1 Peter 3: Spirits in Prison


Suffering was front and center for the first-century church. They were few in number compared even to those of Jewish faith, let alone the surrounding GrecoRoman world which supported any number of cults and pantheons of foreign gods.

So Peter drew from imagery that could portray the kind of fearless faith, godly character, and much-maligned yet God-affirmed lifestyle that he was seeking to encourage. Noah and his family of eight were a tiny remnant of faithful people in a very hostile world.

Encouragement of Christ

Remember Peter was a waterman, so Noah’s story must have fascinated him.

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

1 Peter 3:18-20 (NRSV)
  • What did Peter mean by “put to death in the flesh” but made alive in the spirit”?
  • “In which” what did Jesus also go to make proclamation?
  • Where did Jesus go to make this proclamation?
  • Who are these “spirits in prison”?

GREAT REDEMPTION

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.

Peter’s reminder of the cost of salvation is well-placed, for there were many among the Diaspora who had met Jesus during one of the festivals in Jerusalem, or had heard about his courage, humility, righteousness, and unjust treatment. Peter was both encouraging them and recalling to mind at what great cost they had been redeemed, having already written,

[You all] who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood:

May grace and peace be yours in abundance.

You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.

Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.

1 Peter 1:2, 18-19, 21 [NRSV]

GLORIOUS RESURRECTION

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit . . .

Perhaps the best way to understand this—especially from Peter, who spent a great deal of time with the risen Lord—is to consider

  • [He] Jesus’ nature as fully God yet also fully human;
  • [was put to death in the flesh] the nature of his death as physical and complete, verified by reliable witnesses;
  • [but made alive in the spirit] the nature of his resurrection, which was a divine work wrought by the mighty wonder-working power of God the Holy Spirit.

Peter was not saying Jesus was raised up only in his spirit, but rather Jesus was raised from physical death by the power of the Spirit.

GOSPEL REVELATION

. . . in which also he went and made a proclamation

“In which” in Greek is  ἐν ᾧ, en ho, and is in what is called the neuter case, which is to say neither feminine case nor masculine case. The word ho, translated which, refers back to the word that comes just before it—it looks like this: πνεύματι· ἐν . πνεῦμα, pneuma, is also in the neuter case [so we know ho and pneuma go together], and it means wind, or breath, or spirit. Which is to say, in this context, pneuma refers to the Holy Spirit.

All this Greek grammar means that though “in which” is technically the best word-for-word translation, it can be misleading. What it -means- is in whom, referring to God the Holy Spirit.

It is in the Holy Spirit that Jesus made a proclamation.

Spirits in Prison

So far, so good. Theologians and scholars more or less agree on all of the above. The knottier questions concern these “spirits in prison.”

NEPHILIM

It is possible Peter was referring to unknown beings who married human women in Noah’s time, creating a race of giants called Nephilim.

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.

Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.”

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

Genesis 6:1-4

The nature of these beings has garnered much speculation (you can read more about this story here). Briefly, theories propose:

  • Possibly the “sons of God” were godly men in the line of Seth, and the “daughters of men,” were godless women in the line of Cain.
  • Another approach sees the “sons of God” as ambitious, despotic, and autocratic rulers. The “daughters of men” would represent both the women and the power these rulers seized in an attempt to gain all the authority and notoriety they could from those within their reach.
  • The third possibility has the “sons of God” as fallen angels, now called demons, which had taken on the forms of human men, or possessed human men, married the “daughters of men,” human women, producing, literally, giants, the Nephilim. To add to this theory, Jude wrote:

And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day.

Jude 1:6 (NRSV)

Regardless of which theory seems the most likely to you and me, in Peter’s day, equating the “sons of God” in the Genesis account with fallen angels was the most widely held belief.

Possible answer #1 suggests Jesus went to these fallen angels, now imprisoned and waiting for judgement to come, to announce his victory over sin.

HEBREW SAINTS

Some commentators refer to all those who had put their faith in God and the prophesied Messiah before Jesus’ time, the faithful who lived during the period recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. These righteous ones were said to have joined their forebears in death, to be gathered to “the bosom of Abraham.”

Possible answer #2 proposes these are the righteous who died before Jesus’ time and have been waiting in the prison of Sheol, or the grave, for Jesus’ release.

-NOT- THOSE WHO DIED UNREPENTANT

Many theologians are quick to quote Hebrews, It is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, in pointing out who these spirits could not be. The Hebrews passage appears to make a definitive statement about when decisions of faith must be made. Once a person has died, all that is left to come is judgment.

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that [God] had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved [God] to [God’s] heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.

Genesis 6:5-7, 11-13 (NRSV)

Therefore, what may feel like the easiest solution seems to be the least likely—Jesus did not go to Sheol to preach the gospel to those who had died in the flood, because they had died decidedly unrepentant and under God’s judgment.

NOAH PREACHING IN THE SPIRIT

Other theologians posit Peter might have been thinking about Noah preaching the gospel while he built the ark, how the Holy Spirit, speaking through Noah, preached to the people of his day in order to save them.

Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.”

Genesis 6:3 (NRSV)

Possible answer #3 In the power of the same Holy Spirit who raised him, Jesus preached through Noah to those spirits long ago, whom God said he would strive with for a hundred and twenty years.


[The Bosom of AbrahamRomanesque capital from the former Priory of Alspach, Alsace. (Unterlinden MuseumColmar) | By Ji-Elle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15643009%5D

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