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Peter once of wrote of Paul’s letters: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). We might say the same of Peter’s letters! Here’s one statement that has long perplexed readers:
In verse 18, Peter is speaking of the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus was “put to death in the flesh”—that is, he died in his humanity. And he was raised, “made alive in the spirit.” But what is “the spirit” here? Some interpreters take it to mean Jesus’s human soul. Others say it’s the location where the risen Jesus is now alive. But the pairing of Jesus’s resurrection with “the spirit” indicates that Peter is referring to the Holy Spirit (see Rom. 8:4–11). Jesus, Peter says, was raised in the power of the Spirit.
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If Peter is saying in verse 18 that Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, then he’s saying at the beginning of verse 19 that “in [the Spirit], [Jesus] went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” Many interpreters have taken Peter to be saying that, either between Jesus’s death and resurrection or after it, Jesus undertook a preaching campaign.
Who are said to be the objects of Jesus’s preaching? “The spirits in prison” who “formerly did not obey.” But who are these “spirits”? According to some, they’re the souls of Old Testament believers, whom Jesus liberated from captivity and brought with him to heaven. The message that Jesus proclaims—his death and resurrection—is therefore good news to them.
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What Did Jesus Do?
These interpretations have at least one thing in common. They see Jesus doing something—locally, if not bodily—after his death and burial but before his ascension and session in heaven. One problem with such interpretations, though, is they affirm an activity of Jesus that appears nowhere...
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