1 & 2 Peter
1. Who You Are to God (1 Peter 1-2a)
2. Who You Are to the World (1 Peter 2b-3a)
3. Who You Are to Yourself (1 Peter 3b-5)
APPENDIX - An Explanation of "the spirits in prison" in 1 Peter 3:18.
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, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 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. 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, 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 3:18-22 ESV)
1 Peter 3:18-22 presents some of the most confusing epistolary verses in all the Bible, resulting in a diversity of literary approaches and theological conclusions. The appendix here is intended to clearly explain for the novice believer how to figure out what Peter was trying to say in this paragraph.
0) How to Read the Text
The first step to understanding any passage is to know that the Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but also written by the hands of human authors. They came from real men, writing to real people, with real issues and concerns to address. Peter, the author of this passage, is writing to Christians in a time when persecution and strong misunderstanding existed toward the gospel. Because Peter is the author, it's best to look at other passages written by Peter (rather than Paul or anyone else) when trying to understand his use of language and reasoning.
1) Identifying the Main Point
The main point of any passage is found in the contextual flow of the book. Looking at the passages immediately before and after 1 Peter 3:18-22 will highlight how Peter is making ONE SINGLE POINT: suffering like Christ results in victory with Christ.
You can see that point develop in 3:9, 14, and 17--which leads into our passage of verses 18-22--and then continues on that same point in 4:1-2, 6, and 13-14.
So the main point is that suffering like Christ results in victory with Christ.
2) Looking at the Parts
How then does 3:18-22 fit into this main point?
This verse tells us that Christ (who is "the righteous" one) suffered for the sins (of us, "the unrighteous" ones).
Christ suffered so that we could be brought to God. That is a reference to his crucifixion.
Christ's death was "in the flesh," but he was made alive "in the spirit."
"In the flesh" and "in the spirit" are actually figurative terms, relating to living earthly lives or living heavenly lives in terms of your spiritual condition.
Christ was put to death "in the flesh" because he took the place of OUR sins. He was not sinful, but he substituted himself for us (who certainly are sinful), so he died for our sinfulness. Our flesh' was punished on his body.
Christ was made alive "in the spirit" because the punishment did not permanently destroy him. God raised him up, proving that he was more powerful than our sin. His new life is a spiritual life--that is, a godly, holy, righteous life.
This same contrast is true of Christians. In 1 Peter 4:6, Peter explains that this is the point of the gospel. Every Christian who believes will still end up physically dying. Just like Christ, they will still die "in the flesh." But their faith in Jesus will enable them to live "in the spirit"--that is, to live godly, holy, righteous lives instead of the sinful ones they did before.
Therefore, verse 18 is a statement about the PURPOSE OF RIGHTEOUS SUFFERING: to bring people to God.
"In which" (or also translated "through") means that it was when Jesus was made alive in the spirit that he went to proclaim to spirits in prison.
"Proclaim" in this verse can also be translated "preached." But it's not the same verb as "evangelized." Jesus spoke to the spirits in prison, but that doesn't mean he was offering them salvation. It simply means he made a proclamation of some sort. The content of it remains ambiguous from this text.
"Spirits in prison" is the most baffling term.
The New Testament speaks of "spirits" almost always as angelic beings, not human beings.
That means it's referring to demons here--that is, fallen angels--since they're in prison and are disobedient (see verse 20).
Therefore, verse 19 is a statement about JUDGMENT AGAINST THOSE WHO CAUSE SUFFERING.
This verse elaborates on "the spirits in prison" as being creatures that were disobedient to God during Noah's time.
It also speaks of how Noah (and his 7 family members) were saved from that time of wickedness.
See Genesis 6-10 for a full description of the story of Noah and the Flood.
Therefore, verse 20 is a statement about the TRIUMPH OF THOSE WHO RIGHTEOUSLY SUFFERING.
This verse is a tangent idea, talking about how Noah is a picture of baptism, both of which are illustrations of salvation.
Noah was delivered from wickedness and death by means of water.
Baptism is a symbolic expression of being delivered from wickedness and death by physically dunking in water to display dying and being buried and being raised to new life.
Peter is careful to note that the physical act of baptism doesn't save--that is, the water part (physical removal of dirt) isn't the saving factor.
Peter instead says that repentance and trust in Jesus (or, what he calls "an appeal to God for a good conscience") is what saves.
This verse reiterates the idea that Jesus, when he was made alive in the spirit, went up to heaven, and he is greater than any angelic being, whether angel or demon.
Therefore, this is the CONCLUDING STATMENT: Jesus is victorious over his suffering and those who caused suffering.
3) How the Parts Fit in to the Main Point
So what we have in this paragraph comes down to four component parts:
Thesis: The purpose of righteous suffering is to bring people to God (verse 18).
Point 1: Those who cause suffering will be judged and defeated (verse 19).
Point 2: Those who righteously suffering will triumph (verse 20).
Tangent: You triumph only if you repent and believe in Jesus (verse 21).
Conclusion: Jesus is victorious over suffering and those who cause suffering (verse 22).
The main point of the passage is that suffering like Christ results in victory with Christ.
That point has been clearly upheld by our investigation of 1 Peter 3:18-22.
Just to double-check our understanding of the hard concepts, like the meaning of "spirits in prison," we look at other passages that Peter has written to see if there is corroboration and agreement (or contradiction and disagreement) with what we've found.
2 Peter 2:4-5 is a perfect place to corroborate what we've found.
Verse 4 talks about how God judged demons (fallen angels) who were disobedient and put them in chains of gloomy darkness.
That sounds very much like spirits (demons) that are in prison (chains of gloomy darkness).
Verse 5 talks about how God saved Noah and his 7 family members while judging the wicked in the world.
Peter makes the same two consecutive points: God judges those who cause suffering, and God saves those who righteously suffer.
He even adds in other examples, such as Lot who righteously suffered in wicked Sodom: Sodom was judged, Lot was saved.
I hope this gives clear understanding to one of the Bible's most difficult passages.