For 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, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because 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. Baptism, 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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. – 1 Peter 3:18-22 ESV
This is one of the most obscure and difficult passages found in the Bible. In fact, Martin Luther once described it as, “a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament” and he concluded, “so I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.” Keep in mind that Peter has been discussing suffering for righteousness sake. He has talked about being zealous for doing what is good, and enduring the consequences of our actions. “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17 ESV). Now he uses Christ as an example. He suffered for doing good, having died for the sins of mankind, the righteous for the unrighteous. All so that men might be made right with God. His suffering included being put to death in the flesh, but it culminated with God raising Him from the dead. He “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:22 ESV). Jesus’ suffering was followed by glorification. His death was followed by life. His defeat was followed by victory.
But this is where Peter seems to get a little bit difficult to understand. He mentions Jesus, in the spirit, going and proclaiming to the spirits in prison. Who are these spirits? When did Jesus do this? What did He proclaim? Why did Peter bring up Noah and what does he have to do with the spirits in prison? Why does Peter seem to indicate that baptism saves, when elsewhere in Scripture it is not a requirement for salvation? There are many different interpretations and opinions regarding these questions and their answers. While it is impossible to completely solve the mystery surrounding these verses, it would seem that Peter is making a point regarding Jesus’ resurrected state, post-crucufixion and death. Jesus suffered and died, but He was raised again by the power of the Holy Spirit and received a new body. He was no longer restricted by the limitations of His former earthly body. He still appeared the same, as He was readily recognized by His disciples when He appeared to them after His resurrection. But His new body allowed Him to do things He could not have done before. John records, “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them” (John 20:19 ESV).
Yet Jesus was NOT a Spirit. He said to His disciples, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:38-39 ESV). Jesus had died, but He was alive. And His new life was distinctly different from the life He had had before. He had a resurrected body. And His resurrected state was a loud statement regarding God’s redemptive power. I believe what Peter is saying is that, with His resurrection, Jesus proclaimed the long-awaited salvation of God. It was like a message blasted over a loud speaker, heard even by those who were imprisoned for their disobedience to God, years before. Even those who lived during the days of Noah. God had instructed Noah to build an ark, intended as a means of salvation from the coming judgment. Those living in Noah’s day saw the ark being built, day after day. But they were corrupt. They were sinful and disobedient to God. Genesis describes the situation in very stark terms:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. – Genesis 6:5-6 ESV
And God destroyed the earth. But He saved Noah and his family, eight people in all. The ark became their rescue from the flood. Peter says that they “were brought safely through the water” (1 Peter 3:20 ESV). God cleansed the earth with water. He purified it from the sin that had contaminated it. But we know from the Genesis account, that sin remained in the world after the flood. Noah’s own family regenerated the earth, but they carried the sin of Adam with them. It would not take long for it to infect that human race again. But Peter’s point seems to be that the water was used by God to save a remnant from destruction. The water did not cleanse them from their sinfulness. It saved them from destruction. God is the one who saved them. It was He who gave Noah the idea to build the ark. He sent the means of salvation. Just as God sent Jesus to be the means of our salvation. And baptism, Peter states, plays a similar role in our lives as the flood waters did in the days of Noah. The waters brought death to many, but also life to Noah and his family. When we go through the ordinance of baptism, it is a statement of the change that God has brought about in our lives. He has saved us from death by allowing us to vicariously experience the death of His Son and receive new life, resurrected life, just as He has. Paul describes it in these terms: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4 ESV).
Baptism does not save us. But it is a public declaration of the salvation provided for us by God through His Son. We have been buried and raised to new life. We have been cleansed and forgiven. We are new creations. Like Jesus after His resurrection, we are no longer what we once were. Our consciences are clear. Our sins are forgiven. We are no longer under condemnation. Jesus has been raised from the dead and sits at the right hand of God, a reminder of our future state and a guarantee of our eternal hope. The ark provided Noah and his family with a brief respite from death. But what Jesus has provided for us is victory over death for all time. Jesus Himself reminds us, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26 ESV). We have new life in Christ, now. We are new creations, now. We have been made alive in Christ, and that speaks of a newness of life that is to be distinctly different than the life we had before Christ.