************ Sermon on 1 Peter 3:19 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on June 3, 2018
1 Peter 3:18-22
1 Peter 3:19
"Preaching to the Spirits in Prison"
Difficult Passages #5
Our Bible reading is all about Jesus: His death, His resurrection, His ascension, His sitting at God's right hand, His sending of the Spirit. It covers the totality of His ministry.
I say this because we have problems understanding our text if we focus only on the humiliation of Jesus. That is, if we see our text only in terms of Jesus' suffering and death and burial we are on the wrong track.
With this in mind, I want to make three statements of what our text does NOT mean:
1. Jesus Himself did NOT personally descend into hell.
2. Jesus did NOT spend the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday preaching.
3. Jesus did NOT preach to angels and demons.
So what does our text mean? I want to answer five questions about the preaching mentioned by our text:
-to whom is the preaching
-by whom is the preaching
-when is the preaching
-what is the content of the preaching
-why is the preaching
"He went and preached to the spirits in prison ..." Before answering our first question, let's first of all define the prison. The prison in mind here is hell. This is the only point everyone agrees upon.
I To Whom is the Preaching
A Our first question: To whom is the preaching? Who are the spirits in the prison of hell?
There are so many conflicting interpretations. The Roman Catholic Church says the preaching was to the spirits of the Old Testament saints kept in the prison of hell. According to official Roman Catholic teaching, the souls of saints like Noah, Abraham, Jacob, David, Daniel, Esther, and Isaiah were kept in a special section of hell where they waited for the atoning sacrifice of Jesus to take place. After Good Friday, Jesus descended to them in hell, preached the Gospel to them, explained His atoning sacrifice to them, and released them into heaven.
This can't the right interpretation because verse 20 identifies the spirts as those "who disobeyed long ago ... in the days of Noah." The preaching was not to the righteous like Noah and Abraham but to the ungodly.
Another interpretation says the preaching was to the fallen angels in charge of the human race at the time of Noah. They point to what Genesis says about the sons of God marrying the daughters of men and having children -- the Nephilim -- by them (Gen 6:1-4). Those who argue for this interpretation also point to what Peter writes in his second letter:
(2 Pet 2:4) ... God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment;However, the word translated as spirit is synonymous with the word for soul. In mind is human soul, human spirit. That's the recipients of the preaching: Fallen people, not fallen angels.
B "He went and preached to the spirits in prison ..." To whom is the preaching? Who is the audience? Look at verse 20:
(1 Pet 3:20) who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water,
These people, these souls, these spirits, disobeyed. That is, they did not allow themselves to be persuaded. They did not allow themselves to be persuaded and therefore did not conform, comply, or act in accordance with what was said.
Did not allow themselves to be persuaded by what? By the preaching of Noah. By faith, Noah did two things. First, Noah built the ark. What a massive undertaking; the ark measured 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, 45 feet high. It took Noah at least 60 years to build it. Second, Noah preached. Hebrews 11:7 says "he condemned the world." 2 Peter 2:5 says he was "a preacher of righteousness." Noah preached to a world of millions. He exposed their sin. He warned them judgment was coming unless they repented. He called them to throw themselves on the mercy of God -- a mercy that points to the sacrifice of Christ. Noah preached and preached. For 120 years he preached. Do you know how many converts he got? Do you know how many of the millions of people listened? Do you know how many were persuaded and changed their lives accordingly? Zero. None. Nada. Outside of the 8 people in Noah's family there were none who loved and served the Lord. Outside of the 8 people in Noah's family there were none who had any concern for the Lord or the things of the Lord.
C "He went and preached to the spirits in prison ..." To whom is the preaching? To the souls who didn't listen to Noah. Now, did you notice what is said about God? While Noah was preaching and preaching God "waited patiently."
There are two Greek words that describe this aspect of God. The first one describes God's patient attitude towards the ungodly, the unbelieving. God patiently holds back His wrath, giving the ungodly every opportunity to repent. That is NOT what is meant here. The second Greek word, the word that is used here, describes God's patient attitude towards His own people. God is patient while His people suffer. God is long-suffering with His people because it is for their own good. Why? How? You know! The suffering of God's people tests and confirms and strengthens their faith. The suffering of God's people exposes the seed that did not fall on good soil. The suffering of God's people gets rid of the dead branches, the dead wood; it prunes the church. The suffering of God's people causes them to throw themselves upon the mercy of God.
Noah was not the only preacher back then. Enoch preached too (Jude 1:14). And Enoch, too, was ignored. The world didn't just ignore. The world persecuted. It started already with Cain who murdered righteous Abel (1 Jn 3:12). Godless Lamech persecuted the church and boasted about killing another (Gen 4:23).
God "waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built." God waited patiently. He watched and waited -- for the good of His people -- as they dwindled in number to only 8 souls. Millions of people but only 8 believers.
II By Whom is the Preaching
A "He went and preached to the spirits in prison ..." This brings us to our second question: By whom is the peaching? Who is doing the preaching?
I already mentioned the Roman Catholic answer: the preaching is done by Christ Jesus. This is also the answer of the Lutherans: the preaching is done by Christ.
Notice how our text starts: "through whom ..." "Through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison." What is this referring to? Who is the "whom"? Look at verse 18. There we are told about the Spirit. The Spirit. The third person of the triune Godhead. So a correct reading of our text is "through the Spirit Jesus went and preached to the spirits in prison."
Jesus did not personally preach to the souls in prison. Jesus did not personally go to hell. Jesus preached through the Spirit. It is the Spirit -- as the personal representative of Jesus -- that went to hell and preached to the souls of the ungodly.
B "Pastor," you might say, "doesn't this disagree with the Apostles' Creed?" You are right. This does disagree with the Creed.
Let me say a couple of things about the Creed. The Apostles' Creed was not written by the Apostles. The Apostles' Creed is not inspired. The original form of the Creed did not contain the line "he descended to hell." It was officially added by the Roman Catholic Church in AD 750. Already back then error was creeping into the church.
The Reformers did not feel right in removing a line from an ancient creed. Instead of removing it, they reinterpreted it. Turn to Q & A 44 of the Catechism:
Q. Why does the creed add, "He descended to hell"?Do you see the reinterpretation? Christ Himself did not go to hell. Rather, He suffered the torments of hell. When? Especially on the cross but also earlier. I repeat: Jesus Himself did NOT go to hell.
A. To assure me in times of personal crisis and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, especially on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.
III When is the Preaching
A "He went and preached to the spirits in prison ..." This brings us to our third question: When is the preaching? When did it take place?
The Roman Catholic view I already mentioned: between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The Lutheran view is the same: between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
We know this is wrong. We know this has to be wrong because of what Jesus said to the thief on the cross: "Today you will be with me in paradise." Today -- not tomorrow, not next week, not next year, not after Easter's resurrection -- today. In paradise -- not hell, not hades, not purgatory -- in paradise.
B "He went and preached to the spirits in prison ..." When did the preaching take place? Look at the context. Read our text, see our text, together with verse 18:
(1 Pet 3:18-19) For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, (19) through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison We see the death of Christ. We see the resurrection of Christ. What follows is the preaching of Christ through the Spirit. That's the sequence here.
Christ did NOT preach through the Spirit before His resurrection. Christ preached through the Spirit after His resurrection. After His ascension. After He was seated at God's right hand -- with angels, authorities, and powers in submission to Him.
IV What is the Content of the Preaching
A "He went and preached to the spirits in prison ..." This brings us to our fourth question: What did Christ preach through the Spirit? What is the content of the preaching?
I already mentioned the Roman Catholic view: The Gospel was preached to the Old Testament saints so they could understand the atoning sacrifice of Jesus and be released into heaven.
The Lutherans say Christ went to hell to preach the victory of the cross.
There are a large group of people who say Christ went to hell to preach the Gospel to the ungodly -- especially the ungodly from the time of Noah -- to give them another opportunity to repent and believe. These people want to believe this because they don't want death to be the end. They want to believe this because they want to have one more chance to repent. But what does the Bible say? Hebrews 9:27 tells us "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment." There is no second chance after death. After death there is no final opportunity to repent and believe.
"I tell you," my brothers and sisters, "now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor 6:2). Now is the time for you to repent and believe. Because once you die it is too late. You know, there are lots of people who keep thinking they can wait. Who think "Later, later. Later I will get my life right with the Lord. But right now I want a little bit of fun, a little bit of sin." How foolish. Like the five foolish virgins they wait too long. They die. They end up in hell. And there are no second chances.
Now, congregation, now -- not tomorrow, not next week, not next year -- now is the day of salvation.
B "He went and preached to the spirits in prison ..." The word for "preach" is not the regular word for preach. It is not the word we use for proclaiming the Gospel. Rather, the word points to a herald, an ambassador, someone who represents another.
We need to realize the relation between the Spirit and the Son. The Spirit was sent by Christ. The Spirit is Christ's personal representative. As such, the Spirit never points to Himself. As such, the Spirit always points to Christ. Therefore, someone who has the Spirit doesn't say, "I have the Spirit." Rather, he says, "I know Christ."
What did Christ preach through the Spirit? Remember, this is done after Easter's resurrection. There is only one thing the Spirit would proclaim and could proclaim. The Spirit proclaims victory. The Lutherans have it right: Through the Spirit, Jesus preached the victory of the cross. The Spirit proclaims, "Jesus won. Victory in Jesus. He died, He was buried, but He arose." Through the Spirit, Jesus preached the victory of the cross to the ungodly in hell -- especially the ungodly from the time of Noah.
V Why is the Preaching
A "He went and preached to the spirits in prison ..." This brings us to our last question: Why did Christ preach through the Spirit to the ungodly in hell? Why especially did He preach to the ungodly from the time of Noah?
Remember what God said in the Garden of Eden already? God said there would be enmity between Satan and the woman, that is between the church and the followers of Satan (Gen 3:15). In this struggle, Satan has one goal: to wipe out the covenant line, to stop the chosen line that results in the birth of the Messiah. And he came close to succeeding. Look how close he came in the days of Noah: in a crowd of millions the church was down to 8. Queen Athaliah tried to kill off the royal line, the Messiah's line; she almost succeeded because the only one left was Joash (2 Ki 11). At Bethlehem, the Devil killed all the baby boys and almost succeeded in killing the Messiah.
The Devil and his followers have come close, so close. But they have not succeeded. Through the Spirit Jesus proclaims, "I won. I won. The victory is mine. The victory is not yours. You have come close at times but I won."
B "He went and preached to the spirits in prison ..." It is also a message of the church's victory in Christ. We are reminded and assured that we who believe have victory in Jesus. Go back to the Catechism. We face times of personal crisis and temptation. We face persecution. But in Jesus we have won. Apart from the victory of the cross we belong to Satan. Without the cross Satan has a legal claim on us, controls us, uses us to fight God and the Kingdom. But in Jesus we have won the victory over Satan. We have won victory over the ungodly. No matter what Satan does, no matter what Satan tries, we have won. Victory in Jesus. We won't be singing this but think of the song "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."
1 A mighty fortress is our God,That's the message to the souls in prison for our comfort, our strength, our consolation.
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he, amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
does seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.
3 And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God has willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
"He went and preached to the spirits in prison ..." A message of victory for Jesus. A message of our victory in Jesus.
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