The Spirits in Prison
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).- 1 Peter 3:18–20
One of the harshest realities of life in a fallen world is that people oftentimes suffer even though they have done good things. This is especially true of the church, which has endured much persecution and derision even though it performs the good and holy task of announcing the hope of salvation to fallen humanity.
The apostle Peter recognized this fact and was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write to the church in order to lay out the proper response to such suffering. As we have seen, we are called not to avoid but to endure this suffering (1 Peter 2:20; 3:14–17). As we do this, we follow the pattern of Christ Jesus, the example par excellence of the person who suffers for performing the good will of God.
In today’s passage, Peter again reminds us that Christ is our model in suffering. Having told us in 3:17 that it is commendable to suffer for doing good, he tells us in 3:18 that such is a good thing because Jesus suffered for the good of fulfilling God’s will. Rather than abandon God’s will, He endured suffering so that He could pay for our wickedness and reconcile us to God. If Jesus is our example, we should also expect that our suffering for doing good will also bring benefits even though we cannot redeem anyone.
In verses 18–20 we read that Jesus, though put to death, was made alive in the Spirit in which he spoke to the “spirits in prison” who disobeyed in the days of Noah. Though many in church history see in these verses a reference to a literal descent of Christ into hell, that is probably not the best interpretation of this verse. Space prevents us from going into all reasons for rejecting this view. We will say that first of all, Jesus viewed His entire mission as one of announcing freedom to the captives (Luke 4:18–19) — which captives were living people and not fallen angels or dead human beings. Secondly, given the Son of God’s attributes of omnipresence and eternity as well as His interrelatedness with the Holy Spirit, it is probably better to see in these verses a reference to the pre-incarnate Son of God speaking through Noah to the sinners of Noah’s day by the Spirit, warning them of God’s impending judgment (2 Peter 2:5).
Today’s passage holds up Christ as our primary model for enduring suffering. Yet in some ways, Noah too serves as an example for us. He did good among men who slandered him because of their sin just as we might be slandered for being in Christ (1 Peter 3:16). Like Noah, we need not fear these foes, for we too will be vindicated and spared God’s wrath. And like Noah, Christ too will speak through us by the Spirit. Ask Jesus to speak through you just as He did with Noah.
Passages for Further Study
Pss. 68:18; 146