46. Preacher in Prison

Meditations in 1 Peter : 46: Preacher in Prison

1 Pet 3:18-20 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.

The Bible is amazing. One minute you can be in the clearest of verses and the next you are left wondering whatever the next verse is about. So it is here. In the previous meditation we considered the simplicity and straight forwardness of the first part of verse 18 but in verses 19 and 20 we move into an unclear area where we are going to have to resort to speculation, and accept that different commentators through the centuries have concluded or suggested different things about these words.  Let’s examine it piece by piece.

He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit. Peter has just been speaking about Jesus dying for us, in the first part of verse 18. Now he speaks in more detail about his death and resurrection. Yes, he was put to death and his human body clearly died on the Cross. That was obvious. But then he was made alive. How? Scripture itself is not absolutely clear on this. Peter on the day of Pentecost declared, “God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him,” (Acts 2:24) the implication being that it was the Father who raised the dead Son, yet the back half of that verse suggests there is something more. Yet Jesus himself had said, I lay down my life–only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again,” (Jn 10:17,18) suggesting that Jesus himself had the authority to raise up his mortal body again. Peter, in today’s verses, suggests that his body was raised by the power of the Spirit – that it was the Holy Spirit who raised up the human body again. The apostle Paul appears to confirm this in his writings: “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Rom 8:11)

So at the end of that we are left talking about the Holy Spirit, so it is he who is being referred to when Peter continues, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison.” The body remained in the tomb over those three days and you would have seen it lying there stationary if you had been inside the tomb during that time, but the spirit of Jesus – who is also the Holy Spirit, left the body and went on another task – to go and speak to other ‘spirits in prison’.  It is this phrase that leaves us all wondering, for Peter did not explain it beyond saying, who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.Those he preached to were apparently the spirits of those who had disobeyed God and died at the time of the Flood.

Now, first of all, I have to confess that my own understanding of this was that this is a reference to those who are in hell. They are clearly not in heaven and I do not believe there is any other indication of a half-way house called purgatory and so hell is the only alternative left. It would make sense that Jesus went down into hell because it would be an indication that he took the full punishment of Sin which wasn’t only death but also hell. It was a sign of the completeness of his taking our punishment. However, I realise that that still leaves questions and it isn’t something that appears elsewhere in Scripture.

So why did Jesus go to this particular group of spirit beings? Think about what happened at the Flood. Noah and his family was the only survivors (certainly in that part of the world – the Middle East – although there are signs of a catastrophic flood all over the world) and it is not clear how much Noah explained in his preaching why the people needed to repent and turn from their wicked ways. Could it be that here we have a unique illustration of how God, in the form of His Son, in the Spirit, went down to those in hell and justified (for the sake of justice) why they were there?  Is this God wrapping up the loose ends ensuring that in eternity there is no question possible about the justice meted out by the Godhead?   Is this God confirming to all the onlooking heavenly watchers (see Eph 3:10) that even if they heard the truth from the Son of God himself, these individuals would have remained unrepentant?

One of the things I am convinced about, after years of reading the Bible in detail, is that when we see God face to face and if we are allowed to see as He does – in completeness – we will never find a reason to criticise anything that God has said or done throughout existence. There will never be a person in hell who is there unfairly!  Indeed there will never be a person in heaven who is not there by the grace of God, but at least they are there because at some point in time-space history they made a decision to face the truth and call on God for mercy, which they then received, together with an abundance of grace that flowed forth to us through the wonderful work of Jesus on the Cross. The best I can do with these verses is suggest that here we have a brief unique glimpse of the justification of God, something that went on behind the scenes, so that the guilty could never claim innocence. That is a sobering thought!

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