he New Testament Book of Hebrews goes into significant details describing Jesus' role and work as God's--and our--Great High Priest. As priest, He offered Himself to the Father for our sins. As sacrifice, He gave His life as the price of our redemption and eternal cleansing from sin. Based on Hebrews 9:15, His death was the required sacrifice. As in the Old Testament typological priesthood, the slain goat's blood was immediately taken by the high priest into the tabernacle where he offered it to God. So, immediately upon His death, Jesus went into the presence of God in heaven to present His "Blood," His life, as the sacrifice for our sins. This emphasis on Jesus' priestly work refutes the mythological idea that Jesus went to an imagined isolated place where the spirits of those who die reside till the Second Coming. At the moment of His death on the cross, Jesus cried, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." (Luke 23:46) Just prior to this moment, Jesus assured the thief beside Him, "To day shalt thou be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43) And, in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Paul defines "Paradise" as the "…third heaven," not as a dark under-region of some sort. Jesus did not spend those three days "Preaching" to the souls of people who died prior to His death and residing in a dark underworld place. He spent them in heaven in the presence of God, His Father. Likewise, when a child of God dies now--or prior to Jesus' coming and sacrifice--he/she immediately is taken to that same "third heaven" and the loving, glorious presence of God, of which Paul wrote, not into a lonely abyss.
ur study passage and its context reminds us of the Lord's consistent and faithful dealings with His children across various ages and cultures, including both the Old and the New Testament era. In examining this passage, we shall consider the corollary between this passage, "…live according to God in the spirit," the indwelling Holy Spirit, and God's law written in the heart of His regenerated children in all ages and cultures.
any years ago I knew a man who was raised in a strict Roman Catholic home. Until he became an adult and married, he knew nothing of other Christian beliefs. On more than one occasion, Mike told me, always fighting back the tears, about an experience he had at the tender age of seven. When he passed his seventh birthday, his mother dutifully took him to see the parish priest. During the interview, the priest told Mike that it was time for him to confess his sins to the priest. This youth of only seven years looked at the priest and said, "No." After some coaxing by the priest, young Mike held steadfastly to his refusal. Finally, he looked at the priest and gave his last protest before standing up and walking out, "When I get ready to confess my sins, I'll confess them to God, not to you." Where did this sheltered seven year old child learn such a thing? How did such an idea become so powerfully embedded in his young mind? I suggest that young Mike had already experienced God's regenerating power, and that he spoke from the deep conviction of that abiding and indwelling law written in his heart and mind.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Preached to the Dead
For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6, KJV 1900)
o better verse could be examined to emphasize the necessity of interpreting Scripture in its context, not in isolated verses. If we examined this verse apart from the context in which Peter wrote it, no one could offer a meaningful and generally accepted explanation of it. Sadly, this method seems to prevail in frequent explanations of its teaching. However, when we put the verse into its context, like one piece of a complex jigsaw puzzle, the pieces come together to make a meaningful and complete picture or idea.
n the world of various theological ideas and beliefs, the question often arises, “Why preach the gospel? To whom is the New Testament gospel addressed?” If we study the first five verses of this chapter, we learn the answer to these questions. , The gospel is not to be preached to dead, depraved sinners, but to regenerated, or born-again, children of God. Its aim is not to give life to the dead, but to equip the living, the already-born-again person, for effective Christian warfare. It frames the commandment for them to “…arm yourselves likewise with the same mind,” the mind of Christ. It is not to facilitate the new birth, but to give the born-again person the equipment, the armor, for the battle for the Christ-glorifying life. In both John 5:24 and First John 5:1, we read simple, undeniable language that tells us that the believer has already been born again, so preaching to the unregenerate and commanding him to believe to get the new birth contradicts the simple teaching of these two lessons. When a person comes to truly believe in Jesus, both verses state that he/she has already been, “…is…” born again. If the believer is already born again, his/her belief can’t contribute to the new birth, either directly or instrumentally.
or in our study passage links the idea to the prior verses, and they in turn, link to the closing lesson from the third chapter. By a series of questions, we may learn the teaching of this verse in its contextual setting.
1. Who are the dead to whom the gospel was preached? We answer this question by going back to the third chapter. Peter builds his lesson on baptism and its representation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection by use of an Old Testament lesson that he describes as a “…like figure.” God appeared to Noah and instructed him to build the ark. By the ark, Noah would deliver his family from God’s righteous judgment against the wicked generation of his day, in similar fashion to baptism insulating believers from “…this untoward generation” (Acts 2:40) of Peter’s time. Our lesson relates to the long period of time from God’s initial commandment to Noah to build an ark until he had completed building it. Peter elsewhere (2 Peter 2:5) refers to Noah as a “…preacher of righteousness.” The Old Testament account of Noah begins in the sixth chapter of Genesis. We can’t precisely determine how long it took for Noah to build the ark. Some Old Testament scholars estimate around a hundred years. Given the size and complexity of the ark, we cannot doubt that Noah spent a lengthy time in its building. During this time, either by interaction with the ungodly world around him or by his specific teaching, Noah is identified as this “Preacher of righteousness.” Who are the dead to whom the gospel was preached? Rather than indulge in endless speculation that Scripture in no way supports, the simplest answer to the question is that, during the time he was building the ark, Noah preached the gospel to the people who would later die in the flood. Although they died in the flood, they were not dead when Noah preached to them. They were very much alive.
2. When was the gospel preached to the dead? We’ve already answered this question in the answer to the first question. Noah preached to the wicked world around him during whatever time he spent building the ark. Scripture doesn’t have much to say about Noah’s interaction with the wicked people who lived in his lifetime, but it has much to say in describing their wickedness that prompted God’s righteous judgment against them by the flood.
3. Why was the gospel preached to these people? The above answers reject two populist ideas of our time. 1) That, during the three days and nights of His death, Jesus went to a mythical, not Biblical, place where the souls of people who have died reside, and preached to them. This idea contradicts the many Scriptures that describe Jesus’ active work as our high priest, presenting Himself as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of His people. In this work, Jesus appeared before the Father in heaven, not in some mythical underworld for the dead. 2) The second idea is that the gospel is intended in some way to facilitate the new birth, so we are supposed to preach to dead, unregenerate sinners and thereby in some way effect or facilitate their new birth. We have already refuted this idea from John 5:24 and First John 5:1. Peter’s reference to the dead does not refer to those whom Paul describes as dead in trespasses and sins. (Ephesians 2:1) Peter explains why these people heard the gospel, “…that they might be judged according to men in the flesh….” No sinner can ever protest against God’s judgment by claiming ignorance. In one way or another, God reveals His righteous law to humanity, and especially so to His people by His law written in their hearts and minds. We cannot sin with pride and hide behind ignorance any more than the people who lived in Noah’s day could do so. While all the people who died in the flood died under God’s righteous judgment, nothing in Scripture suggests that they were all unregenerate or not-of-God’s-elect people. As in any time, some were no doubt children of God, and some were not. Scripture does not support the idea that at any time all children of God are obedient to God. Many Scriptures deal with the Lord’s temporal judgments against His own children because of their sins. Paul even rebukes the Corinthian Church for their abuse of the Lord’s Supper by reminding them that their abuse of the Supper has caused many of them to be “…weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.” (1 Corinthians 11:30, sleep here usually accepted as a reference to some who had died because of this sin) The Lord’s judgments against His children in time primarily aim at correction, described in Scripture as chastening. In some instances, where the chastening of the Lord fails, the Lord may take the life of one of His children to prevent their hindering more of His children from the path of obedience. This judgment is indeed a grievous event, but it does not remove this child from God’s eternal covenant of redemption. Noah’s preaching to these people aimed at refreshing their conscience toward God and evoking repentance in them. Whether they repented or not, they sinned against this knowledge, and they were therefore judged by the Lord “…according to men in the flesh.”
otice Peter’s next point, “…but live according to God in the spirit.” How were these people in Noah’s day “Living,” conducting their daily lives? By God’s description of that generation, they were living according to the norms of the world around them, a world that increasingly and consciously chose to ignore God and follow their own ways, frighteningly similar to our present-day culture. God’s moral judgment of His people is never based on human values or standards of conduct. He writes His law in the hearts and minds of those whom He regenerates, and He convicts and commands that they conduct their lives according to that law; “…according to God in the spirit.”
any contemporary Christians reject that God’s law resided in the hearts of His people in the Old Testament. However, Scripture contradicts their belief.
The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom, and his tongue talketh of judgment. The law of his God is in his heart; none of his steps shall slide. (Psalms 37:30 KJVP; emphasis added)
avid lived and wrote the psalms around a thousand years before Jesus came, so the notion that God didn’t write His law in the hearts and minds of His people during the Old Testament era simply does not stand the test of Scripture.
o different than in our day, God sent His man to preach His gospel to His people. With the knowledge of His gospel, and with His law written in their hearts, they knew God’s commandments for them, so, if they chose disobedience, they could only expect that the Lord would judge and chasten them “…according to men in the flesh.” And, also no different than our time, God also commanded and convicted His people during Noah’s day to conduct their lives “…according to God in the spirit.”
od's law written in the heart and mind of a born-again person does not eliminate or even diminish the need for them to hear the gospel, thereby gaining two divine witnesses to the same truth. Obviously, God commands His preachers to preach the same truth in their gospel that He has already written in their hearts. If the man preaches error, his “Gospel” gives a message to the hearer that contradicts the truth of the law written in the heart. When we preach the truth, our preaching is affirmed by the testimony of the indwelling Spirit, as well as God’s law written in the heart. “…in the mouth of two or three witnesses.” (Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 4:19) The greater the number of corroborating witnesses to a truth that we hear the greater the credibility of that truth in our minds. With God, one witness, His, is sufficient, but He sends us many witnesses to strengthen His truth in our minds. He lays a heavy weight on His preachers to preach His truth and only His truth, never to indulge in their own ideas or their own gospel. The preaching of error typically creates confusion in the hearers. How could it do otherwise? It is preached as God’s truth, but it contradicts the testimony of the indwelling Holy Spirit and of God’s law written in the heart.
nstead of wresting this passage to appear to cultivate the imagination of fanciful mythology, we have learned that this lesson from Peter affirms the same truth that we find throughout Scripture. We also learn that God’s teaching to His children in Noah’s day is precisely the same as His dealings with us today. He sent Noah to preach to them so that they would understand two truths. 1) God commands us to live according to God, His Word, His law written in our hearts, and His indwelling Holy Spirit, to be harmoniously affirmed by true gospel preaching. 2) If we choose to reject or to ignore His teachings and commandments, we can only and rightly expect that we shall face His judgments against us, “…according to men in the flesh.”
hat is our most consistent rule of conduct? Is it what our friends think or tell us to do? Or is it what the Lord commands us to do? If we follow one rule, we shall face—and we can expect nothing else—the Lord’s judgments in severe, but loving chastening. If we follow the truth of Scripture, affirmed by the indwelling Holy Spirit, God’s law written in our hearts, and true gospel preaching, we rightly expect and shall receive the Lord’s kind smiles of approval and blessing. There are no other options, no other choices. Which path have we followed? Which path shall we follow in days to come?
Little Zion Primitive Baptist Church
Worship service each Sunday 10:30 A. M.
Joseph R. Holder Pastor
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A study of the Book of Hebrews will provide a full explanation of the work that Jesus completed during the time from His death on the cross till His resurrection three days later.