Preached at Rye Lane Chapel, on Sunday Evening, 3rd April, 1927.
"Wherein he also went and preached unto the spirits in prison." 1 Peter 3:19
The passage before us this evening may be characterised accurately as one of the most difficult of Holy Writ. We should not be surprised that such difficulties are in the Scriptures, and we certainly ought not to deplore them. One finds so frequently that they contain great blessing if they are made the subject of prayer, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit is sought. I cannot pretend to be able to solve the difficulties inherent in the text, but I can take you as far as I am able to go myself.
The event would appear to be subsequent to the Crucifixion, but whether between the crucifixion and resurrection, or resurrection and ascension, we are not told. As to the number of visits Scripture is silent, although I incline to the view that it was one specific visit for the special purpose He had in view.
It is clear that our Lord had definite persons in His address. They were those who "sometime were disobedient when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was preparing." Some have thought these were types of all the dead, but I cannot share that view. We are therefore referred back to Genesis 6, to the conditions prior to the flood. There we are told that the sons of God married the daughters of men. Who were these sons of God? It is suggested that they were fallen angels, beings who had fallen from their high estate, and there is some suggestion of that in the character of the progeny- "There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, mighty men which were of old, men of renown." They were mighty of stature and utterly depraved.
Do not let us regard all this as impossible. Dr. Dodds, in his book on Genesis writes:-"This abnormal wickedness again is accounted for by the abnormal marriages from which the leaders of these ages sprang. Everything seemed abnormal, huge and inhuman. As there are laid bare to the eye of the geologist in those archaic times, vast forms we are now familiar with, but of gigantic proportions, and wallowing in dim, mist-covered regions; so to the eye of the historian there loom through obscurity colossal forms, perpetrating deeds of more than human savagery, and strength, and daring; heroes that seem formed in a different mould from common men." Dr. Dodds does not say they were fallen angels who were responsible for these mighty men, but he has no doubt these mighty men existed. I do not think these beings were fallen angels, but I regard them as being of the line of Seth, the sons of God
Let us look at Genesis 4:25. Seth was born to Eve, and was so named because said she "God hath appointed me, another seed instead of Abel whom Cain slew." Notice these words, "another seed." Eve was thinking of the promise made in Eden. God said to the serpent, " And I will put enmity between thee and the woman and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head and thou shalt bruise his heel." It was clear to Eve that she was to be the mother of one who should destroy the serpent, that out of the human line one should come who would put right the catastrophe of her sin. When Abel was born she doubtless regarded him as the one through whom the promise should be fulfilled, but Cain slew him. Upon the birth of Seth new hopes were created and she saw in him "another seed instead of Abel."
Two generations therefore proceeded from Eve; the line of Cain and the line
of Seth. Seth was separated from Cain, and while separated all was well, but
the descendants of Seth were at last allured and corrupted, and joined themselves
to the line of Cain: "the sons of God saw the daughters of men that
they were fair; and took them wives of all which they chose." Of the
line of Seth, Noah and his family were the only ones to keep themselves apart
from the line of Cain. They alone were separated from the world-spirit of the
time. In thus luring the line of Seth to intermarry with Cain, Satan was making
a gigantic effort to corrupt the promised seed, and to make deliverance for
man impossible. Here right back in early Biblical history, the war of the incarnation
is being waged. Satan makes every effort so to corrupt the seed, that it will
be impossible for any to arise out of it who shall fulfil the promise made to
the woman in the garden of Eden. "But Noah found grace in the eyes of
the Lord." 1t is a staggering fact that for 120 years Noah was the
one hope of the world. The Scripture is silent on those years of witness bearing,
but the persecution and sufferings of Noah during the time that he was building
the ark must have been terrible. He alone stood out to rebuke, by his life and
testimony the horrible wickedness of his times, and we may be sure a bitter
price had to be paid for such a witness. Seeing these great issues emerging,
we may understand something of the titanic struggle in the spirit world, between
darkness and light. Noah remained faithful, the line of Seth was saved, the
greatest effort of the Satanic world to destroy the promised seed was frustrated;
never again were such drastic measures needed to preserve the seed of promise.
Who were these spirits in prison? Those who had been the Satanic instruments, hating goodness and God, persecuting and terrorising Noah and serving the ends of the Devil in the effort to break all possibility of human hope. After the flood "God spake unto Noah and to his sons with him saying, And I, behold I establish my covenants with you and with your seed after you." The line of promise was carried on by Shem, and consummated ultimately in the Lord Jesus Christ. The seed of promise was never again attacked in the same way as in the days of Noah, but it was ever an object of enmity. Herod, in the slaughter of the children under two years of age, was serving the same Satanic antagonism against the promised seed. Undisguised in the wilderness Satan tried by every device in his power to corrupt the Redeemer Himself. He knew if critics do not, that sinlessness was essential to the triumph of the seed of the woman over the serpent.. Finally at Calvary, the people became the tools of the devil. With a cry, " His blood be upon us and upon our children, " they nailed Him to the Cross. Hell shouted with triumph to see the chosen seed crucified and destroyed; "But God raised Him from the dead," and the very means, which by every ingenuity, corruption and depravity could devise were used by God to achieve the bruising of the serpent's head. You and I can say "We have redemption through His Blood."
Thus raised and triumphant, Christ visited the spirits in prison. Atonement had been made, sin, death and hell were finally overcome. It is the crucified, risen triumphant Christ who descends into Hades to address Himself to the Satanic world.
The word "preached" should really be translated "proclaimed." If you look at chapter four, verse 6 of this epistle you will read, "For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead." The word for " preached " in that verse is different from the word for " preached " in the text. The dead I imagine to be those who died before the time of Christ who had never heard of Him, but in their lifetime had sought the light, and their attitude had been one of desiring the truth for the truth's sake.But to the spirits in prison Christ does not preach the Gospel. He proclaims Himself. He descended into hell, there to demonstrate that all the machinations of Satan and men were overthrown, to prove beyond a doubt that the promise to the woman in Eden had been fulfilled and that sin was doomed and the destruction of evil was certain.
This is amply confirmed by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians (Ch. 2 verse 14 and 15) where he speaks of the work of Christ. "Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way nailing it to His Cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it." Those words " in it " mean " in His death on the Cross." It was at Calvary that in His own mysterious way God achieved His purpose and fulfilled His promise. We cannot imagine God failing in His purpose, but we do dimly discern that it was achieved through peril and pain and at infinite cost. No man understands the Cross to the extent that is humanly possible unless he sees something of the titanic struggle of the Cross. Calvary was planted in human history in the teeth of a gigantic opposition on the part of Satan and his satellites. The message of the Cross comes to us with a great history behind it. It is not something chosen by Christ when it could no longer be avoided. It is not merely a demonstration of love or a call to follow its spirit. It is the revelation and consummation of the one great all-consuming purpose of God to redeem man from his sin, a purpose held on to amidst the onslaughts of evil, pursued with patience and suffering to its victory in the Blood of the Cross.
Part of the struggle still continues, as Satan seeks to close the mouths of preachers to the glory of the Cross. The Cross is a fact: he would minimise it by turning the preacher from the simplicity of the message to social, political and ethical topics. Only at great pain to his own soul is the preacher able to plead with men to accept the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ
Part of the struggle still continues as Satan persists in blinding the eyes of the unbelieving "lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine upon them." Amongst this company tonight, there may be some who are conscious of that struggle within them even at this moment. Let Christ have the victory.
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