The Evangelical Universalist Forum

1 Peter 3:20 -- previously (but no longer) disobedient?

This is a ditto post to a postscript I just added to my gigantic thread vs. JP Holding vs. Christian universalism and post-mortem evangelism.

But it’s an angle I hadn’t seen in interpreting Christ’s descent into hades in 1 Peter 3, before yesterday when I ran across a grammatic explanation for an oddity there while reading something else, so I researched it this morning and turned up interesting confirmational data.

Back (in this entry of that thread) when I was discussing the Greek terms of the relevant portions of 1 Peter 3, that I talked about how strange it was for Peter to include two related terms for “when” or “once”, {hote} and {pote}, while referring to the spirits who had once been disobedient. Specifically, the term {hote} was used in talking about how God had once been longsuffering over them, and {pote} was used in talking about how they had once been disobedient.

At the time I simply interpreted that as meaning Peter had to talk about two different topics–the disobedience of the spirits and the longsuffering of God over their disobedience–and chose two different non-interrogative terms for “when” for variety’s sake.

That could still be true, but I learned yesterday while studying something else, that the term {pote} almost always refers to a state of affairs that the speaker either recognizes as being altered or wishes to alter in the future (or expects to have altered in the future).

A concordance search turned up a lot of support for that interpretation–interested readers may look for themselves here at the Blue Letter Bible site, but since {pote} despite being a fairly simply word is relatively rare in the NT I’ll mention the examples here. (Note: this follows UBS/Nestle text based occurences; Textus Receptus based translations, such as the classic King James/Authorized version, may include one more instance of the term.)

In order of their occurrence in the NT:

Luke 22:32 – Jesus looks forward to a time when Peter has not only become disloyal (denying Jesus to save himself) but has afterward become loyal again: “and you, when {pote} you have turned again, strengthen your brothers”.

John 9:13 – after the man born blind has been healed he is called “the man who was {pote} blind”.

Rom 1:10 – Paul has been praying that, by the will of God, he may now {pote} succeed in coming to the Roman congregation. He wants the current state of affairs, where he hasn’t been able to come, to change.

Rom 7:9 – Paul was once alive apart from the Law, but {pote} the commandment came, sin became alive and he died.

Rom 11:30 – For just as Paul’s audience {pote} were disobedient to God but now have been shown mercy and as a result are now obediently loyal to God, so Paul also expects non-Christian Jews currently stumbling over Christ to become obedient someday thanks to the obedience of formerly disobedient persons.

1 Cor 9:7 – Paul rhetorically asks, “who {pote} serves as a soldier at his own expense?” This may seem like an exception to the series of grammatic observations, but the usage of {pote} there is kind of weird anyway: why would Paul be referring to a particular time in this rhetorical question? The New American Standard makes a reasonable guess that Paul means “who at any time serves etc.” But being a wargamer who knows some ancient history, I happen to know that once upon a time Roman soldiers (or officers anyway) did serve at their own expense!–but after the highly important Marian reforms, Rome’s military instituted professional standards and became an officially permanent standing army, upkept by the government! This happened before Paul’s day, and historically it was and remained a huge factor in Imperial life, generally regarded as a major improvement for the safety of the Empire overall and as a major improvement for the lives of soldiers particularly. Contextually this fits very well with Paul’s apologetic appeal about his motives to his critics (probably including his foe the Stepmom-Sleeping Guy) in the Corinthian church: he has a perfect right to financial support from Christian churches, which he illustrates by secular and sacred examples, but he has never required that the Corinthians support him, nor is he writing this in order to ask them to start. A reference to the changes of the Marian reforms in Imperial history, when officers and their troops started being upkept by the government (instead of the officers having to finance both themselves and their troops) makes total sense in that context.

Gal 1:13 – Paul expects the Galatians to have heard about his {pote} manner of life in Judaism, how he used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. Obviously he doesn’t do that anymore.

Gal 1:23 – The people in Jerusalem kept hearing about how Paul who {pote} persecuted them is now preaching the faith which he {pote} tried to destroy.

Eph 2:2-3 – Paul’s Christian audience {pote} walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, etc, and among those people Paul (or the epistle’s author–this is one of the evidences that Paul himself may not have written it) also {pote} lived in the lusts of their flesh, indulging in the desires of their minds and flesh, and were by nature children of wrath and sons of disobedience. But not anymore. (Note: Paul regarded himself as zealous for the Law as a Pharisee of Pharisees, so it would be strange for him to describe himself as formerly being this way.)

Eph 2:11-13 – Paul’s readers in Ephesus should recall that {pote} they were separate from Christ back at that time, and excluded from the commonwealth of Israel etc., but now in Christ Jesus they who {pote} were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

Eph 5:8 – Paul’s audience was {pote} darkness, but now they are Light in the Lord, so they should walk as children of Light.

Eph 5:29 – No one {pote} hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church. This seems like an exception to the general usage, but Paul could be speaking about an ironic contrast, especially in relation to previous things he’s said in this epistle: his audience definitely didn’t hate their own flesh but used to indulge their flesh into sin! That’s changed now: they (ideally) don’t do that anymore; instead they should love their flesh in a different way, husbands loving their wives (even with erotic imagery) just as Christ also loves the Church. It would have been better for them to have hated their flesh than to have indulged it in sexual sin; but it’s better still for husbands and wives to love each other, including caring for each other’s bodies in conjugal affection.

Philippians 4:10 – Paul rejoices in the Lord greatly that this congregation has {pote} revived their concern for Paul, although Paul clarifies that he realizes the Philippians were concerned before but lacked opportunity. That has changed: now they have opportunity to express their concern.

Col 1:12 – the Colossians were {pote} alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, but now they have been reconciled by Christ.

Col 3:7 – Paul says the Colossian Christians {pote} walked in and were living in greed, passion, evil desires, and other things which amounted to idolatry; but now (v.8) they have put all those things aside.

1 Thess 2:5 – Paul and his companions never {pote} came to them with flattering speeches nor with a pretext for greed, as the Thessalonians should know. This is an exception which fits the rule: Paul explicitly uses a negative form of the term, {oute pote} (with a post-postive {gar} in between), to emphasize that the situation hasn’t changed. Paul’s continued emphasis, however, including calling God to witness in this same verse, indicates some kind of problem he is trying to address. 2 Thessalonians ends with Paul going out of his way to sign the greeting with his own hand, asking his readers to notice how he writes, which has been reasonably taken as evidence he is trying to combat forgery; so his emphases here in 1 Thess 2 may have the same goal in view.

Titus 3:3 – Paul talks about how he and other Christians were {pote} foolish themselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts, etc. Then they became Christians.

Philemon 1:11 – Onisephorus was {pote} useless to Philemon, but now he is useful both to Phil and to Paul.

Heb 1:5, 13 – To which of the angels did God {pote] say this or that thing? This could be regarded as an exception, since the point is that God did and does say these things to the Son instead of to angels–in that sense the situation hasn’t changed. However, something has changed between the time these were given prophetically and the time of the Hebraist writing: the Incarnation and Ascension of the Son, after which the Father can say even more pertinently, “You are My Son, today I have begotten You”, and again “I will be a Father to Him and He shall be a Son to Me”, and “Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet”. The Hebraist is first concerned in chapter 1 with establishing the unique divinity of the Son as YHWH; in chapter 2 he’ll start emphasizing the incarnation of the Son as a human man.

So far we can see that with some possible exceptions, the term usually refers very clearly to a situation that has changed or is expected or hoped to change; and even the few exceptions have plausible explanations for why they aren’t or may not be exceptions.

The reader may now notice that most of these come from Paul, and that the most likely set of usages which don’t fit the pattern come from somone, the Herbaist, who may not be Paul; so may reply that perhaps this is only a way Paul (or his various scribes translating in to Greek) likes to write. Maybe other authors, like Peter and/or his scribe (Jude?), would use the term differently.

As it happens, the last times the term occurs in the typical order of the canonical NT, are in the Petrine epistles, of which there are several examples. What then do we find?

1 Pet 2:10 – Peter’s audience {pote} were not a people and had not received mercy, but now they are the people of God and have received mercy.

1 Pet 3:5 – the holy women who hoped in God {pote} used to adorn themselves this way, being submissive to their own husbands. This looks like an exception, until one realizes Peter is talking about women who don’t do that anymore because they died back in OT times! (In fact, they may have even been unclothed for burial, or at least that would be the contemporary expectation of Peter’s Jewish audience.)

2 Pet 1:10 – As long as Peter’s audiences does these things they will never {pote} stumble in the future. The situation won’t change, or hopefully won’t, but Peter uses the negative modifier {oute} with {pote}.

2 Pet 1:21 – for prophecy was not {pote} made by an act of human will. That hasn’t changed, but Peter is using the negative modifier {oute} with {pote} again.

In light of all this we may now consider whether Peter, using {pote} in regard to ancient sinners, who {pote} were disobedient in the days of Noah, means that this situation hasn’t changed now, or that it has now changed, and if so in what way.

Peter doesn’t use the {oute} negative modifier used by other authors, and himself, to indicate the situation has not or will not sometime have changed. It is no longer the days of Noah, but mere passage of time is not what has changed in the other examples. The sinners no longer walk the earth in bodies, but that wasn’t a topic Peter was talking about–which has led to some interpretative confusion about whether he means ancient human sinners, ancient rebel angels, or both or neither!

On the other hand, whenever an author, demonstrably including Peter, uses {pote} in regard to sinners, in every other New Testament occurrence of the term (in that situation) the author is contrasting the way sinners used to behave before they repented and became loyal followers of God.

If Peter is not using {pote} in such a way this time, to talk about the former situation of sinners who have since been led to no longer be sinners, he would be doing so against strongly established usage elsewhere, including in his own texts. Admittedly, the context in those other cases (inlcuding 1 Peter 2:10) makes it very clear the authors are talking about this; the difference would be that Peter isn’t as entirely clear here at 3:20.

But when combined with a strong contextual and grammatic argument from other evidences, I think this observation of very typical (and in one way even otherwise entirely uniform) grammatic usage of the term {pote}, lends its own independent strength to an interpretation, not only of post-mortem evangelism, but even some extent of success achieved already!

(I say “some” because authors, including Peter, also clearly expect at least some human and angelic rebels to still be rebelling up until the judgment of the Day of YHWH to come. But Peter, in these same verses, also clearly expects even rebel angels to submit to God in Christ eventually. This is disputed by no interpreter anywhere; what it means for them to eventually submit is what is disputed.)

Hi Jason, Thank you. I need to carefully look at this word study that would help my view for the descent of Christ per 1 Peter. :wink:

Hi, Jason

Would you mind restating this, without the proofs and so on (which I think I may be able to follow better if I know where you’re going) in fairly simple terms? I’d like to understand it, but I have a lot of distractions right now and I’m having a hard time concentrating on it. :frowning:

Thanks so much!


Simpler version:

1 Peter 3, when talking about the situation in Noah’s day, uses two versions of the Greek word for “when”.

The more unusual version, {pote}, is applied to the stubbornness of the persons who became spirits in prison where Jesus preached after being slain. (The more usual version, {hote}, is applied to the longsuffering of God over them.)

I read Sunday afternoon in Winchester that this term always refers to a comparison of different conditions between now and a past situation. So I researched every occurrence of the term in the NT.

I discovered that Winchester was mostly correct, aside from a handful of apparent exceptions which are either plausibly or certainly not exceptions after all (for various reasons); and that he was entirely correct whenever the term is used by NT authors to talk about sinners in the past.

Peter is talking about people who sinned in the past (almost undisputed by all interpreters), and doesn’t include the negative modifier {oute} for signifying that the past-time condition is continuing unchanged. Moreover, we have examples of his usage of the term several other times in the Petrine epistles and he follows the established usage pattern elsewhere: a negative modifier when the situation doesn’t change between past and future times; otherwise generally obvious differences intended or expected between past and future conditions, especially when talking about past sinners.

Unless this occurrence at 1 Peter 3 is the sole exception in the NT, the grammatic implication is that Peter (perhaps via his scribe) intended to present the spirits in prison as having once been disobedient but not anymore.

Possibly also with a contrasting usage of the more usual term for “when” to indicate God continues being longsuffering over them (a term expressing patience with a goal for repentance and salvation) just like back in Noah’s day.

There’s a whole lot more in the details of 1 Peter that dovetail with this; I don’t need it for my case (and didn’t even know to include it in my original analysis), and it may not be conclusive in itself, but it adds significant independent weight not only toward real post-mortem evangelism by Jesus to the worst of spirits in hades but also toward successful evangelism. Great! Thanks so much, Jason. That makes it much easier to understand. :smiley: