Job And The Afterlife: The Descent Of Christ Into Hades #4 1 Peter 3:18-22 (Part One)

By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist) 

Quotation For Contemplation 

Ezekiel 18:23-Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord GOD, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live?

In our studies of Ephesians 4:8-10, we have learned that Jesus descended to Sheol between the time of His death and resurrection.

While Paul gives us some insights into what Jesus accomplished in that journey, the Apostle Peter provides further clarification.  

1 Peter 3:18-22-18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. 21 There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.
Let’s notice several different translations of this passage.  

1 Peter 3:18-22 (Bible In Basic English)-18 Because Christ once went through pain for sins, the upright one taking the place of sinners, so that through him we might come back to God; being put to death in the flesh, but given life in the Spirit; 19 By whom he went to the spirits in prison, preaching to those. 20 Who, in the days of Noah, went against God’s orders; but God in his mercy kept back the punishment, while Noah got ready the ark, in which a small number, that is to say eight persons, got salvation through water: 21 And baptism, of which this is an image, now gives you salvation, not by washing clean the flesh, but by making you free from the sense of sin before God, through the coming again of Jesus Christ from the dead; 22 Who has gone into heaven, and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been put under his rule.

1 Peter 3:18-22 (ERV)-18 Christ himself suffered when he died for you, and with that one death he paid for your sins. He was not guilty, but he died for people who are guilty. He did this to bring all of you to God. In his physical form he was killed, but he was made alive by the Spirit. 19 And by the Spirit he went and preached to the spirits in prison. 20 Those were the spirits who refused to obey God long ago in the time of Noah. God was waiting patiently for people while Noah was building the big boat. And only a few—eight in all—were saved in the boat through the floodwater. 21 And that water is like baptism, which now saves you. Baptism is not the washing of dirt from the body. It is asking God for a clean conscience. It saves you because Jesus Christ was raised from death. 22 Now he has gone into heaven. He is at God’s right side and rules over angels, authorities, and powers.

Question One: What Are The Main Thoughts Of The Passage?

Answer: The main thoughts of the passage focus on teaching Christians the benefits that may arise from suffering for the Lord, with Jesus as the main Example.  

Notice several general themes of the passage that Peter mentions.  

First, Jesus’ suffering and death led to ultimate an ultimately higher good: the salvation of His people. He was innocent, yet God worked through His suffering to accomplish great things.  

Second, even though Jesus was dead physically, He was alive spiritually.  

Third, by the Spirit Jesus preached to the spirits in prison.  

Fourth, some of the spirits that Jesus preached to were the ones who had rebelled against God in the days of Noah.  

Fifth, during the time of the Flood, the Noah and his family (who were also righteous sufferers) were saved in the Ark through the waters of the Flood.  

Sixth, the deliverance of Noah and his family through the water was a foreshadowing of how baptism would one day save penitent sinners.  

Seventh, this salvation is made possible because of the righteous death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Eighth, the Lord’s suffering led to His ultimate triumph and exaltation, with the angels and principalities and powers being made subject to Him.  

Question Two: What Are Some Of The Benefits Of Suffering That Peter Elaborates On In 1 Peter? 

Answer: There are several benefits of suffering for the Lord which are listed throughout 1 Peter.  

To understand what Peter is teaching us about Christ and His preaching to the spirits in prison, we need to realize the important context of “suffering” throughout the Book.

When Peter wrote this Epistle, the Christians were facing lots of persecutions from unbelievers.  

In order to demonstrate the ways that God can use suffering to lead to higher good, Peter lists several of the benefits of suffering which may arise.  

Suffering can help to demonstrate the genuineness of our faith, and this will lead to praise, glory, and honor when Jesus returns (1 Peter 1:6-7).

Suffering that we endure can lead to the conversion of sinners when they witness how Christians face the trials of life and persecution (1 Peter 2:12).  

Suffering enables Christians to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and allows us to learn to trust in God as He did (1 Peter 2:21-25).

Suffering for the sake of righteousness will lead to God blessing us (1 Peter 3:14).

Suffering for the Lord in the face of hostile neighbors can lead to opportunity to teach God’s Word to our enemies so that they may hopefully be “ashamed” and saved (1 Peter 3:15-16).  

Suffering for Christ will lead us to rejoice in the good that God is going to bring (1 Peter 4:12-13).  

Suffering for the Lord will lead to a greater display of the Holy Spirit in our lives (1 Peter 4:14).  

Suffering helps us to learn to be humble and to cast all of our cares upon God (1 Peter 5:6-7).  

Suffering for the Lord reminds us of the bond and fellowship that we have with other Christians around the world (1 Peter 5:8-9).

Suffering for the cause of Christ will help to perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle us (1 Peter 5:10).  

In demonstrating the ultimate good that God can bring through suffering, Peter repeatedly emphasizes Jesus as our Example.

1 Peter 1:10-11 (CEV)-10 Some prophets told how kind God would be to you, and they searched hard to find out more about the way you would be saved. 11 The Spirit of Christ was in them and was telling them how Christ would suffer and would then be given great honor. So they searched to find out exactly who Christ would be and when this would happen.  

1 Peter 2:21-25-21 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: 22 “WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH”; 23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. 25 For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

1 Peter 3:18-22-18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. 21 There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.

Jesus is set forth as the ultimate Example for us. His suffering demonstrates that God can bring great good through the most terrible trials.  

Question Three: Who Are The “Spirits” That Are In Prison? 

Answer: Either the wicked antediluvians, the fallen angels of Genesis 6, or all of the above.  

The text identifies the “spirits” as the ones being present in Noah’s age.

In context, the “spirits” could be referring to the people who rejected the preaching of Moses before the Flood, or it could be a reference to the fallen angels who are kept in Hades.

Let’s look at both possibilities separately.

The Wicked Antediluvians 

The first possible reference is to the wicked people who rejected Noah’s teaching and preaching. There is much to commend for this view.  

First, this follows the general context.

Peter is reminding the Christians that there are many enemies of God’s people who will scoff and persecute the saints.

This was always true, and what better example than the contemporaries of Noah’s day?

Yet despite all of their troubles, Noah and his family stayed faithful to God during all of the trials which they faced.

What was the result?

They triumphed and were victorious.  

Second, it is worth noticing that this also harmonizes with what Peter wrote in his Second Epistle.

He reminds the brethren: 

2 Peter 2:4-5-4 For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment;

5 and did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly;

In both cases, we see that Noah preached to the wicked humans of his day and age.  

Some may object, “Why would God offer salvation to the people before the Flood, as opposed to everyone else who had died without the knowledge of Christ?”  

First, Peter does not say that Peter preached ONLY to the antediluvians.

Instead, he mentions this particular group of people because he is making a specific point and drawing specific parallels between the people then living and the Christians of his day and age (i.e., to show that even when the righteous suffer, God will bring good out of it and ultimately deliver them).

Second, it is worth nothing that the Greek of the passage suggests that Peter actively implies that Jesus actually preached to others besides the antediluvians.

Reese points out: 

“The participle with which this verse opens has no article, and Lenski urged that it thus does not say that only those disobedient in Noah’s time were heralded to. It rather says that those spirits in prison were “such as” the ones who had been disobedient. Christ’s proclamation in Hades (prison) dealt with others than just the antediluvians who perished in the flood.” (Gareth Reese, New Testament Epistles: A Critical And Exegetical Commentary On 1 & 2 Peter & Jude, 92-93; Moberly, Missouri; Scripture Exposition Books)

Reese’s footnote with this passage should also be considered: 

“Perhaps the reason for singling out this generation that was swept away with the flood is because it allows Peter to in the point he wishes to about baptism. We remember that Peter’s point is that there is activity after death. Death didn’t end Messiah’s opportunities for service. And death (should his readers be martyred) wont’ end the Christian’s opportunities for service. All this was prefigured in their baptism into Christ-that death, burial and resurrection was followed by activity, the activity of the new life in Christ.” (Gareth Reese, New Testament Epistles: A Critical And Exegetical Commentary On 1 & 2 Peter & Jude, 92-93, Footnote # 95; Moberly, Missouri; Scripture Exposition Books)

There is thus good reason to believe that the “spirits” here had reference to the wicked humans of Noah’s day and age who perished in the Flood and who were (when Peter was writing) in Sheol.  

The Fallen Angels 

There is also good evidence to suggest that Peter is referencing the fallen angels who had sinned against God, as recorded in Genesis 6.  

First, Peter specifically mentions that when Christ had finished His “preaching,” the angels and the principalities and powers were made subject to Him (1 Peter 3:22).

Second, there are certain parallels between what Peter and Jude say, coupled with what is recorded in the book of Enoch.

Notice: 

2 Peter 2:4-5-4 For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment;

5 and did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly;

Please notice that Peter joins the world of the ungodly with the fallen angels who are now “cast down” to Tartarus (or the lowest depths of Sheol, as we noticed in a previous lesson).

Further, Jude writes:

Jude 6-6 And the angels who did not keep their proper domain, but left their own abode, He has reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day;

Further, both Jude and Peter reference Enoch (Peter indirectly).

The book of Enoch records: 

1 Enoch 10:4-4 And again the Lord said to Raphael: ‘Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness and split open the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him in.

1 Enoch 18:12-16-12 And beyond that abyss I saw a place which had no firmament of heaven above, and no firmly founded earth beneath it: there was no water on it, and no birds, 13 But it was a desert and a horrible place. I saw there seven stars like great burning mountains, 14 And an angel questioned me regarding them. The angel said: ‘This place is the end of heaven and earth. 15 This has become a prison for the stars and the host of heaven. And the stars which roll over the fire are they which have transgressed the commandment of the Lord in the beginning of their rising, because they did not come out at their proper times. 16 And He was angry with them, and bound them until the time when their guilt should be consummated even for ten thousand years.’

1 Enoch 21:1-6-Then, I proceeded to where things were chaotic and void. 2 And I saw there something horrible: I saw neither a heaven above nor a firmly founded earth, but a place chaotic and horrible. 3 And there I saw seven stars of heaven bound together in it, like great mountains and burning with fire. 4 Then I said: ‘For what sin are they bound, and on why have they been cast in here?’ 5 Then said Uriel, one of the holy angels, who was with me, and was chief over them: ‘Enoch, why do you ask, and why art you eager for the truth? 6 These are some of the stars of heaven, which have transgressed the commandment of the Lord, and are bound here until ten thousand years, the time entailed by their sins, are consummated.’

Charles Swindon does an excellent job summarizing the ideas of these passages: 

“What, then, did Jesus do on the Saturday between His death and resurrection? Peter tells us that when Jesus was made alive in the spirit realm, He “made proclamation to the spirits now in prison” (3:19). Who are these “spirits”? Peter says these were the spirits of those who were once disobedient in the days of Noah (3:20). In fact, Peter’s language and narrative reflect a common understanding among Jews and early Christians, based on their reading of Genesis 6:1-4. According to that understanding, prior to the Flood fallen angels (demons) sinned gravely by cohabiting with human women. Though not a part of the inspired biblical writings, the ancient book of 1 Enoch paraphrases the events of Genesis 6:1-4, giving us a clear example of the prevalent view in Peter’s time…But is there any way we can be sure Peter had this common historical interpretation of Genesis 6 in mind when he wrote 1 Peter 3:19-20? Actually, when we compare parallel passages in Jude and 2 Peter with language from 1 Enoch , we see that this is, in fact, in both Peter’s and Jude’s minds. Note the similarities in language and imagery as we compare these passages.” (Charles R. Swindon, Swindoll’s Living Insights: New Testament Commentary-James, 1 & 2 Peter, 5467-5479 (Kindle Edition); Carol Stream, Illinois; Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.). 

When we add all of these things together, it would seem that the “spirits” that were preached to were the unsaved dead humans (especially, but not only, the wicked antediluvians), and the fallen angels (especially the ones who sinned with the human women and brought forth the Nephilim, as recorded in Genesis 6:1-4).  

Question Four: What (Or Where) Is The Location Here Identified As “Prison?” 

Answer: The phrase “in prison” has reference to Sheol.  

The Syriac translation of the New Testament renders the phrase “in prison” as “Sheol,” showing that this was the common understanding of the passage in the first century.  

Further, other New Testament passages express the idea that “prison” has primary reference to Sheol.

Satan is (figuratively) locked up in his “prison” (Revelation 20:7), which is identified as “the bottomless pit” (Revelation 20:1).  

Throughout the New Testament, the phrase “bottomless pit” was used interchangeably with Hades (or Sheol-see Luke 8:31).

We see this clearly in Revelation 9:1, where the “bottomless pit” is referred to literally as “the well of the abusson, the same Greek phrase used in Luke 8:31 where the demons begged the Lord not to send them to the abusson (abyss).  

Question Five: When Did The Preaching Take Place?  

Answer: Between the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

One interpretation of this passage holds that Peter is telling us that Christ preached through the Holy Spirit to the people of Noah’s day while they were alive, and who (being killed in the Flood) were in Hades at the time that Peter wrote.  

This view has much to commend for it.  

First, it acknowledges an important principle which Peter had discussed earlier, i.e., that the Spirit of Christ testified through the Prophets.

Notice: 

1 Peter 1:10-11-10 Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, 11 searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ WHO WAS IN THEM WAS INDICATING WHEN HE TESTIFIED BEFOREHAND the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.

Second, it harmonizes with the fact that Peter also taught that Noah was a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5).  

However, there are serious problems with this interpretation.  

First, the straightforward reading of the passage seems to suggest that the preaching took place between the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  

Notice the introductory statement: 

1 Peter 3:18-For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit,

It is after Peter mentions Jesus’ being put to death in the flesh and made alive in the Spirit that he introduces the discussion of the preaching being done to the spirits in prison.

There seems to be a natural flow here.

Reese has pointed out: 

“When did He go? At least three answers are offered to this question. (A). During His pre-existent state, Christ preached to Noah’s contemporaries, warning them of the coming flood and urging them to repent. The New Testament does speak of Jesus’ pre-existent activities on earth (cf. John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 10:4; 1 Peter 1:10ff), but that is hardly the emphasis of this passage. What is needed here is something after Messiah’s death, that can serve as an assurance for Peter’s persecuted and threatened readers. (B). Between His death and resurrection. If verse 18 speaks of Messiah’s death, and verse 21 is the first mention of His resurrection, then His going and preaching took place during the days His dead body was in the tomb. This is the view advanced by the present writer because it seems to him that there is a sequence in these verses-death, energized, went, preached, raised, ascended.” (Gareth Reese, New Testament Epistles: A Critical And Exegetical Commentary On 1 & 2 Peter & Jude, 88; Moberly, Missouri; Scripture Exposition Books)

I believe that Peter is stressing both ideas.

Christ certainly taught in and through Noah in the time before the Flood, and He also went and taught to the spirits in prison during the time between His death and resurrection (as is also amply demonstrated by our studies of Ephesians 4:8-10).  

Further, consider that the early Christians clearly understood this as a reference to Jesus going and preaching to the lost in Sheol between His death and resurrection.

For example: 

“Here Peter answers the question which some objectors have raised, namely, if the incarnation was so beneficial, why was Christ not incarnated for such a long time, given that he went to the spirits which were in prison and preached to them also? In order to deliver all those who would believe, Christ taught those who were alive on earth at the time of his incarnation, and these others acknowledged him when he appeared to them in the lower regions, and thus they too benefited from his coming. Going in his soul, he preached to those who were in hell, appearing to them as one soul to other souls. When the gatekeepers of hell saw him, they fled; the bronze gates were broken open, and the iron chains were undone. And the only-begotten Son shouted with authority to the suffering souls, according to the word of the new covenant, saying to those in chains: “Come out!” and to those in darkness: “Be enlightened.” In other words, he preached to those who were in hell also, so that he might save all those who would believe in him. For both those who were alive on earth during the time of his incarnation and those who were in hell had a chance to acknowledge him. The greater part of the new covenant is beyond nature and tradition, so that while Christ was able to preach to all those who were alive at the time of his appearing and those who believed in him were blessed, so too he was able to liberate those in hell who believed and acknowledged him, by his descent there.” (Cyril of Alexandria, Catena. [CEC 66.]) 

“”Forgiveness was not granted to everyone in hell, but only to those who believed and acknowledged Christ. Those who cleansed themselves from evil by doing good works while they were alive recognized him, for until he appeared in the lower regions everyone, including those who had been educated in righteousness, was bound by the chains of death and was awaiting his arrival there, for the way to paradise was closed to them because of Adam’s sin. Nevertheless, not everyone who was in the lower regions responded to Christ when he went there, but only those who believed in him. (Severus of Antioch, Catena. [CEC 67-68.]

Question Six: What Does It Mean That Christ Went And Preached To The Spirits “By The Spirit?”  

Answer: The passage should read “in the spirit.”  

Several translations of the Bible render the phrase “by the Spirit” (KJV, NKJV) as “in the spirit.”  

The rendering “by the Spirit” suggests that Jesus went by means of the Holy Spirit and preached to the spirits in prison, whereas the phrase “in the spirit” would suggest that He went and preached to the spirits in prison by means of His own personal spirit.

Kenneth Wuest highlights the facts: 

“The word translated “Spirit,” pneumati, is in the same case and classification as the word for “flesh,” sarki. But the Holy Spirit is not a logical contrast to the human body of our Lord. It is the human spirit of our Lord that is set over against His human body. It is true that our Lord was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that is taught by Paul in Rom 8:11. But Peter is not teaching that truth here. He maintains the perfect contrast between our Lord’s human body and His human spirit. The translators of the A.V. have capitalized the word “spirit,” making it refer to the Holy Spirit. But the following considerations will show that they had no textual basis for doing so. In the first place, the three oldest and best manuscripts we have, the Vaticanus and the Sinaiticus, fourth century, and the Alexandrinus of the fifth, are in capital letters entirely. The Chester Beatty manuscript, third century, does not contain the portion of Scripture we are studying. Eberhard Nestle in his text which is the resultant of a collation of three of the principal recensions of the Greek Testament appearing in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Tischendorf, 1869-1872, Westcott and Hort, 1881-1895, and Bernhard Weiss, 1894-1900, capitalizes the word “spirit” when the word is used to designate the third Person of the Triune God. But he has no manuscript evidence for doing this. With him it is a pure matter of interpretation. Every word of his Greek text which appeared in the originals is the inspired Word of God, but the capitalization is not inspired. The word “spirit” in 1Pe 3:18 is not capitalized in Nestle’s text, which indicates that he thought that the word referred, not to the Holy Spirit but to the human spirit of the Lord Jesus.” (Kenneth Wuest, Word Studies In The Greek New Testament)

“There is not general agreement as to where they were and when the preaching occurred. Some interpreters tell us they were the people of Noah’s time while they were alive and while was being prepared; that the preaching was done at that Imel by Noah, but it was Christ, who, by means of the Holy Spirit, preached through Noah. The mistaken translation of the Authorized Version is, perhaps, partly responsible for this interpretation-that He went ‘by the Spirit,’ signifying the Holy Spirit. What Peter actually says is quite different. He did not go ‘by’ in the sense of agency, but ‘in’ signifying mode or manner. Again, the words in the spirit are antithetical to the preceding statement in the flesh, that Christ who was put to death in the flesh, the same in the spirit, His own spirit, went and preached, etc. These words signify His spiritual incorporeal life as distinct from the flesh, in which He was put to death. This clearly shows that the Holy Spirit is not intended by these words, and that the proper rendering of the Greek precludes such a misunderstanding. There is absolutely nothing to suggest the theory that Christ by means of the Holy Spirit through Noah preached to those people prior to the flood. It was during the time Christ was in the grave that He, in HIs own spirit, went and preached, and that is the manner in which the earliest Christian writers understand the passage. This interpretation is strengthened by the expression who once were disobedient (R.V. Aforetime), thus referring to a time in the past. The rendering of the Syriac Version is ‘the spirits shut up in Sheol,’ which fixes the time.” (Dickson New Analytical Study Bible, 1414) 

In our next lesson, we will consider what the message was that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison.  

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.  

Study Questions 

What are some New Testament Scriptures which discuss Christ’s pre-incarnate work? ________________________________________________

What evidence is there that Jesus did not preach ONLY to the antediluvians who were in Sheol? _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

What are some of the benefits that 1 Peter teaches us God can bring from suffering?  

How does the Syriac translation render the word “prison” in 1 Peter 3:19? __________

What are some reasons to believe that 1 Peter 3:18-22 is not referring (primarily) to the preaching that took place when Noah was alive? _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

What are some reasons to believe that the ‘spirits in prison’ included both unsaved humans and fallen angels? _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

For Prayer Partners

1. Consider the preaching that was done by Christ to the spirits in prison. What do you think the preaching consisted of? Consider 1 Peter 4:6 in your studies.   

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