1 Peter 3:17-22. The verses leading up to this passage deal with the importance of our manner of life and acceptance of suffering in this world – suffering at the hands of those who are disbelievers - disobedient to the word. We will quote the passage:
“For it is better, if the will of God should will it, to suffer as well-doers than as evildoers; for Christ indeed has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God; being put to death in flesh, but made alive in the Spirit, in which also going he preached to the spirits which are in prison, heretofore disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah while the ark was preparing, into which few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water: which figure also now saves you, even baptism, not a putting away of the filth of flesh, but the demand as before God of a good conscience, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, gone into heaven, angels and authorities and powers being subjected to him”.

There have been many attempts to explain this passage. It is easier once we see two things - the object of the Holy Spirit – as is always necessary – and the fact that the Spirit of Christ was in Noah preaching to the individuals of his time. This last concept is also referred to by Peter when speaking of the Old testament prophets in 1 Peter 1:11, “the Spirit of Christ which was in them pointed out, testifying beforehand of the sufferings which belonged to Christ, and the glories after these”. This does not mean that they were indwelt by the Spirit as we are, but that Christ, by the Spirit used them. More on this below.

The Jews expected a Messiah [‘Christ’ in Greek] to be present with them, who would deliver the nation, and raise them to a place of earthly glory. This will of course happen in God’s time, after that nation has suffered in the tribulation. However he was not present when Peter wrote, and the recently converted Jews who believed on Jesus had to endure the mocking of the unbelieving ones on account of their believing in a Christ who was not present, and who had brought no national deliverance for the people. The believers possessed the salvation of their souls and they knew Jesus in glory; but unbelieving men did not have any time for that. The apostle Peter therefore quotes the case of Noah’s testimony. The believing Jews were relatively few, and Christ was theirs according to the Spirit. By the power of that Spirit He had been raised from the dead. It was by the power of that same Spirit that He had gone – without being bodily present – to preach in [or via] Noah. The world at that time was disobedient or disbelieving, just like the Jews in the apostles’ days, and only eight souls were saved then. And the believers in Peter’s time were only 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 long-suffering of God waited then, as now, with the Jewish nation; the result would be the same. And so it has been.

In case anyone is worried by the concept of “the Spirit of Christ in Noah”, it is only using a well-known phrase of Peter’s. As stated above, it occurs in 1 Peter 1:11, where he writes about the prophets of old, that “the Spirit of Christ which was in them [i.e. the prophets] pointed out, testifying beforehand of the sufferings which belonged to Christ, and the glories after these”.

The above reasoning is further confirmed by considering the verse in Genesis 5:3, where God said “My Spirit shall not always plead with Man; for he indeed is flesh; but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years”. That is to say, His Spirit should strive, in the testimony of Noah, during 120 years and no longer.
Many say that the spirits were preached to. That would be a most extraordinary thing that God would appeal or strive in preaching to them after their death, and not with others, because He speaks of those persons only in that section.

These spirits are in prison, because they did not hearken to the Spirit of Christ in Noah – see also 2 Peter 2:5-9. In verse 9 of that passage, all those who have not obeyed the testimony of God in their generation will be held in the same way, as it says: “the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of trial, and to keep the unjust to the day of judgment to be punished”.

In our scripture, 1 Peter 3:20-21, the apostle adds the comparison of baptism to Noah’s ark in the flood. Noah was saved through the water; we also, for the water of baptism typifies death, as the flood was really the death of the world. Now Christ has passed though death and is risen. In principle, 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 a new life in a world the other side of death - a resurrection world, so to speak. Christ having passed through death, has atoned for sins; and we, by passing through it in principle, 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 figure by baptism. We get peace about the whole matter by the resurrection of Christ, after He had accomplished expiation. It is by the resurrection that we have a good conscience – He was “raised for our justification”, Romans 5:25. His resurrection was the proof that God accepted his offering of himself.
Now this is what the Jews had to learn. Christ was gone up to heaven, all powers and principalities being made subject to Him, and He is at the right hand of God. We have therefore not a Messiah on earth, but a good conscience and a heavenly Christ.

MM July 2008

Acknowledgements:
Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, Vol. 5, J.N. Darby, Bible Truth Publishers, Addison, Illinois, USA.