What Is the Meaning of 1 Thessalonians 5:23?


Does this passage negate the biblical teaching that man does not have an immortal soul?  The answer is that it does not contradict the rest of the Bible. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 reads: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Before we discuss what this passage tells us, we need to focus on the basics. We explain in our free booklet, “Do We Have an Immortal Soul?” that man does not have a soul—mortal or immortal—but that man IS the soul. We point out the following:

“…  the word ‘soul,’ or the Hebrew word ‘nephesh,’ as well as the Greek word ‘psyche,’ applies to men and animals alike, and can refer to either a living or a dead person or animal. The soul is a ‘living being’ as long as the being is alive… man became a living soul when he was created, but… when he dies, he becomes a dead soul, and… a dead soul does not continue to live…”

When focusing on the Old Testament and the Hebrew word “nephesh” for “soul,” we explain, by quoting many Scriptures, that “one can eat the soul—the blood—but that one should not”; and that the “soul must eat something in order to stay alive.” We also show that “a soul can physically touch something unclean and be considered unclean as well. The soul can also… bathe”; and the “biblical teaching is that the soul can be put to death.”

We show that the word “soul” describes many times the entire person—his whole being.

On the other hand, the word “soul” can refer, at times, “to the psyche of the living creature; it can describe the heart—the feelings and motivations… the soul is the temporary, physical person, with all of his desires, wants and feelings.” We explain that “the emotional or psychological aspects of a person are sometimes identified with his ‘soul.’ The word ‘soul’ still describes the person—not something in the person—but it may emphasize from time to time what could otherwise be described with the ‘heart.’…

“A person has feelings. These feelings are sometimes described as originating in, and coming from, the heart or the soul. But this does not make the soul or the heart something separate from the person, something immortal that lives on when the person dies… when we become extremely frightened or fearful, it is sometimes presented in the Bible in such a way that ‘our soul’ becomes afraid…

“The Authorized Version translates the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’ 15 times as ‘heart.’ In several cases, the emotional side of anguish, fear, grief and anxiety is emphasized in those passages… Perhaps now, we can better understand why God commands us to seek Him with all of our heart [Hebrew, ‘lebab’] and soul [‘nephesh’] (Deuteronomy 4:29), and to love Him ‘with all thine heart [‘lebab’], and with all thy soul [‘nephesh’] and with all thy might [Hebrew, ‘meod’]” (Deuteronomy 6:5). This is just another way of saying that our entire being—everything we are, including our desires and emotions—must seek God and love Him beyond anyone or anything else…

“This word [“nephesh”] is also used to describe the emotional side of animals… God uses the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’ to describe even His own emotions and feelings… The word ‘soul’… describes the innermost feelings of the persons, both of God and of man, not something immortal within the person.”

When turning to the New Testament and the Greek word for “soul”—”psyche”—we explain that both words mean exactly the same; when an Old Testament passage with the word “nephesh” is quoted in the New Testament, the Greek word (“psyche”) is used as translation of the Hebrew word “nephesh.”

And so, we find that the New Testament “reveals that people are souls. Souls are not something within the people—rather, souls are people.”

At the same time, “the Greek word ‘psyche’ may describe… aspects of the person. It may emphasize the feelings, emotions and desires of the heart, while other aspects of the person might be described in different terms… the soul is equated… with special feelings. It is the person, of course, who has those desires and feelings, but special emphasis is given to the psychological aspect of a person…, describing it as the ‘soul.’ (Interestingly, the English word ‘psychological’ is, in fact, derived from the Greek word ‘psyche.’) When these psychological aspects are to be emphasized, the word ‘soul’ is sometimes used in combination with other human aspects—but this does not make the ‘soul’ an immortal element or entity within the man.”

New Testament Scriptures which are not quoted in the above-stated booklet, but which also prove that “soul” can refer to the feelings and emotions of a person, can be found in Matthew 11:29 (“you will find rest for your souls”); Matthew 26:38 (“My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death”); Luke 2:35 (“a sword will pierce through your own soul also”); John 12:27 (“Now My soul is troubled”); Acts 2:43 (“fear came upon every soul”); Romans 2:9 (“tribulation and anguish… on every soul of man who does evil”); and 2 Peter 2:8 (“that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds…”).

With this understanding, we are ready to review the meaning of the passage in 1 Thessalonians 5:23.

In our booklet, we are giving the following explanation:

“We read in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, ‘And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit [Greek ‘pneuma’] and soul [Greek ‘psyche’] and body [Greek ‘soma’] be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’

“In dividing the person into three aspects or ‘components,’ Paul did not address the issue as to whether some of the aspects were mortal or immortal. Rather, the ‘spirit’ of the person describes his mind, the ‘body’ describes his physical flesh, and the ‘soul’ describes his ‘temporary physical life.’ The Christians were asked to preserve blameless their minds, bodies and lives. To say that this verse teaches the immortality of the soul would mean that the ‘flesh’ or the ‘body’ would also have to be ‘immortal,’ which it clearly is not…”

We might add here that the “spirit” also refers to the spirit in man which God gives to every human being at the time of his physical conception (Zechariah 12:1), and which returns to God when the person dies (Ecclesiastes 12:7). That spirit imparts intelligence and human reasoning to the person (Job 20:2-3; Psalm 77:6; Proverbs 20:27). But that spirit in man is not something immortal, but it is only “functioning” as long as the man is alive (James 2:26). It imparts to the man and can be equated with the human mind (compare Ephesians 4:23: “… be renewed in the spirit of your mind”), which separates man from the animals (1 Corinthians 2:11). In addition, a person called by God receives the Holy Spirit at the time of baptism (his spiritual conception), which imparts to the man the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5), and which will also, together with the spirit in man, go back to God when man dies. But even the Holy Spirit in the man does not keep on “living,” as a conscious “entity,” apart from the man, when the person dies.

At the same time, the “soul” can refer to psychosomatic aspects of the man, including his emotions and feelings of joy or depression, hope or anxiety and “bitterness of soul” (1 Samuel 1:10; Job 10:1; Isaiah 38:15). But again, this does not make the soul immortal, because those feelings are only part of the man as long as the man is alive. Once the person dies, all his emotions and feelings have ceased (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6).

Some commentators—including those who falsely believe in the immortality of the soul—understand that 1 Thessalonians 5:23 cannot be used to prove the teaching of an “immortal soul.”

The New Unger’s Bible Handbook states the following:

“Sanctification for the whole man… involves the whole nature of man: ‘body,’ the material tent (2 Corinthians 5:1-8) in which man pilgrims in this world and with its five senses has communication with the natural world; ‘soul,’ the seat of affections, desires, will and emotions (Matthew 11:29; 26:38; John 12:27); ‘spirit,’ the higher part of man which knows (1 Corinthians 2:11) and has communication with God (Job 32:8; Psalm 18:28; Proverbs 20:27).”

In addition, some commentaries feel that the terminology is not primarily used to divide the person into three parts, but to emphasize that the whole man—every aspect of the Christian life—should be sanctified or set apart for God’s holy purpose (compare the Ryrie Study Bible and the Nelson Study Bible). The same thought would be expressed here, as it is in Deuteronomy 4:29; 6:25 (see above), regarding the necessity of loving God with our entire being (that is, with our whole heart, soul, and might). For instance, the Life Application Bible states:

“The spirit, soul and body refer not so much to the distinct parts of a person as to the entire being of a person. The expression is Paul’s way of saying that God must be involved in every aspect of our lives. It is wrong to think that we can separate our spiritual lives from everything else, obeying God only in some ethereal sense or living for him only one day of each week. Christ must control all of us, not just a ‘religious’ part.”

In conclusion, 1 Thessalonians 5:23 cannot be used to teach the concept of an immortal soul. Rather, Paul is praying that we (our entire being) would be “preserved” or “kept” (Gr. tereo) by God; that we would be “kept” in the love of God (Jude 21) and that we “keep” ourselves unspotted from the world (James 1:27), so that we will be counted worthy to enter the Kingdom of God when Christ returns.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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