The Confusion and Controversy of 1 Peter 3:19-20

This past Sunday was an incredibly sweet day for our faith family. Amid the testimonies, baptisms, and new members signing our church covenant, the Lord’s promise in Isaiah 55 continues to show itself true: His word going-out does not return void!

Reaching 1 Peter 3:19-20 this week, we noted one scholar’s calculation of 180 different exegetical combinations for interpreting this passage. Martin Luther said, “a wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.” It is my desire that difficult passages drive us to our knees, and deeper into His word. With a heart longing to know Him through His truth, and recognizing my own limitations, I want to provide clarity on how Christians have struggled to interpret this passage and how I arrive at my conclusion. My prayer is that when studying difficult texts, you too would wrestle to know God more fully.

Though there is confusion on the meaning of the particulars in this passage, kept in context the meaning of this passage is crystal clear. The debate around these verses centers on Jesus’ preaching (the when, what, to whom, and where). There are 3 classical interpretations listed below. As I mentioned in the sermon, I am humbly and cautiously persuaded of the third and final of these.

  1. Between His death and resurrection, Jesus descended into hell and preached to the spirits of those who perished in the flood during the time of Noah.
  2. After Jesus’ resurrection, He preached to spirits (fallen angels) in prison.
  3. Jesus preached by His Spirit, through Noah.

The biggest hurdle to my position is the New Testament’s plural use of the word “spirits,” which in other instances refers to “angelic beings”. Understanding this, I am constrained by the context and persuaded that the passage allows for a variant use of the word “spirits” for several reasons:

    • To align with the first interpretation, one must read several things into the text, rather than reading what is written out of it. First off, Peter describes the death and resurrection of Jesus as events that already occurred with no indication or reference to a time betweenChrist’s death and resurrection. Furthermore, the letter makes no mention of a particular place Christ went during this time to preach. Readers must make yet another textually unwarranted jump to assume “prison” is referring to hell in these verses, or to believe that Christ’s preaching after a person’s death provides another chance for them to believe—which would assume a non-biblical reality.
    • The second interpretation that holds to “spirits” as “fallen angels” also doesn’t appear to be consistent with Peter’s flow of thinking throughout his letter. His argument in the letter focuses on disobedient humans during the days of Noah while the ark was being built. It would seem odd for him to move to fallen angels, and even more odd for him to specify only a limited number of fallen angels that were disobedient during Noah’s day. If Christ went to preach a message of victory to them, then why to such a small number? Ultimately, the flood account centers on bringing judgment to the human race for their wickedness, not the wickedness of angelic beings.
    • I appreciate the NASB’s rendering of the phrase “and preached to the spirits now in prison”. I don’t believe this text supports a view of descent into hell. Even though the ESV doesn’t include the now, the meaning still fits there as well. Peter seems to imply that the people who failed to believe during Noah’s time are in prison, referring to their current state. Wayne Grudem notes this as a common feature to language. One may say “President Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961” even though he wasn’t elected as President until later. I believe that in a similar way Peter references the current state of these spirits, but does infer that Jesus went to a prison at some point to preach.
    • But how did Jesus preach to Noah’s generation? I believe 1 Peter 1.10-11 makes this clear. Christ proclaimed this message through Noah’s lips just as His Spirit inspired what was preached through the prophets.

    Perhaps you have more questions or want more information to dig deeper. I would love to help you in your pursuit. To God be the glory that the word going out weekly at CLC gatherings does not return void! May it change us, our communities, city, state and country—and may it usher in a harvest of salvation to the ends of the earth.

    Justin Perry

    Posted on: January 11, 2017 - 4:20PM

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