For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water (I Peter 3:18-20).
One of our readers asks for an explanation of this admittedly difficult text, and adds the question: Did Christ preach to the departed at His crucifixion? He states that this seems to be the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed when it says, "He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, he descended into hell." He notes that the Anglican Church interprets the passage to mean that Christ preached to people in hell.
The reader also asks whether Christ preached to the departed while He was hanging on the cross. As far as I know, the usual interpretation is that Christ preached to the departed souls in a disembodied state during the time that Christ was in the grave. But this detail is not important. The meaning of the text is.
Last time we called attention to a few interpretations of this verse. There is one more interpretation to which the attention of our readers ought to be called. In this interpretation, the text (if I may paraphrase it) would read something like this: "Christ hath once suffered for sins ... being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the Spirit, by which also he went and preached unto those who are now spirits in prison, but who were once disobedient when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing...”
In other words, this interpretation explains the text to mean that Christ preached by Noah and through the Spirit to the wicked who lived prior to the flood, and who during their lives, mocked Noah and rejected Noah’s preaching; and who, because of their unbelief, are now in prison, that is, in hell for their rejection of the gospel.
There are some considerations which favor this interpretation. Noah is called in Scripture a "preacher of righteousness" (II Pet. 2:5). Furthermore, the fact that the text speaks of this proclamation made "by the Spirit" is in harmony with Genesis 6:3, where God says that His Spirit will not always strive with man; by which God refers to the preaching of the gospel in which men had been called to repentance from their sins. Thirdly, such an interpretation is surely in keeping with the rest of Scripture. If, therefore, anyone prefers such an interpretation (and it has been offered by some sound Reformed exegetes), it is surely an explanation which can be seriously considered.
Nevertheless, I am going to offer another explanation. It is not original with me, but is included in "Chapel Talks," an unpublished syllabus containing speeches Rev. Herman Hoeksema gave in chapel many years ago when I was attending Seminary.
The problem with the interpretation given above is, first, it does not seem to flow very well with the context, for Peter is speaking of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. The natural sequence of the text would seem to mean: (1) Christ was put to death in the flesh; (2) He was quickened by the Spirit; (3) by that Spirit that quickened Christ, Christ also went (not personally) to hell to announce His victory. Second, then the word "sometime" in v. 20 makes sense. The word means "at one time," "at some previous time." That is, these wicked of whom the text is speaking were at some previous time disobedient; that is, they were those who previously, at the time of the flood, had been disobedient.
I recognize, however, that this interpretation has one serious problem: the text would then teach a doctrine that is not found anywhere else in Scripture. One of the great Reformation principles is "Scripture interprets Scripture." That principle presupposes that the truths of Scripture are taught in many places, and each text on which a doctrine is based can be compared with other texts which teach the same truth. Such is not the case with the interpretation I am about to offer. Nevertheless, I suggest it as a possible interpretation.
Certain elements in the text must be considered here. The text does not say that Christ went to hell in a disembodied state, but that He went "by the Spirit." He went to hell by the same Spirit through whose power He was raised from the dead. Thus the Spirit of Christ went to hell as Christ’s representative to bring His message.
The text does not say that the Spirit went to hell to preach the good news of salvation, but a word is used here which mean "to announce, proclaim, herald." While this word is sometimes used to refer to the official character of the preaching, it can also mean simply proclamation or announcement.
That gospel was that God would deliver His church through a flood that was coming, and that salvation was to be found in obedience to God, an obedience expressed in seeking refuge in the ark. Such obedience would be the result of faith in the truth of God’s Word that God would deliver His church from the evil world through the blood of the "seed of the woman" (Gen. 3:15) who would crush the head of the serpent and his brood, and who would merit righteousness for His own. Noah was a "preacher of righteousness," and he pointed to the coming "seed of the woman" through whose work righteousness would be merited and accomplished.
The wicked in Noah’s day mocked that message and laughed at the possibility of a flood. They went to hell in the flood while Noah was saved—as a picture of baptism (I Pet. 3:21). We will present this interpretation in the next article.
- Volume: 9
- Issue: 8
Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)
Ordained: October 1955
Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965
Emeritus: 2001Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof._Herman_Hanko
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