Some passages of Scripture are straightforward and easy to understand. Others are more difficult.
In our study of 1 Peter, we encounter both varieties. The commands in 1:16, “You shall be holy” and 2:11, “abstain from the passions of the flesh” may be difficult to practice, but are clear in their instructions.
1 Peter 3:18-22 is of the latter variety. These verses are a bit more confusing and challenging to understand. During the Reformation, Martin Luther commented, “This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament. I still do not know for sure what the apostle meant.”
If we don’t handle this passage carefully, we can easily wind up with the heresy of universalism or salvation by works. If you misinterpret 3:19, “he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison,” you could conclude that people have a second chance to believe after death. This would lead to universalism, the idea that everyone will eventually be saved. If you misinterpret 3:21, “Baptism … now saves you,” you can conclude that grace is not enough, that baptism is necessary for salvation. This results in the mistaken doctrine of baptismal regeneration.
When we study difficult passages of Scripture, we must remember the rules of interpretation. (1) Look for the main idea of the passage. If you spend all your time chasing cross references, you can lose the forest for the trees. (2) Study the circles of context. A verse is part of a paragraph which is part of the book which is written by an author. There should be a consistent use of a word throughout. (3) Seek the plain sense unless it doesn’t make sense. Interpret Scripture in a literal manner, taking into account figures of speech. (4) Seek agreement with orthodox theology. One verse or passage should not contradict another portion of theology. (5) Don’t build your theology on isolated and obscure passages of Scripture.
Putting these rules into practice, the main idea of 1 Peter 3:18-22 is … When you suffer for doing right, remember that Jesus died for you. Jesus’ death resulted in triumph over sin and the spirit world.
Christ died for our sins (18). Verse 18 provides the reason for Peter’s claim in verse 17 that it is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. Peter provides an example of what he means.
Verse 18 is one of the shortest, simplest, and richest summaries of the meaning of the cross of Christ. In a short series of statements, Peter points out that Christ’s death is all that is necessary to provide for our salvation, the ultimate purpose of Christ’s death was to bring us to God, and that the resurrection secures and guarantees the results of Christ’s death.
Christ proclaimed victory over the spirit world (19-21). In these three verses, Peter gives two vivid illustrations to reassure us of Christ’s victory and our security. It reinforces what Peter said in the previous section (13-17) about not fearing persecution.
Illustration #1 speaks of the imprisonment and judgment of disobedient spirits or angels (19-20a). These verses raise several questions and some possible answers. Who are the spirits? (1) Unbelievers from Noah’s time; (2) Old Testament believers; (3) Fallen angels. When did Christ make his proclamation? (1) During the days of Noah—pre-incarnate Christ preaching through Noah; (2) Between his death and resurrection. What did he proclaim? (1) Salvation; (2) Victory
Looking at the various options, here are the three main views of this passage. (1) Many of the church fathers believed that between Christ’s death and resurrection, Jesus preached to the dead in Hades, the realm of the dead. (2) Many of the Reformers held to the view that Christ preached through Noah to the people in Noah’s day. (3) Most scholars today believe that before or (more likely) after his resurrection, Jesus proclaimed triumph over the fallen angels.
In Illustration #2, Peter talks about the salvation of Noah & his family. However, he is really talking about baptism. The phrase, “Baptism now saves you,” does not refer to salvation by works. Rather, it is an act of obedience that demonstrates an inner change.
As the resurrected and ascended Lord, everyone and everything is subject to Jesus (22). Christ has broken the power of evil. He now sits in an exalted position of royal authority and dignity alongside God the Father. Christ’s sovereign authority over all spiritual forces is an assurance to believers facing persecution.
Implications for Today (Adapted from 1 Peter: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, by Wayne Grudem. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988, p. 160-161):
- Noah and his family were a minority surrounded by hostile unbelievers; so are we (3:13-14; 4:4, 12-13).
- Noah lived a righteous life in the midst of a wicked world. Peter encourages us to live the same type of life (3:13-14, 16-17; 4:3-4).
- Noah witnessed boldly to those around him by believing God and building the ark. We are to live good lives and be prepared to answer the questions of unbelievers (3:14-17).
- Noah realized that judgment was soon to come upon the world. Peter reminds us that God’s judgment is certainly coming, perhaps soon (4:5, 7).
- At the time of Noah, God patiently waited for repentance from unbelievers before he brought judgment. God is still patient today.
- Noah was finally saved with only a few others. Though we may be few, we can have the confidence that we will be saved, for Christ has triumphed and has all things subject to him (3:22; 4:13, 19; 5:10).
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Bible Church in Chicopee, MA, on July 22, 2018. It is part of a series of sermons on 1 Peter. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.