2.3 Death & Life: Separation vs. Union
Volume 2: Studies in Contrast—Chapter 3
Death & Life: Separation vs. Union
I was watching one of those beautifully filmed BBC nature documentaries the other night, and it occurred to me (for the umpteenth time) that life as we find it on earth seems to be the most frustratingly pointless thing imaginable. Evolutionists, of course, are perfectly comfortable with the idea of senseless serendipity: their whole theory is based on the illogical premise of trillions of happy accidents occurring, one after the other ad infinitum, resulting in what we see in our biosphere. But life’s inherent contradictions aren’t quite so easy to comprehend for someone like me, who sees the Designer’s hand all over it.
On the one hand, we’re faced with the miracle of life itself, something so wonderful scientists still don’t understand how it happens or what it is. All we know for sure is that life transcends chemistry—it’s infinitely more than the sum of its parts, a concept fundamentally distinct from the physical bodies that possess it. Our biosphere consists of an almost inconceivable variety of life forms, ranging from the tiniest microbe (the lowliest of which is still astonishingly complex) to whales as big as houses; from single-celled bacteria to massive trees—to men, equipped with minds capable of appreciating it all. Even though countless species have gone extinct since life first appeared, our earth still hosts more kinds of life that we can catalog or comprehend—some relatively simple, some complex beyond comprehension; some common and familiar, some so strange as to tax the imagination; some (to our eyes) stunningly beautiful, others laughably ugly; some clever and cooperative, others apparently running mindless biological programs; some ruthless and efficient as predators, and others so vulnerable and specialized they’re restricted to the narrowest of ecological niches. And remarkably, these species survive—and even thrive—in a world that seems bent on their destruction.
But then we’re confronted with the inescapable fact that every living thing—as an individual—is doomed to death the moment it comes into existence. It doesn’t matter how worthy, or capable, or well suited an organism is to life on this planet—it eventually dies. Even stranger, the Creator of life apparently planned it this way: animals whose assigned role in life is to get eaten by larger animals bear many young, whereas the predators at the top of the food chain bear few. Throughout the biosphere, there seem to be only three universal imperatives while life endures: (1) eat; (2) defend yourself; and (3) reproduce. But in the end, everything dies. The species may live on, but the individual is gone and forgotten. What is God trying to teach us here? I think He may have a mind-bending epiphany in store for us (or at least, me) concerning the nature of our spiritual existence, but we’re going to have to pay close attention to God’s creation—and His word—for the clues He left for us if we ever hope to understand His mind on this.
When I was a child, I was taught (in church) that nothing had ever died until Adam sinned. After all, Paul had written, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12) So (as the story went) when my pet parakeet died, it was ultimately because mankind had introduced sin and death into the world. Naturally, I felt guilty, helpless, frustrated, and not a little confused. But then I got my first look at the fossilized skeleton of a saber-toothed cat—a smilodon—and I knew intuitively that God had designed it as a killing machine. Therefore, it logically followed that the “death” that had entered the world through sin—the kind of thing Paul was talking about—had to have been something fundamentally different than what the tar-pit tiger could bring about with those eleven-inch teeth. (Does a normal nine-year-old think about stuff like that?) Now, having had over half a century to reflect on the matter, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only are there two kinds of death in view, but one of them—the physical death to which all mortal creatures are appointed—was designed by Yahweh to be a symbol, a picture, of the other one. Physical death is “merely” a metaphor through which God teaches us what we need to know about something we can’t see as we walk through this life: spiritual death.
And if there are two kinds of death, there must also be two types of life, one of which, as before, functions as a symbol informing us about the other. The life we see—where big fish eat little fish, where individuals perish but their species live on—is supposed to teach us something about the life we can’t see, the life possible in the spiritual realm. The differences between these two types of life are revealed by the differences in the bodies in which they are lived out. Our flesh and blood bodies are mortal—they’re not designed to live forever. But because we can’t directly observe the spiritual realm, we need to explore what God’s word has to say about the “bodies” in which these spiritual lives are to be lived.
And taking the thought process back another step, the fact that our physical bodies have a beginning—conception leading to birth—should tell us to expect a parallel reality in the spiritual side of things as well. How is one “born” spiritually? What is the mechanism of conception? Is there something equivalent to a gestation period? The contrast between birth and death that we witness in our finite physical world is, I believe, designed to inform us about the larger world into which Yahweh is inviting us. As Paul (paraphrasing Isaiah) put it, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”(I Corinthians 2:9)
In the wake of Eve’s role in the downfall of the human race into sin, Yahweh pronounced the following curse: “To the woman He said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing [herown]; in pain you shall bring forth [yalad] children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’”(Genesis 3:16) The reason the “forbidden fruit” had seemed desirable to Adam’s bride was the promise of wisdom. The serpent had promised her that if she ate it, she would know the difference between good and evil. From our perspective, that might seem like a very good thing—we all too often have a hard time distinguishing between them. Between outright lies and the law of unintended consequences, we find ourselves deceived time after time in our quest for “good.” But the only reason Eve didn’t already know good from evil was that she had never seen evil. She had no frame of reference, nothing with which to compare the good that Yahweh had already lavished upon her. Good was all she knew. She thought she was buying knowledge, when in fact she was merely being sold experience. There’s a vast difference.
So honoring the choice Eve had made, God gave her precisely what she had asked for: the experience of evil, along with that of good. Adam, recognizing her primary role, named his wife Chavvah (boiled down to “Eve” in transliteration), which literally means “to show breath,” hence, “life, or living.” (Thus chavvah also denotes a place of life—a village or town.) The process of bringing forth life—i.e., childbearing—is described with two separate words in this verse, and there are also two different words for the pain associated with it. In the first instance, “childbearing” is the Hebrew herown, denoting the whole process—the sexual act, conception, the gestation period, and the childbirth. The word is used only two other times in scripture, both of them unambiguously referring to conception. The Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains notes that in this context, both the pains and pleasures of the childbearing process would be intensified. The “pain” associated with herown is ‘itstabown—pain, labor, hardship, sorrow, and toil. It’s based on the root verb ‘asab, meaning to grieve, displease, vex, or wrest, leading us to conclude that there is a heavy emotional or psychological component to the “pain” of herown.
In the second instance, to “bring forth” children is the verb yalad: to bear, bring forth, beget, or travail—it’s the all-purpose Hebrew word having to do with bearing children, used of the mother, the father, and even the midwife. The “pain” associated with yalad is ‘etseb—the physical sensation of pain, trouble or difficulty, or hard work. So in other words, bringing new life into the world would henceforth not be easy. Because Eve had desired the knowledge of both good and evil, she would be given heightened sensory experience, especially in her role as life-bringer, an intensification of pleasure, pain, and desire.
Yalad—to beget or bear children—is used 498 times in the Hebrew scriptures, mostly in the “begats.” Genealogies are significant in scripture, for the family tree of the Messiah is revealed in detail—demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that Yahshua is the only bona fide candidate for the job who ever showed up in history. But the non-genealogical instances of the word can teach us something about the mindset of Yahweh concerning the concept of birth and how it relates to our redemption. Speaking of Yahshua’s real lineage, the Psalmist tells of a King who will rule with a rod of iron from Zion, Yahweh’s holy hill: “I will tell of the decree: Yahweh said to Me, ‘You are My Son; today I have begotten [yalad] You.’” (Psalm 2:7) Jews who expect their Messiah to be something less than the literal Son of God need to reconsider their position.
On the other hand, the Messiah would be a human male, born into the world in the usual way, one destined to sit on the throne of King David: “For to us a child is born [yalad], to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over His kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of Yahweh of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7) So, He would be both “born as a child” and be “Mighty God.” Well, nobody ever said the redemption of mankind would be simple.
Complicating matters even further, Yahweh speaks of the human race as if He were our Parent, for that’s how He wants us to think of Him: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore [yalad] you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth [chuwl].” (Deuteronomy 32:18) The problem is that we don’t honor that parent-child relationship (as required in the Fifth Commandment), nor do we appreciate what Yahweh had to do in order to bring us forth in life. The word translated “gave birth” here is chuwl, a colorful description of the pain of childbirth: it means to twist, writhe, or travail. It’s the motion of a whirlwind, circling and intense. This is how God describes what He went through to bring forth the human race. No wonder He told us to honor our father and mother. We tend to take our existence for granted, but doing so betrays our self-centered arrogance, an abysmal lack of appreciation for the effort Yahweh put into this. Just because Yahweh is God, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everything He does is easy for Him. It’s as if we’re Pope Julius, strolling through the Sistine Chapel and telling Michelangelo, “It looks okay, I guess, but you could’ve been done a lot sooner if you’d used a roller.”
Yahweh considers the human race, and especially Israel, to be His own children, made in His own image and likeness. As the father of eleven children, I can attest that a parent’s greatest joy is to see his children loving each other—and his greatest sadness is to see them hurting, abusing, and hating one other. So imagine how Yahweh must have felt when Israel turned their back on Him and began worshipping Molech—a bloodthirsty Canaanite god whose “priests” demanded that their children be burned alive to honor him: “And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne[yalad] to Me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. Were your whorings so small a matter that you slaughtered My children and delivered them up as an offering by fire to them?” (Ezekiel 16:20-21) He says, “Those were My children you were offering up to your false god!” We, of course, cluck our tongues and say, “How barbaric! We would never do anything like that.” Are you sure? The leading cause of death in the U.S. is listed as heart disease, followed closely by cancer—together totaling 1.19 million deaths per year. But abortion claims more souls than both of these causes combined: 1.21 million young lives every year in this country—twenty-two percent of all pregnancies. Molech worshippers sacrificed their children in hopes of being granted material prosperity—bountiful crops and increased flocks and herds. But no fewer than ninety-three percent of all abortions are performed because the child is deemed “inconvenient”—a burden that might negatively impact the lifestyle of the mother and/or the father. I would submit to you that there is no appreciable difference between the two things. Approximately 42 million abortions are performed annually worldwide. That means that every year 39 million children—two thirds of the death toll of World War II—are sacrificed on the red-hot outstretched arms of the image of Molech. And we wonder why Yahweh is still angry.
But wait a minute. Is our sinful behavior really our fault? Anybody who’s ever tried to be “good” knows how hard it can be. We can’t seem to behave perfectly according to our own standards, much less Yahweh’s, for longer than a New York minute. Job’s “miserable comforters,” trying to convince him that he must have done something bad to earn Yahweh’s wrath—’cause everybody does—pointed out that sin follows birth like night follows day. First, Eliphaz opined, “For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground, but man is born [yalad] to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:6-7) Later, Bildad chimed in: “How then can man be in the right before God? How can he who is born [yalad] of woman be pure? Behold, even the moon is not bright, and the stars are not pure in his eyes; how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!” (Job 25:4-6)
While our own personal experience tells us that these things are true, Job—without really knowing how—sensed that there was something in the picture beyond the obvious consequences of guilt. “If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my service I would wait, till my renewal should come. You would call, and I would answer You; You would long for the work of Your hands. For then You would number my steps; You would not keep watch over my sin; my transgression would be sealed up in a bag, and You would cover over my iniquity.” (Job 14:14-17) Yes, we commit iniquity that must be covered—“sealed up in a bag” as it were—if we are to be considered righteous. But that’s precisely the point Job’s friends missed: it can be, and it will be. Job even reveals how this will happen. Someone in Whom life dwells will pay our debt of sin for us, giving us His own life: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.” (Job 19:25-26) We can be redeemed, revived, and reborn.
Failing to recognize the role of the coming Redeemer was where Job’s friends went wrong, prompting Yahweh to ask, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”(Job 38:2) Oooh, I just hate it when He says that. After posing some impossible questions of Job, designed to remind him just how awesome this God is who’s reputation and character we bandy about so lightly, “Yahweh said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as my servant Job has.’” (Job 42:7) The bottom line: yes, we are “born to trouble,” but because our Redeemer lives, we may be born again into a new reality, a new state of purity, an entirely new kind of life.
All of this would come into sharper focus, of course, as the Messiah’s mission unfolded. The new birth that Job had anticipated was described by John as a right that’s granted to us who believe—who trust and rely upon—His name (a name that literally means “Yahweh is Salvation”): “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born [gennao], not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:9-13) The Greek gennao is the rough equivalent of the Hebrew yalad. The root of English words such as “genealogy,” “generation” and “generate,” it is the generic Greek verb denoting “to give birth.” Like yalad, is used of both mothers and fathers. In the idiom of the day, it was also used to describe “causing something to arise,” or “bringing something about,” such as an opinion or condition, or to engender a feeling such as wrath or fear. Gennao could thus be used to portray a spiritual conversion. Here in John 1, that idiomatic distinction is quite clear: physical birth (involving blood and the will of man’s flesh) is contrasted with being born according to the will of God into a different kind of life, one not subject to the death of the physical body.
Yahshua explained the difference to Nicodemus: “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again [gennao anothen: literally, born from above] he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born [gennao] of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born [gennao] of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again [from above].” The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’” (John 3:3-8) Thus the two births lead to two different kinds of life. Flesh is temporary and mortal; spirit is permanent and immortal. Flesh is visible and corporeal; spirit is unseen and intangible. Flesh cannot discern spiritual things; spirit transcends the inadequacies of the flesh.
A few pages back, we broached the provocative question of whether there is anything like a gestation period leading up to spiritual rebirth. But as we have seen, both yalad and gennao—the Hebrew and Greek verbs meaning “to be born” or “to procreate”—encompass the entire process, from conception to birth, and refer to both male and female roles. If you ever want to have a pointless and frustrating afternoon, spend it discussing “when life begins” with a proponent of abortion. No matter when you pinpoint the beginning of one’s mortal life, however, you must agree that life begins somewhere. There is a time before which life is not, and after which, it is. The spiritual second birth also has a beginning, one that’s every bit as controversial (which is to say, I don’t have any facile answers for you). I would have to disagree with a Catholic who might suggest that spiritual life begins when an infant is baptized, for the babe has no choice in the matter. Many Evangelicals presume it begins when one has an emotional response to a gospel message. That may be true for some, I suppose, but emotions are a terribly imprecise and erratic unit of measure. You can “feel” saved one minute, only to fall into sin and “feel” lost the next.
My own “conversion” experience wasn’t really an experience at all, but a natural process: I was taught the word of God at my mother’s knee, and I simply woke up one day realizing that I did indeed believe what I’d been taught: I did trust and rely upon “Jesus Christ.” Did I know everything? Gimme a break—I was only seven or eight years old. I didn’t even know God’s real name. All I knew was that my faith was genuine because my God was genuine. Now, at the other end of my life, I still know that, and a few other things as well. But my increased knowledge (such as it is) hasn’t made my salvation any more sure than it was when I was a small boy. Indeed, I have read works by men whose knowledge of theology is deep and profound, but whose relationship with Yahweh is, for all I can tell, nonexistent. Thus it is my observation that neither knowledge, nor emotion, nor religious rituals are legitimate indicators of spiritual life.
So I’m not in a position to state categorically when the “new birth” begins in one’s life (though I suspect it’s a little different for each of us). I am, however, aware of evidence scripture offers by which one can know that he has indeed been born from above. John’s first epistle identifies the spiritual equivalent of a newborn baby’s first cry. It’s love. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born [gennao] of God and knows God.”(I John 4:7) Love for one another, then, is Proof of Spiritual Life #1.
There’s more to human life, of course, than that first gulp of air. So we should not be too surprised to find that evidence of our spiritual life is found in other things as well. What we think and what we do reveal the presence of God’s Spirit within us, if it’s there at all: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born [gennao] of God.” (I John 5:1) It’s one thing to say, “I believe in Jesus.” That’s a rather nebulous and slippery declaration, however. Do we mean that we think Yahshua actually existed, that He walked the earth two thousand years ago and raised some eyebrows with His revolutionary teachings? Do we mean we accept the premise that He was a prophet sent from God? You can find Hindus and Muslims who believe these very same things.
No, John is being quite specific here. The mental Rubicon is whether we believe that Yahshua is “the Christ.” “Christ” is not Yahshua’s “last name.” It’s a title, meaning the same thing “Messiah” does—which doesn’t help much unless you understand what that means, in technical terms. It literally means “anointed.” In the Tanach, the priests and kings of Israel were to be anointed with olive oil (itself a symbol of God’s Spirit) as an indication of their consecration and dedication to Yahweh. Many of the scriptural instances of the word mashiyach (transliterated Messiah) refer to actual kings or priests. But these offices were prophetic of the Anointed One—Yahweh’s promised redeemer, Yahshua.
We first hear of Him (in these terms) in the prophecy of Hannah (Samuel’s mother): “Yahweh will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to His king and exalt the power of His Anointed.” (I Samuel 2:10) He is portrayed in the Psalms: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against Yahweh and against His Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord [adonay] holds them in derision.” (Psalm 2:1-4) And we see Him again in Daniel’s remarkably precise messianic prophecy: “Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the command to restore and build Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince, there shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; The street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublesome times. And after the sixty-two weeks Messiah shall be cut off, but not for Himself.” (Daniel 9:25-26) Proof of Spiritual Life #2, then, is acceptance of the fact that Yahshua was (and is) this promised Mashiyach—Yahweh’s Anointed One.
John continues: “And everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of Him.”This is a clarification of PoSL#1—the love of one another. He’s saying that our love for Yahweh is demonstrated by our love for His children—those who have been “born of Him” and who are therefore spiritually alive. How then can we be sure that our love for Yahweh’s children is genuine? What is the litmus test for that? “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments….” If you’ll recall, Yahshua confirmed that the whole Torah could be summed up in two related principles: loving Yahweh with all our heart, soul, and might, and loving our neighbors as we do ourselves.
“And His commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born [gennao] of God overcomes the world.” Here’s where we get into trouble if we’re merely looking for a laundry list of do’s and don’ts to follow. If “overcoming the world” is the same thing as perfectly keeping all the precepts of the Torah, then nobody is “born of God,” for no one (except for Yahshua Himself) has managed not to run afoul of the Law in some way or another: all of us have sinned—we all fall short of God’s “glory” (that’s the Greek doxa: literally, His opinion, judgment, or estimation; see Romans 3:23). This idea would also make the previous statement sound hollow indeed: if “His commandments” are coterminous with the literal Torah, then why has mankind universally found them too “burdensome” to keep? Peter said as much in Acts 15:10. I too can testify to this: I spent years studying the Torah—I wrote a thousand-page book detailing what I found. I can assure you, it cannot be kept, not literally anyway (if for no other reason than the priesthood no longer exists and the temple no longer stands).
Did John understand this? Yes, he did. So he explains what he meant, in his own maddeningly cryptic idiom: “And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (I John 5:1-5) No, it’s not our faith that saves us. It’s the object of that faith: Yahshua. He has “overcome the world” by fulfilling every last shred of the Torah’s symbolic requirements. And we can share in His victory—i.e., we can “overcome the world” on the basis of what He accomplished—if we believe, trust, and rely upon the fact that Yahshua is the Son of God, Yahweh’s Anointed Redeemer. Remember, we’re trying to identify the things that define us as being spiritually alive. This, then, would be Proof of Spiritual Life #3: overcoming the world by trusting in the deity of Yahshua and the efficacy of His sacrifice—the essence of Messianic promise.
Stating the same basic principle another way, John next tells us, “And now, little children, abide in Him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from Him in shame at his coming. If you know that He is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born [gennao] of Him.” (I John 2:28-29) It’s not that we’re expected to be able to “practice righteousness” in our own strength. It’s that because Yahshua is righteousness personified, whatever righteousness God sees in us—the garment of light, if you will, that keeps us from having to stand before Yahweh naked and ashamed in our sins—is, in fact, Yahshua’s sinless state. It is His sinlessness, not ours, that has the potential to provide Proof of Spiritual Life #4: a life that honors God before men.
It has been my experience in life that people do pretty much what they want to do, insofar as it’s in their power. So there’s a litmus test for PoSL#4: what do people see when they look at your life? Do you flout your “faith” by living immersed in the world, presuming that since all your sins are covered by grace you’re free to act like the devil? Do you sow your wild oats and then pray for a crop failure? Does your religious pride make people regard you as being so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good? Be honest: whom do you honor with your walk through this world, Yahweh or yourself?
I’m not saying believers born in Yahweh’s Spirit will never miss the target of behavioral perfection; I’m merely asserting that they will characteristically take careful aim at it—they’ll try to do what they know is right. John put it like this: “No one born [gennao] of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.” Why not? It’s because of the conviction of the Holy Spirit dwelling within him, making him miserable (or at least uncomfortable) when he’s not in the center of God’s will. “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” (I John 3:9-10) If Yahweh’s Spirit is living within you, sin will feel uncomfortable, irritating, and abnormal, like wearing burlap underwear: you won’t be happy until it’s gone.
In our parting shot on this subject from John, let’s address one of the most misunderstood verses in the Bible. The King James puts it like this: “We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.” This sounds like anyone who is “born of God” must henceforth live a perfect, flawless, sinless life—and if he stumbles into sin, it’s because he has failed in his responsibility before God to keep himself pure, so he’s been given over to Satan to mess with him. But that’s not what the verse is saying at all. There are actually two parties identified here, both of whom are described as being “born (gennao) of God,” but the first of which is kept, guarded, or protected (tereo) by the second. The ESV provides a far more accurate translation here, but you still have to stay on your toes: “We know that everyone who has been born of God [i.e., the Spirit-indwelled believer] does not keep on sinning, but He who was born of God [that is, Yahshua] protects him [the believer], and the evil one does not touch him.” (I John 5:18)
First, lets look at the grammatical differences between the two instances of the verb gennao—to be born. They’re both passive participles, but the tenses are different—and telling. The first instance (the one describing us believers) is in the perfect tense. That means our “birth” is an action that’s complete, but it has an ongoing state of being, an existing result in the present time. The second (the one describing Yahshua as being “born of God”) is in the aorist tense, simply indicating that His birth has occurred: it is accomplished. The aorist tense speaks of the reality of the action without regard to elapsed time. In other words, Yahshua is not being described as a second-generation deity, but rather as One whose eternal reality consists of being the Son of God—the One who represents Yahweh’s interests before mankind (as it’s pictured in Psalm 127:3-5).
Then, note that the verb “to sin” here (Greek: hamartano) is in the present tense (indicating continuous, linear action), the indicative mood (meaning that it is really happening), and the active voice (stating that the action is being accomplished by the subject). This means that the ESV’s “keep on sinning” translation is correct. The errant KJV translation makes it sound as if the aorist tense had been used—which would have pretty much thrown the rest of Scripture into the dumpster.
The bottom line here is that the “evil one,” Satan, can’t “touch” someone who is being protected by Yahshua—that is, through the Holy Spirit dwelling within him, just as Yahshua promised His disciples in John 14. (The word “touch” in this verse is fascinating: the Greek verb hapto literally means to fasten to, to adhere to, to seize or grasp—especially to “fasten” fire to something, i.e., to set it on fire.) So once we’re born into Christ—from that moment—Satan can’t burn us.
In the biological sense, we don’t get to choose when we’re born. That’s up to our parents to decide (and frankly, I don’t think they usually put a lot of thought into it). But birth happens nevertheless. As Solomon said, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born [yalad], and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2) But there’s nothing about spiritual birth that’s accidental, incidental, or beyond our own ability to bring about. For this kind of life, we get to choose the day of our birth; we get to decide when the devil can no longer seize us and set fire to our souls. I concur with Pinocchio on this one: why would anybody postpone becoming a real live person?
We have established that physical, biological birth is a symbol God uses to teach us about the “second birth”—birth “from above” in His Spirit. But birth is just the beginning of life; there’s more to the human race than the starting gun. We shouldn’t be too surprised then to find God’s word speaking of life itself—as it does birth—in dual terms: temporary, biological life is a picture, a metaphor, used to teach us about eternal, spiritual life.
The primary words used to convey this concept are the Greek psuche and the Hebrew nephesh, both usually translated “life” or “soul.” Both words are derived from the idea of breath or respiration—something every living thing is observed to do, one way or another. The Genesis account of how Adam became a man, unique in the biosphere, tells us a great deal about the interrelationship of the scriptural concepts of life, breath, and simply being. “Then Yahweh, God, formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed [naphach] into his nostrils the breath [neshamah] of life [hayah], and the man became [hayah] a living [hay or chay—pronounced somewhere in between the two] creature (or soul) [nephesh].” (Genesis 2:7) Note the similarities, the family ties, between some of these words. The verb hayah (to become) and the adjective hay (living) are both based on the primitive root verb chayah—to live, have life, or be alive. In the thought process of the living God, to be is to live—which sort of explains why chayah is a component of His own self-revealed name: Yahweh. Conversely, death is defined as the cessation of existence on some level.
In the same way, the words translated “breathed” (naphach) and “soul” (nephesh—unfortunately translated “creature” here in the ESV) are related, the basic root idea being “breath.” Neshamah, the feminine noun translated “breath” here, is not linguistically related to nephesh, but it is based on a related concept: nasham means to pant or gasp, as in a woman’s labor in childbirth. We should perhaps take this as a clue that making man in His own image was God’s idea of “giving birth” to our race. Breath and life, then, are parallel concepts. This is an important thing to understand, because another word based on the concept of breathing—ruach—is the Hebrew word used to convey spirit. Thus the same basic metaphor—breath—is used to communicate spirit, soul, and life.
From Yahweh’s point of view, then, these ideas are all related: existence, life, breath, soul, and spirit. Together, they define the eternal destiny of the child of God. But the picture is still not complete. There are two components yet missing, making a total of (surprise!) seven—presented (as usual) as six plus one. Look again at Genesis 2:7. “Then Yahweh, God, formed the man of dust from the ground.” The sixth component is seen here as “dust,” informing us that whether in this life or the next, we will have a bodily form. We’ll explore that subject a bit later. The seventh component—the one, as expected, that stands separate from the others—is Yahweh’s personal involvement in the whole process: “Yahweh formed the man.” He not only formed Adam’s mortal carcass, but He’ll fashion our immortal bodies as well. He has already built the prototype—Yahshua’s resurrection body, a model complete with existence, life, breath, soul, and the Spirit of God. We can expect Him to complete the same process in each of us in whom His Spirit dwells.
For now, however, we must content ourselves with the symbol, the promise. And that symbol reveals the danger we face: if the soul is separated from the body, the body dies: one’s mortal life exists no longer. At one point, the patriarch Jacob was rather surprised to find himself alive, for he had just had a personal encounter with God—and he’d lived to tell the tale: “So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [“the face of God”], saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life [nephesh] has been delivered.’” (Genesis 32:30) As we discovered in a previous chapter, the only way this was possible was for Yahweh to have manifested Himself in a diminished form, a “theophany” in which His glory was reduced to the point of non-lethality, though His identity remained intact. Jacob didn’t need Paul to tell him that the wages of sin is death.
Our sins will eventually separate all of our souls from our mortal bodies. That ought to be depressing enough. But there are situations when the process of dying is unnaturally accelerated: “Whoever takes a human life [nephesh] shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:17) “If there is harm, then you shall pay life for life [nephesh], eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." (Exodus 21:23-25) I don’t really care if you find capital punishment cruel and barbaric. God disagrees with you, commanding its practice—carried out with all the caveats and safeguards He instituted—as the only just course of action. But we should not be unaware that the death penalty is in itself only one more of Yahweh’s metaphors. The crime for which the death penalty is invoked, the forcible separation of another’s soul from his mortal body (a.k.a. murder), is analogous to the prevention of Yahweh’s Spirit from entering someone’s soul—the very thing that would have defined him as being eternally, spiritually alive. You’re free to choose your own destiny, of course, but you’re not free to negatively impact the ability of others to make their own good choices: “If there is harm, you shall pay, soul for soul.” Note that God isn’t warning us against giving guidance—only against guidance that leads to another person’s spiritual demise. He considers the “separation of church and state” (in the symbolic sense of separating our relationship with Him from the way we conduct our lives in the world) to be positively idiotic.
This truth is highlighted in such fundamental commands as this: “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul [nephesh] and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) The Torah fairly screams that our God won’t take a back seat to anyone or anything in our affections or attention. He doesn’t want us to relegate Him to a remote corner of our lives, dredged up and given lip service for a couple of hours a week, or in times of great joy, or periods of profound grief. Yahweh is not a God of church services, weddings, and funerals. He’s not just Someone to turn to in times of national disaster or personal catastrophe. “Thank God it’s Friday” is a swell sentiment, as long as we’re also thanking Him when it’s Monday, and the whole week looming before us looks like a train wreck about to happen. It’s not that Yahweh is a narcissist—He doesn’t need the attention. It’s us that need to be in constant touch with Him, for He is the place of blessing and shelter, the source of life itself. Anything short of constant fellowship with Yahweh is detrimental to our health.
In Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, Yahweh listed specific blessings that would rest upon Israel if they would do as He had instructed them, but He also enumerated explicit curses that would befall them if they didn’t. Together, those instructions (the Torah) were supposed to comprise a sweeping and comprehensive picture of what He was doing in the world to effect mankind’s salvation—our redemption from the state of bondage into which we had sold ourselves. But the words had no sooner left the lips of His prophet, Moses, than Yahweh predicted what Israel would actually do: for the most part, they would reject His blessing and embrace the curse—forcing Him in the end to evict them from the land of promise. They would not “love Yahweh their God with all their heart and soul.” But those in the “Church” who are tempted to kick Israel while they’re down, claiming their covenant blessings for themselves, should bite their tongues, for they have done no better than Israel in loving Yahweh unreservedly. We all need to realize that Israel is a prophetic microcosm of the whole human race: where they failed, we are vulnerable as well; where they are given hope, we too can rejoice.
Knowing Israel would get lost, Yahweh showed them (and us) the way back home—which was basically to return to where we had swerved off course in the first place: “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where Yahweh your God has driven you, and return to Yahweh your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul [nephesh], then Yahweh your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where Yahweh your God has scattered you.” (Deuteronomy 30:1-3) Notice that He didn’t say “if,” but “when.” A remnant of God’s chosen race will “return to Yahweh with their whole heart and soul—it’s a prophetic fait accompli. And that means there’s hope for the rest of us. But blessed are they who never distance themselves from Yahweh’s love in the first place.
A relationship with Yahweh is not (as some see it) like a hat you can put on your head or take off again. You can’t logically compartmentalize the function of your nephesh—your life—into sacred and secular sections. It won’t work. Worshipping God one day a week (and ignoring Him for the other six) would be like asking your heart to pump blood through your arteries only during business hours. But just as biological life is not intermittent, neither is its spiritual counterpart. That’s why Yahweh commands us to love Him and obey His precepts with “all our heart and all our soul.”
We shouldn’t be too surprised, then, to find that Yahweh has used blood as a potent metaphor to teach us something about the nature of life. Blood brings oxygen—breath (remember what that means?)—to every cell in our bodies. Blood is always flowing, always providing what is needed—always loving the whole body. It’s ubiquitous: cut me anywhere and I’m going to bleed. So Yahweh says, “If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. “For the life [nephesh] of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement for the life [nephesh].” (Leviticus 17:10-11) The shedding of blood is symbolic of sacrifice, and specifically (in the context of the Torah) the sacrifice of the Innocent to atone for the sins of the guilty—characterized here as a gift Yahweh has made to us upon the altar. The eating of blood is a different picture altogether: it is symbolic of someone nourishing himself at the expense of the life of another.
When Cain slew his brother Abel, Yahweh demanded of the murderer, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” (Genesis 4:10-11) The relative innocence of Abel was a metaphor for the absolute innocence of Yahshua. The blood of both men cried out to Yahweh from the ground where it was spilled, but figuratively, it was also “eaten” by their murderers. That is, both Cain and the Jewish religious establishment attempted to elevate, sustain, and nourish themselves by shedding the blood of their innocent rivals. Though Cain couldn’t have known it, the Chief Priests and Pharisees certainly should have perceived that the consequence of such a thing would be Yahweh’s “setting His face against them” and “cutting them off from among their people.” Eating blood isn’t only hazardous to your physical health; It’s also metaphorical of taking a life—a crime punishable by death.
As if this “blood” metaphor weren’t confusing enough already, Yahshua said: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:53-55) This time, of course, He was speaking figuratively of His blood that was to be shed to atone for our sins. Remember, Yahweh had informed us, “The life [nephesh] of the flesh is in the blood,” and “It is the blood that makes atonement for the life [nephesh].” The fact is, we do need to be nourished by assimilating the Messiah’s life into our lives. He alone is capable of sustaining our souls and elevating our spirits. So as literal blood is symbolic of one’s mortal life (which makes eating it symbolic of murder), the symbolic blood of Christ is literally the substance of His life (making drinking it symbolic of assimilating that life into our own). Confused yet?
Put another way, we are all guilty of “eating blood,” for we are all culpable in the murder of God’s Anointed. The only way we can be absolved of our crime is to avail ourselves of the atoning efficacy that blood. The issue we must each address is how we came to partake of the blood of the Messiah: did we take it by force, or did we allow Yahweh to bestow it upon us as a gift? The difference isn’t academic: it’s a matter of life versus death.
The disposition of blood isn’t the only way Yahweh tied the concepts of physical and spiritual life together. Actually, the symbolic continuity between the two worlds—between the type and the antitype—is ubiquitous in scripture. Job’s friend Elihu apparently thought that repentance would compel God to spare a man’s physical life, not thinking far enough ahead to realize that all men, even those (like Job) with no specific or identifiable sins from which to repent, are still destined for sheol. He intoned, “He has redeemed my soul [nephesh] from going down into the pit, and my life shall look upon the light. Behold, God does all these things, twice, three times, with a man, to bring back his soul from the pit, that he may be lighted with the light of life.” (Job 33:28-30) Elihu figured that since his own life was relatively free from problems, it must mean that Yahweh had already “ransomed his soul from the pit,” not realizing that he was, in fact, headed toward sheol just as certainly as Job was. Yahweh’s plan, however, was to “bring his soul back from the pit” after death—producing new life, presented in a whole new kind of body. And as we have seen, Job had some idea of how Yahweh intended to accomplish this: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.” (Job 19:25-26)
The contrast between Elihu’s limited understanding and Job’s more enlightened position is mirrored in a Psalm from the sons of Korah: “Like sheep they [in context, the foolish and those who follow them] are appointed for Sheol. Death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning. Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. But God will ransom my soul [nephesh] from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me.” (Psalm 49:14-15) Sheol, the grave, need not be the end of life. For the follower of Yahweh, ransom—redemption and renewal—awaits. As David put it, “Yahweh redeems the life [nephesh] of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” (Psalm 34:22)
The point is that people whose only concern is this mortal life are foolish. Yahshua told a story about just such a man. “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’” Poor baby. We all have our crosses to bear, don’t we? “And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul [psuche], you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul [psuche] is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)
Note first that you can be smart enough to earn a great deal of money and still be considered a total imbecile in God’s eyes. Second, the man’s wealth was only incidentally the result of his own industry and business acumen: it was primarily a gift from God: his land had produced plentifully. Today we might say, “The stock market was good to me” or “My education paid off.” Is there is any variable outside your control? Of course there is: there always is. You therefore can (and should) consider whatever success you’ve enjoyed a gift from God, and honor Him accordingly. Third, once you’re dead, the things you possessed in your mortal life are of no consequence to you—unless you used them to glorify God and to show love to your fellow man. And fourth, you never know when your time is up; all you can know for sure is that your days as a mortal human will come to an end.
The moral of the story is that you can plan, prepare, and provide for this life all you want, but you’re a fool if you think it’s going to last. A wise man factors eternity into his calculations for the future. Or as Yahshua put it, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life [psuche], what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” (Luke 12:22-23) In other words, this mortal shell you have to feed and clothe is not all there is to life. A parallel passage in Matthew adds: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:26-27) Funny He should have mentioned that: chronic anxiety and stress have now been conclusively demonstrated to shorten one’s life expectancy. The physical cause seems to be linked to a component of our DNA called “telomeres.” Yahweh of course, having designed our genetic structure, knows precisely how it all works—and He instructed us about the pitfalls of anxiety a couple of millennia before our scientists got around to figuring it out.
He didn’t make a big deal about it, however—He didn’t introduce yogaesque meditation techniques designed to reduce our stress levels and thereby lengthen our earthly lives—because our mortal bodies were never intended to be the vehicles of eternity. They’re temporary, disposable, not built to last—they’re only the Artist’s sketch, not His actual masterpiece. That’s why Yahshua told us, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life [psuche] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it….” The Greek word psuche has a foot is both worlds, the temporal and the spiritual—and these dual meanings are being played against each other here. The “breath” of our mortal bodies is being contrasted with the “soul”—that component of our life that can be made immortal through the indwelling of God’s Spirit. The point is that if we sacrifice our spiritual calling on the altar of our temporal requisites, we will lose both; but if we subjugate our earthly existence to our heavenly destiny, we will preserve everything that can be preserved.
This preservation is only possible if there is life beyond this life—if the temporary life we know and experience in this world is only a symbol for the permanent life that awaits us in Christ. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life [psuche]? For what can a man give in return for his life?” It is possible, under certain circumstances, to ransom or redeem a person’s mortal life. Kidnappers count on it. But this is not true of his real life—his soul. That remains in the hands of a Holy God, and it can only be redeemed with the one thing we do not naturally possess: innocence. The obligatory innocence, however, is offered freely to us, the gift of a loving God. But this gift will avail us nothing if we refuse to accept it. “For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38) What does it mean to “be ashamed” of Yahshua? I’d say the most fundamental indication would be to act as if His sacrifice—His gift of innocence—were insufficient to atone for one’s sins—that it must be supplemented by my works, penance, or alms.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with good works, of course. But they are not a component of the salvation we enjoy. It’s a cart-before-the-horse sort of thing. Good works are evidence of life, not a means by which we can attain it. Without Yahshua’s advent—the only example we have of a perfect Torah-compliant life—we wouldn’t even know for sure what “good works” looked like. John reminds us: “By this we know love, that He laid down his life [psuche] for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (I John 3:16-18) This, I believe, is what Yahshua characterized above as “taking up one’s cross.” It’s not necessarily dying a martyr’s death, although it occasionally comes to that. It’s more often manifested in a radical shifting of priorities—my needs are put on the back burner while I attend to those of my brother or sister. It’s practical, tangible service offered in response to a perceived need—the kind of thing described in the parable of the “Good Samaritan.”
It should be self-evident that “laying down our lives for the brothers” is something that can’t be done with our soul alone. One’s entire being has to be involved. Paul’s concluding salutation in his first letter to the Thessalonians points out the multifaceted nature of our existence: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit [pneuma] and soul [psuche] and body [soma] be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.” (I Thessalonians 5:23-24) We’ve been discussing this soul—the psuche—for the past few pages now. To recap, it is the thing that makes someone (or something—any animal) alive; its the seat of feelings, desires, affections, or aversions—the inner self: the heart, mind, and psychological faculty. The spirit—the pneuma—as we have seen, is a bit broader concept. Paul can’t be referring to Yahweh’s indwelling Holy Spirit here, for he prays that it will be “kept blameless.” I therefore believe that in this context, the pneuma to which Paul refers is “the vital principle by which the body is animated,” and specifically, “the disposition of influence which fills and governs the soul of anyone; the efficient source of any power, affection, emotion, or desire, etc.” (Those definitions are from the Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon.)
If I may use another of my dumb automotive metaphors, the soul (the psuche) is like a car’s mechanical components—all the stuff that enables it go, turn, and stop. The spirit (the pneuma) would then be comparable to the driver—the one who directs and controls all this going, turning, and stopping. And the body (the soma) is the package that contains the soul and accommodates the spirit. Each of these components has its own function, and one could say a car isn’t really fulfilling its destiny or purpose without all three. Yes, the mechanics are the essence of the automobile (just as a living soul is the essence of a man’s being) but a car’s existence is pointless if there is no one to drive it (or if there is no reason to drive it—no destination). And the body? It isn’t just for looks: its form follows its function. The sheet metal and glass direct the wind (feel free to take that metaphor and run with it); the controls and gauges allows the driver (the spirit) to communicate with the car (the soul); and the operator’s environment is specifically designed to facilitate the interface between the driver and the automobile. In human terms, it’s the place within the body where the spirit speaks to the soul. In Hebrew, you’d call that the neshamah—see Genesis 2:7.
Where a car goes is entirely dependent on will of the driver. So Paul’s prayer inadvertently points out something important: our “blamelessness” before God is a package deal: our body and soul go wherever our spirit directs. So we need to be aware of who is in the driver’s seat. There are three options. If Yahweh’s Holy Spirit is driving us, then our destination is heaven and our path is God’s love. The street lights and road signs along the way are the Word of God, and our safe arrival is assured by the heavenly escort—Yahweh’s angelic host.
If we ourselves are behind the wheel, however, we’re in trouble, because we don’t really know where are, where we’re going, or how to get there. (The same thing would be true of the wholesale surrender of our will to another human—some charismatic figure like Muhammad or Hitler, perhaps—to whom we might foolishly assign our allegiance.) At the very best, life under human control is a pointless joyride; at the worst, it’s a journey into terror and death. But either way, we’ll never reach our destination: we don’t even know where we want to go.
Option three, however, is by far the worst. If we allow Satan to drive, he’s going to take us straight to hell with him.
Forgive me if I seem to be stretching this metaphor beyond the breaking point, but consider this. It’s the body that accommodates the spirit. These days, some high end cars have the “ability” to keep unwanted drivers from getting behind the wheel: fancy locks, ignition kill switches, biometric identity verifiers, and so forth are used to keep people from driving the car who aren’t supposed to—even the owner, if he’s too inebriated to drive safely. In the same way (sort of) it is the function of our bodies (or, our souls within them) to determine who we want driving the vehicle of our eternal destiny. That is, the choices that ultimately determine our spiritual destination—deciding who is going to be in control of our lives—must be made in our mortal flesh. The responsibility and privilege of choice is the central reality of the human condition.
We should therefore resist the temptation to brush off the significance of the body, the flesh, just because it’s temporary. (This was the error of one branch of the Gnostic heresy, leading to all sorts of licentiousness.) God designed the body with one job in mind—to be the vehicle through which the soul could operate in this world. We’ll find the most eye-opening revelations concerning the body in the New Covenant scriptures, but the concept is, as usual, firmly grounded in the Tanach. The Hebrew word most often used to convey “the body” or “flesh” is basar, used 269 times in the Hebrew scriptures. Interestingly, it is based on a verb that means to bear news (usually good news), to show forth, proclaim, preach, or announce. I’m willing to take this as a heavy handed hint that Yahweh intended the function of our flesh to be the proclamation of His good news. Just a theory, of course.
Perhaps the most stunning use of basar is a verse we’ve already seen: “After my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh [basar] I shall see God.” (Job 19:26) Quite a few instances of the word concern the Levitical animal sacrifices—all of which are prophetic, one way or another, of the ultimate sacrifice of Yahshua. Another large group of basar sightings occurs in Leviticus, chapters 13-16, where the ritual cleansing of the body is used as a metaphor instructing us how to attain spiritual purity. Many instances of basar emphasize the frailty and impermanence of our mortal bodies. For example, “All flesh [basar] is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of Yahweh blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8) It therefore makes no sense at all to rely upon the arm of man. In fact, we’re cursed if we do: “Thus says Yahweh: ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh [basar] his strength, whose heart turns away from Yahweh.’” (Jeremiah 17:5) Yahweh will judge us in flesh (see for example, Jeremiah 25:31, Ezekiel 39:17, and Zechariah 14:12) and He will redeem us in flesh (see Ezekiel 36:26 and Psalm 145:21).
But as I said, the clearest presentation of the contrast between the mortal body and its spiritual counterpart—and the transition between them—is to be found in the New Covenant scriptures. In Greek, the word for “body” is soma, a word that stresses the corporeal reality of the body (the thing that casts the shadow, as opposed to the shadow itself). It’s hard to see what a soul is doing, and impossible for us to observe a spirit directly (see John 3:8). It is only through the body’s actions that the soul (and the spirit driving it) can express itself in this world. That, of course, is why Yahweh manifested Himself in a body of flesh, as Yahshua informed His persecutors: “So the Jews said to Him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’” Things? Yahshua had just “cleansed” Yahweh’s temple—and not for the last time. He drove out the traders and their bleating overpriced merchandise, turned over the moneychangers’ profitable tables, and generally acted like He owned the place (which, in reality, He did). “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking about the temple of his body [soma]. When therefore He was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that He had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” (John 2:18-22) It’s significant that Yahshua compared His body with the temple of God. All the way back to its introduction to Israel (in the form of the wilderness tabernacle) the design, function, furnishings, rituals, materials, and even the dimensions of the sanctuary had all declared, in symbolic terms, Yahweh’s plan for the redemption of mankind. That plan would come to fruition in the ministry of the Messiah, a ministry Yahshua had just commenced when He spoke these words. I can virtually guarantee that He was the only One on earth who understood what He meant at the time.
Yahshua’s body was the fulfillment of the temple’s promise. But since we believers are “in Christ,” we can expect to see a parallel in our own lives, our own bodies. Paul explains how it works. He begins by saying, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything….” All things are lawful? He just got through telling the Corinthians that “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God.” So obviously he wasn’t advocating throwing out the Torah and substituting it with “grace” (a.k.a. license)—a mistaken interpretation all too prevalent in Christian circles. He was, rather, addressing the Greco-Roman propensity to deem sins performed in the body (like fornication) as inconsequential to their spiritual well-being. Paul, knowing his Torah, was all too aware that you couldn’t separate your “secular” life from your “spiritual” one. You have only one life (and remember: the spirit—whether God’s, yours, or Satan’s—is in the driver’s seat). So take careful note: the word translated “lawful” here doesn’t have anything to do with “law.” It’s exesti, literally denoting “out of what is.” It’s a verb meaning that something is possible—it can occur: it’s logistically feasible. So Paul is actually saying something like: Sure, I could do all sorts of things, but what I do in indifference to Yahweh can hurt me—even enslave me.
So he continues his explanation: “‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other.” The ESV, with their use of quotes, rightly treats these phrases as proverbs of sorts, expressions of attitudes prevalent in Corinthian society upon which Paul wished to comment. “The body [soma] is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God [Yahweh] raised the Lord [that is, Yahshua] and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies [soma] are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with Him.” This is the point that so many of us miss: there is a bond, a connection, between the believer and his God—and this spiritual bond is formed in the flesh if it is formed at all. It is in our mortal, corruptible bodies that our choices in life are made—the most significant of which is deciding whose spirit—Yahweh’s, ours, or Satan’s—will be invited to dwell within us, directing our journey through life. Paul was speaking to believers, so he concludes, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body [soma], but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body [soma] is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (I Corinthians 6:12-20) Now you know why Christians needn’t bother trying to manage the morals of non-believers. Those without Yahweh’s Spirit within them aren’t even alive, in any permanent sense.
But we’re talking about contrasts, about transitions. Biological processes are here to teach us about spiritual possibilities. So ask yourself: what’s the one difference between a fresh corpse and a living human? It’s the presence of the psuche, the soul, the life. Once the soul has departed, your body is nothing but chemicals—two thirds water and one third dirt. But history (not to mention our own universal human longing) teaches us that one Man rose bodily from such a lifeless state into a new immortal state.
On the day He died, “the women who had come with [Yahshua] from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body [soma] was laid…. But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’” (Luke 23:55, 24:1-5) Paul’s counsel was to “Glorify God in your body.” I can think of no better way of doing that than being raised from the dead by the power of Yahweh—just as our Messiah did. Bodily resurrection, starting with Yahshua’s, proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Author of life is willing and able to transform death into life—and specifically, to change the inevitable end product of our mortal nature into the startling promise of the immortal state: being clothed in a new, indestructible kind of body—pure, holy, and incorruptible. (Mere resuscitations—“near-death experiences”—don’t count for much, because they place the subject right back where he started: doomed to an inevitable and unavoidable physical death.)
Merely wishing to be “raised from the dead” is not enough to make it so, of course. A moment ago, Paul described the connection that must be made: “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (I Corinthians 6:14-15) How, then, does one become a “member of Christ?” Is He some kind of club you join, with regular weekly meetings and dues to pay? No. The word “member” is the Greek melos, meaning a body part, such as a limb or an organ—hence figuratively someone who is part of a larger unit, part of a body. Yahshua explained it this way to Nicodemus: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:5-6) My left foot is a “member” of my mortal body. And in a way, I am the left foot of Christ’s spiritual body, the ekklesia. (Yes, it’s true: I can’t dance.) My left foot may not be the most important part of my body, but if it weren’t there, I’d miss it. The same thing is true in the body of Christ. All of us need to be there, and be engaged, for the body to function as it should. (Really, how many appendixes does a body need, anyway?)
But we can’t all be the cerebral cortex, either. “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body [soma] we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” (Romans 12:3-6) Of all a body’s “parts,” unquestionably the most important is the head, the brain. It controls and coordinates the movements and functions of the whole body—the things we consciously think about, like moving our hands and feet, and the functions that go on “in the background,” like breathing and digestion.
In the body of Christ, He is the brain: “He [Yahshua] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body [soma], the church [literally, the called-out]. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent.” (Colossians 1:15-18) What happens if the body doesn’t do exactly what the brain is telling it to do? It’s called “illness.” One of my daughters has a disease called Huntington’s Chorea, in which (among other symptoms) her limbs tremble uncontrollably. While she’s having an episode, she cannot speak clearly, has no strength in her limbs, and cannot even swallow properly. I mention this because it seems to be a perfect picture of the “church” when it refuses to take orders from its Head—which seems to be an increasingly prevalent condition these days. If the hands, feet, and tongue of the “body of Christ” aren’t listening to the Head but are off doing whatever they please, the whole body is going to suffer. Its ability to be a force for good in the world will be severely curtailed, it won’t have an effective voice, and to add insult to injury, it won’t even be able to get the spiritual nourishment it needs.
Paul addresses the subject of “body parts” from a slightly different angle in another epistle: “For just as the body [soma] is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” (I Corinthians 12: 12-14) Think this time of the kind of tissue comprising your body. Bones and teeth have one kind of job to do, muscle and fat another, blood another, and nerves another. So it is that the body of Christ is made up of people of different nationalities, cultures, social status, gifts, and abilities—all comprising one body whose head is Yahshua.
“There are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (I Corinthians 12: 20-27) The point is, God designed the body (ours and Christ’s) to be a perfectly functioning organism. Any compromise to its integrity will diminish the whole body. You may not think your liver or colon are particularly honorable, but without them, your body would accumulate waste and toxins and promptly perish. Somebody in the ekklesia has to perform these same functions—guarding it against heresy, keeping the message pure and nutritious.
The body of Christ, like our mortal bodies, needs to be nourished, fed, and replenished with the Word of God—the Logos, Yahshua Himself. I’m eating breakfast as I write these words. (They say you’re not supposed to do that, but “It’s how I roll”—or at least, why I’m “well rounded”). My oats and orange juice will eventually become part of me (at the molecular level), for in a very real sense, “you are what you eat.” Yahshua used this very truth as an illustration of what it means to become a “member” of the body of Christ: “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body [soma].’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.’” (Matthew 26:26) Bread sustains our mortal bodies: without food, we will eventually perish. In the same way, we must assimilate Christ; we must make Him the sustenance of our very souls. Spiritual starvation sounds like a horrible way to die.
This assimilation is a two way street. As we feed on Yahshua, He also makes us part of Himself. It seems counterintuitive, I know, but we not only need to be “in Christ,” we need Him to be “in us” as well. Yahshua is the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the root and stem of Jesse. The Messiah is both ends of the spiritual food chain: He’s both the plankton in the ocean of our existence and the orca who roams these seas at will, fearing no predator. Or expressing this truth another way, He became the foundation of our house (our life) in order that He might take up residence in us.
The idea of us attaining life through Yahshua’s death makes no sense to the unregenerate man, of course, but as Paul reminds us, this sort of thing happens all the time in the natural world: “Someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies….” Don’t take being called a “fool” personally, but that’s what we are if we ignore the fact that Yahweh built object lessons into the natural world. In this case, the example is a seed—the genetic “offspring” of a plant. It can’t achieve its potential—becoming a new “individual” of the same species as its forebears—if it does not undergo a transformation, a “death” of sorts, complete with a proper burial.
What arises from a seed planted in the ground is not merely another seed, but an entire plant—an organism (a “body”) capable of bearing a multitude of seeds of the same kind that had been planted. Or as Paul puts it, “And what you sow is not the body [soma] that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body [soma] as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.” Yes: you plant corn kernels, you expect to get corn stalks; you plant acorns, you expect to see oak trees. The same genetic boundaries apply for animals as well, and for people. You can cross a lion with a tiger, for they’re both cats, but you can’t breed a hybrid of an eagle and a three-toed tree toad: they’re fundamentally different kinds of beasts. “For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies [soma] and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory….” Though heavenly “bodies” (the word—soma—is the same in Greek, just as it is in English) do not reproduce like plants and animals do, there is still a distinction between their basic physical makeup—their “DNA,” so to speak. One emits light, while the other only reflects it.
So far, that’s all pretty self-evident. But now we are told how these symbols relate to the reality they represent: “So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in 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….” When you plant a viable seed in fertile ground, you can expect it to be “raised in power and glory” in the form of a plant of the same species. My wife and I do this every spring, expecting to harvest hundreds of tomatoes, green beans, and zucchinis from a few tiny seeds. God designed us to be similarly transformed—from “perishable” (i.e., mortal), dishonorable, weak, natural creatures into imperishable (read: immortal), glorious, powerful, spiritual people.
This may come as a surprise, however, because we don’t actually see it happening in our daily experience. That it does (and will) happen is something we must take on faith, based on reliable scriptural revelation. The fact is, there has thus far been only one historical occurrence of this remarkable transformation. I speak, of course, of the resurrection of Yahshua the Messiah—slain as a mortal man, but raised in an immortal, spiritual body. Will this also happen to us who trust in Him? Yes. It’s not for nothing that Christ is called God’s “firstfruits” offering—the firstborn of the dead. He was the first; we will follow Him.
The reason we’re weak, mortal, and dishonorable is that our father (that is, our original human father, Adam) took on these attributes through his sin (a mutation in his spiritual DNA, so to speak) and passed them down to us. But Yahshua reminds us that if we’re born from above, born of His Spirit, we will leave Adam’s curse behind when we leave our mortal bodies behind: Yahshua became our second Father when we were adopted into His family. “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam [i.e., Yahshua] became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable….” The idea of exchanging whose “image” we bear is something with which my wife and I are intimately familiar. You see, we adopted nine of our eleven children, and the adopted ones came from all over the place. My firstborn son looks a lot like me (that is, what I looked like when I was his age). But our kids from Korea and India look nothing like us, physically. And yet, from a cultural, societal, linguistic, or even psychological point of view, they now “look” a whole lot more like us (their adoptive parents) than they would their “original” parents.
And that’s not all. Our children—both the biological and adopted ones—are named in our will. They’ll inherit whatever’s left when my wife and I pass on (I hope they’re not counting on much). In the same way (sort of) we believers are “in the will” (that is, we are partakers of God’s covenant promises). We, as adopted children, are co-heirs with Christ, who is (as the Bible’s admittedly metaphorical language phrases it) the “only begotten Son of God.”
So (as with any number of other Bible contributors) Paul describes something that’s sort of a cross between a “reading of the will” and a big family reunion—Yahweh’s family. “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” I firmly believe that this event will fulfill the next scheduled “feast” or convocation of Yahweh (the fifth of the seven)—the Feast of Trumpets, Yom Teruah. “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” (I Corinthians 15:35-54) This event (which obviously hasn’t happened yet) marks the moment when we believers will be instantaneously transformed from our mortal state to one of immortality, from being corruptible (or corrupted—the redeemed dead are included in this) to being incorruptible. In that moment, we will all experience the total transformation of our bodies from their present natural, physical state into a supernatural, spiritual state, presumably like that in which Yahshua appeared after His resurrection. The body of sin we inherited from the first Adam will be traded in for that sinless vessel revealed by the second Adam—Yahshua.
Remarkably (at least to me), there are large numbers of people within the Christian faith who deny the possibility, never mind the inevitability, of such a thing. Speaking to the skeptics of His day, “Jesus answered them, ‘Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.’” (John 6:43-44) The skeptics would answer, Sure, we’ll be raised—from the dead. But transformed from living mortals into the immortal state? That’s just too “easy,” too escapist a philosophy. We’re not really holy unless we’re suffering for Christ! Really? Though we are guaranteed “tribulation” in this world, our suffering, whether light or heavy, has no effect whatsoever on our salvation status: it’s Yahshua’s suffering that atones for our sins, not our own.
Besides, Yahshua said, “On this rock [in context, the foundational premise that Yahshua is the Messiah, the Son of the living God] I will build My church, and the gates of hell [literally, Hades, i.e., sheol: the grave, the abode of the dead—not the subsequent state of eternal torment commonly called hell] shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) This assures me that the ekklesia will still be around—populated by living mortals—until its “last day.” That, if you’ll recall, is the day upon which Yahshua promised to “raise us up”—the definitive Feast of Trumpets, if I’m not mistaken. The “church age” will end abruptly with the transformation of every believer’s body, living or dead, into its new immortal state. And if the seven “holy convocations” will be fulfilled in their annual order of celebration (as the first four were), then the Trumpets Transformation will occur before Israel embraces her Messiah (the Day of Atonement), which in turn will happen before Yahshua’s Millennial Kingdom commences (the Feast of Tabernacles).
You needn’t take my word for any of this, of course. At this late stage of the game, you can simply remain alive until it happens, or die trying. (That’s my strategy, anyway.) There will be only one generation for whom this whole discussion isn’t merely a theoretical scenario: the one that will participate in it. For everyone else, it’s just an exercise in faith, not materially different from praying to a God you can’t see, tithing, being baptized, turning the other cheek, or any number of things we are instructed to do. I am of the opinion that we are—today—living within that generation.
It’s revealing to me that the Feast of Trumpets, Yom Teruah, was also commonly referred to in Yahshua’s day as Yom Hakeseh—the “hidden day.” This was because Jewish folklore had designated this as the one day of the year Satan came before Yahweh to accuse the Jews of their sins. So they never said when Yom Teruah was (it’s the first day of the month of Tishri) but, tongue in cheek, they simply declared that the day was “hidden.” If only the devil were that dumb. Anyway, I’m wondering if this figure of speech (and the day to which it referred) was in the back of Yahshua’s mind when He told His disciples, “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” The “them” here refers to people who would persecute and hate the disciples for His sake. In the parallel passage in Luke 12:1-5, He specifically identifies them as religious people—the Pharisees. “What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body [soma] but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:26-28) The transformation of the body (one way or another) is still in view. The body is always vulnerable; the soul may or may not be, depending on its spiritual state.
Who is Yahshua talking about? Who are these would-be “killers?” There was no shortage of people who were willing to kill one’s body on a pretext, but whether Romans or robbers, we need not be particularly concerned about them, for the body was never meant to last forever. But who has a vested interest in killing your soul? It’s not God: He has the power to do so, of course, but He pointedly leaves it up to us to decide our own eternal destiny—not being willing that any should perish. Nor is it Satan: Oh, he’d like to destroy our souls in hell, but in the real world, he can do nothing (beyond tempting us) without our permission—or Yahweh’s. No, in a strange twist, it’s somebody Yahshua had just declared that His followers shouldn’t be afraid of—their persecutors: the Pharisees. What gives? Again, we must dig into the Greek grammar. When He says, “Have no fear of them,” He’s speaking in the aorist tense, subjunctive mood, describing action that is likely to occur, but is not actually happening: There is potentially something to fear here, but it is not yet a problem for you. But the second phrase, “Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” puts phobeo (to fear) in the aorist imperative, making it mean, in essence: Start fearing these people.
Why the transition? What all of a sudden made the Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests so all-fired dangerous? It was the presence of the Messiah, and the choice we would all subsequently have to make, based on His finished work. The religious establishment felt threatened by Yahshua, and for good reason. If folks began acknowledging His mission as the Torah’s perfect sacrifice—the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world—then the Pharisees would be revealed as the frauds they were. It’s one thing to be mistaken, of course, but the Pharisees were purposeful spiritual murderers: they were perfectly willing to see their countrymen go to hell in order to keep their dirty little secret hidden—and their power intact. The falsehood they preached—that keeping their twisted interpretation of the Torah would make people righteous before God—would “destroy both soul and body in hell.”
So Yahshua pointed out the awkward truth: though physical death is inevitable, it need not be a problem. The Author of Life has the power—and the desire—to overrule it. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:29-33) For Yahshua to acknowledge or deny anyone before His Father in heaven, there has to be a life beyond this one—an immortal life following the mortal one. No one can stand before Yahweh in their mortal state and live to tell the tale. The transformation from natural to supernatural is absolutely necessary for Yahshua’s acknowledgment to have any real meaning. If we are to be citizens of heaven, we must be transformed—bodily—into something heavenly. As Paul reminds us, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body [soma] to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21) But conversely, Yahshua’s promise of denial before the Father of someone who denied Him before men would be an empty gesture if transformation into the immortal state was a fairy tale. The horrible reality is that one can become an immortal citizen of hell—literally a fate worse than death.
For a book that claims to reveal the source of eternal life, the Bible has an awful lot to say about death. This makes perfect sense, of course: contrast is the most effective teaching tool there is. You can’t understand the significance of a green traffic light unless you’re familiar with what a red one means. You can’t really appreciate food if you’ve never known hunger. And you’ll have no conception of how precious life is if you’ve never seen death. The thing that defines Yahweh as being unique, separate from His creation—in a word, holy—is that He is the source of all life, of all meaningful existence. Separation from Him is what physical death was meant to symbolize. If life is for learning (which is how I see it), then Yahweh’s intended lesson for us is that being disconnected from Him is the worst thing imaginable. And bodily death—the end of one’s mortal existence—is the textbook that makes that lesson crystal clear.
So from the very beginning, Yahweh characterized death as a bad thing—something to be avoided. God gave Adam only one admonition, but the consequence of non-compliance was death: “And Yahweh, God, commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die [muth].” (Genesis 2:16-17) How did Adam know what that meant? Had he seen plants wither and die there in the garden? Had he witnessed death in the animal world—swatting a mosquito on his own arm perhaps? I believe he knew exactly what Yahweh had implied: something very bad would happen. Funny thing, though: as it turned out, it wasn’t physical death at all that befell the inhabitants of Eden in the wake of their sin. It was the spiritual death about which Yahweh had designed physical death as a teaching tool. Adam didn’t physically die for another nine hundred and thirty years—a far cry from “in the day that you shall eat of it.” But Adam did die that day in the spiritual sense—he became estranged from the God who had made him. The “breath of life” that Yahweh had breathed into him departed, leaving behind what Pascal would later describe as a “God-shaped vacuum” that nothing other than Yahweh could fill. He did fill it again—after Adam’s repentance and the sacrifice of an innocent animal to cover his sin. But from that moment on, all of Adam’s children would be born outside of Eden, lost in the world—as Yahshua put it, “condemned already.” From that moment on, life with Yahweh was a choice we’d have to make, not a condition we were born into.
The Hebrew word used to describe Adam’s impending “death” was muth, the generic verb for dying—to die or be in a state of death, to kill (or be killed), to murder, assassinate, or execute (or suffer any of these things). The end result of this death, in the physical sense, was described to Adam as “returning to dust”: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) Without Yahweh’s eternal Spirit to keep his soul alive, Adam’s personal existence would end when his soul departed his body—which would then deteriorate into the elements from which it had been made. This cessation of existence is the sword of Damocles hanging over the head of everyone born into the world under the curse of Adam. It is inevitable—unless something is done to make the soul permanently alive. And the only way that can be done is to fill it, merge it, indwell it with an immortal spirit. Yahweh, of course, had His own eternal Spirit in mind: “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6)
The catch is that Satan, though a created being, is also an immortal spirit—and can, upon invitation, inhabit one’s soul the same way Yahweh’s Spirit indwells that of His children. Yahshua bluntly told the Pharisees, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I came from God…. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:42, 44) His persecutors were “born” of a spirit, all right: Satan’s spirit. The devil was their spiritual father. Their position, therefore, was far worse than Adam’s had been. Yes, his sin (a violation of Yahweh’s perfect standard) had condemned him to death. Death, however, was something that, by the power and love of God, could be overcome. The Pharisees’ overt and purposeful antipathy toward Yahweh, however, had earned them a fate far worse than mere death. They would partake of the same destiny as their spiritual father’s: eternal waking separation from God’s presence: a living hell.
It was never Yahweh’s intention, of course, that we should choose between death and damnation. He loves us: His only desire is for us to choose life over any conceivable alternative. That explains why the distinction between death and damnation is so subtle in the scriptures. The question isn’t, “Would you rather be beheaded, hanged, or shot?” The question is, “Would you rather live or die?” So on the symbolic level in Yahweh’s word, the undesirable alternatives to life are all lumped together under the heading of “death.” The elementary lesson we are supposed to learn is that death is bad, and life is good. Presented with the choice between them, we should choose life. Duh!
So in scripture we are confronted with one example after another of death—invariably with some lesson attached instructing us as to why it happens, what it means, and maybe how to avoid it. The men of Noah’s day were irretrievably corrupt, so Yahweh swept them away with a flood: “Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath [neshamah] of life died [muth].” (Genesis 7:22) The mention of the neshamah here makes it clear that the point of the flood was to deal with the descendants of Adam who had chosen not to walk with Yahweh. But there was collateral damage on a grand scale (which teaches us that our sins affect not only ourselves, but can negatively impact the world around us. “For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die [gawa]…. all flesh died [gawa] that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind.” (Genesis 6:17, 7:21)
Here another Hebrew verb describing dying is used. Gawa means to die, to perish, to expire, to breathe one’s last. It is only used 24 times in the Tanach, and it seems (if the usage is any indication) to stress the inevitability of death. For instance: “O Yahweh, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it. These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die [gawa] and return to their dust.” (Psalm 104:24-29) For man and beast alike, life and death are in the hands of God, and nobody gets out of here alive—not in a mortal body, anyway.
A third Hebrew verb meaning “to die” is abad: to perish, vanish, go astray, be lost, squandered, or destroyed. Here the emphasis is on destruction, ruin, annihilation, extermination, or expulsion. A telling derivation of the word is the name of the demon king mentioned in the fifth trumpet judgment of Revelation (John 9:11): Abaddon, his Hebrew name, is equated with the Greek epithet Apollyon. Both words mean destruction or destroyer. So comparing the three common Hebrew words for death, we see a shift in emphasis. Muth speaks of the fact of death; gawa of its inevitability; and abad its waste.
Sometimes the word choice isn’t quite what we’d expect. Solomon remarked, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise? And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies [muth] just like the fool!” (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16) I half expected to see gawa here, stressing the inevitability of death. But the use of muth reminds me that there is a reason everyone dies: the wise and foolish alike are guilty of breaking God’s law. There is no sliding scale or grading curve—life is pass or fail, and we all fail, even the best of us. Of course, these shades of meaning for the different Hebrew verbs about dying aren’t mutually exclusive. They overlap and complement each other. So the Psalmist concurs with Solomon: “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit. For he sees that even the wise die [muth]; the fool and the stupid alike must perish [abad] and leave their wealth to others.” (Psalm 49:7-10) He’s speaking, of course, of the life we lead on this earth—in these mortal bodies—the life in which we stand up or fall short, in which we make our choices and form our allegiances, for better or worse. Whether we do relatively well or poorly, our lives are all proven to be imperfect in the end, and the penalty for imperfection is death.
And yet, there is hope for a life beyond this imperfect life. A ransom has been made available to us sufficient to buy back our freedom from the bondage of sin. That ransom is the blood of Yahshua. Remarkably however, not everyone chooses to participate in it. Some think their own good works ought to be sufficient to redeem themselves. Yahweh disagrees. Others imagine an illusory salvation achieved by elevating themselves over their brothers—the Darwinian soteriology of survival of the fittest. But Isaiah reports, “O Yahweh our God, other lords besides You have ruled over us, but Your name alone we bring to remembrance. They are dead [muth], they will not live; they are shades [rapha’im: ghosts, departed spirits], they will not arise; to that end You have visited them with destruction [shamad—to annihilate or exterminate] and wiped out [abad] all remembrance of them.” (Isaiah 26:13-14) This is a dire warning to those who would stand in Yahweh’s shoes, making themselves the graven images forbidden in the Second Commandment. There is a fine line between service and self-aggrandizement. Politicians, captains of industry, media “stars,” anyone who seeks to gain an audience or following must examine their motives carefully and honestly, for God has promised to “visit with annihilation” those who would rule over His people.
But a few verses later, the prophet explains what’s in store for those who belong to Yahweh. It’s one of the clearest “rapture” passages in the entire Tanach. “Your [i.e., Yahweh’s] dead [muth] shall live; their bodies shall rise.” Yes, our souls are going to vacate these bodies, one way or another, but this condition is only temporary. “You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For Your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead [rapha’im].” And if this isn’t a blatant confirmation of the pre-Tribulation rapture, then I’m hallucinating: “Come, My people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the fury has passed by. For behold, Yahweh is coming out from His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain.” (Isaiah 26:19-21) Whether through rapture or miraculous temporal protection (as is the case with Israel—see Revelation 12), Yahweh’s people will be “hidden,” sheltered from harm behind closed doors, during the time of God’s coming wrath.
Job sensed the same amazing truth: God would remember, renew and transform His people. “Oh that You would hide me in Sheol, that You would conceal me until Your wrath be past, that You would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If a man dies [muth], shall he live again? All the days of my service I would wait, till my renewal should come. You would call, and I would answer You.” (Job 14:11-15) Job makes it sound nice and cozy, but being “hidden in sheol” is—let’s face it—death, something universally dreaded by mankind since the fall of Adam. The idea that sheol, the grave, could be a place of refuge and respite, where one’s soul could await God’s renewal in peace, is counterintuitive, to say the least. The Psalmist Asaph hints that this refuge begins before we even reach sheol: “Let the groans of the prisoners come before You; according to Your great power, preserve those doomed to die [muth]!” (Psalm 79:11) Our preservation by Yahweh commences in this life, and it is not interrupted by such trivial, inconsequential events as physical death.
Death, then, is not an obstacle for God. But you must admit: it’s more than a little inconvenient for us, for it cuts off our opportunities to choose. You can’t sin after you die, but you can’t repent, either. Throughout scripture, Yahweh begs us to make good choices while we still can, for bad choices inevitably lead to death. Moses pleaded with the people: “When you father children and children’s children, and have grown old in the land, if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of Yahweh your God, so as to provoke him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish [abad] from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed [shamad].” (Deuteronomy 4:25-26) Since our personal sins condemn all of us to physical death in the end—even if we’ve led relatively faithful lives—Yahweh introduced another metaphor into the national life of Israel to make His point: devastation and exile—“death” on a national scale—would follow the abandonment of Yahweh as night follows day. “And you shall have no power to stand before your enemies. And you shall perish [abad] among the nations, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up. And those of you who are left shall rot away in your enemies’ lands because of their iniquity.” (Leviticus 26:37-39) Our “enemies’ land” is not necessarily hell (although it can come to that). It is anything short of intimate fellowship with Yahweh—a place where you’re left to perish and rot.
For all its talk of death and judgment, the Bible’s clear message is that Yahweh wants us to avoid these things. That’s why He incessantly warns us to turn from our iniquity. In sending Ezekiel to deliver His message to unrepentant Israel, Yahweh admonished him: “Whenever you hear a word from My mouth, you shall give them warning from Me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die [muth],’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die [muth] for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked [rasha], and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.” (Ezekiel 3:17-19) As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Yahweh would respond, “Yes, but if you don’t lead him to water, I’ll hold you responsible when he dies of thirst.” So all during his long and frustrating prophetic career, Ezekiel grabbed the horse by the reins and marched him off toward the river: “Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die [muth], O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord Yahweh; so turn, and live.” (Ezekiel 18:30-32)
This isn’t rocket science. The choice is simple, straightforward, and binary: yes or no, on or off, live or die. “The wicked [rasha] will not stand [i.e., be confirmed or endure] in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for Yahweh knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish [abad].” (Psalm 1:5-6) The contrast is crystal clear, and seemingly repeated in Scriptures in as many ways as God could think of. “The wicked [rasha] will perish [abad]; the enemies of Yahweh are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.” (Psalm 37:20) We tend to think of being “wicked” in comparative terms: a “wicked” guy is somebody whose bad behavior is measurably worse (or at least more obvious) than the average person’s—yours, for instance. But rasha (guilty, wicked, criminal) speaks merely of a simple yes-or-no determination: one’s guilt according to a standard. In this sense, you can’t be more wicked than somebody else; you either are, or you aren’t—and unfortunately, we all are. We have all violated Yahweh’s standard, and are therefore assigned to abad—destruction—unless our sin is covered, atoned, forgiven.
This atonement is the promise (formally, the covenant) Yahweh keeps with people who choose to reciprocate His love. “Know therefore that Yahweh your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love Him and keep His commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate Him, by destroying [abad] them. He will not be slack with one who hates Him. He will repay him to his face.” (Deuteronomy 7:9-10) I realize people often freak out when the see the word “commandment,” as if keeping God’s instructions is somehow tantamount to giving up their freedom. So they shake their fist at heaven and scream, “Give me liberty, or give me death,” not comprehending that keeping Yahweh’s commandments is the road to liberty—that it will actually release them from bondage. The fact is, we’re all slaves to something—either to a God who loves us, or to something less, something inferior to Him. Keeping Yahweh’s commandments is a red herring of sorts anyway—it’s an effect, not a cause. The real issue is who you love, Yahweh or (as before) something inferior to Him. Love for God will naturally result in a desire (however imperfectly implemented) to do as He instructed. That is, our love for Him is based on the understanding that He first loved us and therefore desires good things for us. Ergo, keeping His commandments will be of some benefit to us. (They don’t do a thing for God.) Bottom line: Yahweh, who loves us, wants us to avoid destruction by loving Him.
Before Christ’s advent, men really didn’t know anything about the disposition of the departed dead past the concept of sheol. Beyond the rudimentary fact/hope of a coming reawakening, renewal, or transformation of some sort for the redeemed of Yahweh, the Hebrew scriptures are maddeningly taciturn on the subject. It’s only in the New Covenant that we’re introduced to the nuts and bolts of the coming immortal state—the resurrection. This makes perfect sense, I suppose, for how could we be expected to grasp the concept of a life after death without the Son of God to teach us—and then show us—what it was all about?
As in Hebrew, there are several word families in Koine Greek used to communicate the concept of death, but they don’t really break down to direct linguistic equivalents. The first of these is nekros, an adjective meaning “dead.” It is derived from the noun nekus, a corpse. Strong’s defines nekros: “Of one that has breathed his last, lifeless; deceased, departed, one whose soul is in Hades. Destitute of life, without life, inanimate. Spiritually dead [the state in which we all begin]: destitute of a life that recognizes and is devoted to God, because it is given up to trespasses and sins. Inactive as respects doing right. Destitute of force or power, inactive, inoperative.” Nekros is therefore primarily indicative of physical, bodily death—the kind of death that leaves a corpse in its wake. It is also used in scripture (sparingly) as a metaphor for spiritual lifelessness. But (and this is important) nekros is invariably used to describe a state from which one can be revived, restored, resurrected.
A few examples will give us the rough idea: “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ And the dead [nekros] man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited His people!’” (Luke 7:14-16) Whoever blurted out “God has visited His people” probably had no idea how literally correct he was. But his observation was well taken: only Yahweh, the Author of life, could bestow life upon the lifeless. The man was nekros—physically, bodily, and by all accounts permanently dead—and yet none of this was the least bit problematical for the “Prophet” from Nazareth. I am therefore confident that He will someday touch my bier (so to speak) and command me, saying “Young man (well, okay, in your case old man), arise.” And I’ll have neither the choice nor the inclination but to obey.
Yahshua was speaking of Himself when He said, “For as the Father raises the dead [nekros] and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom He will…. “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead [nekros] will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son also to have life in Himself.” (John 5:21, 25-26) It was easy enough for these folks to comprehend that Yahweh, the Creator Spirit of the entire universe, had “life in Himself.” What wasn’t quite so easy to understand was that Yahshua was in fact Yahweh, presented among them in a radically diminished human manifestation, having taken upon Himself mortal flesh with the purpose of becoming the “Son” of God—not a second-generation deity, but One who represented His “Father” among men. How better to demonstrate that relationship than to wield Yahweh’s exclusive authority over life and death?
Yahshua told a story about two men who died and went to sheol, one an evil rich man and the other a poor but faithful beggar named Lazarus (whose name means “God has helped”). Finding himself in torment and wishing (too late) to warn his five brothers not to follow in his self-worshipping footsteps, the rich man appealed to Abraham to send back Lazarus from the dead. “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead [nekros].’” (Luke 16:30-31) Yahshua’s none-too-subtle point was that Moses and the prophets had spoken of Him, of His redemptive mission—and very little else. So if He—Yahshua—were to rise from the dead, they wouldn’t believe Him, either. They wouldn’t even believe the witness of their own eyes. The one thing we tend to gloss over in all of this is that unlike raising the son of the widow of Nain, or even His friend (not so coincidentally named Lazarus) from the dead, Yahshua’s resurrection would have to be performed—if at all—after He Himself was dead, nekros, a corpse. Last time I looked, dead people—even dead prophets—can’t do anything on their own. Yahshua’s bodily resurrection proved He was God. There is no other explanation.
The faithful dead of generations past, however, have not yet received their resurrection bodies. So far, Yahshua is the only One who has. So they are nekros—physically deceased. But are they actually dead? Yahshua says they’re not, not really: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead [nekros], but of the living.” (Matthew 22:32) Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, though they had physically died, were not dead to Yahweh. To Him, they were living souls, for they had been made permanently alive through the indwelling of the Spirit. Their bodily resurrection, though not yet a physical fait accompli, was as good as done in God’s eyes. Though not yet clothed in a corporeal body, the redeemed “dead” are very much alive. This sartorial transformation is scheduled, if I’m not mistaken, for the fifth miqra on Yahweh’s redemptive calendar—the Feast of Trumpets. It will be rapture for the living believers, a resurrection for those who have already departed—and a revelation for everybody else.
Our bodies are not the only things about us that are subject to death (nekros) but may be restored to life. Our religious experience—the way we express our faith—is susceptible to all sorts of potentially fatal illnesses: ignorance, apathy, error, mindless tradition, and a lack of genuine love. But while life lasts, all of these things can be overcome. James reminds us, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead…. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead [nekros], so also faith apart from works is dead [nekros]." (James 2:14-17, 26) The “spirit” (pneuma) he speaks of here is not Yahweh’s Holy Spirit, but (as Strong’s words it) “the vital principle by which the body is animated.” Technically, I’d call it the soul, but in common usage these terms overlap a bit. The point is that when the body has been separated from the soul, all you’ve got left is a corpse. And the same thing is true of a “faith” that never moves beyond the mind—a theoretical faith of concepts and doctrines that never expresses itself in practical terms for the benefit of mankind. The priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan had just such a “faith.” I’m not saying that doctrines and concepts are bad, of course, but only that they’re worthless if not revealed by practical and personal acts of love.
James didn’t mention it, but I believe the converse is also true: works apart from faith are also dead. That is, things we do to benefit other people are of no lasting value outside of a real relationship with Yahweh. As Isaiah reminds us (in 64:6), all our own “righteous deeds” are as “filthy rags”—literally, a “witness of treachery” (edah beged) against us. Yahshua admonished the church in Sardis about this very thing. Yes, they were doing good works, and people thought they represented God in their community, but their lack of a vital and personal relationship with the God they claimed to serve defined them as being nekros—dead. “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of Him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead [nekros]. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die [apothnesko], for I have not found your works complete in the sight of My God.” (Revelation 3:1-2) Remember, being nekros is a state from which one can be revived, restored, and resurrected. Yahshua’s first instruction to Sardis after pointing out that they were dead was to “Wake up.” The Sardians (during the historical period prophetically represented by this local assembly) were going through the motions like spiritual zombies—giving alms, performing penance, sacrificially giving so that great cathedrals could be built to honor the church, its traditions, and its God (in that order). Between the lines, Yahshua is begging them to throw off the shackles of dead religion, embracing instead the “easy yoke” of working and walking side by side with Him, enjoying a close personal relationship with their Messiah. They were “dead,” but they weren’t beyond hope.
But then He tells them to “strengthen what remains and is about to die.” An entirely different verb is used to denote “to die” here. Apothnesko is a compound of two Greek words: apo is a preposition usually translated “from” or “of.” It denotes separation or departure—especially the separation of a part from the whole, the idea being that union or fellowship has been destroyed. Thnesko is a verb meaning to die, to be dead, whether literally (i.e., bodily) or metaphorically (spiritually). Apothnesko (to die), then, carries with it the added meaning of dying from or of something. Movement, purpose, or cause is implied. Thus apothnesko is used to describe the natural death of men or animals, but more specifically, their violent death: it means to perish because of something. And therefore, by extension, it is used of eternal death—to be subject to eternal separation from life.
We’ve seen two Greek word families for “death,” then. The adjective nekros relates to the verb nekroo (to make dead) and nekrosis, a noun denoting a killing or the state of death. Like the Hebrew muth, nekros addresses the fact, the reality, of death. The apothnesko word family (which includes thanatos, an important concept I’ll cover shortly) has more to do with the separation that defines death—cause and effect, reasons and results. Both concepts are used to describe Yahshua’s death. Nekros tells us that He was literally deceased (disproving all the goofy fraudulent-death and “swoon” theories that have been hatched over the last two millennia). And apothnesko/thanatos reveal that He died for a reason. As Isaiah prophesies, “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
In a passage parallel to the Matthew 22 snippet we looked at above, we’re given more insight into the difference between nekros and apothnesko: “Jesus said to them, ‘The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead [nekros] neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die [apothnesko] anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.’” (Luke 20:34-36) Nekros, He says, describes a state from which “those deemed worthy” will be resurrected. But once they attain this immortal state, they will neither procreate succeeding immortal generations nor be subject to death for any reason. Whatever “fruit” we bear must be borne in our mortal bodies, and whatever choices we make must be made before we die. Stated another way, if we choose in this life to be born from above in Yahweh’s Spirit, we can never subsequently be separated from that Spirit, even though our mortal bodies will be separated from our souls.
In one of his confrontations with the Pharisees, Yahshua told them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die [apothnesko] in your sins, for unless you believe that I am He you will die [apothnesko] in your sins.” (John 8:24) The death the Pharisees would die wasn’t just being nekros—the destination of all mortal beings. It was apothnesko—the death of separation, death because of their sins. Remember back in John 3, where Yahshua had told Nicodemus (a Pharisee, by the way) that he would have to be “born from above” in God’s Spirit? Here is a description of the converse condition: Yahshua tells the arrogant religious elite, in so many words, that they have been “born from below,” that is, that Satan is their father. Then He informs them what the real difference is between being born from below and born from above. The English reads “believe that I am He,” but the “He” has been supplied by the translators. What Yahshua actually said was that they must “believe that I Am.” This is a direct literal translation of what Yahweh’s self-revealed name means. He was saying, in effect, “You must believe that I am Yahweh.” John explains a few verses later that, “They did not understand that He had been speaking to them about the Father.” (John 8:27)
It would have made no sense to render Yahshua’s famous words to Martha with the Greek nekros, but this way, it makes perfect sense: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die [apothnesko], yet shall he live.”Yes, we all die (become nekros), and worse, we all die (apothnesko) because of our sins—there’s a reason for our demise. But only God Himself could go on to logically make the claim that “Everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die [apothnesko].” (John 11:25-26) One can only wonder what Aramaic words Yahshua used to express Himself, but the Gospel record, through the nuances of Greek word usage, informs us quite clearly that He is prepared to transfer the reason for our deaths to Himself—if only we’re willing to trust Him. And that transference will leave us not only alive, but also with no further grounds for condemnation (the penalty for which would have been eternal separation).
What Yahshua called “believing in Me” in this passage was characterized as “keeping My word” elsewhere: “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word, he will never see death [thanatos].” (John 8:51) The type of “death” we’ll “never see” is obviously not nekros—ordinary physical bodily death, the kind of thing we all experience. Thanatos is based on the same verb as our old friend apothnesko—thnesko: to die, either naturally or spiritually. The underlying idea of thanatos is that of separation, especially the soul from the body or the spirit from the soul—making it the word of choice to describe “eternal separation from God.” Zodhaites notes that “In the Septuagint, thanatos has the sense of destruction, perdition, misery, implying both physical death and exclusion from the presence and favor of God in consequence of sin and disobedience.” The Greek words used for contrasting death and life are revealing: nekros is the opposite of bios (biological life, the kind of life one’s biography is about); thanatos is contrasted in scripture with zoe (the essence of life, characterized as vital, blessed, and vibrant). Another way of looking at this: immortality is not presented as the absence of nekros. The Greek word translated “immortal” is athanatos—without thanatos.
Therefore, the bottom line in both passages is that our ultimate, permanent death (thanatos) is not inevitable. Quite the contrary: Yahweh’s plan and wish is that we all might live. Paul reminds us, “Christ has been raised from the dead [nekros], the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death [thanatos], by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead [nekros]. For as in Adam all die [apothnesko], so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (I Corinthians 15:20-22)
That same basic truth is expressed here: “And just as it is appointed for man to die [apothnesko] once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him.”(Hebrews 9:27-28) Oh, He’s coming again to deal with sin, all right—but it won’t be the sin of “those (like me) who are eagerly waiting for Him.” That sin has already been atoned—covered. We will be “saved” at His appearing, either from the grave (in resurrection) or from our mortal lives in a fallen world (in rapture). But any way you slice it, the believer in Yahshua’s divinity and in the efficacy of His sacrifice will only die once. There is such a thing as the “second death (thanatos),” but it will never be experienced by any child of God. More on that in a minute.
As the “great” Tribulation gets underway—that is, the second half, when Satan and his Antichrist hold uncontested temporal power over the earth for three and a half years, this notice from John’s Apocalypse will go into effect: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead [nekros] who die [apothnesko] in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’” (Revelation 14:13) These times will be so horrific, people will literally be better off dead than alive—something that has never been the case before this. But those who die “in the Lord” (that is, redeemed by Yahshua’s sacrifice, having heeded the message of the angel in Revelation 14:7), are spoken of as if there is hardly a change in their status at all. For these dead people, life goes on—physical death is characterized as a mere hiccup, a speed bump on the road of life. What preceded it was “labors” and what followed was “rest.” That has always been true for the believer, of course. It’s what prompted Paul to remark, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die [apothnesko] is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) Remember that apothnesko describes dying from something, a death characterized by separation, the departure of a part from the whole. In the case of the believer, that separation is defined as being removed from the world. No wonder it’s spoken of in such positive terms.
For the informed believer, death holds no terror. In fact, if we’re doing our jobs correctly, it merely holds the prospect of inconvenience for those we leave behind, for our place in the body of Christ will be left vacant when we leave. But even that is merely an opportunity for others to “stand on our shoulders” and achieve things we never had the courage, the provision, or the divine mandate to do—just as we stand upon the shoulders of the giants in our past. Paul puts it like this: “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies [apothnesko] to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” (Romans 14:7-9) While that’s true, we need to examine our lives. Are we still here because we’ve yet to finish the task God gave us to do, or is it because we’re so abrasive not even He wants to be around us? Would we be lamented by Yahweh’s people if we died today? Would anyone even notice our absence?
Our Greek verb apothnesko (to die) is often used figuratively in scripture: to die to something, that is, to be separated from (apo) it, severing any living connection. The most obvious application of this is “dying to sin.” Paul asks, “How can we who died [apothnesko] to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death [thanatos]?” His point is that our baptism into the sinless Messiah includes immersion into His death, and everything that death symbolizes. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death [thanatos], in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead [nekros] by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life [zoe]….” If Yahshua had been an ordinary sinner, then being intimately associated with his death would avail us nothing, for He would still be dead. But being sinless, He became the fulfillment of every prophetic blood sacrifice required by the Torah: the olah (or “burnt” offering—voluntary and complete); the selem (or “peace” offering—a spontaneous offering of praise to Yahweh); the chata’t (or “sin” offering”—covering our lapses in behavior); the asham (or “trespass” offering—covering our lapses in holiness); and the bekor (the “firstborn” offering—prefiguring Yahshua as the “only begotten Son of God”); not to mention a plethora of sacrifices and offerings specified for special days like Sabbaths, new moons, miqra-convocations (i.e., the Feasts of Yahweh), and so forth. So unlike our own well-deserved demise, Yahshua’s death means something: it is the vehicle Yahweh preordained to achieve our reconciliation with Him, our redemption from bondage in sin—which explains why we who have embraced Christ are counted as having “died” to it.
But it isn’t just His death that unites us. We’re also partakers of Yahshua’s resurrection: “For if we have been united with Him in a death [thanatos] like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died [apothnesko] has been set free from sin. Now if we have died [apothnesko] with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead [nekros] will never die [apothenesko] again; death [thanatos] no longer has dominion over him.” (Romans 6:2-9) It’s one thing to share in Christ’s death—to be associated with Him in the ultimate fulfillment of the Torah’s requirements. To be indemnified from the wrath of God would have been enough, I suppose—certainly more than any of us deserve. But to share in His life! That’s a development that’s almost too wonderful to comprehend. But it’s true: “Whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death [thanatos] to life.” (John 5:24) Yahshua was speaking to living people, people who had not yet suffered nekros—biological death. And yet He insisted that we who heed and rely upon His word have already bypassed the possibility of being separated from God in death—thanatos. We tend to think of life as something that ends in death, but Yahweh sees it the other way around: death ends in life. Or at least, it can. Life is the ultimate result of God’s love, so it shouldn’t be surprising that love is the ultimate evidence of God’s life within us, or conversely, that people whose lives are characterized by hatred are separated from God: “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death [thanatos] into life [zoe], because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death [thanatos].” (I John 3:13-14)
Passing from death into life—from a state of separation from God into union with Him—is the whole point of the redemptive process. Remember way back at the beginning of this topic, when I spoke of having been taught that nothing ever died before Adam’s sin, but how even as a young lad I could see evidence in God’s creation that didn’t support that hypothesis? Now it has become obvious that the misunderstanding springs from a misuse of the Greek word for death. It’s not corpsification (to coin a word), but separation about which Paul was speaking when he said, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death [thanatos] through sin, and so death [thanatos] spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death [thanatos] reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” (Romans 5:12-14) It wasn’t nekros that entered the world through Adam’s sin, but rather, thanatos, spiritual death, the separation of God’s Spirit from the soul of man.
Paul has raised an important point about the nature of sin. Adam’s sin was defined as disobedience to one simple instruction: “Don’t eat the fruit of that tree.” Then, a couple of millennia later, God gave the Children of Israel hundreds of commandments through His prophet Moses—detailed, specific, and all, at some level, symbolic of Yahweh’s plan for the redemption of mankind. But what of those people who lived—and died—between Adam’s day and Moses’? Yahweh had issued very little in the way of specific rules—and absolutely nothing that could be utilized as the basis of a religion. As far as we know, Yahweh hadn’t specifically instructed Cain not to murder people before he slew his brother Abel. So how can we call Cain’s act sin? If sin were simply a violation of God’s stated instructions, we couldn’t. But sin is more than that: it’s a violation of Yahweh’s nature.
The verbs translated “to sin” (chatta’ in Hebrew, hamartano in Greek) basically mean “to miss the mark” or “to wander from the path.” The word is used in its fundamental sense in Judges 20:16 to describe seven hundred left-handed Benjamite slingshot sharpshooters who could all hurl their stones and “not miss.” The “target” for our thoughts, words, and deeds is the standard set by almighty God. The picture that pops immediately into my mind is my youngest son—who was “off-the-chart” small when we adopted him—trying to shoot baskets at the age of four or five. Not only could he not score a basket, he couldn’t even throw the ball high enough to reach the rim. But he never gave up trying (or growing, for that matter: he capped out at six-feet-two, captain of his college volleyball team). By God’s standard, we’re all “sinners,” for we have all fallen short of the mark.
None of us has ever “earned” a spot on Yahweh’s team with a record of perfect performance—and that’s what it would take. We’re used to the idea of relative excellence, as reflected in our sports. But God’s standard (called “sin” when we miss it) would be like sinking every basket you ever shot—even the three-pointers. It’s batting a thousand—from your very first day of T-ball practice as a little kid—or throwing only strikes. It’s acing every serve. It’s completing every pass for a touchdown. It’s scoring a hole-in-one—on every hole. We tend to think of this kind of perfection as a once-in-a-lifetime event—if that. But a relationship with Yahweh requires perfection on a 24/7 basis: no flaws, no shortcomings, and no near misses—for your entire life. Imagine being a sports hero with performance like that: you’d be the most loved—and the most hated—player in the game, all at the same time. Now you have a feel for Yahshua’s effect on the folks among whom He walked. He was loved for being perfect, and hated for demonstrating that nobody else even comes close.
Obviously, God (having built us) knows how we’re built. He knows this kind of perfection is out of reach for us, like a ten-foot-high basketball hoop looming before a four-year-old boy. But even though He doesn’t expect perfection from us, He still demands it; that is, His nature does. The “problem” is that He is holy, omnipotent, and omniscient—we couldn’t survive in His direct presence any more than we could stand on the surface of the sun in a swimsuit and flipflops. So Yahweh, in His love and mercy, provided what is needed for us to dwell in His presence (which, after all, was the whole point in creating us in the first place). It’s a hazmat suit, so to speak—a garment made of the righteousness of God Himself—something through which He cannot (or at least does not) see our sin. But it’s not cheap: the price of this garment is the most precious substance known to man—innocence—the blood of the Lamb of God, the Son of God. And you thought Prada was expensive! Of course, we can’t afford this garment of righteousness any more than we could live a perfect life, so we still would have been out of luck had not Yahweh Himself made it available to us at His own expense. We owe Him our very lives.
In a very real sense, we are indebted to whatever paradigm we live under—the world as we found it (where missing the mark is standard operating procedure) or imputed righteousness, in which God sees not our shortcomings, but His own perfection, as we stand before Him. Paul writes: “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.” If we refuse God’s gift of life, we owe Him nothing—no gratitude, no loyalty, no obedience. There is a downside, however, to not having life: “But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death [thanatos], but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:20-23) In the end, either we’re slaves to sin that leads to death (thanatos: technically, separation from God), or we’re slaves to Yahweh, who provides eternal, abundant life (the antithesis of separation—being joined to Him forever).
Yahshua once instructed us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”(Matthew 6:12) If we think of sin as a debt to be paid, this all gets a bit easier to understand. Let’s say a man owes a debt of a million dollars, but his assets are only worth a hundred. If he dies, his creditors are out of luck—there’s no way they can pursue him into the grave to retrieve their money. They can’t garnish his wages, throw him in prison, or threaten to break his legs. It does no good to make the corpse “an offer he can’t refuse.” He’s not listening: he’s dead! But as Paul pointed out above, it is possible to “die to sin” without actually suffering physical death (well, not our own, anyway). Our sin had estranged us from Yahweh like that million-dollar debt, but Yahshua put our debt upon Himself and took it to the grave with Him. So we who are aligned and united with Christ are now miraculously beyond the reach of the wrath of God—which is precisely as He planned it.
Of course, it’s not automatic. We have to ask to be included in this amazing amnesty. We have to choose to allow Yahshua to assume our debt for us. This entails swallowing our pride, admitting that we’re debtors, and realizing that the debt we owe is beyond our ability to make good. And because Christ has redeemed us (i.e., bought our liberty from the sin to which we were once enslaved) it also defines us as being “slaves to God” under the paradigm of grace: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?... One who has died has been set free from sin…. Having been set free from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness.” (Romans 6:2, 7, 18) So don’t think of grace—unmerited favor resulting in imputed righteousness—as a way to avoid your responsibilities before God. It is, in point of fact, a measure of the crushing debt God forgave us. We no longer live in sin, slaves to its curse; we now live in righteousness, slaves to its blessing. In serving this new Master, we have all new responsibilities: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
In transitioning from death into life, it should now be apparent that although what happens in and through our mortal bodies is critical, what happens to them is of secondary importance. They are the vehicles of bios, in which we make our choices in this life. But they are not the vehicles of zoe—they aren’t the bodies that will take us into eternity. They are, if I may use a metaphor, the shuttle that takes us out to the airport terminal; they’re not the airplane that takes us to our actual destination. So in His letter to the second church on the list of seven—together representing the prophetic course of the age of the ekklesia—Yahshua instructs John to tell the faithful at Smyrna, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation.” The church would suffer precisely that: ten distinct periods of intense persecution under Rome, beginning with Nero and ending with Diocletian, 230 years later. “Be faithful until death [thanatos], and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death [thanatos].” (Revelation 2:10-11) Overt persecution isn’t a thing of the past, of course, though it’s no longer the single defining challenge facing the followers of Yahshua. His point, however, is still valid: death for the believer is merely the doorway to everlasting life.
The first thanatos is the separation of the soul from the body—something we can all look forward to. But what is this second death to which He refers? Later on in Revelation, He explains, sort of: “And the sea gave up the dead [nekros] who were in it, Death [thanatos] and Hades gave up the dead [nekros] who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death [thanatos] and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death [thanatos], the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:13-14) Technically, the second thanatos (on a personal level) is the final separation of a person’s soul from God’s Spirit—the death from which there is no possibility of resurrection, no redemption, no rescue. This passage concludes the prophecy of the “great white throne” judgment, before which the dead whose names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life must stand.
But this separation of soul from spirit has been a fait accompli for the majority of the inmates of Hades for at least a millennium at this point. So we must ask ourselves: what issue is being decided at the great white throne judgment? It isn’t life or death—they’re all dead. It isn’t salvation versus condemnation—they’re all condemned. I believe the second thanatos—this final separation—is the division of death from damnation. It’s a call only Yahweh Himself is qualified to make—one soul at a time.
We begin life “condemned already” (as Yahshua informed us in John 3:18), born in mortal flesh but not in immortal spirit. And we remain that way unless we become born again, born from above in Yahweh’s Spirit. But this “condemnation” (the Greek verb is krino, meaning separated, put asunder, decided, judged, or evaluated) is not always manifested the same way. Sometimes it’s spoken of in scripture as ending in death, destruction, or obliteration (one Hebrew word for it is beliy—nothingness, negation). But at other times it’s described as what we normally refer to as “hell”—eternal punishment and unceasing torment (graphically pictured as the fate of those who receive the mark of the beast in Revelation 14:9-11), or as the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels (as it’s characterized in Matthew 25).
We need to wake up and realize that these two eventualities—death and damnation—are mutually exclusive. They’re fundamentally incompatible. The “dead” feel no pain, no emotional distress; they are not susceptible to punishment. Destruction, annihilation, and extermination are spoken of incessantly in scripture, describing a state where the lost, careless, stupid, apathetic, naughty, or even the merely unfortunate (abortion victims, for example) simply cease to be when their earthly life is over. “Death” is probably too strong a word: “spiritually stillborn” would be more accurate. Since these people never had an indwelling spirit making their soul alive, they are technically just human animals—they were never really alive at all in the spiritual sense.
That being said, the “damnation” passages in scripture are unambiguous and specific, not to mention terrifying. Eternal torment (of some sort) awaits those who host Satan’s spirit, those who are (as Yahshua described His Pharisee antagonists) “of your father the devil.” Deciding who is thus damned and who is “merely” dead is not our call (thank God), but if you’re looking for criteria, the Rubicon seems to be one’s willingness to commit spiritual “murder,” that is, to prevent someone from enjoying the zoe-life available to us all through the sacrifice of Yahshua. John informs us, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (I John 3:15) The only other time in scripture this word “murderer” (anthropoktonos) is used was in the same breath as the imprecation against the Pharisees I mentioned above (in John 8:44), where Yahshua used it to describe Satan himself, the original “murderer.” So if you’re planning on living forever, the question is, “Who’s your daddy?” Is it Yahweh, or the devil?
The “second death,” then (in my humble opinion) includes the separation of the dead from the damned at the great white throne. Compared to eternal life in Christ, both eventualities are unimaginably horrible. But compared to each other, death must be characterized as the epitome of mercy. I realize that this whole line of thought is unconventional—that is, that two thousand years of theology based on the undeniable historical record of a risen Christ has somehow failed to recognize what’s obvious and ubiquitous in scripture once we figure out what to look for. But “mainstream” or not, it bridges the seeming dichotomy between a God of justice and a God of love, a God of righteous wrath and a God whose mercy endures forever—something conventional Christian theology has never quite achieved. Yahweh is all of those things, but He is neither conflicted nor confused.
Our understanding of His nature must, if we are honest with ourselves, conform to the way He presented Himself in scripture: He is both Lord and Savior. Yes, Yahweh has the right (not to mention the power) to consign to a hell of eternal torments anyone who doesn’t meet His standard of perfection. But He has told us in every conceivable way that He doesn’t want to, that He doesn’t intend to—He’s not willing that anyone should perish; His mercy endures forever. It seems to me that a God clever enough to create you and me could have sorted out this problem in a more logical way than to consign everyone in the world not lucky enough to have been exposed to the Gospel—and there are multiplied billions of them—to an eternity of punishment for the crime of having been born unlucky, for the “sin” of having been victimized through the schemes of Satan and the error of man. For God to be God, justice and mercy must both be enabled to coexist. In Yahweh’s plan, they do.
It’s the ultimate study in contrast: death, in the end, is merely a tool Yahweh uses to teach us about life. There will, however, come a time when death—in every sense of the word—will have outlived its usefulness. John was told of a blessed state in which the synthesis of God and man will at last be complete: we will never again be separated from each other. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death [thanatos] shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4) He is describing the death of death itself. Death will have been swallowed up in life. And we will dwell in the house of Yahweh forever!