SPECIAL TOPIC: SPIRITS IN PRISON (from 1 Peter 3:18,19)
1 Pet. 3:19 – "the spirits" There are two theories concerning this word:
1. dead men (1 Pet. 4:6; Heb. 12:23)
2. evil angels (Genesis 6; 2 Pet. 2:4-5; Jude 6: I Enoch). Humans are not referred to in the NT as "spirits" without other qualifiers (cf. F. F. Bruce, Answers to Questions, p. 128).
"now in prison" – There are several items in the text in 1 Pet. 3:18-20 which must be linked together in some way to determine what Peter is referring to:
1. Jesus was "in the spirit" (1 Pet. 3:18)
2. Jesus preached to "spirits" who were imprisoned (1 Pet. 3:19)
3. these spirits were disobedient in the days of Noah (1 Pet. 3:20)
When all of these are compared, a message to the fallen angels of Genesis 6 or the humans of Noah's day who drowned, seem the only textual options. Noah's day is also mentioned in Matt. 24:38-42; 2 Pet. 2:4-5, along with Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. 2 Pet. 2:6). In Jude rebellious angels (cf. Jude 6) and Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. Jude 7) are also linked together.
It is unclear from the larger context why Peter even mentions this subject unless he is using the flood as an analogy to baptism (i.e., being saved through water, cf. 1 Pet. 3:20).
Two of the major points of contention in interpreting this passage are (1) when and (2) the content of Christ's preaching.
1. the preexistent Christ preached through Noah (cf. 1 Pet. 1:11 where the Spirit of Christ preached through the OT writers) to the people of his day, now imprisoned (Augustine)
2. Christ, between death and resurrection, preached to the imprisoned people of Noah's day
a. condemnation to them
b. salvation to them (Clement of Alexandria)
c. good things to Noah and his family (in Paradise) in front of those who died in the flood (in Tartarus)
3. Christ, between death and resurrection, preached to
a. the angels who took human women and had children by them (cf. Gen. 6:1-2)
b. the half-angel, half-human offspring of Gen. 6:4 (see Special Topic: "sons of God in Genesis 6. The content of the message was their judgment and His victory. I Enoch says these disembodied half-angel/half-humans are the demons of the NT.
4. Christ as the victorious Messiah ascended through the heavens (i.e., angelic levels of the Gnostics or the seven heavens of the rabbis, cf. 1 Pet. 3:22; Eph. 4:9-10; Heb. 4:14). II Enoch 7:1-5 says that the fallen angels are imprisoned in the second heaven. He, by this very act, announced His victory over the angelic realms (i.e., all spiritual opposition, cf. the Jerome Bible Commentary, p. 367). I like this option best in this context.
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