To encourage believers to endure suffering for righteousness’ sake, on account of their faith in Christ, in chapter 3:18-22 of his first letter, Peter gives us a most beautiful description of the redemptive work of Christ on our behalf as a motivation. In our last study, we looked at verse 18, where we saw that the reason that God would allow us to suffer for doing good is because Christ, the righteous, holy, sinless One, also suffered; the Just for the unjust, that He may bring us to God. He removed the enmity that separated us from God, which is our greatest need as human beings, to be reconciled to God and live eternally with Him. That makes our sufferings here seem light in comparison to the victory that Christ gained for us.
In verses 18e-20c, Peter speaks of another victory that Christ has won for us in His suffering, and that is a victory over the enemy of our souls, Satan. (“… being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared..”). This verse has been the subject of various and sometimes fanciful interpretations as to who were these spirits in prison that Jesus went and proclaimed to. Were they the souls of those who perished in the flood, or some angelic spirits? Did He proclaim the gospel to them or something else? When did Jesus do this? Was He by His Spirit preaching through Noah, as He was in the prophets of old (ref 1 Peter 1:11- which was Augustine’s interpretation)? Did He do this before His resurrection from the grave or after?
2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6 aid us in understanding who these spirits were that Jesus preached to. We are told that they were fallen angelic beings prior to the flood (“who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling”). These God “kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgement of the great day” (Jude 1:6). When Jesus died on the cross, Satan and his angels thought they had won a decisive victory by killing the Messiah, the Son of God; but we know that through the cross, Christ accomplished a victory over sin and thus reconciled us to God. Satan tried his best to get Jesus to sin, but our mighty Savior prevailed and gained the victory. His proclamation in the spirit was a victory sermon to those fallen angels that were kept in prison, awaiting the day of final judgement. As it tells us in Col 2:14-15 “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
Peter here is showing that not only was sin defeated through Christ’s suffering and death, but Satan was also defeated; and in their suffering, the believers also could know victory over Satan through faith in Christ (Rev. 12:11). Even if they were to lay down their lives for Christ, it would not be in vain. Through their testimony, others would come to faith and Christ would build His church.
Here is how Albert Barnes put it in his commentary:
“By their holy lives, by their faithful testimony, by their patient sufferings, they showed that all these accusations were false, and that the religion which they professed was from God, and thus in fact gained a victory over their accuser. Instead of being themselves subdued, Satan himself was vanquished, and the world was constrained to acknowledge that the persecuted religion had a heavenly origin. No design was ever more ineffectual than that of crushing the church by persecution, no victory was ever more signal than what was gained when it could be said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”