Strangers And Aliens (17a): As It Was In The Days Of Noah (1 Peter 3:18–22)

18For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19in whom he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him (1 Peter 3:18–22) 18ὅτι καὶ Χριστὸς ἅπαξ περὶ ἁμαρτιῶν ἔπαθεν, δίκαιος ὑπὲρ ἀδίκων, ἵνα ὑμᾶς προσαγάγῃ τῷ θεῷ θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκὶ ζῳοποιηθεὶς δὲ πνεύματι· 19ἐν ᾧ καὶ τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν, 20 ἀπειθήσασίν ποτε ὅτε ἀπεξεδέχετο ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ μακροθυμία ἐν ἡμέραις Νῶε κατασκευαζομένης κιβωτοῦ εἰς ἣν ὀλίγοι, τοῦτ᾿ ἔστιν ὀκτὼ ψυχαί, διεσώθησαν δι᾿ ὕδατος. 21 ὃ καὶ ὑμᾶς ἀντίτυπον νῦν σῴζει βάπτισμα, οὐ σαρκὸς ἀπόθεσις ῥύπου ἀλλὰ συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς θεόν, δι᾿ ἀναστάσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, 22 ὅς ἐστιν ἐν δεξιᾷ [τοῦ] θεοῦ πορευθεὶς εἰς οὐρανόν ὑποταγέντων αὐτῷ ἀγγέλων καὶ ἐξουσιῶν καὶ δυνάμεων.

vv. 18–20: As It Was In The Days Of Noah
Few passages in the New Testament have been as misunderstood and de-contextualized as this one. As always, it is essential to bear in mind immediate and broader context in order to interpret this passage (or any) correctly. Remember that Peter’s two epistles were written in the mid-60s AD to Christians who were doubtless aware of the grievous suffering of the Christians in Rome, under Nero. They were also facing informal cultural and religious pressure to conform to the prevailing pagan status quo. Why did they not buy meat for sacrifices to the pagan gods? Why were they absent from the cultural-religious gatherings to honor the emperor as a god? Why were they so different? What did they do early on Sunday mornings anyway? As has been mentioned, within decades the Christians in Asia Minor (Turkey) would be facing government-sponsored persecution and martyrdom.

To help them understand their own times the Apostle Peter pointed them to a similar time, to Noah, who was also surrounded by doubting pagans, who did not believe either the law of the coming judgment or the gospel of salvation offered freely in Christ. As it was in the days of Noah (Luke 17:26) so it was in their day (and in ours today). The law has been announced and the gospel is preached but relatively few actually believe. In 2 Peter 2:5 Peter wrote, “if he did not spare the world that then was but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly…”. Peter appeals to what I call “The Noah Paradigm” to explain to the Christians in Asia Minor why they were suffering (and would suffer) and how to think about it. Like Noah, Peter was a preacher of righteousness as were the other apostles and New Testament ministers.

Historically, however, the immediate context and the broader (Noahic) redemptive-historical context has frequently been ignored. Some of the language in this passage has proven too difficult to resist in the service of various doctrines of an intermediate state between this life and glorification. As I explained in my commentary on Heidelberg 44, since before the 7th century it has been widely held that Christ went either to the place of the dead or to the dead ones to announce victory/preach the gospel (which view Augustine rejected as heretical), and the Anglican/Lutheran view is that he went to conquer Satan and deliver the dead from hell. See that commentary for more details and for a brief explanation of the “descendit (“he descended”) clause of the Apostles’ Creed.

On its own terms, in its immediate and broader contexts, however, this passage says nothing about Jesus going to the place of the dead. It says much about what the Spirit was doing then (and now) through the preaching of the law and the gospel. It is true that the passage begins with a reminder that Christ “suffered (ἔπαθεν) once for all (ἅπαξ) on behalf of sins, the just for the unjust” (δίκαιος ὑπὲρ ἀδίκων) but Peter does not move on to recite Christ’s death and burial. We must not move from this passage to the Creed. Peter’s interest here is to pick up the theme he established just above, that more than we, Christ suffered. We suffer in imitation and as a consequent of his once-for-all substitutionary suffering. He suffered as the God-Man and Mediator, as our representative. Our suffering is not on that order but his suffering does establish a pattern for Christian suffering under persecution and oppression. He is the righteous (just) one and he was just for us, in our place.

The purpose or result (ἵνα) is that we, the elect who have been brought to new life and to true faith (1:1,2), should be efficaciously led or brought (προσαγάγῃ) to God. Christ accomplished this by being put to death (θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκὶ) in his flesh and by virtue of his having been made alive ( ζῳοποιηθεὶς) or raised by the Holy Spirit. Jesus was not made alive merely in his human spirit, though that is certainly true. Here Peter’s use of “Spirit” (πνεῦμα) echoes Paul’s where it typically refers not to the human spirit but to the Holy Spirit. This becomes clearer in the next clause.

The best way to translate and interpret the opening phrase of v. 19 (ἐν ᾧ) is not “in which” (i.e., in the human spirit) but rather “in whom,” i.e., in the Holy Spirit. This is best accounts for what follows. Peter’s following reference to “spirits in prison” (ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν) is not to the dead in an intermediate state. Rather, it is a metaphorical way to describe the reprobates in Noah’s day (and in ours). Peter says, “to whom, having gone, he preached.” To whom did Jesus preach, in the Spirit? When did he preach to them in the Spirit? Peter explains: “to the disobedient ones when (ποτε) God waited (ἀπεξεδέχετο) with patience (μακροθυμία) in the days of Noah (ἐν ἡμέραις Νῶε). The “disobedient ones” is epexegetical (explanatory) of the spirits in prison.” Peter says exactly to whom and when Jesus preached and how he preached. He preached through the Spirit then as he does now. He preached to disobedient reprobates through his minister Noah, the preacher of righteousness, as he does now through Peter (and through ministers today). As he preached, Peter was building (κατασκευαζομένης) the ark or perhaps his ark building was part of his preaching. It was a giant sermon illustration of the coming judgment, a sort of sacrament of judgment and salvation for all to see. By the ark (Christ), God’s elect are saved (διεσώθησαν) from or in the midst of the waters of persecution and judgment. The waters are not themselves saving. The English preposition through is ambiguous. It can signal instrumentality or circumstance. Here Peter is thinking and signalling circumstance, not instrument. The water did not save Noah and the covenant people. The water was a death-dealing judgment from which and in the midst of which they were saved. God saved them through faith (Heb 11:7)  by means of the ark, which certainly stands for Christ, as Peter is about to explain.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!

One comment

  1. Two brief comments. 1.) This is really helpful stuff on a difficult passage, thank you! 2.) From a design stand point, thank you for making your links open in a new window rather than jump to that new window! Makes using this sight for research much more user friendly.

Comments are closed.