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December 15, 2011 / Daniel

Jesus was made alive in the Spirit? (1 Peter 3:18)

1 Peter 3:17-22 is one of the most difficult passages in the NT to interpret.  The problems are legion.  Who are the “spirits in prison?”  When did Jesus preach to them?  What did he preach to them?  Does 1 Peter 3:21 teach baptismal regeneration?

All these questions are troublesome, but what troubles me the most about this passage is Peter’s reference to the resurrection in v. 18.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the S/spirit.

Jehovah Witnesses use this passage to deny the bodily resurrection of Christ.   However, if we want to understand this text correctly, we must understand the terms “flesh” and “spirit” in light of the rest of the New Testament.   (For instance, look at Rom. 1:3-4; 8:2-4; 1 Cor. 15:42-49; 1 Tim 3:16).   NT Wright states,

The ‘flesh/spirit’ antithesis of 3:18 and 4:6 sounds to modern western ears as though it stands for our ‘physical/non-physical’ distinction; but this would take us down the wrong path.  The writer insists that it is the resurrection of Jesus that has accomplished salvation.  There is no hint in this text that resurrection is being understood any differently to its standard use across both the pagan and Jewish world (RSG, 469).

In other words, the distinction between the flesh and the spirit is not a distinction between material and immaterial.  Rather, the distinction is between two different types of physical existence.

Life in the flesh refers life under the curse of sin and death.  Our flesh is subject to decay.  It’s subject to all the limitations of this fallen world.   Life in the flesh is temporary.

Life in the Spirit refers resurrection life.  It is characterized by God’s glory and power.  It refers to a life energized by the Spirit of God.   This life is eternal.  Life in the Spirit is new creation life.  The Spirit is the agent who brings about God’s new creation (Gen 1:2; 2:7).

So when Peter says that Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit,” he means that the resurrection involved the transformation of Jesus’ physical body.   When God raised Jesus from the dead, God brought new life and renewal to Jesus’ body.  His resurrection body was no longer subject to the limitations of this fallen world.  His resurrection body was not subject to decay.  It was not subject to death or disease.

Prior to the resurrection, Jesus’ body was perishable.  After the resurrection, his body was imperishable.


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