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Introduction to Difficulty with 1 Peter 4:6
We face serious difficulties discerning which of the three major interpretations of 1 Peter 4:6 is the correct one. There are four variables (listed below) and in most cases the determined value (interpretation) is dependent on something outside itself such as the context.
#1 Preached the gospel
#2 To those who are dead
#3 That though they are judged in the flesh as men
#4 That … they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.
Please note because of the uncertainty of interpretation of 1 Peter 4:6, this verse is not a good passage to base doctrine upon. It can be used for illustration or clarification (if one dare), but not as the foundation of any belief because it is quite plausible the interpretation that is chosen is wrong. Fortunately, the meaning of this verse does not make much difference in our theology unless one wants to use the 'second chance' interpretation (see below) to support a second chance for those who died without hearing the gospel. (The scriptures as a whole speaks against this thought.)
Three translations for 1 Peter 4:6
"For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God." (1 Peter 4:6 NASB).
For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit." (1 Peter 4:6, NIV).
"That is why the Good News was preached even to those who have died--so that although their bodies were punished with death, they could still live in the spirit as God does." (1 Peter 4:6, NLT).
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Three major Interpretations for 1 Peter 4:6
There are three major interpretations of 1 Peter 4:6 (minor ones are mentioned while making comment).
Preaching the gospel to those who have not heard the gospel so that they might be saved (1 Peter 3:18-20).
Summarizes the whole process of preaching the gospel, their salvation and living holy lives on earth after they become spiritually alive (1 Peter 1:15, 1:3).
Describes how the gospel was preached to those who had believed and lost their life for the sake of Christ and yet have eternal life.
Explanations for Four Clauses of 1 Peter 4:6
6 For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God." (1 Peter 4:6 NASB).
#1 The gospel has been preached
Although this phrase does not seem to be troublesome, the word 'preached' has two possible meanings: (1) more general to declare victory, (2) more narrow to preach the good news (gospel).
There is no supplied object here (i.e. the word gospel) as the NASB, NIV and KJV versions suggest. It is possible that this phrase refers to preaching the gospel. We just must remember that the word 'gospel' is not in the text as in 1 Corinthians 15:1.
The word 'gospel' is added to the NASB because the translators believe the narrow sense (see above) of the verb is more correct, that is, preach the good news. However, sometimes the very to preach is used with supplied objects like 'peace' (Eph 2:17) or 'Jesus' (Acts 8:35). We need to be careful to add 'the gospel' when in several other cases the word 'gospel' is specifically supplied to the word 'to preach'.
The word 'to preach' can also have a general sense to declare a victory or good news such as the victory in a battle (herald a proclamation). We can miss this translation and just take the obvious 'good news' to be associated with the Gospel.
The meaning of this word is significant in that it provides the basis for different interpretations.
(1) Preach the gospel.
In this case, a declaration of the Gospel is presented to save man. Man is in the state in which he can be saved.
a) The gospel is preached and people are saved if they believe.
b) Jesus preached the gospel to those who had not heard the gospel and gives them a second chance.
Please note: The scriptures do not support a 'second chance' salvation, "And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment" (Hebrews 9:27).
(2) Declare victory
A declarative note of Christ's victory over death without the intention to save because the people are already dead. Part of this interpretation rests on the understanding of the dead (discussed next).
#2 Preached even to those who are dead (4:1-2)
We would think that this phrase has a straightforward translation, but it does not. There are three possible understandings of this phrase.
(1) Those who have physically died
This would describe those that have already died. The idea would include those who have descended into hades, the place of the dead. So perhaps Jesus would go and preach to these souls awaiting judgment. We must remember hades is a temporary place for the dead in contrast to our notion of hell (the lake of fire) which goes on and on.
(2) Those who have spiritually dead
The spiritually dead would refer to those who have no spiritual life like in Ephesians 2:1. "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins," (Ephesians 2:1, NASB). They have no life and therefore need the gospel preached to them.
(3) Those martyrs who have died for righteous cause
This interpretation holds that the dead refer to a specific group of believers who had recently died like Christ for the purpose of the Lord. These martyrs are a special group referred to in the New Testament (Rev 6:9-10). They are dead and yet crying out for revenge.
#3 That though they are judged in the flesh as men
There are also three possible interpretations for the phrase, 'Though they are judged in the flesh as men'. They are closely connected to who the dead are (previously mentioned).
(1) They are judged as all men.
They have died. Death is the judgment of our sins. All men have sinned and all have died. This shows that they have all gone astray and God has judged them. They do not get away with their foul behavior as suggested in 1 Peter 4:3-5.
(2) Spiritually judged.
Related to the 'spiritually dead' interpretation above, they see that they are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1). This does not refer to being physically dead but a spiritual condition due to their sins. The lack of spiritual life shows that they are judged.
If it refers to the martyrs then this phrase simply means they have died as all have died. This elaboration seems a bit awkward here and perhaps shows this is not the proper interpretation.
#4 That … they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.
Each phrase in 1 Peter 4:6 is able to carry different meanings. Nothing seems fixed and this is unfortunately true with this phrase too.
This purpose clause (seen from the 'that'), however, could be used in such a way that it can rule out one or two interpretations. See the extended discussion about the purpose of this passage below. Let us first look at some possible interpretations for this verse.
- If the dead of the distant past are preached to by the gospel, then some will be saved and will live in the spirit, not the flesh because they are physically dead already.
This interpretation is quite shaky in that it refers to Jesus preaching to the dead. It is a likable interpretation because it gives the people of the Old Testament age or those who do not hear the Gospel on earth 'a chance.' But this interpretation is quite incompatible with the whole presentation of the Gospel. Those they die without Christ are lost. Physical death of the lost brings certain judgment.
- If this refers to the pagans (4:3) who are physically living but spiritually dead, then they will become spiritually alive for God's purpose.
This interpretation makes good sense of 'in the spirit.' They get new spiritual life which can please God and is a theme in 1 Peter. This interpretation is quite strong if we look alone at this verse. The problem is that earlier in chapter 3 it speaks of Jesus going and making proclamation to the spirits who are in prison (whatever that means). That context makes the first interpretation more plausible. Another problem with the 'spiritually dead' interpretation is the word 'dead' referred in verse five clearly means physical death. The larger context certainly points out spiritual death.
- If this passage refers to martyrs, then it refers to the second resurrection where they will come alive and live eternally in God's presence.
This interpretation is possible but faces the problem of 'in the spirit'. If the purpose (that they may …) is to do God's will in the future, we must accept that. The future would seem to speak of doing good on earth. Everyone will do good in the life beyond. But if they have died, then they cannot do those good works on earth. It does not refer to the good work they did in dying for the Lord for there is a future purpose clause which speaks of further results.
The Purpose of 1 Peter 4:6
Above we have looked at several possible interpretations. Since the conclusion is tenuous, it might help if we better understand Peter's point for writing this section that includes 1 Peter 4:1-6.
Christ suffered in the flesh.
We all agree that Jesus suffered. The question here, and is brought out below, is whether this largely refers to His suffering or death. The difference is on the emphasis and helps us focus on who Jesus was talking to. Was He primarily thinking about those who suffer or those who would die for their faith?
This interpretation affects one's thoughts toward the interpretation of the later phrase 'suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin' (4:1). Our question, then, is whether it refers to those who are dead or the living. Either they are martyrs or living in a difficult world. It is this unclear issue that raises the question of Peter's main point in 1 Peter 4:6 and the whole section. We hope to gain some direction from the larger section of this text to guide us on our interpretation of the one verse.
Unfortunately, even here we cannot easily settle on one purpose for there are two possibilities. With each purpose, other interpretations could fit into these larger contexts.
(1) Purpose of strengthening those who face suffering
Peter encourages Christians who are suffering or in circumstances in which they might suffer to endure their afflictions. He does this by showing that Christ has endured sufferings, showing that suffering for righteousness has great reward and that those without salvation are lost in their lusts and suffer the judgment of God.
Below is a paraphrase of 1 Peter 4:1-6 as if Peter was preparing the disciples to suffer for their faith. Notice that 1 Peter 4:6 has two interpretations below.
4:1-2 Just as Jesus physically suffered, we are to take up the same determined spirit to live for God's purposes and put away all sin. Once we have suffered and not compromised our faith, we have made a clear choice to put sin behind us and seek God's will just as Christ did.
4:3-5 You know what it means to have lived in the world and been stained by the world with all of the lusts, drunkenness and partying, but you have put this behind you. Those that enjoyed your companionship now mock you and say evil things about you because you no longer join them in their ways. Know for sure, however, that God will judge everyone of them. Despite the threat of suffering, you are not to return to that old life. It is a condemned life.
4:6 The gospel of Christ with forgiveness of sin and promise of eternal life has been proclaimed so that those who were dead in their sins, would, like you, come alive so that you could live holy lives pleasing to God by the power of the Spirit of God. (spiritual life interpretation)
4:6 The gospel of Christ with forgiveness of sin and promise of eternal life has been proclaimed to many including those believers who now have died and gone the way of all men, but they have been saved to make those godly choices of choosing to follow Christ and do God's will rather than to live and carry out the lusts of men. (past verb tense interpretation)
(2) Purpose of strengthening those who might die for their faith
Peter encourages those Christians who face suffering and death. As they face the possibility of their martyrdom, Peter encourages them to follow Christ's example even to the point of death. God will reward them just as He has rewarded Christ, Jesus died for righteousness sake, but was exalted and honored by being able to declare His resurrection and glory. His life in the spirit goes on after death.
Below is paraphrase as if Peter was preparing the disciples that they might die for their faith (1-6)
4:1-2 Since the Messiah has suffered to the point of death, you also are to live with the same purpose of carrying out the will of God. With this purpose, we will put behind us all the temptations and lusts of men.
4:3-5 You have already imbibed in the lusts of those around you along with all their sensuality, drunkenness and partying. They are surprised that you have left those worldly ways and malign you for it, but they do not realize that soon they will give an account for all their evil deeds.
4:6 The gospel has been preached for this very purpose. They have left the world and followed Christ. And although they have suffered death for righteousness sake, they still live on in God's presence carrying out God's good will. (future tense - eternity)
Summary of 1 Peter 4:6 Interpretations
The purpose of Peter's writing strongly influences the interpretation of 1 Peter 4:6. The initial words of the verse, "for the gospel ...," point to its explanatory nature. There are two larger contexts which overlap to some degree but guide us to different interpretations. Each of these two larger purposes are good and supported by the context. It is hard to discern which is right.
If Peter was largely preparing them for death, then the interpretation that 4:6 refers to Christian martyrs makes sense. Peter was readying them for death. He was promising of a good future in the life ahead. They will live on in the spirit. Like Christ (3:19) they continue on in a sense of victory. God will reward them. (Interestingly Peter does not speak about resurrected bodies for the believers like Christ (3:21).)
There is a problem with this interpretation, however. 1 Peter 4:6 indicates that their death gives hope to serving God in the future, "that they may live ... according to the will of God). This would eliminate the possibility that it refers to good works on earth. It would follow their death rather than precede it. We all know that we will do God's will in heaven. It is possible that this could be what Peter thought and so uses 'may live in the spirit.' God's word was preached to give the hope of eternal life. Let me paraphrase this.
For the gospel has been preached to those who have now died in the Lord for the very purpose that they would have eternal life and live to please God forever.
This is possible but not best. However, if Peter was preparing them for martyrdom, then this interpretation is preferred. However, if He was preparing them for suffering, then the other interpretation is preferred.
All through 1 Peter there is a strong focus on the Christian's holy life. The Word is preached so that we might live holy lives. The implied context for this life is on earth. The past tense of preached refers to when the saints heard the gospel and that would prepare them to live holy lives. We hardly have to use the 'dead' of 4:5 to constrain the meaning of dead in 4:6 because it is written with a larger context in mind.
1 Peter 4:2 exhorts them to live "the rest of the time in the flesh ... for the will of God." This is the best understanding of 1 Peter 4:6. Peter is summarizing for them the point of sharing the Gospel in light of the many temptations to go back to their old ways. The point of being saved is to live in the power of the Holy Spirit. Again, let me paraphrase this desired interpretation.
For you must realize that the gospel was preached to you while you were dead in your sins so that you might live holy lives pleasing unto the Lord. (spiritual regeneration).
If Peter was writing chiefly to the Christians facing suffering, then there appear to have two possible interpretations brought out in the two paraphrases above. There is what is called the spiritual regeneration interpretation which speaks about them being spiritually dead and the spiritually alive (in the Holy Spirit). This interpretation is also very consistent with the emphasis on new spiritual life (1:3, 23) and the resulting righteous lives on earth doing God's will rather than the world's.
The second chance interpretation requires a past verb tense and interprets their future work into the world beyond. Though it is possible, this seems to be very unlikely. Besides this, the theology is incompatible with the other scriptures.
Summary of the three major interpretations of 1 Peter 4:6
Peter was largely writing to those facing affliction from being displaced throughout modern-day Turkey. They have lost homes and friends. Some might die, but Peter's main focus is on encouraging those that would need to live on.
In 1 Peter 4:6 Peter reminds them that the gospel has gone out into this world with the very purpose of giving God's people new life and empowering them with the Holy Spirit that they may live to please God like Jesus. (spiritual regeneration interpretation).
This is the very reason Peter would go on and positively exhort them as to how they were to live out their Christian lives.
Check out the series on the Origins of the Bible.