Today we’re going to examine a very difficult passage of scripture. Our difficulty today arises not because of cultural conflict, but rather because this passage stands as a truly unique one in the Bible. We have no other passages exactly like this one and there are few other passages dealing with our topic that can help us interpret it. Practically every great preacher and theologian throughout history has said that this was, is, and most likely will remain the most obscure text in the New Testament. Of our text today Martin Luther once said, “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for certain what Peter means.” I admire Luther’s faith, that though he did not fully understand this text he embraced it as wonderful because it is the word of God given through our brother Peter and that ultimately points the goodness, grace, and sovereignty of God. And Father as we approach this challenging text today we pray for help. We will not be settling the issues this passage raises once and for all here today and for some of us like myself that can be rather frustrating. But Father help us to embrace the mysteries of this passage, to trust your word as truth, to trust you as good, and to not miss what this passage is trying to communicate to us as most important. Allow our hearts, ears, and minds to be open to the leading and teaching of the Holy Spirit now we pray, in Jesus name - Amen.
Our text today is:
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, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because 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. Baptism, 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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
Peter begins in our text today by declaring a truth of immense importance to us as Christians for so many reasons. Jesus Christ, the righteous one, perfect, sinless, holy - he suffers for the sins of His people, dying in place of them, substituting himself for them. He does this once, and only once. Jesus one time sacrifice is sufficient because of His perfection and sinlessness. We do not need to offer any other sacrifices or for Jesus to die over and over again on our behalf. He is sufficient. And for most of you hearing that, you’re thinking well yeah - what’s so surprising about that? But it’s a truth you need to remember and understand with clarity because there is a heretical religious system today that masquerades as true Christianity even though it stands in direct contradiction to the word of God on so many things including this. The Roman Catholic Church proclaims still today that the Mass is a gathering in which Christ is offered or as they would term it, “presented” over and over and over again. He is continually and perpetually re-sacrificed - there is a continual and ever needed ongoing sacrifice of Jesus in their practices. My friends that is blasphemous! In saying that Jesus must be sacrificed over and over, re-presented over and over our Roman Catholic friends, whether they know it or not are saying that Jesus one time sacrifice was not sufficient. Either Jesus is thus seen as imperfect or His work incomplete or they believe their sins too great for His one time sacrifice to overcome - either way they have blasphemed Jesus and denied what scripture teaches - that Jesus is sufficient, that His sacrifice was once for sins - period. Scripture says exactly that.
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
If you are a Roman Catholic and you’re hearing this message know this, I’m not trying to rob you of your faith, I’m trying to show you the real Jesus who can save. I urge you to repent of the blasphemy of the Roman Catholic Mass and to throw yourself upon the grace and mercy of Christ Jesus. It is only by this one time sacrifice that you may be made righteous and come into the presence of the Father. Any other sacrifice you or another offers on your behalf, even one claiming to be done in Jesus name will only heap judgment upon you.
Peter continues saying Jesus was put to death in the flesh, He actually dies. He doesn’t faint or swoon as some of our pagan and Muslim friends believe. Jesus dies on the cross.
And here’s something important for us to understand as Christians, when Jesus dies He does not cease to exist. There are numerous groups, including cults claiming to be Christians who believe that Jesus is not God because God can’t die. They say oh if God dies than He’s not God because God can’t cease to be. Friends that’s not what death is. Death is not the cessation of existence. These cults have a fundamental misunderstanding of death. Furthermore they miss the point of the incarnation. Yes in a sense they are right on a point - God being eternal cannot cease to exist, nor could He who is spirit, who nature and essence is other than His creations undergo the process we call death unless He took on the form of one of His creations. And that’s exactly what scriptures says and we believe. That God came in the flesh, He incarnated, He condescended adding to His divinity humanity so that He could then die as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of His people. Jesus dies, but He does not cease to be, not only because death does not mean annihilation, but also because He is indeed God.
So now is when we come to the hard part. When Jesus died and His spirit departed His body, verse 19 says
in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because 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.
Yeah. If you’re left scratching your head at this point don’t worry. It’s a very difficult passage as I said so we will try to understand it as best we can.
First the question must be asked - where does Jesus go? We know He doesn’t cease to exist when He dies, but where does He spend those days until His resurrection? Does He go to Heaven as would seem to be indicated when Jesus says to the criminal on the cross that this day you will be with me in paradise? Does Jesus go to Hell as certain creeds and confessions of church history declare, like the Apostles Creed which says of Jesus that he,
“was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.”
Did Jesus go to some other place?
This passage does not give us great clarity on the issue by itself. But we’ll look at some possibilities in a moment.
The second question that we must ask is who is Jesus proclaiming to? And third question, what is taking place in this proclaiming? Is Jesus preaching? Is He evangelizing? Is He simply declaring His victory? Lot’s of questions and very little time. So let’s look at some possible answers.
For question one, where does Jesus go there are only three possible answers:
Sheol or Hades - The Abode of the Dead
As Protestants we believe not just in some texts of the Bible, but in all of the Bible given together as sacred scripture to us by God through His servants. We believe in Tota Scriptura - all of scripture together as God’s revelation of Himself, His mission, and His law. So in looking at all scripture together we must allow scripture to interpret scripture providing us with greater understanding and clarity together. Keep that in mind as we look at our possibilities now.
So did Jesus go to heaven? While passages like the criminal on the cross would seem to indicate that, passages like this one don’t seem to. Why? Because Peter describes the place Jesus went to as Prison. Heaven is obviously not a prison, nor is it a place for the disobedient who Peter says Jesus went to proclaim to. Furthermore Jesus in speaking to the criminal on the cross could have very clearly articulated that they were going to “Heaven” together, but rather Jesus chose the unique word - paradise. That is deliberate, it’s not a coincidence. So let’s look at option two. Did Jesus go to Hell?
Here again there is difficulty for several reasons. Jesus word to the criminal on the cross was that the criminal would be with Him in paradise that day. Hell cannot in any way be described as paradise. Jesus makes clear that Hell is a place of punishment where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, describing it as a fiery furnace. Not what one anyone would describe as paradise. Furthermore Peter doesn’t use the word here that we would translate as Hell or that he himself uses in his second letter to speak of Hell. The most common word translated as Hell is the word Gehenna. And Peter in writing about Hell in uses the word tartaroo (tartaro oh), Tartarus. This was an intentionally chosen word that people would have understood as the deepest, darkest, abyss of Hell. So Peter knows how to convey the specific meaning of Hell and does so clearly when he means to. But here he doesn’t use Gehenna or Tartaroo or abyss or pit. Instead he uses the word, phylake (fil ah kay), the common word for prison - place of holding where people await judicial decision. So Hell would not seem to be indicated here either. So where does Jesus go?
There is a third option that many theologians believe most probable - the abode of the dead, the place called Sheol in the Old Testament or Hades in the New Testament. This is not an intermediate state akin to the Roman Catholic idea of purgatory where you burn off your sins in some very pagan ritual of purification. No Sheol or Hades was simply the place that all people righteous and unrighteous went before Christ’s coming. While there is some disagreement some theologians believe this was a place both of punishment and paradise where there was believed to exist a vast chasm between the faithful and the unfaithful. It’s possible that this is exactly what we see in the story of the rich man and Lazarus in where the rich man is specifically said to be in Hades on one side of the chasm and Lazarus is said to be on the other side, in a place described uniquely as “Abraham’s bosom.” Abraham and Lazarus are able to converse with the rich man, but they cannot reach him, nor can the rich man reach them. This abode of the dead, Sheol, Hades was a place that David and the Sons of Korah all believed that their souls would rescued and ransomed from by God and that they would be brought to life.
David says in,
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.
And the Sons of Korah echo that sentiment in,
Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning. Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah
So of the three possibilities, sheol, hades, the abode of the dead seems most likely based on the context and on other passages, but who is Jesus proclaiming to and what function does it serve?
Theologians have proposed numerous possibilities based upon the text and none of them satisfactorily and without issue give answer. Some say Jesus proclaimed to fallen angels, some say He did so to those in Sheol, others still say that He spoke through Noah in his own day to the disobedient people then. Each of these views has difficulties. And as to what the nature of the proclamation is, there are even more difficulties still with folks saying it is everything from a simple proclamation of victory to a chance for those hearing the proclamation to repent and be saved. But again each view is inherently problematic, not least of which because what occurs between Jesus death and resurrection is a one time occurrence. It does not happen repeatedly or frequently. Next time we come together we will examine the possibilities of what Jesus was doing and what it means for us. But in the mean time what are we meant to understand from this text? We are meant to see that Jesus is Yahweh, He is God and that He is good to His word. That He isn’t just some guy, some profound teacher, some spiritual guru - He is God, His very name says clearly who He is - He is Yahweh who saves. And make no mistake Jesus will save His people. The question for you today is are you one of His people? Are you one of His sheep?
Jesus said in
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
You want to have life? You want to be one of Christ’s sheep? You must come to Him and remain in Him. You must trust Him and love Him and obey Him. And this, this life of obedience and faithfulness begins for you with confession, both of guilt and of belief - that you recognize your guilt because of your sins and you recognize Jesus Lordship. Today we’re going to have a time of invitation. If you are ready to make that confession and profession of faith come forward as we stand and sing.