This passage appears to be one that is added to the middle of what was likely a creedal statement of the early church, similar to 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. Christ suffered, died, rose from the dead, and now sits at the right hand of the Father. In the midst of this Peter adds one of the most confusing passages in the New Testament.
This passage has two distinct challenges to it. The first deals with the disobedient spirits who are now in prison. The second has to do with the salvific benefit of baptism.
The Spirits In Prison
After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits — to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.
1 Peter 3:19-20 NIV
The expression “After being made alive” was added by translators to assist in understanding the passage. Jesus was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. Physically he is dead. But he is alive in the Spirit. And in that state, he made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits. But who are these spirits? Where is their prison? What did they do to end up in prison? And what was it that Jesus proclaimed to them?
This is one of those times when it is probably best to hold lightly to an explanation. Many have been given over the years. What I share here is what seems most likely to me, but I am by no means certain. To me, it seems that the identified timeframe is a key to understanding this passage. These spirits were disobedient during the time Noah was building the ark.
The Sons of God
When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.
Genesis 6:1-4 NIV
This passage seems to be a natural companion to 1 Peter 3:19-20. It is during the time of Noah. And, depending on how you understand the term “sons of God”, you potentially have disobedient angels producing children by human women. This is a common understanding of the term here and finds support in the book of Job when the sons of God come before God, and Satan also appears (Job 1:6, 2:1). The sons of God are clearly angels in that passage, and translated as such in many translations.
The pseudepigraphical book of 1 Enoch, written 200-300 years before Peter writes, identifies these “sons of God” as fallen angels. 1 Enoch is not accepted as canon, but it is quoted in Jude (Jude 1:14-15), and some see value in it. By no means does that guarantee this identification. But it does seem highly possible.
In Jude 1:6 we find that “the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.” These angels would appear to be the same ones Peter mentions, again potentially looking back to Genesis 6:1-4. These angels are bound with chains and kept in darkness. They are waiting for a time of judgment.
In 2 Peter 2:4, we find “for if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment.” The word translated as hell here is “throw to Tartarus”. Tartarus was the place, a deep abyss, in Greek mythology where the wicked are thrown. It also serves as a prison for the Titans, a form of deity. Peter’s use of the term here does not validate Greek mythology. But it does show he was familiar with it and appropriated it here to describe the prison for these angels who sinned.
So what was it that Jesus had to proclaim to these imprisoned spirits? It is not likely that he had anything to say to them that would enable them to reverse their position. He did not share the gospel with them. Or share God’s love.
Instead, it is likely that he was proclaiming his triumph over the spiritual forces of evil in the creation. And that would include these spirits as well. He had triumphed over them. And any hope they might have had for a reprieve was dashed.
Why Include This Here?
You might be wondering, as I did, what is the purpose of this short passage. Why did Peter see the need to include Jesus’ proclamation to imprisoned angels in his letter to these suffering believers?
I do not know for sure why the Spirit led Peter to include this. But I can imagine that it is in relation to their suffering. Judgment is coming. Even to spiritual beings who sinned. And if that is the case, then they can have confidence that those who are oppressing them will also face God’s judgment.
For people who are suffering, it would be comforting to know that those who are causing their suffering will ultimately be called to account. Rather than seeking revenge on their own, they can entrust themselves to God and endure patiently.
Does Baptism Save You?
The second challenging issue with this passage has to do with baptism. Does baptism save a person? Or is Peter expressing something else here?
. . . in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
1 Peter 3:20b-21 NIV
The Relationship Between Imprisoned Spirits and Baptism
Noah seems to be the pivotal point in Peter’s transition from Jesus’ proclamation to the imprisoned spirits to this discussion of baptism. I find it challenging to understand the relationship between these two topics that Peter obviously saw as related.
My only thought on the relationship comes from examining the two groups mentioned here. On one side you have those who disobeyed and are awaiting judgment. On the other side are those who were obedient and boarded the ark. They were saved while the rest of the world was judged.
These two groups really represent the world of Peter’s time. And it does ours as well. Will you face judgment? Or will you be delivered from it?
The Symbolism of Baptismal Waters
Noah and his family were saved through the waters of the flood. These waters destroyed the old creation and brought forth a new creation. The old world was gone. The whole world was new.
And, Peter says, the waters of the flood symbolize the baptism that saves us. But what baptism is it that saves us? Peter says that it is not the removal of dirt from the body. Rather it is the pledge of a clear conscience to God.
It would seem like it is not the water of baptism that saves; water that would also clean the outer man. Instead, it is the commitment of ourselves to God that saves us. While Noah was saved through the flood. It was really his relationship with God that saved him. “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God (Gen. 6:9).”
So our baptism symbolizes our commitment to God, the pledge of a good conscience. And, as the waters of the flood did, baptism symbolizes the death of the old person, and the creation of a new person, a child of God.
In the end, it is not baptism, or our pledge to God that saves us. It is the resurrection of Jesus that brings salvation to us. His victory over death becomes our victory as well.
Jesus Ruling From Heaven
It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
1 Peter 3:21b-22 NIV
Peter comes back here to the creedal statement that he started with. Jesus suffered and died. But that was not the end. He has also resurrected and ascended to heaven. Now he is sitting at the right hand of the Father. And from there he rules over angels, powers, and authorities.
Angels, powers, and authorities are the spiritual beings in the creation. These are viewed by some as divine and worshipped as gods. And they do have power in this world. But they are in submission to Christ.
Call to Action
Is Jesus able to take care of us? He is sitting in a position of honor with God. And he rules over those who exercise power in this world. Is there any reason to believe that he is not able to care for his own who are in this world? We can trust him. Not just when things appear to be going well in our lives. But also when the world comes crashing down around our ears.
Suffering is not pleasant. But we can rest assured that, even when we suffer, Jesus knows what we are going through. He has been through it himself. He will deliver us in the end, even as we go through the flood waters. And God will punish those who rebel against him.
- What creedal statement do you find Peter referencing here? Do you find something similar elsewhere in the Scripture?
- Who are the imprisoned spirits that Jesus make a proclamation to? What was his proclamation to them?
- How does baptism save you?
- Why did Peter include this challenging passage in his letter to suffering believers?
- 1 Peter: An Introduction
- 1 Peter: Because of His Great Mercy (1:3-5)
- 1 Peter: Glorious Joy, In All Kinds of Trials (1:6-9)
- 1 Peter: The Mystery of Salvation (1:10-12)
- 1 Peter: Be Holy In All You Do (1:13-16)
- 1 Peter: Living as an Alien, a Foreigner in this World (1:17-21)
- 1 Peter: Love One Another Deeply, From the Heart (1:22-2:3)
- 1 Peter: A Chosen People, A Royal Priesthood (2:4-5; 9-10)
- 1 Peter: A Chosen and Precious Cornerstone (2:6-8)
- 1 Peter: Living As Foreigners and Exiles (2:11-17)
- 1 Peter: Responding To Suffering (2:18-25)
- 1 Peter: Instruction for Wives and Husbands (3:1-7)
- 1 Peter: Christian Ethical Behavior (3:8-12)
- 1 Peter: Revere Christ in Your Suffering (3:13-18)
- 1 Peter: Imprisoned Spirits and Baptism (3:19-22)
- 1 Peter: Don’t Surrender to the World’s Influence (4:1-6)
- 1 Peter: Life in the Church: to Love and to Serve (4:7-11)
- 1 Peter: Being a Shepherd, a Rewarding Task (5:1-4)
- 1 Peter: Humble Yourself Under the Hand of God (5:5-11)