Digression 4 "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
Firstly, we need to remove any misunderstanding which arises from the
phrase “he went”. Contemporary Greek literature often used such expressions
in a redundant 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.
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.
Not the outward adorning
But the hidden man…a quiet spirit (1
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