Who Are Spirits in Prison? (I Peter 3:19)
At the outset, let us be clear. This passage is difficult because it uses strange (not used elsewhere in the Bible) and ambiguous wording (lacking clear references to antecedents). As a result, it has been subjected to various speculations and interpretations.
What follows is a methodical, inductive (specific-to-general) exegesis (interpretation) comparing scripture with scripture. It harmonizes with the near context of the chapter and the global context of I Peter while remaining consistent with the broader scope of the Bible. This analysis was performed strictly using Bible translations. No commentaries were used to reach these conclusions.
- Time: A.D. 60 (Ussher)
- Author: Apostle Peter (1:1)
- Type: Letter
- Audience: Scattered (1:1) believers (1:5,9,14, 21–23; 2:5,9)
- Key word: Suffer (17 references)
- Theme: 1:13
Be encouraged (1:8) through your trials (1:6–7) with a heavenly perspective (1:13).
- Theme: 2:12
Live godly lives (2:11) returning evil with good (2:12) as an example (as was Christ 2:21) to the world (2:12–15).
- Theme: 3:17
Wives live godly lives toward your husbands (3:1), husbands to your wives (3:7), and to one another (3:8), even if it means suffering (3:17), for Christ suffered for us (3:18).
- Theme: 4:1
Suffer with the same mind that Christ suffered.
- Theme: 5:6
Humbly serve one another (5:6), elders as teachers and examples (5:2–3) being vigilant of the devil (5:8).
I Peter 3:19
By which—somewhat unclear but most likely the Spirit since this phrase directly follows Spirit. That is, by the Holy Spirit.
also—in addition to suffering, being put to death, and being given
life by the Spirit.
he—this pronoun refers to an antecedent. We have Spirit and Christ in closest context as possibilities. It doesn’t make sense for the antecedent to be the Spirit because he is operating by the Spirit. Therefore, we choose Christ as the antecedent.
went and preached—that is, he went somewhere (we are not told where) and preached something (we are not told what).
unto the spirits—this leads us to ask what spirits? Angels are called ministering spirits (Hebrews 1:14). God is spirit (John 4:24). Man has a body, a soul, and a spirit (Genesis 2:7; 35:18; Proverbs 18:14; Ecclesiastes 12:7; Luke 23:46; I Corinthians 15:45; I Thessalonians 5:23; I Peter 4:6; Hebrews 4:12; James 2:26). This is ambiguous.
in prison;—this is also ambiguous. What prison? Where is this prison? We are not told. We will move on for now and return to this as perhaps the following text will provide some clues.
I Peter 3:20
Which sometime were disobedient—this translation could be improved to those once stubborn or the disobeying ones.
when—finally, we are about to get a time reference.
once the longsuffering of God waited—God tolerantly waited a long time. “in the days of Noah” here it is. He is referring to the days of Noah. What do we know about the days of Noah? We know he was a “preacher of righteousness” (II Peter 2:5). Men of that day grieved the heart of God (Genesis 6:6).
while the ark was a preparing—as he and his sons prepared the ark. Noah was 500 years old when his wife bore his three sons (Genesis 5:32). God then charged Noah to build the ark (Genesis 6:14), which was completed when Noah was 600 years old (Genesis 7:6). By implication, we may conclude that Noah preached righteousness to these ungodly people for somewhere around 100 years.
Could it be that this work of Noah is what is being referenced in verse 19? But what about the reference to Christ? Our analysis of verse 19 indicated that it was Christ who was preaching. If so, how could it be Noah? Does the context of this verse offer any more clues? Perhaps Peter said something else that might help unravel this puzzle.
Indeed he did! Look again at 1:11:
Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: (v. 10) Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. (v. 11) Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into. (v. 12)
The Spirit of Christ was in the prophets to the extent that they even said things regarding the gospel that they could not understand. Noah was God’s man (Genesis 6:9). We have already learned that he was God’s preacher during his time. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to make the connection that the Spirit of Christ was preaching through Noah during those 100 years before the flood.
wherein few, that is eight souls were saved by water.—Who were these eight souls? They were Noah, his three sons, and the mens’ wives (Genesis 7:7).
We have answered who (the Spirit of Christ through Noah) and when (days of Noah). We still have two more puzzles to unravel. They are the words spirits and prison.
Now notice, these two verses (19, 20) are not really part of the main point of this reference but simply an illustration that connects verse 18 with verse 21. As is so often the case those who try to use
deduction to prove their theories search the scriptures for obtuse references (like this one) and lift them out of context. They then force their meaning into the verses in an attempt to build a case for
their false doctrine.
Look at verse 18 again:
…put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
Does this ring a bell?
Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:(Romans 6:4–5)
Colossians 2:12 contains similar wording.
I Peter 3:21
The like figure—the story of Noah and the ark is a picture.
whereunto baptism—of baptism,
whereunto even baptism doth also now save us—we are saved by the work of God that occurs when we accept Christ (Romans 8:9; John 1:33; I Corinthians 12:13).
(not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God)—work of God by faith (Ephesians 2:8–9).
by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:—the resurrection of Christ guarantees our future resurrection (I Corinthians 15:20).
So we see that the reference to Christ’s death and resurrection at the end of verse 18 flows directly to the point at the beginning of verse 21 where baptism, which is a picture of the resurrection (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12), is mentioned. Furthermore, verse 21 indicates that the example of God preserving Noah through the flood (verses 19 and 20) is a figure of this death and resurrection that is illustrated by baptism.
What still remains to resolve is this spirits in prison phrase. I Peter 4:6 refers to preaching to the dead who live in the spirit, but a different Greek word is used for preached. Because a different word is used, we will not press the use of 4:6 any further here. Nowhere in the Bible is spirits or prison used in this way. This is unique wording.
What do we know about these spirits? First, we know they were the objects of this preaching— preached unto spirits (v. 19). Second, we know these spirits were stubborn and disobedient (v. 20). Third, we know that they grieved God (v. 20). Men can do all of these things. Given that a man has both a physical and immaterial part and that immaterial part is sometimes referred to as spirit (I Peter 4:6; James 2:26), it is not unreasonable to think that men who are objects of preaching might be referred to as spirits. If we think in terms of John 3, Jesus taught about a spiritual birth in terms of physical birth (vs. 5-8). We know that Noah preached to men, so the interpretation of the word spirits as men certainly fits this context.
Now, let’s also look at one final piece of evidence supporting the view that the word spirits refers to men in this context. In I Peter 3:20, we have wherein few. What is the antecedent of few? It is spirits in verse 19. What do we know about these few? They were eight souls saved by water (v. 20). As we have already learned, these souls were the people in Noah’s family. But why was the word spirits used first and then souls later? Hebrews 4:12 tells us that the task of distinguishing between these two is difficult. Perhaps the word spirits is more related to the spiritual side of the men (as in spiritual rebirth), while the word souls is more related to the physical side (as lives saved from drowning). In any event, this line of reasoning further supports the idea that spirits in this context does indeed refer to people.
Whew! We are done except for that one last strange phrase in prison. We know that the word spirits can be interpreted men so we can now render it men in prison. Biblical references to prison do not help here. However, the concept of prison can be used to gain a reasonable interpretation of this phrase.
Because the creature [creation] itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. (Romans 8:21–22)
According to this passage in Romans the creation (including man) is in bondage and it groaneth and travaileth in pain. These phrases describe what it is like to be in prison while not referring to it explicitly. Similarly, the phrase glorious liberty describes the antithesis of this state of bondage. When we are freed from this prison we are released to glorious liberty.
In Hebrews 2:15 we read that it is Christ who will “deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” Without the deliverance of Christ, everyone is in bondage. Certainly these people in Noah’s day were in bondage to continual sin.
And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. (Genesis 6:5–6)
Based on the foregoing analysis, we will conclude that preached to souls in prison may be reasonably interpreted to mean preached to people in the bondage of sin.
The Traditional View
This analysis would not be complete without at least acknowledging a common, contrived (in my opinion) interpretation to this passage.
- Who: Christ
- When: between the cross and His resurrection
- Where: hades
- What: preached to dead people
- Why: to tell them the good news that he conquered death
- How: as a pre-resurrection spirit
At this point, it should be clear that the traditional view is quite a stretch from these two verses, but you be the judge. My guess is that if this latter interpretation is your view, you were first taught it rather than having determined it on your own.
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