for the ears:
for the eyes:
On Sunday, May 25th, the Revised Common Lectionary took us to 1 Peter 3:13-22 — a wide conglomeration of verses, kind of like those variety cheesecakes that actually have 3 or 4 different flavored slices divided up in the package, which fulfills the chocoaholic and the strawberryaholic at the party. This particular text is kinda like that. You’ve got your straightforward admonishments about doing good, guidelines about interacting with a culture that is hostile toward the things of God, and a powerful reminder of the centrality of Christ’s suffering and victory in our lives. And then you’ve got the cheesecake slice that’s just… strange. Not bad. Just… strange. Hmm.
Here’s our section:
After being made alive, [Jesus] went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits — to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also…
Huh? The risen Jesus went and talked to the people who died in the flood? If you’re familiar with the resurrection account, then this might stand out to you. How many Easter Pageants include Jesus heading down to hades post-resurrection to preach a sermon?
We don’t talk much about the time Jesus “made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits”. Understanding what this means is like untying a knot of many wires when upgrading your home theater — you could spend hours tracing just one wire, let alone getting anything connected again. On top of the sheer perplexity of Jesus descending, you’ve also got Peter’s mention of Noah and the ark — a familiar story in suddenly unfamiliar territory. These are what the theologians call “problem verses” — 1 Peter 3:19-21.
On Sunday, May 25th, at Portage Free Methodist, I had the privilege and challenge of preaching through this text, which included said problem verses. Already pressed for time and never quite studied to the point of effective clarity, I had to skip over them. I only offered two quick observations. One, Jesus has the authority to do whatever he wants. If Jesus wants to go and preach to imprisoned spirits, it’s His prerogative. He certainly has the keys, and He certainly has the message. Two, Noah and the ark prefigures Christ as the only way to be saved. There was no other boat. There was no figure out your own way to float — whatever is true floating for you — as long as you feel like you’re floating, who am I to judge? Like the Ark, Jesus is the only way to be saved.
My passing commentary didn’t even scratch the surface of what’s going on. By the way, this blog post won’t, either — there is so very very very much here, and I’m just an intrigued pastor. I’ll summarize what I’ve encountered in a few commentaries and then wrap up by quoting Martin Luther.
Scot McKnight, in his fantastic NIV Application Commentary — 1 Peter, writes about three primary interpretations of Jesus going and making proclamation to the imprisoned spirits. I remind you that these are my own notes and paraphrases in which I run the risk of misunderstanding what McKnight has said. Nevertheless, for the sake of a good wrestling match between me and Randy “Macho Man” Tough Verse, here goes…
The first view: Jesus truly descended into Hell and preached a sermon. The audience was comprised of either victims of the Noah flood, or possibly fallen angels (“spirits”). The prison is the underworld. The sermon was an invitation to salvation, since they had never heard the gospel.
The second view: Peter is describing the preexistent Christ, where Noah “played” or “acted as” Christ in the flood. Just as Noah had to explain why he was building the ark to the people around him (preaching), Jesus preached repentance before the coming Kingdom.
The third view: Peter is describing an event where Jesus made a proclamation of his victory before an audience of sinners — that Jesus made His victory “official” in the spiritual places, perhaps just to the fallen angels who believed that they were right and that God was wrong.
In her excellent commentary on 1 Peter, Karen H. Jobes (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) gives a behind the scenes view of what it’s like for a scholar to work through the verses. “This intriguing passage is fraught with problems that obscure its interpretation — text-critical problems, grammatical ambiguities, lexical uncertainties, theological issues, as well as the question of what literary and theological background the author is assuming.” The reality (to borrow more from Jobes) is that we don’t know exactly where Jesus went, when He went, who He talked to, and what exactly He said. Nonetheless, Christians should be encouraged by its content because oppressed powers are eventually thwarted by the victory of Christ.
In reference to the spirits in prison, John Wesley says:
“The unholy men before the flood, who were then reserved by the justice of God, as in a prison, till he executed the sentence upon them all; and are now also reserved to the judgment of the great day.”
I like John Wesley. He just gets right down to it and moves on. Maybe that’s what I should do.
Then, of course, there’s the view that Peter is referring to Enoch, not Jesus, which is (kinda) substantiated by 1 Enoch. You don’t, by the way, find 1 Enoch in the protestant Canon, though we should still include this view because of its historical significance. I don’t really favor this perspective, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s always been about Jesus, not Enoch. Peter — the person and the letter both — are undeniably Christocentric.
Christians love the easy ones that fit on oven mitts, like John 3:16 and Jeremiah 29:11, but tough passages like these deserve our attention, too. In fact, when you’ve finally untangled the knot, or, at least made some progress, you have a better appreciation for the things that are truly beyond us. Why are these things included in the bible, and why doesn’t God make it easier to understand? Seems like a bad Public Relations move, if you ask me. If God had better PR, He would’ve kept this confusing passage out, right?? But it’s not about PR — it’s about Truth, and Truth can’t let audience perception factor content. If it did, we would no longer consider that truth to be true.
Jobes et. al. quote Martin Luther’s take. Confident, intelligent, and solid Luther, who, when writing about this particular verse, threw up his Lutheran hands and said (though, I like to think he shouted): “This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament. I still do not know what the apostle meant.”
Now that’s a commentary I can resonate with.