What does Peter mean when he talks about preaching to the spirits and the dead?

Do you like difficult grammar and long sentences? Do you prefer that your readings are slow and demand a second (or third) pass? Then Peter is your guy here in the midst of his letter. It can get a little tricky.

What is clear, though, is that he’s talking to a group of churches that are facing growing persecution. “Suffering” is a constant theme so far. Peter is working out how suffering relates to what we believe about Jesus. If you have heard of the victory that Christ has secured for his people and how he has now ascended and is seated on the throne, what do you make of the suffering that hasn’t lessened, but rather is increasing? Is that to be expected?

Peter is trying to deal with this throughout. What God has done in Jesus is big—and goes back before the world was made. God has had a plan and still has one, so do not lose hope when things are hard. Suffering does not negate God’s plan. In fact, it is present in his plan, not the least in Jesus himself. Jesus suffered, was rejected, and even put to death. So do not assume suffering has no part in the Christian life. But take comfort knowing you are like Jesus in that regard. In those trying times put you hope in Jesus who is able to work for good through suffering. God works through it for others, who we are to bless when they curse, not return evil with evil.

Then this theme of suffering extends beyond this life, and clarity gets a little murky in 1 Peter 3 and 4.

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. (1 Peter 3:18-22 ESV)


For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. (1 Peter 4:6 ESV)

Christ, or the Spirit, preaching to spirits? Preaching to them in prison, or before they were imprisoned? In the time of Noah, or now after their disobedience? Just another super easy passage. Then in chapter four, there’s a preaching to the dead after they are judged? That doesn’t sound like what we read elsewhere or confess as the church? What’s going on?

Allessandro Masnago - Cameo with Noah's Ark, c. 1600
Allessandro Masnago – Cameo with Noah’s Ark, c. 1600

To do our best at understanding difficult passages, we must hold closely what is already clear in 1 Peter. He’s addressing suffering in the church. Does suffering have victory when it comes to death? No, Christ suffered and was even put to death. But the result is bringing us to God and making us alive in the spirit. Suffering is not the end for Christ has the victory. It seems here Peter is illustrating this point with the example of suffering in the time of Noah, when evil spirits were a cause. Jesus, who was put to death in the flesh, but was raised in the spirit, goes to proclaim this victory to those evil spirits. Then Noah is the example for us. Hold fast to God, even with opposition and suffering around you. Noah committed himself to God and that was evident by his entering the ark, remaining safely in the waters of the flood. He persevered. We are likewise to commit, persevere in the face of suffering, and baptism by water is a sign for us.

In chapter four again a concern is suffering and death and Peter assures the church that Christ still has the victory. The gospel was preached to those who are now dead, and even though they suffered in this life of flesh and were judged by the world, we know there is more. Death does not end God’s victory or hold back his reach. The world may wield its power and threaten death, but in Jesus there is victory. There is life in the Spirit that no suffering can touch. Hope in Jesus is not only for this life, but for all eternity.

What does Peter say (or not say) about marriage in 1 Peter 3?

If you want some heated disagreement about Bible interpretation, jump into the passages in the New Testament about marriage. What does Peter or Paul have to say about the roles that men and women have?

Much attention is given in chapter three where Peter says, “wives, be subject to your own husbands.” But this is just part of a verse, which is itself part of a much larger section of this letter. In chapter three Peter is continuing the topic he began back in 2:13. He’s talking about how to react when under authority. So the word “likewise” in 3:1 should send us back to make sure we are seeing how this one part functions in the larger section. What we understand here about women and men should be informed by what Peter said about living under an emperor or governor and how slaves are to live under masters.

If we lose context we can miss the meaning. People are quick to read chapter three (on its own) as Peter recommending not just behavior within an institution, ie. how women should live within a first century marriage, but as approval and recommendation of the institution itself, ie. a marriage where the husband has greater authority over the wife. There is much debate on what exactly a Christian marriage is, but we can’t brush aside the context of these passages. Peter says “likewise” to continue a stream of thought and place this discussion alongside emperors and slave masters. We do not argue for or recommend absolute authority in an emperor as the best form of government nor do we approve of slavery. We see those sections as guidance for how to live within those existing institutions, regardless of whether they are good or divinely ordained. So does marriage likewise continue with those previous two examples, or does it stand alone?

What God clearly wants in these sections is for us to see opportunities to serve God, no matter our circumstance. If we are a slave serving a master, Peter gives the Christian a way to see this service as being done for God and for His purposes. We don’t need the worldly forms of power and authority to have influence for God. Peter writes in 2:15, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” Even in subjection and suffering, we can do a good work to witness to Jesus, the one who subjected himself to the powers of this world and suffered for our sin.

These passages will likely continue to lead to passionate disagreement. Let’s then be slow when we ask the question that started this post, “What does Peter or Paul have to say about the roles that men and women have?” Let’s not rush to change that question into what roles men and women should have. The former describes the existing conditions and then how to live within them, while the latter prescribes how marriage should be. We’ve got to read more than the one verse, and see the larger context. And even beyond that, we need to read Scripture in light of all Scripture and see the call that God has on his sons and daughters.

Relying Upon the Spirit and Not on Our Apologetics

And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
1 Corinthians 2:3-5

There are some great books that defend the Christian faith that I’ve personally enjoyed in the past. They could be grouped broadly into the category of “apologetics.” This name isn’t based on our saying “sorry” for our faith, but the word relates to giving a defense. While I certainly believe that there are reasons to believe in Jesus Christ and that our Bible is a trustworthy book, it is important to remember that we cannot argue someone into faith. We shouldn’t present some sort of bullet point list to someone, then demand that she believe.

While Paul does use argumentation and is thoughtful with his words and his audience, he is primarily a witness pointing to Jesus. Paul can’t make someone believe. In fact, he doesn’t want to. His desire is that a person’s faith “might not rest in the wisdom of men.”


This chapter goes on about how what we now know–the wisdom of God that we see in the cross of Jesus Christ–is not based in our own intellectual achievements. It is not because I’m smart enough that I’m a Christian. Likewise it is not because someone is dumb that they may not believe. The eternal purposes of God are known to us because they have been revealed to us by the Spirit of God.

But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”
1 Corinthians 2:9–10

We can’t even boast in our knowing because it is a gift of God’s grace. Our coming to believe and understand is a work of God’s through and through.

We ought to love God with our minds, seek to know him better, to discern the mind of Christ, and speak ably about Jesus to those around us, always giving a reason for the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15). But we do not do this as though everything hinges on my skillful argumentation. Christianity is not an anti-intellectual faith, but it is not a faith dependent on advanced understanding and academic achievement. Our faith is dependent on the working of the power of God.

Why Do We Read the Bible? Or Now At The End, Why Have We Read?

We spent more time looking at the question of why we read the Bible as we began our readings almost one year ago. But now at the end, can you answer that question again? Why have you been reading? What has been a result of being in God’s word?

What has been a takeaway for you in doing this? Has there been a certain story that struck you and has changed how you see the world? Have you seen themes through and through?

I’m not trying to ask rhetorical questions. We should take time to reflect on what we’ve done. (Although maybe you want to take time next week, once we’ve finished.)

Think of it this way. You have a neighbor that knows hardly anything about the Bible and she comes up to you and finds out what you’ve been doing for the last year. If she were to ask, “Why do you read the Bible? What does it matter? What does it mean?”, how would you answer?

Or imagine that a family member who doesn’t go to church were to ask “What have you learned? Are you different now than a year ago”, how would you answer him?

Doing something as big as reading the Bible in the year can stand out to others and be a cause for questions and something that sparks discussion. If that happens, I’d urge you to be ready to witness to others about the importance of God’s word and seeking him in it. As it says in 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

Here are some more questions that push us as we look back on what we have done and why we have done it:

  • What has been your favorite part?
  • What has been the most difficult?
  • Would you do it again?
  • What did you learn about God?
  • Do you think you’re closer to God when you are in his word?
  • Does what the Bible say affect how you live now?

  • And again the simple question: Why?

Aids for Knowing the Story of the Gospel

As I mentioned last week in talking about 1 Peter, we ought to be able to give a reason for the hope that we have in Christ. If what we believe is important, we should be able to tell others about it. We should know the gospel.

We talked about this in a class recently and at one point I put together a review of most of the weeks. It served as a reminder to jog our memories, but it will also work as a good cheat sheet in learning some short, clear descriptions of what Jesus has done for us.

Here’s a quick summary of what is included on the attached PDF. We talked about how Christ is our sacrificial lamb (1) and our passover (2). He brings life to us, undoing the death brought about by Adam (3). While evil was done to him, like Joseph, he worked in the situation to bring life to us (4). Then lastly, in reference to Moses lifting up a bronze snake that brought healing for all who looked on it, Jesus gives eternal life for all who look upon him (5).

Each of these has a picture to help us remember. Some are more straightforward, like a sheep in the bushes reminding us of Abraham and Isaac. Others are more of the “you had to be there” variety. But again, let me summarize quickly.

We have a picture of the door with the blood placed on it as passover, then next to it the cross laid over it, showing the blood of Christ that now saves us.

The third picture is to represent how in Adam, his sin at the tree brought death to all. Then in Christ, the “Second Adam”, which you read through from left to right, but this time include the two items inserted with a carrot, went to the tree (the cross) and died for us, bring life to us.

The fourth picture represent how Joseph and Jesus both left their father’s house, suffered injustice, were thrown into a pit (the grave in Jesus case), but then through those events saved others (life preserver).

Lastly we have the snake that brought death, then the bronze snake that when looked upon brought life, just as our sin (missing the mark) brings death, but looking to Christ brings us eternal life.

Hope this helps. If you still are left scratching your head about these, let me know and maybe I can help.


Five stories of Jesus we should be able to tell. (Click for full-size PDF)


Always Have a Reason

“…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…”
1 Peter 3:15

This is an utterly simple command of Peter, and one I think we take for granted. In many areas of life we assume we know what is needed. We assume we’ve got something under control or that we know “how to take it from here.” But when we finally are out in the position to reveal what we know, to put our learning into practice and take off the training wheels, only then do we realize our deficiencies.

I almost know the lyrics to countless songs. Pop songs and hymns, bubble gum oldies and classic rock, contemporary Christian and country. I know them when I sing along. I do not know the lyrics well enough to sing on my own, which is embarrassingly revealed as I stumble through half-remembered lines when I’m singing around the house. I overestimate my knowledge and it an example of the behavior that leads us to think we know, really know, more than we do.

Getting back to Peter’s call to us, we all can pick answers about our faith if it were a multiple choice quiz. But if we are asked about the hope that we have, can we give a response? Can we clearly communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ? Can we do so on the spot, without help (except by the Spirit)?

I hope reading though God’s Word helps you prepare yourself. Peter tells us in plain language to be prepared, so what is stopping us? This story of Jesus Christ is the good news for the world and our only hope. If we don’t share his story, who will? It is not only beneficial for the hearer, but when we know more about the hope we have, it will only strengthen our own belief, too.

If you’re interested in working on your ability to communicate the gospel, let me know. I’ll always make time for that. I even have some resources from a recent class that has some visuals to help us learn, remember, and communicate Jesus that I’m happy to pass along. I’ll try to remember once I get back in town to post some to our site.

Connecting Hosea to 1 Peter

Our focus passage for the week takes a look at the connection between Hosea and the book of 1 Peter, but if you are not following along with those, here’s a short summary. Peter quotes lines from the prophet when he is addressing the believers–both Jew and Gentile. He makes the bold assertion that they are now part of the people of God, brought in by his mercy to the family of faith, not based on blood, but on their being chosen in Christ. When he writes that those who were once not God’s people and who did not receive mercy are now God’s people and have received mercy, Peter is grafting believer’s into the history of Israel, assigning to them the words that had been first used to speak of God’s people in Hosea.

Especially for those Gentiles who had been kept at a distance before Christ came, this would have been an overwhelming affirmation of their place within the Kingdom of God. They are made to be God’s people and have been chosen to be a royal priesthood so that they may all declare the praises of God, who has saved us from the darkness (v9). To be brought in from the darkness into the light, to be made a people who were once not a people, to be called priests who were once pagans, is a great reversal and a humbling work of God for which he is to receive all praise.