1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6
The Spirits in Prison
The passage before us today is somewhat obscure and scholars do not agree as to its meaning. I will not pretend to unlock any mysteries with this devotion but hope to approach it with humility. But let us begin with the good news of verse eighteen: “For 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.” This short passage lays out for us in a most obvious way the doctrine of our Lord’s substitutionary death—that is, his death on our behalf: the Righteous One for the unrighteous one, the Sinless One for the sinful one, the One through whom the world was created for the creature. Our Lord’s substitutionary death is just as important as his Incarnation, indeed, the very event to which the latter led. Why does he assume our nature if not to take our place? It is not enough that he show us how to live. We do not need another prophet; we need the God-man to redeem, reconcile, and restore us to life. His death, resurrection, and ascension are the fulfillment of his Incarnation—the very purpose for his coming in the flesh. And only by his taking our sins upon himself can we even begin this journey of faith whereby we slowly but steadily make our way to the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. We must be saved, and this can only be through his taking our place—which is what the Incarnation was all about.
Though contemporary scholarship disagrees with me, I stand by the historic interpretation of verses nineteen and twenty as referring, ever so cryptically, to our Lord’s descent into hell during those three days (e.g., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, XI: 106-108). His body lay in the tomb, but he was yet “alive in the spirit in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” I understand that Peter speaks only of those who died during Noah’s day, but I take them as representative of all who died before our Lord’s death: those righteous spirits who awaited his coming so to convey them to Paradise (Ephesians 4:8-10), and those wicked to whom he manifest his victory. Granted, Jesus commended his spirit to the Father upon his death (Luke 23:46), but we believe that even when alive in the body, our Lord’s spirit was ever free and not bound to any one place, just as he is now. The Apostles’ Creed says, “He descended into hell.” And though this may have been a later addition to the Creed, it expresses an ancient interpretation thereof. And I rather like it. Why shouldn’t Christ descend to hell? For through him all things were made—even hell. Christ is both the devil’s Master and hell’s Lord.