Understanding What the Spirit Is
GOD’S written Word is a treasure-house of wisdom, but how can a person benefit from its riches unless he applies himself to studying it and to seeking an accurate understanding of it? Good counsel regarding this is given at Proverbs 4:7: “Wisdom is the prime thing. Acquire wisdom; and with all that you acquire, acquire understanding.”
Knowing the various meanings of expressions used in the Bible is an important factor in acquiring understanding. The word “spirit,” for example, has at least seven different meanings. Unless a person knows these meanings he cannot gain an accurate understanding of the Scripture texts in which the word is used.
In the Hebrew and Greek languages from which the Bible was translated, the word “spirit” carries the basic thought of something windlike, something that is invisible and forceful like air in motion. For this reason Jehovah God, Jesus Christ and angels are called spirits. They cannot be seen by man but they have power that can be made perceptible to man by the effects it produces in the earth. At John 4:24 we are told that “God is a Spirit,” and at 1 Corinthians 15:45 the resurrected Jesus Christ is called “a life-giving spirit.” Regarding angels, Hebrews 1:7 states: “He makes his angels spirits.”
The Hebrew word for spirit is ruʹahh and the Greek word is pneuʹma. Some Bible translations render the Hebrew word neshamahʹ as spirit at Job 26:4 and Proverbs 20:27, but more careful translations use the word “breath” here rather than spirit. This word neshamahʹ is the one that is used at Genesis 2:7 for the vital breath that was put into Adam at the time of his creation. Its use here indicates that what God blew into the nostrils of Adam was literal breath. However, the active life force that God gave him, causing him to have a conscious existence, was his ruʹahh or spirit. This active life force is not specifically mentioned at Genesis 2:7, but it is referred to elsewhere.—Gen. 6:17; 7:22; Eccl. 12:7.
The life force or principle of life in earthly creatures that is sustained by breathing is one of the meanings of spirit. At Job 27:3, the word is used with this meaning. “While my breath is yet whole within me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils.” The Hebrew word neshamahʹ is used for the literal breath in this scripture, whereas ruʹahh is used for spirit, or life force.
Sometimes the word spirit indicates a person’s mental disposition. This is something that cannot be seen, but it manifests itself in a visible way by a person’s expressions or actions. At Psalm 34:18, mental disposition is clearly indicated by the word spirit: “Jehovah is near to those that are broken at heart; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.” As a rock is crushed with a hammer so does a repentant person feel crushed when God’s Word brings home to him the gravity of his sins. He humbly seeks forgiveness as did the people who were “stabbed to the heart” with guilt feelings from what Peter said to them at Pentecost. (Acts 2:37) So “crushed in spirit” indicates the mental disposition of a person who has become conscious of his sins and of his spiritual need.
Anger is a mental disposition that is, at times, indicated by the word “spirit.” At Judges 9:23 this disposition is referred to by the expression “a bad spirit.” It was used with regard to the bad feelings that arose between Abimelech and the landowners of Shechem. This same disposition of anger is expressed at Ecclesiastes 10:4 as “the spirit of a ruler” that rises up against a person. At Proverbs 25:28 it is indicated by saying: “As a city broken through, without a wall, is the man that has no restraint for his spirit.” Such is the man who fails to control his anger.
An entirely different meaning for the word “spirit” is encountered in 1 Timothy 4:1. There it conveys the thought of an inspired expression or utterance. The same is true at 2 Thessalonians 2:2, where the Greek word pneuʹma appears and is translated as spirit by some Bible versions. Christians are told, Do not be “quickly shaken from your mind, nor yet be troubled, either by spirit, or by word, or by epistle as from us.” (AS) The phrase “inspired expression” properly conveys the thought of the word “spirit” here and is so used in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures.
The invisible energizing force that Jehovah God puts into action to accomplish his will can be referred to as his holy spirit. It is this force, active in the work of creation, that Genesis 1:2 has reference to when it says: “The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (AS) The same is true at Job 33:4: “God’s own spirit made me.” It was his powerful force in action that did the work. Saying that it did the work of creating, although God is the Creator, is similar to saying that electricity lifts an elevator, although a motor does the actual work.
Miracles performed by Jesus Christ while he was on earth were done by God’s spirit, his active force. “If it is by means of God’s spirit that I expel the demons, the kingdom of God has really overtaken you.” (Matt. 12:28) It was this same active force that gave Samson the strength to perform astonishing deeds such as the slaying of a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass and the carrying away of the gates of a city. (Judg. 15:14, 15; 16:3) By means of it other men, such as the father of John the Baptist, were moved to prophesy. (Luke 1:67) It enveloped 120 disciples of Jesus Christ at Pentecost and made it possible for them to speak with different tongues, heal the sick and raise the dead. God’s spirit was poured out upon them in this fashion, he baptizing them in it. (Acts 2:17) Thus the word “spirit” frequently is used to refer to the mighty invisible active force of God when it is in operation, accomplishing his will.
As we have seen, the word “spirit” has at least seven distinct meanings. It is used to refer to Jehovah God, to Jesus Christ, to angels, to life force in earthly creatures, to mental disposition, to inspired expressions and to God’s active force. Having these meanings in mind as you read the Scriptures will help you to read with understanding. The wisdom brought by a careful study of God’s Word opens before you a road that leads to many privileges in serving the Creator and ultimately to everlasting life.—Matt. 7:14.
We received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that have been kindly given us by God. These things we also speak, not with words taught by human wisdom, but with those taught by the spirit, as we combine spiritual matters with spiritual words.—1 Cor. 2:12, 13.