How might we understand THAT passage from 1 Peter?

17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. ~ 1 Peter 3:17-22 (ESV)

The first letter from Peter is one of my favourite books of the Christian Bible. It is a beautiful declaration of the Gospel and how it gives us hope as a community, especially in the midst of suffering. But there is one passage that is known for its difficulty in understanding. That passage is 1 Peter 3:18-22.

Many commentaries have their own unique angle on what it means. My goal with this post is to explain how I believe it is to be read and understood, knowing full well that my interpretation is not above correction. God’s word is perfect; I am not. And so I present my interpretation in the knowledge that I may be wrong, but with confidence in knowing that the message God intends in the writing of this letter cannot be tarnished by my one voice.

Any interpretation that is given by 1 Peter 3:18-22 must provide an account for:

  • Why is Peter referring to Noah?
  • When did Jesus make this proclamation?
  • Who are the ‘spirits in prison’?
  • What is the relevance of baptism to Peter’s point?
  • What does this have to do with suffering?

That last point is especially important – in chapter 3 verse 17 and chapter 4 verse 1, Peter is referring to suffering that the Christians experience. 1 Peter 3:18-22 is meant to function as a form of encouragement and a reminder of some truths that will help the Christians to endure the suffering that is to come.

My interpretation

Why is Peter referring to Noah? = Peter is referring to Noah because Noah was a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5) who proclaimed the message of God’s salvation to people who rejected him, just like the Christians are now those who proclaim God’s salvation in a society that rejects them. And just as Noah was saved from the judgement of God by the ark that brought him through the waters, so Christians are now saved by baptism as they are immersed into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When did Jesus make this proclamation? = In the days of Noah, thousands of years before He came in the flesh as a man. The pre-incarnate Jesus was present in the Holy Spirit revealing truths about the salvation to come to the prophets of the Old Testament (1 Peter 1:10-12). When Noah was proclaiming salvation to those around him, the Spirit of Christ was present. Some translations have made deliberate attempts to say that it was after the resurrection, but that is an interpretation. The thing that all translations can agree on is that Jesus was made alive by the Holy Spirit, and in the Holy Spirit He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison. The addition of this occurring ‘after being made alive’ is an addition by translators.

Who are the ‘spirits in prison’? = The spirits in prison are the people from Noah’s day who did not obey the message of righteousness that Noah was proclaiming and are now dead (having died in the flood of Genesis 6-8) and awaiting the final judgement. We have no explicitly clear reason to think that the ‘prison’ is hell (the place of final judgement) – but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t. In all likelihood, the ‘prison’ is either the place of the dead (Hades/Sheol) or hell.

What is the relevance of baptism to Peter’s point? = Baptism is the link that Peter makes between Jesus’ death and resurrection and our death and future resurrection. Baptism is, in the first instance, being joined to Jesus in His death and resurrection by the Holy Spirit (Romans 6:3-5, 1 Corinthians 12:13). The water baptism that we perform as a Christian tradition is an outward, physical sign of this spiritual reality. When Peter says that baptism saves us, he really means that it saves us. Being immersed into Jesus’ death and resurrection is what saves us.

Back in verse 18 Peter says that Jesus was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. Baptism into Jesus means that we die and will be raised and saved. Then, in verses 21-22, we see that Jesus has been raised, and has gone into heaven in victory with every power and authority in submission to Him. That is why Peter can say in 1 Peter 4:1 that, therefore, Christians should prepare to suffer with the same attitude as Jesus because their trajectory will be the same as Jesus’. Jesus suffered and died but was raised in victory. Christians will suffer and die, but will also be raised in victory in their new life.

The filth of sin is not removed by our baptism into Jesus Christ – we are forgiven by the death of Jesus Christ and are called to put sin to death by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:12-13). But baptism into Jesus Christ does mean that we should be dead to sin (or finished/done with sin as 1 Peter 4:1 says). And it means that we have been brought back to God (1 Peter 3:18). Of course, the only way we can become baptised into Jesus Christ is by repenting and believing the Gospel, so this passage in no way undermines that we are saved by faith without works.

What does this have to do with suffering? = Peter has given the Christians he’s writing to an example of suffering (Jesus), a reminder of the destiny of those who are rejecting the message (the spirits in prison because they rejected Noah’s message), and an assurance that they have a future hope that is bound with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His victory over all powers and authorities (through our baptism into Him). What they are going through is nothing strange – their own Saviour endured it as well. And the comfort that they have is that just as their Saviour was raised in victory, so too will they be raised into their living hope that is the salvation of their souls (1 Peter 1:3-9).

James Chen

James is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Sydney and is currently a teaching and learning manager of a senior high school tutoring centre. James is a member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford and loves reading and teaching the Bible.