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NOT CEREMONY BUT COVENANT
I Peter 3:18-22 and Ephesians 4:9 give us a wealth of information. It is not that there could not have been more; but the Lord has given enough to cover several issues, while not till glory has come, will the rest be definitively apparent (I Cor. 13:9ff.)..
Yet what do learn in these places ? First that Christ descended to the lower places of the earth, the word in Ephesians 4:9 declarative of hell, a depository for unsaved dead speaks of such an action. The term "spirits in prison"as articulated at some length elsewhere *1 , means those in hell. The sequence indicates the progression from suffering in being put to death in His flesh, followed by being alive by the Spirit.
Not inactive was He at this, but alive (cf. Revelation 1:19), He went to those spirits lost during the flood catastrophe with its judgment on a luxuriously and luxuriantly sinful people, filled with themselves and their own ways and ideas; and He preached to them. To be sure, the word used is not evangelised, as a special term, but it does not exclude it. It means heralded, proclaimed truth, whatever might be the particular message, though preached certainly refers here to the word of God to man.
By the Spirit, this same Christ, then, went and preached to a broader audience, His earthly work in the flesh done, even to the spirits in prison, contained under the eye of coming judgment. So His vast round of coming, growing up, assignment to redemption, was relayed in terms of expansion of the testimony on His heart to hell. The terms put together in these central verses concerning its covenant commanding actions, incapable of alternative construction because of their meaning and particular usage here (indeed it is not for no reason that the apostle's creed contains reference to this event: He descended into hell).
Peter then proceeds in I Peter 3, to evacuate a possible error in the understanding of some. He introduces the idea of being saved by baptism, and then quickly but quietly turns the tables on any false and sacramental assumption. Saved ? by baptism! But of course, and equally obviously, he is insisting, what is in mind here is NOT anything to do with a sacrament of any kind, and of a washing kind in particular; it does not the concern the immediate flesh at all. THAT is the nature of salvation. What is meant is the testimony of a pure conscience toward God BY the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The TRIUMPH is not watery, but sanguine, not coming out of water dripping, but coming out of the grave triumphant over the rotting power of death, and its impending but transferred judgment for those who receive Christ as Saviour and Lord. And it involves the personal and private aspects of being sincerely reliant on Him in His unique acts as deity in the flesh, having received what He has to offer with no "feigned" substitute! A good conscience attests a genuine repentant reliance on Him, and it is an integral part of the covenantal gift of salvation to which Peter refers.
It is really a coup, Peter transferring thoughts from the peripheral, to the central, from the sacramental to the covenantal, from the mirror to the mind, from the symbolic to the substantial, with a jolt sufficient to awaken the drifting or the rifting.
Thus, in the work, The Kingdom of Heaven, Ch.4, we have this (slight revision).
SPIRITS IN PRISON
Another index which prima facie holds the suggestion that some who have been ignorant of Christ may be found, by sovereign and predestinate determination, after life as they were foreknown before it, is found in I Peter 3:17-19. Here we read in a sequence of historical steps, of Christ visiting the spirits in prison. In prison, as servants of sin, sinners are without the Lordship of Christ exercised on them. "Spirits in prison" however is a phrase not found in the Bible anywhere else or in any other connection, nor is it implied as such. As to the statement that Christ went by the Spirit, to preach to the spirits in prison, it is worth noting this: the Bible is indeed entirely devoid of Platonic philosophy. This sort of statement would not appear to be in the perspective portrayed Biblically, if it means He went to people living on earth at any time.
This point too is pregnantly suggestive in terms of love, care, concern, survey, just as the alien nature of such terminology employed of people on earth is alien.
The 'spirit' may be in prison, but it is the person who is the servant of sin. We are not disembodied, and although certain forms of speech are conceivable, they are not found. Spirits in chains awaiting judgment we find in Jude; but these are not on this earth. They are angels who left their first estate. Jude is talking of spirits as spirits.
From a verbal point of view, this language is that of the after-life in the Bible. Releasing the captives in Isaiah 61, is people on earth, not spirits in prison. There are times and places of being captive, and the Biblical mode of referring to the one and to the other is distinctive and apt. From the point of view of sequence, naturalness of progress in I Peter 3:17-19, we move from Christ suffering for sins, to bring us to God, to His being put to death, quickened by the Spirit: and from there we launch into the excursion noted in vv. 19-20.
Do we then move back a few thousand years in time in a sort of time jump? Or are we pursuing the point to the environs of judgment to which He wished to relate? Are we finding the other vast judgment which covered the earth so that almost all people were physically extinguished one earth; and here seeing Christ visit in a giant illustration and indication of the Colossians 1:19-23 scope and grandeur of His magnificent love and outreach and desire to "reconcile all things to Himself?" The match is a marvel*1B.
And with what power and force does Paul speak of this reconciling passion on the part of the Almighty? This: "and having made peace by the blood of the Cross, by Him to reconcile all things to Himself: by Him, I say, whether they be things in earth or things in the heavens", in just collaboration with I Timothy 2 and John -19.
From the point of view of Bible Christian Apologetics, it is enough that a strong likelihood of this kind of 'preaching' exists; for the purpose here is not to prove the kind of "proclamation" statedly made by Christ to the spirits in prison, but to show the intense harmony of ALL scripture, and this is a primary example. See also the rest of the Ch. 4 from the Kingdom of Heaven on this point.