The Gospel Preached to the Dead: An Explanation of 1 Peter 4:6

Introduction

“For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who 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).

In the world of serious Bible students, there are many who have questions regarding 1 Peter 4:6. Who are the dead? What is the gospel that they heard preached? What does it mean to be judged as men in the flesh? I have had many of these questions as well, but recently I have come across something in the text that I hadn’t noticed before, and I believe it is the key to understanding this passage. The key is the word flesh, and I believe you will see want I mean by the end of the article. So, to answer the questions above, the dead are the Gentiles and “swallowed up” Israelites, the gospel is the gospel of Christ, and the flesh has to do with the Old Covenant – the standard of the soon-to-come judgement that Jesus was “ready” to perform.

“They will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5).

“For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17).

“The time has come for judgement to begin,” Peter warned. This is an explicit statement of imminence that should not be overlooked. Jesus was ready to judge those of the house of God as well as those who did not obey the gospel. This is the same group (universal judgement) that is considered in other passages in the word of God – such as 2 Thessalonians 1:8.

“…in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:8).

The judgement of “the living and the dead” was about to begin at the point of Peter’s writing. This is a crucial point that should not be missed, but it is not the main purpose of this article: who are the dead to whom the gospel was preached? To understand this, we must observe the context – specifically, it is necessary that we pay close attention to how Peter uses the words flesh and spirit.

The Suffering of Christ

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).

Why did Jesus suffer? He suffered to bring “us to God.” Now, the “us” of this passage is Peter and his audience. While we may be tempted to read ourselves into the text, we must resist the urge. While it is true that Jesus suffered for you and me, this passage is specifically talking about Peter and his audience.

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied…” (1 Peter 1:1-2).

Peter’s audience was the scattered of Israel: The Diaspora. This passage makes that plain, but there is plenty of internal evidence to show this as well. One of those verses is 1 Peter 2:10.

“Who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy” (1 Peter 2:10).

This passage is a reference to the book of Hosea. Hosea was a prophet of God to the Northern tribes of Israel right before they were “swallowed up by the Gentiles[1]” through being carried away into Assyrian Captivity. God demonstrated this through the living parable that was Hosea’s life. Hosea had three children whose names bore record to Israel’s fate and future: Jezreel (God sows), Lo-Ruhamah (no mercy), Lo-Ammi (no people). Peter, writing to Israelite Christians in the first century indicated that through Christ they were being reconciled to God through the teaching of the gospel of Christ. Peter laments, “We have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles (1 Peter 4:3). Through positively responding to the gospel of Christ, Peter’s audience had put to death the lusts of the flesh through conforming to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Through the sufferings of Jesus, as Peter points out in 1 Peter 4:1-2, He overcame the system of flesh that He was born under and became the first of the new creation (Galatians 4:4; Revelation 3:14).

“Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:1-2).

“But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law…” (Galatians 4:4).

“And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, ‘These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God’” (Revelation 3:14).

Through His sufferings and His resurrection into the New Creation, He made the way for others to join Him in the world above. Now, we can become part of this New Creation.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

This New Creation that we abide in is not a realm of the flesh but of the spirit. This is why that Peter explained that Jesus was put to death in the flesh but quickened in the Spirit (1 Peter 3:18). This realm of the spirit is the realm in which the promises made to Old Covenant Israel would be fulfilled. It is the realm in which the “glories to follow” would be found.

Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. (1 Peter 1:10-11).

Those who abide in this New Creation are able to partake in the blessings promised to Abraham through appropriating the righteousness of Christ. Paul explained, “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29). Like Abraham, the righteousness of Christ is imputed on the individual who trusts in Him as Paul stated in Romans 4:3. An individual does not have to keep the Law perfectly (or at all where the Gentiles were concerned) to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law.

“…so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).

Jesus fulfilled this requirement in order that all of those who approach God “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” are found faultless and are able to receive the inheritance promised in the Old Covenant. Jesus suffered in order that this may be possible, and it is only through Him – not our own abilities – that the promises can be received. Jesus died to the realm of the flesh in order that He could make a way for man to enter the realm of the Spirit.

Flesh and Spirit in 1 Peter 3:18-4:4

As mentioned earlier in the essay, flesh and spirit are the keys to understanding 1 Peter 4:6. In this section, we will examine how Peter uses those words in this context in order that we can understand properly the passage in question. We have already studied 1 Peter 3:18, so our next text is 1 Peter 3:21.

1 Peter 3:21

“Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you – not the removal of dirt [filth – KJV] from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:21).

Baptism, which was an antitype for the flood, is the way through which one conforms to the death of Christ (Romans 6:3). As the waters of the flood saved him from an evil generation, the waters of baptism were the way through which the first century saints could escape their bondage of sin. Hence, Peter wrote, “baptism now saves us.” What Peter does next is quite interesting; keeping in the context of Jesus’ death to the realm of the flesh and being made alive in the realm of the spirit, Peter points out that the baptism that an individual undergoes under the New Covenant is not for the purpose of removing the filth of the flesh – that is, it is distinct from the multiple baptisms of the Old Covenant whose purpose was to cleanse man according to the flesh.

It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience – concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings [Greek: baptismos], and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation. But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:9-14).

The various baptisms of the Old Covenant were for the purpose of purifying the flesh – that is, to satisfy the requirements of the works of the Law. Baptism, which brings an individual into contact with Jesus’s blood, is for the purpose of purifying man according to the conscience[2]. The apostle Paul traveled to Jerusalem in Acts 21 against the advice of his close friends. When he arrived, he was asked by the elders of the Jerusalem church to pay the vows of those who wished to be purified and to be purified with them to prove to the Jewish believers that he was not commanding the Jews to forsake Moses. Paul, who had recently authored the book of Galatians, must have been out of his mind – at least, that’s what some say. The difference between what Paul did and the unbelieving Jew did when practicing the law was their motivation for doing so. Paul said, “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt” (Romans 4:4). He also said, “And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:3-4). The difference between Paul and the unbelieving Jew is that the unbelieving Jew was keeping the law for the purpose of justification. Paul, and the myriads of Jews, were keeping the law in order that they may be purified according to the flesh. This would allow them to live around and among their fellow Jews to warn them to flee from the wrath of God that was about to come. They remained “in the world” while the Gentiles were not living in the world.

I do not pray that You should take them [Jesus’ Jewish disciples] out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15).

“Therefore, if you [Paul’s Gentile audience – DR] died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations” (Colossians 2:20).

The point is that the term flesh is used to distinguish the baptisms of the Old Covenant from the one baptism of the New. Peter’s audience, being Israelites, would have required this distinction.

1 Peter 4:1-2

“Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:1-2).

I’m hoping that at this point you are beginning to see the way in which Peter is using the term flesh and the idea of Spirit. “In the flesh” corresponds to the life of those in Adam who were doomed to destruction without Christ. “Will of God” has reference to those who are living in the Spirit. Notice the similarities between the text above (and the entire context if you pay close attention) and what Paul said in Romans 8[3]. The parts that are underlined and italicized bring out man’s incapability to approach God on His own through the works of the law, but the sections only underlined highlight Paul’s use of the terms flesh and Spirit.

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (Romans 8:1-10).

As you can see from the above reading, Peter is engaged in a similar discussion to what Paul was in Romans 8. Peter’s use of flesh and Spirit are identical to Paul’s usage of them in Romans 8. Here I must point out that some abandon this usage of flesh and spirit at this point in the text, but I encourage you to entertain the idea that Peter was consistent in its usage.

1 Peter 4:3-4

“For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles – when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you” (1 Peter 4:3-4).

While we read this passage, we must remember Peter’s audience: scattered Israel. These are the same individuals who had been “swallowed up by the Gentiles” (Hosea 8:8-9). They were being regathered through the ministry of the apostles as we have seen. This is why the gospel would be preached to the whole world before the end would come (Matthew 24:14). Not only did this serve as a way to offer light to the Gentiles, but it was also the tool through which God would call His chosen people out from among the idolaters that they were once destroyed by. Peter encourages his audience to not be like the Gentiles that they once lived among – who they virtually were in times past!

Another thing interesting to note in this passage is that Peter makes a list strikingly similar to that of Paul’s in Galatians 5: “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

The Gentiles, and anyone else for that matter, who practiced that lusts of the flesh were considered “carnally minded” and, thus, “dead” (Romans 8:6). It is ff this group, specifically the Gentiles who the Israelites were once among, that Peter said would be judged. This is the “they” in 1 Peter 4:5.

They will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5).

Why was Jesus ready to judge? Because the gospel had been preached to the whole world – Jew and Gentile alike. That’s why Peter would say in a few verses, “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7). Those who remained carnally minded were dead. Those who lived “for the will of God” or “in the Spirit” were alive (1 Peter 4:2).

1 Peter 4:6

“For this reason the gospel was preached also to (the dead ones) [from nekros – DR], that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Peter 4:6).

The dead ones in this text are those Israelites who were swallowed up by the Gentiles and those who were Gentiles themselves. Those who responded positively to the gospel would be judged as if they were in the flesh – that is, judged as righteous according to the law (Romans 8:4). They were, being Christians, living according to the will of God in the Spirit; they had taken advantage of the cross of Christ (1 Peter 4:2). Paul stated something similar in his epistle to the Ephesians.

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. (Ephesians 2:1-3).

Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh – who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands – that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near [the living and the dead – DR]. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:11-18).

Conclusion

The gospel that was preached to those that were dead was the gospel of Christ. It was preached to the spiritually dead in order that they may, through positive response to the gospel, appropriate the righteousness of God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their baptism, which was not the same as the baptisms of the Old Covenant, was a legal appeal based upon the merits of Jesus Christ for salvation. Since this gospel was preached to the whole world, Jesus was ready to the judge the world and the end of all things was at hand as Jesus said that it would be in Matthew 24:14.

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).

[1] “Israel is swallowed up; Now they are among the Gentiles Like a vessel in which is no pleasure. For they have gone up to Assyria, Like a wild donkey alone by itself; Ephraim has hired lovers” (Hosea 8:8-9). Israel being swallowed up by the Gentiles was a punishment worse than physical death. They were separated from God and had lost their national identity. It would not be until the last days that Israel would be remarried to God and be reconciled to her sister Judah into one body with Christ as the head.

[2] See Daniel Rogers’ article “The Blood of Jesus and Baptism” for an in-depth explanation of how baptism relates to the blood of Christ.  http://labornotinvain.com/2016/12/30/the-blood-of-jesus-and-baptism/

[3] It would be very wise at this point to suggest that you do a study on the phrase “but now” in Pauline literature. Pay close attention to how it is used in reference to the Law of Moses versus the Law of Christ. Then, read what Paul has to say in Romans 7 with this in mind. I did an audio lesson covering some of this material that can be found at the following link. The lesson is entitled “The Ministry of Death: An Examination of Life Under the Old Covenant.” http://labornotinvain.com/podcastarchives/the-ministry-of-death-an-examination-of-life-under-the-old-covenant/

 

4 Replies to “The Gospel Preached to the Dead: An Explanation of 1 Peter 4:6

  1. Hi Daniel,
    Great lesson! I am confronted often by those who hold to a premillenial dispensational view of Scripture. When I confront them with the myriad of time statement, I am told, “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” In addition, I am told that the Apostles were simply mistaken. I had to point out that this destroys inspiration. There ‘go to’ verse is 2 Tim. 2:15. I need to ‘rightly divide the word of truth.’ This verse becomes the rosetta stone of their paradigm. What is the best way of countering this argument? Thanks.
    Daniel Potts

    1. Hey Daniel,
      I appreciate your comments! I’ve actually been dealing with this subject quite a lot. In fact, I’m working on a project on 2 Timothy 2:15. I will work on an article to post soon with some information for you!

  2. Thanks brother spot on and fills a few gaps in my understanding. I have not heard anything quite like this here in the UK

    1. I’m glad you enjoy it! If there is ever a subject that you would want to see discussed here, please let me know and I will try to fulfill your requests. Thanks a lot!

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