"18For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,"
Here is the same text in the ESV (English Standard Version):
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,I've bolded one of the more important differences between the two translations. Notice that the translators of the NIV understood the Greek word "pneumati" (or spirit) in verse 18 as a reference to the Holy Spirit while the translators of the ESV understood the same word as referring not to the Holy Spirit but to the living spirit or soul of Jesus.
Both translations have merit but both lead to very different interpretations. Peter may be referring to what Jesus did in his spirit between Good Friday and Easter Sunday while his body lay in the tomb or he is referring, more generally, to the activity of the Holy Spirit who raised Christ from the dead and through whom Christ proclaimed the gospel in the days before the flood.
If the NIV translation is more accurate then Peter is comforting his readers with the fact that the sufferings they endure as they proclaim the gospel of Christ through the Holy Spirit to an overwhelmingly wicked generation are not unlike those faced by Noah and his sons who proclaimed the same gospel through the same Spirit and they(his believing readers..us...) are saved figuratively through the waters of baptism just as Noah and his family were saved through the deluge.
If the ESV translation is closest to Peter's intent then the apostle points his readers to the vindication that is theirs despite their present sufferings. Christ, in his spirit (after the death of his body but before his Resurrection), proclaimed victory to those disobedient departed spirits in hell (or alternatively "fallen angels") who disobeyed long ago, vindicating the faith of the Old Testament Saints and, at the same time, validating the faith of those who trust and suffer for Christ, a validation made manifest at his Resurrection.
I tend to favor the NIV translation but I could be wrong. For next week, think it through, read some commentaries, come ready to discuss. Here is a good, basic, over-view of the various lines of interpretation from Dr. Robert Deffinbaugh:
The major thrust of Peter’s teaching can be traced in verses 17-18 and verse 22. The problems arise in verses 19-21. The following views sum up the more popular interpretations of this problem passage.
(1) Christ preached through Noah to the people of his day. This view was held by Augustine. Christ has always been actively involved in the world, even from ancient times (see Colossians 1:16-17; 1 Corinthians 10:4). He is also vitally involved with the world and His church until He comes again (Matthew 28:20; Acts 9:1-9; 16:7). This view’s main problem is the expression “spirits now130 in prison” which does not seem to be one that most naturally would be used and understood in reference to men. It is true, however, that “spirits” is used in Hebrews 12:23 in reference to those believers who have died.
(2) Between the time of our Lord’s death and His resurrection, He descended into the abode of the dead and preached to those who had formerly lived in Noah’s day but were now dead and in prison, spiritually.131 Matthew 27:52-53 and Ephesians 4:9 are sometimes cited as support. There are several problems with this view. First, why is only this group of unbelieving dead selected and preached to and not all unbelievers? Second, why would the gospel be preached to a group of people who were warned of the coming judgment of God for 120 years and who rejected this warning (see Hebrews 11:7; 2 Peter 2:4-5)? It wasn’t as though these people were not warned. Peter tells us they were disobedient (3:20). Third, at least some of those who hold this view also believe these folks are given a “second chance,” but this seems contrary to other biblical teaching (see, for example, Hebrews 9:27).
(3) Between Christ’s death and resurrection, Christ descended into hell and proclaimed His victory to the demonic spirits, who cohabited with women in Noah’s day (see Genesis 6:1-8; 2 Peter 2:4-5, Jude 6; see also 1 Corinthians 15:28; Ephesians 1:18-23; Philippians 2:8-11; Colossians 2:8-15; 1 Peter 4:22). This view seems to square best with Genesis chapter 6, 2 Peter 2 and Jude 6. It appears most consistent with the terms “spirits in prison.” But what does this have to do with Peter’s theme of suffering?
(4) Enoch (not Christ) preached to those living in Noah’s day. This is the view of J. Cramer and J. Rendel Harris. It has no textual support, but only a textual emendation (a change of the text, without the existence of any such text) based upon certain presuppositions. It can hardly be taken seriously.(5) “I don’t know what Peter means here.” Luther held this view. We can at least respect his honesty