1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.
In context, Paul is writing a charge to his brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul is exhorting them (and us) to rejoice always, pray without giving up, give thanks to God, refrain from quenching the Spirit, abstain from evil, consider prophesies, test all things, and hold on to that which is good. Unfortunately, none of these seemingly good things are able to save us. Only God can sanctify, as it is of His grace (1 Corinthians 1:30).
A friend of mine encouraged me recently with the statement that “David was kind to his soul.” What was implied was that I was making my soul an enemy. I’ve pondered this for a while and have decided that my friend was right.
How much has the church taught that the spirit is good, but the soul is bad (aka “soulish”)? We seem to be confused and double-minded as we sing songs like ‘bless the Lord, oh my soul.” What does that mean?
The traditional teaching that I was taught is that we are three-part bodies, being body, soul, and spirit. I was also taught that our soul is made up of the mind, will, and emotions.
The problem with this traditional viewpoint of the soul (spirit, soul, body) is that it isn’t supported by an accurate translation of the scriptures, in my opinion.
Reading the works of Dallas Willard originally challenged this notion for me some years ago. After spending some time recently learning about the Theology of the Body (Pope John Paul II – Christopher West), I’m even more convinced that the western church has a confused understanding.
In this 1 Thessalonians 5:23 text, there are three keywords of interest in the Greek, but to understand their true meaning we have to look at other occurrences of these words in scripture. We also need to look at the Hebrew, the original source of truth. In my opinion, there’s an obvious translation error when scholars and Strong’s concordances translate both pneuma (spirit) and psyche (soul) as “breath.”
spirit – pneuma
soul – psyche
body – soma
Try a Google search on the definition of the word ‘psyche.’
You will get a wide variety of answers, including a woman in Greek mythology. The word is the root for where we get the field of Psychiatry and Psychology, both dealing with the thoughts and feelings of the mind. The Greek root of psyche is the word ‘psycho.’
Let’s look at an example, which occurs in both the Torah and the new covenant. This will give us insights into the use of the word translated ‘soul.’
In Mark 12:30, the first commandment we’re given from Yeshua is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
The Greek words here are as follows:
heart – kardia
soul – psyche
mind – dianoia
strength – ischys
Just to clarify, the Greek word ‘dianoia’ (poorly translated as ‘mind’), is about having a spirit of understanding. It ties in with not leaning on our own understanding, but being dependent on God’s. It’s one of the ways that we can love God.
This same scripture is referenced in Deuteronomy 6:5, considered the ‘Sacred Shema’, by the Jewish people. The Hebrew word ‘shema’, means to intelligently hear, understand, and obey. It is written that they “shall love The Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might“.
The Hebrew words here are as follows:
heart – lebab
soul – nephesh
strength – me’od
As an aside, the Hebrew word me’od can be translated as “muchness.” Can you love God by serving others with the strengths you have been given?
If you look at both occurrences of the Greek word ‘psyche’ and of the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’, you’ll find that they represent the same concepts.
If most cases, the word ‘nephesh’ and ‘psyche’ refer to someone’s life (Matt 2:20, Matt 10:28). In a few cases, they refer to someone’s thought life (mind). We would be much less confused about the term ‘soul’ if the Greek and Hebrew words weren’t translated out of context.
I’m going to make a proposal of a new model based on the understanding that the word ‘soul’ should represent someone’s life (the whole person). If you look at the book of Revelation (Rev 6:9), it is the “souls” of the saints that are crying out “how long … until our blood is avenged?” I want to make a case that these are not disembodied souls, but rather whole people. We were never meant to live without a body and we will have a glorified body after our resurrection.
Soul – Whole container representing the life of a person (nephesh/psyche representing life)
Pneuma – Spirit
Psyche – Mind
Soma – Body
I would translate the 1 Thessalonians 5:23 text to say “may your spirit, mind, and body be found blameless, inside and out.” The Deuteronomy 6:5 text might read “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength”.
So what is the application of all this? Use ‘soul’ when you mean all of someone’s life, or the essence of who they are as a person. Use ‘thought life’ or ‘mind’ where that applies in context. Can we say what we mean?
In the context, of our scriptural text, there is a an application for all the parts of who we are to be sanctified. It is not that some parts are “bad” and some parts are “good,” but rather that all our parts need to be redeemed and made whole.
In Psalms, David had discovered that God desired truth and wisdom even in our innermost parts (Ps 51:6). We are given the assurance that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. We have the assurance that the one who is faithful and true will do it. Let the spirit of God help you, and trust Him in the process.