Man: a Tripartite Being

 •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 9
Man, as God’s creature, is made up of three distinct parts — body, soul and spirit. Animals are said in Scripture to possess both soul and body, but not spirit. Thus in Genesis 1:3030And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so. (Genesis 1:30) we read of “every beast of the earth  ...  every fowl of the air, and  ...  everything that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life.” The word used for life is the Hebrew word nephesh, or soul. But when we come to man, God now consults as to the creature that is to have dominion: “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.” “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:77And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)). What an important and twofold difference from animals! Both the formation of his body and his inspiration were immediately from God — two things which we do not read of any of the lower creatures.
Further, Scripture tells us that “there is a spirit [rooagh] in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding” (Job 32:88But there is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding. (Job 32:8)). But we also read that the beasts “have no understanding” (Psa. 32:99Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee. (Psalm 32:9)), and the word used for “understanding” is the same as that used for “spirit.” In the same way we read, “Now the Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses flesh, and not spirit” (Isa. 31:33Now the Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses flesh, and not spirit. When the Lord shall stretch out his hand, both he that helpeth shall fall, and he that is holpen shall fall down, and they all shall fail together. (Isaiah 31:3)). The first place we read this word rooagh in Scripture, it is applied to God: “The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:22And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:2)). Later, Elihu applies this word to the spirit in man (Job 32), and he applies the same word to God in Job 33:44The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life. (Job 33:4). Job also contrasts soul and spirit, when he asks, “In whose hand is the soul [nephesh] of every living thing, and the breath [rooagh] of all mankind?” (Job 12:1010In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind. (Job 12:10)). It is clear that the “spirit” is the higher part in man, for the word rooagh is also used in reference to the Spirit of God. The beasts perish (Psa. 49:1212Nevertheless man being in honor abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish. (Psalm 49:12)), but as to man, both soul and spirit are immortal. That which may be destroyed by death (and even this, as to man, is only for a time) is merely this external shell, the house that contains both spirit and soul. The soul departs at death from its tenement, but it is not affected by death. Ecclesiastes also speaks of the spirit: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit [rooagh] shall return unto God who gave it” (Eccl. 12:77Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. (Ecclesiastes 12:7)). It is by means of the body that the varied feelings and emotions of man manifest themselves. In Scripture, some of these are ascribed to the spirit, some to the soul, and some to both soul and spirit.
The New Testament View
When we come to the New Testament, we find that Old Testament truths are all established in the New and fully unfolded. But there are other truths revealed in the New Testament respecting “spirit and soul and body,” for now God has brought “life and immortality [incorruptibility] to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). When the soul is spoken of, the Greek word psukee is equivalent to the Hebrew nephesh. For spirit, the Greek word pneuma is given as the equivalent for rooagh. In the Septuagint translation of the Bible, these words are used in the Old Testament as well as the New.
The three parts of which man is constituted — “spirit and soul and body” — may for a time be separated. Death is the condition of the body without a tenant, for the body is the man’s earthly house, the habitation of both spirit and soul. While in it, he is said to be “at home in the body,” but “the body without the spirit is dead” (James 2:2626For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:26)). But we also read that the death of the body does not affect the soul. “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul” (Matt. 10:2828And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)). In man, only the body is mortal; it is capable of and liable to death and, after that, also to corruption.
Having seen that death is the dissolving of the tie that has kept together the man, “spirit and soul and body,” we can also see the wondrous way that Christianity triumphs over all the misery that sin and death have introduced into this world. The Lord says to the poor thief dying by His side, “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:4343And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)). These words did not refer to his body, for it was doubtless cast into a common grave on earth. Rather, the words referred to his soul and spirit that would from that day onward be with the Lord in a state of conscious pleasure, rest and delight. Paul also could speak of this instant happiness of the believer after death, when he spoke of “having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (Phil. 1:2323For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: (Philippians 1:23)). On earth, Paul knew more of communion with Him than many, yet he says it is “far better” to be “absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).
As to death for the unbeliever, we read those solemn words, “After death the judgment” (Heb. 9:2727And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: (Hebrews 9:27)). According to Luke 16:2323And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. (Luke 16:23), the unbelieving rich man who died was “in torments,” although there only in soul and spirit. He was able to feel, see, and speak — how awful! More than this, there is a “resurrection of damnation” (John 5:2929And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. (John 5:29)). At the great white throne, we read that “death and hades gave up the dead which were in them” (Rev. 20:1313And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. (Revelation 20:13) JND). Death delivers up the body, while hades delivers up the soul, and man is reunited — body, soul and spirit — to be judged. Eternal judgment, called the “second death” (Rev. 20:1414And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. (Revelation 20:14)), is the fulfillment of Matthew 10:2828And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28), “Fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
The Lord’s Coming
Of the believer we read, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51), for the proper hope of the believer is the Lord’s coming for him. The spirit and soul are not changed, but rather the body. “We await the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour, who shall transform our body of humiliation into conformity to His body of glory” (Phil. 3:20-2120For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: 21Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself. (Philippians 3:20‑21) JND). For those alive when He comes, there is no separation of spirit and soul and body, for Christ has broken the power of him who had the “power of death”; “in a moment” they are to be caught away in the power of life. They do not die, but “mortality” is “swallowed up of life” (2 Cor. 5:4).
As Christians, we should remember that the affections and desires of the soul must be kept under control, if we are to grow in divine things. The Word of God must at all times be allowed to come in “quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:1212For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)). The word “sensual” in Jude 5:19 is psukeekoi and may be translated “soulish”; that is, they were controlled by it. Similar was the desire of the man in Luke 12:1919And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. (Luke 12:19): “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” This has been the language of very many since then. The natural affections also, though formed of God, are strikingly referred to in many places as possible hindrances in the path of faithful discipleship, if allowed to govern us.
Fitting in the midst of all the snares that surround us is the prayer of the Apostle: “I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23).
H. C. Anstey, adapted