PREACHING TO THE SPIRITS IN PRISON
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit,
19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison,
20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.
21 There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him. —from 2 Peter 3.
This passage, 2 Peter 3:18-22, has occasioned a fair bit of confusion and not a little discussion. Ironically, Peter is the man who wrote of his brother apostle, Paul, “…in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Pet 3:16). Yet some of his own writings, including this section, seem to fall into the same category.
Certain standard techniques, used in any beneficial study, will be invaluable here. First, the context will help us stay on track. Once we discover the headwaters—the main idea in the passage—we will see that the tributaries always lead us back to the source. Second, we must follow the flow of thought, where each component is carefully linked to the ideas on either side of it. And third, a grasp of the practical application will allow us to trace the idea to its correct conclusion.
THE GENERAL CONTEXT
Peter has much to say in his first epistle about suffering and it’s relationship to glory. The word “suffer” (pascho or patho) and its cognates occurs 11 times in the five chapters. The word “glory” (doxa) also occurs 11 times in the first epistle. He begins his treatise with the following list of marvelous provisions from the Blessed God:
- His abundant mercy
- a living hope
- a resurrected Christ
- an incorruptible inheritance
- the keeping power of God
- ultimate and completed salvation ready to be revealed
But this is not heaven yet. We haven’t arrived Home. The road ahead has it share of bumps and hazards. So Peter continues, “though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials” (1:6). However, he quickly adds, the trials themselves can be beneficial as well. “That the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (v 7). The heat of the trials can burn away the dross, leaving golden faith so pure that it will reflect the Lord Jesus Himself, bringing to Him praise, honor and glory.
It is this link between suffering and glory that occupies Peter’s attention in the following pages. We should have anticipated this, he writes, because the OT authors laid this pattern out for us as they presented the coming Messiah. In fact it was the Spirit of Christ Himself who testified through the prophets: “…the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (v 11).
Peter will conclude his first letter with this benediction, “But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (5:10-11). The suffering is for “a while,” but the glory is “forever and ever.” But before he comes to this triumphant climax, he has other important things to say about this suffering-glory link.
One of these links is found leading up to our selected passage, 2 Peter 3:18-22. Let’s briefly paraphrase the main points in verses 8 to 17.
Verse 8: The hallmarks of true Christianity lived out in the world should be unity, compassion, brotherly love, tenderheartedness and courtesy.
Verse 9: When such graces are demonstrated, you will, nonetheless, be treated at times in unkind, even evil ways; at that point, you must not respond in kind, but by returning blessing—this because you can afford it, since we are inheritors of blessing.
Verses 10-12: To drive home the point, Peter quotes Psalm 34:12-16, which prescribes the secret for a rich and useful life: choose carefully how you use your tongue; choose good over evil; choose peace over conflict; choose prayer over complaints.
Verse 13: Peter then poses a question, “Who would be against such a life?” The majority of people surely would be happy to have neighbors and workmates like this.
Verse 14: But Peter is realistic. There are contrarians, bitter people, haters of the good. But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you still are blessed. Their threats shouldn’t discourage you.
Verse 15: Living this way, with the Lord having the place of honor and authority in your life, will cause you to be remarkably different. Expect people to ask you about that difference and be ready to tell them your secret: Christ in you!
Verse 16: False charges against you will be so obviously false, they will bring shame on your detractors, not on you.
Verse 17: So Peter underlines the two ways Christians can suffer: for doing good or for doing evil. We cannot expect to be blessed for suffering for our own foolishness!
THE FLOW OF THOUGHT
Having examined the general context, and the twin subjects of suffering and glory, we now come to our selected passage. In v 18, the author reminds us how Christ suffered. Without question, He was just. Why then did He suffer? He was suffering “for the unjust,” and the purpose was “to bring us to God.” Are all the unjust brought to God? Unfortunately not, as we see in the following illustration. But carefully follow the idea linkages here.
Step 1: “being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit” (v 18). Christ’s humanity was necessary in order for Him to suffer for us (see also Heb 2:9, 17-18), but in His divinity, death could not hold Him.
Step 2: “by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison” (v 19). At this point in the passage, all we know is this: the Christ Himself was a preacher, that by the Spirit (the link with v 18, “by whom,” that is by the Spirit) He did this preaching, and it was preached to those referred to as “the spirits in prison.”
Step 3: “who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water” (v 20). We now learn that the “spirits in prison” were not always there. These are the people who lived during the days when Noah was constructing the ark. They rejected the message preached to them then, and only “eight souls”—Noah and his sons and their wives—were saved.
When we put these three steps together, we find the following. The Christ who suffered once for sinners at Calvary has been unrelenting in His proclamation of the gospel. In this day, as His disciples go forth “to every creature” with the soul-saving message, they hear Him say, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). But in a similar way, Christ preached “by the Spirit” in Noah’s day, too! And today the gospel is still proclaimed “by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1 Pet 1:12). Christ, by the Spirit, is the only One who can make such an offer to save.
The people referred to as being “in prison” were not in God’s prisonhouse when they heard the message. They were on the earth, and, during their lifetime they rejected the gospel preached to them. It was Christ Himself who preached it, by the Spirit, through Noah. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, God in His longsuffering waited for their repentance, but only eight sould responded by faith. The Lord Jesus must be “believed on in the world” (1 Tim 3:16); there is no ray of hope anywhere in Scripture for those now “in prison.”
We now come to what may seem to be a strange point for Peter to make. But to Peter (and to the inspiring Holy Spirit) it makes perfect sense. “There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him” (vv 21-22).
The Old Testament is full of prototypes that both anticipate and illustrate the crosswork of Christ. But these are not mere duplicates of one another. Each illustrates Calvary in a particular aspect. For example, the Passover lamb points to the necessity of the blood being both shed and personally applied. The Red Sea crossing reminds us that Israel was saved in Egypt from the death angel; they were saved out of Egypt and from all their enemies (see 1 Jn 5:6). We could also note the distinctive teachings of the smitten rock, the serpent on the pole, the manna, and the sweetening tree at Mara, etc. But what are the ideas here with the ark?
May I suggest that, in this picture, Christ is seen in two important ways. On the one hand, He is the ark of safety, the Savior of those who enter by the one door. That should be obvious. But notice as well that Peter is emphasizing a baptism that saves, just as the eight souls “were saved through water” (v 20). What does this mean?
The word “baptism” here is simply the anglicized form of the Greek word baptisma. It means immersion or submersion. The Lord used it Himself to describe His submersion at Calvary when He asked His disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mt 20:22). Prophetically, the Lord could say, “All Your waves and billows have gone over me” (Ps 42:7). Jonah, in his “submersion,” quoted the same words (Jon 2:3) and the Lord linked His experience with Jonah’s as well (see Mt 12:40).
The Lord, in taking the place of the world, had the billows of wrath and judgment baptize Him, overflowing His holy soul. But notice that the eight were actually saved by the water! It was the water that bouyed up the ark, and kept them safe. So it is with us. We are saved by the wrath of God. His wrath, poured out at Calvary, where He took seriously every wrong I had ever done, is now all passed. God has proven both His utter hatred of each sin we have committed and His majestic love for each sinner in one cataclysmic event.
Jehovah speaks to His people Israel in a similar fashion: “With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer. For this is like the waters of Noah to Me; for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, so have I sworn that I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you. For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but My kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has mercy on you” (Isa 54:8-10).
The Lord’s own baptism in the Jordan (meaning “the descender from Dan” or “coming down from the judge”) was clearly linked to the flood waters as well. When Jesus came from beneath the river’s waves, “the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him” (Lk 3:22). As with the dove in Noah’s day, the Spirit, dove-like, had found one clean place to land!
So Peter’s point is this: Yes, we are saved through the waters, like Noah and his family. Christ went under the waves for us—but, thank God, He didn’t stay there! His resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand tell us that the sin question has been forever settled. We can live in the joy of a good conscience. Our water baptism is a little picture of this as we identify with our Champion who went under God’s waves, then rose in victory to the heights of glory.
Let’s see if we can show the overlapping links in verses 18-22:
Christ…made alive by the Spirit,
by whom [the same Spirit] also
He went and preached to the spirits [now] in prison,
who formerly [before they were in prison] were disobedient…in the days of Noah,
while the ark was being prepared,
in which [the ark] a few, that is, eight souls,
were saved through water.
[This being saved through water is] an antitype
which now saves us—baptism
(not [that it saves us] from the removal of the filth of the flesh,
but [saves us in the sense that it is] the answer of a good conscience toward God),
[The certainty of this salvation through the water is declared by] the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God
[just as Noah and his family arrived in a new world after the flood on the mountaintop]
[and just as we look past this present time of difficulty to the world to come, when we will sit with the One to whom] angels and authorities and powers have been made subject….
So what is the link to our suffering discussed earlier in the context? When you are passing through deep waters, receiving evil for your good, remember what He passed through for you at Golgotha. Then remember where He is now. You will be there with Him soon! When people falsly accuse you when you have done what is right, you are saved by a good conscience and by a great hope. As Peter will say later in the next chapter, “Rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy” (v 13).
How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He has said
Who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?
“Fear not, I am with you,” oh, be not dismayed,
For I am your God and will still give you aid;
I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.
When through the deep waters I call you to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with you your troubles to bless
And sanctify to you your deepest distress.
When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply.
The flames shall not hurt you; I only design
Your dross to consume and your gold to refine.
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never, forsake!” —John Keene