JULY / AUGUST 2008
VOLUME 9, ISSUE 4
A R T I C L E S
Are humans more than living bodies?
"I used to think Jesus' miracles were like the healings the disciples did," my friend Rosalie admitted to me as I held the phone with one hand and plucked old blossoms off my patio plants with the other, "you know, supernatural manifestations He was able to do because of external power from the Holy Spirit."
"Exactly!" I exclaimed, pacing now as I followed her train of thought.
"I didn't think of Him doing miracles by His own internal power because He was God," she continued.
Indeed. We both realized we had believed that Jesus had no advantage we don't have. Sure, He was "fully God", but we had grown up believing that He set aside all His "God-power" so He could live exactly like one of us. In fact, we had been taught that He had to depend upon the Holy Spirit in order not to sin, that because He as one of us kept from sinning by relying on the Holy Spirit, so could we.1
The significance of "spirit"
What, then, made Jesus different from everyone else? How could I know He was God? What was the source of Jesus' power? How did He keep from sinning? Moreover, did Jesus keep from sinning because He was sinless, or was He sinless because He managed not to sin?
Over the past few years I have realized that the Adventist understanding of "spirit" underlies all the confusion over Jesus' nature and His sinlessness and over the meaning of our being made in God's image.
As I have moved out of Adventism, I have discovered, contrary to what I formerly understood, that the Sabbath and its role in end-time events is really not Adventism's most defining mark. Their definition of "spirit" is what lies under all Adventist understanding. The Adventist doctrine of "spirit equals breath" is foundational because it defines the Adventist understanding of who humans are and of who Jesus is.
The Hebrew word ruach and the Greek word pneuma are the words underlying the English word "spirit". Literally these words refer to wind, breath, or air. In biblical context, however, they usually mean something different. The word ruach frequently referred to God's divine power in the Old Testament, although it sometimes also meant the human spirit. In the New Testament, however, the word pneuma occurs 379 times. Of those occurrences, 250 refer to the Holy Spirit. Forty times the word denotes the part of the human personality that can have a relationship with God. The rest of the word's appearances refer to demonic, unclean, evil, or heavenly spirits. In spite of the root words' literal meanings of breath, air, or wind, their contextual use, particularly that of pneuma in the New Testament, clearly denotes a non-physical yet real component of humans, the essential nature of God, and angelic beings.2
Begin with God
Both Ellen and James White taught that both Jesus and God had literal physical bodies. Ellen wrote, "I have often seen the lovely Jesus, that He is a person. I asked Him if His Father was a person and had a form like Himself. Said Jesus, 'I am the express image of My Father's person.'"3 James argued that "the old unscriptural Trinitarian creed" caused "spiritualizers" [those who declared that God is "Spirit"] to dispose or deny "the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ."4 Implicit in this argument is White's distinction between Jesus and the Lord God as well as his clear denial of the Trinity. The Whites also maintained that the doctrine of God being "without body or parts" as described in the Methodist creed 5 was a heresy that "took away all the glory of heaven" and "burned up in the fire of spiritualism" the "lovely person of Jesus." 6
The Adventist notion that God has a body was also implicit in Ellen White's later works, The Great Controversy and Education. "In the beginning, man was created in the likeness of God, not only in character, but in form and feature." 7 She further wrote, "When Adam came from the Creator's hand, he bore, in his physical, mental, and spiritual nature, a likeness to his Maker. 'God created man in His own image.'" 8 "They bore in outward resemblance the likeness of their Maker." 9
When Adventists think about being created in God's image, often their understanding of this idea includes physically resembling some literal physical qualities of God. Many Adventists assume that since Jesus became a man, we were created in His image. At the time of creation, however, Jesus had not yet become incarnate. In fact, at His incarnation Jesus was made in every way like we are (Hebrews 2:17). His body was made like ours. Certain contemporary non-biblical organizations such as the Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah's Witnesses also teach that God has a physical body.10 The Bible, however, teaches something quite different.
When He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus declared the truth about God—and about humanity. The woman asked Jesus where the proper location for true worship was, and Jesus told her that physical designations for worship were obsolete. "Yet a time is coming and has now come," Jesus responded, "when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23-24, NIV).
Jesus clearly declared that "God is spirit". The plain meaning of this sentence is obvious; there is no physical body defining God. Jesus further stated that true human worshippers must worship Him "in spirit and truth". In other words, humans have spirits that can worship God.
The implications of this text turn the Adventist paradigm upside down. First, God is not physical; He is spirit. This fact means that "spirit" is real and conscious, albeit immaterial. God is the eternal Source of all power, truth, wisdom, creativity, law, and reality. The definition of spirit as related to the Person of God cannot be merely "breath".
Second, the fact that true worship is done in "spirit and truth" means that the human spirit is capable of worship—but only if it is informed by truth. "Truth" is identified in the Bible as the gospel (Colossians 1:5), God's word (Isaiah 119:160, John 17:17), the law (Psalm 119:142), and Jesus Himself (John 14:6). Further, John tells us that the law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus (John 1:17). Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 2 that the truth of God is not perceived by human wisdom. "We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us," he writes in verse 12.
Clearly we can worship in spirit and truth only when our spirits are informed by the Holy Spirit. Unless we receive the Holy Spirit, the things of God will not make sense to us, and we will not be able to worship Him.
The third aspect of the Adventist paradigm which John 4:23-24 overturns is the notion that we are created physically in the image of God. For God to create us in His image cannot mean He made us physically like Him. Rather, He has identified Himself to us as "spirit"; his image that we bear, therefore, must likewise be "spirit"—the part of ourselves with which we are to worship Him and have fellowship with Him.
When Nicodemus met Jesus, He delivered to him one of the core truths of salvation:
"I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit" (John 3:5-6). "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit" (John 3:8).
If we are created with spirits reflecting God's image, why would Jesus say we need to be "born of…the Spirit"?
Ephesians 2:1-2, 4-5 give us the context: "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.…But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved."
When I was an Adventist, I assumed this passage (if I considered it at all) was just a metaphor. I knew that we were all sinners because Adam sinned, but I didn't really know what that meant. I also knew that God had said that if they ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve would die when they ate it (Genesis 2:17). I further knew that Satan said they would not die but would have their eyes opened (Genesis 3:4-5).
I learned that although it appeared Satan was correct because Adam and Eve did not really die, they actually began to die. God's declaration that they would "surely die" when they ate, I learned, was true (if misleading); they didn't immediately experience the effects of death, but the process began.
Again, the Bible teaches something different. Romans 5:12-14, 1 Corinthians 15:22, and Ephesians 2:1-5 clearly say that we are all dead in sin because of Adam. Obviously, this statement cannot refer to physical life because humans are born and breathe. As an Adventist, I had no way to understand this situation except metaphorically. Since I understood "spirit" to equate "breath", I assumed that "death" must mean physical demise. The fact that all people alive have physical life left me confused about the concept of spiritual death, and I assumed it referred to accumulated genetic deficits that left one vulnerable to sin.
Let's go back to Adam and Eve. They had no hint of any sort of existence apart from complete openness with God before they ate the fruit. After they ate, their bodies remained alive—apparently making Satan's comment true and God's declaration unreliable. Something new, however, did happen. The moment they ate, they knew they were exposed and naked. They cobbled coverings for themselves, and for the first time they hid.
When God came to the garden he called, "Where are you?" (Genesis 3:9) Immediately Adam responded that he was afraid because he was naked, so he hid.
I used to think God's question, "Where are you?" was a bit like a parent playing hide-and-seek with a child. God is God; He obviously knew where Adam was. Adam and Eve, however, were suddenly exposed. Their shame and fear were intense. They could not be in the presence of God comfortably. Their spirits, which had known God, died—the minute they ate the fruit. They were disconnected from God, and they had no covering of God's righteousness and presence to keep them from being naked and ashamed.
God obviously knew where Adam and Eve were hiding, but his question, "Where are you?" had spiritual implications. He knew they had sinned because their spirits were no longer with His.
Only the shedding of human blood could rectify this death (Hebrews 2:16-17; 9:22). God promised that He would send a Redeemer (Genesis 3:15), and He preserved humanity. It was not until Jesus died thousands of years later, however, that Adam and Eve's sin was fully atoned (Romans 3:21-26). Not until the curtain was torn in the temple was the barrier of sin removed, and not until Pentecost was the spirit of God reunited intimately with the spirit of man in power.11
When Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born again of the Spirit, He was not speaking metaphorically. He was speaking literally of needing to be united with the Spirit of God so his own dead spirit could come to life.
If the human spirit were merely breath, the new birth would make no sense at all.
What about Jesus?
We have established that God is spirit, not a physical body. Similarly, we have seen that our own spirits are to worship the God who is spirit. This means that our spirits are not mere "breath"; rather, they can receive, recognize, and honor God Himself. We have further seen that in order to be able to honor God, our own spirits, which are born dead in sin, must be born of the Holy Spirit and thus brought to life.
Hebrews 2:17 says that Jesus was made like His brothers in every way. Does this statement mean that He also was born with a dead spirit?
As an Adventist, this question never occurred to me. I believed that Jesus was body plus breath, just as I believed I was. If Jesus the Man was only body plus breath, the essence of His sinlessness had to be about managing to keep the law perfectly in spite of his human limitations.
The Bible, however, tells us that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). Jesus is the only human ever to be born with God's Spirit giving Him life from the point of conception. This fact means that Jesus is the only human ever born (Adam was created) who was born spiritually alive and did not have to be born again. Further, Jesus' spiritual life was not external to Him. It was intrinsically His own life, because He is God.
Parallel structure: flesh and spirit
Romans 1:3-4 defines Jesus' identity as son of man and Son of God. Verse three says He "was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh," and verse four says He "was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead according to the Spirit of holiness." These verses are parallel in structure. Verse three describes His Davidic heritage "according to the flesh", or His humanity. Verse four describes His divinity demonstrated by His resurrection "according to the spirit of holiness", or God. Jesus was intrinsically man and intrinsically God. He rose from the dead by His own spirit of holiness. (See also John 10:17, 18.) His power was not derived or acquired. The life in Him was His own. He was always spiritually alive.
Jesus was not sinless because he perfectly accessed the external power of the Holy Spirit. He was sinless because He was God, spiritually alive from conception. He absolutely had an advantage we do not have—but it was not for His own sake. He suffered for us and became sin and a curse for the world.12
Why does it matter?
We have seen that the belief that the human spirit is merely breath results in at least nine errors that lead to heresy:
1. Disbelief in God's identity as "spirit" without a physical body.
2. Disbelief in humans having a spirit that can know and worship God.
3. Disbelief in the human spirit being the image of God in man.
4. Confusion about our naturally dead spirits being original sin.
5. Misunderstanding the need for and nature of the new birth.
6. Belief that Jesus is merely "body plus breath".
7. Lack of understanding His sinless nature.
8. Lack of understanding the advantage of His intrinsic Deity.
9. Misunderstanding that God's righteousness is completely His and cannot be perfectly duplicated nor emulated.
At the practical level, the belief that spirit is merely breath leaves Adventists with an unbiblical worldview. Because they do not understand that God is spirit without a body, they do not grasp that He is unlike them. Consequently, they do not perceive Him to be sovereign over all reality, even over evil and the decisions of man. Because they do not believe they have immaterial spirits in the image of God, they believe sin to be primarily physical, a cumulative effect of genetic flaws that leave them vulnerable to temptation. Because they perceive sin to be primarily physical, weakening the will power and the mind, they believe that salvation means gaining access to the Holy Spirit's power so they can resist temptation and become increasingly able to keep the law.
Moreover, the conscience is not the Holy Spirit. Romans 2:15 identifies the "conscience" as a function which all men have, whether they are believers or not. The conscience can be mis-taught, and when a person is born again, the conscience will be re-educated by the Spirit's revelation of truth.
Because they believe their spirits are breath, Adventists do not understand what it means to be born again. They do not know they have literal spirits that are dead until the Holy Spirit brings them to life by His indwelling.
Perhaps the worst result of the doctrine that spirit equals breath is that Adventists do not understand that the Lord Jesus is not primarily their example; He is their substitute. He did not come to demonstrate how to keep the law. Jesus did not come to demonstrate how to overcome temptation by leaning on the external power of the Holy Spirit for His victory. Adventists do not understand that the power of Jesus' blood to pay for sin comes from the fact that He has intrinsic life—not from the fact that He perfectly obeyed.
When we understand that the spirit is an immaterial reality that is made in the image of God, we finally have hope. We know that we are not nonexistent when we die. We know that Jesus had a divine advantage that made Him our substitute in every way: He was God who took our form so He could shed perfect, sinless blood as the sacrifice His own law required. Because we have literal spirits, we are literally brought to life and eternally connected to God by His Spirit when we are born again. We do not merely have God's power available; we have God Himself making us new, living creatures who are "born of God" (John 1:13).
I know now that Jesus, even in his incarnation, was always fully God (Colossians 1:19). The miracle is not that He was able to be a perfect human but that, as God, He has destroyed the power of sin by shedding sinless human blood. He has opened a new, living way to the Father through His body (Hebrews 10:20), so I can now be in His presence without shame or nakedness. I know that I have become His righteousness because He became my sin (2 Corinthians 5:21), and I experience His righteousness—which is alien to me and is not my own perfection—because He lives in me by His Spirit and credits His own righteousness to me (Romans 5:18-21). I know that my life is hidden with Him in God (Colossians 3:3).
Now I rejoice with Paul, my brother in Jesus: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). †
Copyright 2008 Life Assurance Ministries, Inc., Glendale, Arizona, USA. All rights reserved. Revised September 24, 2008. Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org