Summary: In this difficult passage, we’re told that Jesus "preached unto the spirits in prison..." To understand the passage we need to answer the basic questions...How? When? Who? Where? And Why is Peter telling us this?
I Peter 3:18-20 “A Victory Proclamation”
Intro—A few years ago, I, like most people, was amazed by one of those fads that periodically sweeps the US—at the time I’m thinking of, someone had discovered that you could use a computer somehow to generate “art” that would have a picture “hidden” in it...do you remember this? There would be instructions with the picture to hold it close to your nose and then pull it away gradually, and then you’d see the hidden picture of the deer, or the car, or whatever it was that the designer had hidden in the picture...everybody had a theory, it seemed like, on the “best” way to see the real message of the picture...squint your eyes, cross your eyes, unfocus your eyes, you name it, everybody had a tip on how to look at these pictures. And it would make me a little crazy when I’d be standing in front of the art store at the mall, looking at one of these pictures in the window, and not seeing a thing, and people would be walking up and saying, “ooohh, look at that, there’s a Kodiak bear in that picture…” and then they’d walk away and I’d still be there squinting like mad at this picture and not seeing a thing.
Sometimes a passage in the Scriptures is like one of those pictures...you look at it and you look at it, and it seems like you’re not getting the message—and then you take a step back, look at it in context (in other words, look at the whole picture, rather than trying just to focus on one part), see it as the writer meant you to see it and BOOM—you understand what the passage is teaching—our Scripture this morning is, I think, one of those passages...it has been called one of the most difficult passages to understand in the New Testament...yet if we look at it in the right way, I think we’ll find that the problems it presents resolve themselves for us. We want to focus our attention on verses 18-20, (READ).
Now there are several interpretations of this passage proposed. Some people say that Jesus went into hell after His death and burial, but before His resurrection, and preached to the people who lived at the time of Noah. Some think that Christ made an offer of salvation, a sort of “second chance” at salvation. Some people think that since the passage says that whatever Jesus did He did by the spirit, that the passage is referring to the pre-existent Spirit of the Lord having preached in the time of Noah to the sinful generation that was eventually destroyed by the flood. I believe that none of these interpretations is correct, but rather than deal with them individually, I think you’ll see as we go through the passage this morning why they don’t make sense to me, or at least as much sense as the explanation I propose for the passage. In order to understand the passage, I think we need to look at several things...first, when and how did Jesus preach? Second, who are these spirits that He preached to and where were they? And finally, what purpose is Peter trying to achieve in telling us this?
I. When and how did Jesus preach...Let’s look a little closer at verses 18 and the beginning of 19...now, I don’t want to spend a lot of time in the Greek here, but to figure out when and how Jesus did what He did, we need to take a moment or two and understand some of the differences between what the English text says and what the original Greek says. Depending on what version you’re looking at this morning, your English text either says that Jesus was, quote “put to death in the flesh (or “the body”) but made alive (or “quickened”) by the Spirit,” with “spirit” capitalized, or it says something similar, but instead of saying “by the Spirit” it says “in the spirit” or “in spirit” and spirit is not capitalized. In the Greek, “spirit” is not capitalized, and the sentence is structured so that “flesh” and “spirit” are supposed to be in contrast to one another--the second part of the clause should be read so as to be in opposition to the first part-—literally it says Jesus was “on the one hand, put to death flesh, but on the other hand, made alive spirit.” It would be inconsistent for the meaning to be "on the one hand, put to death (in the sphere of) flesh, but on the other hand made alive (by the instrumentality of) the spirit..."
I believe that what Peter is saying here is that Jesus, although His physically body died, was raised spiritually, as the Apostle Paul says in I Corinthians 15:44, “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body and there is a spiritual body.” So this preaching did not take place while Jesus was in the grave—If it happened when Christ had been raised in His spiritual body, it happened after the resurrection, not before, and he preached in His resurrection body.