Project Augustine

1 Peter 3: 19 – 20

 

11/6/2007

 

19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.   – 1 Peter 3: 19 – 20

 

Q: In 1 Peter 3: 19 – 20, what does it mean that after His death and resurrection, Christ “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah?”  Did Christ really descend into hell and preach to dead spirits or angels after His crucifixion?

 

Exegesis

 

Background and Context of 1 Peter

 

  1. This epistle was written to Jewish and Christian believers living, during 60 – 63 A.D., in the northern part of Asia Minor who were facing persecution because of their commitment to Christ.
  2. Peter’s chief aim was to provide the church encouragement in times of suffering and persecution.  He presented the death of Christ as a stimulus for Christians to endure suffering and affirmed the importance of the resurrection as a chief source of Christian hope and confidence.  He presented Christ’s immanent return as an incentive to holy living.
  3. In the context of 1 Peter 3: 19 – 20, the author writes about Christian behavior in the face of harassment and suffering (from 1 Peter 3:13 – 5:11).  He encourages the persecuted Christians by telling them that they have the example of Christ, the righteous one who suffered for the unrighteous.    After his death, he was made alive in the spirit and then went to proclaim his victory over the disobedient “spirits” who were imprisoned since the days of Noah.

 

Exegesis of 1 Peter 3: 19 – 20

 

  1. A number of vague NT texts indicate that Christ, presumably after his death, descended beneath the earth (Rom 10: 7; Eph 4:9), that he took up from below dead saints (Matt 27: 52; Eph 4: 8), and that he triumphed over the evil angelic powers (Phil 2: 10; Col 2: 15) (Brown, p. 714)
  2. Some take these verses to refer to the chronological sequence to Christ’s death, when his spirit passed into the realms of the departed. If that is the case, then he must have preached to all the dead in one of three ways:
    1. To offer them a second chance of salvation
    2. To proclaim his victory over death and triumph over the power of evil
    3. To proclaim release from purgatory to those who had repented just before they perished in the flood ( a popular interpretation in the Roman Catholic Church) (Wenham, Motyer, et al., p. 1380)
    4. Neither the first nor the last of these interpretations can be supported from Scripture, but the second has been the most widely accepted (ibid)
  3. Who precisely are the dead or the “spirits” that were preached to in verse 19?
    1. The “spirits” have been understood as the souls of men, fallen angels, or both.
    2. The best explanation is that the “spirits” (pneumata) are fallen angels.
      1. In Semitic anthropology “spirits” would be an unusual way to refer to the dead; therefore, more likely it would refer to fallen angels. (Brown, p. 716)
    3. Jesus, then, in his resurrection “goes” to the place of angelic confinement.
      1. Since this is in another realm, we cannot locate it spatially. However, there does not seem to be good evidence for seeing here a “descent into hell.” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary)
      2. However, if we equate the spirits in prison with the angels who sinned in 2 Pet 2: 4, then their location is Tartarus
        1. In Greek thought this place of punishment was lower than Hades (Dockery, p. 766)
      3. The reference to disobedience in the days of Noah in verse 20, suggests that these are the angels or sons of God who did evil by having sexual relations with earthly women according to Gen 6: 1 – 4, a wickedness that led God to send the great flood from which Noah was saved. (Brown, p. 716)
        1. Other NT references are found in 2 Peter 2: 4 – 10 and Jude 6
        2. But a serious question arises on whether or not angels, who most assume are incorporeal spirit beings, can have physical relations with mortal women
      4. The content of the proclamation in verse 19 is not stated.
        1. The verb kerysso means “to proclaim” or “to announce.”
        2. The choice of this verb rather than euangelizo (“to proclaim good news”), which is used in 4:6, appears to be significant.
        3. Christ does not announce the gospel to the fallen angels. The thought of salvation for angels is foreign to the NT (Heb 2:16) and also to Peter.
        4. The announcement is of his victory and of their doom that has come through his death on the cross and his resurrection. (Expositor’s Bible Commentary)
        5. Also, in this verse there’s an emphasis that these spirits are currently at present still in prison: “He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, …” (this comes from the NASB translation)
      5. Peter’s readers would understand that evil spirits lay behind their persecutions. The coming defeat and doom of these spirits would be a source of encouragement to the readers.  (Dockery, p. 766)

 

Hermeneutics

 

  1. In most churches today, the Apostle’s Creed is recited collectively. Whenever I recited it and got to the part where it states “[Jesus] was crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended into hell” I always became curious with the last sentence and where that sentence was based on.  And I’m sure I’m the only one who’s been curious with the source and basis of that sentence as well.
  2. Even after exegeting the text, there are still lingering questions.
    1. For instance, in Luke 23: 43 Jesus on the cross tells the penitent criminal next to Him that “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.”
      1. So was he in the “prison” where the fallen spirits were at or was he in Paradise after He breathed His last breath?
      2. Just where was he first, Paradise or the prison?
    2. Also, in Matthew 27: 53, there’s a description immediately after Jesus’ death where “the tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”  Does this gospel’s account have a direct correlation with 1 Peter 3: 19 – 20?
  3. The text of 1 Peter 3: 19 -20 might shed some light as to what happened to those faithful saints who lived before Jesus.
    1. These verses imply that Jesus’ victory was applied to those who lived and acted in OT times. (Brown, p. 723)
  4. One application I see is that Christ’s death on the cross and His resurrection is much grander and more “cosmic” than we’re normally accustomed to.
    1. I think it might be fair to say that most Christians don’t concern themselves to what happened to the souls of those faithful to God who lived and died before Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross.
      1. How were their sins atoned for?
    2. We can possibly interpret this to mean that the power of the cross and Jesus’ atoning sacrifice transcends even time and space.
    3. Not even death or the expanse of ages can limit the scope and breadth of God’s plan of salvation for those whom He’s predestined for glory and have placed their faith in God alone.
  5. Even in our world today, there are places where Christians are being severely persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ.
    1. Peter’s encouragement rings true for those being persecuted and suffering today as it did to those during his time.
    2. We should follow Peter’s words that in trying times of persecution and suffering we are respond righteously toward our persecutors (3: 13 – 17) and to fix our eyes upon Jesus as our supreme example.
      1. He too suffered and was persecuted
      2. Since Christ showed that suffering was the path to glory, Christians not be surprised if “a fiery ordeal” and greater sufferings come (4: 12 – 19)
    3. 1 Peter 3: 19 – 20 may imply that some suffering and persecutions that Christians experience may have a demonic origin
      1. If so, we should rejoice in the fact that Jesus directly and personally proclaimed victory over them and have crushed Satan’s forces.
      2. The imagery is similar to that of John 16: 11 where the return of Jesus to God marks the condemnation of the Prince of the world (ie Satan), and that of Rev 12: 5 – 13 where when the Messiah is born (through resurrection) and taken up to heaven, the devil and his angels are cast down. (Brown, p. 716)

 


 

 

  1. Brown, Raymond E., An Introduction to the New Testament, The Anchor Bible Reference Library, Doubleday, 1997
  2. Motyer, J.A., G. J. Wenham, D.A. Carson, R.T. France, editors, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Ed., Intervarsity Press, 2003
  3. Dockery, David S., Holman Bible Handbook, Holman Bible Publishers, 1992
  4. Expositor’s Bible Commentary, The, Pradis CD-ROM:1 Peter/Exposition of 1 Peter/IV. The Suffering and Persecution of Christians (3:13-5:11)/B. The Pattern of Christ’s Suffering and Exaltation (3:18-22), Book Version: 4.0.2

 

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