Jesus went where and did what?! A brief explanation of 1 Peter 3:18-22

We’re nearing the end of our churchwide study of 1 Peter, and if you’ve been following along, you probably noticed that I conveniently skipped over 1 Peter 3:18-22 in my previous sermon. Admittedly, it’s a difficult passage to make sense of, but that’s not why I skipped it. I chose to leave it out because the explanation of what Peter is saying would have required delving into exegetical methods that would not have added to the sermon’s message. 

So, I thought I’d write up an all-too brief explanation for those that are interested in going deeper into how Scripture works. 

Here’s what Peter wrote:

“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, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” 

1 Peter 3:18-22

Context

With any study of Scripture, remember the most important rule: Context is king. The context of this passage is Peter’s exhortation to believers to endure suffering, even when they are suffering for good. The believers are suffering under human authorities as well as neighbors who mistreat them for not living under the status quo. Peter reminds them that their suffering not only validates Jesus’ worth, but also puts them squarely in the footsteps of the Messiah who also was mistreated and suffered unjustly. 

That much we get from v. 18 – Peter is reminding the believers that Jesus suffered too. So what do we make of the following verses?

Spirits in prison, Harry Potter, and Noah’s Ark 

This is where it gets interesting and head-scratching. After Jesus’ death, we are introduced to several movements that have the potential to give us whiplash. The Bible scholar, N.T. Wright, gives a good summary of them.

  1. Jesus proclaims to the spirits in prison.
  2. These spirits have something to do with the days of Noah
  3. Noah’s ark pointed forward to baptism.
  4. Baptism has something to do with good conscience.

What is going on? Before I get into a few technicalities in this, let me say the long and short of it is this: Peter is drawing on a well-known story of his day, something that his readers would have known about, to make an illustration. Peter’s point is actually in the last line of the passage – Jesus is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subject to him. Even though Jesus suffered unjustly for doing good (or maybe precisely because he did), he is exalted above the very powers the caused him such harm, above every power, in fact. Do you see the encouragement that Peter is trying to give the believers? He’s reminding them of the end, setting up for the next line of encouragement that their devotion to Jesus is not in vain. 

So where do these spirits come from? Just like today, there was an entire body of literature available to the people of Peter’s day. Stories and legends that captured the imagination and embedded themselves in the culture. Imagine if during a sermon, I made reference to that young man with a scar on his head, whose mother and father gave their lives to save him from “He who must not be named”. This is a picture of what sacrificial love looks like. Or maybe I talked about Paul’s ambition to know Christ like the pursuit of the golden snitch, enduring all odds and obstacles to reach your goal. Most people would know that the illustrations came from the world of Harry Potter (it’s totally understandable if you had no idea what I was talking about.) 

By using Harry Potter, I’m not endorsing its truthfulness or inerrancy, nor am I even saying that you should go and read the series. I’m simply using a well-known literary piece to illustrate a truth. That’s what Peter is doing. And he’s not the only NT writer to do so. Paul, the writer of Jude, and others refer to the traditions of their thought world to communicate just like any good communicator would.

In fact, we know what piece of literature Peter is referring to. It comes from a book called 1 Enoch. 1 Enoch was well-known in 1st century Judaism, and it was treasured by those who were waiting on God to do some great work of liberation. It wasn’t actually written by the Enoch described in Gen 5, though it was written in a way to capture that voice. 1 Enoch explains the brokenness of the world by tracing back to, you guessed it, the wicked angels of Gen 6, spirits who rebelled against God. 1 Enoch 12-16 tells the story of fallen angels, called the Watchers, who abandoned heaven and had children by human women, an elaboration of the mysterious passage in Gen 6:1-4. 

I won’t go into all the details here, but the gist is that these Watchers were judged by God and imprisoned in the earth, in the desert to be precise, not necessarily under the earth. In this imprisoned place, they await their final judgment, a judgment that only comes partially at the Flood. 

That’s the point of the Noah reference. Noah’s ark was the means by which God saved humanity in the first partial judgment of the Flood, and this was a picture of what baptism would do. Peter explains that just as God saved in the midst of judgment, so he saved through faith in Jesus and his resurrection in the final one. Baptism itself doesn’t save, but the faith that baptism expresses certainly does. 

And baptism doesn’t just proclaim the forgiveness of sins, it also is a reminder that when hostility arises between the believer and the non-believing world, we do not have to be ashamed. It’s the proof that before God we are clean, even as we suffer. 

Whew. That’s a very simple explanation of a complex passage, but I hope it’s enough to get you started on a deeper dive study should you feel so inclined. 

Here’s the point: Peter is using the tradition of Enoch to illustrate Jesus’ comprehensive victory over all the powers that be: be it unjust earthly authorities or rebellious cosmic powers. Jesus suffers for good, and has the ultimate victory and vindication. Believers who are suffering in his name can entrust themselves to him. It’s not in vain.  

Be careful where you get your doctrine

I know there are details that I didn’t answer. Where were these spirits exactly? What did Jesus proclaim? Did Jesus descend to hell? There are lots of varying doctrines that have been extracted from these four verses. Like building a belief system about child safety from the story of Harry Potter’s scar, if we’re not careful, we can attempt to make the text say more than it’s actually saying. 

For instance, v. 19 simply says that Jesus went to the spirits in prison. It doesn’t say he went down to them. There was a specific verb that Peter would have used. The passage doesn’t say that the spirits were in hell, or Gehenna, or Sheol – all specific places that were believed to hold the dead. In addition, Jesus doesn’t evangelize them; rather, he preaches to them. These are two different words in Greek: the first has the proclamation of good news with an invitation to respond; the latter act of preaching is the act of declaring a victory, which totally fits the context of what Peter is trying to remind the believers of. 

All that to say, we must be careful that we don’t build a doctrine of hell or the potential for ministering to those who have died (like a purgatory) from this passage. Yes, the Apostle’s Creed confesses that Jesus descended, but we can parse out what that means from other passages of Scripture, not this one per se. The text doesn’t definitively say that Jesus went to these spirits while he was buried in the ground. Peter leaves all that out because the where and when considerations are not his concern. His sole focus is the victory of Jesus over the powers that caused him to suffer, a victory that will be shared by those who continue to endure, doing good, for Jesus’ sake. 

Now can you see why I left it out of the sermon?

I’d love to know what other questions/thoughts this stirs for you. Leave one below.

4 thoughts on “Jesus went where and did what?! A brief explanation of 1 Peter 3:18-22

  1. Thanks for walking us through that exegesis, Mitchel! Personally, I would appreciate more of these follow ups to a Sunday sermon. Not only would it help us to revisit the passage throughout the week, but it would help us to go deeper in our own personal study. It is often difficult to know where to start to increase comprehension of a text in order to faithfully interpret it.

  2. I always looked to this passage as a hope that those who never knew Christ in this life were still preached to after death and given an opportunity to join His family. This hope is probably more borne out of naiveness than actual Biblical fact. Especially considering verses like Hebrews 9:27, “destined to die and then face judgement”. More reason to love and proclaim with more urgency now.

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