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” (I Peter 3:18-20).
Where Jesus Christ was and what did He do between His death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave? The Apostle Peter gives us a brief glimpse as to what our Lord was doing during this time.
Peter says that Jesus went (πορεύομαι; poreuomai) or travelled and then proclaimed (κηρύσσω; kerysso) or made an announcement to a group identified only as “the spirits in prison.” The noun spirits (πνεῦμα; pneuma) is in the plural form. Therefore, it refers to more than one spirit thereby eliminating this group being a reference to the Holy Spirit. Whoever these spirits are, they are in a prison (φυλακή; phylake) which is securely locked.
Why are they in prison? I Peter 3:20 says it is because they were disobedient or “they formerly did not obey” the demands from an authority. The authority seems to be God for Peter then writes, “When God’s patience waited in the days of Noah.” Peter then describes the days of Noah as being when Noah was building the ark in which eventually he and his family safely survived the Flood (Genesis 6-8).
So we’re back to our original question and a few additional ones. Where and what was Jesus doing between His death and resurrection? Who were the spirits in prison? What did Jesus preach to these spirits in prison?
There are at least five main interpretations given to explain and answer the question of where and what Jesus Christ did between His death and resurrection. They are as follows.
First, the “spirits in prison” are the people to whom Jesus Christ preached during his earthly ministry, for His work involved proclaiming liberty to the captives (Luke 4:16-21). This would seem to indicate that these people were deceased and perhaps Jesus preached to them while they were in Paradise, as He promised the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43).
Second, Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit preached through Noah (2 Peter 2:5) to the people before the Flood (Genesis 6-8). Noah called them to repentance, but they disobeyed and are now in prison. One commentator explains, “The point of Peter’s argument would then be that as God vindicated Noah by sending the judgment Noah proclaimed, He (God) will vindicate Christians when He judges the world according the Christian proclamation (of the gospel).”
Third, Jesus Christ preached in the short interval between His death and resurrection during a “descent into hell.” It is said that Christ announced His victory to the spirits of Noah’s wicked contemporaries confined in the realm of the dead.
Fourth, Jesus Christ preached and proclaimed His victory to fallen angels, often identified with the “sons of God” of Genesis 6:1-4; Job 1:6; 2:1) in their place of confinement. This fourth view seems to be most widely held interpretation.
Fifth, Jesus Christ proclaimed His victory, over sin, death and hell, to fallen angels after the resurrection, at the time of His ascension into heaven.
One Bible teacher says, “The point of the last three interpretations is that just as Jesus was vindicated, so will Christians be vindicated.”
The primary point that I derive from these five efforts to understand this text is that Jesus Christ achieved victory of sin, death and hell.
Praise the Lord.
Soli deo Gloria!