After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. 1 Peter 3:19-20 (NIV).
These two verses are deeply mysterious. In the end, we don’t really know specifically what Peter was saying. He’s talking about Jesus, of course, yet that’s where the understanding stops. Even Martin Luther, learned man he was, said (of these verses), “A wonderous text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”
It could be talking about what the pre-risen Christ did between His death on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday. He may have gone to the under-world, to the souls of those who died before His time here. He may have gone to proclaim His coming resurrection to all who never knew Him in His earthly form. We don’t know.
Or Peter might be talking about those who were still alive on the earth, people who, since the time of Noah, had seen and heard God’s proclamations about Himself yet refused to believe it in full. Again, we don’t know.
Or he might be talking about Christ preaching to the angels, though that doesn’t make much sense in terms of salvation, for Christ didn’t die and live for the angels’ salvation. Yet, once again, we don’t really know.
But one message is understandable: Christ, being made alive, is for us to believe in. People saw Him, touched Him, communicated with Him, lived with Him after Easter Sunday. For at least 40 days after, in fact. And yet still many people – most people, in fact – didn’t believe Christ was real. They were like us (or we are like them). We’re both like the people of the anti-deluvian world, during the days of Noah. It took Noah and his family over one hundred years to build the giant ark. And while it’s likely that people questioned Noah of what he was doing, it’s also likely that he answered them, imploring them to repent and turn to God who had promised the end of humanity.
How many listened? None. Only Noah, his wife, and their sons and their wives rode on the ark to safety. Everyone else died; untold millions, maybe even billions. We don’t exactly know how many people were on the earth back then; we can only guess. But that guess doesn’t mean much because it’s certain they all died. They died because they refused to believe they needed to be saved.
Maybe that’s the mystery lesson Peter was trying to teach us, too.
For further reading: Genesis 6:3, Romans 2:4, Hebrews 11:7, 1 Peter 3:21
Lord Jesus, I believe in You. Thank You. And thank You for this strange lesson.