One of the standard commentaries on the Scriptures (The Expositors Bible Commentary) begins this section by saying, “This section contains some of the most difficult exegetical problems in the New Testament.”
You think so? Yes … I vote it as the #1 most convoluted and difficult to understand passage of them all. I’d almost rather have to write about Song of Solomon! If I go into trying to give you all of the details and variant views of Greek constructions, I will end up doing what others have done — essentially writing a book on it.
Rather than do that, let me instead simply tell you what I think this passage is saying; and this is an interpretation that is standard in large part among conservative, evangelical scholars.
Here is the passage … remembering as you read this, that it follows on the heels of an extended section of suffering for righteousness …
3:18 – For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.
3:19 – After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
Though Jesus was put to death physically, he was not eliminated in any way; he yet lived as the victor over the grave as would be vindicated by his resurrection.
So who are these spirits to whom Jesus preached, where are they, and what did he preach to them? Though various views have been given over the years, here is a brief on what this means…
You may recall that the Scriptures teach that Noah was a preacher of righteousness. You recall also that Noah spent a great many years (with his family) building a boat in the middle of nowhere, surely receiving the scoffing ridicule of the perverse generation of people in his day. Jesus was in him (in spirit / in a pre-incarnate way) preaching to that generation who were then lost in the judgment of the flood. And those spirits are now imprisoned (meaning in hell) awaiting a final judgment.
Noah and his family — a total of eight people — were saved through the waters of the flood. The water did not save them, but they came through the water and out to the other side of the flood as having been saved from God’s wrath. This thought of going through water to salvation on the other side becomes in Peter’s mind a symbol that is like baptism. This rite does not wash sins away, but it symbolizes identification with Christ as the one who saves.
And finally the last verse picks up this very theme of Christ’s victorious exaltation: the culmination of Christ’s suffering by triumphing over the hostile forces of this world.
The practical application of this writing — both for the readers of Peter’s original letter and down to us today — is that we may have confident peace that no matter how dark the world may seem at present, our certain hope is that God’s ultimate justice prevails. In a crazy world with a lot of crazy people both in charge and trying to get in charge, this is a truth that gives me peace each evening at the end of the newscast. And I trust it does for you also.
(Our original schedule called for these ideas today to have been in separate writings today and tomorrow, but for the sake of clarity, I have combined them into the one post. So the next devotional will be next Monday, written by Chris after his great sermon on Sunday.)