1 Peter 3:13-22 – The Exegesis (2)

In the previous article, we have made a suggestion that to be faithful to the text, sarki and pneumati in 1 Peter 3:18 have to be translated “in flesh” and “in spirit,” without articles, since these don’t appear with articles in the Greek text. Machen says, “There is no indefinite article in Greek…[It] has, however, a definite article, and where the Greek article does not appear, the definite article should not be inserted in the translation (Machen, New Testament Greek for Beginners, 26). The presence of an article before the noun changes the interpretive meaning, and therefore the interpretive translation of a word. Note for example Romans 8:2, where pneumatos, “spirit,” has an article. This is interpreted by translators to mean the third member of the Godhead, and we agree. But note also Romans 8:6, where the phrase “mind of the Spirit” (pneumatos with article) has been translated by them as “spiritually minded.” This simply shows translators do exercise arbitrary control over their translations. How much more the commentaries? Stewardship of the Word demands that we be faithful.

I believe that both sarki and pneumati are to be classed as instrumental dative of manner. When translated in English, they look like prepositional phrases and in the clauses they function as adverbs modifying verbs. Grammarians call them adverbials because, although they function like adverbs, they are not true adverbs. In 1 Peter 3:18, the verbs these adverbials modify are found within the participles thanatotheis and zoopoietheis.

Having been “put to death in [the] flesh on one hand,” thanatotheis men sarki, Jesus was now “made alive in spirit,” zoopoietheis de pneumati. Both thanathotheis and zoopoietheis are aorist passive participles. Passive because the subject was just acted upon, or that someone other than the subject did the action on him. Aorist because it expresses not a continuing, but a one time action. Thanatotheis and zoopoietheis are two single words picturing to us like some kind of a simple snapshot what Jesus had experienced: He was put to death bodily, and was made alive spiritually. It does not mean that His spirit also died and was made alive again, but that He died in his mortal flesh and was “quickened” or “made alive” in a sphere of existence in which the power of God is displayed without hindrance or human limitation, a state that death and mortality cannot destroy. To first century audience who understood the meanings of the Koine Greek better than we do, thanatotheis sarki and zoopoietheis pneumati picture to them in more logically convincing terms why Christians should not be afraid to suffer like Jesus. Hart says, “The advantage of suffering for well-doing has been exemplified in the experience of the Christ, who gained thereby the quickening (v. 21) and the later glory (v. 22)” (J. A. Hart, “First Epistle General of Peter,” The Expositors Greek New Testament, 5:67). Jesus’ undeserved suffering, His dying on the cross, which is His means of bringing us to God, now finds an explanation that serves to bring the concept of the blessedness of suffering closer to home.

In the verse that follows, consisting only of nine words in the Greek, centers all the controversy in 1 Peter 3. It is so obscurely worded it is capable of a lot of interpretations. A number of alternative but divergent theories have been put forth as an explanation:

(1) The view that Christ in His preexistent state (“His Spirit state”) preached through Noah to those who rejected the preaching who were now in prison. The prison here is understood to mean “imprisoned in sin.” This is the view of Augustine, who holds that “Christ was in Noah when he preached,” a kind of proxy preaching (Bethany Parallel Commentary of the New Testament, 1381). In addition to this, Augustine also held a lot of other notions that have now become the foundation stones of the Roman Catholic Church.

(2) The spirits are the souls of the faithful Old Testament people and the prison is simply the non-hostile place where they remained awaiting Christ who proclaimed their redemption too after His resurrection from the dead. This is John Calvin’s theory, cited by Davids (p. 138).

(3) The “spirits” are the fallen angels of Genesis 6:1ff, who have taken refuge (“in prison”) in the earth, and the proclamation is that of Christ’s invasion of their refuge after His resurrection. This has been proposed by such commentators as F. Spitta, J. Jeremias, B. Reicke, and Dalton (cited by Davids, 139).

(4) A modification of view no. 1 which says the “spirits” are the fallen angels, but the preacher was Enoch, or Christ who preached through Enoch, proclaiming the judgment to them. This is the view of Edgar J. Goodspeed, who believes that the name “Enoch” was formerly in the text of verse 19. Bruce M. Metzger however traces this conjecture to William Bowyer back in 1772 (cited by Davids, 139).

(5) “The view that Christ in His own (and not through the agency of Noah) during the three days interval between His death and resurrection and while He was in the spirit realm (Hades), actually and literally preached to disembodied spirits.” These were spirits “who lived while the ark was being constructed but who were dead and incarcerated in the prison house of Hades at the time the preaching occurred.” This is the view of Bigg and Windisch (cited by Robertson in Bethany Parallel Commentary of the New Testament, 1381)

Which view is correct? If we are content with absorbing the theories of other commentators, copying their thoughts, mimicking even the way they argue, and when pressed for proofs we hunt for verses to defend what we already believed, we are not creating a healthy environment for study growth. But try laying aside our doctrinal predilections as irrelevant, give them a short vacation on short notice, and allow the text of the author of the book to lead our thoughts where it may.

VERSE 19. En ho kai tois en phulake pneumasin poreutheis ekeruxen. “In which [state] indeed, going to the spirits in prison he preached.” Although Peter presumably wrote to be understood by his readers, as far as we are concerned, he has failed us. The problem is no ordinary one, but it has something to do with the twenty-first century people’s lack of knowledge of first century background of thought. It is this background of thought—the meaning that Peter wants to convey, based on the texts that we have before us, which meaning the first century Christian readers understood—-that we must try to find out, using the meager words that Peter has supplied us, rather than insist that this verse cannot mean what it means because the conclusion would be such and such.

“And in which or what state indeed”? That would be the first question. The phrase en ho kai has been translated as “in which indeed” (Marshall), “in which also” (ASV, Confraternity Version), “by which also” (KJV), “by whom also” (NKJV), “in which” (RSV). “Which” is a relative pronoun, having the noun “spirit” in verse 18 as its antecedent. “In which” could be the true translation of en ho because it agrees with “spirit” in number (both are singular) and case (both are dative). Taking en ho as an adverbial, and rendering it without a grammatical antecedent does not do justice to the text. The eligible noun antecedent, pneumati, before en ho, strongly establishes a valid presumption favoring its being interpreted as a straight relative pronoun, not an adverbial.

The translation “by whom also” comes about because of the belief of some that pneumati, “spirit,” is the instrumental dative of means—that it was the Spirit (now capitalized) that quickened Him. I have pointed out that to be consistent, we must also take “flesh” as instrumental dative of means since both are parallel and analogous. In which case, we make the “Spirit” the instrument for quickening Him and the “flesh” as the instrument for putting Him to death. This however does not make sense. It is much better to take both sarki and pneumati as instrumental dative of manner, in which case both become the adverbials that modify their verbs. As adverbials they picture to us the action of the verb and the circumstances about his dying and being quickened. Rogers and Rogers take the whole phrases thanatotheis sarki and zoopoietheis pneumati as circumstances or state. Thus we may translate, “In which state,” meaning his state as “spirit” or in his circumstance as “spirit being,” Christ went to preach.

Now, to take this preaching to mean that it was done in the pre-Flood age, making Noah as Jesus’ proxy preacher, requires the interpreter to call forth from his depot of proof texts what he cannot find in the context of 1 Peter 3. By this jumping jack method one can always prove anything, including the doctrines that Jesus wedded Mary Magdalene, that Peter became pope, that you can baptize infants, that Felix Manalo is an angel, that Quiboloy is the new “Son of God.” And you can bombard me with a lot of verses from your proof text depot, but my question still remains: Where does it say in the text that Noah did the preaching? Where is the authority for teaching the idea of proxy preaching? Be careful with this doctrine of proxy preaching for it will open the floodgates to other doctrines (like attending church by proxy, giving by proxy, baptism by proxy). Time will come the Lord will put a stop to this foxiness by proxiness: Because you cannot be judged by proxy, and you cannot keep on being foxy by evading a responsibility and an appointment.

Christ certainly did the preaching but not during Noah’s time, not through some prophets like Noah or Enoch, and certainly not after his resurrection. I am inclined to believe that pneumati does not refer to his risen state at all; it may refer to his spirit state. Some have taken zoopoietheis (”quickened”) to mean “being resurrected,” but that is not one of its lexical equivalents. If we are trying to understand first century thoughts according to first century understanding, try a lexicon or an expository dictionary. Do not invent a definition. Do not assume that that is what it means.

“Going to the spirits in prison he preached.” According to France, “This is the crucial phrase” (France, 269). We certainly agree. The word “spirit” has varied meanings, and the presence of qualifying genitives plus the context can tell us which one means what. It can mean the whole person, or that inward something in that person, or just the character of the person. Michaels calls them “spirits in refuge” (Michaels, 206). The plural “spirits” referring to human beings has a single citation in the New Testament (see Hebrews 12:23), but this could be interpreted to mean “spirits without bodies,” or “disembodied spirits.” Peter says these “spirits” are kept in a place. What place? Peter calls it “prison.” Phulake has been used to refer to John the Baptist’s prison house (Matthew 14:10; Mark 6:17), the apostles’ (Acts 5:19), or Paul’s (2 Corinthians 11:23); it also stands for the condition of being imprisoned (2 Corinthians 6:5; Hebrews 11:36). To take “prison” to mean “imprisonment in sin” is an unwarranted allegorizing. In the text under consideration, Peter applies phulake to a realm or place in which the ones being imprisoned are “spirits.” From Peter’s language I understand that Jesus died of a physical death. When the text says that He was quickened in spirit, I understand this to mean He had passed on to a spiritual existence. I am in agreement with you if you say that after His death Christ went to Hades, specifically to Paradise, and that He went there as a spirit-being, that He now had taken on a new sphere of existence. If you guys think Hades is the phulake that Peter has in mind, why should I object to it? You have a good reason to believe Hades may be the prison-house for spirits. That interpretation flows smoothly with these texts under study.

One objection I heard is that it was not Christ’s spirit who went to Hades but His soul. Well, Peter says Christ went to the prison of the spirits in His spirit state. Verse 18b says He was “quickened in spirit.” Verse 19a then says, “in which, going He preached to the spirits in prison.” “Which” is a relative pronoun and its antecedent is “spirit.” That was how he was quickened, “in spirit,” and that’s also how he went, “in spirit.” This interpretation erases the grammatical problem, number-wise, gender-wise, and case-wise. But taking “spirit” as instrumental dative of means won’t solve it.

“Going…he preached.” May also be translated as: “He went and made a proclamation.” We agree with France that poreutheis does not mean “descended,” it means “went.” This could be the objection of one who believes that Hades is way down there. I don’t even know where Hades is. But the objector claims to know much, and if he knows where it is, then I am probably speaking to one who has just returned from the dead! The details about this place nobody knows, whether up there or down here. There is no sense in insisting on the verb “descending” when the verb “going” just serves as well. Also, the question of when the Lord made this journey can be answered by referring to the phrase en ho (verse 19a), which we have argued must be speaking about His spirit state before His bodily resurrection.

What did he preach? Nobody knows. Some say it was the gospel, a theory that is devoid of evidence but a very attractive one to those who desire a second chance after having lost it in this life. Ekeruxen, “he preached,” would do well to have a direct object, “the gospel,” if it were to serve as evidence to the doctrine of second chance at salvation. Ekeruxen, from kerux, means “to act as herald or harbinger.” As to the message’s content, it is neutral (France, 270). Some writers think that the message may be inferred from the passage itself. “The proclamation, it may be inferred, [is about] his triumph which finally sealed their doom” (Colin Brown, 2:682). My answer is: I don’t know. Ekeruxen, alone and without an object, can only be translated as “he preached.” It is not even a transitive verb that needs a direct object to complete its meaning.

We say then that 1 Peter 3:19 has something to do with Christ’s going to the spirits’ realm, to Hades if you may, where he preached to the spirits in prison. The verse does not say where the place of the dead is, nor what was preached to them, nor what happened after the preaching, nor why was Christ vitally interested in them. It is not necessary to our thesis to improve on what cannot be proved by scanty evidence.

VERSE 20. “To those who were disobedient then when the patience of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.”

The “spirits,” tois pneumasin, mentioned in verse 19, are identified in verse 20 as “the disobeying ones,” [tois] apeithesasin, aorist active participle. Both pneumasin and apeithesasin have same number (plural) and same case (dative); there is no way you could miss. The aorist of the participle apeithesasin speaks about the past act of their disobedience, and the active sense of the verb gives the sense that they did the disobeying themselves, that they were not made to disobey (for then, the verb would be passive). To my way of thinking, all acts of disobedience are in the active voice; no one in his logical mind can claim that “I sinned because the devil made me do it”! Personal accountability for one’s action seems to be the teaching here.

These “spirits” are described as those who were “sometime disobedient. The word “sometime” is a translation of the Greek pote, which could also be translated as “then,” or “long ago.” Christ preached to these spirits who had been disobedient “then,” their disobedience pictured as something that had occurred “long ago,” even long before He came and preached to them. Pote does not describe ekeruxen, for if it does, then you have here a text that could support the opinion that Christ preached to them long ago. A better explanation then is that Christ preached to this same group of people, thousands of years after Noah’s day, and whether of not those spirits benefited from the preaching, we are not told. The story retold by Peter is not actually for the benefit of the people of Noah’s day who are now in Hades; it is for the benefit of Peter’s audience, to comfort them that in the end their lot would be much better than those of their enemies, just as the lot of the eight souls who entered the ark was better than that of the whole world that perished in the flood.

“When the patience of God waited in the days of Noah, an ark being prepared.” This adds further to our understanding about God’s long-suffering/forbearance: It waited long days, and it waited eagerly while He was doing all means to save the disobedient by Noah’s preaching. The phrase “in the days of Noah” must have been based on tradition common among Jews and on the analogy originating with Jesus (cf. Matthew 24:37-39; Luke 17:26-27), comparing Noah’s time with the present age. “While the ark was being prepared” fixes the time when God’s patience waited as mankind continued to disobey. “Being prepared,” kataskeuadzomenes, is present passive participle, and is translated as “being made ready, erected, built, constructed.” The present tense of that verb speaks of an action continuing, not in our time, but in the time when God’s patience, or long-suffering, waited. His patience waited “eagerly” and “with expectancy” for the disobedient to repent, and as that patience waited, the ark was being prepared.

The flood and the ark is one story which may have been familiar to Peter’s readers, and it is retold here for exhortatory purpose. Some important facts from that story do stand out: (1) That the disobedient many were punished; (2) That the obedient few were saved. Perhaps the persecuted pilgrim readers of Peter’s epistle were painfully aware that they were small in number compared to the pagans among whom they resided. Maybe some of them felt “unchurched.” Thus the story of the “few in the ark who were saved through water” becomes a very comforting illustration in his exhortation.

That story also furnishes a transition to another subtheme, which is baptism. “Through water, by means of water,” di’ hudatos, is instrumental dative of means, making water here the instrument for the saving of Noah’s family. But it could also mean that they were brought to safety “through water” or that they were rescued “by means of water.” The water of the Flood is the type, and water baptism is the anti-type. Noah and his family were “saved by water.” That is what the passage teaches. See comments by Rogers and Rogers, 576.

VERSE 21. “Which figure, even baptism, does also now save us, not a putting away of the filth of the flesh but an answer of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (Marshall).

“Which figure, even baptism does also now save us.” We assume that the antecedent of the pronoun ho in the clause ho kai humas antitupon nun sodzei baptisma is the noun hudatos in the phrase di’ hudatos, “by means of water” (verse 20), and that baptisma is the antitupon of it. In other words, Noah and his family were saved “by means of water,” and that this water is the type of which baptism is the antitype. Water saved Noah’s family; baptism saves us.

I had a disagreement with my Greek teacher—a friendly disagreement, that is— who had some hang-ups concerning baptism. But I argued with him through the use of the cases in the Greek. The verb sodzei is present active indicative singular third person. In the active indicative form, the subject of the verb is said to be the one doing the action; it is not being acted upon. It is also singular third person in form, which means then that the subject of that verb sodzei, saves, is singular and in the third person. That subject is shown to be antitupon. That antitupon saves. Peter says the antitupon is baptisma, “baptism.” The passage is thus correctly translated: “Which antitype, even baptism, also now saves us.” Concerning antitupon, Rogers and Rogers have this comment: “The word connotes the exactness of correspondence between the stamp and the die…The saving by baptism Peter mentions here is symbolic not actual, as Peter hastens to explain… Baptism is the occasion and sign from an old way of life to another that is marked by a new ethic…” (Rogers & Rogers, 576).

There is no denying the actual fact that the Lord is our Saviour. But baptism is his instrument of saving. Dr. Christiaan Barnard did the first heart transplant, but in performing this he used instruments, one of which could be the scalpel. We say “baptism saves” a man in the same way that we say “a gun killed” Lincoln. But both the gun and baptism are agencies (or instruments, if you wish). I am inclined to believe that my Greek teacher was simply over-reacting, as the rest of those “baptism-does-not-save” Baptist theologians are. Let’s stop promoting a doctrine that does not have textual basis to support it.

“Not a putting away of the filth of the flesh.” When Peter says that baptism performs the spiritual function of saving, he hastens to add that it does not perform the physical function of cleaning or putting away the filth of the flesh. The passage does not teach baptismal regeneration. In fact baptism is a helpless act, a useless act even, if it is done without the authority of the one who said “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).

“But an answer of a good conscience toward God.” Peter goes on to say that baptism is the answer of a good conscience toward God. The Greek word eperotema means “question, inquiry, pledge, declaration of commitment” (Rogers & Rogers, 576). “In the papyri there is evidence that this word was a technical term in making a contract, denoting the pledge or undertaking given by one of the parties in answer to formal questions. The word then implies the registering of agreement to conditions or demands. Baptism is a response to conditions… Here the pledge is an assent to certain conditions; it may imply a confession of faith as well as the willingness to accept the new duties…” (Ibid.). For a baptized believer, there is no turning back, even after he has seen the prospect of martyrdom. He submits to baptism in response to the conditions set by His Lord; by baptism he agrees to His demands; by baptism he declares his commitment to Him; by baptism he confesses the Lordship of Him who recruited him to the new duties. Baptism is not to be forced on anyone, for he who submits to it must himself understand what it requires. “Infant baptism” is a doctrine that only stupid theologians impose in the absence of Bible authority; promoting it makes a mockery of God’s law. An infant who gets sprinkled is not saved; and infant sprinkling could be a bad answer of a bad conscience toward the devil who promotes this theology in the world.

“Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The construction of this phrase is dative instrumental. Furthermore, it is dative instrumental of means. It has been my experience in my studies of the Greek grammar that the instrumental dative of means goes with a verb, since that dative construction pictures the instrument that complements the verb. The verb in this case is sodzei, “saves.” “Baptism saves through (or by) the resurrection of Jesus” is an interpretation that is textually correct as our analysis shows. If you overlay this with what is being taught in Romans 6:1-11, this interpretation is also theologically correct. The raising up of the subject from the watery grave is symbolic of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and our own resurrection from death through sin. Furthermore, we focus not just on Christ’s death but also on his resurrection to make us “one new man.” He tasted death for the sins of every man, but by his resurrection he conquered it, that those who have been saved from sins may live and may continually have hope of life eternal. That salvation and that hope are pictured in baptism. Baptism is not only a contract but a union with Jesus in His death and His rising again, which leads to a sharing of His new life. Thus to these pilgrims whose faith is under a fiery trial, their baptism marks them out as God’s few chosen ones and commits them to unswerving loyalty to God in the face of martyrdom, reminding them that they will be saved although all their enemies malign them, although their lives will be at stake. It is the assurance of their salvation and symbol of their strength and victory with the risen Christ,

VERSE 22. “Who is on the right hand of God, having gone into the heaven; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.”

Peter now concludes with an exultant description of the ascended Christ sitting on God’s right hand with all dominions and powers subject to Him. Verse 18 shows the accomplishment of Jesus’ exampleship and reconciling mission on earth. The latter part of verse 18 and now verse 19 shows His victory over death and His journey to the realm of spirits, proving His authority over the realm of the spirits of the living and the dead. Verse 22 is the round up, the whole scene, showing Him in His glorious reign and dominion over a whole range of dominions—spirits, authorities, powers.

Our translation may differ from the KJV but it is based on the text. The antecedent of the phrase “who is on the right hand of God” is the resurrected Christ mentioned in verse 21. His being on the right hand of God is the capstone of his act of conquering the devil. Not only is He in heaven, He is also sitting on God’s right hand. This shows Him to be ruling over the universe, above all. Poreutheis, aorist passive deponent, could also be translated “after he went.” His act of having gone to heaven comes before his act of sitting on God’s right hand. The going to heaven is temporal action, as the aorist of the participle implies. But his sitting on God’s right hand, his ruling over all, which came after his ascension, is an on-going act, for such is the meaning of the phrase hos esten en dexia theou, “who is on the right hand of God.” Esten is present indicative singular third person, translated as be verb “is”; in this instance the subject of esten is WHO, referring to Jesus. The verb shows an on-going state, without implying an end. Christ is now ruling, and continually rules, in the heavens. He rules over all. The mention of “angels” signifies that He rules over the realm of the spirits. The mention of “authorities,” plural in form, signifies that He rules even over those who exercise authority on earth (moral, spiritual, intellectual, political), which in the minds of the first century people includes Rome, which at that time had combined both political and religious authority into one person, its emperor. Christ is even above that political and religious persecuting authority. The mention of the word “powers,” again plural in form, signifies that Christ rules over every power man can conceive of, even over those who claim power over lives, over economies, over geographies, over chances and opportunities to grow. Hupotagenton, aorist passive participle, translated “being made subject” is in the genitive absolute. Everyone and everything is made subject to Him. This is a declaration from Peter, who also has experienced persecution of some kind, by Jews, by priests who have been appointed by rulers of the Jews, and by rulers of the Jews who have been appointed by the Romans. The phrase embraces all ranks that could sow fear in the hearts of the Christians who were living at the time of the writing of this epistle. We may be sure Peter’s readers, who were facing the onslaughts of evil powers through their enemies, have found great assurance in his words.

CONCLUSION: We have always believed that the key to understanding of 1 Peter 3:13-22 is by proper exegesis of the passages, considering the whole context. The jumping jack method of interpretation does injustice to the text, and does not promote harmony of the Scriptures. Proof texting is the venture of those who have preconceived doctrines to defend. Translators have their own cows to feed; commentators have their own idols to defend. But in the marketplace of ideas, everything must be left open for every reader to examine. Our advice to every believer in Christ is: Before you invest your life, your savings, your time on something, do investigate. Or as the caveat of the Romans would say: “Let the purchaser beware.”

The context of the passage speaks of persecution and what should Christians’ attitude be toward it. In this study we have tried to understand Peter’s purpose for delving into rather difficult, complicated and obscure matters. Studying 1 Peter 3:13-22 involves too much rough sailing, as far as we are concerned. But we have attempted to show that each point Peter introduced is relevant to his readers’ situation, that they must have understood what he was saying. In our time, we are perplexed by Peter’s teachings, by his words, by his thoughts. Sometimes we do not see the logic, and may wonder at his tendency to jump from one thought to another without providing us so much details. We have tried to understand Peter the writer, but we do not pretend to understand everything that Peter the writer wrote. Our lack of understanding of everything that he said has humbled us. And while we disagree with what others think that Peter meant, we have also strived to be open-minded, and have seen the need for further study of the text.


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