Explore the Bible: 1 Peter 3:13-22
One of the most controversial passages in the New Testament in 1 Peter 3:19-20. One commentary on 1 Peter spends 43 of its 248 pages just one these two verses! Throughout the history of both Jewish and Christian exegesis, there have been many different interpretations of this passage suggested. Here I can only touch on a few of these, and share my view on the subject.
In his commentary on 1 Peter (the one mentioned above), Wayne Grudem lays out five general approaches to the interpretation of this passage. While there are some other variations, these cover many of the alternatives proposed by commentators. These are:
1) Christ preached in spirit through Noah to those who would reject that preaching, thus ending up “in prison” due to their unbelief.
2) Christ preached after His death but before His resurrection to those people who were imprisoned in hell, offering them a second chance of salvation.
3) Christ preached after His death but before His resurrection to those people who were imprisoned in hell, showing them that their condemnation was final.
4) Christ preached after His death to those who repented before they died in Flood, releasing them from Purgatory and bringing them into heaven.
5) Christ preached after His death to the fallen angels in hell, proclaiming His triumph over them and His ultimate victory. (Some commentators link this to a belief that in Genesis 6 the “sons of God” are fallen angels who had relations with human women, and that this pronouncement of judgment was particularly pointed at them.)
Option 2 is clearly out of line with the teaching of the rest of the Bible concerning the finality of death on our decision about Jesus. Option 4 is only viable to someone who believes in Purgatory, which I do not believe is a Biblical teaching. Option 3 doesn’t really connect with the time of Noah, unless it is limited to just those unbelievers, and that seems a rather limited application.
Option 5 is favored by many commentators, both Jewish and Christian (including the author of the Explore the Bible study guide). They argue that the use of the word “spirit” strongly suggests angels/demons rather than people. They also point to some Jewish literature as background to this passage, particularly 1 Enoch. According to this view, Peter is using material familiar to his readers to make his point, and they would have readily understood this as a reference to 1 Enoch and to fallen angels.
While there is much to commend this view, I think when we place the passage in its literary context option 1 is a preferable view. There are certainly issues with this interpretation, as there are with any of those mentioned, but I think this best fits the context, and has support from scholars both ancient and modern. It also does not require Peter’s audience to have a familiarity with literature like 1 Enoch, which may be more consistent with the historical and cultural situation of those readers.
Going back to verse 13, Peter is discussing not only the way a believer should live, but also the readiness of the Christian to proclaim his faith in Jesus. He notes that when we stand for Christ, we may encounter opposition, but that we should live and speak in such a way that those who slander us and reject our message will be put to shame. He then summarizes the gospel, then moves into our problem passage.
Using option 1 as our interpretation, this then becomes an illustration from the Old Testament of someone who proclaimed the message of the Lord faithfully, but whose preaching was rejected for 100 years. In the end, only the tiny number of faithful were saved, while the majority who rejected Noah’s preaching died in the Flood. It was Jesus who preached through Noah, with a message that foreshadowed His own redemption.
Whichever interpretation is correct, we must not allow the controversy to become our focal point. Instead, we should focus on the challenge of being faithful witnesses to the Gospel in a society that will revile us for standing for Jesus. As those who have an eternal hope in Him, we need to be ready to give our reason for our hope, and to proclaim the salvation given to us through Jesus whenever we have the chance.