In this short pamphlet we look at the terms body, soul and spirit to understand what they mean and how they interrelate. In doing so we will see that the scriptural view of human beings is of everyone as an undivided whole. This is in stark contrast to Platonic thinking which greatly influences our society today.
We begin by looking at Platonic thought to see how it contrasts with Paul’s teaching on the unity of man in the scriptures. We then move on to see how the terms ‘body’ ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are used before briefly commenting on the work of the Holy Spirit.
Platonic Thinking Contrasted with Pauline thought
In the Platonic mindset, matter is thought of as evil with the soul being trapped in the prison-house of the body, with Plato gaining these ideas from a philosophical movement called Pythagoreanism. In this view the body is a hindrance to the soul’s attempts to move towards truth and virtue.
In our modern world this view of the soul being trapped in a body is one reason why some people think that a man can be trapped in a woman’s body and vice-versa, which, as we shall see, is not a biblical view. The soul is not trapped in a body.
The body is not evil
Many Christians wrongly believe that Paul regards the flesh (as in our physical body) as evil, little realising that they are following the lines of Greek thinking.
Paul never regards the flesh as being evil in and of itself with the true picture being that the whole person has become (due to the fall) the vehicle for sin.
The Greek word for body/flesh (soma/sarx) literally means ‘the substance of all that man has become and refers to that which is transient and passing. For example, Peter, in his letter, contrasts the transient nature of man to the everlasting word of God in 1 Peter 1:24-25 with words that point to the writings of Isaiah as well as the Psalmist: -
“A voice says, "Cry out." And I said, "What shall I cry?" "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever." Isaiah 40:6-8
In the Psalms David contrasts man’s brief lifespan with fellowship and everlasting life with God in this way…
“As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord's love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children's children — with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.” Psalm 103:15-18
Due to sin and separation from God we all face physical death and in this way the body can be seen as transient and passing – its present form will pass away. Yet those who have placed their trust in Christ know that there will be a bodily resurrection for as Paul writes…
“The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” 1 Cor 15:42-44.
Scripture speaks of a physical resurrection to eternal life for those who are in Christ Jesus. Jesus physically rose from the dead and all who come to Him in repentance and faith will one day be like Him. We will be the same person and yet different in that the effects of sin and the fall will no longer be present and all that we are meant to be will be restored in fellowship with Him. John speaks about this in his letter to the churches where we read…
“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” 1 John 3:2.
In a very simplistic way we could say that right now we are, in one sense, the same person as our two-year-old self, yet also very different. In the resurrection we will be the same yet different.
A point of confusion?
As already stated, there will be a physical resurrection, yet confusion can sometimes arise when we read the following verse from 1 Corinthians which, at first glance, seems to contradict what we have been saying…
“Flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the perishable.” 1 Corinthians 15:50.
Paul’s condemnation of the flesh (sarx) in the above verse (see also Rom 7:5) does not relate to the human body as if it were something evil. What Paul is speaking of is the fruit of our actions outside of Christ and therefore that which is transient and passing.
Paul is speaking of the failure of sinful man to fulfil God’s perfect law of love in his own strength. Man oversteps the mark in seeing himself as an adequate reference point as to how life is lived, and yet also fails to reach the heights of life and fulfil the law of God which speaks of loving God and fellow man with unconditional love (agape). In light of this there is clearly nothing that is in and of self (flesh and blood) that is adequate enough to pay the price for sin and entrance into the Kingdom of God. This is what Paul means when he says, “flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom.”
It is only through Jesus, the perfect man, that we gain eternal life which will involve a future physical resurrection as well as renewed life here and now. As has already been noted, through Christ the body that is sown perishable is raised imperishable (1 Cor 15:42).
“Christian theologians insist that the resurrection bodies will be real human bodies, however spiritualised and transformed, and not properly astral or celestial bodies, thus remaining faithful to the Jewish-Christian tradition and avoiding a complete slipping back into the spatial otherworldliness of the cosmic religion.”
A. Armstrong and R Markus, Christian Faith and Greek Philosophy p 47.
We now move on to look at the term’s ‘soul’ and ‘spirit,’ yet before doing so pause to look at the Hebrew view concerning man’s makeup.
The Hebrew View of Man’s Makeup
In creating man (Gen 2:7), God breathed Spirit (breath) into the dust of the ground and man became a living body-soul-spirit. Unlike Greek thought the Bible does not view man as a body with a soul-spirit floating about inside; we are not trapped in ourselves, we are one. For example, when we are tired it can affect our mental well-being and when we are worried it can affect our physical well-being. In all that we do the whole person is affected.
As already mentioned, the emphasis throughout scripture is on the overall unity of man as created by God. Man’s makeup is one yet spoken of in different ways according to the context. We will be looking at this later.
“Man is not now a soul and then again a body. Man is a single being, a self, an ‘I’ or a ‘you’. Scientifically man’s integrated nature becomes apparent in the study of emotions. The individual receives a message from a loved one or bad news, or he tells a lie. Automatically, in normal circumstances, his heart beats faster or slower, his breathing amplitude and rate change, and adrenalin may be discharged into the bloodstream. These and other events are then spoken of as psychosomatic. But man remains one being.”
Prof S. Grenz, Theology for The Community Of God.
In Genesis 2:7 we read that God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” In this verse the word ‘being’ translates the Hebrew word (nepesh) meaning ‘soul’ and refers to the whole of man: body, breath and mind.
“In the Hebrew mind, we are composed of a multiple of entities: flesh, bone, breath, mind, emotion, organs, etc. The soul is the whole of the person, the unity of the body, breath, and mind. It is not some immaterial spiritual entity; it is you, all of you, your whole being or self. The idea of the soul is used in our own language such as when the number of persons on an aircraft or ship are identified as souls, as in “one hundred souls on board.”
J. Benner in The Living Words Vol 1 page 50.
Adam was created as a unified person with his body-soul-spirit acting as one. A pale illustration that may help to get this point across is as follows. Think of a cake with all the ingredients mixed together. There are different ingredients yet there is one cake, the sum total of all the ingredients.
Man has been created to know God
In Genesis we read that the creation of the animal kingdom (Gen 1:26) is different from the creation of man. God made wild animals according to their kinds and livestock according to their kinds whilst in contrast to this God breathes into the dust of the ground and makes man in His image with the call to rule over His creation (Gen 1:27).
Being made in the image of God means that we have been made to live a certain way, as is the case in a father-child relationship. We have been created to know and benefit from the love of a loving father whose law is the law of unconditional love. As those made in the image of God we have been created to receive His love and to share this love with all those around us. Therefore, before anything else man is a receiver, a being who has been created to know the love of God on a deep and intimate level.
In all that we do we are called to act as He acts in grace, mercy, and loving-kindness for this is also what it means to be made in the image of God. The image of God is revealed in a servant-hearted attitude of care and love for others. When we seek to live this way, we find the power of a loving heavenly father helping us exercise dominion over this world. This dominion is the shaping and moulding of creation in a way that reflects God’s desire for all to receive blessing. This is in clear contrast to those who seek to dominate their environment and those around them.
We all have value
Due to sin we have a distorted view of self and life around us; we forget who we are and often categorise those around us without understanding their true identity. For example, across the world there are many individuals or societies that see those around them as of little value, yet God never looks down on anyone in this way.
There is no one who should ever think of themselves as ‘a nobody’ because Jesus sees all people as precious. Yes, many have become distorted, corrupted and rebellious, but they are still human beings who are made in the image of God.
When we look at Jesus’ ministry, we see that He did not view a person first of all as a Pharisee, prostitute, Samaritan or tax collector, because this speaks of what they have been identified with by way of birth, choice or the labels and actions of others. Yet no matter what a person has become, the simple yet powerful truth still remains: everyone is created in the image of God. Though man is a fallen being we see, in Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection, how willing God is to reach out to us.
“Life with God, Jesus said, is love making itself perfect, natural affection carried to its farthest reach, selfless devotion made normal instead of exceptional.”
T.E. Jessop in ‘Law and Love’ page 61.
The difference between man and the animal kingdom is not an added component but that God has given spiritual abilities to the body-soul-spirit which are different from that of the animal kingdom. The spirit of a person speaks of the driving force that empowers life and, in a worldly sense, can speak of our drive to dominate our environment where we often feel insecure, yet paradoxically exhibit pride in what we achieve.
We are spiritual beings in that we are called to relate to God and draw strength from Him in all that we do. Therefore, being spiritual does not refer to some higher experience or out of body feeling through transcending life as we know it. To put it simply, it is nothing of the sort.
True spirituality is full humanity – humanity as it was originally created to be, living in harmony with a heavenly Father. In Jesus, the perfect man, we see just what this full humanity is like: intimacy with the father and a sharing of this relationship of love with all those around Him.
For example, in a world where being invited to a meal or sharing a meal was to be afforded a high honour and seen as a sign of acceptance, we find Jesus eating with many who had no merit whatsoever in the eyes of many. In the way He reached out to these ‘unmerited’ ones we see a love that does not define life in worldly terms. Yes Jesus ate with Pharisees, prostitutes, Samaritans and tax collectors, to name but a few, yet, as we pointed out earlier, in reality they were men and women made in the image of God and therefore to be treated with the utmost of respect. The fruit of man’s spirit (breath) is seen in what they had become for one reason or another, yet the fruit of the truly spiritual man (Jesus) is seen in His willingness to reach across all man-made divides with the offer of life.
“Spirituality in human beings is not an extra or ‘superior’ mode of existence. It’s not a hidden stream of separate reality, a separate life running parallel to our bodily existence. It does not consist in special ‘inward’ acts even though it has an inner aspect. It is, rather, a relationship of our embodied selves to God that has the natural and irrepressible effect of making us alive to the Kingdom of God – here and now in the material world.”
Dr M. Jeeves in, ‘Mind Fields’, ‘Reflections on the Science of Mind and Brain p 130.
The terms soul (Heb: nephesh, life, a breathing creature with thoughts, emotions: Greek: psyche, to breath) and ‘spirit’ (Heb: ruach, wind, breath, Greek: pneuma wind:pheo – to blow, ekpneo – to breath out, empneo – to pant) are often used interchangeably in scripture and overlap in meaning. For example, at death scripture sometimes speaks of the soul departing (eg Gen 35:18 – of Rachel and Isaiah 53:11 - of Jesus) and at other times sees death as the returning of the spirit to God. Hence David prays with words that are later quoted by Jesus at Calvary, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:5; Luke 23:46). Another example of this interchangeability of terms is found when looking at John 12:27 where Jesus says, “Now is my soul troubled” and John 13:21 (a similar context) where we read that Jesus was troubled in spirit.
“When reference is made to man in his relation to God ‘ruach’ is the term most likely to be used…but when reference is made to man in relation to other men, or man living the common life of men, then ‘nephesh’ is most likely, if a psychical term is required. In both cases the whole man was involved.”
Dr W.D. Stacely, in The Pauline View of Man p 90.
In light of all that we have been saying we see that man does not have a soul-spirit in him like some sort of disembodied spirit. Neither is the body evil or the soul simply an intermediary for a higher spirit which touches the world through physical bodies. Neither is being spiritual anything to do with out of body, transcendental experiences. We are body-soul-spirit, created to receive from our heavenly Father and share this relationship we have with Him as His image-bearers. In sharing this relationship, we find our true self and see that spirituality is about full humanity; humanity as it should be in deep abiding relationship with God.
The danger of living in our own strength
In our own breath (spirit – driving power) we may know about God yet still carry on in our own strength as did Jacob, for example.
Jacob’s name means ‘heel catcher,’ this being a Hebrew idiom speaking of one who will not allow the enemy to win. In order to become Israel (meaning, ‘Prince’, ‘one who prevails with God’) Jacob had to acknowledge that he was a man who walked in his own strength (hence Jacob) and that he needed God’s help in all things (Gen 32:27-8). It was then that he was called ‘Israel’ meaning Prince, one who prevails with God and who is therefore a man open to the leading and empowerment of the Spirit of God. As believers we are called to keep in step with the Spirit because we live by the Spirit (Gal 5:25).
God sees the motives of the heart
As we have been saying, man is a unity, yet there are verses which at first glance seem to point to man being made up of separate parts with one such verse being as follows…
“For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
In the human body joints and marrow do not come together because joints speak of where the bones meet whilst the marrow speaks of the portion that is in the centre of the bone. Therefore, there is no specific place where joints and marrow meet as indeed there is no place where soul and spirit meet. What Paul is emphasising in Hebrews 4:16 is that God knows the motives of the heart and why we do the things we do – he is simply saying that there is nothing hidden from God and knows what is from the driving force of man and that which is sanctioned by the Spirit of God.
All of us can struggle and times and sometimes inadvertently and sometimes deliberately go off in our own strength. Whatever the reason, the truth is that no matter what has happened we can come back to God and the leading of the Spirit if we are open to asking for both forgiveness and help. In light of this we now move on to look at the only two places in the Old Testament where the Spirit of God is called the Holy Spirit and do so in order to encourage us to ask God for His help in all things, no matter how badly we have got it wrong.
The Holy Spirit
God is the life-breather and ressurector of broken lives with the Holy Spirit being the special breath of God (speaking of Trinitarian intimacy) who empowers us to follow a set path – the path of life. This life in the Spirit is clearly seen in Jesus who, through agape love, came so that we could have life to the full (John 10:10). Through Christ and Christ alone we are given a new heart and new spirit (breath/wind), this being the ultimate fulfilment of Ezek 36:26, 27.
The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity and does not come with a programme that is independent of the Father and the Son. Instead He brings about the purposes of the Father through the Son and is spoken of as ‘the ‘Spirit of Truth (John 15:26; 16:13). In the actions of the Father, Son and Spirit, we see intimacy and love within the Trinity – and we see sacrificial giving.
The Holy Spirit in Psalm fifty-one
“Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.”
David had been caught out as an adulterer and murderer, and in repentance and faith comes to God with (in worldly terms) an outrageous request for help. He acknowledges His failings and asks that God does not take the anointing of Kingship away from Him.
In the psalm we note that David’s request is not based on anything good within himself but purely on the nature and character of God. He knows how badly he has let God down as an image-bearer hence the words, ‘Against you and you only have I sinned’ (Ps 51:4). David also knows that God is merciful and seeks His mercy and compassion (Ps 51:1).
In mercy we do not receive what we do deserve, whilst in grace we receive what we don’t deserve. Through repentance and faith David finds forgiveness, speaking of a washing over and cancelling of records of wrongs and lifting out of the place of darkness into renewed fellowship with God. The word mercy ties in with ‘kindness’ which speaks of bowing the head to look at the plight and suffering of another – even an enemy.
In mercy God lifts those who deserve nothing – lifting them out of the mud and mire of their own actions and bringing them to a place of safety, forgiveness, and reconciliation – the work of the Compassionate One.
Our God is a compassionate God with compassion speaking of a deep yearning desire to get alongside others in their pain and agony, even when that pain and agony is self-inflicted. In grace, mercy, compassion and love, God has stooped low in Jesus to lift us out of condemnation and into the place of restoration and restored fellowship.
David asks God to create a pure heart in Him and renew a steadfast spirit within him and in scripture the heart speaks of the inner person (the mind, will and emotions). The word ‘create’ speaks of God’s ability (In the beginning God created) and in His request David is asking God to perform an act that only He can perform: to purify David’s heart. This comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit the special (holy = set apart as special) breath (Spirit) of God.
The mention of the Holy Spirit (special breathe of God) in Isaiah
“Yet they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. So he turned and became their enemy and he himself fought against them. Then his people recalled the days of old, the days of Moses and his people — where is he who brought them through the sea, with the shepherd of his flock? Where is he…?” Isaiah 63:10-11.
In Isaiah 63 we find a great contrast between God’s blessing and God’s judgement although even in judgement there is incredible grace. This is because the purpose of God’s judgement is to call to account and restore harmony and peace to broken relationships between man and God. If God were not to intervene then man would continue his downward spiral to a lost eternity for we are so often blind to our accountability to God and damage that wrong-doing does in our lives and the lives of those around us.
In coming against His people, Isaiah speaks of God as Israel’s enemy. An enemy is an individual or group or even a belief system that seeks to conquer and destroy. Isaiah speaks of God becoming Israel’s enemy (l-owyeeb: adversary) in that He seeks to destroy all that they had become by way of the world. This is done so that Israel would have the opportunity to return to the sheepfold of the One who loves man whilst hates what man has become by way of the world.
In God’s words and actions Israel becomes aware of her sinfulness, weakness, and failure and, like David, cries out to God for mercy and help. This cry is totally grounded in God’s nature and character as they call to mind the One who led His people from slavery into freedom, from Egypt into the land of blessing. Through God’s intervening judgements Israel were brought to an awareness of having grieved the special breath of God (the Holy Spirit) and in remembering all that God had done were able to reach out with unclenched hands to receive grace, mercy and loving-kindness yet again.
We belong to God
“…But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God…” 1 Peter 2:9.
In the above verse the word ‘belonging’ is made up of two Greek words. The first (eis) indicates a point reached or entered. The second word making up the English word ‘belonging’ is ‘peripoieesin’ which literally means ‘to make around’ – to surround as with a circle, for example, this indicating ownership.
Through Christ we are surrounded by the love of God as His unique possession.
He is the “Lord bless you and keep you” One of Numbers 6:24, the One who exercises great care over our lives; the One who reaches out and attends to us. In Psalm 121 David speaks of looking to God; looking to the One who protects him, with God’s protection being mentioned six times in the psalm.
God is the One who protects as does a Shepherd who places a corral of thorns around his flock in order to protect them at night. In Jesus we have the One who wore a crown of thorns standing in our place so that we could come into His protective care and blessing.
In a recent communication by the Christian organization, Open Doors, we have the following prayer which speaks of trusting in the care and protection of the Lord even in the most difficult of circumstances. It was written by a young man living in Syria with his wife and child.
“Thank you, Lord, for all that you have done and are still doing. I trust your will is always good and finally you will turn evil to good. I know you are not silent but patient…But how long will it take, Lord?
I am looking forward to a new beginning amongst my people. My own desire is that evil will stop and that we see your glory shine again in the darkness. I’m longing for healing, for restoration. I cry out to you, Lord. I’m longing for a new generation to take their place in your kingdom, to be the light and salt of this nation. Help me to see my role in this transformation. Protect me and be with me. Carry me, day by day. Amen.
The promises of God are “yes” in Christ
“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God.” 2 Corinthians 1:20
In Christ (en Christo) is mentioned ninety-one times in the N.T. letters and speaks of Christ being the enabling power – the sole reason we can enter into new life in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Both the church (1 Thess 1:1; Gal 1:22) and the individual (Phil 4:21) are spoken of as “In Christ.” In Christ we are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17) and find freedom (Gal 2:3-5) to live, with all the promises that God makes being confirmed and guaranteed in and because of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 1:20).
Our heavenly Father knows us personally and we are loved with an everlasting love. He is the One who hears every ‘Hagar’ in the desert (Gen 16:7, 10-11; 21:17-20), does not forget the small bird sold for pennies and knows the number of hairs on our head (Luke 12:6-7). His presence is with us because of Jesus (Heb 7:22), the ‘No one can take them from my hands’ One (John 10:28) and His power is experienced in our lives through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16), who is described as ‘another counsellor’ (John 14:16). The word ‘another’ speaks of one who is exactly the same by way of nature and character as Jesus, with the word ‘counsellor’ revealing the Holy Spirit as another advocate. He defends us against the work and accusations of darkness and empowers us to live out the truth and His work is perfect in every way.
In Jesus we see just how much we are loved and living from His presence means that we accept who we are in Him (2 Cor 5:17, Col 3:12, 1 Pet 2:9) no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in. We accept that we are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and, through Christ, adopted into His family (Eph 1:5). We are the ‘twice born ones’ and are sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30) who is spoken of as a deposit (Eph 1:14) guaranteeing the life to come.
We are empowered by His Spirit (1 Cor 3:16, 2 Cor 3:18) insofar as we are open to His guidance. In Christ and Christ alone we are strengthened by His power in our inner being (Eph 3:16-20). We are kingdom people who are called to love one another in and by the Spirit (Col 1:18) whose fruit (Gal 5:22f) and gifting (eg 1 Cor 12) are given to edify, encourage, uplift and support us as we reach out to others with all that has been done by God.