Few if any passages of Scripture have more exercised the interpretive efforts of God’s people. Some say that is describes the “descent into hell” of our great Apostles’ Creed. The spirit of Jesus, however, did not descend into hell after his death and before his resurrection; he was with the converted thief that day in paradise –not in body but in his soul or spirit (Luke 23:43). Moreover, this is not a passage of suffering and torment but the result of his suffering: the living Savior proclaiming victory. The related idea that Christ after his death went to hell to preach and evangelize lost souls flies in the face of Scripture and must be decisively rejected. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). There is no second chance for those who have rejected the gospel in this life, and no possibility of salvation in hell for those who did not hear it. God’s witness to his existence and power in nature and in their own consciences is sufficient to condemn them (Rom. 1:18ff). That God did not send a “preacher of righteousness” to them falls within the scope of his secret providence, and we should question neither his justice nor his wisdom on this point. Here worshipful silence and submission are holiness and wisdom; speculation is to enroll in the devil’s school of doubt.
Others have said that the passage refers to the preaching of Christ through Noah at the time of the Flood, with perhaps some being saved before they drowned. The text, however, specifically says that only eight were saved: Noah and his family. Moreover, the grammar of the text will not allow this interpretation. A more likely interpretation is that of John Brown, the masterful Scottish expositor, who said that the “spirits in prison” refers to the lost souls of all men. After his resurrection, Christ preaches to them and opens their prison doors, as Isaiah prophesied (Isa. 61:1). This is true and very compelling. We are shut up in the dark dungeon of sin until Jesus Christ releases us from the chains that bind us. Brown is faithful to the purpose of the text – to show the outcome or results of Christ’s suffering – as well as its motivational heart – to encourage believers during times of suffering by pointing them to the glory of Christ. However, with great unwillingness his interpretation must be rejected. The aorist tenses of the passage indicate a sequence of events that are immediately related to one another, as well as definitive, completed acts at fixed points of time. “Went” and “preached” refer to a one-time declaration of Christ to these spirits, not to the ongoing proclamation of the gospel. Everything Peter mentions between the end of verse eighteen and verse twenty-two happened in one great series of now-completed events.
Let us begin where Peter does: with Christ’s death in flesh and quickening in spirit. “Flesh” and “spirit” lack the definitive article in Greek and are both in the dative case, without a preposition, which must be supplied. They are set in parallel to one another, which suggests two opposite states of existence in our Savior’s glorious work of salvation. The first is self-evident. Pertaining to his flesh, he was “put to death” for our sins. He was “crucified through weakness” (2 Cor. 13:4), in our flesh, condemned for our sins as our substitute to bear our curse. Our Lord was “born of a woman” and assumed our lowliness that he might be subjected to the law’s holy demands and obey it fully and joyfully in our place, thus making us righteous by his own righteousness imputed to us and received by faith alone (Gal. 4:4; 2 Cor. 5:21). Having obtained our redemption by his sufferings – there is a clear contrast in the text indicated by the me,n…de, construction – he became a “made-alive spirit.” This is not a reference to the Holy Spirit. While the Holy Spirit is closely associated with the resurrection of Christ (Rom. 1:4; 8:11), here the reference is to Christ’s own “spirit.” It is a parallel with Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 15:45: “And so it is written: The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.” Paul wrote that the “Lord is that spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17), not that there is any kind of personal confusion between the risen Savior and the Holy Spirit but that having died for our sins in weakness and shame, our Savior was raised not simply to life but as the life, the life-giving spirit, possessing all power and grace in his own person. This refers to his Mediatorial person; as the eternal Son of God, he has always possessed all life in himself (John 1:4). But as the Father’s promised reward for his obedience, suffering, and death (Ps. 2:8-9; Phil. 2:9-11), with a power and fullness he did not previously possess as Mediator, he became life to communicate life to dead souls. As Brown wrote, “He became a receptacle of life and spiritual influence.” As he bore witness of himself, “Unless a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). In the same passage, after declaring that he is about to judge the world and cast Satan out, he confessed: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (v. 32).
What we have in this terse line is a wondrous statement of our Lord’s passage from subjection to sin and death for our sake to his entrance into mediatorial power and life. Again, it must be remembered that this is no addition to his divine glory, eternity, or power. These were undiminished, though veiled, by his incarnation and humility (Phil. 2:6). Yet, he did experience a transition in the office he undertook to be the “suffering servant of the Lord.” He did not remain in that lowly state. Having fully discharged the debt owed to divine justice for our transgressions and having suffered our death penalty by the shedding of his own precious blood, he moved from suffering to glory, humiliation to exaltation. “Life-giving” or “made alive” spirit captures this idea very poignantly and powerfully. Whereas he was subject to death, he is now full of life: absolutely, representatively, personally, and ever-presently. All who look to him are delivered from the fear of death and “made alive” in him, even exalted with him now by faith (Eph. 2:5-6). Death can no longer touch him or us fatally for he has swallowed death whole by his life and now lives by the power of God to bring the fullness of salvation life to all his. We partake of his life when we embrace the gospel and experience the “first resurrection” (John 5:24). Personally, in our relationship with God, we are no longer under sin, death, and the curse; we possess righteousness, life, and peace with God through him. This life extends to every business, family relation, and nation in which Jesus Christ is believed and confessed as the Life of the soul and the Lord of every area of life. It will be fully realized when he quickens our dead bodies, making them alive by the same Spirit through whom he was raised. Then, we shall know more fully and experience to our eternal joy and deepest satisfaction that Jesus Christ truly is “the life” (John 14:6).
Verse nineteen begins with a relative phrase that should be interpreted “in which.” “By which,” is acceptable, as the old King James reads, provided we do not conclude from this that “spirit” at the end of verse eighteen is the Holy Spirit. It is not “by him” but “in which state,” in the state of “made-alive in spirit” that Jesus went and preached. The “also” should not be ignored. This word unites “made alive,” “went” and “preached” in an unbroken series of events. All these verbs are in the aorist tense, which stresses past tense, completed, one-time action. Where did Jesus go and to whom did he preach in his “made alive in spirit” state? Before answering that question, we must consider the repetition of the verb “went” (same verb, same aorist tense: poreuqei.j) in verse twenty-two. His going and preaching are inseparable from his ascension. We might say that he made this going and delivered this preaching on his way to the Father’s right hand. In fact, we must say it, for verses twenty and twenty-one are parenthetical. The main thought does not reach its climax until verses twenty-two, our Lord’s ascension.
Unbelieving men are never called “spirits in prison.” Peter is his own best interpreter here. In his second Epistle, he writes: “For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment” (2:4). Jude describes these fallen angels or demons in the same way: “And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day” (v. 3). Similarly, Satan is said to be now “in prison” (Rev. 20:7). There can be little doubt that Peter’s “spirits in prison” refers to the fallen, now demonic beings who revolted against God after their creation, with Satan at their head. They are “in prison” because God has bound them from working all the evil they would like and keeps them on a short leash so that they can only serve his purposes. Even more than their general hatred toward God and opposition to his word and kingdom, they were especially operative in the old, pre-Flood world. This was a grossly evil age: “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” (Gen. 6:5). These wretched spirits were very active in this period. Wherever sin abounds, you may be sure that Satan and his thugs lurk and instigate. The disobedience of these malevolent beings was acute: stirring men to greater heights of rebellion against God, unparalleled perversity, and technological sophistication in an attempt to dethrone man’s dependence upon God and escape his control, and all other evils that may be imagined. The hostility of man to God and his word was so entrenched and irremediable during this period that God sent a world-wide, catastrophic flood to abolish virtually all traces of this age and of the men who perpetrated such crimes against heaven.
Satan and these demons hate God’s image-bearer, man. They undoubtedly concluded from the Flood that God’s covenant purposes had been overthrown. They rejoiced to take these millions with them to hell, leaving God only eight. Keep these percentages up, they cackled, and we shall win in the end: more with us here in this pit than with God in paradise. How easy it shall be to wreak havoc with the pitiful eight that remain on earth. Ah, Peter says that God had the last laugh. For made alive in spirit, indeed, having become the life-giving spirit, Jesus went and preached to them. At his ascension (v. 22), he gathered them together, forced them to listen to his sermon, and heralded, as the word preached fundamentally signifies, with a loud, unmistakable, ringing, penetrating voice: “I have triumphed. You are doomed. You cannot win; my death cry, ‘It is finished,” was your death sentence. I have passed from death to life. Poor miserable sinners have been redeemed. I will have preeminence in all things. Do what you will to resist God and stir up human rebellion against him, I am Christus Victor. You know me; I cast you out on earth; that was only a token of what I shall now do to you. I ascend to heaven triumphant. Satan, my cross is forever in your hideous skull. The works that I did, my people shall do greater than these, because I ascend to my Father with glory, power, and universal dominion over all things.” The going and preaching Peter describes is what Paul wrote in Colossians 2:15: “And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.”
What a sight this must have been! How the universe must have thundered! We have a picture of this event in Psalm 68. We cannot imagine that since Elijah was taken into heaven in a flaming chariot the victorious, living, and resurrected Savior of sinners would have made a quiet ascent. No, the heavens were filled with tens of thousands of fiery chariots (v. 17) and myriads of angels. If they sang at his birth, what must their song have been at his ascent? We hear it in Revelation 4-5: “Worthy is the Lamb!” We think that chorus ended; it never shall. Those in heaven see more clearly than we do – with all our earthly comings and goings, business and distractions, beastly weakness and worldliness – that the singular, consuming issue of life, all of life, is the glory of God. What more glorified him than when his Beloved, having humbled himself unto death, even the death of the cross, ransomed sinners, brought in everlasting righteousness, and sealed the covenant with his own blood? In other words, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of sinners, showed the universe that God’s word is true, his dominion invincible, his purposes irresistible. Far more is involved in the death of the Son of God than simply our own salvation. The very character, holiness, and sovereignty of God are at stake. Will Satan prevail or God, righteousness or filth, truth or lies, grace or lawlessness? Heaven is obsessed with the glory of God in these matters, and rightly so. Thus, upon his “ascending up on high and leading captivity captive (v. 18), a glorious host received and welcomed him back to heaven. Satan and his minions, called to witness his triumph, were forced to listen to his preaching, his proclamation of victory. He rubbed holiness in their filthy hearts, plunged the cross into their damned souls, and revealed his glory to their hate-filled eyes. They are still writhing, doomed, and damned, and they know it. Deepest darkness is reserved for them. They hate God and hate Christians. Satan and his host do all they can to frustrate, tempt, attack, and divide the church on earth (Rev. 12:17). Yet, when resisted in faith, they must flee (James 4:7). They have heard the voice of the triumphant Son of God. They are filled with fear; they know that wrath is coming. And as for heaven, it is still singing, exulting, vibrating with the return of the risen Son of God in glory and power.
How blessed we are in to live in these days which the prophets foretold and for which they longed! The glory and victory of God were not as clear to Noah as they are to us. This is one of Peter’s reasons for mentioning Noah. The believers in Asia Minor lived in an evil day; so did Noah. There were only eight saved in the ark; believers in the first century were still comparatively few and greatly outnumbered. Noah was preserved by the longsuffering of God; he was one hundred and twenty years building the ark – all the while God waited and watched, preached through Noah and warned of coming judgment. If God preserved one small family from such cataclysm, will he not much more preserve his church now that our victorious Savior has ascended to heaven with a shout of victory? In certain periods of history it may look like the church is doomed: vastly outnumbered, compromised with the world, poised for extinction. If he saved eight, he will certainly now save all men and nations, for he has crowned his crucified Son with glory and honor. He will give his Son the preeminence in all things (Col. 1:18). He has defeated the malice of Satan through his suffering Savior and Servant. He will save us. We walk in our Lord’s triumphal procession (2 Cor. 2:14). We are raised with him by faith and share in his life. Now that the Christ has come and suffered for sin, the enemies of God have the death rattle in their throat. Sin and Satan must still be resisted; we must be armed to the teeth with God’s full armor. But it is the wicked, not the righteous, who are immersed by the floods of God’s judgment. The day belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the age of his power and triumph. He sits as King above the floods.
If believers are comparatively few today, we must not despair. If Satan’s deceptions seem irresistible, let us lift up our eyes to heaven and behold the Son of God enthroned at the Father’s right hand. His longsuffering is our salvation. He is working out his purposes. He is patient with us, allowing us to grow through sanctification, by which we come to know more the power and joy of our Savior’s life in us. He will save the world. Jesus Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world but to save it. His work will be glorious on the earth. He shall “see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand” (Isa. 53:10). Of the increase of his government and peace there will never be an end (Isa. 9:6). Do not make your peace with the world, with the sin in your life, with the devil. He has heard the sentence of doom pronounced upon him. He cannot prevail. Resist him – in your home, marriages, places of business, and nation – and he must flee. Christ is alive. He was crucified through weakness but now lives through the power of God. He has spoken; he has triumphed. Armed with God’s word and promise, let us not leave our place, as the fallen angels once did, but let us stand where the Lord has called us. He stands with us. He is Lord of all. In him, neither our labors nor our sufferings are in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). In Christ we have overflowing cause for joy, confidence, and hope.