What’s behind the bad news? Is there hope?

Apr 2, 2022 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

We’re entering a season where the church prepares to celebrate and communicate with confidence a message of hope. This was a challenge two years ago, when churches were closed for Easter at the start of the first lockdown, and nobody knew how much suffering the pandemic would bring. And yet, there seems to be even more of a disconnect between the narrative of the basis of our faith and the fear-inducing realities of the world around us now than there was then.

Today, multiple threats are all around us: a rapidly rising cost of living, unaffordable for many, at a time when governments are already heavily indebted. A war in Europe, a refugee crisis, and open talk of possible nuclear conflagration for the first time in more than 30 years. Climate change – what will that mean? And these are just effects on our physical environment. What about the spiritual vacuum of secularism, the largely unopposed invasion of anti-Christian ideologies, the turning to idolatries old and new even among the people of God?

The biblical writers addressed the big picture view of their contemporary culture as well as encouragements and direction for the local people of God. They connected the ongoing call to repentance and faith of individuals with the world, the past and future, and ultimate realities. We need to do the same, and this passage, 1 Peter 3:18-22, can help us.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.  After being made alive, he 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 symbolises baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience towards God.  It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,  who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

In the season of Lent the church traditionally reflects on temptation and sin. We recognise our negligence, weakness and our deliberate fault; our individual and corporate wrongdoings and also our sinful nature. But we also remember how Christ was human as we are, tempted and tested daily, but resisted sin and satan’s temptations. We look forward to celebrating on Good Friday the ultimate sacrifice and victory of the Cross, where as Peter says here, Christ died for sins, he died for sins that were not his own but our sins, he died in exchange for release from the judgement that our sins deserve. He died so that the curtain separating us from God could be torn open; he died not so we can make our own way to God but to do something impossible for us – to bring us to God.

Peter speaks about our sin, about the atoning death of Christ, and then he speaks about the resurrection. The ESV says “he was put to death in the body but made alive in the spirit” which is the more literal translation, but could imply that only his spirit was resurrected, not his body. The NIV has a capital S and so does the interpretation for us – it was by the Holy Spirit that he was bodily resurrected. Peter returns to the resurrection at the end of verse 21 – it is through the resurrection that our salvation, our new relationship with God, is assured and completed.

From resurrection he goes on to mention the ascension – Christ has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand. So here in these few verses we have the gospel summarised: our sin; the cross and the resurrection of our Lord, our regeneration and baptism, the current position of the ascended Lord Jesus.


But then, what about these other bits in this passage? What do they mean and what is the relevance for us? Who are the “imprisoned spirits who were disobedient in the days of Noah”? How and what did Jesus proclaim to them?

A non-protestant interpretation is that the spirits in prison are Old Testament people in purgatory – Jesus preached to them between death and bodily resurrection. But this goes against the clear teaching of Scripture that we die once and then face judgement. Godly people in the OT received salvation by faith as a gift of grace while living, just as we do.  There is no second chance in an intermediate state.

Some say maybe Peter is referring to the preincarnate Christ speaking to the people of Noah’s time through Noah. But Peter says Jesus went and proclaimed “after being made alive”, ie after his resurrection, not thousands of years earlier.

So, more likely, the “spirits” are the same as the “authorities and powers” that Peter mentions at the end of this passage. He is talking about the spiritual realm. We know from Genesis 6 that something not fully explained, but very bad happened just before the cultural sin and hardening of heart that led to the judgement of the flood. Spiritual powers at that time rebelled against God and acted directly on earth. They were placed under restriction – “in prison” as Peter says.  Those same spirits still exist and have influence, as the bible teaches in other places. When Jesus ‘preached’ to them after the effects of his bodily death were reversed by God’s Spirit, this was an announcement to those principalities and powers, active but restricted from the days of Noah until now, of the victory and supremacy of the triune God over the powers of evil and hell.

Isn’t this a crucial perspective as we approach Easter and the season leading up to ascension and Pentecost?

Yes, the gospel is for individuals, of sins forgiven and empowerment for godly living.

But also, the gospel for the cosmos, of the sovereignty of Christ.

Looking at the world, we see the reality of evil. In our own hearts, yes, but as we look at incomprehensible brutality in Ukraine, or northern Nigeria, or Yemen, or at the state-supported mass killing of babies in the womb or widespread gender confusion among young people in Western culture, we see something horrifying, more to do with personal psychology than “the world”, more complex than the sins of individuals, not just the corporate dimension of “the flesh”. Evidence rather of the work of satan and the furious rebellious anger of the spiritual powers, held back from destroying all God has made and thwarting his plans. One day in the future these powers will be either destroyed, or fully, visibly submissive. But in the meantime, now, they have influence to cause disruption and agony on vast scale.

Knowing Christ’s victory displayed in his death and resurrection; knowing his status, gives us encouragement and hope, but not in a way that applies the gospel to church and individual spiritual life only. We are aware of the desperate needs of the world caused by evil, we face it, name it and analyse its effects as the biblical prophets did. Then we are motivated to engage in spiritual warfare, in prayer, in practical caring, sometimes in protest and political action, always in the faithful teaching of the biblical message. Also in upright and holy living, as Peter says “the pledge of a clear conscience towards God” (NIV); “the appeal to God for a good conscience” (ESV). As we look towards Easter, we rejoice in the implications of the cross and the resurrection for us and our church family, and also for the world, for what is seen and unseen, as we cry out to God “thy kingdom come”.

See also:

How can we trust God when bad things happen? by Martin Davie, Christian Today


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