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. 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. – 1 Peter 3:18-22 ESV
This passage is a difficult one. It is full of confusing and difficult to understand statements that have left theologians and biblical scholars scratching their heads for generations. There are a variety of opinions as to exactly what Peter is referring to in these verses, but no real consensus. But we know that he is continuing to call his readers to live godly lives based on their new status as children of God. He has just finished encouraging them to suffer well for doing what is good. And now, he uses Jesus as an example. He states, “For Christ also suffered” (1 Peter 3:18 ESV). We suffer just as He did, but Peter points out that His suffering had a unique, never-to-be-repeated purpose behind it. He suffered “once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18 ESV). He suffered and died so that He might pay the penalty that was owed for our sins. Our sin had left us indebted to God and separated from Him. It was only through Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf that the God’s justice could be satisfied. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 NLT). But Paul also explains that it was God’s love for us that caused Him to send His own Son to take our place and suffer the death we rightfully deserved.
8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. 9 And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. – Romans 5:8-9 NLT
And Paul gives us further good news.
23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. 25 For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. – Romans 3:23-25 NLT
Back to Peter’s point: Christ suffered. But His suffering had a purpose behind it. It was necessary for Him to suffer and die so that sinful men might have a means by which they could be restored to a right relationship with God. “He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18 NLT). Jesus didn’t just die a martyr’s death and provide us with a sobering example of how to live die and well. He was raised back to life by the power of the Spirit of God.
And it is at this point that the content of Peter’s letter seems to take a strange turn. He rather matter-of-factly states that Jesus “went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19 NLT). What does this mean? When did Jesus do this? Why would Jesus do this? And Peter provides us even more details, but rather than clear up the matter, they seems to make it even more confusing. He says that the spirits to whom Jesus preached were “those who disobeyed God long ago when God waited patiently while Noah was building his boat” (1 Peter 3:19 NLT). Why is Peter bringing up Noah? And why does He seem to insinuate the Jesus, in some form or fashion preached to those living in Noah’s day, who would eventually die as a result of the worldwide flood God would bring to the earth?
Peter mentions the eight members of Noah’s family who were saved by God when He placed them within the safety of the ark that Noah had constructed. The book of Genesis provides us with an explanation for God’s actions.
5 The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. 6 So the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart. 7 And the Lord said, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth. Yes, and I will destroy every living thing—all the people, the large animals, the small animals that scurry along the ground, and even the birds of the sky. I am sorry I ever made them.” 8 But Noah found favor with the Lord. – Genesis 6:5-8 NLT
The wickedness of mankind had reached a point that God determined to start over. He would begin with a new set of humans, the family of Noah, and begin again. This was not a naive attempt on God’s part to fix what was broken. God knew that Noah, while he found favor in the eyes of God, was also a sinful human being, along with his family members. The legacy of and propensity to sin, inherited from Adam, would survive the flood and the whole process would begin again. Peter states that the waters of the flood saved Noah and his family while, at the same time, punishing those who were outside of the ark. The waters that drowned were the same waters that kept the ark afloat. And the ark represents the salvation that God had provided Noah. It is an image of the faith required by all those who would be saved from death. Just as Noah and his family had to believe God, build the ark, and then get in it in order to be saved; so we had to trust in God’s plan for our salvation: Jesus Christ. The waters that flooded the earth did not cleanse Noah and his family from their sins, but they did save them from death. And our baptism, after having come to faith in Christ, is evidence of our salvation. It does not cleanse us from sin. It gives proof that we have trusted Christ as our Savior. Noah placed his faith in the ark. We have placed our faith in Christ. And the water proves that our source of faith is sufficient. The ark rose above the waves. Christ rose from the grave.
Our baptism, Peter states, is a pledge or an “appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21 ESV). It reveals to those around us that we have confidence that we have been made right with God. His death was sufficient. His resurrection from the dead is what made our clear conscience possible, not our own attempts at sinlessness. And that is why Paul tells us “there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death” (Romans 8:1-2 NLT). No more guilt and shame. No more fear of death. All because of Jesus’ death on our behalf. Peter reminds us that “Christ has gone to heaven. He is seated in the place of honor next to God, and all the angels and authorities and powers accept his authority” (1 Peter 3:22 NLT). He rose again and so shall we. Noah’s salvation was temporary in nature. He escaped the flood, but he would still die. He was saved from drowning, but it would not be long before he and his family were struggling to keep their heads above the waves of sin and immorality that would eventually overwhelm the world again. That is, until Jesus came.
Which brings us back to the problem verses in this passage. What does Peter mean when he says that Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:19 ESV)? He is most likely referring to Jesus’ life prior to His death (in the flesh) or. in other words, His incarnation. Jesus took on human flesh and died on the cross. But He was made alive in the Spirit. This does not mean that Jesus’ body was not resurrected, but that it had a new character about it. After His resurrection, Jesus was able to walk through closed doors (John 20:19). He was still able to eat with His disciples and they were able to recognize Him. But there was a spiritual dimension to His body that was not there before His death. And Peter states that it was in this new body that “he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19 ESV). What does this mean? Did Jesus go into hell and preach the gospel to those who had refused to obey God and listen to Noah’s warnings about the flood? That seems unlikely. It seems that Peter is simply stating that it was in Jesus’ new, post-resurrection form that He “went.” Luke records, “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven” (Luke 24:51 NLT). And as we’ve seen, Peter states that Jesus “has gone to heaven. He is seated in the place of honor next to God” (1 Peter 3:22 NLT). What Peter seems to be saying is that Jesus, with His newly resurrected body – once dead, but now alive – was living proof that He was and is the Messiah, the Savior of the world. And His ascension back to heaven and His restoration to His rightful place as God’s side is a sermon preached to all those who have rejected God’s offer of salvation. This includes all those in Noah’s day and all who have ever lived and eventually died in their sins, having rejected God’s free gift of salvation through His Son. Jesus didn’t have to descend into hell to preach the gospel. It was His resurrection and ascension that scream the gospel message loud and clear.
So, like Christ, who died and rose again, we can face death free from fear. He rose again, and so shall we. The apostle Paul gives us some incredibly good news:
33 Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. 34 Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. – Romans 8:33-34 NLT
But wait, there’s more.
38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39 NLT
We are in Christ. So, we can live like it on this earth. And we are to be willing to die like it – confidently, hopefully, fearlessly and eagerly.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.