What in Hell is happening in 1 Peter 3:19

1 Peter 3:18-21

18 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, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is a really weird passage right? You are reading along in 18 and it’s typical stuff. Christ died as propitiation for our sins, the one sacrificial lamb, he died and was raised again…wait in the spirit? His spirit, is that the Holy Spirit, or does Christ also have a spirit? Three in one (trinity) would mean it’s also the Holy Spirit’s spirit. Then you hit verse 19 and all hell breaks lose.

He spoke to spirits (like his spirit?) in a prison, then all of sudden we are talking about Noah and a few, well eight (sounds like a response to how many drinks you’v had) were saved and then something about water and as we leave and go into 21 we are talking about baptism. By this point, you get confused and kind of skip ahead to chapter 4, because that’s a nice round number.

Don’t worry, Karen Jobe helps us catch our breath with four questions the think about:

  • Where did Christ go?
  • When did he go?
  • To whom did he speak?
  • What did he say?

There are basically three schools of thought regarding the first two questions:
He went to hell to preach to OT people. This seems to be the historic view, held by many of the early church fathers. It can  be used  to answer the two questions, how were the OT people saved and what did Christ do during those three days between his death and resurrection? It may also play a role in the Apostles’ Creed.

A less known answer is that of a pre-incarnate Christ preaching through Noah to that generation. I haven’t found a whole lot of good support for this and tend to rule it out.

Victory proclamation as he ascended to Heaven. This is the majority view of modern commentators.So, we are talking after the resurrection and his wait to the thrown, apparently.

But who is the whom, then? 

Davids takes ‘spirits’ to be nonhuman, so fallen angels or demons. The ‘sons of God’ associated with Noah were taken, by first century Jews/Christians, to be fallen angels. Remember that we have that odd passage about the ‘sons of God’ getting with the ‘daughters of men’ that produce an offspring of giants. In the inter-testamental book, 1 Enoch, we are told they were put in prison. Additionally, Enoch was sent to speak to those in prison, where he also makes a proclamation, which is a proclamation of Judgment.

So, the passage likely refers to “a proclamation of judgment by the resurrected Christ to the imprisoned spirits…sealing their doom as he triumphed over sin and death and hell, redeeming human beings.” (Davids)

All clear and simple. Not really, you are probably wondering, alright, but why are we suddenly talking about Enoch and his grandson Noah? Well, Enoch was kind of famous with first century Jewish people and the books attributed to him were quit popular. The references Peter makes would have been well known to his audience. As for Noah, he was, for whatever reason, very famous and revered among people in Asia Minor. The area had four additional flood myths, all likely from a single source that was different from the Biblical account. Noah even makes an appearance in one of the stories. The people there go as far as to put him on one side of their coins, with the emperor on the other.

As Grudem points out, Peter is using Noah as a typology and one (along with Christ) for the believers in Asia Minor to follow:
Noah and his family were a minority surrounded by unbelievers.
Noah was righteous in a wicked world.
Noah was a witness by building the ark.
Noah realized Judgment was to come soon.
Noah was saved with few others.

With this background, it all comes together. We have Christ being buried and raised from the dead, concurring death and ascending to the throne, announcing his victory over sin to the fallen angels of Noah’s day. Which brings us to Noah and how we (or they at the time) are like him. All this leads up to the last verse in the passage where water is the medium by the salvation comes through God, now through the resurrection of Christ. Giving us these two parallels:

3:20 – a few, were saved, through water
3:21 – you, baptism now saves, through the resurrection

Hope that helps makes sense of what Martin Luther called the strangest passage in the New Testament.


Commentary references:


Edit 3/29/2106 – Just came across this guy, with a better more detailed write-up on these verses.

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