Question: What does it mean in First Peter 3: 18-19 where it says that Jesus preached to imprisoned spirits between His crucifixion and resurrection? Who are “the spirits,” and what did He preach?
Here is the passage:
1Pet. 3:18-20a For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.
Peter writes of a very specific group of spirits who “disobeyed” during the days of Noah. When Scripture uses the term “spirit” of people it typically makes the connection clear, such as “spirits of the dead” (Prov. 2:18) or “spirits of all mankind” (Num. 27:16). Otherwise, “spirits” by itself refers to angelic or demonic spirits. It is such spirit beings Peter speaks of here.
The word translated “disobeyed” is very forceful in the original. It means to willfully refuse to obey. Does the Scripture anywhere else refer to a group of spiritual beings who willfully, intentionally disobeyed God in Noah’s day?
Jude 6 And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.
These spirits intentionally left “their positions of authority”—they abandoned their angelic roles in heaven. Jude seems to be referring here to an episode recorded in Genesis, just before God instructed Noah to build the ark, where angels took on human form and had intercourse with human women, resulting in offspring known as the Nephilim.
Gen. 6:1-4 When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. …The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.
While some think the “sons of God” in the passage refer to either the descendants of Seth or else to royalty, the fact is that “sons of God” is used in the Bible exclusively of angels (Job 1; #8:7; Ps. 29:1; 89:7). The clear, face value meaning of the text indicates angels. The further fact that the women involved clearly knew they were consorting with angelic beings, violating God’s purpose for human sexuality and altering the very fabric of the human race, adds further insight into God’s judgment upon mankind through the Flood.
These angels, who fit the description in 1 Peter of spirits who disobeyed in the days of Noah, were imprisoned, awaiting the Final Judgment (Jude 6; Rev. 20:11-15). When Jesus was physically dead in the tomb but “made alive by the Spirit” he “preached” to these imprisoned spirits (1Pet. 3:18-19). “Preached” (Gk. ekeruxen) means “proclaimed”—Jesus’ announcement of victory from the cross (Jn. 19:30)—“It is finished!”