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"None of these is without difficulty"

Last Sunday I preached from 1 Peter 3, on 'An Understated Journey'.
(Download the mp3 here: An Understated Journey - 1 Peter 3:13-22)

Most of which is deeply challenging but fairly straight forward to understand, except that it includes this:
“…he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah…”
 I mentioned this to a friend who is doing a PhD on Peter’s letter. The conversation went something like this:
I said: I’m speaking on this passage. 
He said: That’s the most difficult verse in the New Testament of the Bible. I said: agh! help?!
He said: I’ll listen to the podcast… 
I said: Thanks. Gulp. 
There are two kinds of difficult verses in the Bible…
1. Difficult to understand – like this verse. There are a small number of these.
2. Difficult to live – like “love your enemies.” There are more of these and they’re much more weight-bearing. 
Time to think hard!

  • Peter is describing part of a journey made by Jesus 
  •  What’s clear: Peter is describe Jesus’ journey: suffering, death, being ‘made alive’ and then he says v19: he went… and v22: he went to God (to bring us to God - v18). 
  • •The difficult bit is one part of this journey. Scholars agree that on his journey Jesus was communicating. 

The question is WHERE and TO WHOM.

 Three possible ways to read this:
1. Jesus communicated his final victory over his enemies (Origen. 3rd C.)
2. Jesus communicated, figuratively, through Noah (Augustine, 4th C.)
3. Jesus communicated to unseen heavenly realms, including to those who have rejected God there – including figures mentioned in the account of Noah. 
Contemporary scholar Edmund Clowney notes:
 "None of these is without difficulty." 
German church leader Martin Luther wrote in the 16th Century:
 "I do not know for a certainty what Peter means." 
Peter says Jesus communicated to SOME PEOPLE, SOME WHERE.

The debate is over WHO and WHERE.

I’m not sure too much weight hangs on which answer you think fits best. I think the third probably fits best but 'none of these is without difficulty.' But what's the difference? The passage is descriptive of a journey made by Jesus, and broadly speaking we could find verses to back up him doing all of these things. The gospel of Jesus rings out in the seen and unseen, and throughout the ages.

Which answer I pick changes my understanding of a part of what the cross, resurrection and ascension achieve slightly, it doesn't particularly change the application of the section.

Not all puzzling things carry the same weight.

There are seemingly more significant questions here like – did Jesus rise from the dead - is the Christian hope reasonable? Can Jesus bring people to God? And if so, what’s that God like?

I have plenty of questions I want to ask of others, and I’m glad that there are places to do that and people who can and will and do respond respectfully. In a pluralistic society the message and manner of Jesus says – let’s be respectful and reasonable and responsive to one another. Let’s open up constructive conversation.

My hope is that approaching this question in this way provides some help for other difficult verses in the Bible. These questions helped me navigate.
  • Is it difficult to understand or difficult to apply?
  • What is clear here, what isn't so clear?
  • What are the main historical readings of this?
  • How much hangs on how this is understood?
  • How tentative or confident should I be in my handling of this? 

Image: Dan Partridge for Grace Church Exeter


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