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Thursday, November 30th, 2023
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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Bible Commentaries
1 Peter 3

Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary for Schools and CollegesCambridge Greek Testament Commentary

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Verses 1-99

Chapter 3

1 . Likewise, ye wives ] The sequence of thought is every way suggestive. The Apostle passes from the all but universal relation of the master and the slave as one element of social life, to the other, yet more universal, and involving from the Roman point of view almost as great a subordination, of husband and wife. Here also it was his object to impress on men and women, especially on the latter, the thought that the doctrine of Christ was no element of disorder. The stress which he lays on their duties may be fairly taken as indicating the prominence of women among the converts to the new faith. Of that prominence we have sufficient evidence in the narrative of the Acts (16:13, 17:4, 12). In what follows we have again a reproduction of the teaching of St Paul (Ephesians 5:22-24 ; Colossians 3:18 ; 1 Timothy 2:9 ). It is not without interest to recall the fact that Aristotle makes the two relations of which St Peter speaks, that of husband and wife, that of master and slave, the germ-cells, as it were, out of which all political society has been developed (Arist. Pol . i. 2).

be in subjection to your own husbands ] The use of the Greek adjective for “own” is not intended, as some interpreters have thought, to emphasize a contrast between obedience rendered to their own husbands and that which they might be tempted to give to others, but rather to lay stress on the fact that their husbands, because they were such, had a right to expect the due measure of obedience in all things lawful. The words that follow indicate the frequency of the cases in which the wife only was a convert. The Greek text runs “that even if any obey not the word,” as though, in some cases at least, it might be expected that husband and wife would both have been converted together. In “the word” we have the familiar collective expression for the whole doctrine of the Gospel. The Greek verb for “obey not” implies, as in chap. 2:7, Acts 14:2 , Hebrews 3:18 , Hebrews 3:11 :31, a positive antagonism rather than the mere absence of belief and obedience.

may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives ] The Greek for “word” has no article, and the probable meaning is not “without the open preaching of the word of Christ,” but rather, without speech, without a word [being uttered] . On “conversation,” see note on chap. 1:15. Here, where “conversation” is used as the direct antithesis to speech, the contrast between the new and the old meanings of the word is seen with a singular vividness. The silent preaching of conduct is what the Apostle relied on as a more effective instrument of conversion than any argument or debate. In the verb “be won,” literally, be gained over , we have the same word as that used by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:19 , 1 Corinthians 9:20 , and by our Lord, in teaching which must have made a special impression on St Peter’s mind, in Matthew 18:15 .

2 . while they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear ] On the verb “behold” see note on chap. 2:12. The word “coupled” is not in the Greek, and the true meaning of the word is that the “chaste conduct ” of the women who are addressed must have its ground and sphere of action in the reverential awe which is the right feeling of a wife towards her husband.

3 . that outward adorning of plaiting the hair ] So St Paul lays stress in 1 Timothy 2:9 on the “braided hair and gold and pearls” which were at the time conspicuous in the toilet of Greek and Roman women. The sculptures of the Empire at this period shew to what extent this “braiding” and “plaiting” was carried, sometimes rising to a height of some inches above the head, sometimes intertwined with twisted chains of gold or strings of pearls. The fineness and fashion of the garments of women had at this time reached an almost unparalleled extravagance. The filmy half-transparent tissue of the Coan loom, the dyed garments of Miletus and Sardis, were especially in demand. Christian women, St Peter teaches, were not to seek their adornment in such things as these, but in “a meek and quiet spirit.” The question may be asked, Are the Apostle’s words prohibitive as well as hortatory? Is it wrong for Christian women now to plait their hair, or to wear gold ornaments or pearls? The answer to that question must be left mainly to the individual conscience. “Let every one be fully persuaded in her own mind.” As some help to a decision, however, it may be noted (1) that the language is not that of formal prohibition, but of a comparative estimate of the value of the two kinds of adornment; (2) that in regard to the third form of ornamentation, seeing that some clothes must be worn, the words cannot have a merely prohibitive force; and (3) that in the possible, if not common, case of the husband giving such ornaments and wishing his wife to wear them, the “meek and quiet spirit” which the Apostle recommends would naturally shew itself in complying with his requests rather than in an obstinate and froward refusal. On the whole then, as a rule bearing upon daily life, we may say that while the words do not condemn the use of jewellery, or attention to the colour and the form of dress, within the limits of simplicity and economy, they tend to minimise that form of personal adornment, and bid women trust not to them, but to moral qualities, as elements of attraction. It would be, perhaps, a safe rule that no woman should spend money for herself on such ornaments.

4 . the hidden man of the heart ] The phrase is identical in meaning with the “inward man” of Romans 7:22 , 2 Corinthians 4:16 , Ephesians 3:16 . The word for “man” is one which takes within its range women as well as men. The “hidden humanity of the heart” would be somewhat too abstract in its form, and “the hidden human ,” though the word has the sanction of one or two poets of mark, would sound too grotesque, but either would express the meaning of the word adequately. The “hidden man of the heart” (the genitive expresses the fact that the life of the “hidden man” manifests itself in the sphere of the feelings and affections) is the “new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17 , Galatians 6:15 ), the “Christ formed in us” (Galatians 4:19 ), on which St Paul loves to dwell. Men do not see it with the outward eye, but they can be made to recognise its presence.

in that which is not corruptible ] The contrast rests on the same sense of the perishableness even of the gold and silver and gems which men looked on as most durable, that we have seen in chap. 1:18. These pass away, but the true ornament of the hidden man has its being in the region of the imperishable.

of a meek and quiet spirit ] The New Testament usage of the second adjective is confined to this passage and to 1 Timothy 2:2 . So far as we can distinguish, where it is almost impossible to separate, “meekness,” the absence of self-assertion, of any morbid self-consciousness, may be thought of as the cause, and “quietness,” the calm tranquillity which is not only not an element of disturbance, but checks the action of such elements in others, as the effect. In their union the Apostle, speaking, we may hope, from his own experience, rightly finds a charm, a kosmos , compared with which gold and jewels are as nothing.

of great price ] The Greek word is the same as that used of the “ very precious ointment” in Mark 14:3 and the “ costly array” of 1 Timothy 2:9 . The connexion of St Peter with St Mark’s Gospel (see Introduction ) gives a special interest to the first of these references. He had learnt the lesson that God’s estimate of value differs altogether from man’s, and is not to be measured by the standard which the world commonly applies.

5 . For after this manner in the old time ] It is obvious from the special instance given in the next verse that the Apostle has in his mind exclusively the saintly wives and mothers of the Old Testament. The names of Penelope, Andromache, Alcestis, which are familiar to us as patterns of wifely excellence, were not likely to have come within the horizon of his knowledge.

who trusted in God ] More accurately, who hoped in God . It may be noted that the same inadequate rendering is found in the Authorized Version of Romans 15:12 , and Philem. v. 22. The idea of “trust” is, of course, not far removed from that of “hope,” but the variation of rendering was a needless one, and ought therefore to have been avoided.

being in subjection unto their own husbands ] The repetition of the same verb as that used in ver. 1 and ch. 2:13, should, be noticed as reproducing what might almost be called the key-note of the Epistle. It occurs again in ch. 3:22, 5:5.

6 . even as Sara obeyed Abraham ] The tense which St Peter uses would seem to imply a reference to some special instance of obedience, but, as the history of Genesis supplies no such instance in act, we are left to infer that he saw in her use of “my lord,” in speaking of her husband (Genesis 18:12 ), a representative utterance that implied a sense of habitual subordination. It seems strange to refer to literature like that of the sixth satire of Juvenal in illustration of an Epistle of St Peter, but there can be no clearer evidence that the general corruption of the Empire had extended itself to the life of home, and that over and above the prevalence of adultery and divorce, the wives of Rome, and we may believe also, of the cities that followed in the wake of Rome, had well-nigh thrown aside all sense of the reverence which the Apostle looked on as essential to the holiness, and therefore the happiness, of married life.

whose daughters ye are ] whose daughters ye became . If the words were addressed to women who were converts from heathenism, we might see in the words a suggestive parallel to those of St Paul, that Abraham was the father of “all them that believe though they be not circumcised” (Romans 4:11 ), that “they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7 ). Taking this view there would be a special interest in the fact that St Peter, the married Apostle, told the female converts from among the Gentiles that they were as truly daughters of Sarah as their husbands, if believing, were sons of Abraham. On the assumption which has been adopted throughout these notes, as on the whole the most probable, that the Epistle was really addressed, as it purports to be, to the Jews of the dispersion, the words have another significance. The daughters of Sarah according to the flesh are told that they only became truly her children when they reproduced her character. The words, on this view, present a striking parallelism to those in which St Paul speaks of Abraham as being “the father not of the circumcision only, as such, but of those who walk in the steps of Abraham’s faith” (Romans 4:12 ).

as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement ] The construction of the Greek sentence is not quite clear, and admits of being taken either (1) as in the English version, or (2) treating the words “as Sara obeyed.… whose daughters ye became” as a parenthesis, we may refer the words “doing well” to the “holy women” of ver. 5. On the whole (1) seems preferable. It may be questioned whether the words “so long as” rightly represent the force of the participle. If we adopt the rendering given above (“ye became ”) that meaning is clearly inadmissible, and we have to see in the two participles the process by which Christian women became daughters by doing good and not being afraid . The word for “amazement” does not occur elsewhere in the New Testament, but the cognate verb is found in Luke 21:9 , Luke 24:37 . The noun itself meets us in the LXX. of Proverbs 3:25 . It implies the crouching, shuddering fear of one who is overwhelmed with terror. In warning the women to whom he writes against such a fear, St Peter seems to be guarding them against the unwisdom of rushing from one extreme to the other. The Christian wives of unbelieving husbands, whether Jews or heathens, might often have much to bear from them, but if they were always shewing their terror, cowering as if they expected the curse or the blow, that very demeanour was certain to make matters worse. It was a tacit reproach, and therefore would but irritate and annoy. Wisely therefore does the Apostle urge on them a different line of action. “Be certain,” he seems to say, “that you are doing what is right and good, and then go about the daily tasks of your household life with a cheerful intrepidity.” Two interpretations may be noticed only to be rejected, (1) that which takes the second clause as meaning “be not afraid of anything that causes terror,” and (2) that which renders it “doing good, even though you are not afraid,” as though stress were laid on their good conduct being spontaneous and not originating in fear.

7 . dwell with them according to knowledge ] It is significant that while the Apostle dwells emphatically on the case of Christian women who have unbelieving husbands, his exhortations to men seem to take for granted that their wives were of one mind with them. In the then existing state of society this was, of course, natural enough. The wife might be converted without the husband, but hardly the husband without the wife. The word for “dwell together” (not found elsewhere) is clearly intended to cover all the relations of married life. In those relations men were to act “according to knowledge,” i.e. with a clear perception of all that marriage involved, and of the right relation in which each of the two parties to the contract stood to the other. The wife was not to be treated as a slave or a concubine, nor again as the ruler and mistress of the house, but as a helpmeet in the daily work of life, a sharer in its higher hopes and duties, the mother of children to be brought up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel ] The word for “giving,” not found elsewhere in the New Testament, implies an equitable apportionment, that for “wife” is strictly an adjective agreeing with “vessel,” and would therefore be rightly rendered by female . In the term “vessel,” which finds a parallel in 1 Thessalonians 4:4 , we have the thought that all, men and women alike, are “instruments” which God has made for His service (comp. 2 Timothy 2:20 , 2 Timothy 2:21 ). The husband is bound to think of himself in that light. He must recognise himself as the stronger vessel of the two, and therefore, because noblesse oblige , he must render due honour to the weaker, seeking to strengthen and purify and elevate it.

as being heirs together of the grace of life ] The MSS. present various readings, some making the word “heirs” refer to the husbands and some to the wives. As, in either case, stress is laid on their being joint heirs, there is practically no difference. The “life” in which both are thus called to be sharers is, of course, none other than the eternal life which consists in knowing God. (John 17:3 .)

that your prayers be not hindered ] Some MSS. give a stronger form of the verb, “that your prayers be not cut off (or, stopped ).” The more natural interpretation is that which refers the pronoun to both the husband and the wife. Where there was no reciprocated respect, each recognising the high vocation of the other, there could be no union of heart and soul in prayer. Where the husband thought of the wife only as ministering to his comfort or his pleasures, as one whom he might, as both Jewish and Roman law permitted, repudiate at will, there could be no recognition of the fact that she shared his highest hopes. The words clearly include, though they do not dwell on them, the special hindrances to prayer referred to in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 .

8 . Finally, be ye all of one mind ] From the two special relations which were the groundwork of social life, the Apostle passes to wider and more general precepts. The adjective for “of one mind” (not found elsewhere in the New Testament) implies, like the corresponding verb in Romans 12:16 , Romans 15:5 , and elsewhere, unity of aim and purpose. That for “having compassion one of another” (this also used only by St Peter in the New Testament) exactly answers, as describing the temper that rejoices with those that rejoice and weeps with them that weep, to our word sympathizing .

love as brethren ] Here also we have an adjective peculiar to St Peter. The corresponding substantive has met us in ch. 1:22. It may mean either what the English version gives, or “lovers of the brethren.” On the whole the latter meaning seems preferable.

pitiful ] The history of the word, literally meaning “good-hearted,” affords an interesting illustration of the influence of Christian thought. It was used by Greek writers, especially Greek medical writers, such as Hippocrates (p. 89 c), to describe what we should call the sanguine or courageous temperament. By St Peter and St Paul (Ephesians 4:32 ), it is used, as the context in each case shews, for the emotional temper which shews itself in pity and affection.

be courteous ] The MSS. present two readings, one of which, “courteous” or better, perhaps, friendly , is a fair rendering, and the other a word not found elsewhere, but meaning “lowly” or “humble,” and corresponding to the noun “humility” in Acts 20:19 ; Philippians 2:3 ; 1 Peter 5:5 .

9 . not rendering evil for evil ] We may probably see in the words a verbal reproduction of the precept of Romans 12:17 , 1 Thessalonians 5:15 , an echo of the spirit of the teaching of Matthew 5:39 . As this clause forbids retaliation in act, so that which follows forbids retaliation in words.

that ye are thereunto called ] Better, were called , as referring definitely to the fact and time of their conversion.

that ye should inherit a blessing ] It is not without significance that this is given as the reason for not retaliating. God blesses, therefore we should bless. He forgives us, and therefore we should forgive others. Vindictiveness, in any form, whether in word or act, is at variance with the conditions on which that inheritance is offered and involves therefore its certain forfeiture.

10 12. For he that will love life ] The three verses are from the LXX. version of Psalms 34:12-16 . It is characteristic of St Peter that he thus quotes from the Old Testament without any formula of citation. (See 2 Peter 2:22 .) In this case, however, the quotation does not agree with the extant text of the LXX. which gives “What man is he that would fain have life, loving good days?” The English version of the first clause hardly expresses the force of the Greek, which gives literally, he that willeth to love life . The combination may have been chosen to express the strength of the yearning for life in its lower or higher forms which the words imply, or more probably that the object wished for is not mere life, as such, but a life that a man can love, instead of hating with the hatred that is engendered, on the one hand, by the satiety of the pleasure seeker, and on the other, by bitterness and wrath. It need hardly be said that the Apostle uses the words of the Psalmist in a higher meaning. “Life” with him is “life eternal,” and the “good days” are not those of outward prosperity, but of the peace that passeth understanding.

let him refrain his tongue from evil ] The last words were probably those which determined the choice of the quotation. In itself it is, of course, inclusive of the “guile,” which follows in the second clause, but here it follows the laws of antithetical parallelism which prevail in Hebrew Poetry, and must be understood of open evil, such as the “railing” which the Apostle had just condemned.

11 . let him seek peace, and ensue it ] Better, perhaps, pursue or follow after , as in 1 Timothy 6:11 . The verb “ensue” has ceased almost, if not altogether, to be used transitively. It implies, both in itself, and by its position in the verse as a climax, the strongest form of seeking.

12 . For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous ] It may be noted that the “for” is added by the Apostle to emphasize the sequence of thought. There is no conjunction either in the Hebrew or the LXX. The disciples of Christ were to find peace and calmness in the thought of the Omniscience of God. He knew all, and would requite all. Vengeance so far as men dared desire vengeance was to be left to Him (Romans 12:19 ). The two prepositions “ over the righteous” and “ against them that do evil” express, perhaps, the thought of the original, but as the Greek preposition is the same in both cases, they are open to the charge of being an interpolated refinement. The eyes of God are upon both the good and the evil. It lies in the nature of the case that the result is protective or punitive according to the character of each.

13 . And who is he that will harm you ] The quotation ceases and the Apostle adds the question, the answer to which seems to him a necessary inference from it. The form of the question reminds us of that of Romans 8:33-35 , still more perhaps, of Isaiah 50:9 , where the LXX. version gives for “condemn the very word which is here rendered “harm.” It is not without interest to note that the same word is used of Herod’s vexing the Church in Acts 12:1 . St Peter had learnt, in his endurance of the sufferings that then fell on him, that the persecutor has no real power to harm.

if ye be followers of that which is good ] The better MSS. give the word ( zelôtai ) which is commonly rendered “zealous for,” as in Acts 21:20 , Acts 22:3 . As a word in frequent use among devout Jews, (as e.g. in the name of the Apostle Simon Zelotes,) it has a special force as addressed to the Church of the Circumcision. “Be zealous,” he seems to say to them, “not as Pharisees and Scribes are zealous, as you yourselves were wont to be, for the Law as a moral and ceremonial Code, but for that which is absolutely good.” The received reading, “followers,” or better, imitators , probably originated in the Greek word for “good” being taken as masculine, and, as so taken, referred to Christ. In that case, “followers” suggested itself as a fitter word (as in 1 Corinthians 4:16 ; Ephesians 5:1 ; 1 Thessalonians 1:6 ) than “zealots.”

14 . But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye ] Better, “But even if ye suffer, blessed are ye,” as reproducing more closely the beatitude of Matthew 5:10 .

be not afraid of their terror ] The words are taken (as before, without any formula of citation) from the LXX. of Isaiah 8:12 , Isaiah 8:13 . “Terror” is here probably objective in its sense (as in Psalms 91:5 ), and “their terror”=the terror which they, your enemies and persecutors, cause.

15 . but sanctify the Lord God in your hearts ] The better MSS. give the Lord Christ . The original text was probably altered by transcribers to bring it into conformity with the LXX. text of Isaiah. To “sanctify Christ” or “God” was to count His Name as holy above all other names, His fear, as the only fear which men ought to cherish, and therefore as the safeguard against all undue fear of men. The words “in your hearts” are added by the Apostle to the text of Isaiah as shewing that the “hallowing” of which he speaks should work in the root and centre of their spiritual being.

be ready always to give an answer ] The words imply that the disciples of Christ were not to take refuge in the silence to which fear might prompt. They were to be ready with a defence, a vindication, an apologia , for their faith and hope. And this answer was to be given not in a tone of threatening defiance, but “in meekness” as regards the interrogator, whether the questions were put officially or in private, and “in fear,” partly lest the truth should suffer through any infirmities in its defenders, partly because the spirit of reverential awe towards God was the best safeguard against such infirmities.

16 . having a good conscience ] We note once more the reproduction by St Peter of one of St Paul’s favourite phrases (Acts 23:1 , Acts 23:24 :16; 1 Timothy 1:5 , 1 Timothy 1:19 ). Stress is laid on this condition as warning men that no skill of speech would do the work of the apologist rightly, if his life were inconsistent with his profession. Only when the two were in harmony with each other, could he give his answer at once with becoming boldness and with due reverence.

they may be ashamed that falsely accuse …] The latter verb, translated “despitefully use you,” in Matthew 5:44 , Luke 6:28 , indicates clamorous reviling rather than a formal accusation. On the general character of such revilings, see note on chap. 2:12, and on “conversation,” note on chap. 1:15. The “conversation” or “conduct” is here defined not only by the adjective, “good,” but as being “in Christ,” i.e. in union with Him, and therefore after His likeness.

17 . For it is better, if the will of God be so ] Literally, the Greek presenting a kind of emphatic pleonasm, if the will of God should so will . The Apostle falls back upon the thought of chap. 2:20. Men feel most aggrieved when they suffer wrongfully. They are told that it is precisely in such sufferings that they should find ground for rejoicing. These, at any rate, cannot fail to work out for them some greater good.

18 . For Christ also hath once suffered for sins ] As in the previous chapter (2:21 25), so here, the Apostle cannot think of any righteous sufferer needing comfort without thinking also of the righteous Sufferer whom he had known. And here also, as there, though he begins with thinking of Him as an example, he cannot rest in that thought, but passes almost immediately to the higher aspects of that work as sacrificial and atoning. Every word that follows is full of significance “Christ suffered ” (better than “hath suffered,” as representing the sufferings as belonging entirely to the past), once and once for all. The closeness of the parallelism with Hebrews 9:26-28 might almost suggest the inference that St Peter was acquainted with that Epistle, but it admits also of the more probable explanation that both writers represent the current teaching of the Apostolic Church. The precise Greek phrase “for sins” (literally, “ concerning , or on account of , sins”) is used in Hebrews 10:6 , Hebrews 10:8 , Hebrews 10:18 , Hebrews 10:26 , and in the LXX. of Psalms 40:6 , and was almost the technical phrase of the Levitical Code (Leviticus 4:33 ).

the just for the unjust ] The preposition in this case means “on behalf of,” and is that used of the efficacy of Christ’s sufferings in Mark 14:24 , John 6:51 , 1 Corinthians 5:7 , 1 Timothy 2:6 . It is used also of our sufferings for Christ (Philippians 1:29 ), or for our brother men (Ephesians 3:1 , Ephesians 3:13 ), and therefore does not by itself express the vicarious character of the death of Christ, though it naturally runs up into it. In the emphatic description of Christ as “the Just,” we have an echo of St Peter’s own words in Acts 3:14 ; in the stress laid on the fact that He, the just, died for the unjust, a like echo of the teaching of St Paul in Romans 5:6 .

that he might bring us to God ] This, then, from St Peter’s point of view, and not a mere exemption from an infinite penalty, was the end contemplated in the death of Christ. “Access to God,” the right to come boldly to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16 ), was with him as with St Paul (Romans 5:2 ; Ephesians 2:18 , Ephesians 3:12 ), the final cause of the redemptive work. The verb, it may be noted, is not used elsewhere in this connexion in the New Testament.

being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit ] The change of the preposition and the mode of printing “Spirit” both shew that the translators took the second clause as referring to the Holy Spirit, as quickening the human body of Christ in His resurrection from the dead. The carefully balanced contrast between the two clauses shews, however, that this cannot be the meaning, and that we have here an antithesis, like that of Romans 1:3 , Romans 1:4 , between the “flesh” and the human “spirit” of the man Christ Jesus, like that between the “manifest in the flesh” and “justified in the spirit” of 1 Timothy 3:16 . By the “flesh” He was subject to the law of death, but in the very act of dying, His “spirit” was quickened, even prior to the resurrection of His body, into a fresh energy and activity. What was the sphere and what the result of that activity, the next verse informs us.

19 . by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison ] We enter here on a passage of which widely different interpretations have been given. It seems best in dealing with it to give in the first place what seems to be the true sequence of thought, and afterwards to examine the other views which appear to the present writer less satisfactory. It is obvious that every word will require a careful study in its relation to the context. (1) For “by which” we ought to read “in which.” It was not by the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit, but in His human spirit as distinct from the flesh, that He who had preached to men living in the flesh on earth now went and preached to the spirits that had an existence separate from the flesh. (2) The word “went” is, in like manner, full of significance. It comes from the Apostle who was the first to proclaim that the “spirit” or “soul” of Christ had passed into Hades, but had not been left there (Acts 2:31 ). It agrees with the language of St Paul in the Epistle to which we have found so many references in this Epistle, that He had “descended first into the lower parts of the earth,” i.e. into the region which the current belief of the time recognised as the habitation of the disembodied spirits of the dead (Ephesians 4:9 ). It harmonises with the language of the Apostle who was St Peter’s dearest friend when he records the language in which the risen Lord had spoken of Himself as having “the keys of Hades and of death,” as having been dead, but now “alive for evermore” (Revelation 1:18 ). Taking all these facts together, we cannot see in the words anything but an attestation of the truth which the Church Catholic has received in the Apostles’ Creed, that Christ “died and was buried and descended into Hell.” And if we accept the record of St Peter’s speeches in the Acts as a true record, and compare the assured freedom and clearness of his teaching there with his imperfect insight into the character of our Lord’s work during the whole period of His ministry prior to the Resurrection, we can scarcely fail to see in his interpretation of the words “thou shalt not leave my soul in hell,” the first-fruits of the method of prophetic interpretation which he had learnt from our Lord Himself when He expounded to His disciples the things that were written concerning Himself in the Law, and the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:44 ), when He spoke to them of “the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3 ). In the special truth on which the Apostle now lays stress, we must see, unless we think of him as taking up a legendary tradition, as writing either what had been revealed to him, “not by flesh and blood, but by his Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:17 ), or as reporting what he had himself heard from the lips of the risen Lord. Of the two views the latter seems every way the more probable, and accepting it, we have to remember also that it was a record in which he was guided by the teaching of the Spirit.

And he “went and preached.” The latter word is used throughout the Gospels of the work of Christ as proclaiming “the Gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23 ), preaching “repentance” (Matthew 4:17 ), and the glad tidings of remission of sins as following upon repentance. It would do violence to all true methods of interpretation to assume that the Apostle, who had been converted by that preaching and had afterwards been a fellow-worker in it, would use the word in any other meaning now. We cannot think of the work to which the Spirit of Christ went as that of proclaiming an irrevocable sentence of condemnation. This interpretation, resting adequately on its own grounds, is, it need hardly be said, confirmed almost beyond the shadow of a doubt by the words of ch. 4:6, that “the Gospel was preached also to the dead.” Those to whom He thus preached were “spirits.” The context determines the sense of this word as denoting that element of man’s personality which survives when the body perishes. So, in Hebrews 12:23 , we read of “the spirits of just men made perfect;” and the same sense attaches to the words in Luke 24:37 , Luke 24:39 , Acts 23:8 , Acts 23:9 , and in the “ spirits and souls of the righteous ” in the Benedicite Omnia Opera . And these spirits are in “prison.” The Greek word, as applied to a place, can hardly have any other meaning than that here given (see Matthew 14:3 , Matthew 14:10 , Mark 6:17 , Mark 6:27 , Luke 21:12 ), and in Revelation 20:7 it is distinctly used of the prison-house of Satan. The “spirits in prison” cannot well mean anything but disembodied souls, under a greater or less degree of condemnation, waiting for their final sentence, and undergoing meanwhile a punishment retributive or corrective (see note on 2 Peter 2:9 ). Had the Apostle stopped there we might have thought of the preaching of which he speaks as having been addressed to all who were in such a prison. The prison itself may be thought of as part of Hades contrasted with the Paradise of God, which was opened, as in Luke 23:43 , Revelation 2:7 , to the penitent and the faithful.

20 . which sometime were disobedient ] The words that follow, however, appear to limit the range of the preaching within comparatively narrow boundaries. The “spirits” of whom St Peter speaks were those who had “once been disobedient:” the “once” being further defined as the time when “the long-suffering of God was waiting in the days of Noah.” We naturally ask as we read the words, (1) why the preaching was confined to these, or (2) if the preaching itself was not so confined, why this was the only aspect of it on which the Apostle thought fit to dwell? The answer to the first question cannot be given with any confidence. It is behind the veil which we cannot lift. All that we can say is that the fact thus revealed gives us at least some ground for seeing in it a part of God’s dealings with the human race, and that it is not unreasonable to infer an analogous treatment of those who were in an analogous condition. The answer to the second question is, perhaps, to be found in the prominence given to the history of Noah in our Lord’s eschatological teaching, as in Matthew 24:37 , Matthew 24:38 , Luke 17:26 , Luke 17:27 , and in the manifest impression which that history had made on St Peter’s mind, as seen in his reference to it both here and 2 Peter 2:5 , 2 Peter 3:6 . It is a conjecture, but not, I think, an improbable or irreverent one, that the disciple’s mind may have been turned by our Lord’s words to anxious enquiries as to the destiny of those who had been planting and building, buying and selling, when “the flood came and took them all away,” and that what he now states had been the answer to such enquiries. What was the result of the preaching we are not here told, the Apostle’s thoughts travelling on rapidly to the symbolic or typical aspect presented by the record of the Flood, but the notes on ch. 4:6 will shew that his mind still dwelt on it, and that he takes it up again as a dropped thread in the argument of the Epistle. It will be noted, whatever view we may take of the interpretation of the passage as a whole, that it is the disobedience, and not any after-repentance at the moment of death, of those who lived in the days of Noah that is here dwelt on.

Such is, it is believed, the natural and true interpretation of St Peter’s words. It finds a confirmation in the teaching of some of the earliest fathers of the Church, in Clement of Alexandria ( Strom . vi. 6), and Origen, and Athanasius ( cont. Apollin . i. 13), and Cyril of Alexandria ( in Joann . xvi. 16); Even Augustine, at one time, held that the effect of Christ’s descent into Hades had been to set free some who were condemned to the torments of Hell ( Epist. ad Euodium , clxiv.), and Jerome (on Matthew 12:29 , Ephesians 4:10 ) adopted it without any hesitation. Its acceptance at an early date is attested by the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, nearly the whole of which is given to a narrative of the triumph of Christ over Hades and Death, who are personified as the Potentates of darkness. It tells how He delivered Adam from the penalty of his sin, and brought the patriarchs from a lower to a higher blessedness, and emptied the prison-house, and set the captives free, and erected the cross in the midst of Hades, that there also it might preach salvation. Legendary and fantastic as the details may be, they testify to the prevalence of a wide-spread tradition, and that tradition is more naturally referred to the teaching of St Peter in this passage as the germ out of which it was developed than to any other source. As a matter of history, the article “He descended into Hell,” i.e. into Hades, first appeared in the Apostles’ Creed at a time when the tradition was almost universally accepted, and when the words of the Creed could not fail to be associated in men’s minds with the hope which it embodied.

It must be admitted, however, that the weight of many great names may be urged on behalf of other interpretations, and that some of them display, to say the least, considerable ingenuity. The common element in all of them is the desire to evade what seems the natural inference from the words, that they point to a wider hope of repentance and conversion as possible after death than the interpreters were willing to admit. They divide themselves into two classes: (1) those who accept the words as referring to a descent into Hades, and (2) those who give them an entirely different interpretation. Under (1) we have ( a ) the view already noticed that the “preaching” was one of condemnation, anticipating the final judgment. It has been shewn to be untenable, and has so few names of weight on its side that it does not deserve more than a passing notice, ( b ) The view that Christ descended into Hades to deliver the souls of the righteous, of Seth, and Abel, and Abraham, and the other saints of the Old Testament, can claim a somewhat higher authority. It entered, as has been seen, into the Gospel of Nicodemus. It was adopted by Irenæus, Tertullian, Hippolytus. It was popular alike in the theology of many of the Schoolmen, and in mediæval art. It was accepted by Zwingli and Calvin among the Reformers, and receives a partial sanction from the teaching of our own Church as seen in the original form of Art. iii. as drawn up in 1552; and in the metrical paraphrase of the Apostles’ Creed which was at one time attached with a quasi-authority to the Prayer-Book, and in which we find the statement that Christ descended into Hell that He might be

“To those who long in darkness were

The true joy of their hearts.”

It is obvious, however, that whatever probability may attach to this speculation as such, it has scarcely any real point of contact with St Peter’s words. He speaks of “the days of Noah:” it takes in the whole patriarchal age, if not the whole history of Israel. He speaks of those who had been “disobedient.” It assumes penitence and faith, and at least a partial holiness. The touch of poetry in Calvin’s view that the word for “prison” should be taken as meaning the “watch-tower” upon which the spirits of the righteous were standing, as in the attitude of eager expectation, looking out for the coming of the King whom they had seen, as afar off, in the days of their pilgrimage, cannot rescue it from its inherent untenableness. ( c ) A modification of the previous view has found favour with some writers, among whom the most notable are Estius, Bellarmine, Luther, Bengel. They avoid the difficulty which we have seen to be fatal to that view, and limit the application of St Peter’s words to those who had lived in the time of the Deluge, and they make the preaching one of pardon or deliverance, but, under the influence of the dogma that “there is no repentance in the grave,” they assume that the message of the Gospel came to those only who turned to God before they sank finally in the mighty waters. It need hardly be said that this was to strain Scripture to make it fit in with their own theories, and to read into the words something that is not found there. St Peter, as has been urged above, would have said, “to those who were sometime disobedient and afterwards repented ” if this had been what he meant to say.

(2) The other interpretation avoids all these minor difficulties by going altogether on a different track. It has the authority of some great representative theologians, Augustine among the Fathers ( ut supra ), Aquinas among the Schoolmen ( Summ. Theolog . iii. Qu. LII. Art. 3), Bishop Pearson among Anglican divines. It starts with denying that there is any reference at all to the descent into Hades. Christ, it says, went in Spirit, not in the flesh, i.e. before His Incarnation, and preached to the spirits who are now in prison under condemnation, or were then in the prison-house of selfishness and unbelief, or simply in that of the body. He preached in Noah’s preaching, and that preaching was without effect except for the souls of Noah and his household. There is something, perhaps, attractive in the avoidance of what have been regarded as dangerous inferences from the natural meaning of St Peter’s words, something also in the bold ingenuity which rejects at once that natural meaning and the Catholic tradition which grew out of it: but, over and above the grave preliminary objection that it never would have suggested itself but for dogmatic prepossessions, it is not too much to say that it breaks down at every point. It disconnects the work of preaching from the death of Christ with which St Peter connects it. It empties the words “he went” of all significance and reduces them to an empty pleonasm. It substitutes a personal identification of the preaching of Christ with that of Noah for the more scriptural language, as in ch. 1:11, that the Spirit which prompted the latter was one with the Spirit which Christ gave to His disciples. The whole line of exegesis comes under the condemnation of being “a fond thing vainly invented” for a dogmatic purpose. A collection of most of the passages from the Fathers bearing on the subject will be found in the Notes to “Pearson on the Creed” on the Article “He descended into Hell,” and in the Article Eschatology by the present writer in Smith’s Dictionary of Christian Biography .

wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water ] The last words admit of being taken either locally “they were saved, i.e. were brought safely, through the water,” “were delivered from the destruction which it brought to others,” or instrumentally, “they were saved by means of the water.” The latter interpretation presents, at first, the difficulty that it represents the waters of the deluge, as well as the ark, as a means of deliverance. The parallelism between the type and the antitype in the next verse, leaves, however, no doubt that this was the thought which St Peter had in his mind. He saw in the very judgment which swept away so many that which brought deliverance to others. In the stress laid upon the “few” that were thus saved, we may legitimately recognise the impression made by our Lord’s answer to the question, Are there few that be saved? (Luke 13:23 ). The Apostle looked round him and saw that those who were in the way of salvation were few in number. He looked back upon the earliest records of the work of a preaching of repentance and found that then also few only were delivered. In the reference to the “long-suffering” of God as waiting and leading to repentance, we find a striking parallel to the language of 2 Peter 3:9 , and in both we cannot doubt that the thought present to the writer’s mind was that “God was not willing that any should perish.”

21 . The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us ] The MSS. present two readings; one that of the Textus Receptus , answering to the English Version as giving the relative pronoun in the dative, the other, supported by the better MSS., giving the pronoun in the nominative, “which also” (sc. the element of water) “the antitype [of the deluge,] doth even now save us,” and then he adds, as explaining what was the antitype, the word “baptism” in apposition with the subject of the sentence. At first it seems hard to see the parallelism between the flood which destroyed and the baptism which saves, but reflection will shew that the Apostle may well have thought of the deluge as burying the old evils of the world and giving the human race, as it were, a fresh start, under new and better conditions, a world, in some sense, regenerated or brought into a new covenant with God, and therefore new relations to Him. Does not the teaching of the previous verse suggest the inference that he thought of the flood as having been even for those who perished in it, not merely an instrument of destruction, but as placing even the souls of the disobedient in a region in which they were not shut out from the pitying love of the Father who there also did not “will that any should perish”?

not the putting away of the filth of the flesh ] The Greek word for “putting away” may be noted as one of those common to the two Epistles (see note on 2 Peter 1:14 ). The implied protest against the notion that this was all that was meant by Christian baptism, though it might be necessary both for Jewish and heathen converts, gains immensely in its significance if we think of the Epistle as addressed mainly to the former class. They were in danger of looking upon baptism, not as the sacrament of a new birth, but as standing on the same level as the “washing” or “baptism” (the same word is used) of the older ritual. So, even during the ministry of the Baptist, there was a dispute between some of his disciples and the Jews “about purification” (John 3:25 ), obviously rising out of that confusion of thought. So it formed part of the elementary instruction of Christian catechumens that they should learn the “doctrine of baptisms” (Hebrews 6:2 ), i.e. the distinction between the Jewish and the Christian rites that went almost or altogether 1 1 The tendency to desynonymize led to the term baptisma in the neuter being used of the Christian rite, while the masculine baptismos was used in a more generic sense. by the same name. St Peter warns men against the perilous thought that they washed away their sins by the mere outward act. So far as he may have contemplated heathen converts at all we may remember that they too thought of guilt as washed away by a purely ceremonial institution. So Ovid, Fast . ii. 45,

“Full easy souls who dream the crystal flood

Can wash away the deep-dyed stain of blood.”

[Ah, nimium faciles qui tristia crimina caedis

Fluminea tolli posse putetis aqua.]

Comp. also Juven. Sat . vi. 522, Persius, Sat . ii. 15, Horace, Sat . ii. 3.290. History records but too many instances of the revival of a like superstition. The tendency to postpone baptism in order to cancel the sins that were in the meantime accumulating, and avoid the danger of postbaptismal sin, of which we see conspicuous instances in the lives of Constantine and Augustine, the mediæval dogma still lingering in popular belief, that unbaptized infants are excluded from salvation; these are examples of ways of looking at baptism more or less analogous to that which St Peter condemns. With him the saving power of baptism varies with the activity and purity of the moral consciousness of the baptized.

but the answer of a good conscience toward God ] The words admit of very different interpretations. (1) The Greek word translated “answer” means primarily “ question, ” “enquiry.” If this sense be admitted here, there would then rise the question whether the words “of a good conscience” were in the genitive of the subject or the object. If the former, the condition on which St Peter lays stress would be equivalent to ( a ) the enquiry of a good conscience, the seeking of the soul after God; if the latter, that condition would be ( b ) the prayer addressed to God for a good conscience. Neither of these interpretations, however, is satisfactory. It is against ( a ) that it is the idea of baptism that men are no longer seeking God but have found Him. It is against ( b ) that it is also the idea of baptism that it is more than the asking for a gift. A true solution is found partly in the forensic use of the Greek word for question, as including, like our word “examination,” both question and answer, and so applied to the whole process of a covenant, the conditions of which were determined by mutual interrogatories and affirmative or negative replies, and partly in the fact that at a date so early that it is reasonable to infer an Apostolic origin, the liturgical administration of baptism involved interrogatories and answers, in substance identical with those that have been in use in the Church at large and are in use still. “Dost thou renounce Satan?” “I do renounce him.” “Dost thou believe in Christ?” “I do believe in Him,” the second question sometimes taking the form “Dost thou take thy stand with Christ?” and the answer, “I do take my stand.” In this practice of interrogation then we find that which explains St Peter’s meaning. That which is of the essence of the saving power of baptism is the confession and the profession which precedes it. If that comes from a conscience (see notes on chaps. 2:19, 3:16) that really renounces sin and believes on Christ, then baptism, as the channel through which the grace of the new birth is conveyed and the convert admitted into the Church of Christ, “saves us,” but not otherwise. The practice of Infant Baptism, though the scales of argument both as regards Scripture and antiquity turn in its favour, presents, it must be admitted, an apparent inversion of the right order, though the idea is still retained in the questions put to the sponsors who answer in the infant’s name, as his representatives. If the question is asked, What then is the effect of Infant Baptism? the answer must be found, that it is, in the language of Scripture, as a new birth, the admission into new conditions of life, into, as it were, the citizenship of a new country. It gives the promise and potency of life, but its power to save the man that grows out of the infant varies with the fulfilment of the conditions when consciousness is developed. Now, as when St Peter wrote, it is not the “putting away the filth of the flesh” that saves, but “the answer of a good conscience towards God.”

by the resurrection of Jesus Christ ] So far the words have brought before us the human side of baptism. But the rite has also a divine side and this the last words of the verse bring before us. Baptism derives its power to save from the Resurrection of Christ. It brings us into union with the life of Him who “was dead and is alive for evermore” (Revelation 1:18 ). We are buried with Him in baptism, planted together with Him in the likeness of His death, that we may be also in the likeness of His resurrection (Romans 6:4 , Romans 6:5 ).

22 . who is gone into heaven ] The parallelism between the substance of this verse and that of 1 Timothy 3:16 , and of both with the closing clauses of the second section of the Apostles’ Creed, leaves scarcely any room for doubt that we have here a precious fragment of the baptismal profession of faith of the Apostolic Church. The train of thought of the previous verse naturally led on to this. This was what the answer of a good conscience towards God involved. In the union of confession with the mouth and belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, in Romans 10:9 , we may probably trace a reference to a like formulary. The word for “he is gone” is the same participle as that in verse 19 and is important as determining its meaning. If there was a real Ascension into Heaven, there was also a real descent into Hades. St Peter seems to echo the words of St Paul, “Now that he ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?” (Ephesians 4:9 .)

angels and authorities and powers ] Here again the phraseology reminds us of that of the twin Epistles of St Paul (Ephesians 1:21 , Colossians 1:16 ). “Authorities” and “powers” are used as comprehensive terms, including the whole hierarchy of heaven, Cherubim, Seraphim and the like; probably also, looking to Colossians 2:15 , Philippians 2:10 , and the manifest sequence of thought from verse 19, the powers of evil who had been subdued by the conquering Christ in His descent into Hades.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 Peter 3". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cgt/1-peter-3.html. 1896.
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