The last time I went to a movie theater I was watching a film called Tenet, which at the time was a highly anticipated action thriller by the legendary director Christopher Nolan. I’ve been a huge fan of Nolan’s films for nearly twenty years, so I didn’t hesitate to gather some friends to watch the film in theaters as soon as I had the chance. My lovely wife Holly is not a Nolan aficionado like I am, so she was happy to stay home with the children. When I was on my way home from the theater, I called her and she asked me if I liked the movie. “I think so??? I’m not really sure. I didn’t really understand what was happening. It looked awesome, . . . but . . . it was really confusing. My head hurts.”
My feelings after watching Tenet are in many ways similar to my feelings after studying 1 Peter 3:18-22. It looks awesome. There’s spirits in prison, a flood, and a victorious Messiah, but . . . it is really confusing. My head hurts.” I was encouraged in my studies last week to know that I am not alone. Here’s what different Bible scholars have said about this passage:
· “This paragraph is notoriously obscure and difficult to interpret.”[i]
· This passage has “a labyrinth of exegetical options, each of which has no clearly overwhelming claim to certainty.”[ii]
· “Virtually everyone finds [it] really complex and hard to understand.”[iii]
· “This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult passages in the NT.”[iv]
· R.C. Sproul—“There is no majority view on the meaning of this text.”[v]
· Another scholar calculated at least 180 different ways to interpret this text.[vi]
· Martin Luther (who was usually quite confident in anything he talked about) said “This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament. I still do not know for sure what the apostle meant.”[vii] Later he said, “I cannot understand and I cannot explain it. And there has been no one who has explained it.”[viii]
You must understand this makes the pastor’s job immensely difficult. In fact, I was half-tempted to do what one pastor did when he came to this passage amidst a sermon series on 1 Peter. He simply said he didn’t understand it, so he skipped it and moved on to chapter 4. But I am confident doing that would rob you of a blessing that the Holy Spirit intends to give you from this passage, because All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
So here’s what we’re going to do this week. With God’s help, I want to use 1 Peter 3:18-22 as an opportunity to demonstrate how to handle difficult passages of Scripture. As we walk through our passage together this week, I want to show you five steps to rightly handling confusing texts. Come back tomorrow for Step 1.
[i] D. Edmond Hiebert, “Selected Studies from 1 Peter Part 2: The Suffering and Triumphant Christ: An Exposition of 1 Peter 3:18-22,” Bibliotheca Sacra 139, no. 554 (1982): 146.
[ii] Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 239.
[iii] Paul Gardner, 1 & 2 Peter & Jude: Christians Living in an Age of Suffering, Focus on the Bible (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2013), 115.
[iv] Greg W Forbes, 1 Peter, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2014), 120.
[v] R.C. Sproul, 1-2 Peter: An Expositional Commentary (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019), 107. Emphasis added.
[vi] Millard J. Erickson, “Is There Opportunity for Salvation after Death?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 152, no. 606 (1995): 137.
[vii] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 30: The Catholic Epistles, ed. Walter A. Hansen (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 113.
[viii] Martin Luther, Commentary on Peter & Jude, ed. John Nichols Lenker (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1982), 166.