The ‘Imprisoned Spirits’ of 1 Peter 3:19-20

The ‘Imprisoned Spirits’ of 1 Peter 3:19-20 by Will Graham for Evangelical Focus

Just what was Peter talking about?

One of the toughest New Testament texts to interpret is 1 Peter 3:19-20.

What does it say?

It reads:

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“By which (or in which) also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison; 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”.

Let’s get cracking with the interpretation.

I.- Context

First of all, how about a little bit of context? Peter –history’s most famous fisherman- pens his first epistle for the suffering saints in Asia Minor (an area you and I know as Turkey) in the sixties of the first century.

The letter kicks off 1) proclaiming the Gospel (1:1-12) then 2) majoring upon sanctification (1:13-2:10) and 3) submission as the hallmark of God’s chosen people (2:11-3:12). The fourth key theme of the book is persecution (3:13-4:19). And it is in this fourth section where our verses appear.

Before reaching 3:19-20, Peter is trying to help persecuted believers to overcome the dread of persecution. So in vv. 14-15 he reminds them of their blessed hope and of their need to fear the Lord more than their enemies. And in vv. 16-17 he explains the need of a having their conscience in peace with the Lord.

Then, in vv. 18-20, Peter proceeds to use two examples of suffering in days of persecution, namely, Christ and Noah. To this thorny subject we now turn.

II.- Verse 19

“By which (or in which) also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison”.

Let’s go step by step.

The first two words –“by which” or “in which”- to what are they alluding? They reference back to the subject of the final clause of the previous verse (v. 18), namely, the Holy Spirit. The whole clause reads, “Being put to death in the flesh, but quickened (or made alive) by the Spirit: by which also He went…”

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