Christ's Preaching to the Spirits in Prison: Part 1

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It may interest and I trust also profit the reader, if we not only examine this scripture but review the questions raised on it for ages. Here many a Christian finds perplexity, rejecting what does not fall in with the analogy of faith, yet unwilling to doubt what seems intimated by the letter of the word. He is ready to suspect himself of failure in spiritual intelligence and to question whether there might not be some unconscious insubjection of heart and mind to the perfect revelation of God, The chief at least of the speculations in which men of reputation have indulged in ancient and modern times will claim a notice, in the hope of satisfying the believer that human thoughts are ever worthless and that divine writ is clothed by the Spirit with self-evidencing light and power for all who have their hearts opened to the Lord and are self-judged in His sight. It will be seen too that the most exact criticism in the details of the clauses confirms the general scope derived from the context as a whole, and that grammatical precision points with equal force in the same direction. Thus from every point of view the truth comes out with a fullness of proofs proportioned to the closeness of our investigation, once we have the right object and aim of the passage clearly ascertained and held firmly before our eyes.
I. The true text is ὅτι καὶ Χριστὸς ἅπαξ περὶ ἁμαρτιῶν ἒπαθε,1 δίκαιος ὑπὲρ ἀδίκων, ἵνα ἡμᾶς προσαγάγη τῶ θεῶ, θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκὶ ζωοποιηθεὶς δὲ πνεύματι,2 ἐν ὧ καὶ τοῖς ἐν φυλακῆ πνεύμασι πορευθεὶς ἐκήρνξεν, ἀπειθήσασί ποτε ὅτε ἀπεξεδέχετο3 ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ μακροθυμία ἐν ἡμέραις Νῶε κατασκευαζομένης κιβωτοῦ, εἰς ἥν ὁλίγοι,4 τοῦτ' ἔστιν ὀκτὼ ψυχαί, διεσώθησαν δἰ ὕδατος. “Because Christ also once suffered for sins, just for unjust, that he might bring us to God, put to death in flesh but made alive in [the] Spirit, in which also he went and preached to the spirits in prison, disobedient on a time when the long-suffering of God was waiting in [the] days of Noah while an ark was being prepared, in which few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.”
The connection and scope is evident. The apostle is exhorting the believers to a patient life of suffering so as to fill with shame those who vented their spite on their good behavior in Christ. Who could gainsay that it was better, did the will of God so will, to suffer while doing well than doing ill; and this because Christ also suffered (but He suffered once, once for all) for sins? This should be enough: we should suffer not for sins, but only for righteousness or for Christ's name sake. It was His to suffer for us, this once and forever, just for unjust persons (for such were we), that He might bring us to God. It is ours to suffer at times especially, but in principle always while in this present evil world. The καί connects Christ and us as suffering, but the contrast is as striking as it is morally suggestive. To understand with some περὶ ἁμαρτιῶν as a point of comparison between Him and us under such a junction is to miss the reasoning utterly, not to speak of failure in reverence towards the Savior in that work which stands far above all comparison. This ought to have been too plain to need further reproof from δίκαιος ὑπὲρ ἀδίκων, where His solitary and unapproachable place is set out. It was His alone thus to bring us near to God. The participles that follow tell us how this was done: “Put to death in flesh but made alive in [the] Spirit.”
But here a very important question arises. The article is certainly to be eliminated: what is the bearing of its absence on the meaning? If the articles were inserted, τῆ σαρκί, and τὦπν., these would be the contrast of the two parts of our Lord's being as man, the outer and the inner; were it τήν a. and το πν., it would be the utterly false thought that His Spirit as man was the object of quickening. The anarthrous form points to the character of the acts specified; but so far is it from denying the agency of the Holy Ghost in the quickening spoken of, that the presence of the article would be more consistent with Christ's Spirit as a man. No doubt, when it is intended to present the Holy Spirit objectively or extrinsically, the article is required (and, as far as I can mark the usages, the prep. ἐν or ὑπό); it is excluded where the manner of His action is meant. On the other hand, wherever the spirit either of Christ as man or of any other is to be expressed, the article is indispensable, as may be seen in Matt. 5:3; 26:41; 27:503Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
41Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Matthew 26:41)
50Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. (Matthew 27:50)
; Mark 14:3838Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak. (Mark 14:38); Luke 10:2121In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight. (Luke 10:21); John 11:33; 13:21; 19:3033When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled, (John 11:33)
21When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me. (John 13:21)
30When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. (John 19:30)
; Acts 19:21; 20:221After these things were ended, Paul purposed in the spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, After I have been there, I must also see Rome. (Acts 19:21)
2And when he had gone over those parts, and had given them much exhortation, he came into Greece, (Acts 20:2)
2 Cor. 5:3, 53If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. (2 Corinthians 5:3)
5Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 5:5)
, &c. Again, the following cases without the article clearly mean the Holy Spirit, but as characterizing the action rather than specifying the person, though He must ever be a person: Matt. 22:4343He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, (Matthew 22:43); John 3:5; 4:23, 245Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
23But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. 24God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. (John 4:23‑24)
; Rom. 8:1, 4, 9, 131There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:1)
4That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:4)
9But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. (Romans 8:9)
13For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. (Romans 8:13)
; 1 Cor. 12:1313For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13); Gal. 3:2, 15, 16, 18, 252This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? (Galatians 3:2)
15Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto. 16Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. (Galatians 3:15‑16)
18For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. (Galatians 3:18)
25But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. (Galatians 3:25)
; Eph. 2:22; 3:5; 5:18; 6:1822In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:22)
5Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; (Ephesians 3:5)
18And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; (Ephesians 5:18)
18Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; (Ephesians 6:18)
; Col. 1:88Who also declared unto us your love in the Spirit. (Colossians 1:8); 1 Tim. 3:1616And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory. (1 Timothy 3:16); 1 Peter 4:66For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6); Rev. 1:10; 4:2: 17:3; 21:1010I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, (Revelation 1:10)
10And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, (Revelation 21:10)
. The attentive reader of these instances will see that the turning-point is not the presence or absence of a preposition, as some scholars have thought. Words after a preposition follow the ordinary rules. Only, with prepositions capable of usage with a statement of manner, as κατά, ἐκ, ἐν, the anarthrous form is of course more common. Thus ἐν πμεύματι would mean in the power of the Spirit, the manner of being, or of being carried, built, justified, of blessing, preaching, or whatever else may be in question.
Hence the meaning here seems to be that Christ was put to death in respect of flesh, but quickened or made alive in respect of Spirit, in the power of which He went and preached to the spirits in prison. The ἐν ὧ falls in with the Holy Spirit still more as that wherein Christ acted in testimony. It is not said that He went to the prison and there preached to the spirits; but that in the power of the Spirit He went and preached to the spirits that are there. For that τοῖς ἐν φυλακῆ πνεύμασιν can signify “that are in prison” as naturally at least as that were there is certain: only the necessity of the context could really justify the latter sense. But if the context favor “that are,” it is the simple unforced bearing of the phrase. And that it does favor it is to me plain from ἁπειθήσασί ποτε ὅτε κ.τ.λ. which points to an antecedent time of guilt, the ground of their being now imprisoned.
It may be doubted then whether quickened “by the Spirit” best gives the meaning of the apostolic statement: for that would most naturally suppose the Spirit as an exterior agent. Still the anarthrous construction, as is certain from the numerous places cited, does not at all exclude the Holy Spirit: only it speaks of the manner of the quickening, not of the personal agent. But the thought of His power is conveyed by the phrase that follows ἐν ὧ, wherein Christ is said to have gone and preached, &c. Thereby it is pointedly contradistinguished from πορευθείς in verse 22, which is not qualified by ἐν ὧ or ἐν πνεύματι, but left in its strict sense of a personal change of locality to heaven. Thus it is excessively rash to say that the rendering of the English version here is wrong either grammatically or theologically, though it is more correct to cleave as closely as our language permits to the Greek style of expressing “Spirit” as the character rather than agent of the quickening of Christ, though agent too He was beyond doubt.
Bishop Middleton wrote with great force on the insertion of the article, but he was not equally successful in accounting for its omission. Prepositions he treated as exceptions to rule, and anarthrous cases like σαρκί, πνεύματι, as practically adverbial. Hence in our passage, he held the apostle to mean that “Christ was dead carnally but alive spiritually;” as indeed he thought would flow from τὧ πν. if the article had been authentic. (Doctrine of the Greek Art. p. 430, Rose's Ed., 1855.) The only difference is, he thought, that by retaining the article we destroy the form of the antithesis between a. and πν. But instances already given show how imperfect this able treatise is in requiring either the article or a preposition to accompany πν. in the genitive or dative in order to mean the Spirit of God. Rom. 8:1313For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. (Romans 8:13) to which he himself refers refutes his position; and here Dean Alford, who is so strong against “by the Spirit” in 1 Peter 3:1818For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: (1 Peter 3:18), translates the same word exactly in the way condemned: “but if by the Spirit ye slay the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” So, on Gal. 5:55For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. (Galatians 5:5), A. expressly remarks on πνεύματι “not' mente' [Fritz.] nor 'spiritually,' Middleton, al., but by the [Holy] Spirit, [reff.] as opposed to σ.” the very rendering he afterward treats as wrong grammatically and theologically. Again, on ver. 16 he particularly observes that πν without the article may and does here mean “by the Spirit” [i.e. of God]. His reason, probably after Winer or the like, is invalid; for it is not because it is a sort of proper name, but because it is employed characteristically. There is no need to multiply proofs against the comments on πν in 1 Peter 3:1818For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: (1 Peter 3:18)—proofs equally at least against Middleton. Consequently Hammond, Pearson, Barrow, &c, the divines who denied the applicability of the passage to Christ's descent to hades, were not so far mistaken as thinks Dr. Ε. Η Browne, the present Bishop of Ely. They contend that the true meaning of the text is that our Lord by the Spirit in Noah preached to the antediluvians, who are now for their disobedience imprisoned in hell.
“This interpretation of the passage,” says the Bishop, “depends on the accuracy of the English version. That version reads in the eighteenth verse ‘quickened by the Spirit.' It is to be noted however that all the versions except one (the Ethiopic) seem to have understood it 'quickened in spirit:' and it is scarcely possible, upon any correct principles of interpretation, to give any other translation to the words. If therefore we follow the original, in preference to the English version, we must read the passage thus: ‘Christ suffered for us, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God; being put to death in the flesh, but quick in His Spirit; by which (or in which) He went and preached (or proclaimed) to the spirits in safe keeping,' &c.” (An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles, &c, 1868, pp. 94, 95.)
I confess to surprise at such a rendering as “quick in His Spirit” of ζωοποιηθεὶς τὧ πνεύματι. For, first, though there is an occasional looseness in the LXX, it is certain that the New Testament strictly and exclusively employs ζωογονέω for keeping alive, ζωοποιέω for making alive. Secondly, is it not singular to reason from a non-authentic word as the original? And the Bishop of Ely (see note p. 94) knows that the best critics reject the article before πν. If absent, it is impossible for πν to mean “in His Spirit.”
Besides, the resulting theology is as strange as the grammar; for he proceeds, “There is, it will be observed, a marked antithesis between ‘flesh' and 'spirit.' In Christ's Flesh or Body, He was put to death. Men were ‘able to kill the body,' but they could not kill His soul. He was therefore alive in His Soul, and in or by that He went to the souls who were in safe custody (ἐν φυλακῆ); His Body was dead, but His Spirit or Soul went to their spirits or souls. This is the natural interpretation of the passage; and if it ended here, it would contain no difficulty, and its sense would never have been doubted. It would have contained a simple assertion of our Lord's descent to the spirits of the dead.” To my mind such a sense must seem far below scripture. For what a poor inference that men could not kill Christ's soul! Why they could not kill the soul of the least of His saints, nay, nor of the most wretched of His enemies. Indeed “kill the soul” in any case is a singular phrase to use of any one, most of all to feel it worth while denying it in the case of our Lord Jesus. How different His language! “Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.” “He was therefore alive in His soul” is a feeble platitude for the issue of the clause, as surely as it supposes a wrong sense given to ζωοποιηθείς, not to speak of the confusion of the soul with the spirit in a way foreign to all exact speech. The interpretation therefore would be in every respect unnatural even if it ended here.
“When we follow, the gulf widens which severs truth from error. “But it is added that He not only went to the spirits in safekeeping, but that He went and preached to them. Hence it has been inferred that, if He preached, they had need of, and He offered to them, repentance. Hence the passage has appeared to savor of false doctrine, and hence its force has been explained away. But the word ‘preached,' or ‘proclaimed,' by no means necessarily infers that He preached either faith or repentance. Christ had just finished the work of salvation, had made an end of sin, and conquered hell. Even the angels seemed not to be fully enlightened, as to all the work of grace, which God performs for man. It is not likely then, that the souls of the departed patriarchs should have fully understood or known all that Christ had just accomplished for them. They indeed may have known, and no doubt did know, the great truth that redemption was to be wrought for all men by the suffering and death of the Messiah. But before the accomplishment of this great work, neither angels nor devils seem fully to have understood the mystery of it. If this be true, when the blessed Soul of our crucified Redeemer went among the souls of those whom He had just redeemed, what can be more probable than that He should have 'proclaimed' (έκήρυξεν) to them that their redemption had been fully effected, that Satan had been conquered, that the great sacrifice had been offered up? If angels joy over one sinner that repenteth; may we not suppose paradise filled with rapture when the Soul of Jesus came among the souls of His redeemed, Himself the herald (κήρνξ) of His own victory?”
It is certain, however, that the preaching of which the apostle here speaks was addressed neither to angels nor to devils nor yet to patriarchs, but expressly to those who did not hearken to it in the days of the divine longsuffering just before the deluge. The text itself therefore dissolves the airy fabric we have just seen; and proves that the preaching was addressed, like all other proclamations of the truth, to faith, but, as in this world constantly, met with unbelief and insubjection of heart in those who heard. Indeed in p. 96 Dr. B. confesses that the proof-text is not favorable to the point they would make it prove. “The only (?) difficulty, in this interpretation of this difficult passage, is in the fact that the preaching is specially said to have been addressed to those who had once been disobedient in the days of Noah. That many, who died in the flood, may yet have been saved from final damnation, seems highly probable, and has been the opinion of many learned divines. The flood was a great temporal judgment, and it follows not that 'all who perished in the flood are to perish everlastingly in the lake of fire.' But the real difficulty consists in the fact, that the proclamation of the finishing of the great work of salvation is represented by Peter as having been addressed to those antediluvian penitents (?), and no mention is made of the penitents of later ages, who are equally interested in the tidings.”
The really important thing for all to weigh is that this difficulty is created by the interpretation that Christ went in His soul and preached to the spirits in the separate state. The text itself speaks of His preaching to such as had been once disobedient in Noah's days. The only unforced inference is that these are in prison because of their disobedience of old, not that being in prison they obeyed Christ's preaching in hades. Nor is there the smallest hint that, having perished in that great temporal judgment, they were alleviated by any subsequent preaching of our Lord, but rather that they are kept waiting for a still more tremendous, because an eternal, judgment before the great white throne. They despised Noah the preacher of righteousness, but not without impunity, for the flood took them all away; but worse remains than the flood brought in upon the world of the ungodly. They are kept for judgment like such angels as sinned.
(To be continued)