Saturday, 2 August 2014

Soul and Spirit

      The word “spirit” is translated from the Greek pneuma and the Hebrew ruah and is used in different ways in the Bible, including the following: wind (John 3:8), breath (2 Thess. 2:8), both righteous and wicked spirit beings (Matt. 8:16; Heb. 1:14), the Holy Spirit (Matt. 4:1), and the inner person (Acts 7:59; 17:16). With reference to human beings, it is the part of us that is not subject to physical death, that is made in the image of God, and will live forever. Since man is created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27) and God is spirit (John 4:24) and spirit does not have flesh and bones (Luke 24:39), there must be more to man than just his physical nature. The human spirit (1 Cor. 2:11; Acts 7:59; 17:16) comes from and returns to God (Heb. 12:9, 23; James 2:26; John 19:30; Eccl. 12:7).
     The word “soul,” translated from the Greek psuchê and the Hebrew nephesh, is a generic term with various meanings depending on how it is used in any given text. For example, how would the English word “bark” be defined? It depends on whether one is speaking about the ‘bark’ of a dog or the ‘bark’ of a tree. Similarly, the definitions of the words psuchê and nephesh depend on the context in which they are used. Biblical usage includes the following: a synonym for “person” (Acts 2:41; 1 Pet. 3:20) or other living creatures (Gen. 1:20-25; Rev. 16:3); the physical life-force of both animals and humans (Psa. 78:50; Lev. 24:17-18); and a synonym for the inner person or immortal spirit (Matt. 10:28; 16:26; Acts 2:27; Rev. 6:9; Jas. 1:21; 1 Pet. 1:22). Note the parallelism in Psalm 77:2-3: “My soul refused to be comforted . . . my spirit was overwhelmed” (NKJV, cf. Psa. 143:4-7; Luke 1:46-47).
     What appears to be a distinction between the soul and spirit in the Bible may simply be a literary device used to emphasize a particular point. For example, Hebrews 4:12 is probably not trying to make a distinction between the “soul and spirit” any more than there is a discernible difference between the “thoughts” and “intents” of the heart. The point is that the word of God is capable of cutting through to the most inner and secret places of a person’s being. Instead of making a theological argument on the nature of man in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, it seems that a fervent prayer is simply being offered that the whole person be preserved blameless (compare Matthew 22:37). At the same time, since the words “soul” and “spirit” are used in a variety of ways, there is no difficulty in considering a distinction between the two as long as the reality of neither is denied.
--Kevin L. Moore

Originally appearing in The Exhorter (April-June 1999) and republished in The Summit Chronicle 10:1 (May 2008): 13. 

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