1 Peter 3:19-20

1 Peter 3:19‑20  •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 11
HERE we have need of vigilance that we yield not to fancy, but be subject to the words of the Holy Spirit in their exact bearing and in accordance with the context. For they are often taken up loosely and with bias in favor of a preconceived idea or with a view to a desired end. To ensure light we need the single eye; and this can only be where Christ is the governing object. The relative refers to the Spirit in virtue of “which” Christ was made alive after His death. Now of course a very different fact is added, but equally dependent on the Spirit.
“In [virtue of] which also he went and preached to the spirits in prison, disobedient afore-time when the long-suffering of God was waiting in Noah's days, while an ark was being prepared, in which few, that is eight souls, were brought safe through water” (vers. 19, 20).
We are here given to understand that Christ in the Spirit preached to those whose spirits are imprisoned because when they heard His warning they were disobedient; which time is fixed as before the flood which punished them here, as they are now kept like others for judgment hereafter.
The Greek preposition ἐν is here required in order to accurately express in or by what power Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison. It was not in person but by virtue of the Spirit. This is remarkably confirmed by the language of Gen. 6:33And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. (Genesis 6:3): “And Jehovah said, My Spirit shall not always strive (or, plead) with man, for he indeed is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” Here we learn to what the apostle alluded, not only Christ in Spirit (and we know He was Jehovah beyond doubt), but the term of the long-suffering of God in Noah's days. For to this the divine statement refers, not to man's life, which even after the deluge was far longer as yet, but to His patient pleading while the ark was in preparation. 2 Peter 2:55And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly; (2 Peter 2:5), with 1 Peter 1:1111Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. (1 Peter 1:11), lends much help to the clearness of the sense intended; for as Noah is beyond any man of old designated “preacher of righteousness,” so we might expect for the power at work in him the same Spirit of Christ which in the prophets testified beforehand the sufferings Christward and the glories after these.
The truth meant in the passage is thus made quite plain and consistent, not only with the exact demands of the context but with the rest of scripture. There is if possible less difficulty here than with Eph. 2:1717And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. (Ephesians 2:17), where it is said of Christ, that “He came and preached peace to you that were far off, and peace to those that were nigh.” No sensible person sees more in this than Christ, not personally but in Spirit, preaching to Gentiles as well as Jews, after His ascension. This was plain enough; but in our text, lest it might be understood by the imaginative or the superstitious, grace furnished the qualification “in which” [Spirit] He proceeded, not into the prison, as some have conceived, but preached to the spirits that are in prison. They were living men on earth when the Spirit pleaded with them in Noah's days while preparing the ark.
With this precisely agrees “disobedient as they once, or aforetime, were,” during that long space of forbearing, compassion, and testimony. Again the structure of the phrase is the one proper to express the moral cause or reason why they are now in prison. Instead of penitence and faith, when Jehovah's Spirit strove, they were disobedient: a fact which our Lord (Matt. 24:38, 3938For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, 39And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. (Matthew 24:38‑39)) turned to a warning like His servant here. A similar fate will befall the heedless at the coming of the Son of man in the consummation of the age. There is no room in doctrine any more than in fact or in the phraseology of Peter, for the strange notion of ancients or moderns that Christ in person went to Hades after His death for the purpose of preaching to the spirits there. The strangeness is heightened by the fact that the only ones said to be the objects of His preaching were that generation of mankind which had been favored with the pleading of His Spirit in Noah. Such a favor when they were alive would much more naturally have weighed against the alleged visitation after death, even if other scriptures did not prove its needlessness for saints and its unavailingness for sinners.
The truth is that the fabulous notion of such a preaching by Christ after death in Hades contravenes all scriptural truth elsewhere, and is only extracted from the passage before us by violence done to its separate clauses and its scope as a whole, in no way carrying on the divine argument but interpolating a wholly incongruous interruption. For the only character given to those who heard the preaching is that they were then disobedient, as the ground of their imprisonment: a strange reason for singling these out for the favor of the Lord's going to the prison on their account.
If it be an outrage on orthodox doctrine to suppose such a preaching to such an audience in in such a place, condition and time, it is even more plainly opposed to the terms of the apostle, if one foist in the idea that the Lord preached to the O.T. departed saints. Not a word implies a believer among the spirits in prison. All attempts in this direction from Augustine down to Calvin, and near our day to Horsley, as to others since, are utterly vain. The clear bearing of the teaching is to contrast the disobedient mass of spirits (in the prison of the separate state for such) with the few who in the ark were brought safe through water.
The unbelieving Jews who objected to the fewness of the Christians were thus powerfully met, as well as their contempt for preaching as having no serious effect, whether believed or rejected. Was Christ acting now by the Spirit, instead of that manifestation of power and glory which they longed for in unbelief of what God is doing by the gospel? Let them remember how He wrought before the deluge, and how it fared with those who disobeyed His warning. There is thus no real difficulty in the passage when the general analogy of Noah's days is apprehended; any more than in the details of the most correct text, with the strictest attention both to grammatical rendering and sound doctrine. No event in the O.T. could be found more apposite to warn scoffing Jews in the apostle's day than that which befell the disobedient in Noah's time of preparing the ark. How different the effect of Jonah's preaching to the men of Nineveh! Yet their repentance was but transient, and the end of the great city followed. But the deluge was not all for those who rejected the Spirit of Jehovah that warned by Noah. Their spirits are in prison waiting for the judgment, wherein no one is just before God. They are lost forever. It is only by faith that a sinner is justified. The disobedience of unbelief is final; it braves God's mercy as well His wrath, and most in such as have the scriptures.
It is the hasty assumption of Christ's preaching to the departed in Hades, which clashes not only with the truth in general but with this context in particular, rendering it in all the minute points of the words both halting and irreconcilable, when adequately looked into. The result too is an allegation extraordinary, suggesting a doctrinal inference at issue with God's word everywhere else. For it attributes a work to Christ which is superfluous for saints no less than sinners; and for these last is apt to become the basis of a spurious hope, as inconsistent with all that our Lord when here declared for those that die in unbelief, as with that which the Holy Spirit has taught since redemption. Another evil effect of this misinterpretation is, that it sets ingenious minds to essay a shadowy confirmation from such texts as Psalm lxviii. 18, Isaiah xlv. 2, xlix. 9, in the O.T., and to deny that Paradise is heavenly in the N.T. One error leads to another and perhaps many. It is well to maintain the hope of the blessed and holy “first resurrection” at Christ's coming, but there is very great harm in denying the intermediate bliss of the saints departed to be with Christ. Scripture is perfectly plain and sure as to both.