Vol. 1 - No. 11
A Look At First Peter 3:18-20
by L. R. Hester
For centuries students and commentators of the Bible have disagreed with reference to some aspects of this passage, and it has been (and continues to be) offered by some as justification for doctrines which are clearly refuted by other Bible statements. The need is for each student to study the passage in the light of its own context, and of other texts bearing upon the matters mentioned or alluded to by the author, and to do so with the greatest care to avoid the mistake of arraying the word of God against itself. God's word, being His message of perfect truth (Psalms 119:160; John 17:17; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18), is also a consistent message, and the only perfect commentary on its teaching.
First Peter was written to Christians (disciples of Christ, Acts 11:26) of Asia Minor (1:1), who were suffering a great trial of their faith in Christ (1:6-7; 3:13-f; 4:1, 12-16; 5:8-10), which persecution from the enemies of Christ was to become even greater (4:12). This condition was an occasion for writing the epistle, and a primary objective of the author was to confirm and strengthen the saint's faith, that they might persevere and attain unto eternal life. This view is suggested by the attention given to suffering for righteousness' sake throughout the epistle, and by this concluding statement of the inspired writer: "I have written unto you briefly, exhorting, and testifying that this is the true grace of God: stand ye fast therein" (5:12). Suffering for the cause of truth and salvation seems to be the basic theme of the epistle.
The text for study in this article (3:18-20) is not unrelated to this theme. Observe these preceding statements of the same paragraph:
"And who is he that will harm you, if ye be zealous of that which is good? But even if ye should suffer for righteousness' sake, blessed are ye: and fear not their fear, neither be troubled" (3:13-14) "For it is better, if the will of God should so will, that ye suffer for well-doing than for evil-doing" (3:17).
At 3:10-12, Peter cites Psalms 34:14-16, saying in conclusion, "For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears unto their supplications: But the face of the Lord is upon (against, KJV) them that do evil" (v. 12). It was in view of this citation from the Psalmist that the apostle submitted the rhetorical question, "And who is it that will harm you" (v. 13); and the obvious purpose was to assure the persecuted saints that their enemies could not harm them spiritually or eternally while they faithfully endured, since the eyes of the Lord would be upon them, and His face against their enemies. It is a matter of righteousness for the Lord to afflict His faithful saints, and to give eternal rest to those saints who endure afflictions for righteousness' sake (2 Thessalonians 1:4-9). If God so wills, suffering for righteousness' sake is to His glory, and to the everlasting good of those who thus suffer; and we are to consider such as a privilege, and endure it patiently and joyfully. It is better to suffer for well-doing than for evil-doing.
"Because Christ suffered for sins once, 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: in which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, that aforetime were disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved through (by, KJV) water:"
The conjunction hoti (because, ASV; for, KJV, New KJV, New ASV joins these verses with verse 17. Here, the excellency of suffering for the sake of doing God's will (v. 17) is confirmed by directing attention to Christ's example. This teaching bears a close similarity to that of 2:20-22, where Peter says, "For what glory is it, if, when ye sin, and are buffeted for it, ye shall take it patiently? but, if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye shall take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For hereunto were ye called: because (hoti, since, New ASV) Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow in his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth" (cf. 4:14-16). However, Christ, in suffering for us, did much more than leave us an example.
He "suffered for sins:" "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness, for by His wounds you were healed" (2:24, New ASV). He died vicariously (in our place), thus bearing (not the guilt, but the penalty of) our sins, so that the Father might justly pardon our sins, and that we, having thus died to sin, might live to righteousness. This death to sin occurs when a penitent believer is baptized into (the benefits of) the death of Christ (Romans 6:2-4, 7; cf. 1 John 4:10; Romans 3:23-26; 5:6-11).
He "suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God:" All accountable humanity had sinned and thereby alienated themselves from God, incurring spiritual death (Genesis 3:23-24; Isaiah 59:1-2; Ezekiel 18:20; Romans 5:12-f; 6:23; 3:9; 11:32). "Apart from the shedding of blood is no remission" (Hebrews 9:22). "It is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins" (Hebrews 10:4), and sin-stained man could not make expiation for himself. "But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Only the righteous Son of God could have atoned for unrighteous men, and that, only by giving His righteous life vicariously. But His righteous (sinless) life, once (apax, once for all) offered now has perpetual validity, being forever efficacious (Hebrews 9:13-14, 27-28; 10:1-4, 10). Having thus "suffered for sins," and having entered into heaven, to appear before the face of God for us (Hebrews 9:24), "He is able to save to the uttermost them that draw near unto God through him, seeing that he ever liveth to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:25).
He suffered "being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit:" It was Christ's physical body that the Roman soldiers "put to death" on the cross; "the flesh" was the realm in which death was inflicted (Cf. Matthew 10:28). Death did not extend to the realm of the spirit, or Spirit (Cf. John 4:24). Regarding this latter expression, translators disagree. The ASV and New ASV say, "made alive in the spirit;" but the KJV and New KJV say, "by the Spirit," thus making "the Spirit" the power by which Jesus was "made alive." James MacKnight, whose own translation has "made alive by the Spirit," says, "As Christ was conceived in the womb of his mother by the Holy Spirit, Luke 1:35, so he was raised from the dead by the same Spirit" (Commentary on the Epistles, Vols. V-Vl). But Guy N. Woods, quoting from the ASV, says, "The 'spirit' alluded to in this verse is that inner principle which stands in contrast with the flesh -- the divine spirit which Jesus possessed His spirit, instead of perishing in death, was clothed with renewed and enhanced powers of life. At death, this spirit passed into a new sphere of existence, hence was said to have been made alive" (Commentary on First Peter). In view of the text, and the Lord's present mediatorial reign, in contrast to His life in the flesh, this writer thinks the latter position is preferable. With reference to His resurrection, the power is attributed to the Father (Ephesians 1:20; 1 Peter 1:21), the Son (John 2:19; 10:18), and the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11, and possibly 1 Peter 3:18). The three persons of the Godhead (Acts 17:29; Romans 1:20, KJV; Colossians 2:9) have always filled their respective roles in all Divine work. In all things they act in unison.
In which he also went and preached unto the spirits in prison:" This phrase "in which" means in which spirit. In this same spirit He went and preached to "the spirits in prison." At the time Peter wrote, these spirits were disembodied and in prison; they were in Hades, and "under punishment unto the day of judgment" (2 Peter 2:9; Jude 6; Cf. Luke 16:11-f). They were spirits of men who had died in sin.
"That aforetime were disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water." These spirits had, as free moral agents, lived in fleshly bodies, and in disobedience, during the last 120 years of the antediluvian age, at a time when God's Spirit was striving with the people, and when His long suffering waited for the disobedient to hear and come to repentance (Carefully read Genesis 6:1-13). "And Jehovah said, My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for that he also is flesh; yet shall his days be a hundred and twenty years And Jehovah saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of his heart was only evil continually...But Noah found favor in the eyes of Jehovah...Noah was a righteous man, and perfect in his
generation: Noah walked with God...And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me: for the earth is filled with violence through them: and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth" (vs. 3, 5, 8, 9, 13).
Through the centuries some have taught that Jesus, while His body was in the tomb, went and preached to the lost spirits of the antediluvians, giving them an opportunity to be saved. Such a view cannot be made to agree with God's plan for man in any age. These spirits were in prison when Peter wrote, but were evidently in the flesh, as contemporaries with Noah, when Jesus went and preached to them. Noah was "a preacher of righteousness" (2 Peter 2:5), and Jesus evidently preached to them by Noah. While the disobedient corrupted the earth with violence, "Noah walked with God;" and, "By faith Noah, being warned of God concerning things not seen as yet, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; through which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith" (Hebrews 11:7). Noah's obedient faith is testimony against his disobedient contemporaries. So, Peter said, "God... spared not the ancient world, but preserved Noah with seven others, a preacher of righteousness, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly" (2 Peter 2:4-5). The "spirits in prison" were under just condemnation. There is no basis in the text, nor in the Bible, for expecting salvation after death in sin, cleansing in purgatory, universal salvation, or comfort for the lost in Hades (Luke 16:22-26). All from the creation to the end of the world will be judged impartially and according to the deeds done in the body (Romans 2:2-16; 2 Corinthians 5:10). "If a tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there shall it be" (Ecclesiastes 11:3). This is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2), and it pays to suffer for righteousness' sake in this life (1 Peter 3:17-18, 22).