In every field, there are both simple and complex issues. In the field of Mathematics, there is simple arithmetic and complex calculus. In medicine, there are common colds and intricate auto-immune disorders. In finance, there is balancing the checkbook and investing in hedge funds.
In Bible study and theology, the same simple/complex dilemma occurs. Some verses of Scripture are easy to understand and apply. I Thessalonians 4:3-5 is an example of a simple to understand verse: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God.” These verses are straight-forward and easy to understand both their meaning and application.
There are other passages of Scripture, however, that are not quite so clear. 1 Peter 3:18-22 is one of those complex passages of Scripture. Cryptically these verses read in the NIV, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the spirit, through whom also He 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. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 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. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand with angels, authorities and powers in submission to Him.” This passage is quite difficult to understand and apply. In order to help facilitate further understanding and application, I am going to share my thoughts on this passage here to continue a dialogue on these verses. I would love to know what you think!
The overall context of this entire section of 1 Peter has to do with Christians suffering and being persecuted because of their faith in Christ. In 2:13-25, Peter encourages Christian citizens and slaves to persist in doing good, even if they are persecuted, following the example of Christ (who suffered on the cross unjustly, but remained silent and in fidelity to His Divine calling.) 3:1-7 continues this line of thinking, and applies it to wives who are living with unbelieving spouses. They are to persist in doing good and faith, even if they experience difficulties with their spouse as a result. 3:8-17 continues this discussion by admonishing Christians to persevere if they are suffering because of their faithfulness to Christ, knowing that Christ will exalt them eventually. At the end of this discussion comes our perplexing verses on Jesus and His preaching ministry in Noah’s day. Understanding this context should help us interpret the correct meaning of these verses.
Noah lived in a time when all the humans on the planet were living in direct rebellion against God. In fact, things were so bad that God had decided to flood the earth, sentencing all humanity to death if they did not repent of their sin, and embrace the only life-saving measure God allowed at the time: getting on Noah’s ark. In the end, only 8 people (Noah and his family) heeded God’s direction and got on the ark. In the process of building that ark, Noah and his family experienced insults and ridicule. Once the flood began, however, they were vindicated and experienced salvation. As Peter wrote this letter to the persecuted church of Asia Minor, he thought of an interesting parallel between Noah’s experience, and the experience of the first century church. Like Noah, the early church had received by faith the saving message of salvation (for Noah – the boat, for the first church – salvation through Jesus Christ). Like Noah, the early church had been charged with sharing this saving message with the world around them. Like Noah, the early church was ridiculed and persecuted because of their beliefs. I believe Peter used this illustration to remind the early church (and by application us as well) that though we may be mocked for our faith today, eventually, it will lead to the salvation of our souls and our eternal vindication.
“OK, so that may explain why He used the example of Noah, but what about Jesus preaching to the imprisoned spirits? What’s that all about.” I’m glad you asked! I think that 3:19 refers to the fact that Noah’s preaching ministry during the construction of the ark was something that was done in the spirit of Christ. In other words, Jesus was imploring the world through Noah to be reconciled to God. This reminds me of 2 Corinthians 5:20 which says of all Christians, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” On Christ’s behalf, Noah was making an evangelistic appeal to the dying world around Him.
Now, this is certainly not the provocative interpretation you may have heard before concerning these verses. You may have heard before about Jesus going to hell between His crucifixion and His resurrection to preach to people there who had died during Noah’s flood. While this is an interesting and thought-provoking concept, I do not believe it is what this passage was intending to communicate. Again, the overall context helps us to understand this. The whole context of this section was to encourage Christians to maintain their testimony in the midst of persecution. Noah’s experience of speaking the message of Christ to a dying world was far more analogous and relatable to the early church than Jesus’ preaching ministry in Sheol before His resurrection on the third day. Additionally, no place else do we get this notion of “preaching to the dead.” For these reasons, I think it is best to understand Noah’s preaching ministry as being Christ’s ambassador in that setting. Believers today are called to be His ambassador in hostile settings as well.
Think about this for you today. Are you living out your Christian faith in a hostile environment? Do those you work with, live around, or are related to mock you for your faith in Christ and attempt to tear you down? Have you ever considered that in those situations Christ wants to speak through you to call them into a relationship with Him? Do you remember that even though life is hard, Christ has promised to exalt and vindicate us eventually? These are some of the questions we live out in our complex lives. Thankfully, the answer Christ seeks from us in response to these questions is quite simple. He will preach through you and He will exalt you as you persist in faith.