Christ suffered for sins once,
the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,
that he might lead you to God.
Put to death in the flesh,
he was brought to life in the Spirit.
In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison,
who had once been disobedient
while God patiently waited in the days of Noah
during the building of the ark,
in which a few persons, eight in all,
were saved through water.
This prefigured baptism, which saves you now.
It is not a removal of dirt from the body
but an appeal to God for a clear 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 subject to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22)
In this Sunday’s Second Reading, the First Sunday in Lent, we are offered an intriguing passage from 1 Peter 3:18-22. The first verse, in which Peter speaks of Christ’s unique sacrifice on behalf of humanity and our sins, is reminiscent of the second Ash Wednesday reading from 2 Corinthians 5:20-62, especially 5:21, but then this understanding of Christ’s sacrifice, "of the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous," is present throughout the New Testament. What Christ did is for us, as 1 Peter says simply and directly, so "that he might lead you to God." What is more challenging is the verse which follows, verse 19. At the end of verse 18 Jesus is described as being "put to death in the flesh," but "was brought to life in the Spirit." Following this, "he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah" (v.19). Who are these "spirits in prison"? How are they related to this passage in general? And what is the significance of this passage, in particular the verse dealing with "spirits in prison," to Lent?
Bo Reicke, who wrote his excellent Uppsala doctoral dissertation on this verse - yes, the verse 3:19 - in 1946 (which was published as The Disobedient Spirits and Christian Baptism. Copenhagen: Egnar Munksgaard, 1946) surveyed the literature of the interpretation of this verse from the earliest Christian Church through to modernity. Due to the connection with Noah, two major possibilities emerged for him as to who these disobedient spirits might be: either the human beings who died at the time of Noah, or the "fallen angels" spoken of in Genesis 6:1-4, as they were understood by later Jewish and Christian tradition to be "disobedient spirits" who were imprisoned until the time of the Judgment (Enoch 10:4-6; Jude 6) (pp.56-58; 69-70). Other possibilities have been offered in the interpretation of this verse, such as designating the disobedient spirits as all who have died. In that case, 3:19 describes Christ descending to preach to all the dead, which often leads to a connection of this verse with 4:6. Not all, or even many, scholars accept the connection between these two passages, but the position has ancient and modern proponents.
But if we maintain a connection to the Flood and the time of Noah, what does Peter want us to see? Whether these spirits are the "fallen angels" or the human dead of the time of Noah, what does the preaching mean to us? Reicke maintains in the Anchor Bible Commentary. 37: The Epistles of James, Peter and Jude (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1964) that the key point is that Christ preached, even though no details regarding content are given, and that "his preaching was for these spirits" (p. 111). He states that the "essential point" is that just as Christ preached to the fallen rulers, so Peter wants his Christian hearers to preach to the rulers in their communities, even if it means death (p. 111).
For the reality is, just as water saved Noah and his family at the time of the Flood, the water of baptism saves those to whom Peter first wrote from evil and saves us today from evil. It is "an appeal to God for a clear conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (v.21), and here we return to the beginning of the passage. It is Christ through his suffering and death, and then his resurrection, who has gained salvation for us. Christ is resurrected, at the right hand of God, ascended, with authority over all powers. "From the context the Christian reader is to draw the conclusion that he, through fellowship with Christ, is saved for life eternal and need not fear or be subject to any earthly powers, even if these are partly supernatural and demonic" (p. 115). The passage, therefore, encourages us to grasp fearlessly our baptismal mission, for there is no power over which Christ does not rule. This might not exactly be "speaking truth to power," for Christ is the true power, but it is the power to speak the truth in any circumstance and it is due to what Christ has gained for us.