1 Peter 3:19 MEANING

1 Peter 3:19
(19) By which.--If "by the Spirit" had been right in the former verse, this translation might have stood here, though the word is literally in; for "in" is often used to mean "in the power of," "on the strength of:" e.g., Romans 8:15. But as that former rendering is untenable, we must here keep strictly to in which--i.e., in spirit. This might mean either of two things: (1) "spiritually speaking," "so far as thought and sympathy goes," as, for instance, 1 Corinthians 5:3, Colossians 2:5; or else (2) "in spirit," as opposed to "in the body"--i.e., "out of the body" (2 Corinthians 12:2; comp. Revelation 1:10), as a disembodied spirit. We adopt the latter rendering without hesitation, for reasons which will be clearer in the next Note.

He went and preached unto the spirits in prison.--There are two main ways of interpreting this mysterious passage. (1) The spirits are understood as being now in prison, in consequence of having rejected His preaching to them while they were still on earth. According to this interpretation--which has the support of such names as Pearson, Hammond, Barrow, and Leighton (though he afterwards modified his opinion). among ourselves, besides divers great theologians of other countries, including St. Thomas Aquinas on the one hand and Beza on the other--it was "in spirit," i.e., mystically speaking, our Lord Himself who, in and through the person of Noah, preached repentance to the old world. Thus the passage is altogether dissociated from the doctrine of the descent into hell; and the sense (though not the Greek) would be better expressed by writing, He had gone and preached unto the spirits (now) in prison. In this case, however, it is difficult to see the purpose of the digression, or what could have brought the subject into St. Peter's mind. (2) The second interpretation--which is that of (practically) all the Fathers, and of Calvin, Luther (finally), Bellarmine, Bengel, and of most modern scholars--refers the passage to what our Lord did while His body was dead. This is the most natural construction to put upon the words "in which also" (i.e., in spirit). It thus gives point to the saying that He was "quickened in spirit," which would otherwise be left very meaningless. The "spirits" here will thus correspond with "in spirit" there. It is the only way to assign any intelligible meaning to the words "He went and" to suppose that He "went" straight from His quickening in spirit--i.e., from His death. It is far the most natural thing to suppose that the spirits were in prison at the time when Christ went and preached to them. We take it, then, to mean that, directly Christ's human spirit was disengaged from the body, He gave proof of the new powers of purely spiritual action thus acquired by going off to the place, or state, in which other disembodied spirits were (who would have been incapable of receiving direct impressions from Him had He not Himself been in the purely spiritual condition), and conveyed to them certain tidings: He "preached" unto them. What was the substance of this preaching we are not here told, the word itself (which is not the same as, e.g., in 1 Peter 1:25) only means to publish or proclaim like a crier or herald; and as the spirits are said to have been disobedient and in prison, some have thought that Christ went to proclaim to them the certainty of their damnation! The notion has but to be mentioned to be rejected with horror; but it may be pointed out also that in 1 Peter 4:6, which refers back to this passage, it is distinctly called a "gospel;" and it would be too grim to call that a gospel which (in Calvin's words) "made it more clear and patent to them that they were shut out from all salvation!" He brought good tidings, therefore, of some kind to the "prison" and the spirits in it. And this "prison" must not be understood (with Bp. Browne, Articles, p. 95) as merely "a place of safe keeping," where good spirits might be as well as bad, though etymologically this is imaginable. The word occurs thirty-eight times in the New Testament in the undoubted sense of a "prison," and not once in that of a place of protection, though twice (Revelation 18:2) it is used in the derived sense of "a cage."

Verse 19. - By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; rather, in which (εν ω΅ι). The Lord was no longer in the flesh; the component parts of his human nature were separated by death; his flesh lay in the grave. As he had gone about doing good in the flesh, so now he went in the spirit - in his holy human spirit. He went. The Greek word (πορευθείς) occurs again in ver. 22, "who is gone into heaven." It must have the same meaning in both places; in ver. 22 it asserts a change of locality; it must do the like here. There it is used of the ascent into heaven; it can scarcely mean here that, without any such change of place, Christ preached, not in his own Person, but through Noah or the apostles. Compare St. Paul's words in Ephesians 4:9 (the Epistle which seems to have been so much in St. Peter's thoughts), "Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?" And preached (ἐκήρυξεν). It is the word constantly used of the Lord from the time when "Jesus began to preach (κηρύσσειν), and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17). Then, himself in our human flesh, he preached to men living in the flesh - to a few of his own age and country. Now the range of his preaching was extended; himself in the spirit, he preached to spirits: "Πνεύματι πνεύμασι; spiritu, spiritibus." says Bengel; "congruens sermo." He preached also to the spirits; not only once to living men, but now also to spirits, even to them. The καί calls for attention; it implies a new and additional fact; it emphasizes the substantive (καὶ τοῖς πνεύμασιν). The preaching and the condition of the hearers are mentioned together; they were spirits when they heard the preaching. It seems impossible to understand these words of preaching through Noah or the apostles to men who passed afterwards into the state of disembodied spirits. And he preached in the spirit. The words seem to limit the preaching to the time when the Lord's soul was left in Hades (Acts 2:27). Huther, indeed, says that "as both expressions (θανατωθείς and ζωσοποιηθείς) apply to Christ in his entire Person, consisting of body and soul, what follows must not be conceived as an activity which he exercised in his spirit only, and whilst separated from his body." But does θανατωθείς apply to body and soul? Men "are not able to kill the soul." And is it true, as Huther continues, that the first words of this verse are not opposed to the view that Christ preached in his glorified body, "inasmuch as in this body the Lord is no longer ἐν σαρκί, but entirely ἐν πνεύματι? Indeed, we are taught that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; "and that that which "is sown a natural body is raised a spiritual body" (σῶμα πνευματικόν); but Christ himself said of his resurrection-body, "A spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have" (Luke 24:39). He preached to "the spirits in prison (ἐν φυλακῇ)." (For φυλακή, comp. Revelation 20:7; Matthew 5:25, etc.). It cannot mean the whole realm of the dead, but only that part of Hades in which the souls of the ungodly are reserved unto the day of judgment. Bengel says, "In carcere puniuntur sontes: in custodia servantur, dum experiantur quid facturus sit judex?" But it seems doubtful whether this distinction between φυλακή and δεσμωτήριον can be pressed; in Revelation 20:7 φυλακή is used of the prison of Satan, though, indeed, that prison is not the ἄβυσσος into which he will be cast at the last.

3:14-22 We sanctify God before others, when our conduct invites and encourages them to glorify and honour him. What was the ground and reason of their hope? We should be able to defend our religion with meekness, in the fear of God. There is no room for any other fears where this great fear is; it disturbs not. The conscience is good, when it does its office well. That person is in a sad condition on whom sin and suffering meet: sin makes suffering extreme, comfortless, and destructive. Surely it is better to suffer for well-doing than for evil-doing, whatever our natural impatience at times may suggest. The example of Christ is an argument for patience under sufferings. In the case of our Lord's suffering, he that knew no sin, suffered instead of those who knew no righteousness. The blessed end and design of our Lord's sufferings were, to reconcile us to God, and to bring us to eternal glory. He was put to death in respect of his human nature, but was quickened and raised by the power of the Holy Spirit. If Christ could not be freed from sufferings, why should Christians think to be so? God takes exact notice of the means and advantages people in all ages have had. As to the old world, Christ sent his Spirit; gave warning by Noah. But though the patience of God waits long, it will cease at last. And the spirits of disobedient sinners, as soon as they are out of their bodies, are committed to the prison of hell, where those that despised Noah's warning now are, and from whence there is no redemption. Noah's salvation in the ark upon the water, which carried him above the floods, set forth the salvation of all true believers. That temporal salvation by the ark was a type of the eternal salvation of believers by baptism of the Holy Spirit. To prevent mistakes, the apostle declares what he means by saving baptism; not the outward ceremony of washing with water, which, in itself, does no more than put away the filth of the flesh, but that baptism, of which the baptismal water formed the sign. Not the outward ordinance, but when a man, by the regeneration of the Spirit, was enabled to repent and profess faith, and purpose a new life, uprightly, and as in the presence of God. Let us beware that we rest not upon outward forms. Let us learn to look on the ordinances of God spiritually, and to inquire after the spiritual effect and working of them on our consciences. We would willingly have all religion reduced to outward things. But many who were baptized, and constantly attended the ordinances, have remained without Christ, died in their sins, and are now past recovery. Rest not then till thou art cleansed by the Spirit of Christ and the blood of Christ. His resurrection from the dead is that whereby we are assured of purifying and peace.By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison. Various are the senses given of this passage: some say, that Christ, upon his death, went in his human soul to hell; either, as some, to preach to the devils and damned spirits, that they might be saved, if they would; and, as others, to let them know that he was come, and to fill them with dread and terror; but though hell may be meant by the prison, yet the text does not say that he went unto it, or preached in it; only that the spirits were in it, to whom he sometimes went, and preached; nor is his human soul, but his divine nature meant, by the Spirit, by which he went and preached to them: and as for the ends proposed, the former is impracticable and impossible; for after death follows judgment, which is an eternal one; nor is there any salvation, or hope of salvation afterwards; and the latter is absurd, vain, and needless. Others, as the Papists, imagine the sense to be, that Christ, at his death, went in his human soul, into a place they call "Limbus Patrum", which they suppose is meant by the prison here, and delivered the souls of the Old Testament saints and patriarchs from thence, and carried them with him to heaven; but this sense is also false, because, as before observed, not the human soul of Christ, but his divine nature, is designed by the Spirit; nor is there any such place as here feigned, in which the souls of Old Testament saints were, before the death of Christ; for they were in peace and rest, in the kingdom of heaven, in Abraham's bosom, inheriting the promises, and not in a prison; besides, the text says not one word of the delivering of these spirits out of prison, only of Christ's preaching to them: add to all this, and which Beza, with others, observes, the apostle speaks of such as had been disobedient, and unbelievers; a character which will not agree with righteous men, and prophets, and patriarchs, under the former dispensation: others think the words are to be understood of Christ's going to preach, by his apostles, to the Gentiles, as in Ephesians 2:17 who were in a most miserable condition, strangers to the covenants of promise, and destitute of the hope of salvation, and sat in darkness, and the shadow of death, and, as it were, at the gates of hell; were in the bonds of iniquity, and dead in sin, and had been for long time past foolish and disobedient, serving divers lusts and pleasures, to which they were in bondage. This is, indeed, a more tolerable sense than the former; but it will be difficult to show, that men, in the present state of life, are called "spirits", which seems to be a word that relates to the souls of men, in a separate state from their bodies; and especially that carnal and unconverted men are ever so called; and besides, the apostle is speaking of such who were disobedient in the times of Noah; and therefore not of the Gentiles, in the times of the apostles: add to which, that the transition from the times of the apostles, according to this sense, to the days of Noah, is very unaccountable; this sense does not agree with the connection of the words: others are of opinion, that this is meant of the souls of the Old Testament saints, who were , "in a watch", as they think the phrase may be rendered, instead of "in prison": and said to be in such a situation, because they were intent upon the hope of promised salvation, and were looking out for the Messiah, and anxiously desiring his coming, and which he, by some gracious manifestation, made known unto them: but though the word may sometimes signify a watch, yet more commonly a prison, and which sense best suits here; nor is that anxiety and uneasiness, which represents them as in a prison, so applicable to souls in a state of happiness; nor such a gracious manifestation so properly called preaching; and besides, not believers, but unbelievers, disobedient ones, are here spoken of; and though it is only said they were sometimes so, yet to what purpose should this former character be once mentioned of souls now in glory? but it would be tedious to reckon up the several different senses of this place; some referring it to such in Noah's time, to whom the Gospel was preached, and who repented; and though they suffered in their bodies, in the general deluge, yet their souls were saved; whereas the apostle calls them all, "the world of the ungodly", 2 Peter 2:5 and others, to the eight souls that were shut up in the ark, as in a prison, and were saved; though these are manifestly distinguished in the text from the disobedient spirits. The plain and easy sense of the words is, that Christ, by his Spirit, by which he was quickened, went in the ministry of Noah, the preacher of righteousness, and preached both by words and deeds, by the personal ministry of Noah, and by the building of the ark, to that generation who was then in being; and who being disobedient, and continuing so, a flood was brought upon them which destroyed them all; and whose spirits, or separate souls, were then in the prison of hell, so the Syriac version renders it, "in hell", see Revelation 20:7 when the Apostle Peter wrote this epistle; so that Christ neither went into this prison, nor preached in it, nor to spirits that were then in it when he preached, but to persons alive in the days of Noah, and who being disobedient, when they died, their separate souls were put into prison, and there they were when the apostle wrote: from whence we learn, that Christ was, that he existed in his divine nature before he was incarnate, he was before Abraham, he was in the days of Noah; and that Christ also, under the Old Testament, acted the part of a Mediator, in his divine nature, and by his Spirit discharged that branch of it, his prophetic office, before he appeared in human nature; and that the Gospel was preached in those early times, as unto Abraham, so before him.
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