Question Box: Preaching to the "spirits in prison"

Question or Topic Scripture
Preaching to the "spirits in prison" I Peter 3:18-20

Please discuss the passage in I Peter 3 concerning preaching to the "spirits in prison". Note that verse 20 indicates that this preaching took place in "the days of Noah".

Answer


Before we attempt to discuss this issue, we will first present the entire passage:

  1. I Peter 3:18-20
  2. For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
  3. By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
  4. Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
Spirit

We will begin our consideration by a review of the use of the word "spirit". The word comes from the Greek pneuma {pnyoo'-mah}. This word appears twice in the context. (Jesus was "quickened by the Spirit" and (someone) preached to the "spirits in prison".)

Common sense tells us that there must be something different intended by the word pneuma in these two applications. We understand that the word "spirit" has the following principle meanings, depending on the context:

  1. Air or breath
  2. Mental disposition, state of mind (attitude).
  3. A being (this could refer to God, or a human being)
  4. Influence or power from a being (such as Holy Spirit, or influential human preaching)

If we were to apply an appropriate meaning to the two incidents in our context, we would conclude that Jesus was "quickened" by the power of God (the Holy Spirit – 4). Conversely, the spirits in prison were "human beings" (3).

Prison

The next word that is key to our discussion is "prison". The Greek word is phulake {foo-lak-ay'}, which means a cage, hold, or prison (-ment), or "watch" (third watch of the night). This word is certainly used when a real prison is involved, but it can also relate to a period of time or a condition of being caged or bound.

When we look at our context, it is unlikely that a real prison (in the days of Noah) is the intended meaning. We do know that they were in a condition of bondage to sin and death (along with all of mankind). "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" (Romans 5:12).

"Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage" (Hebrews 2:14).

This type of imprisonment is a reasonable interpretation for the use of the word phulake by Peter in the verse in question.

Preaching to the Dead

When we consider the preaching aspect in our question, it may be useful to note that Peter used an expression in the following chapter that may be related: "For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit" (I Peter 4:6).

Combining our thoughts, we have some individuals who are being preached to "in prison", and others who are said to be "dead" when they received the preaching of the gospel. If we apply the concept that was suggested above; (that prison refers to a condition of bondage to sin and death,) then the term "dead" (in I Peter 4:6) may mean simply "dead in trespasses and sins" (see Ephesians 2:1).

This idea has additional support when we consider that Jesus also spoke of those who were living and breathing as symbolically "dead" when he said: "Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:60).

Conclusions

When we bring all of our thoughts together in reference to the question at hand, we have solved only part of the puzzle. We understand that the "spirits" may be individuals who are under bondage to sin. We have determined that these individuals are spiritually in a condition of darkness and death, and that they are therefore fitting candidates for the message of hope contained in the gospel. We were once in that condition ourselves. We were "without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12).

The rest of the question remains. These individuals were living in the days of Noah, long before the birth of Christ. It was not possible for Jesus to preach to them. Was the passage actually speaking of Jesus as the preacher? We believe not.

The Spirit of Christ

We are told that it was "the Spirit" – "By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison." This "Spirit" we have concluded was the power of God. From the very beginning, the Holy Spirit was that portion of God's power that was set aside for special purposes related to the fulfillment of his purpose for this earth.

It was God's Holy Spirit that influenced holy men of old. They then spoke the prophetic words that would become reality in the future, in the person of Jesus. Coincidentally, Peter has also provided us with a glimpse of how this Messiah spirit (or influence from God), foretold of the salvation that would come through the seed of the woman:

  1. I Peter 1:10-12
  2. Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you:
  3. Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.
  4. Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into.

The "Spirit of Christ" (God's Holy Spirit dedicated to the teaching of Christ) was in the prophets, and it was in Noah, "a preacher of righteousness" (II Peter 2:5). It was Noah who preached salvation (and the coming of the Messiah) to those individuals who were in bondage to death, "when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah".

Paraphrase

We would suggest the following paraphrase to summarize our thoughts on these difficult verses:

'For Christ also hath suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God. He was put to death in the flesh, and then was made alive again by the Holy Spirit. It was by this same Spirit that God influenced holy men of old to preach to those who were in bondage to sin and death. God, in his longsuffering, allowed Noah to preach to the disobedient (sons of God), while the ark was being built. Unfortunately, only a few (that is 8 souls) were saved through the water.'

As It Was in the Days of Noah

When Noah preached to the spirits who were in prison no one listened. Consequently, very few were saved in that generation. We live in the last generation, linked prophetically to the "days of Noah". Let us pray that there will be a higher percentage of those individuals who are in bondage to sin, who will listen to our preaching of the "things concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8:12).

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