1 Peter 3:19-22

Wed, 25/02/2009 - 14:41 -- James Oakley

I've long found 1 Peter 3:19-22 really hard to understand. Much attention gets given to questions like who the spirits in prison are and so on. However my concern is to understand Peter's flow of thought throughout 1 Peter 3:18-22. 3:18 would flow nicely into 4:1 (“For Christ also suffered once for sins… made alive in the Spirit. Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same attitude.”), so why does Peter insert 3:19-22 in between here?

I'm going to make a few assumptions about who the imprisoned spirits are, when Christ visited them and so on. I won't justify those assumptions fully - that would get us bogged down. I'll focus on the flow of the argument, because I've discovered that these verses are crucial to Peter's argument. If we took them out, the development of thought through 1 Peter 3:18-4:1ff would lose a lot.

What is said in those verses is that, after his resurrection (inferred by “in which”, and “formerly” – he proclaimed after their imprisonment) Christ went and proclaimed something to certain imprisoned Spirits. We aren’t told what he proclaimed. Scripture is clear that there is no post-mortem repentance, so proclaiming his victory is a good guess.

Those Spirits were imprisoned for their disobedience during a period marked out by God’s patience while Noah was building the ark. God was clearly patient in that he was giving Noah time to finish the building before he sent the flood. Yet during that period, these beings did not obey, so they were confined to prison. Then, a long time later, Christ went to them and proclaimed his victory.

That ark saved 8 people through water. This corresponds to the way in which God saves us through water – the water of baptism. So the relevance, for Peter, of bringing the ark into the argument is that it corresponds to our salvation in baptism. We can reasonably infer that the imprisoned spirits are brought in for their relationship to the ark. Their relevance is therefore that the presence of such spirits (during the time of God’s patience in Noah's days) corresponds to something in our own day.

Peter doesn’t join up all the dots – that’s part of the problem understanding these verses. But we are left trying to identify a group of beings who, in this day and age, are disobedient whilst we await our final salvation. The rest of Peter’s letter suggests we look to the unbelieving and hostile world for this.

God has pledged our final salvation, and yet delays to consummate it. This is a painful delay, because during the delay we have abuse heaped upon us, we are thought strange, and those in authority mistreat us for doing good. Enduring such suffering is hard. Yet the reason for the delay is to give God time to save his whole church. We can draw assurance from the analogous disobedient beings from Noah’s day. In the course of time, water was a source of salvation, and those beings were imprisoned; Christ has visited them and announced his victory over them. God’s delay today is also because of his patience, and those who trouble us will either be imprisoned or will benefit from God’s patience by being saved. Either way, we can be assured that the delay does not compromise God’s ability to save or Christ’s victory over those who oppose him.

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