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© Rosemary Bardsley 2018

In 1Peter 3 and 4 there are several difficult statements. This brief study will address these difficulties. However, it might not be possible to completely resolve them, given that brilliant Bible teachers and theologians also find them difficult.

The principle of biblical interpretation that is a key to understanding these statements is: that where there is an unclear text it should be understood in the light of the clear teaching of the Bible. So our goal is to find the interpretation which sits best with the clear teaching of other parts of the Bible.

Another important principle of interpretation is understanding each text in its context – how it fits with what Peter says in the surrounding passage and in his entire letter.

A. 1PETER 3:19,20

Peter refers to Jesus, through the Spirit, preaching to ‘spirits in prison’ who were disobedient long ago during the time between the commencement and completion of building the ark.

Two questions confront us here:

Who did Jesus talk to?
When did he talk to them?

A.1 What people say
[1] Some people say that the ‘spirits in prison’ that Jesus preached to were the rebellious angels, and that Jesus preached to them after his resurrection. People who hold this view say that the word ‘spirits’ is normally used to refer to demonic spirits, and so ought to be understood in this way here.

[2] Some people say that the ‘spirits in prison’ were the souls/spirits of Noah’s generation who perished in the flood, and to whom Jesus preached after his resurrection.

[3] A third interpretation is that the Spirit of Jesus spoke through Noah to his generation during the years that he was building the ark.

A.2 Suggested preferred interpretation
The third interpretation above is preferred for the following reasons:

It fits well with Peter’s statement in 1:11 that ‘the Spirit of Christ’ was in the Old Testament prophets as the communicated the word of God.

It avoids the inference in Option #2 that the rebellious people of Noah’s generation are given a second chance. The Scripture clearly states that ‘man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment’ [Hebrews 9:27]. It is not reasonable to believe that these people [whose wickedness was total – Genesis 6:5, and who were given 120 years in which to repent] would be given a ‘second chance’, while everyone else is not.

The concept that the resurrected Jesus went and preached to imprisoned demonic spirits raises the question ‘for what purpose?’ 2Peter 2:4 indicates that they are ‘held for judgment’, and Jude 6 that they are ‘bound for judgment on the great Day’, so there seems no purpose in Christ preaching to them prior to that judgement. In any case, Peter specifically states that those to whom Christ preached by the Spirit ‘disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built’ [verse 20]. This is not true of the rebellious angels who had disobeyed, along with Satan, sometime prior to Genesis 3.

In terms of the third interpretation, the Spirit of Jesus pleaded with Noah’s generation, giving them the opportunity to repent while they were still alive, before the judgement fell.

B. 1PETER 3:20-22

A careless interpretation of these verses ends up teaching baptismal regeneration – that it is participation in the rite of baptism that actually saves us. This is because these verses contain the statement ‘baptism that now saves you’. Taken in isolation, apart from its context, these words indicate that we are saved by baptism. And that is how it is understood by some.

But it is clear in the New Testament that

That the promises of salvation are given to those who believe in Jesus Christ, and
That baptism followed belief, expressing an already existing, albeit new, belief in Christ.

In addition, Peter has already stressed very strongly in this letter that we are saved by the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ [1:2 – ‘sprinkling by his blood’; 1:19 – redeemed ‘with the precious blood of Christ’; 2:24 – ‘he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree’; 3:18 – ‘Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous’.

Peter makes it clear that baptism has no saving power in itself. He says that baptism ‘saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ’ [verse 21]. In other words, it is the resurrection of Christ that saves us [see also 1:3], not the rite of baptism, which is our public declaration of our faith in Christ, and which symbolises our identification with the death and resurrection of Christ.

Note: It is important to note here that the death of Christ, which Peter has strongly taught previously, is powerless to save unless followed by the resurrection. The resurrection is an essential component of Christ’s saving work. Without it he was, as the Jews believe, just a man, and a blasphemous one at that. But the resurrection validates all of his claims to equality with God the Father [Romans 1:4], and validates the legality of his substitutionary sin-bearing death. As Paul points out in 1Corinthians 15 if Christ did not rise from the dead our faith in Christ is useless [verse14, 17] and we have no hope of resurrection life [verses 15-15-19].

C. 1PETER 4:1

Peter states that ‘he who has suffered in the body is done with sin’ [4:1]. This is puzzling. The simple meaning of the words is clearly not true. So there must be a deeper or more complex meaning to Peter’s words.

We need to establish what Peter means by suffering, and what he means by sin. To do this we need to first rule out what he cannot mean.

He cannot mean normal human physical suffering. Everyone suffers physical illness or accident at some time. But it is very obvious that everyone still sins.

Peter cannot mean by ‘is done with sin’ to refer to the things that are normally called ‘sin’ because the Bible makes it clear that to claim to be without sin is to deceive oneself and call God a liar [1John 1:8,10].

In the context, Peter speaks of suffering because of allegiance to Christ [3:16; 4:12-16]. He understands that those who have submitted to the Lordship of Christ [3:15] and therefore committed themselves to live for the will of God [3:17; 4:2], may experience suffering, including suffering in their physical bodies, at the hands of unbelievers.

Such endurance of bodily suffering because of commitment to the will of God was clearly demonstrated by Jesus Christ. He was fully without sin because he was fully committed to do the will of God. [Peter refers to this in 3:17ff].

This example of Christ’s commitment to do the will of God, despite the physical suffering this involved, helps us to understand Peter’s statement in 4:1: people who suffer in their bodies because of allegiance to Christ, and do not give up on that allegiance, demonstrate by that persistence that they, like Christ, are committed to do the will of God, that they have truly set apart Jesus Christ as Lord. They have indeed turned away from their rebellion against God and have done with the one sin that is the ultimate sin, the sin of rejection of God. No one who has fake faith, or, what James terms ‘dead’ faith [James 2:26], continues to hold onto that ‘faith’ when their professed allegiance to Christ attracts persistent physical persecution. Jesus pointed this out in the parable of the sower [Matthew 13:20,21].

D. 1PETER 4:6

1Peter 4:6 states ‘For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit’.

As with 3:19, some people interpret this verse to mean that the Gospel is preached to those who are already physically dead. This ‘second chance’ interpretation cannot be sustained by the clear teaching of the Bible. See #A above.

Among those who reject that ‘second chance’ for the dead interpretation, there are two interpretations that are considered:

[1] That the Gospel was preached to those who were dead in sins, and because they believed the gospel they now ‘live’ spiritually.

[2] That Peter is referring to the fact that some Christians, who while they were living heard and believed the Gospel, have already died. From men’s perspective, they are ‘dead’ [which they are physically], but from God’s perspective they are actually still live spiritually.

This interpretation is preferable because in verse 5 Peter has referred to the one who is the judge of ‘the living and the dead’, where obviously physical life and death are meant.