What does the scripture mean that Jesus, “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet. 3:19)? In the context, Peter was stressing that Jesus suffered for us, “the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). The context of this passage is Jesus suffering for us. Jesus still preaches to the dead in sin through His words and life in scripture, through the words of His Apostles and prophets, and by those today, who speak these words. Jesus has delivered “us”, believers, from captivity and prison in death and sin. We were the “spirits in prison”, who are described as “they formerly did not obey” (1 Pet. 3:20).
The following passages also prove that those in prison are sinners in the world without Christ. First Peter 4:6 states, “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.” The verses before 1 Peter 4:6 show that those who have died with Christ cease from sin and are to live in the mind of Christ (1 Pet. 4:1-2). Therefore, Christians no longer live the rest of their time in the flesh for lust since they once spent enough of the their past lifetime in debauchery (1 Pet. 4:3-4). The Gospel was preached for men to live with Christ. When? This is while we live in the flesh on this earth in which we were once captive and imprisoned.
Therefore, Jesus said, “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18).