Preaching to the Spirits

John Nelson Darby

‘He preached to the spirits which are in prison’ (1 Pet. 3:19).

This passage in 1 Peter 3 has occasioned difficulties to the readers of Scripture; but it appears to me simple, if we perceive the object of the Spirit of God. The Jews expected a Messiah corporeally present, who should deliver the nation and exalt the Jews to the summit of earthly glory. But He was not present, we know, in that manner, and the believing Jews had to endure the scoffs and the hatred of the unbelieving on account of their trust in a Messiah who was not present and who had wrought no deliverance for the people. Believers possessed the salvation of their soul and they knew Jesus in heaven, but unbelieving men did not care for that. The apostle therefore cites the case of Noah’s testimony. The believing Jews were few in number, and Christ was theirs only according to the Spirit. By the power of that Spirit He had been raised up from the dead. It was by the power of the same Spirit that He had gone — without being corporeally present — to preach in Noah. The world was disobedient (like the Jews in the apostle’s days), and eight souls only were saved; even as the believers were now but a little flock. But the spirits of the disobedient were now in prison because they did not obey Christ present among them by His Spirit in Noah. The longsuffering of God waited then, as now, with the Jewish nation; the result would be the same. It has been so.

This interpretation is confirmed (in preference to that which supposes that the Spirit of Christ preached in hades to souls which had been confined there ever since the flood) by the consideration that in Genesis it is said, ‘My spirit shall not always strive with man … yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years’ (6:3). That is to say, His Spirit should strive, in the testimony of Noah, during a hundred and twenty years and no longer. Now it would be an extraordinary thing that with those persons only (for he speaks only of them) the Lord should strive in testimony after their death. Moreover, we may observe that, in considering this expression to mean the Spirit of Christ in Noah, we only use a well-known phrase of Peter’s; for he it is, as we have seen, who said, ‘the Spirit of Christ which was in them’ — that is, the prophets (1 Pet. 1:11).

These spirits then are in prison, because they did not hearken to the Spirit of Christ in Noah (compare 2 Pet. 2:5–9). To this the apostle adds the comparison of baptism to the ark of Noah in the deluge. Noah was saved through the water; we also, for the water of baptism typifies death as the deluge, so to speak, was the death of the world. Now Christ has passed through death and is risen. We enter into death in baptism; but it is like the ark because Christ suffered in death for us and has come out of it in resurrection as Noah came out of the deluge to begin, as it were, a new life in a resurrection world. Now Christ, having passed through death, has atoned for sins and we, by passing through it in spirit, leave all our sins in it as Christ did in reality for us; for He was raised up without the sins which He expiated on the cross. And they were our sins; and thus, through the resurrection, we have a good conscience. We pass through death in spirit and in figure by baptism. The peace-giving force of the thing is the resurrection of Christ, after He had accomplished expiation; by which resurrection therefore we have a good conscience.

Now this is what the Jews had to learn. The Christ was gone up to heaven, all powers and principalities being made subject to Him. He is at the right hand of God. We have therefore not a Messiah on earth, but a good conscience and a heavenly Christ.