It was inevitable. We are studying 1 Peter, so of course we had to come to this.
1 Peter 3:18-22
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand--with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
It is only a group of four little verses, but oh, what trouble these four verses have caused for theologians thoughout the ages.
The first sentence is straightforward and fairly easy to understand. For all those who are able to grasp the gospel message, here it is, in simple, plain words. "For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God."
But then, oh then, what fantastic turns Peter takes. Oh my!
"He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God."
Well. Now we see why this isn't the classic text that pastors and teachers use to explain how salvation works.
There are three main questions that theologians have tried to answer over the years:
1. Who are the spirits in prison?
2. When did Jesus preach to them?
3. What did Jesus preach to them?
There are a number of possible answers for each of these questions, and through the ensuing combinations, one can come up with a multiplicity of possible interpretations of the passage.
The traditional interpretation, which was most widespread in the early church, was that between Jesus' death and resurrection (during the three days his body was in the tomb), Jesus went in disembodied form (his Spirit) to the underworld and there proclaimed His victory over sin, with the result that unbelievers such as those who mocked Noah before the flood were shamed to learn how wrong they had been to resist God and mistreat His prophets.
This view sufficiently answers questions 1 and 2 above, but it does not provide a helpful answer to question 3. If these spirits are those of people who rejected the message of salvation during their lifetime, and they were already in hell, what would be the point of Jesus preaching anything to them? As they were already "in prison," would they not already realize how wrong they had been?
Some have postulated that this may indicate that there is another chance for a person to turn from sin, even after death, but the body of scripture certainly does not support such an idea elsewhere.
Another take on the "traditional" view is described in the notes in my Application Study Bible: "The traditional interpretation is that Christ, between his death and resurrection, announced salvation to God's faithful followers who had been waiting for their salvation during the whole Old Testament era." The obvious problem with this is that the scripture says, "the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago." It is tremendously difficult for me to imagine that God would refer to his faithful followers from the Old Testament era with such words. I suppose it is possible, since we have all been born in sin and have all lived disobediently. But it seems unlikely to me that "the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago" describes God's faithful followers from the Old Testament.
Some people think that the disobedient spirits are fallen angels, but since when did God ever wait patiently for the repentence of fallen angels (a.k.a. demons)?
There is another view which, although it is convoluted and complicated, does seem to make a certain amount of sense. Let me see if I can explain it.
The passage says that the Spirit which raised Christ from the dead was the same Spirit through which He went and preached to the "spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago." It does not actually say that the going and preaching to the other (disobedient) spirits happened immediately after Christ was restored to life in His Spirit. Earlier in 1 Peter, Peter wrote: "...the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing..." (from 1 Peter 1:10-11). This could indicate that what Peter means is that the Spirit of Christ was in Noah, proclaiming to Noah's generation the grace that could be gained by those who would put their faith in God. The Spirit of Jesus was there, in Noah, before the flood, bearing witness to the opportunity of salvation for those who would believe, but those who refused to hear are now disobedient spirits in prison (in other words, condemned souls in hell). In this interpretation, we must understand, then, that when Peter says "spirits in prison who disobeyed" he is referring to their condition at the present time, not at the time when Jesus' Spirit proclaimed the offer of salvation to them.
This interpretation makes a certain amount of sense to me, possibly the most sense, because it offers what I think is a reasonable answer to all three of the questions above. However, it is a messy kind of answer, and I wish it were neater and easier to assemble.
We have answered a few questions, but we are not out of the woods yet.
The next passage in question is 1 Peter 3:20-21,
"who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water,
and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,"
Here is how I understand it. At the time of the flood, God purged the world of evil people. His wrath was physically, materially poured out on earth, and the wicked were physically, materially washed away in the flood. At that time, God preserved a remnant, Noah and his family. “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (Genesis 6:8). God saved Noah and his family in the ark, miraculously preserving them from the judgment that was poured out all around them.
This is a picture of the salvation of those who are in Christ, how we will be carried safely through the final judgment (which the Bible says will come with fire rather than water, 2 Peter 3:6-7). Just as faith in Jesus is the only way to attain salvation through right standing with God (“I am the way, the truth and the life…” John 14:6), there was only one way for people to escape the wrath of God in the time of Noah—one ark, one door in the ark. Just as faith in Jesus seems foolish to many (see 1 Peter 2:7-8), it seemed foolish to the people of Noah’s day that Noah would build an ark and get into it.
So far, we have looked at the ark as a microcosm of the great spiritual truth of what God has done (is doing/will do) for all believers through Christ Jesus. However, we can also look at the ark as a macrocosm of what God does in each one of us, individually, when He saves us.
Remember 1 Peter 2:24—“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness…” When we accept Christ, we die to sins. We die to our old way of life. Romans 8:13 says, “For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” Colossians 3:5 says, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” Galatians 5:24 says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” And Galatians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
The washing of the earth at the time of the flood is a picture of the washing of our hearts and souls when we repent and turn to Jesus. He washes away, cuts off, purges the bad stuff (Ezekiel says he removes the heart of stone. 36:26), washes it all away the way He washed away the sinful people at the time of the flood.
As the ark, a thing that was built only by the initiation and direction of God, remained safe after the flood had subsided, our newly conceived spiritual life remains safe after our spiritual cleansing, a new kernel that He has breathed life into by His Spirit (the “new birth” that we see in 1 Peter 1:3; in John’s gospel, chapter 3, Jesus calls this being “born again” in verses 3-8). This is why when Peter mentions the water of baptism, he clarifies—“not the removal of dirt from the body” (from 1 Peter 3:21)—it isn’t an outward thing. It is the spiritual event that has taken place in our spirit. The outward act of baptism symbolizes what has happened on the inside of us and is a sign to other Christians of the change that has taken place invisibly—“the pledge of a good conscience toward God,” (also from 1 Peter 3:21).
After the flood, God brought Noah and his family out of the ark and told them to multiply and fill the newly cleansed earth (Genesis 8:15-17, 9:1). This is similar to (a macrocosm of) the promise that new life will grow in us. When we accept Christ, we do not only die to sins, we also live for righteousness. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” This is our new life in Christ, the salvation that is taking place in us, presently, by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:2). A newly born spiritual child is growing toward maturity, repopulating, if you will, the physical body that once held the “old self” (Colossians 3:9-10). Ezekiel makes it about the clearest of anyone: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”