Author: Ron Graham
In this study, we look at one false idea concerning the spirit or soul of man. This is the idea that the spirit is breath.
Two facts about the word 'spirit' are worth noting.
When one word means two things, that doesn't make the two things one. There is a parallel in the word 'heart'. It means the physical blood pump; it also means the soul or spirit; but the blood pump is not the spirit. Likewise, neither is the breath.
Genesis 2:7 says that "the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul".
In this example, "soul" refers not to an immortal spirit, but rather to the life that breath imparts. That is how Paul interprets the statement. He quotes "Man became a living soul" to contrast the natural and earthy creation of Adam with the spiritual and heavenly glorification of Christ (1Corinthians 15:42-50).
However this statement is a good example showing that “soul” can mean different things and things other than “breath”. It would make no sense to say, "Adam became a living breath". So, right here at the beginning of the Bible, we can see that it's fallacious to argue that “soul” always means “breath”.
Jesus committed his spirit to God when he died. "Jesus crying out with a loud voice said, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit' and having said this, he breathed his last." (Luke 23:46).
Does this mean that he was committing to God his last breath or the life that was in that last breath? Was God going to bottle as it were that last breath, and return it to his nostrils at the resurrection? If so, what would happen 40 days later when Jesus ascended into the clouds and far above the heavens? (Acts 1:9 Ephesians 4:8-10) Acts 3:13). He could no longer breathe. Therefore the spirit that he had committed to God could no longer exist.
We see then, that to consider the spirit of Jesus as simply the breath of life leads to an absurdity. On the other hand, if we consider the spirit to be non-physical, whose existence is independent of breath, then no absurdity or difficulty arises with regard to the survival of the spirit through the processes of death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification.
The Spirit of God is referred to in the Bible in such a way that we cannot understand 'spirit' to mean breath. That is to say, "Holy Spirit" or "Spirit of God" cannot literally mean holy breath or the breath of God.
The first use of the word 'spirit' in the Bible, is this statement: "The Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters" (Genesis 1:1). This could perhaps be translated "The breath of God was moving over the surface of the waters". However this would be sensible only as a figure of speech (anthropomorphism). So even this first instance shows that 'Spirit' does not always mean simply and literally 'breath'.
There are instances in the rest of the Bible where “Spirit” cannot mean “breath” even figuratively. Notice for instance, some of the things said about the Spirit in Romans chapter 8. Try reading the chapter and substituting every instance of “Spirit” with “breath”. For example, "the breath also helps our weaknesses, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the breath Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the breath is, because he intercedes for the saints according to the will of God". That has no sense literally or figuratively. God has no breath; breath has no mind; and breath cannot intercede.
The unfortunate man of whom we read in Mark chapter 5 obviously suffered something much worse than unclean breath. When the man spoke to Jesus, our Lord recognised that it was not the man but the demons in the man (Matthew 8:28-34) who were communicating. A man's breath does not drive him insane. In this case, clearly, the word “spirit” did not mean “breath”, but rather a demon, a spiritual being, a large number of whom had possessed the man.