on 1-peter 3 :19
By which - Spirit, his own Divine energy and authority.
He went and preached - By the ministry of Noah, one hundred and twenty years.
Unto the spirits in prison - The inhabitants of the antediluvian world, who, having been disobedient, and convicted of the most flagrant transgressions against God, were sentenced by his just law to destruction. But their punishment was delayed to see if they would repent; and the long-suffering of God waited one hundred and twenty years, which were granted to them for this purpose; during which time, as criminals tried and convicted, they are represented as being in prison - detained under the arrest of Divine justice, which waited either for their repentance or the expiration of the respite, that the punishment pronounced might be inflicted. This I have long believed to be the sense of this difficult passage, and no other that I have seen is so consistent with the whole scope of the place. That the Spirit of God did strive with, convict, and reprove the antediluvians, is evident from Genesis 6:3 : My Spirit shall not always strive with man, forasmuch as he is flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years. And it was by this Spirit that Noah became a preacher of righteousness, and condemned that ungodly world, Hebrews 11:7, who would not believe till wrath - Divine punishment, came upon them to the uttermost. The word πνευμασι, spirits, is supposed to render this view of the subject improbable, because this must mean disembodied spirits; but this certainly does not follow, for the spirits of just men made perfect, Hebrews 12:23, certainly means righteous men, and men still in the Church militant; and the Father of spirits, Hebrews 12:9, means men still in the body; and the God of the spirits of all flesh, Numbers 16:22; Numbers 27:16, means men not in a disembodied state.
But even on this word there are several various readings; some of the Greek MSS. read πνευματι, in spirit, and one Πνευματι Ἁγιῳ, in the Holy Spirit. I have before me one of the first, if not the very first edition of the Latin Bible; and in it the verse stands thus: In quo et hiis, qui in carcere erant, Spiritualiter veniens praedicavit; "by which he came spiritually, and preached to them that were in prison."
In two very ancient MSS. of the Vulgate before me, the clause is thus: In quo et his qui in carcere erant Spiritu venient praedicavit; "in which, coming by the Spirit, he preached to those who were in prison." This is the reading also in the Complutensian Polyglot.
Another ancient MS. in my possession has the words nearly as in the printed copy: In quo et hiis qui in carcere Conclusi erant Spiritualiter veniens praedicavit; "in which, coming spiritually, he preached to those who were Shut Up in prison."
Another MS., written about a.d. 1370, is the same as the printed copy.
The common printed Vulgate is different from all these, and from all the MSS. of the Vulgate which I have seen in reading spiritibus, "to the spirits."
In my old MS. Bible, which contains the first translation into English ever made, the clause is the following: In whiche thing and to hem that weren closid togyder in prison, hi commynge in Spirit, prechide. The copy from which this translation was taken evidently read conclusi erdnt, with one of the MSS. quoted above, as closid togyder proves.
I have quoted all these authorities from the most authentic and correct copies of the Vulgate, to show that from them there is no ground to believe that the text speaks of Christ's going to hell to preach the Gospel to the damned, or of his going to some feigned place where the souls of the patriarchs were detained, to whom he preached, and whom he delivered from that place and took with him to paradise, which the Romish Church holds as an article of faith.
Though the judicious Calmet holds with his Church this opinion, yet he cannot consider the text of St. Peter as a proof of it. I will set down his own words: Le sentiment qui veut que Jesus Christ soit descendu aux enfers, pour annoncer sa venue aux anciens patriarches, et pour les tirer de cette espece de prison, ou ils Pattendoient si long tems, est indubitable; et nous le regardons comme un article de notre foi: mais on peut douter que ce soit le sens de Saint Pierre en cet endroit. "The opinion which states that Jesus Christ descended into hell, to announce his coming to the ancient patriarchs, and to deliver them from that species of prison, where they had so long waited for him, is incontrovertible; and we (the Catholics) consider it as an article of our faith: but we may doubt whether this be the meaning of St. Peter in this place." Some think the whole passage applies to the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles; but the interpretation given above appears to me, after the fullest consideration, to be the most consistent and rational, as I have already remarked.
on 1-peter 3 :19
By which - Evidently by the Spirit referred to in the previous verse - ἐν ᾧ en hō - the divine nature of the Son of God; that by which he was "quickened" again, after he had been put to death; the Son of God regarded as a Divine Being, or in that same nature which afterward became incarnate, and whose agency was employed in quickening the man Christ Jesus, who had been put to death. The meaning is, that the same "Spirit" which was efficacious in restoring him to life, after he was put to death, was that by which he preached to the spirits in prison.
He went - To wit, in the days of Noah. No particular stress should be laid here on the phrase "he went." The literal sense is, "he, having gone, preached," etc. πορευθεὶς poreutheis. It is well known that such expressions are often redundant in Greek writers, as in others. So Herodotus, "to these things they spake, saying" - for they said. "And he, speaking, said;" that is, he said. So Ephesians 2:17, "And came and preached peace," etc. Matthew 9:13, "but go and learn what that meaneth," etc. So God is often represented as coming, as descending, etc., when he brings a message to mankind. Thus, Genesis 11:5, "The Lord came down to see the city and the tower." Exodus 19:20, "the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai." Numbers 11:25, "the Lord came down in a cloud." 2 Samuel 22:10, "he bowed the heavens and came down." The idea, however, would be conveyed by this language that he did this personally, or by himself, and not merely by employing the agency of another. It would then be implied here, that though the instrumentality of Noah was employed, yet that it was done not by the Holy Spirit, but by him who afterward became incarnate. On the supposition, therefore, that this whole passage refers to his preaching to the antediluvians in the time of Noah, and not to the "spirits" after they were confined in prison, this is language which the apostle would have properly and probably used. If that supposition meets the full force of the language, then no argument can be based on it in proof that he went to preach to them after their death, and while his body was lying in the grave.
And preached - The word used here (ἐκήρυξεν ekēruxen) is of a general character, meaning to make a proclamation of any kind, as a crier does, or to deliver a message, and does not necessarily imply that it was the gospel which was preached, nor does it determine anything in regard to the nature of the message. It is not affirmed that he preached the gospel, for if that specific idea had been expressed it would have been rather by another word - εὐαγγελίζω euangelizō. The word used here would be appropriate to such a message as Noah brought to his contemporaries, or to any communication which God made to people. See Matthew 3:1; Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:35; Mark 5:20; Mark 7:36. It is implied in the expression, as already remarked, that he did this himself; that it was the Son of God who subsequently became incarnate, and not the Holy Spirit, that did this; though the language is consistent with the supposition that he did it by the instrumentality of another, to wit, Noah. "Qui facit per alium, facit per se." God really proclaims a message to mankind when he does it by the instrumentality of the prophets, or apostles, or other ministers of religion; and all that is necessarily implied in this language would be met by the supposition that Christ delivered a message to the antediluvian race by the agency of Noah. No argument, therefore, can be derived from this language to prove that Christ went and personally preached to those who were confined in hades or in prison.
Unto the spirits in prison - That is, clearly, to the spirits now in prison, for this is the fair meaning of the passage. The obvious sense is, that Peter supposed there were "spirits in prison" at the time when he wrote, and that to those same spirits the Son of God had at some time "preached," or had made some proclamation respecting the will of God. Since this is the only passage in the New Testament upon which the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory is supposed to rest, it is important to ascertain the fair meaning of the language here employed. There are three obvious inquiries in ascertaining its signification. Who are referred to by "spirits?" What is meant by "in prison?" Was the message brought to them while in the prison, or at some previous period?
I. Who are referred to by spirits? The specification in the next verse determines this. They were those "who were sometimes disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah." No others are specified; and if it should be maintained that this means that he went down to hell (Hades), or to Sheol, and preached to those who are confined there, it could be inferred from this passage only that he preached to that portion of the lost spirits confined there which belonged to the particular generation in which Noah lived. Why he should do this; or how there should be such a separation made in hades that it could be done; or what was the nature of the message which he delivered to that portion, are questions which it is impossible for any man who bolds to the opinion that Christ went down to hell after his death to preach, to answer. But if it means that he preached to those who lived in the days of Noah, while they were yet alive, the question will be asked why are they called "spirits?"
Were they spirits then, or were they people like others? To this the answer is easy. Peter speaks of them as they were when he wrote; not as they had been, or were at the time when the message was preached to them. The idea is, that to those spirits who were then in prison who had formerly lived in the days of Noah, the message had been in fact delivered. It was not necessary to speak of them precisely as they were at the time when it was delivered, but only in such a way as to identify them. We should use similar language now. If we saw a company of men in prison who had seen better days - a multitude now drunken, and debased, and poor, and riotous - it would not be improper to say that "the prospect of wealth and honor was once held out to this ragged and wretched multitude. All that is needful is to identify them as the same persons who once had this prospect. In regard to the inquiry, then, who these "spirits" were, there can be no difference of opinion. They were that wicked race which lived in the days of Noah. There is no allusion in this passage to any other; there is no intimation that to any others of those "in prison" the message here referred to had been delivered.
II. What is meant by prison here? Purgatory, or the limbus patrum, say the Romanists - a place in which departed souls are supposed to be confined, and in which their final destiny may still be effected by the purifying fires which they endure, by the prayers of the living, or by a message in some way conveyed to their gloomy abodes - in which such sins may be expiated as do not deserve eternal damnation. The Syriac here is "in Sheol," referring to the abodes of the dead, or the place in which departed spirits are supposed to dwell. The word rendered "prison," (φυλακῇ phulakē,) means properly "watch, guard" - the act of keeping watch, or the guard itself; then watchpost, or station; then a place where anyone is watched or guarded, as a prison; then a watch in the sense of a division of the night, as the morning watch. It is used in the New Testament, with reference to the future world, only in the following places: 1 Peter 3:19, "Preached unto the spirits in prison;" and Revelation 20:7, "Satan shall be loosed put of his prison."
An idea similar to the one here expressed may be found in 2 Peter 2:4, though the word prison does not there occur: "God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment;" and in Jde 1:6, "And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains, under darkness, unto the judgment of the great day." The allusion, in the passage before us, is undoubtedly to confinement or imprisonment in the invisible world; and perhaps to those who are reserved there with reference to some future arrangement - for this idea enters commonly into the use of the word prison. There is, however, no specification of the place where this is; no intimation that it is purgatory - a place where the departed are supposed to undergo purification; no intimation that their condition can be affected by anything that we can do; no intimation that those particularly referred to differ in any sense from the others who are confined in that world; no hint that they can be released by any prayers or sacrifices of ours. This passage, therefore, cannot be adduced to support the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, because:
(1) the essential ideas which enter into the doctrine of purgatory are not to be found in the word used here;
(2) there is no evidence in the fair interpretation of the passage that any message is borne to them while in prison;
(3) there is not the slightest hint that they can be released by any prayers or offerings of those who dwell on the earth. The simple idea is that of persons confined as in a prison; and the passage will prove only that in the time when the apostle wrote there were those wire were thus confined.
III. Was the message brought to them while in prison, or at some previous period? The Romanists say that it was while in prison; that Christ, after he was put to death in the body, was still kept alive in his spirit, and went and proclaimed his gospel to those who were in prison. So Bloomfield maintains, (in loc.,) and so (Ecumenius and Cyril, as quoted by Bloomfield. But against this view there are plain objections drawn from the language of Peter himself:
(1) As we have seen, the fair interpretation of the passage "quickened by the Spirit," is not that he was kept alive as to his human soul, but that he, after being dead, was made alive by his own divine energy.
(2) if the meaning be that he went and preached after his death, it seems difficult to know why the reference is to those only who "had been disobedient in the days of Noah." Why were they alone selected for this message? Are they separate from others? Were they the only ones in purgatory who could be beneficially affected by his preaching? On the other method of interpretation, we can suggest a reason why they were particularly specified. But how can we on this?
on 1-peter 3 :19
3:19 By which Spirit he preached - Through the ministry of Noah. To the spirits in prison - The unholy men before the flood, who were then reserved by the justice of God, as in a prison, till he executed the sentence upon them all; and are now also reserved to the judgment of the great day.