Messiah – A Life-Giving Spirit?

1 Cor. 15:45 –  “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.”

1 Corinthians 15:45 has, no doubt, been a cause of consternation for many Christian readers of the Bible. What did the apostle Paul mean when he said that Jesus became a life-giving spirit?” There has been much debate over this verse, with everyone trying to interpret it according to their own Christological presupposition. Some trinitarians try to make hay out of this passage, seeing in it, remarkably, a reference to the deity of Jesus. Some biblical Unitarians see it as referring to the risen and ascended man Jesus who has now become the Holy Spirit in some sense. JWs take it as support for their belief that Jesus did not rise from the dead bodily i.e. as a real flesh and bone man. My purpose in this article is to argue only against the notion that this passage teaches us that Christ is in some way being equated with the Holy Spirit, although my proposal does negate the JW belief in a ‘spiritual‘ rather than a ‘physical‘ resurrection of Jesus. Many trinitarian scholars argue for this view in a way that they feel does not confuse the persons of the Trinity. Some Biblical Unitarians also argue for the view that the risen and exalted Jesus is being equated with the Spirit, which now communicates to believers the presence of the ascended Jesus. Both of these interpretations see Jesus’ being “a life-giving spirit” as a present function, i.e. he is presently communicating life to believers. But as I will show, I believe this is a misunderstanding based on a simple mistake, that of taking Paul’s words too literally.

The Meaning Of Pneuma

The strength of the argument I will present here depends on the correct understanding of the Greek word pneuma used by Paul in the verse. The most basic and literal meaning of pneuma, as defined by all Greek lexicons, is a movement or current or blast of air. Based on this the two most common uses of this word in koine Greek are for a wind and  breath. The idea of ‘spirit‘ is more of a figurative use of pneuma, and expresses the concept of something that is immaterial, but which produces an effect that can be sensed or experienced corporeally. Pneuma corresponds to and is the word used to translate the Hebrew word ruach. In the Hebrew Bible ruach is used for breath some 33x, for wind some 117x, and for spirit (of God, of man, or as an incorporeal being) some 106x. In the NT pneuma is mostly used in the sense of ‘spirit‘. Among popular English bibles pneuma is translated as ‘breath‘ only as much as three times, in 2 Thess. 2:8; Rev. 11:11; 13:15. But these are the most obvious places, where ‘breath‘ would make more sense. I believe there are other places where English bibles have ‘spirit‘, that ‘breath‘ would be a valid and even preferable translation of pneuma, such as Matt. 27:50; Lk. 23:46; Jn. 19:30; Acts 7:59; James 2:26 and 1 Cor. 15:45. Most of these are translated as ‘spirit‘ due to popular but unbiblical concepts of the nature of man. But the idea that when one dies he gives back to God the breath that God first gave to man at his creation {see Gen. 2:7} is a thoroughly biblical one {see Job 12:10; 27:3; 33:4; 34:14; Ps. 104:29; 146:4; Eccl. 3:18-21; 12:7}.

So I have let the cat out of the bag. Yes I think that pneuma in 1 Cor. 15:45 should be translated as ‘breath‘ and not ‘spirit‘. But what could it possibly mean to refer to Jesus as a “life-giving breath?”

Contextual Considerations

The context of the whole chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians is about the resurrection of the dead. Paul is writing to a predominantly Gentile congregation, and within that Greek culture the idea of a bodily resurrection was considered to be a most ridiculous notion. Paul is reassuring the believers in Messiah that there will certainly be a bodily resurrection from the dead and that we can be confident of this because of the fact that Jesus was resurrected bodily from the dead. If a bodily resurrection were impossible, as the Greek philosophers maintained, then not even Jesus was resurrected, and so all who have died believing in Jesus have no hope of a future life {vv. 12-22} (this passage also contradicts the popular Christian belief that when one dies he is actually not dead but alive with Christ in heaven). If the dead are not raised then this life only has any real value, so why not live it up now {vv. 29-32}. Paul then speaks of the difference between the present body and the resurrection body {vv. 35-44}. Now the main parts of this passage that throw light upon Paul’s meaning in v. 45 are vv. 21-22 and 42-55, so lets focus there.

It seems to me that in v. 45 Paul is hearkening back to what he said in vv. 21-22. Perhaps he intended at that point to move right into what he said in v. 45 and on, but was sidetracked by a rabbit that needed to be chased. Both sections contain a contrast between Adam and Jesus, with Jesus even being called “the last Adam.” Paul viewed both Adam and Jesus as progenitors of humanity; Adam as the progenitor of a humanity which is subject to death and Jesus as the progenitor of a new humanity set free from death:

1 Cor. 15:21-22 –  For since death came through a man, the resurrection from the dead comes also through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Messiah all will be given life.”

In vv. 44 and 46 Paul speaks of “a spiritual (Gr. pneumatikos) bodyin contrast to “a natural (Gr. psuchikos) body.” What does Paul mean by ‘spiritual‘ ; does he mean non- physical? No. The context tells us exactly what Paul means by both ‘spiritual‘ and ‘natural‘. 

vv. 42-44 –  “. . . The body is sown with corruption, it is raised with incorruption; it is sown with dishonor, it is raised with honor; it is sown with weakness, it is raised with 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.”

So by ‘natural body‘ he means a body of corruption, dishonor and weakness, i.e. a body subject to death. And by ‘spiritual body‘ he means a body of incorruption, honor and power, i.e a body freed from it’s bondage to death. I don’t think we can make these concepts mean anything more than what the context tells us. Therefore, ‘natural‘ does not mean ‘material‘ and ‘spiritual‘ does not mean ‘non-material.’ These are both states of the material, physical body; one of mortality, one of immortality {see vv.53-55}.

Now here is where I think the mistake is made by most expositors – to take Paul’s use of pneuma (i.e. spirit) in v. 45 as having a connection to the word pneumaikos (i.e. spiritual) in vv. 44 and 46. But there is no reason why Paul cannot be using these words in completely different senses. We know that he uses the word pneumatikos in different senses {see Rom. 7:14; 15:27; 1Cor. 2:13-15; 9:11; 10:3-4; Gal. 6:1; Eph. 5:19}, as well as the word pneuma {see Rom. 1:9; 8:14-15; 11:8; 12:11; 1 Cor. 2:12; 4:21; 6:17; 2 Cor. 12:18; Gal. 6:1; Eph. 4:23}. It should not be thought improbable that he would use pneuma and pneumatikos in the same context but with differing senses. These two words occur in the same context but with different senses in 1 Cor. 2:12-13 and Gal. 6:1. That these two words appearing together in 1 Cor. 15:44-46 would seem to have a connection to one another may only be superficial. It is possible that they have no connection in this context. ‘Spirit‘ could be meant in the sense of ‘breath‘ while ‘spiritual‘ could be meant to signify ‘incorruptible and immortal.’

The Genesis Allusion

So why do I favor the translation of pneuma in this passage as ‘breath‘ rather than ‘spirit‘ ? I see a clear allusion to Genesis 2:7, which Paul partially quotes in our study passage. He says of Adam, he “became a living being.” Paul begins this verse by saying, “And so it written,” but the only part of what he says that is actually written is “the . . . man . . . became a living being.” The second part, “the last Adam, [became] a life-giving breath,” is not something that was written but is Paul’s midrash, contrasting the first man Adam with the second man Jesus. Now when Paul quoted the last clause of Gen. 2:7, it no doubt immediately brought to his mind the preceding clause “(the Lord God) breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” When we look at Gen. 2:7 we see that God “formed the man from the dust of the ground,” but at that point the man was not alive. Only after God breathed the breath of life into his nostrils did the man become a living being. Therefore the breath of life from God was the means by which God brought the lifeless form of the man to life. This is analogous to the resurrection of the dead, when the lifeless form of the bodies of deceased believers will be made alive again by the agency of the second man, Jesus. In this sense then, Paul metaphorically calls Jesus “a life-giving breath” i.e. the means by which the dead will become living beings once again. In everything that Paul  says after v. 45 the fall of Adam is implicit, hearkening back to vv. 21-22:

For since death came through a man, the resurrection from the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all will be made alive.

It is hard for me to see that, upon quoting Gen 2:7, Paul did not intend to denote Jesus as the “life-giving breath” by which God will restore life to the dead, just like it was the breath of life that originally caused the lifeless form of the man to come alive.  And the point seems obvious, to be ‘a life-giving breath‘ (and we are talking about everlasting life, i.e. immortality) one must himself possess this everlasting life (this, I believe, is the import of John 5:19-30).

Now someone might object that the Hebrew word for “breath” in Gen. 2:7, in the phrase “breath of life” is not ruach, the equivalent of pneuma, but rather neshamah, whose Greek equivalent is pnoe. But this does not weaken my proposal in any way, since ruach and neshamah are practically synonyms¹, and even though the first occurrence of the phrase “breath of life” in the Hebrew Bible is neshamah chay, subsequent occurrences use ruach chay, clearly as an equivalent {see Gen. 6:17; 7:15, 22}.

It must also be noted that the definite article is lacking in v. 45 in the case of both Adam and of Jesus. This weakens the prospect that Jesus is being equated with the Holy Spirit, for in that case we might have expected Paul to say that Jesus became ‘the life-giving Spirit‘ rather than what he actually said, ‘a life-giving breath.‘ One Reformed professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, in a lecture he gave on 1 Cor. 15:45 in 2015, continuously referred to Jesus as “the life-giving Spirit.” But this is clearly wrong, as the absence of the article proves.

A Confirmatory Passage

Is this idea of a human person metaphorically denoted as the ‘breath of life‘, in relation to other human persons, without any precedent in Hebrew thought? There is one obscure reference in Lamentations 4:20, which is literally translated:

The breath (Heb. ruach) of our nostrils, the anointed one (Heb. messiah) of Yahweh . . .” 

Here the Israelite king, Yahweh’s anointed one, is spoken of by the poet prophet as the ‘breath‘ of the nostrils of the people of Israel. In this metaphorical use the king is presented as that which gives life to the nation itself. This was a common analogy used of rulers in the ANE culture to denote a nation’s dependence upon it’s king, for indeed a nation’s life and health was in the king’s hand. While the metaphor in this passage is not a precise match to that of 1 Cor. 15:45 – the one signifying a nation’s reliance upon it’s king and the other the means by which God will raise the dead – it is still significant that the messiah figure of the OT (i.e. the Davidic king) and the promised, final Messiah, who is identified in the NT as Jesus of Nazareth, are both analogized as a ‘life-giving breath.’ It attests that such a high and exalted stature was attributed to human agents who were chosen by God to represent him in some fashion, and thus shows that the exalted language used of Jesus need not imply an ontological distinction between him and his predecessors.


Endnotes

  1. The following verses show ruach and neshamah to be virtually synonyms: Gen. 1:30; 2:7; 6:17; 7:15, 22; 2 Sam. 22:16; Job 27:3; 32:8; 33:4; 34:14; Ps. 18:15; 104:29; 135:17; Is. 42:5; 57:16

Author: Troy Salinger

I am 60 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 37 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 41 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

3 thoughts on “Messiah – A Life-Giving Spirit?”

  1. Lamentations 4:20 is pretty interesting. Hadn’t seen that. The king sustains the life of the people by being their breath. Ultimately that life (and breath) originate in God surely.

    It’s a tricky topic but I think Paul envisions Jesus having become a spirit-person with a spirit-body of some sort. The risen Christ and Christ’s spirit are not distinct in Paul’s mind. So he can say elsewhere that “the Lord [Jesus] is the spirit” (ὁ δὲ κύριος τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν) (2 Cor 3:17). So the distinction between Christ’s spirit and God’s spirit is blurred in Paul I think (Romans 8:9). What this seems to mean is that Christ and God’s life-giving spirit have been bound up in each other. Any spirit that gives life must have its source in God.

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  2. I agree with you that Paul is likely not calling Jesus the Holy Spirit, but I would suggest an alternate explanation of Paul’s statement based on Jesus’ statements to Nicodemus in John 3. There Jesus teaches that “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but spirit gives birth to spirit”

    Now Adam was directly created by God and is called his son; however, the bible never states that Adam was born of God. Everyone born after Adam was born of flesh since flesh gives birth to flesh. Jesus was the first man to be born of both flesh and spirit. And we are told that believers will also be born of spirit. Based on Jesus’ teach, those born of spirit will become “spirit.” The question is, when exactly are they born of spirit? Is it during their earthly existence or at their resurrection.

    I would argue that believers are born of spirit at the resurrection and become spirits. Just as God is a spirit and angels are ministering spirits, believers will also become spirits. Jesus seems to affirm this in Matthew 22 when he states that at the resurrection believers will be like the angels in heaven. Now strictly speaking he is talking about believers being unmarried like the angels, but I think you could justifiably extend the thought to include a similar physical state as well.

    I agree with you that being a “spirit,” whatever the bible means by that, does not preclude the presence of a physical body. But we can see from the behavior of angels and the resurrected Jesus, that just because the resurrected body is physical, does not mean that it follows normal physical rules. The resurrected Jesus is able to appear and disappear and pass through walls. Obviously he does not have what we would think of as a normal physical body (flesh).

    Also, I think it is safe to assume that Adam’s “flesh” was not perishable, dishonorable, or corrupted until after he ate of the apple and was cast out of the Garden. So I don’t think I agree that flesh and spirit are necessary just qualifiers. Flesh, whether corrupted or uncorrupted is a certain physical state and spirit, whether corrupted or uncorrupted, is a separate physical state. Adam before the fall was uncorrupted flesh and after the fall become corrupted flesh. Angels are uncorrupted spirits and demons are corrupted spirits. Believers are corrupted flesh and at the resurrection they will become uncorrupted spirits. Jesus was uncorrupted flesh that became a uncorrupted spirit at the resurrection.

    Just my 2 cents.

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  3. I think paul is pretty clear: we rise as spirits (spirit beings). the pesky flesh (as paul sees it) is transformed in the twinkling of an eye into what Jesus had, a new “glorified spirit body.” we can’t change what paul says because it “sounds gnostic.” but what i’ve done, rather, is abandon paul like the rest of them in asia precisely because what he’s teaching here and similar passages is that we’re going to have a spirt-resurrection.

    proof of this is seen clearly in his erroneous statement that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven.” really, paul? then why, in Hebrews us Jesus entered into the holy place OF HEAVEN and sprinkled his blood SEVEN TIMES on the altar? is that spirit blood?

    or why does Jesus say that a spirit DOESNT have flesh and bone as he did when he arose? see, there’s no reason to manipulate what paul says to be more palatable. he was, i believe, laying the foundation for what later became known as docetism. note: i didn’t say he invented the doctrine; im saying pauls words were and are in that vein—which is why so many unwittingly believe what they do about the resurrection.

    remember this, too: paul didn’t know “Jesus after the flesh” but claims we know him “after the spirit” now—post resurrection.

    but the true, non-apostate apostles knew Jesus only after the flesh. because they saw him and handled him and knew he wasn’t a spirit. yet, pauls supposed vision was of a spiritualized Jesus (spirit being).

    pauls an apostate from The Way—he’s antichrist.

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