“Commandments” in Matthew 5:17-20?

(Posted by Paige)

While puzzling this week over the referent for “these commandments” in Matt. 5:19, I came across two distinct explanations in two of D. A. Carson’s older commentaries. I think they end up in the same place, but they begin quite differently. What do you think?

Here is the familiar passage, from the ESV:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Carson writes this in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World (Baker, 1978; but I have the 1987 edition):

The expression ‘these commands’ does not, I think, refer to the commands of the OT law. It refers, rather, to the commands of the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom mentioned three times in verse 19f. They are the command already given, and the commands still to come, in the Sermon on the Mount…It is worth noting that Jesus’ closing words in Matthew’s Gospel again emphasize obedience: the believers are to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded (28:18-20). Jesus’ commands are highlighted, much as in 5:19.” (40, 41; bold added, italics in original.)

And he writes this in his article on Matthew in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (ed. Gaebelein; Zondervan, 1984):

“But what are ‘these commandments’? It is hard to justify restriction of these words to Jesus’ teachings…, even though the verb cognate to ‘commands’ (entolon) is used of Jesus’ teachings in 28:20 (entellomai); for the noun in Matthew never refers to Jesus’ words, and the context argues against it. Restriction to the Ten Commandments…is equally alien to the concerns of the context. Nor can we say ‘these commandments’ refers to the antitheses that follow, for in Matthew houtos (‘this,’ pl. ‘these’) never points forward. It appears, then, that the expression must refer to the commandments of the OT Scriptures. The entire Law and the Prophets are not scrapped by Jesus’ coming but fulfilled. Therefore the commandments of these Scriptures – even the least of them… — must be practiced. But the nature of the practicing has already been affected by vv.17-18. The law pointed forward to Jesus and his teaching; so it is properly obeyed by conforming to his word. As it points to him, so he, in fulfilling it, establishes what continuity it has, the true direction to which it points and the way it is to be obeyed. Thus ranking in the kingdom turns on the degree of conformity to Jesus’ teaching as that teaching fulfills OT revelation. His teaching, toward which the OT pointed, must be obeyed.” (146; bold added)

So…which is it, Dr. Carson? (Anybody have his new edition of the Expositor’s commentary?)

Joint Statement by WTS and Professor Enns

Joint Statement by WTS and Professor Enns

July 23, 2008

The following statement is being posted per the instruction of Rev. Charles McGowan, Chairman of the Institutional Personnel Committee.

The administration and Prof. Peter Enns wish to announce that they have arrived at mutually agreeable terms, and that, as of 31 July, 2008, Prof. Enns will discontinue his service to Westminster Theological Seminary after fourteen years.

The administration wishes to acknowledge the valued role Prof. Enns has played in the life of the institution, and that his teaching and writings fall within the purview of Evangelical thought. The Seminary wishes Prof. Enns well in his future endeavors to serve the Lord.

Prof. Enns wishes to acknowledge that the leaders of the Seminary (administration and board) are charged with the responsibility of leading the seminary in ways that are deemed most faithful to the institution’s mission as a confessional Reformed Seminary.

Prof. Enns expresses his deep and sincere gratitude to the Lord for his education and years of service at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Past statements and documents

Statement of the Board – May 23, 2008
Official Theological Documents – April 24, 2008
A Communication to the Westminster Seminary Community – April 10, 2008
Message from the Board of Trustees– March 29, 2008

2 Peter 1:5-11

This passage has quite a few interpretive difficulties in it. I will therefore tread cautiously.

“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

The first difficulty is this: does verse 9 refer to believers or to unbelievers? I argue that he refers to believers here. First of all is the expression “cleansed from his former sins.” Secondly, the terms of the passage seem to indicate that the believer here is living like an unbeliever, rather than that the non-elect covenant member is on a teeter-totter. The following verse seems to me to indicate that the brothers are to receive this warning. Verse 10, by the way, does not indicate that the elect actually could fall from election. Thirdly, the lack of these qualities is not described as unbelief, but as “ineffectiveness, unfruitfulness, nearsighted, blind.” These qualities can more easily describe the believer who is not progressing as he ought, than that “cleansed from his former sins” could describe someone who is not elect.

Jude 5

Yet another passage abused in favor of FV theology is Jude 5:

“Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.”

Steve Wilkins (ab)uses this passage on page 15 of his exam, where he says, “Thus Jude 5 can speak of the Israelites as having been ‘saved,’ and then destroyed, because they did not persevere.”

Two points need to be addressed: the first is that this was a physical salvation from Egypt. To make an automatic parallel to our spiritual salvation from this needs to be argued, not simply asserted.

Secondly, the context indicates that Jude is talking about the false teachers, not about people in the congregation. This is clear from verse 4: “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” That they “crept in” indicates that they certainly do not belong to the flock. In fact, they were predestined (“long ago were designated”) for this condemnation. They never were part of the flock. That is the point of the illustration. That this is the correct interpretation is proved decisively by the continuation in verse 8, which speaks again of those false teachers (“these people also”). He speaks of them not as members of “us,” but as “them.” Therefore, Wilkins’s interpretation does not follow from the text at all.

Hebrews 10:29 and Apostasy

For a while now, I have promised Todd that I would post something on this verse so as to continue the discussion of whether baptized persons are sanctified, and if so, what does that mean? Here is the passage in English:

“How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?”

And in Greek:

πόσῳ δοκεῖτε χείρονος ἀξιωθήσεται τιμωρίας τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ καταπατήσας, καὶ τὸ αἷμα τῆς διαθήκης κοινὸν ἡγησάμενος ἐν ἡγιάσθη, καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς χάριτος ἐνυβρίσας;

It must be pointed out that what we normally mean by “sanctification” cannot be the meaning of the word here. The normal progressive becoming-more-holy of a believer cannot be what is meant, since the word describes an event that took place in the past. We do not need to over-read the aorist’s “point-like” action to come to this conclusion, although this is certainly a once-for-all type of action. It happened only once. Aorist is the normal past tense in the NT. To parse it, the word is an aorist passive indicative, 3 person singular: “hegiasthe.” It is the word right before the last comma.

Now, the context is obviously talking about apostasy (see verses 26ff). But what is the nature of this apostasy? Clearly, the apostasy is that of treating as common something which is not common. The contrast here is between “hegiasthe” and “koinon.” In effect, the person is denying the very nature of what Christ’s blood is. The very nature of Christ’s blood of the covenant is sanctifying, a set-apart quality which it has in and of itself, but also the language refers to that which it does: namely, it sets apart the people of God.

One contextual issue must be dealt with here. What is the relationship between this use of “hegiasthe” and the same root in verses 10 and 14? Verse 14’s use is obviously different, given the different form of the verb. It is a present participle, describing something that is ongoing. Also, the terms of the verse (perfected for all time) indicates that he is talking about those who really are saved for all time. This raises the distinct possibility that verse 10 is not talking about the same thing as verse 29, since verse 14 comes in-between the two verses. Verse 10 is, however, also talking about something in the past, since we have here a perfect passive participle, masculine plural nominative. However, note again that it is a different form yet from the present participle of verse 14 and the aorist of verse 29. The perfect form indicates completed action with continuing relevance for the present (e.g. “I have now finished” is a perfect example of the perfect tense). The aorist might be translated “I finished,” whereas the present might be translated “I am finishing.” I think, therefore, that verse 10 is talking about something different than verse 29. That for two exegetical reasons: 1. verse 14 comes in-between the two verses, and is clearly talking about something different than verse 29; and 2. the difference of the verb-form. The difference is also indicated by the fact that, in this chapter, apostasy does not rear its head until verse 26. The first part of the chapter is all about Christ’s sacrifice being once-for-all in place of all the repetitious sacrifices of the old covenant.

The immediate syntax is as follows: the “en ho” immediately before is most likely a dative of agent, meaning “by this thing he was sanctified.” “Ho” is a relative pronoun referring back to “the blood of the covenant.” The blood of the covenant did this sanctifying act. It should be noted that this actually happened. The way that John Brown takes it, for instance, is that the apostate would have been truly sanctified had he stayed in. I cannot go there. The text says that it actually happened. It is a plain ol’ aorist tense verb. There is nothing to suggest a hypothetical case.

One point should be noted about the exegesis here: the emphasis is on the parallel (and the “how much more” argument) progressing from the two witnesses of the OT law going to the Son of God and the Spirit of Grace as the two witnesses of the New Covenant.

A much more seriously tempting interpretation is that the person who is sanctified is Jesus Christ. The verse would then read as follows: “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which that Son of God was sanctified (presumably as an offering).” This is John Owen’s interpretation. It has a great deal to recommend it. First of all, the closest antecedent of the pronoun in the verb “he was sanctified” is, in fact, the Son of God. Secondly, it does fit the context, since the first part of the chapter is all about Christ as offering and priest. A priest has to make an offering for Himself. But in Christ’s case, His blood is all that is necessary. The emphasis in verse 29 would then be a heightening of the sense of how sacred this blood is: “This blood of the covenant was so sacred, since it consecrated even the Lord of Glory to His mighty task of priesthood, and are you now going to treat it as profane?” I would say that this interpretation is quite defensible. Owen has defended it at length in his commentary on the passage.

If it does refer to the apostate, then I would offer this interpretation of it: the sanctifying that is being advocated here is the idea that a person is set apart from the world when he is baptized. He is no longer in the same position as an outright pagan. He is rather identified with the church. What is being described here is not the ordo salutis category of progressive sanctification, nor the definitive sanctification described in verse 10 (which is connected to faith in the Lord who has offered His body once for all), which is also an ordo category. Rather it is the set-apartness that a baptized person enjoys from the world. This says nothing about whether or not he has faith. Obviously, he never had faith by the very terms of the passage, if he is spurning the Son of God! There, that should be enough for the start of a good conversation on the passage.

Titus 1:12

This passage is an extremely interesting passage. The Greek reads like this:

 εἶπέν τις ἐξ αὐτῶν, ἴδιος αὐτῶν προφήτης, Κρῆτες ἀεὶ ψεῦσται, κακὰ θηρία, γαστέρες ἀργαί.

The English reads like this: “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.'” Paul then goes on to say that this statement is true in the next verse.

First of all, we have to recognize the humor in this situation. A Cretan says that Cretans always lie. Is his statement true or not? I do think that there is a bit of a philosophical dilemma in what this Cretan (probably Epimenides of Crete) says. If a certain class of people always lie, and then one of that group says that they always lie, is he telling the truth or not? So Paul is probably laughing when he says that this statement is true.

However, as Riemer Faber (WTJ 67.1 Spring ’05) notes, there is a lot more going on here. The above interpretation has the danger of placing too much emphasis on the deceit aspect of the verse, and not enough on the phrases “evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” Given the context of church office, this verse must be read in the light of elder qualifications. Faber notes that “the poetic line of Epimenides, in which lying and improper behavior are linked, is cited as illustration of the union of teaching and practise” (143). The “purpose is to show that doctrinal error is accompanied by moral corruption” (145). That his interpretation is correct is born out by verse 10’s “For.” That word connects the bad characteristics listed in verses 10ff. with the elder qualifications. It is in that context that the famous quotation comes in. I do not think that Faber’s interpretation is exclusive of the philosophical dilemma interpretation. But it is a very interesting passage.

Famous Last Words, Part 3

Genesis 49:13-27

At age 16 Andor Foldes was already a skilled pianist, but he was experiencing a troubled year. In the midst of the young Hungarian’s personal struggles, one of the most renowned pianists of the day came to Budapest. Emil von Sauer was famous not only for his abilities; he was also the last surviving pupil of the great Franz Liszt. Von Sauer requested that Foldes play for him. Foldes obliged with some of the most difficult works of Bach, Beethoven, and Schumann. When he finished, von Sauer walked over to him and kissed him on the forehead. “My son,” he said, “when I was your age I became a student of Liszt. He kissed me on the forehead after my first lesson, saying, ‘Take good care of this kiss–it comes from Beethoven, who gave it to me after hearing me play.’ I have waited for years to pass on this sacred heritage, but now I feel you deserve it.” The power of that blessing made its way through many generations. I myself come from that heritage, since my teacher studied with a student of a student of a student etc. of Liszt. I know then, what it is like to experience the power of a blessing that comes through many generations. We will look at how that happens in the blessings of Jacob here today.

First up is Zebulun. Zebulun is difficult in some ways, because the prophecy is all about the sea, and yet Zebulun was a land-locked tribe. How to explain this? One commentator says that they eventually possessed a portion of the shoreline. This wasn’t for a while, but in the meantime, they did trade on the sea-shore. Matthew 4 has the ultimate answer for us: Jesus was to live in Capernaum, which was by the sea of Galilee, and hence the Gentiles were to come into port there, as it were. We have then a prophecy here of the coming of Christ. Have you settled your ship into the port of Jesus Christ?

Secondly, we have Issachar. Some people think that this “blessing” is really a curse. However, I believe that it is not a curse. The blessings both before and after are really blessings. That would lead us to believe that this is also a blessing. Secondly, there is no record of a particularly shameful deed being done by Issachar except for selling Joseph into Egypt. However, that deed was shared by all the brothers, and Jacob doesn’t mention it. Thirdly, all the other animal comparisons are positive in the blessings. It would be odd if this one were not. Maybe we should translate it this way: “Issachar is a sturdy donkey lying down between two saddlebags. When he sees how good is a resting-place and how pleasant the land, he will bend his shoulder to bear, and he will become a body of workers that work the land.” So we see that Issachar is a tribe of strong workers. Issachar did not sell its freedom for peace with the Canaanites, as some propose.

Thirdly, we have Dan. In Dan, we have a serpent by the roadside. We are not to think of Satan the serpent, as if this were a curse on Dan. Verse 16 clearly implies that Dan is a just tribe, a good tribe. Rather, this prophecy probably refers to the time of Samson. Samson the judge was from the tribe of Dan. He certainly was a poisonous serpent to the Philistines, whom he slew by the thousands. Samson is also a type of Christ, who slays His enemy by the thousands as well. Don’t get bitten by that snake!

In verse 18, we have this one verse that does not seem to be connected with anything around it. However, Jacob is looking forward here to the time of Christ. That is what he is looking for, the time of deliverance. It is the prayer of Simeon before he held the baby Jesus in his arms. Simeon then says, “Now my eyes have seen your salvation. You can let me go in peace now.” Do you look for the deliverance of Jesus Christ?

Fourthly, Gad was one of the three tribes that settled east of the Jordan river. As such, their position was always precarious regarding the raiders that constantly harassed people in the desert. As a result, the Gadite tribe became very good at fighting. The prophecy is fulfilled in their constant defense of their homeland against invaders. In the same way, Jesus constantly fights on our behalf against the demons, and against Satan, so that the temptations that come our way will not be unbearable. He gives us the victory, as is prophecied here.

Fifthly, we have Asher. The name “Asher” means “happy,” you might recall. And their prophecy is bright with hope. They will be rich. Their tribal allotment was far to the north, and on the coast. They traded much, and were thus providing many delicacies for kings, as the text says. Moses says this about the tribe: “Asher is the most blessed of sons; may he be the favorite among his brothers and bathe his feet in oil. May your bolts be of iron and bronze and your strength last as long as you live.” The richness of the food reminds us of the wedding feast of the Lamb. There, the food will be rich, and Jesus Christ Himself will provide the richest of fare for us. Will you let Him feed you, not just then, but now, with the Holy Spirit?

Sixthly, we have Naphtali. Naphtali was born from Bilhah, Rachel’s maid. Rachel named the boy, saying “I have wrestled mightily with my sister, and have prevailed.” Napthali’s name means “wrestling.” Moses’ comment on the tribe goes like this: “Naphtali is abounding with the favor of the Lord, and is full of his blessing.” Full of blessing is much like what Jacob says here, “bears beautiful fawns.” So also, Jesus Christ is so full of blessings that bear fruit. Christ especially gives the Holy Spirit to His church. Do you have the Holy Spirit of promise that bears much fruit? Do you have so much blessing that others are blessed by your blessing?

Seventhly, and climactically, we have Joseph. Now, Joseph’s sons already received the blessing of being first-born in chapter 48. However, Joseph could be left out of this blessing, and so Jacob gives him a long blessing. In fact, this blessing is as long as Judah’s blessing in the earlier part of the chapter. Jacob was aware of the resentment that the brothers exercised against Joseph, although Jacob does not seem to be aware, even now, of the insidious plot that the brothers unleashed against him. We will see more on that in the next sermon. But here, certainly, Jacob recognizes that Joseph has been attacked without cause. One remembers also the incident of Potiphar’s wife, where Joseph was slandered. Slander is called by the name “arrows” in Scripture. Joseph had his full share of arrows shot at him. However, the Lord strengthened him. In fact, the Lord helped him so much that the help turned into blessing. Joseph wound up being blessed far beyond his brothers in this respect. We see the same pattern in Jesus Christ. He was shot at with many arrows of slander. People said that He blasphemed. People covered Him with undeserved abuse. And yet, the Lord sustained Him to the point of death, where that sustaining power was taken away that the Lord might have all the bitterness of hell’s punishment laid on him. This was for our sins. Those arrows turned into blessing however, when Jesus was raised from the dead. Then those blessings “rested on the head of Jesus,” as He was taken from the grave, and exalted to the position of highest honor. We therefore have all spiritual blessings in Christ in the heavenly realms, as Ephesians says. We have these blessings of Joseph through Jesus Christ. Are you blessed in that way?

Eighthly, and lastly, we have Benjamin. We naturally think poorly of wolves. However, here is a positive mention of wolves. Benjamin is called a wolf because he is such a ferocious fighter. In the book of Judges, Benjamin fights all the rest of the tribes, and holds out for quite a while before they can be conquered. Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin. Matthew Henry has this comment on Paul: “Blessed Paul was of this tribe; and he did, in the morning of his day, devour the prey as a persecutor, but, in the evening, divided the spoil as a preacher.” Ultimately, our Lord is the ravening wolf, greedily devouring His enemies, but dividing the plunder with His people.

We have seen that Jesus is the true Israel. He fulfills or reverses (in the case of the curses) all of these prophecies. These prophecies came down through many generations, again like the blessing that Beethoven gave to Liszt, who gave it to one of his students, and so on. The blessing had a way of making itself felt. How have you blessed the next generation? Have you given them the Word of God? Have you catechized them? Have you taught them the truth about Christ? These things you can still do, even if you did not do them so well before. Don’t let any opportunity slip by you for telling the next generation. Then you can have your last words be ones of hope for the future, not words of regret. You can have words of hope, like Jacob had.

Romans 5:1, a text-critical problem

There is a significant textual variant in Romans 5:1 that drastically affects the meaning of the verse. The variant that almost all translations have as their in-text printing is the indicative “we have peace.” The by far stronger manuscript support, however, is for the subjunctive (“let us have peace.”) The two readings side-by-side would then read, first “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And second, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here we have a case where internal evidence (that is, evidence of probability) far outweighs the manuscript support (external evidence). Paul is writing in the indicative all the way through this section. He is not in the imperatival portion of the epistle yet. He is describing the indicative of our salvation. It would surely be completely out of character for Paul to say that we have justification, but then have to strive for peace with God. It contradicts everything else the apostle ever wrote about justification. Justification means that we do have peace with God. Add to this the other internal evidence of the similarity of vowels in the two readings (the two variants only differ by one vowel which sounds the same in both variants: omicron for the indicative, omega for the subjunctive), and one has enormous probability that the indicative is correct. I throw this variant out there to indicate the relative weight of various factors in textual criticism. Textual criticism has two sorts of evidence: internal and external, which correspond to transcriptional probability versus manuscript evidence. In general, I weight the external evidence more heavily, since it is much more verifiable. However, internal considerations cannot be discounted. The other place where internal evidence rules is in the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is much shorter than Matthew’s.

If we wanted to break down criteria for textual criticism, we could do it this way. In the external evidence side of things, there are several criteria we need to use in weighting manuscripts, none of which is absolute: age of manuscript (older is generally better); geographical distribution of readings (a more geographically diverse reading is much more likely to be original); family characteristics of manuscripts (a daughter manuscript (if proved to be a daughter) has no additional weight than the parent manuscript, unless corrected against another manuscript; number of manuscripts (the more the better: however, there are a significant number of qualifications on this one, since the vast majority of manuscripts of the NT are Byzantine in origin, and there are definitely family characteristics there. Furthermore, the Byzantine manuscripts are much younger than other text-types); tendencies of text-types (certain text-types are prone to expansion, others are prone to deletion, etc.). The internal evidence attempts to weigh transcriptional probability (what is most likely to have been written). It asks question such as these: “what is the more difficult reading (more likely to be original, since a scholar would be more likely to make a reading easier to understand than more difficult: however, this is not absolute),” “is there some error of copying that can explain the variants (same ending of words, same beginning of words, copying two identical words instead of one, omitting one of two identical words, same line ending, same line beginning, and so on).” This evidence is inevitably more subjective. However, as in the case above, internal evidence cannot be let go so easily. When weighing the variants, a dictum that is well-nigh absolute is this, “Does the reading I am leaning towards have the ability to explain how all the other readings arose?” This is an immensely important dictum in textual criticism. The best reading can explain how all the others arose. So textual criticism weighs internal and external evidence in attempting to find the original text.

Lest anyone have any misimpressions, very little of the NT is in any serious doubt as to what the original manuscript (the autograph) said. And of the texts that are in doubt, very few of those, in turn, have any significance for the meaning of the text. The dealt with above is one of the few.

Does God Create Evil?

The text under consideration is Isaiah 45:7, in the ESV: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” Now, this rendering doesn’t seem nearly so problematic as the KJV, which reads like this: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Here is the Hebrew:

 יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע אֲנִי יְהוָה עֹשֶׂה כָל־אֵלֶּה׃

Now, the word in question is ra’. This word has a range of meanings centering around two main meanings, “evil” and “bad.” The question is, what is the meaning of ra’ here? John Calvin says this, “Fanatics torture this word evil, as if God were the author of evil, that is, of sin; but it is very obvious how ridiculously they abuse this passage of the Prophet. This is sufficiently explained by the contrast, the parts of which must agree with each other; for he contrasts “peace” with “evil,” that is, with afflictions, wars, and other adverse occurrences.” Then he goes on to note that “we ought not to reject the ordinary distinction, that God is the author of the “evil” of punishment, but not of the “evil” of guilt.” Indeed, the contrast does point the way here toward that understanding of ra’ as “bad.” Whatever it is, it is the opposite of “shalom,” which means “peace, well-being.” This is similar to E.J. Young’s approach (quoted by Baltzer, though missing a key sentence). Young argues that this refers to more than just calamity. It refers to the absolute decree of God. This means that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, and yet God is not the author of evil. The difficulty with this position is that the Hebrew here is bara’, which is used of absolute creation by God everywhere else it is used (for instance, Genesis 1:1). Whatever the ra’ is, God created it. Therefore, I believe that Calvin’s approach is better. The context must allow its say in how we define the term ra’. So the ESV is a better translation than the KJV here, though the older usage of the word, if remembered, rescues the KJV from obsolescence.

The Spirits in Prison

What I wish to do here is a relatively brief explanation of 1 Peter 3:18-22. This could well be the most difficult text in all of Scripture. It is dripping with difficulties.

18. For Christ also suffered for sins once and for all, the Righteous one on behalf of unrighteous ones, to bring us to God, having been put to death by men, but made alive by the Spirit, 19. By which also, having gone, He proclaimed to the spirits in prison. 20. They disobeyed long ago when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, when the ark was being prepared, in which a few (that is, eight souls in all) were rescued through water: 21. this baptism (being an antitype to the water) now rescues you, not as an outward putting off of fleshly filth, but of an inward pledge to God of a good conscience: all this happens through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22. who, having gone into heaven, is at the right hand of God, having all angels, authorities, and powers subjected to him.

Overall picture and relevance: These can be combined and stated in several steps: 1. Peter is writing to suffering Christians. 2. In helping such suffering Christians, Peter wants to help them with the root of their persecution, which is demonic (or perceived to be demonic) in origin. 3. Christ conquered the demonic world through His death and resurrection. 3. Christians share in this victory through baptism (which means inclusion into the safety of the covenant). 4. Therefore, suffering Christians can be bold and gentle in sharing their faith and submissive to God in their endurance of persecution. In relation to the overall relevance, we can mention Eph. 6:12. Thus, we must qualify Christ’s victory as not implying eradication of the demons. We must still struggle (note the present tense feel of Eph. 6:12) with these demons. But the victory is ours through Jesus Christ, and does not belong to the demons.

Details of this victory:

Vs. 18: The textual variant “suffered” vs. “died” makes little difference in the context. Note here that Christ is not being shown as an example. This is proven by the words “once for all.” Rather, the focus is on the value of Christ’s actions for us. Note that “righteous” is singular (“the righteous person”), whereas “unrighteous” is plural (“the unrighteous people”). The Righteous One died on behalf of the unrighteous many. “Christ on behalf of us” is the meaning, clearly referring to the vicarious nature of the Atonement. “Bring us to God” has courtroom connotations. The verdict is “not guilty.” The circumstances under which Christ can bring us to God are the three aorist participles: “having been put to death,” “having been made alive,” and “having gone.” These are the conditions that had to exist in order for Christ to make us right with God. In other words, these three events happened BEFORE our courtroom appearance. Now, there are two possible interpretations of the parallel datives “in the flesh” and “in the (S)spirit.” They must be taken in a similar sense, since they are so obviously parallel. The first way is “in the sphere of.” However, the Greek distinction between body and soul is not within Peter’s thought here. I agree with Achtemeier, who thinks of the datives as instrumental, referring to being put to death by human flesh (human beings), but made alive by the Holy Spirit. If this is so, then Christ could not have come “in the spirit but minus His body” (this would be according to the Greek philosophical conception of the division of the person) in the three days between His death and resurrection. Rather, the proclamation took place AFTER His resurrection. In other words, Christ had body and soul together when He did the preaching.

Vs. 19. The “in which” refers most probably to the “spirit” mentioned just at the end of the previous verse. The ESV has left out the “also” that is supposed to be there right after the “in which.” This indicates a second activity that has been empowered by the Holy Spirit. The word “went” does not indicate a “descending into hell.” It is never used this way in the NT. Another word is used for that in Eph. 4:9, and Rom. 10:6. I think (with Dalton and Achtemeier) that the ascension is the reference here. Jesus went after Ascension but before Session at the right hand of God. I do think it is possible, however, that Christ did not actually preach in person to the spirits. The “in which” might give some extra credence to this possibility. The word “proclaimed” here usually means that the gospel is the content of the preaching. However, this is not always the case. The basic root meaning is “to be a herald.” Thus, this word cannot be forced into meaning that the spirits have another chance at salvation. Now, who are the spirits? Grudem would claim that it still could be humans, if you understand the phrase to mean “those who are now spirits.” A parallel to this would be to say that Queen Elizabeth was born in 1926, even though she did not become queen until much later. However, why is only the flood generation of people mentioned? This difficulty is much lessened when we understand “demons” by the word “spirits.” First of all, the word in the plural almost always refers to demons. If it does not, then there is always some form of qualification, which there is not in this case. Second, the reference to the disobedience is probably dependant on the tradition of 1 Enoch. 1 Enoch thought of the people’s disobedience in Noah’s time as dependant on the demons’ disobedience, to such an extent that the demons were thought to cause the Flood by their extreme disobedience. Thirdly, if it refers to people, then how does a knowledge of Christ’s preaching to people encourage people in suffering? Remember also that Christ’s actions here are not examples, but one-time occurrences. Now, not all the phrases in 1 Peter refer to demons. “In prison” must refer to the demons. This is a further argument that they are demons. This word does not refer to the place where human souls are kept. The reference is rather to a place “under guard.” Since when are people’s souls (and in this case, they would be saved, since the message would have to be salvation) kept under guard?

Vs. 20 The next phrase also refers to the demons. It can be translated “because,” or “when.” “Formerly did not obey” obviously refers to the spirits. This (I believe) refers to the Enoch tradition as to how they disobeyed. Peter is making a literary allusion (and so not necessarily endorsing 1 Enoch’s view) to 1 Enoch’s view of Genesis 6:1ff. 1 Enoch interpreted the “sons of God” as being angels, who disobeyed God’s order not to mess with human women. As a result, they generated a race of giants, the “Nephilim.” This interpretation of Genesis 6 in 1 Enoch is not the same as Peter’s. Peter is merely invoking 1 Enoch to make the point that even the most radically powerful and evil spirits have been conquered by Christ. See especially 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6. The next phrase (“that is, eight souls) has been taken by some as conclusive that the spirits must be human souls. However, I do not think it is necessary to see this phrase as referring to the spirits of humans. It is possible that the phrase refers to both spirits and human beings, or just to human beings. The point here for Peter is to nail down the exact time. There is a parallel between that time and now. God’s patience is also waiting now while the elect are being gathered, and the wicked are increasing their wickedness. The next phrase (“in the days of Noah, when the ark was being prepared”) does not necessarily refer to the building of the ark. If the reference to 1 Enoch is finished with the previous phrases, then it might be possible that the preparing refers to all the animals being gathered. It is possibly then a divine passive (God doing this “preparing”). The only other thing that needs comment in this verse is the last phrase. I am not sure that the ESV has correctly translated it. The Flood was the means whereby Noah was saved from the pagan environment. As such, the Flood is ironic. It is extremely destructive, and yet God brought about His saving purposes through it. I believe that is the meaning of the last part of this verse.

Vs. 21 Does this verse imply baptismal regeneration? Yes, it saves, but from what? The evil dominion of the spirits! Baptism involves the person in the victory achieved over the spirits by Christ’s death and resurrection. The negative qualifier indicates that baptism is not just an outward sign of inclusion into God’s covenant. It is that, but it is also much more than that. (I disagree with Dalton here: I do not think that circumcision is meant). We tend to devalue baptism in Presbyterian circles. We should not do this. Baptism gives us a clean conscience with regard to demons. It symbolizes the blood of Christ that cleanses us from our sins. One of those benefits of inclusion into the community of God’s people is freedom from demonic tyranny.

Baptism is related to the Flood in an antitypical manner. The Flood simultaneously destroyed wickedness, and saved Noah from that wicked environment. Baptism is symbolic of the destruction of the demons, and of our freedom from their influence.

Vs. 22 This verse caps the entire pericope by stating again the grounds upon which our hope is built. Christ has conquered sin and death, and sits with angels and principalities under His feet. This is probably a reference to Psalm 110:1.

It should be mentioned that this interpretation has been stated rather forcefully. I do not think we can be dogmatic about this interpretation. Indeed, you may choose to believe Augustine’s interpretation, which I think is the only viable option for the Reformed camp. Nevertheless, I think that Achtemeier, Dalton, and Kelly are correct in their overall interpretation. I think it makes the most sense of the context, and is actually the most practical for Peter’s readers. Practicality for us can be along the same lines. We either dismiss the demonic world too easily, or we fear it too much. I think Peter has much to say on both counts.

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