Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, December 17, 2018
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Raised With The Spirit

1 Peter 3:18-22

 Here is one of the most mysterious texts of the New Testament:  “Christ preached to the spirits in prison.”  There are three big questions about this little phrase.  First, who are the spirits in prison?  Second, when and where did Christ preach to them?  And third, what did he say?  

 Just as there are three questions, there are three answers.  Well, technically there are more than three answers, but there are basically variations on three answers.  

 The first answer is that Christ preached to the spirits of the dead in the place of the dead.  This was the most common view of the early Church Fathers, the great theologians of the first five centuries of the Christian faith.  It’s also the view we find in the Apostles Creed:  “He descended to the dead.” 

 In this understanding, after the crucifixion, or possibly after the resurrection, Christ went to the spirits of dead people in the place of the dead, which was called Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek.  According to the first century Jewish understanding of the afterlife, when a person died, their soul went to Sheol to wait for the day of the judgment.  In Sheol, Christ proclaimed a message to these spirits.  Depending on who you ask, he was either offering salvation to them, or he was declaring salvation to the righteous dead, the saints of the Old Testament.  

 There are some good things about this view.  For one thing, it reminds us that salvation is only found in Jesus Christ.  Even the righteous dead of the Old Testament found their righteousness in looking forward to God’s salvation in Jesus.  

 Second, it’s nice to think that maybe there’s a second chance.  Maybe those who don’t hear the message of Christ or who reject the message of Christ somehow get a “second chance” in the place of the dead.  But just because it’s nice to think it doesn’t mean it’s true.  

 And third, this could explain one of the other mysterious passages of the New Testament.  Matthew 27 says that after Christ’s death on the cross, a number of tombs were opened and godly saints of the past were seen walking around in Jerusalem.  If Christ had gone and proclaimed salvation to them, then those two texts seem to fit together.  

 The second answer to the passage is that Christ preached to people in the days of Noah through Noah.  In other words, the Spirit of Christ was at work, offering salvation through the words of Noah.  This was the view of the Protestant Reformers, Luther and Calvin.  

 Well, if that were the case, then it would appear that the Spirit of Christ was not very successful in his preaching, because as Peter reminds us, only eight people were saved on the Ark.  No one but Noah’s family believed the message.

 The best part of this view is that it’s neat and tidy.  It explains everything without any loose ends.  “Oh, that just means that Christ was preaching through Noah, in some spiritual sense.”  And that’s the end of the story.  But again, just because something is neat and tidy doesn’t mean that it’s true.  

 This brings us to the third view, which is that Christ proclaimed his victory over the fallen angels, either after the crucifixion or after the resurrection.  This is the most prevalent modern view of the passage, and I think it’s the best understanding of the text, for a few reasons.

 The first reason is that in the New Testament, the word “spirits” by itself generally refers to “fallen angels” rather than to “human spirits.”  

 Second, this view fits best with a first century Jewish understanding of the universe.  In their understanding, the evil spirits or fallen angels were cast out of the highest heaven and imprisoned in the earth’s atmosphere, the lowest heaven.  From their prison, they continue to work against God’s purposes by seeking to lead people astray.  And they hold influence over the kingdoms of the world.  These evil spirits stand behind the powers of this world and corrupt and turn them against God.  

 The third reason I think this is the best understanding is that Christ does not preach “good news” to these spirits.  The verb in verse 19 is KERUSSO, “to proclaim,” rather than the more positive, EUANGELIZO, “to bring good news.”  In other words, Christ is not bringing good news to the spirits in prison; he is proclaiming his victory over them.  As verse 22 says, “he is seated in the place of honor, above all angels, powers, and authorities.”  

 And finally, this is the best explanation of this mysterious text in the light of the context.  The whole purpose of this passage is to provide encouragement to persecuted

believers, to give them confidence.  The preceding verses are all about how if we suffer persecution for doing what is right, then we are following the example of Christ, who though he did  not sin, still suffered and died for the sins of the world.  

 Christ died in the flesh, but was raised to life in the Spirit.  There is a contrast here between flesh and spirit.  

 Flesh, in the New Testament, usually refers to human beings.  It is a word that speaks of our weakness and mortality.  It also speaks about our moral weakness, our tendency to sin.  

 Now flesh is not necessarily a “bad word” in the New Testament.  The idea that we human beings have a noble spirit doing battle constantly with a cravenly flesh is not a biblical idea.  That kind of thinking came into the Church from Neo-Platonic philosophy in the centuries after the New Testament.  It is not biblical.  Our problem is not that we are made of flesh, our problem is that we live by the flesh, we live by our own strength, which is actually weakness.  Christ was made of flesh just as we are, but he lived by the power of God’s Spirit.  

 Instead of living by the flesh, we should live by the Spirit.  The Spirit is God’s gift to us.  It brings into our lives the power, the presence, and the character of Christ.  

 Christ died in the weakness of flesh, but was raised in the power of the Spirit.  In the Spirit, he proclaimed his triumphal victory over the spirits in prison who rebelled in the days of Noah.  

 The mention of Noah recalls the Old Testament image of the Flood, which is an “antitype” of baptism.  The Greek word “TYPOS” meant seal, as in the seal of a king or other important person that showed his or her ownership of something.  The “ANTITYPOS” referred to the impression left behind by the seal in the wax, which would be the opposite of the seal itself.  The Flood is a reverse image of baptism.  

 In the flood, only a few were saved through the waters that brought God’s judgment.  But in baptism, many will be saved through the waters that bring God’s grace.  When we are baptized, we are identified with Jesus, the one who was raised in the power of the Spirit.  We identify ourselves with him and his victory.  

 As Peter reminds us, baptism is not about what is happening physically.  It’s not about the removal of dirt from the body, but about our appeal to God for a clean conscience, our appeal for God’s grace by being identified with Christ.  

 The Spirit convicts us of sin and judgment, and it calls for a response of faith.  Baptism is the thing that demonstrates our faith outwardly and publicly.  In our baptism, we are making plain and public that we identify ourselves with Christ, and so we become one with him.  

 The encouragement of this passage is that even if we do suffer for our faith, that does not mean that we are defeated.  The powers of this world have already been defeated by Christ.  And if we are identified with Christ, then we are also victorious over them.  

 If we rely on the flesh, we are doomed to fail, because the flesh is weak.  But if we identity with Christ and rely on the Spirit, we are already victorious.  And nothing in this world can undo that victory.  

 In the words of Paul in Romans 8:  “I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.  No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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