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Jesus' Preaching to the Spirits in Prison

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Text: 1 Peter 3:18-20

Thesis: To study the context of this passage and examine the various interpretations of it

             in order to ascertain which one(s) is/are the most appropriate possibility(ies).


(1)   Martin Luther said: “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”

(2)   Guy N. Woods called it the most difficult text in the Bible.

(3)   Let us attempt to understand this verse in its context.


I.                   The Text:

A.     Verse 18 centers in on Jesus’ death as the means of bringing man to God.

1.      This is tied to verse 17 in which Peter exhorts Christians to be willing to suffer for doing good.

2.      The last phrase in verse 18 is a reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

B.     How then do we understand verse 19?

1.      There are 3 main questions that must be answered:

a.       Who are the spirits in prison? (men? angels?)

b.      What did Jesus preach? (second chance for redemption? completion of redemptive work? final condemnation?)

c.       When did Jesus preach? (between his death & resurrection? after His ascension? in the days of Noah?)

2.      Basically, there are 5 major views concerning this verse:

a.       #1: After Christ died, He went and preached to people in prison, offering them a second chance of salvation.

(1)   This view cannot be so in light of other Biblical passages concerning salvation.

(a)    Nowhere in the Scriptures are we ever told that we will have a second chance in the age to come (If so, then wouldn’t everybody ultimately be saved?)

(b)   Over and over again, the Scriptures exhort us to change our lives immediately so that we might have hope of Heaven.

(c)    Some may argue that this was only a one-time deal, but wouldn’t this deal have to be available to all in order to be fair?

(2)   Further, the Scriptures do not teach that Jesus went to ‘tartarus,’ instead they teach that Jesus went to Paradise in the Hadean realm.

b.      #2: After Christ died, He went and preached to people who had repented just before they died in the flood, and led them out of their imprisonment (in Purgatory) into Heaven.

(1)   First, if they had truly repented, then they would have truly been forgiven and would not be ‘in prison.’

(2)   Second, the same problems concerning the Biblical passages regarding salvation and Jesus apply here as with view #1.

c.       #3: After Christ died, He went and preached to people in prison, proclaiming to them that he had triumphed over them and their condemnation was final.

(1)   Again, the Scriptures do not teach that Jesus went to ‘tartarus,’ instead they teach that Jesus went to Paradise in the Hadean realm.

(2)   Further, what would be the purpose of this action?

d.      #4: As Jesus ascended back to Heaven, He passed through the prison of the fallen angels and proclaimed triumph over them.

(1)   Note: This is the most popular view among commentators today.

(2)   Note: This view requires 2 two hurdles:

(a)    First, one must rely upon passages in 1 & 2 Enoch, apocryphal books (Note: R. T. France wrote: “To try to understand 1 Peter 3:19-20 without a copy of the Book of Enoch at your elbow is to condemn yourself to failure” [265].).

                                                                                      i.      It must be admitted that Jude included a quotation from 1 Enoch and that 2 Peter alludes to that quotation.

a.       Yet, a quotation is not a full endorsement of everything that is written in the book.

b.      E.g., Paul included quotes from poets, yet he did not endorse everything they wrote and said.

                                                                                    ii.      Thus, one must not equate 1 & 2 Enoch to be as authoritative as the Bible.

(b)   Second, one must believe that Genesis 6:1-4 is a reference to the fall of angels.

                                                                                      i.      However, ‘sons of God’ can also refer to human beings.

                                                                                    ii.      Further, it seems more likely that the fall of angels occurred before Genesis 3 where Satan appears for the first time.

(3)   While this view is appealing, I cannot jump through the two hurdles that are necessary in order to accept this view.

e.       #5: When Noah was building the ark, Christ ‘in Spirit’ was in Noah preaching repentance and righteousness through him to unbelievers who were on earth then but are now ‘spirits in prison.’

(1)   The ‘in Spirit’ part would coincide with 1 Peter 1:11, where Jesus is said to have preached through the prophets.

(2)   The reference to preaching to people when they were alive, yet referring to them as now dead would be consistent with 1 Peter 4:16.

(3)   Also, 2 Peter 2:5 (i.e., Noah being called a preacher of righteousness) would perfectly make sense with this understanding.

(4)   Further, this view seems to be the best understanding of the ‘spirits’ in light of verse 20.

II.                The Application:

A.    Don’t allow suffering to deter you from doing what is right.

B.     Even though you may be the minority, in the end you will stand victorious.


-          Are you in God’s ark of safety today?

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