1 Peter 3:18-20

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, in which he also went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison who in the past were disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah while the ark was being prepared. In it a few—that is, eight people—were saved through water.”

Today we are going to cover one of the most confusing passages in the New Testament. I want to tell you right up front that I am probably not going to clear up any of that confusion for you! There are several different interpretations of this passage, and I will briefly go into these, but I have to admit, I am not any clearer on it myself. But the first part of the passage is as clear as can be. Let’s dig in!

Christianity has objective truth claims. From the very beginning, eyewitnesses confessed what they saw, and this was passed on to other believers. These confessions about the truth of God and the truth of Jesus are the creeds of our faith. Creed is just a fancy word for formal statement of Christian belief. You may think that these weren’t formalized until the Apostles Creed was written between the 3rd and 4th century. But that is not correct! There are several creeds found in the New Testament. Here are a couple:

If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation.”   Romans 10:9-10

“For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep.”  1 Corinthians 15:3-6

“Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow— in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  Philippians 2:5-11

Notice that 1 Peter 3:18 reads like a creed. “Christ suffered for our sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” This is such a perfect summary of the message of the cross!

Peter is reminding his readers that they (and we) might have to suffer, but he then reminds us that Christ suffered for sins once for all. He did it once and when we believe, we have access to God. We have the hope of Heaven. This earth is temporary. Any suffering that happens here will pale in comparison to what is coming. Edmund Clowney in his commentary puts it this way. “Christ has conquered by the power of his resurrection. He has prevailed to bring them to God. The devil may still be on the prowl like a roaring lion (5:7), but he cannot destroy those whose refuge is the Lord.”

Peter writes, “He was put to death in the flesh but made alive by the spirit…” Jesus’ physical body was put to death on the cross. Three days later, he rose again. Wayne Grudem writes in his commentary, “The contrast ‘put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit’ fits in with the whole letter’s emphasis on the relative unimportance of temporary suffering in this world compared to the enjoying of an eternal inheritance in the next… our Lord willingly suffered physical harm, even death, for the sake of eternal, spiritual gain- that he might bring us to God.”

This next verse is one of the more confusing passages in the New Testament. Peter goes on to write, “… in which he also went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison who in the past were disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah while the ark was being prepared.” I have to admit, even after doing all my research, this passage still isn’t any clearer! But I will give you the information I did get. There are three major interpretations for this verse, and each one of the interpretations has variations within it. I am not going to cover those. The first interpretation is that Jesus descended into hell and preached to the spirits of the people who perished during Noah’s time. There are variations of what he preached. The second interpretation is that Christ preached through Noah in the same way that the Holy Spirit spoke through Old Testament prophets. Again, there are variations of what he preached. And third, the spirits in prison would not refer to humans, but to fallen angels. This would take place after his resurrection. So the main questions that the three versions attempt to answer are: 1.) Who are the spirits in prison? Are they human or fallen angels? 2.) What did Christ preach? 3.) When did he preach? Was it in the days of Noah? Between his death and resurrection, or after his resurrection?

To me, these questions aren’t of primary importance. They aren’t anything to build a doctrine around because we don’t see any other scriptures to add to this. As Tara Leigh Cobble of the Bible Recap says, “We don’t want to scream where the Bible whispers.” The most important part of this passage is the first part, which declares our need for a Savior. We were unrighteous, Jesus was righteous. He suffered for our sins so that we can be reconciled to God.

My next post will continue with Noah and the ark. We will see how this was a preview of God’s salvation through Christ.

Grace be with you!


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