Christ Proclaims His Victory
Topic: English Passage: 1 Peter 3:19-20
In the Old Testament, after King Saul and King David and King Solomon, the nation of Israel was split in two. The northern portion was called Israel, and it was ruled by many wicked kings. The southern portion was called Judah, and it was ruled by the line of David. Both Israel and Judah were dangerously drifting away from God’s law. So, during that time, which we call the divided kingdom, God sent prophets warning the people to turn back to the Lord instead of following after the pagan gods of the foreign nations.
Turn with me, if you would, to First Kings chapter 16, verse 29. First Kings 16:29. That’s about a quarter of the way into the Bible. You’ve got First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, and First and Second Chronicles. Turn with me to 1 Kings chapter 16, verse 29. This is going to be our introduction to one of the most notorious kings in Israel and one of its most famous prophets.
Read 1 Kings 16:29-31
Now, during Ahab’s reign we get introduced to a prophet named Elijah. God affirmed Elijah’s ministry through miracles, and because of Israel’s sin, Elijah prophesies that there will be 3 years without rain.
To us, maybe rain is an annoyance, but when you live in a desert land, and you depend on crops, rain matters. No rain means no food. No food means people die. And when people die, the king looks bad, and he gets angry. So Ahab and Jezebel were looking for Elijah. Eventually, God sends Elijah to meet with Ahab.
Read 1 Kings 18:17-19
Baal and Asherah were a pagan god and a pagan goddess. This is who many people were worshiping instead of Yahweh, the one true God. Baal was considered a god of fertility, so he was thought to have the power to end the drought.
The challenge was fairly simple. It was Elijah, a prophet of the Lord, against the prophets of Baal. Both sides had to lay out a sacrifice without any fire and then call out to their god for fire from heaven. Whichever god answers will be the god the people should follow.
I think a lot of you know how the story ends, but the part I’d like to draw out attention to is was what happened with the prophets of Baal when it was their turn. Look with me at chapter 18, verse 26.
1 Kings 18:26-27
To put a more modern paraphrase on Elijah’s statement, he’s saying, “Maybe your God is on the toilet. That’s why he can’t answer you right now. Or maybe he fell asleep. You need to shout louder.”
As a kid, I remember being drawn to that statement because it seems so unchristian, doesn’t it? Elijah is mocking the prophets of Baal for their faith. He is basically bragging about his won faith and taunting them for theirs.
Did you know that here is such thing as a biblical form of boasting? We might tell our kids not to ever brag, but that might not be the full picture. Sinful bragging takes the glory and the attention off of God. But there is a form of biblical boasting gives God glory.
Jeremiah 9:23-24 says this: Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”
There is a place in the Bible for what we might call a God-glorifying taunt. It’s a way of exalting God for the victory He has given. We get another example of that in 1 Corinthians 15 when the Apostle Paul repeats a taunt over the power of death. Death is universal. Nobody escapes its grasp, but then Paul says, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
This is a victorious taunt for Christ’s victory. And I believe the topic of Christ’s victory is what our passage for today is talking about. Turn with me please back to 1 Peter 3, verse 18. First Peter 3:18.
Just to set the context once again, Peter is talking to Christians who are facing persecution in this world. Despite the world’s rejection and the world’s attacks, he calls us to walk in holiness and righteousness serving Christ and speaking up for the truth with gentleness and respect. Even if we suffer for doing what is right, we should be looking to Jesus Christ who suffered for us.
Verses 19 and 20 of First Peter 3 are two of the most confusing and debated passages in all the New Testament. Obviously, almost any passage can be debated between people who claim to follow Christ, but this passage is distinct.
For example, when Jesus says, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him,” there are different theological systems that interpret that statement differently. We can all agree on the sense of what he’s saying, but there will be disagreement over how that statement connects to other theological statements.
In the case of 1 Peter 3:19-20, though, there isn’t even agreement on what Peter is referring to, let alone how it would relate to other doctrines. It’s not totally clear.
As your pastor, though ,I don’t have the freedom to just say, “This is a confusing passage, so let’s just skip it.” If I did that, I wouldn’t be following Paul’s example of declaring the whole counsel of God.
Let me read verses 19 and 2o one more time, and then, for the bulk of our time today, we’ll be talking about the two major ways this passage can be understood. After that, we’ll talk about how this applies to us today. Read 1 Peter 3:19-20
From the outset, we can al agree that this passage is talking about Jesus proclaiming, or preaching. He’s the subject of the verb in verse 19. This proclamation is made, according to verse 18 “in the spirit.” The exact meaning of that is debated as well, but I prefer to take that as meaning “in the spiritual realm” as opposed to the fleshly/physical realm. So, verse 19 is talking about a spiritual proclamation Jesus made.
What isn’t completely clear, though, is the timing of that proclamation. When did this proclamation happen?
The two broadest categories of interpretation would be those who believe that Jesus’ proclamation of verse 19 happened during the time of Noah and those who believe it happened some time after His death.
To start, let me try to walk you through the first major position, which is that Jesus made this proclamation during the time of Noah. For those who believe this is talking about preaching during the days of Noah, the thought is that the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Christ was preaching through Noah to the people of his generation.
We know those people rejected the message, and they perished in the flood, but they had the truth preached to them through Noah, and Noah was preaching in the Spirit of Christ.
If that sounds weird to you, keep in mind that back in chapter 1, verse 11, Peter said that the Old Testament prophets had the Spirit of Christ in them as they made their prophecies. So, if we apply that to Noah, we can say that Christ was preaching through Noah to the people.
There is also Second Peter 2:5 which says that Noah was a herald of righteousness. And that word for “herald” could also be “preacher” and it’s the noun form of the verb used in verse 19 which the ESV has as “proclaimed.”
Now, understanding what a biblical author is referring to is one thing, but when you study the Bible, you should also be thinking about how one section relates to the bigger picture. How does this fit into the flow of what the author is saying? If Peter is talking about Christ preaching through Noah, what’s the connection being made to his audience?
The connection would be that, just like Noah, God’s people are used by Christ to preach to the world, even though the world rejects the message. And we’ve been seeing that theme throughout this letter. Our righteous deeds are a way of proclaiming God’s excellence. And even though the world with largely reject the message of Christ, God will save His people, just like the way He saved Noah and his family.
That’s one of the major ways to understand what Peter is saying. He could be equating us in a wicked world with Noah. The world rejects the message, but we can still be confident because God will save us.
In terms of the flow of Peter’s letter, he would be going from the Christian’s ministry in the world, back to Jesus’ ministry in the world, and then all the way back to Noah’s ministry in the world, and drawing parallels. That’s one way to understand what Peter is saying. And if you like that position, that’s fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. We should all agree that Noah preached the truth and was rejected by the world, and was saved by God.
Personally, however, I’m not convinced that’s what Peter is saying here. I fall into the camp that believes Peter is talking about some kind of proclamation that was made, not during the Old Testament times, but sometime after Jesus’ death. This is the second major category of interpreting these verses. There’s a lot more diving we need to do to understand this view, but I think it matches more closely with the flow of what Peter is saying.
Before I get too far into it, I should say that you are free to disagree, and you’re definitely free to ask more questions.
Reading and looking at what Peter has written, I think the more natural understanding of what he’s saying is that the preaching of Jesus occurred after He died. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, and it is in that spiritual realm, I believe that Jesus proclaimed to the spirits in prison.
But then the question is: who would that be? Who are those spirits, and why is Jesus preaching to them?
Verse 19 says these are spirits in prison, and that’s our first clue about who this could be talking about.
In the Bible, the word “prison” can be used for a physical jail, but here, Peter is talking about the spiritual realm. When people who reject God and His truth die and enter judgment, the Bible doesn’t really talk about that in terms of a prison.
It does, however, use prison-like language for the punishment of Satan and demons. Also, the word “spirits” in the plural is used sometimes to talk about demons. For example, the gospels and Revelation talk about unclean spirits. So, I think this is a reference to a proclamation Jesus made to demons, specifically demons which have been imprisoned. Who are they?
Verse 20 says they are imprisoned because they formerly did not obey in the days of Noah. Many of Satan’s demons are not imprisoned right now. They are serving Satan on this earth. But some have been imprisoned already.
Skip forward for a second to 2 Peter 2:4. Second Peter, chapter 2, verse 4. Read 2 Peter 2:4
Some demons are already in hell, under some form of punishment. To understand this a little more, we can look at Jude’s letter, which closely parallels 2 Peter. Skip over to Jude, verse 6. Jude is only one chapter, and it’s the second-to-the-last book in the Bible, before Revelation. Jude, verse 6. JUDE 1:6
What does it mean that angels did not keep their own domain and left their proper dwelling? I think the answer to that comes to us in Genesis chapter 6. And I want you to go there with me. Again, we’re wading into passages which have a debated interpretation, but I think there’s a connection.
Genesis 6 is the start of the story of Noah, and that’s significant because 1 Peter 3:20 specifically mentions the days of Noah. Go ahead and jump back there with me. Genesis 6. God sent a flood to destroy the earth because He saw how wicked mankind had become. And Genesis 6 includes one specific kind of evil. READ GENESIS 6:1-4
- Who are the “sons of God”?
- Some believe this a reference to a line of godly people, probably Seth’s offspring. But that doesn’t explain why there were giants.
- I think the best explanation, and this would line up with what Jude and 2 Peter are saying, is that this is a reference to fallen angels, demons.
- They either possessed and empowered men, or took on a human form themselves.
- Angels can take on a physical form, and when that happens, the Bible identifies them as men. There are no female angels in the Bible.
- They are impressive specimens (e.g. Angels in Sodom and Gomorrah)
- Physical characteristics would include physical body parts and even DNA.
- Early Jewish interpretations understood Genesis 6 as talking about fallen angels who took a physical form and engaged in physical relationship with women.
- Some believe the motivation was not simply pleasure, but the corruption of the physical line of Adam and Eve which was supposed to bring the Messiah who would crush Satan.
- By the way, when we see the term “giants” we might imagine someone who is 8 or 9 feet tall, but if the Israelites were small- to medium sized people, the term “giant” could even apply to someone who is like 6 and a half feet tall. To them, that would still be impressive.
- A corruption of the human line would also make sense why God chose to destroy mankind and start again with Noah.
- This was an especially wicked group of demons set, not only against mankind, but against God’s plan to send a Messiah.
Let’s go back to First Peter 3 now, and see if we can back track a little bit to understand what’s going on.
According to Genesis 6, it seems as if angelic beings left the spiritual realm in order to corrupt mankind and thwart God’s plans. Those demons, as Jude puts it, did not keep their domain.
But God was patient. For 120 years Noah was building the ark, and it seems that during that time, this kind of thing was still happening. Demons were corrupting the lineage of mankind.
When the flood came, not only was almost all humanity killed, but God took those demons who were so opposed to God’s plan, and He cast them into a spiritual prison where they are waiting for their final judgment.
If that’s what these verses are talking about, then what is Jesus’ proclamation? And what was the purpose?
Well, to start, this wasn’t an evangelistic sermon. The Bible gives no indication that someone already in hell can get into heaven. It is appointed for a man once to die, and the comes judgment. Jesus, in His parable about the rich man and Lazarus, said there is a great chasm between those two places. And especially if this is talking about demons, there is zero indication that demons will be saved. Like Satan, they will be eternally judged in the lake of fire.
So, this is not an evangelistic proclamation. Instead, this is a proclamation of His victory. Jesus died to pay the price of sin. At the cross, Colossians says, Jesus cancelled the record of our debt. It says, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities (demonic powers) and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
So, the proclamation of verse 19, I would say, is like a victory lap. It’s the proclamation that He had won. He had withstood all of Satan’s temptations. He had faced all of Satan’s hatred. And if any demons thought they had won something when Jesus died, our Messiah proved them absolutely wrong. Satan didn’t win a thing when Jesus died. That was the enactment of God’s eternal plan. And that victory was showcased for the world in the Resurrection.
If you back up a little to 1 Peter 3:16, I think you see another connecting point to what Peter is saying. In verse 16, it says that we need to maintain a clear conscience so that the enemies who slander us would be put to shame.
Jesus did that in the ultimate sense. By His righteousness, and by His suffering, He put Satan and His demons to shame. He triumphed over them.
We typically focus on Christ’s victory in terms of its benefit to us, but here, I think Peter is highlighting the angelic components of Christ’s victory.
By the way, some people think this was a literal proclamation that Jesus made to the demons in the time between His death and resurrection. Others think it would have happened after His resurrection. And other might say that it was a proclamation made by His resurrection, not exactly a literal proclamation in hell. Whichever position you might take, know that Jesus proved His victory of Satan and the demons. Jesus won, and He took a victory lap.
For these particular demons, maybe since they were imprisoned, they didn’t know what was happening on the earth. Or maybe they were just some of the most hostile and opposed to God’s plan. Whatever it was, Jesus made sure they knew that He had won. There was no doubt about it.
I think it’s interesting to think that God’s work isn’t just happening in the human realm. It’s happening in the angelic realm as well. You see that in Job’s life. You see that in 1 Corinthians 4 where Paul says he is a spectacle to angels. First Corinthians 11 talks about a woman’s submission affecting the angels as well. And then there is Ephesians 3:10 which says that through the church the manifold wisdom of God is made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
God is in the business of glorifying Himself both in the human realm and in the angelic realm. All creation will know who He is and what He has done.
One of the Olympic memories engrained in my mind was the 2008 men’s 100 meter. If you saw it, I doubt you would forget it.
I grew up knowing that the 100 meter dash was an all-out exertion for about 10 seconds. Races were decided by hundredths of seconds. In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the gold medal time was 9.85 seconds. The next three fastest times were 9.86, 9.87, and 9.89. It was that close. The top four guys were separated by 4 hundredths of a second.
But then came 2008 in Beijing. While there were still 30 meters left in the race, Usain Bolt starts celebrating. He spreads his arms in joy, and he slaps his chest as he’s crossing the finish line. And even with that early celebration he set a new world record and won by 20 hundredths of a second. The commentators were dumbfounded, and the crowd was ecstatic. And Bolt continued celebrating. For many, that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Well, as impressive as that was, we all need to admit that Christ’s victory is the only victory that will be celebrated for eternity—by the angels and by the redeemed.
So, what does that mean for you and for me? Besides a wild ride through some obscure theology, what should we take away from what Peter is saying?
Remember, he is trying to have us focus on Christ in the midst of our suffering. Jesus suffered. Jesus was attacked. Jesus was put to death. But even in the most distressing time, He was accomplishing God’s eternal plan. And He won the victory.
Oh, victory in Jesus, my Savior forever. He sought me and bought me with His redeeming blood. He loved me ere I knew Him and all my love is due Him. He plunged me to victory beneath the cleansing flood.
If you ever feel defeated by your sin or by this world, remember, you and I share in Christ’s victory. We are on the winning side.
Let me close by reading two separate verses from two songs you’re familiar with. And may these verses lead us in worship and in celebration of the victory we have in Jesus Christ.
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the Just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
To look on Him and pardon me
I will glory in my Redeemer
Whose priceless blood has ransomed me.
Mine was the sin that drove the bitter nails
And hung Him on that judgment tree.
I will glory in my Redeemer
Who crushed the power of sin and death
My only Savior before the holy Judge
The Lamb Who is my righteousness
The Lamb Who is my righteousness
Closing doxology: Rev 4:11; 5:12-13
Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created… “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” … “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” Amen!