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by James Stuart Russell


The Parousia

It is evident that this epistle, like that of St. James, belongs to the period called ‘the last times.’ Like his fellow-witness and brother-apostle James, St. Peter addresses his exhortations to Hebrew Christians of the dispersion; for this is the only natural interpretation of the title give to them in the first verse. The contents sufficiently evince that the epistle was written in a time of suffering for the sake of Christ. The disciples were ‘in heaviness through manifold temptations;’ but a far severer time of trial was approaching, and for this they are exhorted to prepare: ‘Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you’(1 Pet. 4:12). They are comforted, moreover, with the prospect of final and speedy deliverance.

It is necessary to read this epistle in the light of the actual circumstances of the time when, and of the persons to whom, it was written. Whatever may be its uses and lessons for other times and persons, its primary and special bearing upon the Jews of the dispersion in the apostolic age must not be lost sight of.


1 Pet. 1:5—‘You, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.’

Every word in this opening address is full of meaning, and implies the near approach of a great and decisive crisis. In (1 Pet. 1:4) we have a very distinct allusion to the ‘inheritance, ’ which is the theme of so large a portion of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that is to say, the true Canaan, ‘the rest remaining for the people of God.’ In very similar language St. Peter styles it ‘the inheritance reserved in heaven, ’ and represents the entering upon it by believers as now very near. Salvation is ‘ready to be revealed.’ What this ‘salvation’ means is very evident; it is not the personal glorification of individual souls at death, but a great and collective deliverance, in which the people of God generally are to participate: such a salvation as God wrought for Israel on the shores of the Red Sea. In the same way St. Paul uses the same word with reference to this same approaching consummation: ‘Now is our salvation nearer than when we believed’. (Rom. 13:11)

This great general deliverance was not a distant event, it was now ‘ready to be revealed, ’ on the very eve of being made manifest. As Alford remarks, the word etoimhn [ready] is stronger than mellousan. To understand this as referring to individual believers entering into heaven one by one at the hour of death, or as an admission into a heavenly state which has not yet been granted, is utterly repugnant to the plain sense of the words.

The salvation is ready to be revealed in ‘the last time, ’ that is to say, ‘now, ’ the time then present. We have already had occasion to notice that the apostles call their own time ‘the last time.’ They believed and they taught that they were living in the last times, and this must be reconcilable with fact, if their credit as faithful and authorised witnesses for Christ is to be maintained. They were justified in their belief: they were living in the last times, in the closing period of the Jewish aeon or age. In the twentieth verse of this chapter we find the same designation given to the time of Christ’s incarnation: ‘Who was manifested in these last times [at the last of the times] for you.’ To say that the apostle regards the whole period from the beginning of the New Testament dispensation till Christ’s coming in glory, in some future and possibly still distant age, as one short time called the last days, is a most unnatural and forced interpretation. The apostle is evidently speaking of a period of crisis, and to make a crisis extend over thousands of years is to do violence not only to the grammatical sense of words but to the nature of things.

At the risk of repetition we may here observe, that, according to New Testament usage, we are to conceive of the period between the incarnation of Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem as the close of an epoch or aeon. It was in the end of the age [epi suntelia twn aiwnwn = close upon the end of the ages] that ‘Christ appeared to put away sin, by the sacrifice of himself’. (Heb. 9:26) This whole period of about seventy years is regarded as ‘the last time;’ but it is natural that the phrase should have a sharper accentuation when the Jewish war, the beginning of the end, was on the eve of breaking out, if it had not already begun.


1 Pet. 1:7—‘That the trial of your faith... may be found unto praise, and honour, and glory, at the revelation of Jesus Christ.’

1 Pet. 1:13—‘Hope conclusively [teleiwv] for the grace which is being brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.’

Everything in the apostle’s exhortation conveys the idea of eager expectancy and preparation. The salvation is ready to be revealed; the tried and persecuted believers are to ‘gird up the loins of their mind;’ the expected boon, the grace, is on its way, —it is being brought unto them. Alford properly remarks that the word feromenhn [being brought] signifies ‘the near impending of the event spoken of; q.d. which is even now bearing down on you.’1 Does not this plainly prove that St. Peter understood, and wished his readers to understand, that this apocalypse of Jesus Christ was just at hand? It would have been mockery to tell suffering and persecuted men to get ready to receive a salvation which was not due for hundreds and thousands of years.


1 Pet. 3:18-20.—‘For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit: in which he also went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which were once disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was preparing.’ etc.

The common interpretation of this difficult passage given by the majority of Protestant expositors is, that Christ, in effect, preached to the antediluvians by His Holy Spirit through the ministry of Noah. This no doubt asserts a truth, and has besides the advantage of keeping within the lines of well-known historical facts, and avoiding what seems dark and doubtful speculation. Nevertheless, as a question of grammar, this interpretation is wholly untenable. First, it is reasonable to expect a chronological sequence in the various parts of the apostle’s statement, describing what Christ did after ‘being put to death in the flesh.’ What would be more harsh and abrupt than the sudden transition from the narrative of what Christ did and suffered in the flesh to what He had done, in a sense, some thousands of years before, in the days of Noah? Further, the rendering ‘being quickened by the Spirit,’ and ‘by which also,’ implying that the Holy Spirit was the agent by whom Christ was made alive, and by whom He preached, etc., is clearly wrong. It ought to be, ‘Being put to death in [his] flesh, but made alive in [his] spirit,’—the flesh being His body, and the Spirit His soul. Then the apostle adds, ‘in which also,’ viz. in his soul, or human spirit. Further, as Ellicott has pointed out, poreuyeiv [having gone] ‘suggests a literal and local descent.’2

There seems no escape therefore, according to the true and natural sense of words, from the interpretation—that our Lord, after His death on the cross, went in His disembodied state into Hades, the place of departed spirits, and there made proclamation [preached] to the spirits in prison, viz. the antediluvians, who in the days of Noah disbelieved the prophet’s warnings and perished in the flood. This, which is the most ancient interpretation, is now generally conceded by the most eminent critics. It is that which is embodied in the Apostle’s Creed; it has the sanction of Luther and Calvin; and it seems to be supported by other passages in Scripture which are in harmony with this explanation. In St. Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:27-31) there is a distinct allusion to the soul of Christ having been in Hades; also in (Eph. 4:9), —‘Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?’ It is difficult to suppose that the burial of the body is all that is meant by His descending into the lower parts of the earth.

The more important question remains, —What was the object of our Lord’s descent into Hades? It can hardly be doubted that it was a gracious one. The apostle says, ‘He preached [ekhruxen] to the spirits in prison,’—and what could He preach but glad tidings? This fact gives a new and larger significance to the terms of our Lord’s commission: ‘He hat sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound’. (Isa. 61:1) The hypothesis of Bishop Horsley and others that those spirits in prison were in fact saints, or at least penitents, awaiting the period of their full salvation, scarcely requires refutation. If any thing is clear on the face of the question, it is that they were the spirits of those who had perished for their disobedience, and in their disobedience. As Bishop Ellicott remarks, apeiyhsasin means, not ‘who were disobedient,’ but ‘inasmuch as they were disobedient.’3

But it may be said, Why should the disobedient antediluvians have been selected as the objects of a gracious mission? Were there no other lost souls in Hades, and why should these find grace beyond others?4 Bishop Horsley owns this to be a difficulty, and the greatest by which his interpretation is embarrassed. Alford finds a reason, if we rightly apprehend him, in the manner of their death. ‘The reason of mentioning here these sinners above other sinners, appears to be their connection with the type of baptism which follows;’5 but surely this is to ascribe an efficacy to that institution beyond the boldest theories of baptismal regeneration. We venture to suggest that the true reason lies in the nature of that great judicial act which took place at the deluge. That was the close of an age or aeon, and ended in a catastrophe, as the aeon then in progress was just about to terminate. The two cases were analogous. As the deluge was the close and consummation of a former aeon, or world-period, so the destruction of Jerusalem and the abrogation of the Jewish economy were about to close the existing world-period or aeon. What more natural on the eve of such a catastrophe as the apostle anticipated, than to advert to the catastrophe of a former aeon? What more pertinent than to note the fact that the ‘coming salvation’ had a retrospective effect upon those bygone ages? It is not difficult to see the connection of the ideas in the apostle’s train of thought. The deluge was the sunteleia tou aiwnov of Noah’s time; another sunteleia was just at hand. The ‘old world, that then was,’ perished in the baptismal waters of the flood; the ‘world which now is’—the Mosaic order, the Jewish polity and people—was about to be submerged in a baptism of fire. (Mal. 4:1, Matt. 3:11, 12, 1 Cor. 3:13, 2 Thess. 1:7-10) Was it not appropriate to show that the redemptive work of Christ joined, and indeed covered, both these aeons, and looked backward on the past as well as forward to the future?

Notwithstanding, then, the mystery and obscurity which confessedly overhand the subject, we are led to the conclusion that the apostle in this passage does plainly teach that our blessed Lord, after His death upon the cross, descended as a disembodied spirit into Hades, the place of departed spirits, and there proclaimed the glad tidings of His accomplished redemption to the multitudes of the lost who perished at the catastrophe or final judgment of the former aeon; and though we have in the present passage no express affirmation that those who heard the announcement made by our Saviour were in consequence delivered from their prison-house, and introduced into ‘the glorious liberty of the sons of God,’ yet it seems not incredible, it is even presumable, that this emancipation was both the object and result of Christ’s interposition. We have already referred to Eph. 4:9 as lending support to this view. ‘Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?’ Bishop Hersley shows that the phrase ‘the lower parts of the earth’ in the proper and customary designation of Hades.6 In the same passage the apostle speaks of the triumphant ascension of Christ in these words: ‘When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.’ Does not the teaching of St. Peter with reference to ‘the spirits in prison’ throw light on this ‘leading of captivity captive?’ Does it not suggest that the returning Saviour, having fought the fight and won the victory, enjoyed also the triumph—that He brought back with Him to heaven a great multitude whom He had rescued from captivity; the spirits in prison to whom He carried the glad tidings of redemption achieved; and who, being brought out of their prison-house, accompanied the returning conqueror to His Father’s house, at once the ransomed by His blood and the trophies of His power?

Before quitting this subject it may be well to quote some opinions of Biblical critics in reference to it.

Steiger, who treats the whole passage in a most candid and scholarly manner, says, —

‘The plain and literal sense of the words in this verse (1 Pet. 3:19), viewed in connection with the following one, compels us to adopt the opinion that Christ manifested Himself to the unbelieving dead.’ ‘We must admit that the discourse here is of a proclamation of the Gospel among those who had died in unbelief, but we know not whether it found an entrance into many or few.’ ‘The expression en fulakh (which the Syriac renders by Sheol; the fathers use it as synonymous with Hades) shows that the discourse can only be respecting unbelievers.’ ‘He who lay under death, entered into the empire of the dead as a conqueror, proclaiming freedom to its imprisoned subjects.’7

Dean Alford’s opinion is very decided:—

‘From all, then, that has been said, it will be gathered that, with the great majority of commentators, ancient and modern, I understand these words to say that our Lord, in His disembodied state, did go to the place of detention of departed spirits, and did there announce His work of redemption, preach salvation, in fact, to the disembodied spirits of those who refused to obey the voice of God when the judgment of the flood was hanging over them. Why these rather than others are mentioned—whether merely as a sample of like gracious work on others, or for some special reason unimaginable by us, —we cannot say.’8

In an interesting discourse on ‘The Intermediate State,’ by the Rev. J. Stratten, the following observations occur:—

‘If this passage mean no more than that the Holy Spirit assisted Noah in preaching to the antediluvians, it is a most obscure, entangled, and unaccountable manner of expressing a most clear and simple principle. Would any of us employ this language, or any at all like it, to express that sentiment? I think not, and it seems to be only the refuge of a mind that does not understand the apostle, or seeks to misinterpret him.’

We may here, in passing, notice that such a deliverance from Hades serves vividly to illustrate the saying of St. Paul in 1 Cor. 15:26: ‘The last enemy, death, shall be destroyed.’


1 Pet. 4:5, 7—‘Who shall give an account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead.... But the end of all things is at hand, be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.’

In these passages we find again, what we have so often found before, the clear apprehension of the judgment and of the end as nigh at hand.

In (1 Pet. 4:5) the apostle intimates that God was about to sit in judgment upon the living and the dead. This cannot possibly refer to that particular act of judgment which is, as we believe, always near to every man, in the same sense as death and eternity are always near. It is obviously a solemn, public, general adjudication, in which the living and the dead were together to answer for themselves before the tribunal of God. This approach of judgment follows course from the approach of the Parousia, which is so distinctly intimated in (1 Pet. 1:5). All that has been stated in regard to that passage applies with equal force to this; etoimwv econti = having it in readiness to judge, is a stronger expression than mellonti, and can by no means refer to any but an almost immediate event.

No less decisive is the statement in (1 Pet. 4:7), ‘The end of all things is at hand.’ Whatever that end may mean it is certain that the apostle conceives of it as near, for he urges it as a motive to vigilance and prayer. To comprehend the full force of the exhortation we must place ourselves in the situation of these apostolic Christians. As year after year lessened the distance to the passing away of the generation that saw and rejected the Son of man, the anticipation of the arrival of the great predicted consummation must have become more and more vivid in the minds of Christian believers. What their conceptions were as to the nature and extent of that consummation; whether they imagined that it involved the dissolution of the whole frame and fabric of the material world or not, it is not for us to determine. What we have to do with is not the private opinions of the apostles, but their public utterances. But that the consummation designated by our Lord ‘the end,’ and ‘the end of the age,’ was rapidly approaching, is not an open question, but a point of faith involving the truth of all His claims. There can be no doubt that in a Judaic or religious sense, that is, so far as the national polity and ecclesiastical system of Judaism were concerned, ‘the end of all things was at hand.’ All that lay beneath the eye of our Lord as He sate on the brow of Olivet was swiftly hurrying to destruction. This is the key to the meaning of St. Peter in this passage, and furnishes the only tenable and scriptural explanation.

We quote with entire satisfaction and approval the observations of a judicious expositor on the passage now before us:—

‘After some deliberation I have been led to adopt the opinion of those who hold that ‘the end of all things’ here is the entire and final end of the Jewish economy in the destruction of the city and the temple of Jerusalem, and the dispersion of the holy people. That was at hand; for this epistle seems to have been written a very short while before these events took place, not improbably after the commencement of the ‘wars and rumours of wars’ of which our Lord spake. This view will not appear strange to any one who has carefully weighed the terms in which our Lord had predicted these events, and the close connection which the fulfilment of these predictions had with the interests and duties of Christians, whether in Judea or in Gentile countries.’

‘It is quite plain that in our Lord’s predictions the expressions ‘the end,’ and probably ‘the end of the world,’ are used in reference to the entire dissolution of the Jewish economy. The events of that period were very minutely foretold, and our Lord distinctly stated that the existing generation should not pass away till all things respecting ‘this end’ should be fulfilled. This was to be a season of suffering to all; of trial, severe trial, to the followers of Christ; of dreadful judgment on His Jewish opposers, and of glorious triumph to His religion. To this period there are repeated references to the apostolical epistles. ‘Knowing the time,’ says the Apostle Paul, ‘that now it is high time to awake out of sleep, for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand.’ ‘Be patient, ’ says the Apostle James; ‘stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.’ ‘The Judge standeth before the door.’ Our Lord’s predictions must have been very familiar to the minds of Christians at the time this was written. They must have been looking forward with mingled awe and joy, fear and hope, to their accomplishment: ‘looking for the things which were coming upon the earth;’ and it was peculiarly natural for Peter to refer to these events, and to refer to them in words similar to those used by our Lord, as he was one of the disciples who, sitting with his Lord in full view of the city and temple, heard these predictions uttered.’

‘The Christians inhabiting Judea had a peculiar interest in these predictions and their fulfilment. But all Christians had a deep interest in them. The Christians of the regions in which those to whom Peter wrote resided were chiefly converted Jews. As Christians they had cause to rejoice in the prospect of the accomplishment of the predictions, as greatly confirming the truth of Christianity and removing some of the greatest obstructions in the way of its progress, such as persecutions by the Jews, and the confounding of Christianity with Judaism on the part of the Gentiles, who were accustomed to view its professors as a Jewish sect. But while they rejoice, they cause to ‘rejoice with trembling, ’ as their Lord had plainly intimated that it was to be a season of severe trial to His friends, as well as of fearful vengeance against His enemies. ‘The end of all things,’ which was at hand, seems to be the same thing as the judgment of the quick and the dead, which the Lord was ready to enter on—the judgment, the time for which was come, which was to begin with the house of God, the unbelieving Jews, in which the righteous should scarcely be saved, and the ungodly and wicked should be fearfully punished.’

‘The contemplation of such events as just at hand was well fitted to operate as a motive to sobriety and vigilance unto prayer. These were just the tempers and exercises peculiarly called for in such circumstances, and they were just the dispositions and employments required by our Lord when He speaks of those days of trial and wrath: ‘Take heed to yourselves,’ says our Lord, ‘lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and the cares of this life, and so that day come on you unawares; for as a snare shall it come upon all who dwell on the earth. Watch, therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that are about to come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.’ It is difficult to believe that the apostle had not these very words in his mind when he wrote the passage now before us.’— Expository Discourses on 1 Peter, by Dr. John Brown, Edinburgh, vol. ii. pp. 292-294.’


1 Pet. 4:6—‘For, for this cause was the gospel preached to the dead also [kai nekroiv euhggelisyh], that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.’

Perhaps the passage above cited can scarcely be said to fall within the scope of this discussion, as it does not seem to have any direct bearing upon the time of the Parousia; and its extreme difficulty might be a good reason for avoiding its examination altogether. Nevertheless, as it manifestly belongs to the eschatology of the New Testament, and as we have no right to look upon it as hopelessly insoluble, it seems better not to pass it by in silence.

There can be little doubt that the present is one of a class of difficult passages which, though obscure to us, were intelligible and easy to the original readers of the epistles. (See 1 Cor. 11:10, 15:29) A passing allusion might bring up a whole train of thought in their minds, so that they easily comprehended what hopelessly embarrasses us. Paley, in his Horae Paulinae, chap. x. No. 1, adverts to this difficulty in a real correspondence falling into the hands of a third party.

The general scope of the argument is sufficiently plain. The apostle begins the chapter by calling upon the suffering and persecuted disciples to imitate the example of their once suffering but now victorious Lord: ‘Arm yourselves with the same resolution, ’ i.e. suffer as He did, even unto death, if need be. In the next verses he alludes to their former godless and sensual life, and the offence which the change to the purity of a Christian behaviour gave to their heathen neighbours. (1 Pet. 4:2, 3, 4) This silent but living protest against the immorality of heathenism appears to have been one cause of the general antipathy to the Gospel which found vent in slanderous imputations against the unoffending Christians, —‘Speaking evil of you’ (blasfhmountev). But these calumniators and persecutors would soon be called to account by Him who was about to judge both the living and the dead. (1 Pet. 4:5)

It will be found very important to bear in mind this opening of the apostle’s argument, as leading up to the statement in (1 Pet. 4:6).

Let us now look at that statement. ‘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.’

It may be truly said that there are here as many difficulties as there are words. When, where, and by whom was the Gospel preached to the dead? Who were the dead to whom the Gospel was preached? Why was it preached to them? How could the dead be judged according to men in the flesh? How could they live according to God in the spirit? And how did the preaching of the Gospel to the dead bring about this result, — ‘that they should live according to God in the spirit’?

It would answer no good purpose to pass in review the multitude of explanations of this obscure passage proposed by different commentators. Let is suffice to look at one or two of the most plausible.

To the question, Who were the dead to whom the Gospel is said to have been preached? some think it a sufficient answer to reply, They are those, now dead, who were alive in the flesh when the Gospel was preached unto them. This would be an easy solution if it were permissible so to construe the words of the apostle; but it is a fatal objection to this explanation that it makes the apostle state a very simple and obvious fact in an unaccountably obscure and ambiguous way. The words themselves reject such an explanation. Alford does not speak too strongly when he says, —

‘If kai nekroiv euhggelisyh may mean ‘the gospel was preached to some during their lifetime who are now dead,’ exegesis has no longer any fixed rule, and Scripture may be made to prove anything.’

Others suppose that by the ‘dead’ in (1 Pet. 4:6) are to be understood the spiritually dead; but to this there are two insurmountable objections: first, this does not discriminate a particular class, for all men are spiritually dead when the Gospel is first preached to them; and, secondly, it gives to the word nekroi [the dead] in (1 Pet. 4:6) a different meaning from the same word in (1 Pet. 4:5)—‘ the living and the dead.’ According to this interpretation, the word ‘dead’ is used in a literal sense in (1 Pet. 4:5), and in an ethical sense in (1 Pet. 4:6). But, as Alford justly says, —

‘All interpretations must be false which do not give nekroiv in (1 Pet. 4:6) the same meaning as nekrouv in (1 Pet. 4:5), i.e. that of dead men, literally and simply so called; men who have died, and are in their graves.’

But probably the most common opinion is that the apostle here alludes again to the preaching of Christ to the spirits in prison referred to in (1 Pet. 3:19, 20); and at first this seems the most natural explanation. That was, no doubt, a preaching of the Gospel to the dead, and also to a particular class of the dead, the antediluvians who formerly were disobedient in the days of Noah, and who were overtaken by the judgment of God.

But when we come to examine more closely the statement of the apostle we find that this application of his words will by no means suit the persons designated ‘the spirits in prison.’ How could the antediluvians be said to be ‘judged according to men in the flesh’? They perished by the visitation of God, and not by the judgment or act of man; and it appears evident that the succeeding clause—‘that they might live according to God in the spirit’—implies the reversal of the human condemnation which had been passed upon the dead while still in the body.

None of the ordinary explanations, therefore, seems to meet the requirements of the case. Those requirements are, to find a class of the dead to whom the Gospel was preached after their death; who were condemned to death when in the flesh by the judgment of men, but who are destined to live in the spirit, according to the judgment of God, and this is consequence of the Gospel being preached to them after death.

We are at once led to conclude that this particular class, judged or condemned by human judgment, must refer to persecuted disciples of Christ. It is to such and of such that the apostle is speaking, as is evident from the opening verses of the chapter. It would be quite proper to say of such, that though (unjustly) condemned by man they would be vindicated by God. It is also proper to say of such (especially, if martyrs for the faith) that they had ‘suffered in the flesh’—had been put to death by human judgment, but were made alive in spirit, or as to their spirits, and this according to God, or by the divine judgment. But there still remains the formidable difficulty presented by the words ‘the gospel was preached to them that are dead.’ We have no account in the New Testament of any such preaching to Christian martyrs after their death. But are we necessarily obliged to give this sense to the word euhggelisyh? It is here, we believe, that the key to the true explication of this passage will be found; and it is the wrong interpretation of this word that has misled commentators. Though it is very commonly used in the technical sense of preaching the Gospel, this is by no means its invariable use in the New Testament. It is employed to signify the announcement of any good news, and not exclusively the glad tidings of the Gospel. Thus in (Heb. 4:2), improperly rendered in our Authorized Version ‘to us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them, ’ there is no allusion to the preaching of the Gospel in the technical sense of the phrase, but simply to the fact that ‘to us as well as to the ancient Israelites good news have been brought’ [esmen enhggelismenoi], the good news in both cases being the promise of entering into God’s rest. So in a still more general sense the word is used to denote any pleasing intelligence, as in (1 Thess. 3:6): ‘When Timotheus brought us good tidings of your faith,’ etc. [euaggelisamenou hmin]. So also in (Rev. 10:7): ‘As he hath declared [euhggelisen = made a comforting declaration] to his servants the prophets.’ (See also Gal. 3:8).

But the question still recurs, Where have we in the New Testament any allusion to such good news, pleasing intelligence, or comforting declarations, made to any Christian confessors or martyrs after their death? The apostle seems to speak of some fact familiarly known to the persons to whom he wrote, and which he had only to allude to in order that they should at once recognise his meaning. Now, we actually have a historical representation in the New Testament in which we find all these circumstances present. We have a scene depicted in which Christian martyrs, who had been condemned and put to death in the flesh by the judgment of man, appeal to the justice of God against their persecutors, and a comforting declaration is brought to them, after their death, giving them the assurance of speedy vindication and of a glorious heavenly recompense.

We allude of course to the striking representation given in the Apocalypse of the martyred souls under the alter, appealing to God for the vindication of their cause against their persecutors and murderers—‘them that dwell in the land’—and which is thus described in (Rev. 6:9-11):—

‘And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the alter the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held; and they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth [the land]? And a white robe was given to every one of them; and it was said unto them [erreyh = euhggelisyh] that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also, and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.’

This seems exactly to meet all the requirements of the case. Here we find the nekroi, the Christian dead; they were judged or condemned in the flesh, by man’s judgment, or ‘according to men;’ they had been put to death ‘for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.’ We find a comforting declaration made to them in their disembodied state, and we have the lacuna in the epistle filled up in the apocalyptic vision, for we are informed what led to this euaggelion being brought to them; they are assured that in a little while their cause should be vindicated, according to their prayer; meanwhile ‘a white robe,’ the symbol of purity and victory, ‘is given unto every one of them, ’ which is surely equivalent to their being justified by the divine judgment.

But this correspondence, striking as it is, is not the whole; the apostle’s statement is not only elucidated by the Apocalypse on the one hand, but by the gospel on the other. Most commentators have noticed the obvious relation between the scene of the martyrs’ souls under the altar in the apocalyptic vision and the remarkable parable of our Lord in (Luke 18); but so far as we have observed, none of them have seized the true analogy between the parable and the vision. In the seventh and eighth verses of that chapter we find the moral of the parable, ‘And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth [in the land]?’ The parable and the vision are, in fact, counterparts of each other, and both serve to explain the passage in this epistle of St. Peter. As in the Apocalypse, so in the parable, we find all the elements of the statement in the epistle. We have Christian disciples suffering unjustly; condemned in the flesh by man’s judgment; appealing to God to judge their cause; we have the assurance of their speedy vindication by God, and we find in the gospel an additional feature which brings it into more perfect correspondence with the statement in the epistle; for it is evidently suggested that this vindication is to take place at the Parousia, —‘when the Son of man cometh.’9

Lastly, we may point out the intimate connection between the statement of the apostle as thus interpreted and the argument which he is carrying on. It was appropriate to assure persecuted believers that their cause was safe in the hands of God; that, even if called to suffer unto blood and unto death by the unjust sentence of men, God would vindicate them speedily, for He was about to summon their persecutors before His tribunal. This was the lesson of the parable of the importunate widow, and perhaps still more of the vision of the martyrs’ souls under the altar, to which the language of the apostle seems more particularly to allude, —‘For to this end a comforting declaration was brought even to the dead, that though they had been condemned in the flesh by the unjust judgment of men, yet they should in their spirit enjoy eternal life, according to the righteous judgment of God.’

This interpretation assumes that the Apocalypse was written and widely circulated before the destruction of Jerusalem. It is a reflection upon the critical acumen of many eminent English commentators that they should have leaned so long upon the broken reed of tradition in regard to the date of the Apocalypse. The internal evidence of that book ought to have prevented the possibility of their being misled by the authority of Irenaeus. But we must reserve any further remarks on this subject until we come to the consideration of the Apocalypse.


1 Pet. 4:12, 13—‘Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery ordeal which is taking place for a trial to you, as though some strange thing were happening unto you; but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, that when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.’

These words clearly indicate that Christians everywhere were at this time passing through a severe sifting and testing—‘a fiery ordeal.’ And not merely a fiery trial, but the trial, long predicted and expected, viz. the great tribulation which was to precede the Parousia. The apostles warned the disciples that the ‘must, through much tribulation, enter into the kingdom of God’. (Acts 14:22) They had themselves been taught this by the Lord Himself, especially in His prophetic discourse.

The predicted tribulation had evidently set in; they were actually passing through the fire. It is impossible here not to be reminded of the words of St. Paul, —‘It shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is’.(1 Cor. 3:13)10 It is highly probable that the fierce persecution under Nero was raging at this juncture, and we have good authority for believing that it extended beyond Rome to the provinces of the Empire.

Another indication of time is found in (1 Pet. 4:13), —‘ That when his glory shall be revealed.’ The Parousia is always represented as bringing relief from persecution, and recompense to the suffering people of God. We have already seen that the glory was ‘ready to be revealed, ’ and we shall find the same assurance repeated in (1 Pet. 5:1).


1 Pet. 4:17-19—‘For the time is come when the judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? Wherefore let them suffer according to the will of God, commit the keeping of their souls to him in well-doing, as unto a faithful Creator.’

It is worthy of remark how different the tone of St. Peter in speaking of the day of the Lord is from St. Paul’s in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians. That day of which St. Paul speaks as not yet present, and as not possible until the apostasy first appeared, is declared by St. Peter to be come. The catastrophe was now imminent. ‘God was ready to judge the quick and the dead;’ ‘the time was come for judgment to begin.’ The significance of these words will be apparent if we consider that this epistle was written close upon the outbreak of the Jewish war, if not after its actual commencement.

That this is ‘the judgment which must begin at the house of God’ there can scarcely be a doubt. There is a manifest allusion in the language of the apostle to the vision seen by the prophet. (Ezek. 9) The prophet sees a band of armed men commissioned to go through the city (Jerusalem), and to slay all, whether old or young, who had not the seal of God upon their foreheads. The ministers of vengeance are commanded to begin the work of judgment at the house of God, —‘Begin at my sanctuary.’ The apostle sees this vision as about to be fulfilled in reality. The judgment must begin at the House of God, and the time is come. It may be a question whether by ‘the house of God’ the apostle intends the temple of Jerusalem, as the prophecy in Ezekiel would suggest, or the spiritual house of God, the Christian church. It may be that both ideas were present to his mind, as well they might, for both were being verified at the moment. The persecution of the church of Christ had already begun, as the epistle testifies, and the circle of blood and fire was narrowing around the doomed city and temple of Jerusalem.

It is perfectly clear that all this is spoken with reference to a particular and impending event, a catastrophe which was on the eve of taking place; and there is not other explanation possible than that which lies visible and palpable on the page of history, the judgment of the guilty covenant nation, with the destruction of the house of God and the dissolution of the Jewish economy.

The following remarks of Dr. John Brown well express the sense of this passage:—

‘There seems here a reference to a particular judgment or trial, that the primitive Christians had reason to expect. When we consider that this epistle was written within a short time of the commencement of that awful scene of judgment which terminated in the destruction of the ecclesiastical and civil polity of the Jews, and which our Lord had so minutely predicted, we can scarcely doubt of the reference of the apostle’s expression. After having specified wars and rumours of wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes, as symptoms of "the beginning of sorrows," our Lord adds, "Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you; and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake." "They shall deliver you up to councils and to synagogues, and shall be beaten," etc..’ (Matt. 24:9-13, 22)

‘This is the judgment which, though to fall most heavily on the Holy Land, was plainly to extend to wherever Jews and Christians were to be found, ‘for where the carcase was, there were the eagles to be gathered together;’ which was to begin at the house of God, and which was to be so severe that ‘the righteous should scarcely,’ i.e. not without difficulty, ‘be saved.’ They only who stood the trial should be saved, and many would not stand the trial. All the truly righteous should be saved; but many who seemed to be righteous would not endure to the end, and so should not be saved, etc. Some have supposed the reference to be to the Neronian persecution, which by a few years preceded the calamities connected with the Jewish wars and destruction of Jerusalem.—Dr. John Brown on 1 Peter, vol. ii. p. 357.’


1 Pet. 5:1—‘The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory about to be revealed.’

1 Pet. 5:4—‘And when the chief Shepherd is manifested, ye shall receive the unfading crown of glory.’

Everything in this chapter is indicative of the nearness of the consummation. This is the motive to every duty, to fidelity, to humility, to vigilance, to endurance. The glory is soon to be revealed [thv melloushv apokaluptesyai doxhv]; the unfading crown is to be received by the faithful undershepherds when the chief Shepherd is manifested; the sufferings of the persecuted church are to continue only ‘a little while.’ (1 Pet. 5:10) All is suggestive of a great and happy consummation which is on the very eve of arriving. Would the apostle speak of an expected crown of glory as a motive to present faithfulness if it were contingent on an uncertain and possibly far distant event? Yet if the chief Shepherd has not yet been manifested, the crown of glory has not yet been received. It is quite clear that to the apostle’s view the revelation of the glory, the manifestation of the chief Shepherd, the reception of the unfading crown, the end of suffering, were all in the immediate future. If he was mistaken in this, is he trustworthy in anything?

On this passage (1 Pet. 5:11) Alford observes:—

‘It would not be clear from this passage alone whether St. Peter regarded the coming of the Lord as likely to occur in the life of these his readers or not; but as interpreted by the analogy of his other expressions on the same subject, it would appear that he did.’11

Doubtless he did; and so did St. Paul, and St. James, and St. John, and all the apostolic church; and they believed it on the highest authority, the word of their divine Master and Lord.12

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1.  Greek Testament, in loc.

2.  Ellicott’s Essay in Aids to Faith.

3.  Ellicott’s Essay in Aids to Faith.

4.  ‘Daniel Heinsius, in order to the elucidation of these expressions, has adduced some passages from the apocryphal Book of Enoch, in which the impious giants before the flood, and in the days of Noah, the progeny of the sons of God and the daughters of men— pneumata ponhra, evil spirits—are declared to have been bound and cast into prison, there to be reserved for the judgment of the last day: "Bind them, says the Supreme Being to the angel Michael, for seventy generations, in the low places of the earth, until the day of their judgment, until the day of the completion, when the judgment of eternity shall be consummated."—Vide. Rosenmuller, Schol. in lor.’—( Biblical:notes, by J. J. Gurney, pp. 211, 212). This is a curious passage from a curious book, the problem of which has not yet been solved. Seventy generations, reckoning thirty-five years to a generation, would be 2450 years, which would tally with the period between the deluge and the destruction of Jerusalem, according to the received chronology.

5.  Greek Testament, in loc.

6.  Horseley’s Sermons on 1 Pet. 3:18-20

7.  Stieger’s commentary on 1 Peter, Biblical Cabinet, No. xiv. in loc.

8.  Greek Testament, Notes, in loc.

9.  It may perhaps be urged as an objection that if the apostle’s statement had reference to the parable in Luke 18., or to the vision in Rev. 6., we should expect to find him saying, ‘For this cause the comforting declaration was made to the dead, that though condemned in the flesh by man’s judgment, yet, ’ etc. This is no doubt just; but it is pointed out by Steiger that this is precisely the force of the construction as it stands. That acute grammarian, without any reference to the interpretation which we have advanced, has this observation:—‘ The whole construction is to be taken as if it had been’ ira kriyentev men [that is, ‘that though, they had been condemned,’ etc.] Again, he remarks, with fine discrimination, ‘kriywsi marks the judgment as past, zwsi the living as present and continuous. This change of the participle into a finite verb, only places the two acts more asunder, while it lends to the first a greater substantiality.’ (Steiger on 1 Peter, vol. ii.p. 260, Biblical Cabinet, No. xiv.)

10.  There is a marked resemblance in the language of the apostle to the words of the prophet Malachi, in describing the coming of the Lord to His temple. ‘He is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap; and he shall sit as a refiner and. purifier of silver, ’ etc. (Mal. 3:2, 3) The word purwsiv in 1 Pet. 4:12 refers to the process of smelting or refining metals. (See Alford, Greek Testament, in loc.; Dr. John Brown on 1 Peter, vol. ii. p. 333.)

11.  Greek Testament, in loc.

12.  For the discussion of the question "What is the Babylon of 1 Pet. 5:13?" see note 137.

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