Read 1 Peter 3:13-22
Let’s just get to the head scratching and wood burning right away. This scripture has something to chew on for sure.
Just who exactly was Jesus preaching to when he preached to those who were imprisoned spirits or even now dead?
How about Jesus went into Hades or Hell or the Place of the Dead and proclaimed the good news? That is certainly one interpretation. It is consistent with what the church fathers saw fit to include in the Apostle’s Creed.
How about Jesus went to the place where the fallen angels were held captive and proclaimed his victory over death? This brings closure to part of the story, though there is more in the revelation later given to John while on Patmos.
How about before anyone believed in Jesus, we were all dead—all were imprisoned souls? Jesus preached that once you believe you have passed from death to life. In a sense, Jesus had been talking to dead people the whole time he walked the planet.
John’s Gospel tells us that we know that we are alive because we love one another.
There are, of course, some variations of these three major interpretations and reasons while one might seem better than another.
Scholars who don’t like the preaching to the dead and giving them a chance for salvation version contend that nowhere in the Bible does it say that anyone will be given a “second chance.”
I can’t find the words second chance in the Bible. Of course I can’t find the word rapture either. But the more I read the Bible, the more I see a God of reconciliation who time and time and time again has granted humankind another chance to return to him.
The story of God’s Chosen People is a story of second chances. Our human mind is what insists on the boundaries of God’s love being restricted to this physical existence.
For those who interpret this to mean that Jesus went and proclaimed victory to those fallen angels and demons who were imprisoned, the thought begs the question:
If they are in prison, just who is out on bail?
For surely there are still evil forces at work in the world. Has Satan already been bound and the world is still in such a mess? Was John’s revelation unnecessary?
And if Jesus proclaimed victory to these fallen angels, did he offer them salvation or was he just stopping in to update them on eternity?
And so we come to the third major option—that Jesus is talking about everyone who has not accepted him as Lord. In a sense this would be Peter’s equivalent to the encounters in John’s gospel where Jesus declared you must be born again to live in his kingdom. This is saying that we are all dead until we proclaim the name of Jesus.
This is the Haley Joel Osmont interpretation: “I see dead people.”
This is perhaps the easiest for most people to accept. It does seem to have much merit, but there is a big problem.
Context. Context always seems to be getting in the way of an extra easy interpretation.
This interpretation fits poorly because of a single word: καὶ. It is a simple Greek word that means and, also, and in many translations of this letter, it means “even.”
Peter is urging believers to live holy lives, to resist the urges that they once may have held as their first purpose in life, to be ready to give account on the day when judgment comes to the living and the dead.
A continuation of this thought process about what we are to do in the here and now would not have required what followed to be separated by also or and even.
Peter is purposely setting this part about preaching to the dead apart from everything else going on in the here and now of our world.
So where does that leave us?
If you know with certainty exactly which interpretation is surely correct, you have probably filled in some gaps with your own personal beliefs to bring certainty to this piece of doctrine.
The Cumberland Presbyterian Confession of Faith says this:
3.11 God's work of reconciliation in Jesus Christ occurred at a particular time and place. Yet its powers and benefits extend to the believer in all ages from the beginning of the world. It is communicated by the Holy Spirit and through such instruments as God is pleased to employ.
So where does that leave us?
We must acknowledge that God desires none to perish. Jesus preaching to the imprisoned spirits—the dead if you will—would be consistent with the desire of his Father’s heart. He wants all to come to the grace that we know.
We must also acknowledge that God is a holy and just God. The Judge of all the earth will do right. The Old Testament is full of judgments. The judgment at the end of the age is yet to come but the Bible attests to many judgments.
God is love and his work throughout human history is one of reconciliation.
Jesus went to the cross to reconcile the world to God. And so we come to:
One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
That is sort of accurate. Here is what I left out of that part of Philippians 2.
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
One day everyone, everywhere will profess Jesus Christ is Lord. And this will be done to the glory of God.
The question is, was the work of Jesus done just for those who walked upon this earth and who believed in him from that point in history forward?
Or does the work of the cross reach farther, even to some times and places that are not necessarily a good fit with our personal theology?
There are many things that I challenge you to believe with absolute certainty, to hold as solid and certain.
· God is good.
· God is holy.
· God is just.
· God loves you more than you can imagine.
· Jesus, the Lamb of God, did take away the sin of the world on the cross.
· By faith alone you have received this fantastic gift and you will not be lost. Blessed Assurance and When the Roll is Called Up Yonder should be among your favorite hymns.
I could go on, but let’s also consider some other parts of the Bible that don’t require such certainty. That does not mean they are not inspired by God, only that they are not as clear to us as other parts.
· Exactly how long a day was before the sun and moon and stars were in the sky. God’s ways and thoughts and even time are not always set to Burns Flat Time.
· The time that Jesus is coming back to claim his own. If he doesn’t know, how can I? I will have to be content with he is “Coming Soon.”
· Precisely who Peter tells us that Jesus was preaching to in the first of his letters—that one is like looking through a glass darkly. I hope that Paul is ok with me using his metaphor to explain Peter’s letter.
So what are we to do with this part of Peter’s letters?
How about we follow the instructions given to us?
Peter provides a greater context to what he is presenting but he also gives us directions.
We don’t complain when we suffer because we follow Jesus.
Know that you are blessed. The world has recognized that you have a different Master. The spirit of this world doesn’t like that.
We set apart Jesus in our heart as Lord and Master. The world doesn’t know him but we do and regardless of what happens to us in this body, we know with certainty that Jesus is Lord. We know that with certainty. That cannot be extracted from our hearts.
And we always are ready to explain to others—with gentleness and respect—the hope that we have. We stand ready to explain to those lost in the world—yes, dead—that we know life. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. Our hope is in a God whom we know loves us with an everlasting love. Our hope is fueled by God’s own Spirit who is in this world with us.
So why don’t we become rock solid in the things in which we are certain and remain very open minded about things we are yet to fully understand.
Some things we are still looking through a glass darkly but one day we will fully understand.
I like to say that we live in between mystery and revelation. There is still much mystery to God but we have sufficient revelation to do our part in this equation which is both eternal and divine.
As far as I can discern, we take the good news to the world in this body, in this life, with the urgency that a tomorrow in this body is not promised.
As far as I can discern, the only hell that I am supposed to enter into and proclaim good news are those pockets of hell that exist in the here and now.
Some of them are just across the street. Some are a day’s flight away on the other side of the world.
Knowing with certainty exactly whom Jesus preached to in Peter’s epistle is not in the top 100 things that I will get to today.
Knowing that the work done on the cross was and is for everyone—well, I can take that message everywhere I go. I convey that with absolute certainty everywhere I go.
I am very cautious about defining what God can and cannot do.
I consciously resist my own mind’s attempts to put God in my box. I am very conscious not to become eisegetical—I won’t find a way to squeeze in my beliefs into the scriptures. I believe what comes out of them.
Once upon a time, a certain man knew that if he could only have an audience with God, God would have to agree with him. God would have to see it his way. What other way could he see it?
That day came.
Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:
“Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
“Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?
“Have you ever given orders to the morning,
or shown the dawn its place,
that it might take the earth by the edges
and shake the wicked out of it?
The earth takes shape like clay under a seal;
its features stand out like those of a garment.
God does go on for a while with Job and it is worth the read sometime.
This divine set of interrogatives gives us insight into how quickly our certainty about the things of God that we have constructed from human understanding fall apart in the light of the Almighty.
Sometimes we are so intrigued about things that still have elements of divine mystery that we forget to abide by the things that have been clearly revealed to us.
Sometimes the penumbra that exists between mystery and revelation becomes so intriguing to us that we forget to do what we have clearly been told to do.
While we do see much of the mystery of God through a glass darkly; his instructions to us are clear and direct.
We are taking a message of life and hope to the world. If the world doesn’t like us for doing that, count yourself in the company of the prophets, even in the company of Jesus. The world hated him first.
But when we are asked to explain our hope, we do so with respect and gentleness, even though we may not being receiving those same things. For we have hope enough for those who are lost as well and we do not shrink back from our mission just because we are not received as friends of the world.
Did Jesus descend to the dead, to hell, and proclaim the gospel? Was there an opportunity for those who died before the time was right to send Jesus into the world to now profess him as Lord?
That begs a follow up.
If hell is eternal, were the souls of everyone who rebelled against God past, present, and future already there?
These are some interesting questions that would make for very interesting discussion late one evening among believers.
But the question put to us is not to whom did Jesus preach?
The question that we must be able to answer is: With whom did I share the good news? With whom did I share my hope?
In the world that I know and live in and know that there are many people who have yet to realize life, what did I do with the gospel?
In our own world where people may pass from death to life by believing in Jesus, what did we do to help them along?
Some would say, if people get a second chance in hell, then what is the point of having any urgency in taking the good news to the world in the here and now?
First of all, that is what we are commissioned to do. God’s plan includes us taking light into the darkness. We are called to let our light shine before men.
In parental terms, we do this because God said so.
In scholastic terms, we tend to our own business.
In providential terms, we do our part and trust that God is in control of everything, and likely not in need of our interpretation of his plan.
If you are thinking that’s a cop out or for those who were not alive in the 1960’s and 70’s, that’s just ridiculous; read the rest of God’s reply to Job.
This is the plan. We have life in Christ Jesus and we are to take that life to the world. We only have so much time here in these bodies to do that.
Eternity is promised to us, but tomorrow is not.
So we share our hope wherever we can. We count ourselves privileged to have a little insight into this thing that we may not fully understand, but we will not become fixated upon it.
Having a little divine mystery in our life is just fine; perhaps even an excuse to postulate the possibilities of providence instead of watching another episode of CSI New York, Miami, or Foss Lake.
But God’s direction to us that we glean from Peter’s letter is clear. Share your hope.
Share your hope with gentleness and respect.
If you are treated poorly or just outright rejected by the world, remember, Christ suffered for us first.
Keep sharing your hope.
Proclaim the good news in the here and now. That’s our part. We know that part.
Regardless of where Jesus preached, there are plenty of imprisoned spirits and dead people walking among us who need the life that comes from believing the good news.
We see dead people every day. We see people living without God in their lives.
Taking light and life to them is our part.
That’s our part.
If you want to put on a pot of coffee and discuss the furnishings of heaven or the temperature of hell, I’m up for it so long as I have shared the good news that day. We will have a good discussion.
It will be fun.
But taking the gospel to the world and sharing our hope is our part of this divine equation.
That’s our part.