?
Once again, this is a tricky passage in a number of ways, but the God who inspired it, Peter’s purpose in including it, the main message in it, and the good news of it are not tricky at all. They are our hope and our joy; our salvation and our satisfaction. Let us, therefore, look straight at whatever hardships are before us today and choose to walk through them according to the reality of Christ’s total victory. Let’s look straight at those who would do us harm and choose to love them like Christ loved us. Let’s look straight at the sin in our lives and choose to kill it in the knowledge that Jesus already did. And let us look straight at the mission Jesus left us with and choose to embrace it with our entire lives.
This is a passage of total victory meant to spur God’s people on to total faithfulness. May it increasingly so in us today. Amen.