Notes (NET Translation)
3:18 Because Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring you to God, by being put to death in the flesh but by being made alive in the spirit.
The Greek term hapax (“once [for all]”) indicates that Christ’s death and resurrection were unique and definitive (Achtemeier 246). Christ is just and sinless (2:22) and therefore his suffering was undeserved. Christ’s death was for the unjust in order to bring believers into a right relationship with God (“bring you to God”). Christ’s “ultimate exaltation and glorification at God’s right hand [v 22] is the surety of their vindication as well” (Elliott 638).
Beginning with the phrase “by being put to death in the flesh but by being made alive in the spirit” the interpretation of this passage becomes much more difficult.
Even if this passage is more obscure than we might wish, two clear points anchor the point of the text: (1) Being linked with 3:13-17 by o’r xai (hoti kai, because also, 3:18), the 3:18-22 passage is intended to ground the immediately preceding claim that it is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. (2) Even though Christ suffered unjustly to death for doing good, that suffering was not the defeat it may have appeared to be but was instead a victory over all angels, authorities, and powers (3:22). Suffering unjustly for doing good is therefore not the final judgment about who is in the right. Moreover, Peter is keen to impress on his readers that nothing that can come against them is beyond the control of the risen and living Christ (3:22). Hence, if they suffer for being Christians, it is within God’s will (3:17). Therefore, this passage, as obscure as its details may be, functions as a word of encouragement to Christians oppressed by the powers they faced. The interpretation of its obscurities and ambiguities should be governed by its function within this immediate context in the letter. (Jobes loc. 3670-3676)
We can begin by noting that the phrase “being put to death” obviously refers to the death of Christ and that the phrase “being made alive” (zoopoietheis) refers to his resurrection (Jn 5:21; Rom 4:17; 8:11; 1 Cor 15:22, 36, 45; Eph 2:5; Col 2:13). In other words, this verse is not referring to Jesus’ soul in the interval between his death and resurrection. Jesus’ soul would not be “made alive” at his death for it would have been alive prior to his death.
The balance of the term “flesh” (sarx) by the term “spirit” (pneuma) strongly suggests that both terms have the same grammatical function (Elliott 645). This means that the interpretation of Thomas R. Schreiner (p. 184), that the dative noun “flesh” is a dative of reference while the dative noun “spirit” is a dative of agency (i.e., Christ was put to death with reference to or in the sphere of his body and was made alive by the agency of the Spirit), is implausible. Achtemeier thinks it means Christ was put to death by humans (flesh) but raised by God’s Spirit (p. 250).
“[T]he majority of recent commentators understand the contrasting phrases ‘put to death in flesh’ but ‘made alive in spirit’ to refer either to two spheres of Christ’s existence (the earthly sphere versus the eschatological) or to two modes of his personal existence (in human form before his death and in glorified form after his resurrection)” (Jobes loc. 3754-3755). J. R. Michaels states (p. 205): “The statement that Christ was ‘made alive in the Spirit,’ therefore, means simply that he was raised from the dead, not as a spirit, but bodily (as resurrection always is in the NT), and in a sphere in which the Spirit and power of God are displayed without hindrance or human limitation (cf. 1:21). Death ‘in the flesh’ is conquered and reversed; Jesus Christ is set free to complete a mission of utmost importance for the readers of the epistle.”
3:19 In it he went and preached to the spirits in prison, 3:20 after they were disobedient long ago when God patiently waited in the days of Noah as an ark was being constructed. In the ark a few, that is eight souls, were delivered through water.
Some commentators have taken verses 19-20 to refer to the so-called “harrowing of hell.” On this interpretation the “spirits in prison” are those who perished during Noah’s flood and, during the interval between Christ’s death and resurrection, Christ preached to these individuals and offered them the opportunity to repent and be saved. However, the majority opinion today is that these verses describe Christ’s proclamation of judgment and victory over fallen angels/demons.
That this verse follows a reference to Christ’s resurrection implies the action in v 19 occurred after Jesus’ resurrection. The use of the Greek term poreutheis in both v 19 and v 22 suggests that the same action is in view in both verses. Verse 22 explicitly refers to Christ’s ascension and therefore it is sensible to see v 19 as a reference to the ascension as well, especially since the verb is used elsewhere in the NT to refer to Christ’s ascension (Jn 14:2-3, 12, 28; 16:7, 28; Acts 1:10-11). Thus, v 19 is stating that Christ preached during or after his ascension, not between his death and resurrection.
In the NT, the term “spirits” (pneumata) nearly always refers to angels (Michaels 206-207). The term “prison” (phylake) never denotes the place of punishment for human beings after death but is used in Revelation 20:7 for Satan’s confinement. That evil angels were imprisoned is taught in Jewish tradition (1 Enoch 10:4; 15:8, 10; 18:12-14; 21:1-10; 67:7; 69:28; 2 Enoch 7:1-3; 18:3; Jub. 5:6; 2 Bar. 56:13). Verse 19 teaches that Christ preached to fallen angels/demons.
A possible objection to this view is that the term “preached” (ekryxen) usually refers to the preaching of the gospel. But this objection is not decisive for the term can be used in the neutral sense of “proclaim” or “announce” (Lk 12:3; Rom 2:21; Gal 5:11; Rev 5:2). It is worth noting that Enoch, in 1 Enoch 12:4, goes and tells the Watchers (fallen angels) that they will be judged. In light of v 22, Christ’s preaching probably involved the proclamation of his victory over evil.
Genesis 6:1-4, the meaning of which is debated, is most likely the disobedience Peter alludes to in verse 20. The standard Jewish interpretation in Peter’s day was that the angels were punished for their sexual relations with women (1 En. 6-22, 64-69, 85-89; 106; Wis 10:4; Sir 16:7; Jub. 4:15, 22, 24; 5:1-6:3; 7:20-33; 10:1-6; 2 En. 7:1-5; 18:1-9, 34-35; 73; CD 2:17-21; 1QapGen 2:1; 1Q19; 1Q19bis; 1Q23-24; 4Q201-207, 212; 4Q530-531; 6QapGen 2:18-21 T. Reu. 5:6-7; T. Naph. 3:5; 2 Bar. 56:8-16; 3 Bar. 4:10-15; Apoc. Ab. 13-14; Sib. Or. 1:97-104, 125-282; 7:7-15; Josephus, Ant. 1.72-95; Ag. Ap. 130; Philo, On the Giants; The Unchangeableness of God). Early Christian writings, including 2 Peter 2:4-5 which may have been written by the author of 1 Peter, also show awareness of this tradition (Jude 6, 13-15; Just. Mart., 1 Apol. 5; 2 Apol. 5). The story of Noah’s flood immediately follows Gen 6:1-4 although some time elapsed for God to display his patience (possibly alluded to in Gen 6:3). As noted before, the reference to “souls” refers to the whole human being and not solely an immaterial substance (immaterial souls would not need to be placed in the ark after all). The phrase “delivered through water” assumes God was the saving agent. Noah and family were not saved by means of the water but were saved while passing through the water (Elliott 667).
3:21 And this prefigured baptism, which now saves you – not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience to God – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 3:22 who went into heaven and is at the right hand of God with angels and authorities and powers subject to him.
The flood event is a (anti-)type or pattern (antitypon, “prefigured”) of the baptism event. The flood was a form of judgment on the wicked but also a form of salvation for the righteous. Christ’s eschatological victory brings judgment on the wicked and salvation to the righteous. Believers will escape the eschatological judgment because they have passed through the waters of baptism, which saves them by virtue of Christ’s resurrection. “Now” contrasts with the time of the flood and does not refer to the exact moment of baptism (Achtemeier 267).
The phrase “not the washing off of physical dirt” indicates that baptism is not a mechanical means of salvation. While the NET refers to “physical dirt” the Greek probably refers to moral filth:
Therefore, the apostle is saying that the baptism that saves does not remove moral filth from Christians in such a once-and-for-all way that Christians need not care about how they live after being baptized. In fact, he uses the cognate verb of apothesis in 1 Pet. 2:1 to admonish them to put off the characteristics that impede their spiritual nourishment, and in 2:11 he exhorts them to abstain from the desires that war against the soul. Many, perhaps all, of Peter’s readers had presumably already been baptized in water. This stands as a reminder to them that water baptism is not a “ticket to heaven” that exempts them from subsequent issues of morality. (Jobes loc. 3954-3958)
The meaning of “pledge (eperotema) of a good conscience to God” is not certain. Thomas R. Schreiner takes it to mean that believers ask God — on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ — to cleanse their consciences and forgive their sins (pp. 195-197). Karen Jobes takes it to mean that believers made a pledge at baptism to remain faithful to God. In a similar vein, J. H. Elliott takes it to mean a pledge to God of a sound and constant mindfulness of God’s will (691).
Thus baptism, as the antitype of Noah’s deliverance through water from his evil contemporary world, similarly delivers the Christians from their evil contemporary world by allowing them, through their participation in the power of the risen Christ and his defeat of the powers of evil, now to live a life pleasing to God and appropriate to their redemption through Christ. To accept baptism is thus to accept the responsibility, through the baptismal pledge, to maintain such a life in the midst of a hostile world, a major point of the letter as a whole. (Acthemeier 272)
The “right hand” symbolizes honor and power. That Christ is seated at God’s right hand shows that God has given him supreme authority. All three terms (angels, authorities, powers) refer to supernatural beings. Christ rules over them all. “He has not surrendered believers into the power of evil forces even if they suffer until death. Jesus by his death and resurrection has triumphed over all demonic forces, and hence by implication believers will reign together with him” (Schreiner 198).
Achtemeier, Paul J. 1 Peter. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996.
Elliott, John Hall. 1 Peter. Yale University Press, 2007.
Jobes, Karen. 1 Peter. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 2005.
Michaels, J. Ramsey. 1 Peter. Thomas Nelson, 1988.
Schreiner, Thomas R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2003.