18 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, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 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. 21 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, 22 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
Peter knew that the idea of suffering for the sake of Christ was a difficult concept to grasp and even harder to embrace. It sounded counter-intuitive. If the salvation offered through faith in Christ was supposed to be “good news,” how were Christians supposed to reconcile the presence of suffering? Yet, even Jesus had warned His disciples that their lives would be characterized by trials and sorrows.
“But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” – John 16:32-33 NLT
After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples would soon find themselves facing all kinds of opposition and persecution – all because of their relationship with Him. Refusing to hide anything from His disciples, Jesus had clearly told them that the world would hate them, just as it had hated Him.
“The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.” – John 15:19 NLT
And that hatred would take the form of intense and ongoing persecution, resulting in false accusations, beatings, and even imprisonment. According to church tradition, many of the apostles were martyred for their faith. Peter himself had experienced his fair share of suffering on behalf of Christ, so his words were far from academic or theoretical. Yet, rather than point to himself, he focused their attention on Jesus.
Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit. – 1 Peter 3:18 NLT
Jesus’ suffering had been purposeful and effective. It had an end in mind. He had not been mistreated for doing wrong. As Peter pointed out, Jesus “never sinned.” The author of Hebrews points out that Jesus “faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15 NLT). And the suffering of the sinless Savior should bring His children hope.
Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. – Hebrews 2:18 NLT
For Peter, one of the key takeaways concerning the suffering and death of Jesus was the victory that it ultimately produced. According to Peter, Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 2:18 ESV). His suffering and death were physical in nature, resulting in the cessation of life. Jesus experienced real pain and went through the agony of an excruciating death. But unlike everyone human being who has ever lived, Jesus’ body did not decay.
Paul spoke of this amazing reality when addressing the congregation in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch.
“God raised Him from the dead, never to see decay. As He has said: ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’
“So also, He says in another Psalm: ‘You will not let Your Holy One see decay.’
“For when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep. His body was buried with his fathers and saw decay. But the One whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.” – Acts 13:34-37 NLT
In His post-resurrection form, Jesus had a glorified body that still bore the marks left by the nails and spear. He consumed food just as He had done before His death. He appeared to His disciples in a recognizable form, yet He seemed to have the ability to pass through locked doors. And Peter indicates that it was in His “spirit form” that Jesus “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:20 ESV). This is not inferring that Jesus was a ghost or some kind of ethereal phantom. It is an indication that Jesus was no longer bound by the natural restraints of a human body. And the apostle Paul points out that every follower of Christ will have the same kind of body some day – a body made especially for an eternal existence.
For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. – 2 Corinthians 5:1 NLT
Because of the fall, the human body has been condemned to ongoing decay and eventual death. But because of Jesus’ sacrificial death, believers are guaranteed a new, resurrected body that will never age or deteriorate in any way. It will be both physical and spiritual, rendering it eternal.
But what does Peter mean when he says that Jesus went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison? There has been a lot of debate about this statement over the centuries. Who are these spirits in prison and what did Jesus proclaim to them? Peter seems to provide some insight when he refers to them as “those who disobeyed God long ago when God waited patiently while Noah was building his boat” (1 Peter 3:19 ESV). Why does Peter bring up Noah and the ark, and what does it have to do with Jesus’ post-resurrection nature?
First of all, the ark was intended to foreshadow the salvation that would be made possible through Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. In Genesis chapter 6, the state of the world is described in highly negative 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 only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” – Genesis 6:5-7 ESV
But Noah “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8 ESV). And God commanded Noah to build an ark that would become His means of “saving” a remnant of mankind. The ark became a type of Christ. Noah, like the prophets who would come after him and John the Baptist, would call sinful mankind to repent and be saved. In his second letter, Peter describes Noah as a “herald of righteousness.”
…he [God] did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly. – 2 Peter 2:5 ESV
Through his obedience in constructing the ark, Noah demonstrated righteousness to sinful humanity. He gave visible evidence of his faith in God by carrying out the command to build a “vessel” of salvation. And Peter indicates that God “did not spare the ancient world, but…brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:5 ESV). Yet, because Noah and his family heeded the call of God and entered the ark, they were spared from death.
But who are the “spirits” to whom Jesus preached and what do they have to do with Noah? In keeping with the context, it would appear that Peter is stressing that those who were destroyed by the flood in Noah’s day were judged and destroyed by God. They drowned in the flood, their souls were separated from the bodies, and they were confined to Sheol, the holding place until the final judgment.
There are some who believe that Peter was suggesting that Jesus, in His resurrected form, visited these spirits in hell. But it makes much more sense to understand that Jesus, in His pre-incarnate form, spoke through Noah, the “herald of righteousness,” and declared the coming judgment. But they refused to listen, were judged, and condemned to eternal separation from God. Verse 19 might be better translated, “He went and preached to the spirits who are now in prison.” In other words, Peter is not saying that Jesus, in His resurrected form, went and preached to those who were imprisoned in Sheol. It was in His pre-incarnate form, before He took on human flesh, that Jesus proclaimed righteousness through the provision of the ark, as ordained by God and obediently constructed by Noah.
It was in the ark that “a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water” (1 Peter 3:20 ESV). A remnant was spared and saved. And Peter makes an interesting comparison between the water of the flood and the water of baptism. The water that flooded the earth and destroyed all life was the same water that floated the ark and spared the lives of Noah and his family. In the same way, the presence of death that entered the world because of the sins of mankind would be the very same means by which God would bring salvation to sinful mankind. Jesus’ death would result in life. And Peter states that water baptism is a reflection of both the ark and the body of Jesus. When a believer is baptized, it “is is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21 NLT).
Baptism is a symbol of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. In the same way, when Noah and his family entered the ark, it was as if they entered into death, but were spared and eventually released to walk in newness of life. The flood surrounded them but did not destroy them. Those who place their faith in Christ will survive the “flood waters” of life. Our guarantee of eternal life is secure in Christ who, according to Peter, “has gone to heaven” and “is seated in the place of honor next to God” (1 Peter3:22 NLT). And it is from heaven He will one day return for His bride, the church.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.