A brother writes: “First Peter 3:18-22 stumps me. I just can’t understand that preaching to the spirits in prison. Do you have any clue to what Peter is referring?”
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As you know, First Peter is written to believers who are suffering for their Christian faith at the hands of unbelieving relatives, neighbors and associates (1:6-7; 2:12; 2:19-24; 3:6; 4:12-19; 5:10). Peter’s longest discussion of suffering for Christ begins at 3:14 and goes through 4:6. The passage you mention comes in the middle of this section. Throughout the epistle, Peter points to Jesus Christ as the great example of suffering for God’s sake. The passage you mention begins with the spotlight on Jesus.
In 3:18, Peter notes that Jesus was crucified as a result of man’s judgment (“in the flesh”) but that he was made alive again as a result of God’s judgment (“in the Spirit”). Verse 19 explains that when Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, he passed through spiritual places where certain sinful spirit-beings were being detained while they awaited their own judgment (Jude 6). As Jesus passed by them, Peter pictures him victoriously announcing his triumph over all the forces of evil (Col. 2:15).
Verse 20 says that these “spirits in prison” had once exercised evil influence over humans living on earth, specifically “in the days of Noah” (2 Pet. 2:4-5; Gen. 6:4-5). Noah had much in common with the believers to whom Peter writes. Noah also knew what it meant to live as a man of faith surrounded by a scornful, unbelieving, wicked world (Gen. 6:9; Heb. 11:7; Ezek. 14:14,20).