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Digression 4 Christ And “The spirits in prison”

“Because Christ also suffered for sins once, 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; in which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, that aforetime were disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water: which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:18-21 ASV).

“He went”

Firstly, we need to remove any misunderstanding which arises from the phrase “he went”. Contemporary Greek literature often used such expressions in a non-literal sense. Eph. 2:17 speaks of the Lord Jesus ‘coming’ and preaching peace to us. But this doesn’t mean that He Himself in person came up to us and preached. Indeed, the language of going, coming or moving is often used in relation to the preaching of a person- e.g. Mt. 9:13: “but go and learn what that meaneth”. The Lord didn’t intend that they literally went away somewhere. Likewise Dan. 12:4 and Hab. 2:2 bid those who understand God’s word to “run”- not literally, but in response to the word preached. God Himself is spoken of as coming, descending etc. when He ‘preaches’ to humanity (e.g. Gen. 11:5; Ex. 19:20; Num. 11:25; 2 Sam. 22:10). In Jer. 39:16, the imprisoned Jeremiah is told to "go, tell Ebed-melech..." a word from the Lord about him. Jeremiah couldn't have literally left prison to do so- but the idea is that a person encountering the Lord's word has as it were experienced the Lord 'going' to him or her. And in this sense the message of the Lord Jesus (in its essence) could 'go' to persons without Him physically going anywhere or even existing consciously at the time. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 was designed to make the point that the Jews would still not be persuaded even when Jesus rose from the dead. The rich man argues that "If one went unto them from the dead, they will repent" (Lk. 16:30). The point is that they would not repent, "though one [i.e. Christ] rose from the dead" (Lk. 16:31). The 'going' of Christ to people is here a way of describing His resurrection; He personally 'went' to people on account of His resurrection in that His resurrection was the basis for the great commission, empowering and obligating those who believed in it to go and tell others the good news that He had risen.

Preaching In The Spirit

We seek to understand how Christ could preach in his spirit. He was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in [Gk. ‘through, on account of’] the spirit”. The Lord was raised “according to the spirit of holiness” (Rom. 1:4). Why was Christ resurrected? Because of His sinless life and character, i.e. His “spirit” of a holy life. In this lies the connection between the Father, Son, Holy Spirit and the resurrection of Jesus. He was raised by the Father because of His spirit of holiness, his holy spirit of life. We too will be raised to eternal life on account of our spirit of life which we are now developing: “If the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwelleth in you, he that raised up Christ Jesus from the dead shall give life also to your mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwelleth in you” (Rom. 8:11). This passage shows that the spirit of Christ is the same spirit that is to dwell in us. This doesn’t mean we are disembodied spirits, but rather that our way / spirit of life must be that of Jesus. 1 Pet. 4:1 makes the same point- we are to arm ourselves with the same mind / spirit that was in Christ as He suffered on the cross. If our Spirit and that of Christ coincide and are one, then we have the witness that we are truly God’s children (Rom. 8:16). It was through this same spirit that Christ witnessed to imprisoned humanity, especially at the time of Noah, as Peter shows. The spirit of Christ was in all the prophets, and this was the essence of their witness. “The testimony [preaching] of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” in the sense that the preaching of the prophets was in essence the preaching of Jesus insofar as they had His Spirit in their message.

There is an undoubted theme throughout 1 Peter 3 and 4 of the opposition between the “flesh” (that which is external, the appearance of things) and the “spirit”, that which is internal, which is of God.

Being dead to sins

Should live unto righteousness (1 Pet. 2:24)

Not the outward adorning

But the hidden man…a quiet spirit (1 Pet. 3:3,4)

Put to death in the flesh

But quickened by the spirit (1 Pet. 3:18)

Baptism is not a washing of the flesh

But the answer of a good conscience / spirit (1 Pet. 3:21)

Don’t live in the flesh

But to the will of God (1 Pet. 4:2)

Judged by men in the flesh [outwardly]

Live to God in the spirit (1 Pet. 4:6)

The spirit by which Jesus was quickened is thus paralleled with our spirit of living to God, a quiet spirit, a life of righteousness, of good conscience etc. His Spirit is to be our spirit- we are to be of the “same mind / spirit” with Him, sharing the mind which He had especially during His time of dying (1 Pet. 4:1). And this is exactly the point of Phil. 2:5: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” at the time of His death. Notice that the Spirit of Jesus is epitomized by the mindset which He displayed during His death. It is this very mind / spirit which is to be in us. It is therefore in this sense that through His death the Lord Jesus preached ‘in spirit’ to those whom He had never met.

In this sense, it was the spiritually minded lifestyle of Noah which was his witness to the world of his day. Peter says in 1 Pet. 3:19 that Christ through His Spirit preached to the people of Noah’s day. In 2 Pet. 2:5 he says that Noah was a preacher of, or [Gk.] ‘by’ righteousness to the people around him. Yet in 1 Pet. 3:19 Peter says that Christ preached to those same people through His Spirit. The resolution surely is that although Noah had never met the Lord Jesus, he lived according to the same Godly spirit as did Jesus; and this was his witness to his world. There is ultimately only one Spirit (Eph. 4:4). The same spirit of holiness which was in Jesus was likewise thus in Noah. “The Spirit”, the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ are all equated in Rom. 8:9.

“The spirits in prison”

Biblically, a man or woman is identified with their spirit in the sense of their mind or way of life. Heb. 12:23 speaks of the spirits of just men, with whom the believer ought to associate. This means that we ought to identify ourselves with the way of life, the spirit of life, of “just men” of the past. God is “the God of the spirits of all flesh” (Num. 16:22; 27:16) in the sense that He is the God of all humanity. So “spirits in prison” can refer to people who, in their spiritual lives, are imprisoned. Immediately the mind goes to Is. 42:2,7, which in speaking of the preaching of Jesus, prophecies that He would release the spiritually imprisoned- not so much by direct didactic teaching, but by the spirit of His personality and example. So the “prison” is simply the prison of the human mind, which the mental example of Jesus can open up.

We obviously ask why ordinary people should be described in this passage as “spirits”. The context is speaking of the witness of Jesus to people through His Spirit or way of life as manifested in His people. The spirit within His people appeals to the imprisoned spirit or heart / mind of their audience. We appeal to the heart, the spirit, by our witness- not merely to the intellect. The spirit of Christ within us appeals to the imprisoned spirit within others.

The “spirits in prison” were once [“aforetime”] disobedient (1 Pet. 3:20). The same two Greek words translated “aforetime” and “disobedient” occur in Rom. 11:30 about all of us, who “in times past [s.w. “aforetime”] have not believed [s.w. “disobedient”]. This is surely one of the many times when Peter’s phrasing is so similar to Paul’s that he is surely alluding to him; and thus Peter is making the point that although the witness of the spirit of Christ was, in his context, specifically to Noah’s generation, it is also the witness which we all receive from those with the spirit of Christ at any time. Peter has just spoken of how disobedient [s.w.] people are converted by the witness of a spiritual, Christ-centred way of life (1 Pet. 3:1). Peter is writing against a background of “the last days”, of which Noah’s generation is a clear type. Just as they were witnessed to by the spirit of Christ in Noah, so will the generation of the last days have a like witness. God’s patience “waited” in Noah’s time; the Greek implies to wait for something. It is also translated “expect”. God was waiting for and expecting a response from Noah’s witness; and in this we see the essential hopefulness of God. He hoped against hope for response; and none came. The Spirit of Christ and of God has always been His witness to all generations. The question arises as to why Peter chose to especially focus upon the example of Noah out of all the generations. Perhaps this was because Noah’s generation is a type of the last days, in which Peter believed he was living. And therefore this entire study has a great relevance to our day; for the crucial witness of the last days is through the spirit of Christ in us witnessing to an increasingly self-imprisoned world.

This whole misunderstanding originally came about as a result of one error leading to another. Thomas Aquinas argued that “It was fitting for him to descend into hell in order to deliver us also from going down into hell” (1). If only Aquinas and others had done their most basic Biblical homework, they would’ve understood ‘hell’ to be simply the grave- into which we all descend. We die, and need resurrection. Therefore the Lord Jesus as our representative also died, was buried, and yet rose again. There is no classical hell as a place of fiery punishment of the wicked; and so there was no requirement for the Lord Jesus to descend into it. Struggling with this problem led to Aquinas to commit yet another folly, in claiming that Jesus must have descended into that section of hell where the just are detained, and not into the section where the wicked are kept (2). The Bible is silent about such sections of hell. This is the desperation of the man who takes a wrong turning up a dead end, and instead of having the humility to turn around and retrace his steps, just drives madly onwards into a forest.

(1) Summa Theologica III,52,1.

(2) ibid  III,52,2.