What is Man?


My desire is to set before you the constitution of man in the light of Scripture. Do not expect a lecture on psychology or physiology. It is from the Bible alone that we must learn how God has put man together. Man is unique in the creation in that he is a tripartite being: “Now the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly: and your whole spirit, and soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5: 23). Angels are spirits (see Ps. 104: 4), animals are soul and body (see Gen. 1: 24; Lev. 11: 27), but man has three parts to his being—spirit, soul and body. Why three? It is because while all these beings were created by God, only man is said to be created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1: 27). God is absolutely one (see Mal. 2: 10; Mark 12: 29), but Scripture makes Him known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (see Eph. 4: 4–6; 1 Pet. 1: 2). As God’s representative man is thus set over the lower creation (see Gen. 1: 28; Ps. 8: 6)—and in a coming day will even judge angels (see 1 Cor. 6: 3), despite them being “greater in might and power” (2 Pet. 2: 11).

The Spirit of Man

1 Thess. 5: 23 also puts spirit, soul and body in their proper relative order. The spirit is man’s highest component. It is that, and not his soul, which links him with God, for “God [is] a Spirit; and they who worship Him must worship [him] in spirit and truth” (John 4: 24). Jehovah is addressed in the OT as, “The God of the spirits of all flesh” (Num. 16: 22; 27: 16). Again, the NT tells us that since “we have had the fathers of our flesh as chasteners, and we reverenced [them]; shall we not much rather be in subjection to the Father of spirits, and live?” (Heb. 12: 9). For the writer of the Hebrew epistle to have called God the Father of souls would have linked Him too much with the animal creation. That which distinguishes man from the beast is not soul but spirit.

   The spirit is also the source of all higher natural intelligence: “For who of men hath known the things of a man, except the spirit of the man which is in him?” (1 Cor. 2: 11). Observe, it is the spirit in man that knows. Your brain is not the source of your thoughts, for behind what is material there is a conscious vital energy. Animals have a measure of intelligence (for the brain is a wonderful thing) but they lack that advanced wisdom and understanding associated with the possession of a spirit. At the other end of the scale, angels, being spirit only, are highly intelligent, worshipping creatures (see Heb. 1: 6; 1 Pet. 1: 12). Both angels and man are therefore responsible creatures, and liable to judgment, while the animal creation is not. In this connection, it is not without interest that the word spirit itself is often used in a secondary sense to denote character, and so to signify the motive that lies behind actions (see Luke 9: 55; 1 Cor. 4: 21; 2 Tim. 1: 7 etc.). Animals, by contrast, are not moral creatures.

  Now if I know the things of a man because I have the spirit of a man, how can I possibly know the things of God? Because (as a believer) not only have I been renewed in the spirit of my own mind (see Eph. 4: 23), but I have actually been given the Spirit of God (see 1 Cor. 2: 12)—God’s own Spirit. It follows that whatever the learning and ability of an unconverted man, he will be utterly incapable of understanding the mind of God. Hence “[the] natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God” (v14), and indeed is as unqualified to know such things as a chimpanzee would be to give a lecture upon ethics. Sadly, in this day, when the human brain is well–nigh deified, people have lost sight of the fact that there is an immaterial and intelligent entity in man by which “the things of a man” are apprehended. Suppose the spirit gone. Can I think now? No, for while the brain is still there—the material—the spirit has departed, “the body without a spirit is dead” (James. 2: 26; see Job. 27: 3).

  From where then does each man get his spirit? The Bible leaves no doubt: “The burden of the word of Jehovah concerning Israel. [Thus] saith Jehovah, who stretcheth out the heavens, and layeth the foundation of the earth, and formeth the spirit of man within him” (Zech. 12: 1, my emphasis). God forms a spirit within man, and it is this fact which renders man a responsible, accountable personality, above and beyond the lower creation. But is he really more than an animal? Do not the Scriptures themselves teach that man has no pre–eminence above the beast? That is what Solomon wondered: “I said in my heart, It is thus with the children of men, that God may prove them, and that they should see that themselves are but beasts. For what befalleth the children of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other, and they have all one breath; and man hath no pre–eminence above the beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place: all are of the dust, and all return to dust” (Eccl. 3: 18–20). He then goes on to ask: “Who knoweth the spirit of the children of men? Doth it go upwards? and the spirit of the beasts, doth it go downwards to the earth?” (v21). Leaving aside the fact that Solomon may have been using the word spirit here merely as a synonym for life, his thought is clearly that what happens to man beyond death cannot be known. The writer is, therefore, an agnostic and a doubter—and that in a book of divine revelation! In order to explain this paradox, it is very important to understand the character of the book in which these verses are found—that is, the natural man left to his own understanding and resources to find out what is done under the sun (the expression occurs 29 times in Ecclesiastes). Solomon is constantly repeating the same sentiments: “I applied my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under the heavens … I communed with mine own heart … I applied my heart to the knowledge of wisdom, and to the knowledge of madness and folly … I said in my heart … I searched my heart” (Eccl. 1: 13, 16, 17; 2: 1, 3 etc.). Now while the Holy Spirit inspired every word of Scripture, it is obvious that He only inspired the mere record of what Job’s friends said, as well as the utterances of false prophets and Satan himself. Solomon’s pronouncements here fall into the same category. Thus the Spirit of God did not inspire his assertion (however naturally wise Solomon may have been) that men and animals all have one breath, that animals have a spirit and that man has no pre–eminence above a beast—although the Spirit of God inspired the record of the assertion. Furthermore, it cannot be ignored that Solomon gets into the clear light of revelation when he later says, “and the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit return unto God who gave it” (Eccl. 12: 7, my emphasis). No longer is he uncertain as to whether man’s spirit goes downward or upward at death—He is emphatic that it returns to God who gave it. This is quite in keeping with the teaching of the Spirit of God elsewhere—what a glorious sight, for example, it is to behold the martyr Stephen, with his angelic face upturned to heaven, praying for his murderers, and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7: 59, my emphasis; see also Ps. 31: 5; Luke 23: 46)! Is such a thing ever said of an animal? Not at all, for nothing in advance of the beast returning to the dust is ever revealed. The truth, uncomfortable as it is to some, is that at death, man’s spirit returns to the God who gave it, to do with it as is just, seeing that He is “judge of all” (Heb. 12: 23). That is why we read on the one hand of “the spirits [which are] in prison, heretofore disobedient” (1 Pet. 3: 19), and, on the other hand, of “[the] spirits of just [men] made perfect” (Heb. 12: 23).

The Soul of Man

Closely associated with man’s spirit is his soul: “For the word of God [is] living and operative, and sharper than any two–edged sword, and penetrating to [the] division of soul and spirit, both of joints and marrow, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of [the] heart” (Heb. 4: 12). The implication is that soul and spirit are so intimately allied that differentiating between them is exceedingly difficult. This is demonstrated by the fact that both words (whether in Hebrew or in Greek) have the root meaning of breath or wind. Both have the sense of invisible activity—an activity (in man at least) manifested in the body. The overlap in features can be seen in that, for example, both spirit and soul can be “troubled” (see John 12: 27; 13: 21), and death (in man) is said to occur when the body is separated from either (see Gen. 35: 18; James 2: 26). However, the affinity of soul and spirit is not the only lesson of Heb. 4: 12. The verse also teaches that the soul and the spirit are not identical, and further that it is only the Word of God that can differentiate between them. It is for that reason we must ignore theological speculation on these matters and take our doctrine from the Bible alone.

  Even a cursory glance at Scripture will reveal that the terms spirit and soul are often used in different ways. Thus, on the one hand “the Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit, that we are children of God” (Rom. 8: 16)—the witness is not with the soul, but with the spirit as the seat of our intelligence. On the other hand, it is the soul that desires (see 1 Kings 11: 37) and lusts (see Rev. 18: 14), rather than the spirit. The soul is thus particularly the home of man’s affections and passions. For example, “the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18: 1). It is the soul that loves—and the soul that hates (see 2 Sam. 5: 8). However, the spirit as the thinker, and the soul as the feeler are not independent of one another, but act together as one personality expressed through the body. The emotions of the soul may also be reflected in the spirit. Thus, for example, we read of rejoicing not only in soul (see Ps. 35: 9), but also in spirit (see Luke 1: 47)—a joy of mind.

  Another thing to understand is that not only has man a soul in him, but that he himself is a ‘soul’: “And Jehovah Elohim formed Man, dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and Man became a living soul” (Gen. 2: 7). Now there are of course occasions when a man is particularly identified with his body (as in Acts 8: 2 when “pious men buried Stephen”), but this does not detract from the fact that it is the soul that is typically presented as characterising man. He is ‘soul’ in contrast to angels who are ‘spirit’. Again, while man is linked with the lower animals by the fact that it is possession of a soul in both cases that gives life to the body, he is, at the same time, clearly set apart from them. That animals have souls is clear from a number of Scriptures. Hence “let the waters swarm with swarms of living souls” (Gen. 1: 20) and “in whose hand is the soul of every living thing” (Job. 12: 10—note the rest of the verse: “and the spirit of all flesh of man”, my emphasis). Of course, it is true that the original word for soul may have a secondary meaning of life (as in Luke 17: 33), but it makes no sense to translate Rev. 16: 3 as ‘and every living life died in the sea’. However, just as all flesh is not the same flesh (see 1 Cor. 15: 39), neither are all souls alike. In the account of the creation of the animals it is simply stated, “Let the earth bring forth living souls” (Gen. 1: 24)—but how different when man is introduced! Thus: “God created Man in his image, in the image of God created he him … And Jehovah Elohim formed Man, dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and Man became a living soul” (Gen. 1: 27; 2: 7). But for the blinding effect of unbelief, it would be impossible to confuse these two creations. The souls of men and the souls of animals are absolutely different in kind, character, and destiny. One ends in the earth, from where it came, and passes out of existence at death, while the other is destined for an eternity in heaven or hell. I am, of course, fully aware that those in the so–called annihilationist camp dispute this and are fond of triumphantly quoting Ezek. 18: 20: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (my emphasis). From this verse you are intended to infer that the soul becomes extinct at death and, indeed, it is often cited as if no more were needed to carry the position. But you have only to consult the passage in which the verse sits, bearing in mind that man is a soul, and all is plain: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. And if the wicked, if he turn from all his sins which he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do judgment and justice, he shall certainly live, he shall not die” (Ezek. 18: 20, 21). The souls referred to are persons—the son, the father, the wicked man, and the righteous man—the language could not be more explicit, and is absolutely in keeping with what is recorded elsewhere in Scripture. Thus “Joseph sent and called down to him his father Jacob, and all [his] kindred, seventy-five souls” (Acts 7: 14). Again, writing of the ship which went to pieces, and in which he and Paul were prisoners, Luke recounts “And we were in the ship, all the souls, two hundred and seventy six” (Acts 27: 37)—actual men in flesh and blood, composed of spirit, soul, and body. Peter, speaking of the ark, says “into which few, that is, eight souls, were saved” (1 Pet. 3: 20). A soul, then, is a person, a human being. Hence the rich fool addressing himself in Luke 12, says: “Soul, thou hast much good things laid by for many years; repose thyself, eat, drink, be merry” (v19). Now the person who is a soul may die, but his never–dying soul lives on. Annihilation of the soul is impossible. That is why the Lord Jesus said “be not afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul; but fear rather him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10: 28). Observe the precision of the language. Man can kill the body but not the soul; but both body and soul can be destroyed in hell. Destruction is not annihilation, and so the word is changed from kill to destroy. Killing is taking life (and therefore applies to the body not the soul), whilst destruction is ruination: something being unfit for the purpose for it was created (and hence destruction applies to both body and soul). We read in Scripture of bottles that perish (see Luke 5: 37; AV) and of a sheep which was lost (see Luke 15: 4). Both perish and lost are the same word in Greek as destroy. Were the bottles annihilated? Did the sheep cease to exist? No! Thus, contrary to the annihilationist heresy there is such a thing as “the penalty [of] everlasting destruction from [the] presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1: 9).

The Body of Man

Finally, a few words on the material part of man’s constitution—his body—without which he is not complete. Here errors abound. Sometimes man is viewed as if the body were all; with others he is seen entirely in relation to his spiritual part, and the body is counted as nothing. Both views are contrary to Scripture.
   First then, as to those who say man is just body, and hold that the soul and spirit are fictional. No one who holds this view can be a true believer for the effect is to make God a liar in His own word: “I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago, (whether in [the] body I know not, or out of the body I know not, God knows;) such [a one] caught up to [the] third heaven. And I know such a man, (whether in [the] body or out of the body I know not, God knows;) that he was caught up into paradise” (2 Cor. 12: 2–4). Here, the apostle speaks of a man who does not know what state he was in—whether “in [the] body … or out of the body”. In either case, the language used makes clear that the identity of the man is wholly associated with his spiritual part—the “man in Christ” might be “in [the] body” or “out of the body”. That the apostle is the man referred to, there can be no reasonable doubt, for he adds, “Of such [a one] I will boast” (that is “a man in Christ”), “but of myself I will not boast, unless in my weaknesses” (v5). Thus, in one brief verse we have the two aspects of the same individual, the spiritual and the corporeal—the first in which the body plays no part, and the latter where it is seen with its frailties.

  Next, what of those who say the body is nothing, and all that God takes account of is the soul and the spirit? This super–spiritual nonsense is easily refuted: “Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats; but God will bring to nothing both it and them: but the body [is] not for fornication, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body ... Do ye not know that your body is [the] temple of the Holy Spirit which [is] in you, which ye have of God; and ye are not your own for ye have been bought with a price: glorify now then God in your body” (1 Cor. 6 : 13, 19, 20). These quotations show what an honoured position the body of the believer has in the sight of God. It is for the Lord, and He for it. It is a member of Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit, and therefore God is to be glorified in it. We have no right to use or abuse it for our own gratification, putting into it, or placing upon it, what we will, and taking it to places of questionable character. On the contrary, the Christian is to be “always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body … in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4: 10, 11). Paul, as a pattern  servant of Christ, expressed himself in this way: “According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but in all boldness, as always, now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1: 20). Martyrdom stared him in the face, but even if he escaped the sword of the executioner he would in whole–hearted discipleship and service present his body to God as “a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12: 1). Some might question how Christ could be said to be magnified in the apostle’s body. Can the Lord be made any greater than what He is, either personally, morally, or in any other way? No, but He can be magnified in our bodies by the display of Himself, and by the dismissal of fleshly and worldly habits which supplant Him! The call of the hour is therefore for men and women who will glorify God and magnify Christ in their bodies: tongue, brain, heart, hands, and feet—all under His sovereign sway.


Let us return to the Scripture with which we began: “Now the God of peace sanctify you wholly: and your whole spirit, and soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He [is] faithful who calls you, who will also perform [it]” (I Thess. 5: 23, 24). I used these verses to establish the tripartite constitution of man, but they clearly go far beyond that and demonstrate that God has blessing in mind for man as a complete being—soul, spirit and body. In the light of this marvellous fact our hearts are surely bowed in worship, and we can only echo the thoughts of the Psalmist in Psalm 8: “When I see thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and stars, which thou hast established; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” (vs3, 4)!