The passage we have in front of us today has been referred to as the most controversial passage in all of Scripture. Martin Luther commented that this passage is “A wonderful text… a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the [New] Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means… I cannot understand and I cannot explain it. And there has been no one who has explained it”.2
Leave it Luther to be the bearer of bad news with absolutely no resolution whatsoever! Another modern-day scholar even calculated that there are no less than “180 different exegetical [interpretive] combinations in theory” for the meaning of verses 19 – 20 alone.3 In other words, according to scholars from Luther to present day, this passage has been giving preachers and Christians alike, massive ulcers for centuries! Look at the text with me…
1 PETER 3:18 – 22
18For 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, 19in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20because 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. 21Baptism, 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, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subject to him.
Questions about this text abound and the answers to each question have possibilities for days, though some are far more believable than others. This is to say that some of the conclusions that one could arrive at while interpreting this text, are so unbiblical and filled full of so much fantasy that it would leave your head spinning if you tried to understand them all.
Who are the spirits that Jesus went and preached to? When did Jesus preach to the spirits? Where did Jesus preach to the spirits? Why does Peter mention Noah? What does baptism have to do with Noah? How does Christ’s resurrection relate to Noah’s flood? What is the “appeal to God for a good conscience” (vv. 21) have to do with baptism and Noah’s flood?
Like I said, questions about this text abound and the answers to these questions have been giving preachers and Christians, ulcers for centuries. But if we act like really good textual detectives, I think we will see that the overall meaning of 3:18 – 22 is simply that Jesus, the submissive Son of God, is the ruling King who is seated at the right and of God the Father Almighty; this truth is meant to bring encouragement to anyone who is suffering on this earth.4 How encouraging is it to know that Jesus reigns supreme despite the suffering and persecution and seemingly utter hopelessness of this life?
So, difficult questions about this text lie in front of us but it is good to know that at the end of the day, when all of our questions are not answered, we can trust that Jesus paid the price to set us free from the presence, power and penalty of sin and that he reigns supreme over all things. And not only that, but thankfully, Peter begins with a fairly easy-to-interpret statement at the beginning of our text.
#1: JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED, KILLED AND RESURRECTED (V. 18)
Look at how Peter puts it, “18For Christ 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.” There’s nothing controversial about what Peter says here except the fact that Jesus would willingly (scandalously) give his life as the perfect Son of God for humans who have made themselves out to be God’s enemies so that they might become God’s adopted, blood-bought children.
It is a deeply humbling encouragement to me that Jesus would willingly be crucified on my behalf; that he would suffer for my sin-soaked war against my Heavenly Father; that Jesus’ deepest desire was to glorify his Father by ransoming me back from the power of Satan, Sin and Death; and that he would leave the tomb empty as a visible proof of his victory over my enemies. Satan, Sin and Death do not get the last laugh because Jesus was crucified, killed and resurrected!
What more needs to be said to encourage those who are suffering the hardship of Satan’s fury in this sin infected world that is doomed for certain death? What more could be said besides the truth that Satan, Sin and Death do not get the last laugh because Jesus was crucified, killed and resurrected? Well, Peter has more to say, and this is where the text starts to get really interesting as Peter mentions the old hero, Noah!
#2: JESUS IS A BETTER NOAH (VV. 18 – 20)
Every hero is a shadow of the one true Hero that we have in Christ Jesus. Every modern-day fictional superhero is a shadow of the one, true Hero that we have in Christ Jesus. Look at how Peter describes Jesus in relation to Noah when he says that, “18…[Jesus was] made alive in the Spirit, 19in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20because 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.” Simply stated: Jesus is a better Noah.
But questions abound about some of the phrases in these verses. Who are the spirits that Jesus proclaimed to? What did Jesus proclaim to these spirits? Where did he go to proclaim, what he proclaimed, to these spirits? At the end of the day there are tons of different opinions that would make your head spin if we had time to examine them all.
So, who are the spirits that Jesus proclaimed to? I am persuaded that the spirits that Jesus proclaimed to were either human or angelic spirits (or both) that died during Noah’s flood because the context of Noah’s flood allows for that, but it should be noted that the word for spirits here is a Greek word that is always used to refer to non-human, spiritual beings, therefore they could be fallen angels as referenced in Genesis 6; 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6.5
What did Jesus proclaim to these spirits? The Greek word that Peter uses here for “proclaim” is a word that simply means “to make an official announcement or a public declaration”; it is not the Greek word that refers to an evangelistic proclamation of the gospel.6 So I am persuaded that Jesus made the official announcement or declaration of his victory at the cross and the empty tomb over those who died during the flood as God’s enemies. Jesus’ proclamation to these evil spirits is most likely a triumphant and victorious proclamation of judgement in keeping with the triumphant and victorious theme of the entire text (especially in reference to verse 22).7
Where did Jesus go to proclaim what he proclaimed to these spirits? Peter says he made his declaration “to the spirits in prison” (v. 19) which leads some scholars to believe that Jesus went to hell or purgatory and made his declaration. But the reality is that the Greek word here for “prison” doesn’t appear to refer to hell because it’s not the same word used elsewhere when hell is spoken of and there simply doesn’t appear to be any word that refers to purgatory anywhere in all of Scripture; therefore, the word “prison” seems to be in reference to God’s sovereign and restraining control over all evil spirits.8 In other words, Jesus showed up in the spiritual realm, alive and well, and he proclaimed the victory over every evil spirit from the time of Noah until the end of time.
In all of this it could be easy to miss the fact that Jesus is simply a better Noah. Let’s not miss the fact that God’s patience waited roughly 75 years during the building of the Ark before bringing the cleansing judgement of the flood upon mankind whose hearts were only bent towards evil (Gen. 6). And let’s not forget that the story of Noah is basically a story about one faithful man obediently rescuing a handful of people in the midst of a crooked generation with the same kind of wood that the cross of Christ was made from.
Jesus is a better Noah because his faithful sacrifice saves far more than only eight people, and the salvation he offers is more than mere earthly salvation, it’s eternal salvation from the eternal judgment that is coming from those who disobey God until death. So, Jesus is a better Noah, but the fun in this text is not over yet!!
#3: JESUS’ RESURRECTION CORRESPONDS TO BAPTISM AND NOAH’S FLOOD (V. 21)
Peter is basically tying a knot in three different visually stimulating events in the lives of his listeners when he says that “21Baptism, 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”. So, in this short sentence, Peter ties a neat and tidy little knot between the resurrection of Jesus, the baptism of believers and the faithfulness of Noah during the flood. The problematic phrases of this sentence are the phrases “now saves you” (in reference to baptism) and “as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (once again in reference to baptism).
Does baptism save you? The answer is simply, “NO”! The key phrase that ties it all together is the phrase “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. If Christ was never resurrected, then neither baptism nor the salvation of eight people during the flood, nor any kind of clean conscience would ever be possible. Peter’s mention of baptism is his way of reminding his listeners that they have been saved like those eight people in Noah’s flood through the power of the resurrection.
But what is the “appeal to God for a clean conscience? Is baptism the instrument by which our consciences are cleansed? The word for “appeal” here is only used one time in the entire Bible and it is used here to refer to the literal pledge and request that has been made by a believer to God in faith for salvation as he or she trusts in the work of Christ at the cross and the empty tomb.9 The word “appeal” here refers to a commitment to a request that has been made by the believer that is based upon the promise of God in the resurrection.
The resurrection of Jesus is literally the third strand of the knot that gives both baptism and Noah’s flood any kind of lasting meaning. This is why I say that Jesus’ resurrection corresponds to baptism and Noah’s flood. All of this culminates into the final point of our text where we clearly see the main theme of everything that Peter has been saying.
#4: JESUS RULES VICTORIOUSLY OVER ALL THINGS (V. 22)
Here’s how Peter says it: he says that “22[Jesus is the only one] who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subject to him”. The key word in this closing statement is the word “subject” which is the same word that Peter used in 2:13; 18 and 3:1 in reference to our responsibility to submit to evil human government, unjust employers and wives to unbelieving husbands.
For nearly two entire chapters, Peter has called his listeners to submit to ungodly authorities – just as Christ did at the cross – but the final outcome according to Peter is that Christ reigns supreme with all others in submission to him.10 The resurrection and ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father gives all of us a certain kind of hope that our own victory has been secured.
You and I, as believers, can take heart and be encouraged that we too will someday stand in victory over our enemies – Stan, Sin and Death – once and for all as we, just like our Savior get up and run out of our graves into the loving arms of our heavenly Father!11 Isn’t this some really good news? I mean seriously! If the tomb is empty and the cross paid the price then Jesus is most definitely victorious over all things!
It’s important to notice that Peter has mentioned Jesus three times throughout this letter: in 1:18 – 19 we saw that the cost of our salvation (Christ’s death at the cross) is meant to motivate personal holiness; in 2:21 – 25 we saw that following in Christ’s footsteps means submission and suffering; finally, in 3:18 – 22 we have seen that we will taste victory through Christ’s submission, suffering and death because the last chapter of Christ’s work is his resurrection, ascension and promised return.12
I do not know what you walked in here struggling with this morning. I don’t know what kind of guilt and shame the voice of Satan has been speaking over you this week. I don’t know what kind of sin you have been tempted with or ultimately gave into this week either. I don’t know how often you laid in your bed or sat in your living room chair pondering the days of your life as Death taunted you. I may not have answered all of the questions about this highly controversial text the right way.
But I do know this: This text is about the great reversal that has taken place between Christ’s submission at the cross and his victory in the empty tomb with his ascension to the right hand of the Father. I know that the main thrust of this text is that the faithful will get through the waters of this life in one piece; like the eight who survived God’s judgment back then (in the flood), so to, everyone who has trusted in the crucified, risen and returning Christ will be left standing on the last day because our Savior, Jesus Christ, has been victorious over Satan, Sin and Death!13 – Amen!
1 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible, The New Classic Reference Edition (ESV) (Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).
2 David R. Helm, 1 – 2 Peter and Jude: Sharing Christ’s Sufferings (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2008), 119.
4 Ibid., 120.
5 Daniel M. Doriani, 1 Peter (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2014), 152.
6 Ibid., 151.
7 Ibid., 153.
8 Ibid., 152.
9 Ibid., 156.
10 David R. Helm, 1 – 2 Peter and Jude: Sharing Christ’s Sufferings (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2008), 121.
11 Ibid., 122 – 123.
12 Ibid., 123.
13 Ibid., 123 – 124.