1 Peter 3 Part 7: The Mysteries of the Bible
I Peter 3:19-20; I Corinthians 15:3-11 - We will never know everything about God in this life
“in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.”
1 Peter 3:19-20 NASB1995
I think I entitled this one correctly. In researching commentary on 1 Peter 3:19-20, I found that there is no consensus whatsoever on what Peter is saying about what Jesus did and what the connection is to the time of Noah. In fact, take a look at some of the commentary for this passage from Precept Austin (some of this is based on commentary they borrowed from John MacArthur, with editor’s notes from Precept Austin identifying which prominent Bible scholars go with each theory);
However, among evangelical Christians, there are two commonly accepted interpretations.
According to the first, Christ went to Hades in spirit between His death and resurrection, and proclaimed the triumph of His mighty work on the cross. There is disagreement among proponents of this view as to whether the spirits in prison were believers, unbelievers, or both. (or whether they were not men at all but demonic spirits). But there is fairly general agreement that the Lord Jesus did not preach the gospel to them. That would involve the doctrine of a second chance which is nowhere taught in the Bible. Those who hold this view often link this passage with Ephesians 4:9 (see notes) where the Lord is described as descending “into the lower parts of the earth.” They cite this as added proof that He went to Hades in the disembodied state and heralded His victory at Calvary. They also cite the words of the Apostles’ Creed —“descended into hell.”
(Ed note: Those who hold this view include many of the "early church fathers", Henry Morris, John Macarthur, Wayne Barber, Kay Arthur -- although the latter 2 believe He preached after His resurrection and before His ascension to the Right hand of the Father, Warren Wiersbe [although he does not accept that the "sons of God" in Ge 6:2 as indicative of demonic spirits], College Press NIV Commentary, IVP NT Commentary on 1Peter by I. Howard Marshall and Kenneth Wuest)
The second interpretation is that Peter is describing what happened in the days of Noah. It was the spirit of Christ (cp 1:11) who preached through Noah to the unbelieving generation before the flood. They were not disembodied spirits at that time, but living men and women who rejected the warnings of Noah and were destroyed by the flood. So now they are spirits in the prison of Hades. (MacDonald, W & Farstad, A. Believer's Bible Commentary: Thomas Nelson)
(Ed note: Those who hold the second interpretation include Scofield, Ryrie, Puritan John Owen, MacDonald, Wayne Grudem, J. Vernon McGee, Augustine & many leaders of the Reformation, John Piper. Note that this interpretation hangs primarily on interpreting "spirits" as those of men rather than angelic...but the only place in NT where pneuma refers to spirits of men is Heb 12:23)
Even my favorite go-to commentator David Guzik is unsure about this, but he seems to combine some aspects of both opinions, that Jesus preached to the spirits from the time of Noah that were “imprisoned” in Hades, but did this preaching between His death on the cross and before the Resurrection:
He went and preached to the spirits in prison: Apparently this work was done in the period after Jesus’ death but before His first resurrection appearance to the disciples. Jesus went to Hades – the abode of the dead – and preached to the spirits there.
Spirits in prison: Though some have regarded these spirits as human spirits, it is more likely that they were demonic spirits. We know that their disobedience was in the days of Noah (1 Peter 3:20). We have evidence that this was a time of gross sin for both demons and humans, when there was an ungodly mingling of humans and demons (Genesis 6:1-2).
Preached to the spirits in prison: We also don’t know exactly why Jesus preached to these imprisoned spirits. In all probability this was preaching (the proclamation of God’s message), but it was not evangelism (the proclamation of good news). Jesus preached a message of judgment and final condemnation in light of His finished work on the cross to these disobedient spirits.
In doing this there was a completion in Jesus’ triumph over evil, even the evil that happened before the flood. The Bible says that even those under the earth must acknowledge Jesus’ ultimate Lordship. Here Jesus was announcing that fact: “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth” (Philippians 2:10).
“We do not believe that Peter said that Christ preached the gospel to those imprisoned spirits; he taught that Christ announced His triumph over evil, which was bad news for them. For Peter’s readers, however, it meant comfort and encouragement.” (D. Edmond Hiebert)
“What His message was we are not told. Why only those disobedient in the days of Noah are mentioned is not stated. What the purpose or result of Christ’s preaching was, is not revealed. On all these points we may form our own conclusions, but we have no authority for anything approaching dogmatic teaching.” (George Campbell Morgan)
So there you have it. George Campbell Morgan nails it by saying that this mysterious passage and the preaching of an unknown nature by Jesus to these spirits gives us no authority for embellishment or dogmatic teaching that claims authority on the true understanding of this passage. And although this may offend some readers, this passage in no way indicates the existence of something like purgatory. Keep in mind I’m a reformationist and non-denominational evangelical Christian, so my viewpoint comes from those teachings.
You may recall in 1 Corinthians 15 that Paul identifies who Jesus appeared to after His Resurrection:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.”
1 Corinthians 15:3-11 NASB1995
Jesus appeared to Peter in a one-on-one appearance shortly after the discovery of the empty tomb (this is not the same appearance as that documented at the end of the Gospel of John). Perhaps Jesus told Peter what He had done in the time between His death and the Resurrection and Peter tries to explain this years later in this epistle, one-upping Paul for being mysterious and obtuse. For the many years when I was in a Lutheran church, we recited the Apostle’s Creed, which talks about Jesus descending into Hell. This was never explained in a satisfactory manner, but I was told in confirmation classes that the idea of Jesus descending into Hell was a firm foundation in our creeds.
One thing that all believers should know - there are many passages in the Bible that are mysterious or difficult to understand. In the next life, we will know what we don’t understand now and more mysteries will be revealed; we have all of eternity to be in awe! The mystery of God is beautiful and we should have faith in Him and His Goodness, loving Him with all of our hearts, and being obedient. All we really need to know in our hearts is what was written in John 3:16 (and if you don’t have that memorized, well, now is a good time).
My next devotional will close out 1 Peter 3: Salvation of Noah as a Picture of Baptism. Then I will move into devotionals and analysis from 1 Peter 4.
Heaven on Wheels Daily Prayer:
Dear Lord - I don’t understand everything in the Bible, but I know that You are Good and that You loved us so much you gave us Your only begotten Son so that if we believe, we will not perish but have eternal life. Amen.
Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. lockman.org
Commentary from Enduring Word by David Guzik is used with written permission.