“For Christ also suffered once for all concerning sin, the just in exchange for the unjust, so that He might bring you to God by, on the one hand, being put to death in the flesh and, on the other hand, being made alive in the spirit, in which He also went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because of disobedience when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah during the building of the ark into which a few, that is, eight souls, were rescued through water. And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you. Not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal of good conscience to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Who is at the right hand of God having went to heaven after angels and authorities and powers have been made subject to Him.”
Here we have one of the most contested passages in the whole New Testament (vv. 19-22) and one of the clearest and most compact presentations of the gospel (v. 18). As we attempt to explain this text, it is imperative that we do not lose sight of its force and purpose. After explaining the ridiculousness of fearing the world (vv. 13-14) and exhorting the proper response of bowing to Christ as Yhwh (v. 15) while suffering for doing what is good (vv. 16-17), Peter holds up the suffering of Christ as the climax of encouragement. It is not accurate to say that Christ’s suffering is here held as an example, for His suffering is unique and unrepeatable. Rather, Peter encourages his readers, who are already suffering and preparing to suffer more, by highlighting two aspects of Christ’s suffering.
The Purpose of Christ’s Suffering (v. 18ab)
If the rest of this text is clouded by controversy, this remains one of the clearest and most compact proclamations of gospel truth on which nearly every commentator agrees. Here Peter presents Christ as the ultimate sufferer for righteousness, for He himself was righteous or just (δίκαιος) who suffered for those where were unrighteous or unjust (ἀδίκων). The causal ὅτι (for) connects us back to vv. 13-17 so that we enter this text knowing that Peter is providing a reason to sanctify Yhwh, the Christ in our hearts rather than fearing what the world fears. In short, the reason is because Christ has already obtained the victory.
Suffering Stated (v. 18a)
“For Christ also suffered once for all concerning sin, the just in exchange for the unjust”
Peter states plainly that Christ’s suffering was for sin or that it was concerning sin (περί ἁμαρτιῶν). The idea of a sacrifice to cover one’s sin is immediately brought to mind with his choice of words that reflect numerous texts of the Old Testament Levitical sacrificial system (Lev. 5:6, 7, 11; 7:37; 9:2, 3, etc.). But unlike these Levitical offerings that had to be brought year after year, Christ suffered once for all (ἅπαξ). This small adverb indicates a single and unique suffering that would put an end to any additional need for sacrifice. Peter echoes Christ’s own conclusion upon the cross, “It is finished!” (Jn. 19:30).
The nature of this sacrifice is made clear by Peter’s simple statement that Christ, the just, suffered in exchange for the unjust. This goes well beyond stating Christ’s sinlessness to proclaim that He was one who stood rightly, correctly, and appropriately before the Father on His own merit. There was only ever one person who walked this earth who did not deserve death and it was He. Yet He suffered in exchange for (ὑπέρ) those who could never stand before a holy God and live, the unjust. The singular just one (δίκαιος) gave His life as a substitutionary atonement for the plural unjust (ἀδίκων). Christ was a zealot for the good (v. 13) and was One who suffered for the sake of righteousness (v. 14). Was He not blessed? To draw a clear line of connection between suffering and sin is to forget or discard the suffering of Christ who died at the hands of sinful men as the only righteous man to live upon the earth. Peter does not stop here, but continues to briefly review the purpose of Christ’s suffering.
Suffering’s Purpose (v. 18b)
“so that He might bring you to God”
The purpose (ἵνα) for which Christ suffered was to bring those who were far off near to God (Is. 57:19; Eph. 2:17). His suffering was designed to reconcile sinners to a holy God. Christ suffered for the purpose of reconciling those who were engaged in evil deeds to the Triune God (Col. 1:21-23). Because Christ, the just, suffered and died in our place to atone for our sin, we, the unjust, are no longer at enmity with God but have peace with Him (Rom. 5:1). If He has suffered so for our sake, can we not suffer without fear for His? The atonement has been accomplished, and there is now no reason to fear.
The Result of Christ’s Suffering (vv. 19-22)
Peter is not content to simply point his readers to the cross, for the cross by itself has nothing but despair for the believer. It was our sin that killed Christ and if we leave Him upon the tree, or even within the tomb, there is no hope and no victory. Peter, knowing this, continues his encouragement to include Christ’s victorious resurrection and all the implications contained within it.
Victory Declared (vv. 18c-20)
This is where the text gets sticky for many readers. Questions arise as fast as the words of the text themselves. What does it mean that Christ was put to death in the flesh and made alive in the spirit? Who are these spirits in prison? What did Christ preach to them? Why does Peter reference Noah and the flood? All these questions will be answered in due process but as we move forward there must be a few ground rules established. First, we should assume that Peter’s audience understood this text without need for further explanation. Our understanding of Scripture demands this point. All that is required for understanding will be found in Peter’s own words in combination with what has already been written. Second, we must keep the context of the passage in view. Peter is exalting the suffering of Christ as an encouragement. Here he proceeds to draw out the extent of Christ’s victory over sin and death to prove to his readers that there is no reason to fear the wrath of the world. If we keep these two basic principles in mind, the text before us should come together nicely. As such, we will dutifully examine it line by line, phrase by phrase, and word by word when necessary.
Statement of Christ’s Victory (v. 18c)
“being put to death in the flesh on the one hand and, on the other hand, being made alive in the spirit”
The μὲν…δὲ construction is not well represented in our English translations yet it must be understood correctly. The sense is not that of presenting some sort of contrast between Christ’s death in the flesh and His life in the spirit (having been put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit). The purpose of this construction is to present both sides of the conversation as if to say “on the one hand…and on the other hand…” These are parallel statements that are placed side by side. The problem however revolves around the meaning of these two statements “in the flesh” and “in the spirit.”
Both statements (in the flesh/in the spirit) are used in the sense of reference/respect or even as datives of sphere. With respect to the flesh, Christ was put to death. His earthly life came to an end just like every man since Adam has already experienced or will one day experience. With respect to the spirit, Christ was made alive. His resurrection, which includes His physical body, is the first fruit of what we are to expect in the sense that our lives are no longer bound to a cursed creation. This is not a statement that pits the material against the immaterial nor is it a loose reference to the agency of the Holy Spirit (though it is true that the Trinity always works in concert). We do not read Peter dividing the divine nature from Christ’s human nature, but simply read a compact statement regarding the implications of Christ’s death and resurrection, for that is what is meant by made alive in the spirit. Christ was put to death in the realm of the flesh and was made alive (i.e., resurrected with His body) in the realm of the spirit. He is as we will be; made ready to enter into the Father’s presence.
Recipients of Christ’s Declared Victory (v. 19)
“in which He also went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison”
“In which” (ἐν ᾧ) points directly to “in the spirit” (πνεύματι) and thus brings in Christ’s resurrected state. As the resurrected Lord of creation, Christ went and proclaimed to the spirits now in prison. Who are these spirits (πνεύμασιν) and where is this prison?
These spirits are not human. The plural form of πνεῦμα is used 34 times in the New Testament and only once (Heb. 12:23) does it refer to human beings. Peter uses a helpful designation in the next verse of those human beings who escaped God’s wrath in the flood and refers to them as souls (ψυχή) indicating their human makeup of body, soul, and spirit. Of these imprisoned beings, Peter says they are only spirits.
If they are not human, why are they imprisoned and where is this prison? The next verse recalls the days of Noah where wickedness abounded unchecked, and every intent of man’s heart was only and continually evil (Gen. 6:5). This same passage recounts the evil act of fallen angels (sons of God) marrying the daughters of men (Gen. 6:1-2). Peter returns to this account in his second letter and plainly calls them angels and identifies their confinement as hell (2 Pet. 2:4). Jude confirms Peter’s words by stating that these angels are kept in bonds under darkness until the coming day of judgment (v. 6). To put it plainly, these spirits are the fallen angels who once possessed the bodies of mortal men in order to procreate with women (Gen. 6), lost those bodies when all the world perished in the flood (Gen. 7:23-4), and have been held imprisoned in Hades until the final judgment when they will be forever cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:13-15). What did Christ have to say to these wretched beings?
It is wrong to assume that Christ came to these fallen and rebellious angels to preach the gospel to them. Peter simply states that Christ preached or proclaimed (κηρύσσω) to them and does not state that Christ announced the good news (εὐαγγελίζω) to them. Christ, having paid the price of sin and rising in victory, first declared victory to those who have been long imprisoned. They gambled on the fact that they would be able to derail God’s plan of redemption. Christ came to them and proclaimed His complete victory. It is finished! Their scheme has been utterly thwarted, for the seed of the woman, seed of Abraham, seed of David stands before them in resurrected glory. Victory has been declared. But why declare His victory to these imprisoned angels?
Reason for Christ’s Declared Victory (v. 20)
“because of disobedience when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah during the building of the ark into which a few, that is, eight souls, were rescued through water”
The causal participle ἀπειθήσασίν points directly to their rebellion, that is, their disobedience. Jude tells us that these angels did not keep to their place and abandoned their abode (v. 6). They entered the realm of men uninvited and against orders to the contrary. Yet we must understand the reason they defied God to have a fully informed understanding of what made their disobedience so heinous.
Ever since God pronounced judgment upon Satan through the coming seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), the serpent of old has been working overtime to derail God’s plan of redemption, for in that redemption lies his own doom. First came the corruption of the woman’s firstborn seed and the murder of her second (Gen. 4). The track record of mankind was enraptured in death and destruction (Gen. 4:16-24) until Adam had another son and men began to call on the name of Yhwh once more (Gen. 4:25-26). It was at this point that Satan went all in and commanded some of his demonic host to possess the bodies of evil men in order to pollute the human race. Imagine a generation fathered and brought up by demon possessed men. God answered this high-handed attempt to unravel the promise of a coming seed by destroying the entire earth with a flood.
His patience endured while Noah built the ark. The structure itself proclaimed God’s pending judgment. Yet when the floods came, only a few were saved. Only Noah and his wife, his three sons and their wives, that is, eight souls, were saved through the water of God’s wrath. When Peter says that they were saved through (διὰ) the water, he states that the water was the means by which God saved Noah and his family. God’s wrath upon the wicked saved Noah from receiving a similar fate. Without the wrath of the flood, the safety of the ark was meaningless. The water cut off Satan’s attempt to cut the line of the coming seed, and thus through the water Noah and co. were rescued. God cut off all the wicked so that the righteous few might live. What encouragement for these few struggling churches adrift in a sea of worldly wrath!
Christ declared His victory to these imprisoned slaves of Satan to impress upon them that He has already won. The seed of the woman as come! So many attempts have been made to ensure this day would never arrive yet arrive it did! Before the disciples saw the risen Lord, the incarcerated demons beheld the resurrected seed of the woman, seed of Abraham, and seed of David. All their attempts have come to nothing. It is finished!
Victory Assured (v. 21)
“And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you. Not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal of good conscience to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”
Because Christians reject the heresy of baptismal regeneration, this verse may cause some heartburn, for Peter plainly says that baptism now saves you. There is also the connection between the flood and baptism that requires explanation. The Greek pronoun ὅ either points specifically to the water (ὕδατος) or the act of God’s salvation as a whole contained within v. 20. In either case we are forced to ask in what way does the flood (God’s global judgement for sin) correspond (ἀντίτυπον) with believer’s baptism? This question can only be answered by assuming that we know what believer’s baptism is.
Baptism is much more than a religious rite akin to Jewish washing rituals. Therefore, Peter says that it is not something that removes dirt or defilement from the flesh. It’s more than a bath and even more than a symbolic (or actual) cleansing. To speak of baptism as just a symbol misses the entire point and leaves the door open for all kinds of heretical teachings, pedobaptism being one of the most common. Baptism is a public declaration and demonstration of one’s union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. By emersion into the water the subject declares union with Christ death in the flesh. By bringing the subject out of the water he declares his union with Christ’s life in the spirit. To baptize a person who has not yet confessed and repented of their sin against God and placed their faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ alone is a sacrilege that treats this as only a rite that washes dirt and defilement. Likewise, to be one who has confessed, repented, and believed yet not undergone baptism is a ridiculous contradiction. Baptism corresponds to the whole of God’s saving act of Noah and his family in that both Noah and the believer submit in faith to God’s provision of salvation through their obedience. By faith Noah built and entered the ark. By faith the believer trusts in Christ and is joined to Him through baptism.
Baptism now saves you because it is the outward fruit that all can see. While we honestly say that Noah’s faith saved him, we are also forced to admit that had he not entered the ark he would have perished along with all the other wicked men. In a very real sense, the new birth without baptism is left incomplete. To make sure that he is not misunderstood, Peter goes on to define his terms.
As we have already mentioned, Peter argues against the act of baptism as a means of salvation when he says that it does not remove dirt or defilement from the flesh (οὐ σαρκός ἀπόθεσις ῥύπου). The act of baptism does not save, but the reality of baptism does. Peter uses ἀλλά (but) to contrast this idea. Rather than being an empty religious rite, baptism is an appeal of a good conscience to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This appeal (ἐπερώτημα) describes an answer one would provide to a question or indicating a formal request. The genitive συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς (of a good conscience) could be taken subjectively (an appeal from a good conscience) or objectively (an appeal for a good conscience). With the mention of conscience we are reminded of Peter’s close connection to this good conscience and Christian obedience (2:19; 3:16). Paul uses this same term as he describes true conversion as having hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience (Heb. 10:22). Peter states that baptism is a formal request on behalf of the repentant sinner to God for a good conscience. This is the true sense of baptism, and this is why Peter so readily and freely states that it is baptism that now saves. This baptism, the appeal to God for a new heart, is made through (διὰ) or by means of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (δι᾽ ἀναστάσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ). The one being baptized may be assured of God’s gracious granting of this good conscience, new heart, because Christ has victoriously risen from the grave. It is finished! He is risen!
Victory Confirmed (v. 22)
“Who is at the right hand of God having went to heaven after angels and authorities and powers have been made subject to Him.”
How can Peter proclaim encouragement to his readers based on the victorious suffering of Jesus Christ without ending in the culmination of His victory in His ascension? Peter does not follow Christ’s movements chronologically but jumps to finality of Christ being at the right hand of God. Just as Christ went (πορευθεὶς) to proclaim victory to the spirits in Hades He went (πορευθεὶς) to heaven for a very similar purpose: to declare victory!
After His resurrection and before His ascension, Christ Himself declared that all authority has already been given to Him (Matt. 28:18). Paul connects the cancelation of our sinful debt in Christ’s atonement to Christ’s triumph parade over the demonic realm (Col. 2:14-15). Christ sits at the right hand of the Father as the victor over more than just the imprisoned demons, but over all the demonic realm. The threefold statement “angels and authorities and powers” does not describe three classes or three ranks of angels (fallen or not) but is used to indicate the whole of the dark spiritual realm. Christ is Lord of all. It is finished!
It is easy to get lost in the details of this passage, yet we cannot afford to lose focus of Peter’s larger point. He has systematically examined Christ’s victory over sin and death from every conceivable angle in order to demonstrate why Christians have no need to fear this world. We fear not the world because the world is fighting a losing battle. Christ has already won! There will continue to be much fighting and struggling against Him until Christ returns to reign and rule from Jerusalem upon David’s throne. That does not negate the fact that the end is fixed. This is why He who sits in the heavens laughs as the nations make their futile plans (Ps. 2). His Messiah is already installed.
The immediate application of this text is simple: if God is for us, who is against us? If Christ has already declared victory to the face of imprisoned demons, why would we shrink from mere mortal men? What more encouraging words could Peter have written than to point his readers to the full-orbed victory of Jesus Christ?
There are also several secondary applications one might make of this text. The primary one being that of baptism. The church has only been given two ordinances, the Lord’s supper, and baptism. These two ordinances have been largely forgotten, neglected, and considered underrated by many who claim to belong to Christ. Peter never teaches anything remotely close to baptismal regeneration. Yet he holds baptism and conversion in such proximity that he cannot speak of one without the other (Acts 2:38). To baptize one who remains unconverted is sacrilege. Yet to not baptize one who is regenerate is just ridiculous. After all, Peter points to baptism as one of Christ’s markers of victory. May we stand in patient obedience, confident of Christ’s victory until He comes to claim what is rightfully His.
 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of The Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966), p. 153-5.  D. Edmond Hiebert, 1 Peter (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1984), p. 235-6.  Lenski, p. 156.  Ibid, p. 158.  As per Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, vol. 17, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2009), p. 163.  As per Schreiner, p. 183-4.  Yet even here it is modified by the genitive δικαίων (of righteous ones/men).  Schreiner, p. 190-1.  Lenski, p. 169.  Ibid, p. 170.  Hiebert, p. 246-7.  Ibid, p. 248.