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1 Peter 3:17-22 (ESV):

17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil.

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 spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

Jesus was made "alive in the spirit" (v18). When, exactly, did this happen? Did this happen before or after Jesus preached to the spirits in prison (v19)?

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  • Pardon me if I mistook your original question at first, I thought you originally said "Was Jesus made alive in the Spirit?" When you actually said: "When was Jesus made alive in the spirit?" So I wrote the first Christological info alongside "when" He was made alive.
    – Cork88
    Feb 11 at 16:54

4 Answers 4

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Prepositions Drive Translators Crazy

There are, broadly speaking, 2 common renderings of πνεύματι ("pneumati") (as already noted by Dottard, multiple prepositions--in English--are grammatically possible): 

A. in the spirit 

B. by the spirit

Among common English translations, "A" outnumbers "B" about 5 to 1 (example). "A" has the advantage of forming a poetic parallelism: in the flesh vs. in the spirit. The use of "in" instead of "by" would treat both nouns the same way:

  • σαρκὶ ("sarki" - in dative singular) = "in the flesh"
  • πνεύματι ("pneumati" - in dative singular) = "in the spirit"

Grammatically, "in" & "by" (and "for") are possible; contextually, I suggest "in" is to be preferred.

("by the flesh" & "by the spirit" together would not make sense in context)

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Let there be life

The verb ζῳοποιέω (quicken/make alive) is used by Paul to refer to the resurrection (e.g. see 1 Cor. 15:22). The NRSV translation is quite consistent with this interpretation:

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit (NRSV)

Although this is not the only possible understanding of ζῳοποιέω, it is straightforward and supported by other contemporary writings.

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The triple metaphor

It turns out the meaning of the passage can be deciphered without taking a dogmatic position on several matters of semantic ambiguity. This passage is strikingly poetic, paralleling 3 Biblical narratives:

  • The flood - the earth went underwater, bringing death, and resurfaced renewed & flourished with life (compare v20 with Genesis 7:23; 9:1)

  • Baptism - the person goes underwater, bringing death of the old self, and resurfaces with newness of life in Christ (compare v21 with Romans 6:4)

  • The death of Christ - the Savior dies, goes to the underworld to the dead, and returns bringing life through the resurrection (compare v 19 with Isaiah 9:2; 24:21-22; 42:5-7)

The metaphor is even more apparent in the worldview of Peter's Hellenistic readers (see 1 Peter 1:1); Hades was often thought of as being beneath the depths of the sea (see here). Verse 19, then, describes what happened between death & resurrection: Christ went under(water/world) and preached to the dead.

If verse 19 does not describe the underworld, it is abruptly out of place in this otherwise carefully constructed triple metaphor. Peter speaks of those saved when the earth went under the water, he speaks of how the individual is saved who goes under the water, and he speaks of the saving that comes because Jesus went to the underworld (lest we miss the point, he reinforces it again in 1 Peter 4:6).

This interpretation is reinforced through patristic writings.

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Patristic understanding

Let's consider how this passage was understood by 3 individuals who were heirs of Peter's preaching:

The Shepherd of Hermas

Whether the author was a direct disciple of Peter or a few steps removed is unclear (Irenaeus & the Muratorian Canon appear to disagree on this matter); for our purposes we can acknowledge this is a man who was not far removed from Peter.

Here "seal" refers to baptism, "asleep" refers to physical death, "dead" refers to separation from God, and "stones" represent people.

Sim. 9 ch. 16:

2 "It was necessary for them," saith he, "to rise up through water, that they might be made alive; for otherwise they could not enter into the kingdom of God, except they had put aside the deadness of their [former] life.

3 So these likewise that had fallen asleep received the seal of the Son of God and entered into the kingdom of God. For before a man," saith he, "has borne the name of [the Son of] God, he is dead; but when he has received the seal, he layeth aside his deadness, and resumeth life.

4 The seal then is the water: so they go down into the water dead, and they come up alive. "thus to them also this seal was preached, and they availed themselves of it that they might enter into the kingdom of God."

5 "Wherefore, Sir," say I, "did the forty stones also come up with them from the deep, though they had already received the seal?" "Because," saith he, "these, the apostles and the teachers who preached the name of the Son of God, after they had fallen asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, preached also to them that had fallen asleep before them, and themselves gave unto them the seal of the preaching.

6 Therefore they went down with them into the water, and came up again. But these went down alive [and again came up alive]; whereas the others that had fallen asleep before them went down dead and came up alive.

7 So by their means they were quickened into life, and came to the full knowledge of the name of the Son of God...

The Shepherd of Hermas very consciously echoes Peter's words, and uses his metaphor relating baptism to preaching to the dead after death but before the resurrection.

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Clement of Alexandria

Spiritual descendant of Peter through Mark (see Jerome De Viris Illustribus ch. 8)

Wherefore the Lord preached the Gospel to those in Hades...

But how? Do not [the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept in ward and guard? And it has been shown also, in the second book of the Stromata, that the apostles, following the Lord, preached the Gospel to those in Hades.

...it is evident that those, too, who were outside of the Law, having lived rightly, in consequence of the peculiar nature of the voice, though they are in Hades and in ward, on hearing the voice of the Lord, whether that of His own person or that acting through His apostles, with all speed turned and believed...So I think it is demonstrated that the God being good, and the Lord powerful, they save with a righteousness and equality which extend to all that turn to Him... (Stromata chapter 6)

Clement directly references Peter's words, reaffirms Hermas, and expounds upon the spiritual life offered to the dead.

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Origen of Alexandria

Pupil of Clement of Alexandria, also connected to Peter through Mark

we assert that not only while Jesus was in the body did He win over not a few persons merely...but also, that when He became a soul, without the covering of the body, He dwelt among those souls which were without bodily covering, converting such of them as were willing to Himself (Contra Celsum 2.43)

Origen is concise and direct: Christ preached to the dead between death & the resurrection.

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Conclusion

Jesus was made "alive in the spirit" (v18). When, exactly, did this happen?

If we grant that ζῳοποιέω is a reference to the resurrection, as in other early Christian writings, this happened on Easter Sunday.

Did this happen before or after Jesus preached to the spirits in prison (v19)?

Order of operations:

  • Jesus died; spirit & body separated (Friday 14 Nisan)
  • Jesus' spirit went to Hades (Friday 14 Nisan)
  • Jesus' body went to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Friday 14 Nisan)
  • Jesus organized the ministry in Hades; He brought light to those in prison as described by Isaiah (Friday 14 Nisan - Sunday 16 Nisan)
  • Jesus was resurrected; spirit & body reunited; He brought life as described by Paul (Sunday 16 Nisan)

Appendix--adianoeta

This passage may be an adianoeta - in addition to a more obvious meaning (discussed above), a second layer of meaning may be intended as well. I don't take a dogmatic position on this. Multiple layers of meaning is a feature common to the extremely poetic Isaiah; in a passage as poetic as 1 Peter 3, I wouldn't rule out the possibility that both meanings were intended.

Consider the following somewhat prominent translations of the latter part of verse 18:

after being put to death in the fleshly realm but made alive in the spiritual realm (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

and he died in body and lived in his Spirit (Aramaic Bible in plain English)

These grammatically permissible translations focus on Jesus' life/activity in the spiritual realm, which I've argued above (and the patristic writers regularly suggested) is in fact the focus of verse 19.

That Jesus (and the apostles) were active in and brought life to the spiritual realm is abundantly supported by the Shepherd of Hermas.

Along these lines Talmage offered the following commentary, relevant to the question in the OP:

The...text expresses the true thought that Christ was quickened, that is to say, was active, in His own spirit state, although His body was inert and in reality dead at the time; and that in that disembodied state He went and preached to the disobedient spirits...[which] fixes the time of our Lord’s ministry among the departed as the interval between His death and resurrection. (Jesus the Christ p. 677)

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  • Jesus' spirit went to Hades. Rather Jesus said, "Father receive my spirit". You seem to be suggesting the Father was in hell.
    – steveowen
    Apr 22 at 13:29
  • @steveowen good question; see my thoughts in this post. I do not believe the Father was in Hades (or hell) Apr 23 at 17:06
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There are two translations matters in 1 Peter 3:18 & 19 -

1. (V18) how to translate the dative, πνεύματι

The word can be correctly translated "by the Spirit", or, "for the Spirit", or, "in the Spirit". However, the correct translation is actually given by the the previous clause to which it is an intended contrast. Thus we would translate as per the NKJV, KJV, CSB, ISV, etc and translate as:

... being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit

This is consistent with other references that the Holy Spirit was instrumental in raising Jesus from the dead. See appendix below.

2. (V19) how to translate, ἐν ᾧ = "by which", or, "in which"?

Since both are semantically possible (and probable) we resolve this by the context. This second question is easily resolved by the first question. Again the KJV, NKJV, etc, that it was the Holy Spirit that preached to the spirits in prison. Together, the two verse become,

... being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached ... (NKJV)

Therefore, to answer the OP's question, Jesus was made alive by the Spirit on resurrection Sunday morning.

APPENDIX - Who raised Jesus from the Dead?

The NT contains a series of apparently contradictory statements about who raised Jesus from the dead. What are the Biblical facts?

  • Acts 2:24, 3:15, 4:10, 5:30, 10:40, 13:30, 17:31, Rom 4:24, 1 Cor 15:15, Col 2:20, Heb 13:20, 1 Peter 1:3, 1 Thess 1:10 simply say that “God” raised Jesus without specifying any specific member of the Godhead
  • Rom 6:4, Gal 1:1, Eph 1:17-20 say that the Father raised Jesus from the dead.
  • Rom 1:4 & 8:11, 1 Peter 3:18 say that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead.
  • John 2:19-21 and 10:17, 18 both say that Jesus resurrected Himself. Further, John 1:4 & 5:26 says that the Son has “life in Himself”, that is, is not dependent on the Father for His existence. Compare 1 John 5:11 & 1:1, 2.

Such a comparison shows the traps of proof-text theology and cafeteria theology. The safest conclusion here is that the entire Godhead (the Trinity in true unity) acted to raise Jesus.

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  • I totally agree that the entire Godhead raised Christ from the dead; I’m actually glad you made mention of such texts. I excluded those for simplicity, except for John 2:19-21 & Rom 8:11. Never thought of the grammatical assertion that the Spirit preached to the Spirits in prison; but that’s certainly a possibility. +1
    – Cork88
    Feb 11 at 21:28
  • +1 for the trinitarian postscript. What about the chronological order of verses 18 & 19? Which happened earlier and which happened later? Feb 11 at 22:03
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - that question is another question by itself. It involves identifying who are the "spirits in prison". I believe I have commented on this previously. However, "spirits" never refers to people but only to spirit beings, demons in this case; so Jesus via the Holy Spirit preached to the imprisoned demons via His death and resurrection.
    – Dottard
    Feb 11 at 23:09
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being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit

  • Jesus died as the fleshly man who returned his sprit to God at his death. Luke 23:46
  • Jesus was raised by his Father and God and given eternal life and the promised holy spirit Acts 2:33

Jesus being 'made alive in the spirit' happened at his resurrection - as he could not die anymore. He could die die before, but cannot die after.

For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. Rom 6:9

Made alive refers to 'true life' that is unlike this simple physical life where death has mastery. Jesus too was subject to death and waited on his God to raise him.

Did this happen before or after Jesus preached to the spirits in prison (v19)?

Obviously, Jesus was dead until he wasn't - being 'made alive' in the spirit. It was IN the spirit that he preached, so he could not have done it until he was alive again.

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I would answer yes, Jesus' physical body was made alive in the Spirit. & I will address “when”, let me make my case:

1.) Paul makes mention that believers body will one day be just like Christ's body:

"But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:11)

It would appear that the Spirit of Christ gave Jesus life to His mortal body, for understanding Jesus had a human/mortal body, see also (Hebrews 10:5, Philippians 2:5-11)

2.) Jesus' body could not be found in the tomb after His resurrection because His body was on His divine nature:

"But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. 7 And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead, and indeed He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him. Behold, I have told you.”

8 So they went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word. (Matthew 28:5-8)

3.) So they said to Him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him. 21 But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened. 22 Yes, and certain women of our company, who arrived at the tomb early, astonished us. 23 When they did not find His body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said He was alive. 24 And certain of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but Him they did not see.” (Luke 24:19-24)

See also: (John 20:24-29, Mark 16:1-8)

4.) For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. (Philippians 3:20-21)

It would appear that believers will be getting a transformation of our lowly, mortal bodies into conformity with Jesus' glorious body.

This makes a solid case that Jesus' body was "made alive in the Spirit".

Just as Corinthians says:

"Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:50-52)

However we are changed is quite the mystery, but we won't have normal flesh and blood after the resurrection, neither did Jesus; yet His body was made alive and was changed. He did rise from the dead, and His body didn't suffer decay, see: (Acts 2:27)

Jesus never taught the destruction of His body, but the "raising up" of it, that His body might become alive, we read:

5.) 19 Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

20 Then the Jews said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?”

21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body. 22 Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said. (John 2:19-22)

Some might argue that Jesus' body disappeared in the resurrection, but Scripture teaches to the contrary. Jesus was wrapped in "Glorified Flesh" after being made "alive in the Spirit".

To address 1 Peter 3:19, Jesus said: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matthew 12:40)

To answer your question more directly: Jesus was in the "heart of the earth" for 3 days and 3 nights when He was making proclamation to the spirits now in prison(V.19), since Peter is speaking of past events the Chronology isn't noticeable at first, then Jesus was "made alive in the Spirit" at His resurrection on the third day.

So Peter mentions events non-chronologically, namely: Christ dying for our sins, being put to death in the flesh and being made alive in the spirit(V.18), then Peter adds that He also went to preach to spirits now in prison (V.19) as an explanation of what Jesus also accomplished prior to being "made alive in the spirit".

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  • Do you think verse 19 took place after he was made alive in the spirit (verse 18)? Feb 11 at 17:44
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator No, I would argue based on John 2:19-22 alongside Matthew 12:40 that Jesus wasn't "made alive in the Spirit" until the Third Day. V.19 in Peter, would be Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison in terms of His eternal divine person/nature. For Jesus is One Person with 2 natures, the second nature (human) was not always with Him prior to His incarnation. See also: (Ephesians 4:7-9). So V.19 took place before He was "made alive in the spirit".
    – Cork88
    Feb 11 at 18:11
  • 1
    Cork88, I expanded my question with the same question I asked in my comment above. If you wish, you may include your reply as part of your answer. Feb 11 at 19:20

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