Tuesday, 26 November 2019
…by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 1 Peter 3:19
Translations of this verse are based on what the translators believe is being conveyed. Here are some variations of it –
After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits– (NIV)
So he went and preached to the spirits in prison— (NLT)
in which also having gone, He preached to the spirits in prison (BLB)
Christ then preached to the spirits that were being kept in prison. (CEV)
and in his spiritual existence he went and preached to the imprisoned spirits. (GNT)
And he preached to those souls who were held in Sheol, (Aramaic Bible)
in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, (NASB)
by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, (NKJV)
in which He also went and proclaimed His Message to the spirits that were in prison, (Weymouth)
in which also to the spirits in prison having gone he did preach, (YLT)
This is a large enough sample to show that it is a verse which is translated almost completely based on some type of presupposition. For example, the CEV specifically says “Christ.” They assume it was Christ who did the preaching. The GNT says, “in his spiritual existence.” That is not at all in the Greek, but they have made that presupposition, again assuming it is Christ while not in His physical body. The Aramaic Bible equates “prison” with Sheol, the place of the dead. The NASB inserts the word “now” (now in prison) assuming that it is speaking of spirits who are now in prison, thus implying that the preaching occurred before they went to prison. The NKJV says “by whom” instead of “by which” or “in which” thus implying that it is the Spirit who influenced the preaching. The Weymouth says, “that were in prison,” thus implying that they were in prison, were preached to, and are now free from prison. The YLT puts everything in the past tense.
How can this be sorted out? The answer is by the most literal possible translation of the Greek, without presuppositions, and by using the rest of Scripture to determine if a translation matches what is said elsewhere or not. The main consideration immediately, however, is the context. Peter has been speaking about having a “good conscience” (see verse 16) towards God, and about the difficulties and suffering one can expect, because of being right with God.
He will give his example now, and then he will explain that it is based on having “the answer of a good conscience toward God,” again in verse 21. The entire passage has not deviated from the main thought of going through suffering, but doing so with a good conscience towards God. Because this is so, he is giving examples of those who put themselves on the line, like Christ did, in order to have a “good conscience” towards God. Therefore, and getting ahead of things a bit, this is not speaking of Jesus, nor is it speaking of Him preaching to people who had died.
For now, the Greek reads, “in (by) which (whom) also to the in prison spirits went (having gone) preached.”
Peter had just written, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit.” The first thing to determine is, “Who or what is the subject of the verse now being considered?” Is it speaking of Christ of verse 3:18, or of the Spirit or spirit? Note that the word “He/he” is not in the Greek, but it is inserted by those who presuppose it is speaking of Christ Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. The logical answer as to who is being referred to is the nearest antecedent, the spirit. As noted in the previous verse,
This leaves two choices – either it is “the Spirit,” meaning the Holy Spirit, or it is “the spirit” as explained by Cook in the previous verse where he said, “Thus we must be careful and not understand spirit here of the Spirit of God, as distinguished from the flesh of Christ, but of the spiritual nature of Christ; ‘the higher spiritual nature which belonged to the integrity of his humanity.’”
Which it is can be debated, but it is not Christ who did the preaching. Rather, it was either the Spirit, or the spirit. There was a preaching conducted by a spiritual force. As the Spirit does not preach, but rather inspires men with the word of God, we are being shown that there was a preaching by man in a spiritual state, or under a spiritual influence. To whom and when this occurred still needs to be inferred.
Was it to someone in the past who is now in prison, as implied by the NASB, or was it to someone in prison in the past who was given the gospel, as implied by Weymouth and others?
Next, what is “prison” referring to? It appears clear, and commentaries pretty much unanimously support, that “prison” is speaking of the state of those who have died already. In other words, the word “Sheol” as translated by the Aramaic is correct. It is the pit, Hades, Sheol, etc. The people were either dead and were preached to while dead, or they are now dead but they were previously preached to.
The mystery of this difficult set of verses will continue to be searched out until a suitable answer, which is in accord with other precepts found in Scripture, is given.
Life application: This verse, along with the next one, has been completely misunderstood by many, and it has led to much confused thinking. In various sects, such as the Mormons, it is used to justify their stand that there is no hell and no torment.
But that is contrary to the message of the Bible. There is one life to be lived by man, and then that man must face his Creator in judgment. Be wise and discerning. Understand that without Jesus, all are condemned.
Lord God, thank You for faithful men of righteousness who preach the true and precious gospel to the people of the world. Thank You that we have a chance to respond to this message and be born again – born from above – by Your gracious Spirit. May those who hear this marvelous message make the right choice while there is still breath in their lungs. Amen.