With so many intertwining themes, one scholar noted, “It is no wonder that commentators have shaken their heads in despair!” Even Martin Luther conceded that he could not comprehend the meaning of this text.
Given the amount of contentious debate, we must hold our interpretations lightly. On a positive note, the eminent scholars cited here remain largely in agreement, with only one contending for a minor variation.
The overall thrust of this section teaches that Jesus preached to the imprisoned spirits who had disobeyed the Lord in the days of Noah.
Peter wrote, “He was made alive in the Spirit, by which he also to the spirits in prison went [and] preached.”
We must consider multiple points of contention: 1) Who preached?; 2) Who heard the preaching?; 3) What was preached?; and 4) When did the preaching occur? Accounting for each of the potential answers to these questions yields 180 possibilities.
In this instance, the two small words “by which” (en ho) bear critical importance. The preposition “en” can mean “in, among, in the presence of, with, under the influence of, by, on account of, while,” or “when.”
Some scholars understood this sentence to mean that Jesus traveled in a spiritual form of existence. However, Peter avoided Greek dualism and did not separate Christ’s spirit from his body (1 Pet 3:18). Both Jesus’s body and his soul remained in the tomb until his resurrection.
Thus, Christ’s proclamation resulted from the resurrection, whether it occurred via the Spirit, in his risen state, or in the process of being raised from the dead. Contrary to older views, scholars now concur that this preaching occurred after—not before—the resurrection, on Christ’s journey to the right hand of the Father. By going to the most unlikely audience imaginable, Jesus proclaimed his lordship over all.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
[Related posts include Overview of 1 Peter 3:18–22; Death in the Flesh but Life in the Spirit (1 Pet 3:18); Early Church Fathers’ View of 1 Pet 3:19–20; Augustine’s View of 1 Pet 3:19–20; The Apostles’ Creed and 1 Pet 3:19–20; John Calvin’s View of 1 Pet 3:19–20; Ancient Jewish View Applied to 1 Pet 3:19–20; Modern Scholars’ View of 1 Pet 3:19–20; Summary of 1 Pet 3:19–20; Salvation through Water (1 Pet 3:20); An Appeal to God (1 Pet 3:21); and Seated at God’s Right Hand (1 Pet 3:22)]
[Click here to go to Chapter 8: Safely Through (Gen 8:1–19)]
Marshall, 1 Peter, 1 Pet 3:19.
Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 183.
Scott McKnight, 1 Peter (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 215.
Martin Luther, The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude Preached and Explained (trans. E. H. Gillett; New York: Anson D. F. Randolph, 1859), 188, https://archive.org/stream/epistlesofstpete00luth#page/188/mode/2up.
McKnight, 1 Peter, 218.
Marshall, 1 Peter, 1 Pet 3:19.
Millard J. Erickson, “Is There Opportunity for Salvation After Death?” BSac 152, no. 606 (1 April 1995): 136–7.
Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, “ἐν” (en), BDAG, 326–30.
Davids, The First Epistle of Peter, 138.
Michaels, 1 Peter, 204.
Eduard Schweizer, “πνεῦμα” (pneuma), TDNT 6:332–455, 447.
Michaels, 1 Peter, 204–9.