We have probably all seen them and some have no doubt encountered them. Sometimes it is a snappy knock on our front door; other times we are approached in an airport or on the street by people who desire to share their religious beliefs with us. Often they have a Bible, or at least a booklet that has many Bible verses in it. They want us to know we can “trust them” to tell us the truth about God, our life’s purpose and the accurate picture of the afterlife. Some of them seem to be incredibly dedicated people, and we want to be polite, but we know Jesus as our Savior and walk with Him daily – so we aren’t in the market “shopping” for beliefs.
Did you ever stop and wonder: “How did do many people got duped by false beliefs when the Bible makes clear what God desires and requires of men?” Here is the truth: The Bible has 1189 chapters (the way we divide it now) and it is a complex writing. Most people won’t take the time to learn how their vacuum cleaner should be properly emptied and cleaned out, and they surely won’t read with great attention all the chapters of the Bible. Careful reading of ancient stories and teachings in their fuller context is hard to do. We have tools to help and the Spirit within – but most of us simply don’t do the work. As a result, when teachers pick out “bullet points” from larger works and frame their insights by stringing together a series of these points, we may find ourselves with insufficient study of the rest of what the Bible teaches to know this new insight just doesn’t fit the context of the Bible’s story line. Our key truth for this lesson may be thought of in this way…
Key Principle: The Word must be read carefully and in context to be truly understood.
As in mathematics, so in the Bible, it can be said: “There are an almost infinite number of ways to get a wrong answer – but precious few ways to get the right one!” It is painfully easy to pick out passages in the Scripture and create strange beliefs. Believers need to study each passage carefully and then fit every teaching properly into the whole picture God gave us. In the end, it sounds funny, but it is easier to start a cult than teach Scripture well. It is easier to develop false beliefs than to teach a full, balanced understanding of the Scripture. The problem isn’t the Bible; it is most often the sloppiness of the teachers and learners of the Holy texts.
Our passage for this lesson illustrates the principle by offering some teaching that can be easily misunderstood apart from two things: careful reading in the original grammar from which the New Testament has been translated, and contextual reading – understanding the specific verses in the context of the whole Bible. Read the passage and you may get sucked into a number of false teachings, because of insufficient investment in the understanding of the passage.
Let me say it another way. The last part of 1 Peter 3 contains a great treatise on the Person and work of Jesus. Yet, it is also the place where a number of religious groups have built the theological underpinning for strange teachings and for that reason we want to consider it separately from the rest of the chapter. There are two parts to the writing:
• In 3:19-20, there is a comparison between the salvation of God presented by Jesus to men and the call to repentance that beckoned sinners to come to God at the time of Noah. It uses tough and “grammatically thick” language, and can easily be confusing. That very confusion has led people in history to surmise a place of “Limbo”, as well as helped others to confuse the picture of the “afterlife” as presented in Scripture.
• In 3:21-22, there is a comparison between baptism and the ark of rescue built by Noah and his sons. It has led to people believing that water baptism is the tool from which God saves us from sin.
Neither of those beliefs is Biblically correct, but we will have to do some solid work in the Bible to demonstrate the truth. Both of these ideas have been picked up and turned into what solid Bible scholars would simply call a “distraction” from the true message from God in the text. The letter wasn’t wrong about what it said; but it admittedly was difficult to read and easy to misunderstand. God never promised that complex truth would be simple to grasp. In fact, Paul told Timothy in the early church that he was to “study hard and be an approved teacher” – implying that lax study would lead to wrong conclusions and unapproved teaching.
Recently I noticed a number of funny t-shirts and artwork from “Grammar Kills” –a group that reminds us that the “little things” like punctuation can have much meaning. They had several good reminders:
Take for instance the lines: “I like shooting friends and family” as opposed to the proper way to write: “I like shooting, friends, and family.”
I also liked their warning about how ‘punctuation saves lives’ with the two sentences: “Let’s eat grandma!” The proper phraseology would be: “Let’s eat, grandma!”
In other words, the details make a big difference, and we must work at the details…For the Apostle Paul “Hard study” meant placing the passage into the whole of the Bible’s message while reading meticulously so that important truths are unfolded and proper applications are developed. Let’s take a look at the examples from Peter’s letter.
Did Jesus preach to souls of dead people? (1 Peter 3:19-20)
In making his case to look at Jesus as an example of the righteous undergoing both suffering and death, Peter said something hard to understand. He may have referred to otherwise unknown actions of Jesus or it may be an image of something far simpler, but it raised controversies in the meaning of the verses.
Peter wrote these few complicated verses that must be carefully reviewed:
1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.
Before jumping to conclusions, let’s examine the verses very carefully. In them, Peter made several declarations:
• Christ died for sins as the Perfect One for the sin-sick.
• Christ died once, but His death was sufficient to save many who sinned much.
• The verses fall after a discussion about living in the face of persecution. Peter’s point, then, was that Christ ALSO died, as if to suggest that some who were being persecuted in the first part of the passage may face death, but that was part of God’s plan.
• Christ truly DIED in His body, but lived on after that death, as believers will.
When we reach verse nineteen, this is the place that becomes grammatically confusing. Here is how some read it and created a scheme of the afterlife:
• Christ, at the time after His physical death on Calvary went into imprisoned spirits in the afterlife who came from lives of disobedience and preached to them a “second chance.”
• Some of them came from as far back as the time of Noah, and were people overtaken by the flood.
That concept has been carried by many as part of the “Apostles’ creed” – an early church summary of belief that is still repeated in many churches worldwide today. They repeat:
“…He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell…”
Historic Roman Catholic theology referred to the place that Jesus seems to have visited after His death “limbus patrum”, or “limbo of the fathers”. A popular interpretation of these words of Peter taught in conjunction with the Apostles’ Creed is that our Savior died on the Cross, and then promptly descended into Hades, a temporary holding place for the souls of the dead, and preached to the spirits of some long dead that temporarily resided there. In this view, Jesus went to Hell and set people free that were held there for a time.
Some found a “place” in the Bible that didn’t exist!
If you learned theology from one of the Catholic Catechisms, you may have been taught something like this quote:
“We must believe, that Christ’s body lying in the grave, his soul descended into hell: not to suffer pains, as some heretics do say, but for consolation and comfort of many Fathers there, and out of that place (called Lymbus Patrum) he loosed the souls of the blessed Fathers from captivity, and carried them away with him: the third day he rose again from death to life, manifestly showing himself to his Disciples, eating with them, and speaking of the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 8, Luke 14, Ephes. 4, 1 Cor. 15, Acts 1.) Source: A Catechism or Christian Doctrine, by Laurence Vaux, B.D., reprinted from a 1583 edition by The Chetham Society in 1885, Manchester England, (updated to modern spelling for this excerpt) pages 13, 14.
The Douay Catechism made clear the idea: “That the soul of Jesus Christ, after His death, descended into ‘Limbo’—i.e., to the place where the souls of the just who died before Christ were detained, and were waiting for the time of their redemption. The Douay Catechism (An Abridgment of the Christian Doctrine) of 1649, by Henry Tuberville, D.D., published by P. J. Kenedy, Excelsior Catholic Publishing House, 5 Barclay Street, New York, approved and recommended for his diocese by the Right Rev. Benedict, Bishop of Boston, April 24th, 1833.
The Baltimore Catechism continued: “Is Limbo the same place as Purgatory? Limbo is not the same place as Purgatory, because the souls in Purgatory suffer, while those in Limbo do not. … “Hell:” here does not mean the place where the damned are, but a place called “Limbo.” …Now from the time Adam sinned till the time Christ died is about four thousand years. During that time there were at least some good men, like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and others, in the world, who tried to serve God as best they could—keeping all the divine laws known to them, and believing that the Messiah would someday come to redeem them. When, therefore, they died they could not go to Heaven, because it was closed against them. They could not go to Hell, because they were good men. Neither could they go to Purgatory, because they would have to suffer there. Where could they go? God in His goodness provided a place for them—Limbo—where they could stay without suffering till Our Lord reopened Heaven. Therefore, while Our Lord’s body lay in the Sepulchre, His soul went down into Limbo, to tell these good men that Heaven was now opened for them, and that at His Ascension He would take them there with Him. (Source: The Baltimore Catechism #4 on Basic Catholic Prayers, the Apostles’ Creed, by Rev. Thomas L. Kinkead, published by TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., Rockford, Illinois, Copyright 1891 and 1921 by Benzinger Brothers and reprinted in 1978, ISBN: 0-89555-340-6, pages 11,12).
The anatomy of a mistaken idea…
For a few moments, let’s consider how this idea came to be a part of Christian theology as we consider the verses that seemed to some to “support” this idea. It is important we understand what our neighbor has been taught about verses of Scripture so that we can compare those ideas with what the Bible says when read carefully and in the context of each passage. Be patient and consider three additional passages:
The first came from a parable of Jesus, who was seems to have suggested such a place:
Luke 16:19 “Now there was a rich man…20 And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, … 22 Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and *saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom…”
The second passage was taken from the defense of the Gospel by Peter on the Day of Pentecost in Acts:
Acts 2:24 But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death (hades), since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. ….27 Because You will not abandon my soul to Hades, Nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay…”
The third passage was found in a letter of Paul to the Ephesian church where he wrote about the work of Jesus in what appeared to be His death and burial.
Ephesians 4:7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, And He gave gifts to men.” 9 (Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)
Add these passages to the one we have been reading in 1 Peter 3, and the explanation sounds like this:
“Followers of the God of Abraham who died under the Atonement Law (that is before Jesus paid for sin “once for all” at the Cross, went to “Abraham’s Bosom”, while unbelievers went to Hades and looked across a fixed gulf, watching those who awaited redemption. When Jesus died, His body lay in the tomb, but His soul swooped into Abraham’s Bosom and released all the “captive souls” by the good news that sin’s payment was now complete. If that scenario was true, then Peter’s words meant that Jesus released them from a God-ordained captivity and waiting place.” The only problem with that explanation is that it is completely false. A close inspection of each of the supporting passages breaks apart the ideas. Let’s take apart the evidence more carefully.
The case of the parable of Jesus should be examined.
As we look more closely at the story, we should understand the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is no less a parable because a name is mentioned. In the genre of the day, using names was an option in offering a parable. The notion that because Lazarus was named the story was historical is totally without historical merit.
Note the parable before this one of the unjust steward. If one used the details of that parable to highlight truth, instead of keeping the main point as the focus, we could teach that conniving and cheating was commended by Jesus. Clearly the best understanding of a parable comes by “keeping the main thing as the main thing!” The point of Jesus’ parable wasn’t to show what the afterlife was like (that was a mere detail), but to teach that those who will not heed the Scriptures will not heed one coming back from the dead to tell them the truth. Therefore, Limbo was not a purposed part of the teaching from the passage at all, but part of an illustration in a parable that had an entirely different point. It can be ascribed little more meaning than naming the Prodigal Son or trying to find the “place” where the Good Samaritan took the man beaten by thieves. It was a story with a point – and the point is all that mattered.
Peter’s preaching in Acts 2 didn’t indicate a Limbo at all.
The point of Peter’s argument was NOT that David knew HE would be released from a holding place by Messiah, but that Messiah wouldn’t be held in the grave, but would be raised from the grave. Peter identified the one in Hades as Messiah, not David. He also made clear that remaining in whatever place he was referencing would have brought about “decay” of the one who was there. Does that sound likethe definition of “hades” in that case related to a place for souls in that passage or should be interpreted as the alternative meaning of “the grave” from which Jesus came on Resurrection Day? Since it was a place of decay, Limbo wasn’t in view in Acts 2, but the bodily resurrection of Messiah was being argued in that passage.
In Ephesians 4, Paul didn’t say that “Jesus went into the inner parts of the earth.”
This passage seems clear: Jesus went into the lower parts of the earth – except that doesn’t take into account the first reading of the translation. Grammatically, the structure of the passage appears to be what is called a “genitive of apposition” and should rightly be translated: “Jesus descended from Heaven into the lower parts of the universe, namely the earth, and that same Jesus ascended from the earth into Heaven.” This is a form in Greek that is familiar to Paul’s writings:
• In Colossians 1:18, Paul wrote: “He is the head of the body, (namely) the church” (Could not be translated, ‘the body of the church’.).
• In Romans 4:11, Paul wrote “and he received the sign, which is circumcision“
• In 2 Corinthians 5:5 Paul wrote “Who has given to us the down payment which is the Spirit.”.
The grammar rule of the genitive in Greek is this: “The word in the genitive case refers to the same thing as the word it modifies. To see if this is the use, try substituting the words which show this kind of equality, “which is”, “namely”, or “who is”, instead of the word “of”. You aren’t supposed to become Greek grammarians in this lesson, but merely need to understand that careful examination of the passage leads to a different place than the one cited by those who “found Limbo” in the verses.
Paul’s point wasn’t that Jesus went into Hell, but that Jesus came to earth and then ascended back to Heaven. There was apparently no “limbo itinerant preaching assignment” for Jesus in this passage either.
As one passage after another unravels under scrutiny, we are left with a weak case presented and under the weight of challenge; it is found to be false.
Did the “Apostle’s Creed” get it wrong?
First, let’s be careful to understand that even old creeds aren’t the Bible. They record the journey of the church, not necessarily the truth of the Word. Second, let me suggest they may have not gotten it wrong at all. Our text of the Apostle’s Creed came again from a Greek edition that plainly said … “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. The next phrase: “He descended into hell” was actually written “He descended into “Hades”. Since Hades can mean either the “abode of the dead” or the grave in ancient literature, there is no reason to conclude the creed intended all Christians to recognize a Limbo visit for Jesus, though clearly some eventually did hold that view. What is clear is this: Jesus DID physically die, bodily go into the grave, and (just as David promised through the Spirit) “God did not allow His body to be degraded or corrupted,” but rather God delivered Jesus up in new life and Resurrection.
What did Peter mean, then, when He wrote about Jesus preaching in 1 Peter 3:19-20?
Peter said that Jesus went to preach to the “spirits” who were in bondage. Were they in bondage at the time He went to them, or were they free at the time He spoke to them and were subsequently brought into bondage (1 Peter 3:19)? The passage doesn’t specify. There are a number of possibilities, none of which necessitate a “Limbo” teaching:
Did Jesus literally come?
The literal use of the phrase “Jesus came teaching them” suggests we are to understand that the Savior physically appeared in a “Pre-Incarnate Ministry” (before His birth in Bethlehem) to preach at the time of Noah. If this was intended in a figurative meaning, it would be more like this: Noah’s preaching was “intoned” with the message of salvation given to Noah from Jesus Himself, just as the Spirit of God intones messages of many who preach the truth to lost men. In that case, Peter may have cited Jesus as “behind the message” simply because he was comparing the preaching of Noah to the lost and their rejection of Him with the outreach and rejection of the Savior. In my view, looking at the rest of what Peter taught, he was referring to a Pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus when He appeared to care for a specific issue long ago. Yet, I don’t think Jesus came to speak to PEOPLE, I think He addressed a different group called “spirits”. Stay focused, and I believe it will make sense in light of Peter’s writings.
Were the “spirits” to whom Jesus spoke people or “something else”?
People in the Bible are not normally referred to as “spirits”, though all people have a connection to God that was severed in the Fall of man and was made alive anew in salvation to those who accept Christ – and that is our “spirit”. That refined theological use of the term seems an awkward expression for ancient people from Noah’s day. Based on the rest of Peter’s writings, I believe I can indicate he had something else in mind: he wasn’t talking about people at all.
The time of Noah in Genesis 6 is introduced by an account of the work of ANGELIC BEINGS who left their “normal form and place” in the spiritual world and attacked humanity by taking on human form and impregnating women. It sounds like a strange story, but Genesis introduced the flood story as a move made by God to save the race from complete blood line contamination. The passage opened with:
Genesis 6:1 “Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, 2 that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose… 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.”
Genesis 6 mentions there was some unique physical bond between sons of God (the phrase used in places like Job for angelic hosts) and daughters of men that produced or aided in an unprecedented reaction by God. Further, this union appears to have produced exceptional children in size and strength (6:4).
Peter appears to have referred to that time again in 2 Peter 2:4ff.
2 Peter 2:4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; 5 and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a [a]preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly, 6 and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter;”
Jude 1:6 suggests that a group of fallen angels have been adjudicated by God and are held in a prison awaiting the judgment:
Jude 1:6 And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day, 7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.
In a theme that appears more common than we may realize, each writer placed the event of which he wrote before Sodom’s judgment. It appears that in part of the preaching of Peter, the story of Jesus condemning the fallen angelic host for leaving the domain of Heaven and invading the territory of men to destroy God’s plan was a time when Jesus cast some angels into an eternal prison, as Jude 1:6 noted. They were imprisoned BY GOD, and Peter refers to that event. The “spirits” then, were placed in bondage by Jesus as a result of the rebellion associated with the time of God’s call to Noah to build an ark.
Instead of understanding the passages we have studied as Jesus passing into a compartment of Hades called “Abraham’s bosom” – we should see the reference to a time long ago when Jesus stepped in to judge some who left their place and profoundly attacked humanity by physical corruption. That was the point, then, of distinguishing a time when physical work saved spiritual life. Look at the passage again in 1 Peter 3:
1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;
There was a time, not long before this writing, when a perfect and righteous Messiah physically took on a body and died for the sin-sick fleshly world. His physical act made new life in the spiritual world possible for the believer. Then Peter went on…
1 Peter 3:19 “…in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.
That same Messiah was the One Who came and pronounced angels “guilty” of attempting a heinous plan.
The angels are now imprisoned and awaiting judgment (as Jude reminded). The flood took away the tainted blood lines from the earth and saved Noah and his family, who were of “clean blood” (tawmim is “blameless” in Genesis 6:9):
Genesis 6:9 “These are the records of the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God. 10 Noah became the father of three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.”
Issue Two: Does Baptism Save us? (1 Peter 3:21-22)
This complex text continued:
1 Peter 3:21 Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.
Peter said that in the same way that God used the flood waters and the ark to save humanity, but removed that corrupted part of the race, baptism “saves us” (i.e. separates the corruption from us). The corruption is NOT physical, but a spiritual pledge to God to maintain a clean conscience. The baptism depicts in part the new life to the “once dead” by Jesus who has authority over all today.
The evidence best supports that Peter is saying three things:
• First, baptism is symbolic of salvation like the flood was symbolic of God’s saving of the race.
• Second, baptism is a time when the pledge to walk with God in fullness is made, and should be taught, stressed and encouraged.
• Third, the resurrection from the dead, like the ark, was God’s opportunity to put a public stamp on the place of His blessing.
How do I know that he is not teaching that the act of baptism saves us? First and foremost, because the Scriptures are clear- God does not save us based on a work we do in places like:
Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained F5 that we should walk in them.
Titus 3: 5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; 6 Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior; 7 That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Peter simply argued that, just as the eight souls were saved as they passed “through water” on the ark, and the filth from the earth in Noah’s day was removed, so the “passing through” the baptism water symbolically washes away our guilt through Christ’s sacrifice. Jesus was at the center of both processes: He removed the rebellious angelic host who corrupted humanity, and He calls out to us to bring us to repentance and baptism (see John 16:8, 9). Jesus as both Judge and Rescuer at the flood was the significant point Peter made. Without understanding that, any comparison to an “antitype” in baptism is without sense. Don’t get lost in all the verbiage and forget the main point we have been studying:
Believers need to study the whole of the Bible and fit every teaching into the whole picture God gave us.
Don’t get sucked into the idea that because the Bible’s message is complex, it is beyond your understanding. The Bible is a story of two worlds – the eternal, primary one is called the “spiritual world” and it was the FIRST WORLD. The second world is the one so familiar to fallen men – it is the temporary and fading physical world. Around us every day are people who make THAT WORLD the ONLY WORLD – but the Bible warns it is a mere shadow of the permanent. If a man or woman makes the physical world their focus, they can accumulate wealth in the physical world, but starve out the growth of the Spirit which will have meaning in the permanent next world.
Consider this: In the next world, it will be clear to all that Jesus is both Rescuer and Judge – but only those who pledged their lives in this world will benefit from that knowledge in the next. God didn’t make your choice very complicated. Listen to the way the Gospel writer posed it:
John 3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees… 2 this man came to Jesus … and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” … 5 … “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ … 11 Truly, truly, I say to you … 12 If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? … 14 As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. … 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. …