What Does Peter Mean By Jesus Preaching to the Spirits in Prison?

“…in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison,”
1 Peter 3:19 (ESV)

This is among the most difficult verses in the New Testament to understand and preach. The following is shared primarily for the sake of other pastors researching this fascinating verse and wrestling with the challenge of understanding how v.19 fits into the verses before and after.

Water on RocksThe Challenge of Preaching Difficult Verses
There is a different between teaching and preaching. A sermon must involve teaching the text without getting bogged down by exegetical details. Expository sermons must lead to the heart, not only to the mind. Therefore, passages like 1 Peter 3:19 should not be avoided (lest we unintentionally teach the congregation to be scared of hard Bible passages), but we must not allow them to completely derail the sermon.

[note: In my own sermon, this is what happened. After spending hours in study of this verse, what I considered to be a summary ended up being way too much information packed into a few minutes. This overwhelmed the congregation and the sermon never quite recovered afterwards. Instead of presenting a short summary of different views and then my preferred interpretation, I wish I had simply shared my interpretation along with an invitation to speak with me afterwards if you wanted more alternatives. Learn from my mistake!]

A Summary of Views
1. When Jesus died his spirit went to the souls of men and women who died in the generation of Noah (referred to in v.20) and preached to them. Other variants of this view allow that he more generally preached to the souls of the dead and not only to Noah’s generation.

2. Jesus preached to those who were “spiritually imprisoned” through Noah. The difference between this view and the first has to do with time. In the first view, Jesus preached to the souls of those who died. In this view, Jesus preached to them prior to the flood. The two schools of thought here can either mean that the Holy Spirit preached through Noah, or the pre-incarnate Christ preached to that generation in some way.

3. The spirits in prison are not spirits but angels. These may be demonic spirits since they are in prison or angels of the “guardian angel” variety who oversee humanity. It is not immediately obvious exactly who these spirits are, or what Jesus preached to them.

Exegesis Matters
Exegesis is the process of digging into the biblical text and drawing the meaning out of the text, rather than coming to the text and reading your preferred interpretation into the passage.

There are three crucial exegetical details in this one short verse that provide great insight into the meaning of the verse. We’ll look at them in order of how they appear in v.19.

1. “Preached” not “Evangelized.” There are different Greek words for “preach” and “preach the gospel.” The first word is what is used in 1 Peter 3:19. If Jesus was preaching the gospel and providing these spirits an opportunity to believe and repent and be saved, Peter would have used evangelize (as he did in many other places throughout 1 Peter and 2 Peter). Therefore, it seems most reasonable to conclude that the content of this preaching was not an invitation to be saved, but some form of instruction or announcement.

2. “Spirit” does not mean “soul.” There is no place in the New Testament where the word “spirit” refers to a human soul. I did not personally double check ever single instance throughout the NT, but I’m relying on the many commentaries which point this detail out. If spirit does not mean human soul, then it must refer to either angelic or demonic spirits.

3. “Prison” can also mean “watch.” This the same word appears as “watch” here, “During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake” (Matthew 14:25). Again, it shows up in Matthew 24:43, “If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.” If context drives interpretation, with the two exegetical notes above, I advocate for “watch” to be preferred above “prison.”

These exegetical notes drive me to translate v.19 to say,

“…in which he went and preached to the spirits in watch.”

I prefer not to mix too much interpretation into the translation, so allow me to flesh this out below.

There remain outstanding questions, primarily regarding the disobedience mentioned in v.20. I wish I had time to study the accuracy placing a period at the end of v.19, thus rendering the “Because they formerly did not obey” as the grounds for Noah’s generation being judged through the flood rather than serving as the grounds for the spirits being imprisoned. This exegetical issue aside, I continue to believe the interpretation below is the most reasonable I have been able to discern.

What’s This Mean
The angels in watch are those who have been commissioned by God to watch over humanity. This is widely accepted throughout church history, that there are certain classes of angels who guard and protect humanity.

Jesus preached and declared to them that a new hour of their watch had arrived, where the waters would no longer be a means of judgment (as in the days of Noah, v.20) but of salvation through baptism (v.21). It is a new chapter in Salvation History. The Old Covenant has been fulfilled through the New Covenant, bringing salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. The nations are no longer under condemnation, but salvation is offered to all who believe.

In 1 Peter 3:21, Peter clarifies that baptism is “an appeal” (ESV) or “a pledge” (NIV) for a good conscience. Baptism is not salvific, nor does it bring salvation the same way water washes away dirt. Instead, it is symbolic of the saving grace of Jesus Christ and reminds the believer of his living hope because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Through this interpretation of v.19, there is greater continuity throughout the chapter than with any of the other interpretations. I must confess that while many scholars affirm the “spirits are angels” view, I could not find any who clearly articulated it in this same way. The closest is John Calvin who writes in his commentaries, “It seems to me that φυλακὴ rather means a watchtower in which watchmen stand for the purpose of watching, or the very act of watching.” He simply states this without clarifying why he prefers this translation and does not fully explain the significance of translating the passage in this way.

A Final Word
With that said, I humbly submit the above interpretation and trust that it may help others who are looking to understand 1 Peter 3:19.

I have often said, “If you ever preach an original sermon, you’re probably a heretic.” I think the same stands for biblical interpretation. So it is with self-doubt that I offer this interpretation, though it does appear that I’m standing with John Calvin and simply clarifying something he wrote which has gone largely unacknowledged.

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