1 Peter 3:18-22
Recipients of this letter are experiencing trials, harsh treatment, and suffering (1:6-7; 2:18-20; 3:13-17; 4:1-4, 12-19; 5:10). Peter encourages them with a vision of “an incorruptible and undefiled inheritance that doesn’t fade away, reserved in Heaven for you” (1:4), and calls them to live holy lives (1:15; 2:9). He holds up the prospect of the rewards that they will experience in the future (1:8; 4:13ff)—and encourages them to stand fast in their faith in the midst of adversity.
In verses 13-17, Peter asks, “Who will harm you?” (v. 13), and calls them not to fear (v. 14). He calls them to “always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you” (v. 16). He concludes that it is better to suffer for obeying God than for doing evil.
1 PETER 3:18-22. CHRIST ALSO SUFFERED
18 Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which he also went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who before were disobedient, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, while the ship was being built. In it, few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. 21This is a symbol of baptism, which now saves you—not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, angels and authorities and powers being made subject to him.
“Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit“ (v. 18). Peter stated this principle earlier in this letter. He said:
“For what glory is it if, when you sin,
you patiently endure beating?
But if, when you do well, you patiently endure suffering,
this is commendable with God.
For to this you were called,
because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example,
that you should follow his steps” (2:20-21).
Peter’s point is that Christ endured the same kind of suffering that he calls Christians to bear. Christ was righteous, but suffered in behalf of those who were unrighteous “that he might bring (them) to God”—suffering with a redemptive purpose.
“in which he also went and preached to the spirits in prison (Greek: phulake), who before were disobedient, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, while the ship was being built. In it, few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water“ (vv. 19-20). Martin Luther, in his commentary on Peter and Jude, wrote of this verse, “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”
After reading a number of scholars on this text, I have come to the conclusion that they don’t know “for a certainty” either—and neither do I. For the most part, I think the preacher would do well to avoid getting bogged down trying to explain this verse.
However, the Apostles’ Creed took a cue from this verse to include the words, “He descended into hell.” Because of that, some parishioners might ask for an explanation. While I can’t provide a definitive exegesis, I will offer what I have.
First, I will note that verses 19-20 don’t say that Christ “descended into hell.” They mention neither “descended” nor “hell.” The Greek word is phulake, which means prison—not hell. Ephesians 4:9 says that Christ “descended to the lower parts of the earth” (a literal translation). However, the meaning of that verse is also uncertain.
The phrase “descended into hell” was not in the original version of the Apostles’ Creed, but was added centuries later. Today, some versions of the creed substitute “he descended to the dead.” Some versions drop the phrase entirely.
We can look to three passages within 1-2 Peter for clues to his intentions:
• In 1 Peter 4:6, Peter says that “the Good News was preached even to the dead.” However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Christ did the preaching. A number of scholars believe that this preaching took place prior to these people’s deaths. Their response to the Good News while alive has determined their eternal destiny.
• In 1 Peter 3:22 (the last verse of this lectionary reading), Peter says that “angels and authorities and powers (have been) made subject to (Christ).”
• Later, Peter says, “For if God didn’t spare angels when they sinned, but cast them down to Tartarus, and committed them to pits of darkness, to be reserved for judgment, …the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptation and keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:4, 9). The word Tatarus comes from Greek mythology, and represents a great pit beneath the earth where the wicked will suffer.
“who before were disobedient, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, while the ship was being built“ (v. 20a). This verse alludes to Genesis 6:1-4, which says that “God’s sons saw that men’s daughters were beautiful, and they took for themselves wives of all that they chose…. They bore children to them.” Most scholars believe that “God’s sons” in that context were angels. That is, in fact, how the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) portrays them, saying, “angeloi tou theou“—”angels of God.” These angels may have, in disobedience to God’s will, taken bodily form to mate with men’s beautiful daughters.
The apocryphal books, 1-2 Enoch, taught that evil angels were imprisoned for their disobedience. Some people think that Christ descended into hell to preach the Good News to these fallen angels, but I am not convinced that this is true.
“In it, few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water“ (v. 20b). The eight people were Noah, his wife, their three sons, and their sons’ wives (Genesis 6:10, 18; 7:13). They took refuge in the ark during the flood, and so were saved (Genesis 7:7, 23). The phrase “saved through water” alludes to the passage of the ark through the flood waters. As we will see in the next verse, Peter mentions “saved through water” in this verse to set up an analogy with Christian baptism in the next verse.
This is where I would ordinarily state my opinion about the meaning of verses 19-20, but I am sufficiently uncertain that I am not going do that. If you would like to study this verse further, I recommend consulting half a dozen commentaries to see where they lead you. See the bibliography below as a starting point.
“This is a symbol of baptism, which now saves you“ (v. 21a). Having established the first part of the analogy in verse 20—that the inhabitants of the ark were “saved through water”—Peter now connects that image with the salvation power of Christian baptism. Both the ark and Christian baptism are expressions of God’s saving grace. The analogy isn’t perfect, of course, because the inhabitants of the ark weren’t saved by immersion in the water, but by being raised above the water and kept from contact with it.
“not the putting away of the filth of the flesh“ (v. 21b). While baptism constitutes a kind of washing in water, it doesn’t cleanse the physical body, but the soul.
“but the answer (Greek: eperotema) of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ“ (v. 21b). The Greek word eperotema is usually translated “question” or “inquiry.” In the early church, candidates for baptism were asked questions, such as, “Are you committed to follow Christ?” Only after answering affirmatively were they permitted to be baptized. Peter might have that process in mind when he writes this verse.
The Christian’s salvation is the result, not of a moral life, but of the saving grace of Jesus’ resurrection.
“who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven“ (v. 22a). This alludes to Psalm 110:1, which says, “Yahweh says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool for your feet'” (see also Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Hebrews 8:1). Now Christ sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven.
“angels and authorities and powers being made subject to him“ (v. 22). While authorities, and powers are not necessarily bad, they often operate in rebellion to God.
The Apostle Paul uses similar language to talk about authorities and powers (1 Corinthians 15:24-25; see also Ephesians 1:21).
Paul also gave the clearest statement of Jesus’ position in the heavenly kingdom. He said:
“Therefore God also highly exalted (Jesus),
and gave to him the name which is above every name;
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth,
and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: The Letters of James and Peter (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003)
Bartlett, David L., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude and Revelation, Vol. XII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Boring, M. Eugene, Abingdon New Testament Commentary: 1 Peter (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999)
Cedar, Paul A., The Preacher’s Commentary: James, 1, 2 Peter, Jude (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1984)
Craddock, Fred B., Westminster Bible Companion: First and Second Peter and Jude (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Davids, Peter H., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle of Peter(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990)
Fackre, Gabriel, in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Gaventa, Beverly R., in Brueggemann, Walter, Cousar, Charles B., Gaventa, Beverly R., and Newsome, James D., Texts for Teaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Grudem, Wayne A., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: 1 Peter, Vol. 17 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988)
Holladay, Carl R., in Craddock, Fred B., Hayes, John H., Holladay, Carl R., and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian, Year A (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Jobes, Karen H., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005)
MacArthur, John, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Peter (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004)
Michaels, J. Ramsey, Word Biblical Commentary: 1 Peter, Vol. 49 (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
Perkins, Pheme, Interpretation: First and Second Peter, James and Jude (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Schreiner, Thomas R., The New American Commentary: 1, 2 Peter, Jude, Vol. 37 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003)
Vinson, Richard B., in Vinson, Richard B., Wilson, Richard F., and Mills, Watson E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1&2 Peter, Jude (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2010)
Waltner, Erland , Believers Church Bible Commentary: 1 and 2 Peter (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1999)
Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan