First Sunday in Lent
1 Peter 3:18-22

“He also went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built” (v. 19).

When Peter wrote his second epistle, he referred to “our dear brother Paul (who wrote) some things that are hard to understand.” Peter himself may win the prize for penning the most difficult passage in the Bible.

There are several sayings in this text subject to various interpretations. Who were these “spirits in prison” to whom Christ went to preach? When did he preach to them? Where is their prison? What did he preach?

As with many difficult Bible passages, this is one that has almost as many interpretations as interpreters. In such a case, the wise preacher is advised to avoid dogmatism, but to avoid trumpeting an uncertain sound, let us begin with what we can with say with certainty. Then we will venture a tentative interpretation of the disputed words in the text.

First, we can confidently say:

1. It does not teach a second chance after death.
There are many places in the Bible that make it plain that death is final. “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). The story of the rich man and Lazarus emphasizes this finality about death. For both men, there was a great reversal of fortunes in dying. The rich man could not escape torment. He neither could get a drop of water to cool his tongue, nor could he get Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers.

Rob Bell, pastor of the 10,000-member Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., described going to an art show featuring a quote from Mohandas Gandhi among other famous people. Someone attached a note to the Gandhi feature saying, “Reality check: He’s in hell.” Bell was shocked and soon wrote a bombshell new book titled Love Wins, taking the approach that ultimately everyone will make it to heaven. We would all like to believe this, but are we all ready to toss out many Bible teachings to the contrary? Are we free to pick our way through Scripture, judging which teaching we will accept and which we won’t?

Another saying in this text that troubles most preachers is, “baptism now saves you.” (v. 21). What does that mean?

2. It does not teach salvation by the rite of baptism.
The thing that saves is the thing that baptism pictures, namely the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus and our own death to sin, putting away that lifestyle and being raised to a new life in Christ. In the same way, the flood of Noah’s day points to the same salvation. In the flood, Noah’s eight souls were saved from water not by it.

Many modern translators depart from the Old English translations such as the King James, “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh.” They favor a reference to baptism. The NIV says, “and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.”

Many denominations decide for a sacramental interpretation of this passage. It is better to see Jesus is the Savior. Any who are saved are redeemed by the blood sacrifice of Christ—not by any works of righteousness we may do. (See Ephesians 2:1-10 for an example.)

3. Then what does the passage teach?
There are four main questions to decide in interpreting this verse. (1) When did Jesus preach to these spirits in prison? Was it in Noah’s day? Was it in the interim between Christ’s death on the cross and the resurrection? (2) Who are these spirits who heard this preaching? Were they those alive in Noah’s day who refused Noah’s preaching? (3) Where is their prison? Some see the prison as our own bondage to sin. Others take the prison as a reference to Hades, the realm of the dead. (4) What did he preach? In Noah’s day, the message was, “Repent or perish.” If this was Christ preaching to those now dead, who had rejected Noah’s preaching, the message might have been to condemn all or to give some a second chance depending on the interpreter.

Some think the preaching was to that strange human/angel race mentioned in Genesis 6:1-4. In that case, the message would be to announce their doom and His victory. Still others understand these imprisoned spirits to be in Satan’s demonic underworld. In that case, the message would be the victory of the cross. My preference is to see the preaching of Noah to his generation to repent or perish. It is a type or picture of the preaching of Christ and of every true gospel preacher today.

They still tell the story a hundred years after A.T. Robertson’s class at Southern Seminary when a student asked about the interpretation of a difficult passage—maybe this one. The eminent scholar said, “I don’t know.” So the student proceeded to give his own explanation of the text. The professor was patient for a minute. Then he interrupted the student. “Brother, I didn’t say, ‘You don’t know,’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ Now if we may get on with the class.”

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