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Noah, Jesus and Preaching to Spirits

As a young Christian, longing to grow in my knowledge of the exegetically difficult portions of Scripture, I came across John Skilton's WTJ 58:1 (Spr 96) article, "A Glance At Some Old Problems in 1 Peter." It was this article that helped me come to a settled position on what Peter meant when he said that Christ "went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient...in the days of Noah." Two theological issues emerge when 1 Peter 3:18-20 is considered. First, we are met with a statement about Christ "being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit." Peter goes on to say that it is "by the Spirit" that Christ "preached." It appears that Peter is contrasting two redemptive-historical spheres of Christ's messianic existence: (1) in the flesh, and (2) in the Spirit. Romans 1:3-4 would be the parallel passage in which the flesh-Spirit transition occurs in the resurrection with regard to Christ. Skilton wrote:

Readers of the NT have been puzzled at times by statements that seem to indicate that our Lord has become something that he already had been before. For example, in Matt 28:18, Jesus says: “All power has been given unto me in heaven and on earth.” The reader asks, “Did he not have all power previously?” In Acts 2:36, Peter says: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made that same Jesus whom you have crucified both Lord and Christ.” One inquires, “Was not Jesus both Lord and Christ already?” Other verses raise similar questions. The answer to these questions will be found in a right understanding of 1 Pet 3:18. At the close of that verse Peter writes: θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκὶ ζῳοποιηθεὶς δὲ πνεύματι. Here we have a balanced structure that contributes substantially to the interpretation. For example, in their tight parallelism we expect both σακκί and πνεύματι to be used in the same way. Mounce claims that the translation in the NIV, “in the body…by the Spirit,” has two faults:

First, the words “body” and “spirit” are parallel and should be translated in the same manner (both are in the dative case and the NIV’s “in the body…but…by the Spirit” is misleading). Second, the capital S on “Spirit” interprets the word to mean the Holy Spirit. In other words the clause is made to say that Jesus died physically but was resurrected by the Holy Spirit.

While this theology is certainly orthodox, it is not what the text actually says. Flesh and spirit represent two spheres of existence or two successive conditions of Christ’s human nature.

More than one writer refers to Rom 1:3–4 for light on 1 Pet 3:18. Very helpful treatments of the Romans passage have been provided by Geerhardus Vos, John Murray, and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Murray notes that the Romans text has often been interpreted as dealing with differing aspects of or elements in the constitution of the person of the Saviour. Sometimes the distinguished aspects have been thought to be within the human nature of Christ, the physical contrasted with the spiritual. By others the distinguished aspects have been regarded as the two distinct natures in the person of Christ, the human and the divine, “flesh” designating the former and “Son of God…according to the Spirit of holiness” the latter.”

Murray, however, holds that “there are good reasons for thinking…that the distinction drawn is that between \’two successive stages’ of the historical process of which the Son of God became the subject.” He says further that Paul deals with “some particular event in the history of the Son of God incarnate by which he was instated in a position of sovereignty and invested with power, an event which in respect of investiture with power surpassed everything that could previously be ascribed to him in his incarnate state.”

Marked off in 1 Pet 3:18, as in Rom 1:3–4, would be two successive stages in our Lord’s messianic work. These different stages are reflected also in such verses as Matt 28:18 and Acts 2:36, which were mentioned earlier. The second stage, introduced by the resurrection, was “one all-pervasively conditioned by pneumatic powers." The πνεύματι in 1 Pet 3:18 accordingly refers not only to the resurrection, but also to the state of power that followed it.

Here we also have prophecy fulfilled—prophecy given by the Spirit of Christ through Noah and others who had served as voices for the prophetic word. In word and in life they showed the power and the triumph of him who was to bring his people to God, who would bring his sheep of all the ages back to the shepherd and bishop of their souls.

In Noah’s day, in Peter’s day, and whenever and wherever the people of God are called to suffer for doing what is right, the powerful words of 1 Pet 3:18 can bring power and triumph to their souls. The truths that are expressed with captivating beauty in this verse should remind them of the redemptive sufferings of Christ and of the following glories of the Savior, of his conquest over death in his own resurrection and in the certainty of theirs, and of their present vital empowering union with him in his death, resurrection, and his present exaltation.

Then, we are met with the exegetical question, "To whom is Peter referring when he says that Christ 'went and preached to the spirits in prison who formerly were disobedient?'" There have obviously been great disagreement over how we are to understand this phrase. Does this verse teach that Jesus went to hell and proclaimed victory over the fallen Angels based on a certain understanding of Gen. 6:5 (See John Murray's outstanding treatment of this passage pp. 243 ff.)? Does it mean that Christ went to hell and preached his resurrection victory to the disobedient men of Noah's day? Or, as Augustine--and the majority of Reformers--taught, does it teach that Jesus preached through Noah, by His Spirit, to the men who were alive in the days of Noah prior to the flood? This last explanation is preferable and exegetically defensible. This position is skillfully defended by Skilton in the afore mentioned article.  He concludes:

“…by whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:19). Who were these spirits in prison? Some say that they were the sinful men of Noah’s time. Although they were not then in any physical prison, they have been confined after their death—they are spirits now in prison. Another view, which has obtained a wide hearing today, is that the spirits in prison are fallen angels, supposedly referred to in the opening verses of Genesis 6 as sons of God. The preaching, it is held, was not done in Noah’s day, but later, either between the time of the death of Christ and his resurrection or after the resurrection.

It is not our purpose here to review in detail the considerations advanced for or against these views or any other interpretation. That would be in itself a profitable study, and there is much information readily available on that score.

It is our intention (not really original with us) to suggest that all who participate in the controversy about the identity of the spirits in prison would benefit from taking account of the office and endowment of the apostle Peter and of the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in him. In agreement with Christ’s teaching about the OT, he would not have given to apocryphal writers the respect and authority he gave to the inspired books. He, furthermore, had been called to be an apostle, had been trained by Christ, had seen his works, and heard his words, and had been commissioned by him. He had been a witness of the Lord’s suffering and of the fact of his resurrection, and could even call himself a partaker of the glory that was to be revealed (5:1). He was one of those through whom Christ continued after his ascension to teach and to minister (see Acts 1:1-2). As the Spirit of Christ spoke through the OT prophets, so he now worked through Peter (see 1 Pet 1:12). Christ had promised to Peter and the other apostles that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things and would bring all things to their remembrance which he had told them (John 14:26). He promised also that the Spirit would guide them into all truth (John 16:13). With the exalted Lord helping him, and the Holy Spirit leading him, with the God-breathed Scriptures of the OT to instruct him, Peter was not likely to succumb to cunningly devised fables or to be led astray by the speculations and fancies of uninspired men. This would not prevent his making some use of their writings when appropriate, but it would preclude his endorsing as true any erroneous elements that they contained. This should aid us, for example, in assessing Peter’s relationship to 1 Enoch.

Dalton is convinced that “This tradition of 1 Enoch is what we would expect from 1 Peter, dependent as it is on the primitive Jewish-Christian teaching of the Church at Jerusalem.” We have noted above some of Peter’s major reliances, and we would note here, lest there be any confusion, that the primary element in the teaching of the church at Jerusalem was the teaching of the apostles, including Peter (Acts 2:42). After the great turning to the Lord on the Day of Pentecost, the new converts continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles, such as is summarized in 1 Cor 15:1–11. Through God’s grace Peter, though not perfect, maintained a rock-like loyalty to the faith once for all delivered to the saints and to the Lord who had charged him to feed his sheep. He faithfully preached the gospel in the Holy Spirit sent by Christ from heaven (1:12).

V. Another Hearing for Augustine?

Traver in his Th.M. thesis seeks to provoke or encourage those who still hold to Augustine’s interpretation of 1 Pet 3:19. According to Augustine, as previously mentioned, Christ’s going to preach took place in the days of Noah (3:19). This view was dominant for more than a thousand years and is still alive in its main thrust today. However, in recent years it has met with formidable competition, and is not always given a full and satisfactory hearing. At times objections are stated against it without giving them any adequate testing. Dalton, however, does grant that Augustine’s interpretation is not devoid of real merit, but he nevertheless judges that “despite this, the theory is quite unacceptable…. The \’going’ of Christ can hardly be understood of the divine activity in the OT. \’The spirits in prison’, likewise, cannot be understood of the living contemporaries of Noah without indulging in an unreal allegorization foreign to the thought of 1 Peter. One may add that…there is no understandable link with the context.” Goppelt similarly comments: “According to Augustine the spirits in prison are the unbelieving contemporaries of Noah, who were held in the prison of sin and ignorance. To them the Spirit of the preexistent Christ (1:11) preached through Noah. But this allegorization is contrary to the scope of the context….” Traver, although not himself endorsing the Augustinian position, is eager to have it well represented. He would like to see a more cohesive presentation of its merits. Excellent studies have been made since he offered this challenge that have provided robust support for the Augustinian viewpoint. The impression that one obtains from even a few samplings such as we have attempted in this paper is that there are both obvious and latent strengths in that interpretation, stripped of allegorizing. It is surely a bit too soon to close the books on Augustine.

After a painstaking study of 1 Pet 3:18–22, Feinberg concludes:

…it is highly improbable that 1 Pet 3:18–22 has anything to do with Christ preaching to dead people, evil angels, or in an underworld. If Scripture does teach anything about an underworld, one cannot demonstrate so from 1 Pet 3:18–22. Consequently, whatever one wants to say about biblical teaching concerning the intermediate state, he must say it on the basis of some other passage than this one!

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