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What Does “Gave up the Ghost” Mean in Scripture?

  • Mike Leake Borrowed Light

What Does “Gave up the Ghost” Mean in Scripture?

I had an old clunker of a car a few years ago. Ah, who am I kidding? I still have an old clunker just a different one. This particular car seemed to have nine lives. Each time I thought it was dead, somehow, we’d be able to find some cheap fix and get it back on the road again. But one day it drove its last mile. It simply wouldn’t start. When this happened, I remember saying, “well, the ol’ car finally gave up the ghost.” 

“Gave up the ghost” is a phrase that we use when something (seldom do we use it of someone these days) no longer is in working condition. It’s when a thing dies. But did you know this phrase has its origin in the Bible? 

Where Is "Gave up the Ghost" Found in Scripture? 

The phrase seems to have its origin in the Coverdale Bible. In Acts 12:23 , when Herod did not give glory to God but instead to himself, we read this: 

Immediatly the angel of the LORDE smote him, because he gave not God the honoure: And he was eaten vp of wormes, and gaue vp the goost.

Why Is This Phrase Used?

Why does the KJV Bible reference giving up a ghost? Is this some sort of reference to the Holy Ghost? No, it is not a reference to the Holy Ghost/Spirit. In Old and Middle English the word ghost was used synonymously with spirit. So “giving up the ghost” would be synonymous with “yielding your spirit”. 

It is in John 19:30 that I think we are better positioned to understand more about the origins of this phrase. The word used for “gave up” is paradidomi . This is a very common word. It is the same word used for Jesus being delivered over to the guards and authorities. It means that you are giving something over to another. And so in John 19:30 , we see that Jesus is yielding the very center of Himself (his pnuema) over to the Father. This is why the phrasing “give up the ghost” became more popular in the 17 th and 18 th century. It wasn’t simply that you were “pushing up daisies” or “taking a dirt nap” you were actually submitting your spirit to the LORD. 

What Does This Phrase Mean?

There is, then, even more meaning in this phrase than simply an idiom to refer to death. And its origins are certainly more profound than being synonymous for your car “kicking the bucket”. It doesn’t simply mean that something no longer functions or works. There is a yielding and submission of the darkest hour into the hands of the LORD. 

Jesus, of course, models this for us in the way that when he was dying upon the cross, he entrusted Himself to the Father. I appreciate the words of Tim Challies : 

The way someone died in the 17 th and 18 th centuries was incredibly important. Pastors and family members were looking for this type of yielding at the hour of departure. They had great comfort if someone went peacefully into eternity. It was just a final picture of submissively following the sovereign direction of the Lord. 

Eventually, the phrase took on a bit of a new life. The sacredness of death seemed to be overtaken with a more cynical outlook. As such “giving up the ghost” became a more macabre expression and eventually referred to simply death, or giving up. So, by 1832 James Kirke Paulding’s Westward Ho! would see an inanimate object; “at length it gave up the ghost…” 

I do not think it necessary for us to use archaic language to describe death. Very few people would understand the import of “gave up the ghost” if we said this at funerals. But the concept is indeed important. It is helpful for us to have things like graveside services where we commit the body as well as spirit unto the Lord as we await the resurrection of the dead. It is important for us to not only grasp the concept of being surrendered to the Lord in the hour of our death but also within every hour of our lives. 

Perhaps “giving up the ghost” shouldn’t be confined to the deathbed but in a very real sense, we are to be “giving up ourselves” with every waking moment. Jesus modeled this in his life and in his death.

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The expression.

We use the expression “give up the ghost” to describe death—the disconnection of the soul (the ghost) from the body. Yet today we would not use the phrase in a solemn occasion (“We are gathered here today to honor our friend who gave up the ghost on Saturday”). Rather, we tend to use it humorously to describe the “death” of something that is inanimate or relatively unimportant, as in “My iPhone finally gave up the ghost.” A small-town newspaper laments , “History is strewn with towns that gave up the ghost when companies moved on” while a home renovation column in the Sydney Morning Herald begins “The vanity unit in our bathroom gave up the ghost recently, and as we are saving for a major renovation in a few years…” In this way we use it as a form of personification, to make it seem as if something has greater significance than it does intrinsically.

The phrase was popularized by the King James Version of the Bible, though the King James drew from the Coverdale Bible. The KJV uses it in a number of passages: Luke 23:46 and John 19:30 when describing the death of Jesus and Acts 12:23 when describing the death of Herod. “And immediately the angel of the Lord smote [Herod], because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.” Most current translation render “gave up the ghost” as “breathed his last” or simply “die.” A quick check of the Greek shows that the John passage is different from the others in that it explicitly references “pneuma” or “spirit.” Thus the ESV does well to translate it differently from the other two: “he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” It is only here where “give up the ghost” is a literal rather than idiomatic expression.

The Application

Though the idiom is no longer used in modern Bible translations, it lives on in the culture around us. In this way it gives us reason to consider its significance. It is drawn most naturally from John 19:30 and, thus, from the most momentous event in human history—the death of Jesus Christ. There is much we can and should learn from it. We see that Jesus “gave up his spirit ” and this reminds us that Jesus was fully human even while he was fully God. There is and was unity of body and soul, of the material and the immaterial. And then we see that he “ gave up his spirit.” This reminds us of his uniqueness, for there was something active rather than passive in this “giving up.” To the end, Jesus was willingly enduring his suffering and sacrifice. Yes, he was dragged to the court and the cross, yes he was nailed to the tree, but all the while he was willing, he was still in control. He was willing to suffer in this way even while he had the power and authority to make it stop. This is consistent with what he said in John 10:17-18: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

And finally, this little phrase is a call for us to remember that we, too, are more than bodies, more than what can be seen, touched, and killed. Though our bodies can and will be destroyed, in that moment we, too, will give up the ghost. The soul will live on until it is at last reunited to a body that is remade, restored, and perfected. This is the great promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Not surprisingly, many Christian songs express worship for these beautiful realities. “ In Christ Alone ” is a stirring example:

No guilt in life, no fear in death This is the power of Christ in me From life’s first cry to final breath Jesus commands my destiny No power of hell, no scheme of man Can ever pluck me from His hand; Till He returns or calls me home, Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.

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Q: #280. What does "gave up the ghost" mean in the Bible?

By: steve shirley.

    A: This phrase (or a form of it) is used 19 times in the Bible. In the Old Testament, two Hebrew words are used for the word “ghost” in this phrase: “ gava ” and “ nephesh .” In the New Testament, two Greek words are used: “ ekpneo ” and “ ekpsucho .” The literal meaning is basically “to breathe out” or “to expire.” In short, to “give up the ghost” is a euphemism for dying.

     As far as I know, this phrase is only used in the KJV version of the Bible. Other versions like the NKJV, NASB, and NIV generally use the term “breathed His last” instead. (In Mt 27:50 and Jn 19:30 it is said that Jesus “gave up or yielded His spirit” [different Greek word] instead of “breathed His last” likely to put emphasis on the fact that Jesus did this of His own free will.) However, when the KJV Bible was written in the 1600’s, to “give up the ghost” was a common term for dying (I read that Shakespeare used the term in one of his plays, written at about the same time.). This phrase has now pretty much faded away just like other interesting KJV phrases such as “ouches of gold” (Ex 28:11), “collops of fat” (Job 15:27), and “old cast clouts” (Jer 38:11-12).

Copyright: © Steve Shirley

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The King’s English

Through the king james bible, phrase by phrase, gave up the ghost.

By Glen on November 5th, 2011

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—  An old car that breaks down for the last time.

—  A sports team that knows it can’t win.

—  A business that finally calls it quits.

In all these situations we’d say they “gave up the ghost.”

In the bible, the phrase describes death.  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all said to have “given up the ghost” when they died.  It just means that they breathed their last breath.

In the biblical languages (and in old English), breath, spirit and ghost were all one word.  And so for Abraham and others, it was a case of their body returning to dust and their spirit (or ‘ghost’) returning to God. (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

We’re all destined to give up the ghost.  Death is “the way of all the earth” (1 Kings 2:2).  And the funeral service has a stark reminder:

earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust

Our spirits animate us for a while, but soon we give up the ghost.  And down to the dust we go.

I don’t know what do you make of that song from the Lion King, “ The circle of life ”?  It’s incredibly catchy, but I can’t sing it.  When I realize that I am dust and I’m destined for the dustbin, I don’t feel like singing.  Especially since the bible argues it’s more of a semi-circle really!  If life naturally runs its course then we emerge from the cosmic compost heap only to sink back down to the sludge.

Just after Adam sinned the Lord told him:

dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.  (Genesis 3:19)

That’s the kind of life we’ve inherited from Adam.  It’s not a life- cycle .  It’s a one-way arrow pointing straight to the grave.  And there’s no way out.

Our natural life – the life of the flesh – only produces more flesh .  We can’t generate spiritual life from our own resources.  We are perishing and one day we will all “give up the ghost.”

So what does the Son of God do when He sees His handiwork perishing?  It should never cease to amaze us: He comes to perish too.  Even the Word our Maker gives up the ghost.  John was there at the cross to see it happen:

Jesus said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost . (John 19:30)

Here is the Lord of Glory going “the way of all the earth.”  But why should the Author of life subject Himself to death?

Let’s hear the 4th century Bishop, Athanasius :

For this purpose, then, the… Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are.. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression… All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own… because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.

When Jesus gave up the ghost it wasn’t a failure.  On the contrary, as our verse declares, His death “finished” death for us all.  It was the very accomplishment of His divine mission.  More on this next time…

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“Give up the ghost”

This phrase has its origins in Genesis 25:8 and Mark 15:37 of the King James Version of the Bible

to die, give up the will to live, or stop functioning

More KJV sayings:

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  • My cup runneth over
  • Heap coals of fire on their head
  • Eyes to the blind

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Afterlife | Conditional Immortality

Exploring issues of the afterlife from a Christian Evangelical Perspective including human nature, the soul, life after death, final punishment, the resurrection and eternity

Giving Up The Ghost

October 7, 2020 By David Tatum Leave a Comment

The phrase “give up the ghost” is an English idiom that can be traced back in written language as far as the 1600s.  This potentially misleading phrase is found in the King James Version of the Bible multiple times and is used in reference to a person’s physical death. The phrase “give up the ghost” is often used to describe someone who dies or expires (literally breathes out) because the original Hebrew and Greek words that are being translated mean to breathe out a final time, exhale, or expire.  The problem with this translation is that the phrase “give up the ghost” carries with it the concept that a person is a “ghost in a machine” or an immaterial soul within a physical body.  This, in turn, leads to the idea that when the machine becomes inoperable, the ghost (soul/spirit) leaves the body and continues to have some sort of conscious existence after death.  In 1949 Gilbert Ryle wrote a book entitled “The Concept of the Mind” in which he uses this same phrase to address the concept of mortality and the philosophical argument for mind/body dualism.  Ryle states,

“There is a doctrine about the nature and place of the mind which is prevalent among theorists, to which most philosophers, psychologists and religious teachers subscribe with minor reservations. Although they admit certain theoretical difficulties in it, they tend to assume that these can be overcome without serious modifications being made to the architecture of the theory…. [the doctrine states that] with the doubtful exceptions of the mentally-incompetent and infants-in-arms, every human being has both a body and a mind. … The body and the mind are ordinarily harnessed together, but after the death of the body the mind may continue to exist and function.” 1

What Ryle describes is the popular idea that a person’s consciousness or mind can be differentiated from their physical body and or brain.  Many philosophers have made this claim throughout history, that a “thinking thing” that has the ability to rationalize must somehow be able to transcend its physicality.  The dualist proposal, as Ryle states, is that upon death, this consciousness, spirit, or rationality, is somehow able to discard its connective link with the physical and continue to live without the body.  This anthropological understanding often takes one of two approaches to this topic; either a substance dualist position or an immaterial dualist position. In another work entitled “Descartes Myth,” Ryle speaks out against this popular cultural and religious dogma saying,

“Such in outline is the official theory. I shall often speak of it, with deliberate abusiveness, as “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine.” I hope to prove that it is entirely false, and false not in detail but in principle. It is not merely an assemblage of particular mistakes. It is one big mistake and a mistake of a special kind. It is, namely, a category mistake.” 2

The use of this phrase in the Biblical translation of the King James Bible has only served to propagate this idea that human beings are, as Ryle puts it, a “ghost in the machine.” What we will see after examining the Biblical evidence is that this phrase is not helpful in properly describing Biblical anthropology and specifically the death of humanity.  This specific translational choice presumes some sort of dualism along with a belief in an intermediate state from the outset.  This approach reads into the Biblical text, something that is not there, and even worse, it ignores the plain and practical reading of the text, which describes the opposite of what it seeks to propose.


In the King James Version of the Old Testament, the phrase “give up the ghost” is found multiple times to describe a person’s death.  The first time it is found, the phrase is used to describe the death of Abraham.  Here is how the King James Version translates the Hebrew in Gen 25:8

Hebrew:          [Abraham]       [gava]                  [muwth]         [towb]    [seybah]

English: “[Then Abraham] [gave up the ghost], [and died] [in a good] [old age]”

If the first three Hebrews words were to be translated in a rigid literal fashion, the text would read as follows, “Abraham (Abraham) expired/breathed out ( gava) and died (muwth) .”

What we see is that the translators have chosen to take the Hebrew word gava and translate it into the phrase “gave up the ghost.” The translational assumption that is being made is that the ‘content’ of what is being expired is some sort of; spirit, soul, ghost, or rationality.  The problem is that this idea must be read into the text and is not actually present in the original Hebrew scripture.

Hebrew: gava

The primitive root of the Hebrew word gava means to breathe out, i.e. (by implication) to expire: die, be dead, perish. The KJV translates the word; die (12x), give up the ghost (9x), dead (1x), perish (2x), dead (1x).  This word can be understood as the opposite of the Hebrew words neshemah and ruach, which are used to describe inspiration, or breathing into something which, in turn, results in life. Let’s look at a few instances in the Old Testament, where the Hebrew word gava is used to describe death.

1. All Creation

First, gava is used in the flood account to describe the death of all living creatures, both human and animals that do not make it into the ark.  The writer of Genesis describes the death of all living things by their loss of breath or drowning.  Some have argued that humans are unique from all other animals because they have the ‘breath of life’ which they received from God at their creation.  (see Gen 2:17) However, Scripture indicates that both humans and animals have the ‘breath of life’ given by God, and all exhale this breath and die.  Notice in the two following examples, the texts refer to all living things, humans and animals, which die as a result of gava. (breathing out, expiring)

Gen 6:17 “everything that is in the earth shall die (gava-expire).”

Gen 7:21 “And all flesh died (gava-expired) that moved upon the earth.”

2. Patriarchs

Next, we see that the word gava is used to describe many of the Patriarch’s deaths.  A similar phrase is used in each Scriptural text, which describes a person who breathes their last breath ( gava ) and dies.  Here the King James Version of the Old Testament chooses to use the phrase “give up the ghost.” We will also see in a moment what the Biblical authors foresee the result of this gava (breathing out, expiring) is that the dead person or animal returns to dust.

Gen 25:8 “Then Abraham gave up the ghost (gava) , and died in a good old age.”

(see also Gen 25:17 Ishmael, Gen 25:39 Issac, Gen 49:33 Jacob)

Num 20:29 “when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead (gava), they mourned.”

3. Humanity in General

In a more general sense, we find other Biblical writers using this word to describe death, which affects all of humanity.  The Biblical writers describe how a person, who is their body, expires, breathes their last, and dies.  Each author describes the person as their body, and not the breath they have breathed out.  In these descriptions, the person is said to return to the dust, as God promised in Gen 3:19.  Here we see in the most intuitive biological sense that inspiration and the possession of breath allows for life in an animal, while the expelling of breath ( gava) leads to death.  In these texts, we see that both Job and the Psalmist indicate that after death, a person returns to dust.  In these texts, personhood is associated with the physical body and not a soul/spirit that leaves the body at death.

Job 14:10 “But man dies, and wastes away, man expires (gava) and where is he?”

Job 34:15 “All flesh shall perish (gava) together, and man shall turn again unto dust.”

Psalm 104:29 “You hide your face, they are troubled: You take away their breath, they die, (gava) and return to their dust.”


This same phrase, often translated as someone “giving up the ghost,” is found in the King James Version of the New Testament in the following texts; Mark 15:37, 39; Luke 23:46; John 19:30; Acts 5:5, 12:23.   The use of this phrase in the Gospels is found in reference to Jesus’ final words on the cross.  Unfortunately, the use of the phrase “give up the ghost” has led many to believe that Jesus’ death only resulted in the loss of his body, while his “ghost” or spirit/soul survived and lived on.  In this sense, it is hard to truly say that Jesus died completely.  Jesus’ death becomes partitive and not wholistic.  To reiterate, many Christians have chosen to adhere to the idea that only a part of Jesus died, i.e., his body, while his spirit/breath/ghost continued to live on after bodily death. Let’s take a look at how the Gospels record Jesus’ death.


All four of the gospels give an account of Jesus’ death and record the scene in which Jesus expires.

In each of the four Gospels, a different verb is used to describe Jesus’ last breath.  The Gospel of Matthew uses the Greek word aphiemi, which means to yield up, expel, send away, or expire.  The Gospel of Mark uses the Greek word ekpneo, which means to breathe out one’s life, or expire. The Gospel of Luke uses the Greek word paratithemi, which means to entrust or give over to someone else’s care. The Gospel of John uses the Greek word paradidomi, which means to give up, or deliver over to someone.  All four of these verbs indicate the relinquishing of something within someone’s possession.  They also convey the idea of giving one’s breath over to God, with the hope and trust that God will give it back to them to be resurrected in the future.

1. Matthew 27:50

The Gospel of Matthew uses the Greek word aphiemi to describe Jesus’ last breath.  The definition of a phiemi is to yield up, expel, send away, or expire

“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up (aphiemi) the ghost (pneuma).”

The same phrase “yielded up the ghost” is also used in the book of Acts to describe the deaths of; Ananias, Sapphira, and Herod.  All four of these scriptures would be better translated as “breathed his/her last breath and died.”

Acts 5:5 Ananias “yielded up the ghost” (ekpsychō- breathed his last) and died

Acts 5:10 Sapphira “yielded up the ghost” (ekpsychō- breathed her last) and died

Acts 12:23 Herod “yielded up the ghost” (ekpsychō- breathed his last) and died

The problem with the phrase “yielded up the ghost” or even “yielded up his spirit” as some modern translations read, is that it conveys the idea that the essential part of a person that cannot die is an immaterial conscious rational aspect of their being.  Death then is proposed to be only partial in that the body dies, but the essential element of the person lives on without the body.

2. Mark 15:37

The Gospel of Mark uses the Greek word ekpneo to describe Jesus’ last breath.  The definition of ekpneo is to breathe out one’s life to expire. This Greek word that Mark uses literally means to breathe ( pneo ) out ( ek ).  The text could quite literally be translated as ‘Jesus cried with a loud voice, and exhaled.’

“And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost (ekpneo).”

A similar phrase could quite easily be constructed to tell the story of another person’s death.  For instance, we could say that the man was beheaded and died.  Or we could say, the man’s hand was cut off, he bled to death, and died.  Or again, the man’s heart stopped, and he fell down dead.  Since the two essential elements of maintaining life are the circulation of blood and oxygen, it is natural to use descriptions like this to describe death.  When speaking of decapitation or the loss of blood flow, we don’t assume that the person’s blood leaves the body and they continue to exists as their blood.  For some reason, however, many have assumed that the language of breath can be used to describe the immaterial part of a person leaving their body.

3. Luke 23:46

The Gospel of Luke uses the Greek word paratithemi to describe Jesus’ last breath.  The definition of paratithemi is to entrust, to give over.  Luke also uses the same exact ekpneo to describe Jesus’ last breath or exhale. Luke’s use of the word paratithemi carries with it the connotation of having something and giving it away.  Luke also uses this word to describe how Jesus gives a parable. (Mathew 13:24, 13:31) In addition, Luke uses paratithemi to describe how Jesus possessed food or drink and gave it to others. (Mark 6:41, 8:6-7, Luke 9:16, 10:8, 11:16)

“And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into Your hands I commit (paratithemi) My spirit/breath (pneuma).’ Having said this, gave up the ghost (ekpneo).”

Here the idea Luke is trying to get across is the element of trust.  Jesus is trusting God the Father with his life, knowing that he will be raised to life three days later.  What Luke is not trying to convey is the idea that Jesus is escaping his body at the moment of death as a ‘spirit.’  If this were the case, the phrase would lose the element of trust within the dialogue that is occurring between Father and Son.

4. John 19:30

The Gospel of John uses the Greek word paradidomi to describe Jesus’ last breath.  The definition of paradidomi is to give up or deliver.  It would seem odd to use this sort of language if Jesus was, in fact, the spirit ( pneuma ) that he spoke of.  The idea being conveyed is that Jesus is relinquishing something over to the Father, not that he is going to the Father as a spirit.

“Therefore, when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up (paradidomi) the ghost (pneuma).”


In addition to these four texts, another text can be referenced in the book of Acts.  In Acts 7:59, Luke describes Stephen, the first Christian martyr, as using similar language to Jesus during his execution.  Stephen asks for Jesus to receive his spirit/breath.  Stephen does not convey the idea that he is the spirit/breath that is leaving his body to go to Jesus.  In the midst of impending death, Stephen trusts that God will one day raise him from the dead.

“They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive (dechomai) my spirit/breath (pneuma).'”

In summary, the term “gave up the ghost” does not seem to be an accurate translation of what the Biblical authors are attempting to convey.  Each author makes the point that Jesus died in the fullest sense of the word.  They do not convey the idea that Jesus left his body as a rational soul, spirit, or ghost.  A much better translation for all of these texts would be that Jesus breathed his last breath and died.  Finally, these accounts all seem to imply an element of trust, which means something was at risk in Jesus dying on the cross.  The risk that Jesus took was that he would not be resurrected.  In taking this risk, Jesus modeled for us how we should approach our deaths by trusting in our creator than he can bring us back to life.


The remainder of the New Testament also bears witness to the reality of death and resurrection.  Several other New Testament texts convey this same idea that we have already examined.  The underlining them is that the absence of breath results in the death of the entire person.  The reversal of this process is the return of a person’s breath that results in resuscitation or resurrection.  Jesus brother James explains that “the body without the spirit is dead.” (James 2:26). Luke’s Gospel confirms this idea when he tells of the death of a young girl.  Luke says “(she was dead) And her spirit returned, (she came alive), and she got up immediately, and He gave orders for something to be given her to eat.” (Luke 8:55). The apostle Paul said that the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead would also raise our mortal bodies.  Our hope, therefore, is in the bodily resurrection from the dead. (Rom 8:11) Peter also describes Jesus death as being “put to death in the flesh, but made alive by the spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18) Finally, John describes a resurrection occurrence in the book of Revelation saying, “after the three and a half days (of being dead), the breath of life from God came into them, and they stood on their feet (came alive).” (Rev 11:11).  In all of these cases, the absence of spirit/breath results in life, and the return of the spirit/breath results in resuscitation or resurrection.  What can be learned from these Biblical accounts of life, death, and resurrection is a very foundational principle.  Love requires freedom,  freedom entails risk, and risk results in either trust and obedience or mistrust, and rebellion.


In closing, we can return to the Old Testament text that Jesus quotes on the cross.  In Luke’s account of Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus quotes Psalm 31:5.  Here are the two phrases side by side.

Psalm 31:5 “Into Your hand I commit my spirit; You have ransomed me, O Lord, God of truth.” Luke 23:46 “‘Father, into Your hands, I commit My spirit/breath.”

Quotes like this are often used as hyperlinks, which are meant to remind the reader of the entire Psalm.  Psalm 31 follows the theme of complete trust in God even in view of one’s impending death, and the hope in the ability of God to redeem his faithful one from the hands of his enemies.  First, the Psalm presents the theme of trust.  The Psalmist trusts God with his life and proclaims that the breath of life he has been given can be restored even after death.  Second, the Psalm presents the theme of impending death. The Psalmist describes himself as a dying man, “forgotten,” a “broken vessel,” and someone who is being “cut off.”  Finally, the Psalmist presents the theme of hopeful vindication.  The Psalmist’s faith is in the hope that he will be ransomed or delivered from the hand of his enemies.  This text reflects the state that Jesus was in while hanging on the cross.  If Jesus was to truly trust the Father, something needed to be risked.  The Gospels all describe Jesus’ death and later his vindication by God through his resurrection. I believe that understanding the following fundamental principles are essential to understanding God and the Biblical text as a whole.  In Psalm 31, we see all four of these principles articulated.

1. Love: God is Love

The apostle John tells the church that God himself is love. (1 John 4:8). John says that this love is exemplified in laying down one’s life for the beloved.  (1 John 3:16). Jesus models the fact that love is willing to go to the extreme to reveal itself.  The Psalmist declares this same idea when he says, “save me in Your lovingkindness” (Psalm 31:16), and “He has made marvelous His lovingkindness.” (Psalm 31:21)

2. Freedom: Love requires the Freedom to choose

From the very first pages of the Bible, we see a God who creates out of love, providing his creation with the ability to make choices.  This is evident in the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel.  All throughout the Bible, we see the distinction between the faithful and the unfaithful, the righteous, and the unrighteous.  This distinction is made between those that have made conscious choices.  God is constantly providing people with the choice of life and death, blessing and curse, with the hope that we choose life. (Deut 30:19) The Psalmist echoes this idea when he says, “The Lord preserves the faithful.” (Psalm 31:23)

3. Risk: Inherent in the Freedom to choose is the Risk of either embrace or rejection

The reality of risk is inherently built into the ability to choose.  By granting freedom to his creation, God runs the risk that humanity will make the wrong choice.  In fact, much of the Bible can be summed up as a description of God’s people, making the wrong choices.  In the midst of this risk, Scripture reveals that God’s desire is that all his creation will make the right choice.  (John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9) Jesus even described God as a mother hen who desires to gather her chicks under her wings, but cannot because they are unwilling. (Matthew 23:37). The Psalmist reveals this concept when he writes, “into Your hand I entrust my spirit.” (Psalm 31:5). He realizes that in death, he must risk everything in the hope that he is right about who God is.

4. Trust: The reality of Trust is only true when something is at risk of being lost

Finally, Scripture is full of examples that reveal the trustworthiness of God.  A prime example of this is when Peter asks Jesus to walk on water, and Jesus reveals that he is trustworthy.  (Matthew 14:29) The Psalmist also presents this belief saying “but I trust in the Lord” Psalm 31:6), “But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord.” (Psalm 31:14).  The apostle Paul tells the church in Rome that we can trust in the resurrection because we have the proof of Jesus’ resurrection.  (Rom 8:11)

In summary, Jesus revealed that God is love by choosing to lay down his life.  In doing so, he risked the possibility of not being resurrected by the Father.  Jesus trusted God with his life, knowing the trustworthy character of God and his desire for humanity to be reconciled.  If Jesus’ words on the cross reflected his belief that he would die, leaving his body to ascend to the Father as a spirit, he did not risk anything.  If Jesus did not risk anything, he was not required to trust the Father.  If this is true, we cannot speak of Jesus’ death as an act of love because love necessitates freedom, which carries with it an inherent risk.  When we examine the Gospels narratives, however, what we see is that the writers describe Jesus’ death as the ultimate act of love and, in turn, an action that exemplifies the highest risk possible.  Jesus lays down his life and trusts that the Father will raise him back to life.

In summary, we can conclude with the following truths that we have explored.

  • The Old Testament describes that both humans and animals gava. (expire)
  • The Old Testament narrates the gava (expiration) of multiple Patriarchs.
  • The Old Testament explains when a person gava (expires), they return to dust.
  • The New Testament uses four Greek words to describe the expiration of Jesus on the cross; aphiemi, ekpneo, paratithemi , paradidomi. All of these phrases convey the idea that Jesus is giving up something and trusting in God to give it back
  • The New Testament explains a body without breath ( pneuma ) results in death.
  • Psalm 31 summarizes the Biblical principles that;
  • God is love: Jesus literally loves us to death
  • Love requires freedom of choice: Jesus chose to lay down his life to show us this love
  • Freedom necessitates risk: The Father risked the obedience of the Son
  • Trust involves the risk of loss: The Son trusted the Father would resurrect him
  • Ryle, Gilbert, The Concept of Mind (1949); The University of Chicago Press edition, Chicago, 2002, p 11 [ ↩ ]
  • Ryle, Gilbert, “Descartes’ Myth,” in The Concept of Mind, Hutchinson, London, 1949. Pg 6 [ ↩ ]

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About David Tatum

David Tatum received his BA in Philosophy and Theology from Point Loma Nazarene University and went on to get his Masters in Divinity at Nazarene Theological Seminary. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham in the UK. David has been a pastor and educator in Christian education for the last 15 years. He is the proud father of three children and competes in Ironman triathlons in his spare time. He started and administers a Facebook Group discussing Biblical Anthropology

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What Does it Mean that Jesus ‘Gave Up the Ghost’?

The phrase “gave up the ghost” is an old English translation of the Greek phrase “paradidōmi to pneuma.” The old English phrase means the moment a person dies as if the soul is released when the body transpires. 

What Does it Mean that Jesus ‘Gave Up the Ghost’?

I recently went to my uncle’s funeral. My uncle was a great man who loved his wife and family with all his heart. He lived a long life, almost 80, when he passed suddenly taking out the trash one evening.

We celebrated and grieved my uncle near his home in Ohio. We told stories and comforted one another. For those of faith, we declared we would see him again one day, as he was a man of faith and service in his local church.

Despite being older, his death was unexpected and quick. It was not what any of us would have chosen. I can’t say for sure, but perhaps it wasn’t what my uncle would have chosen, either. However, whether the death is sudden or at the end of a long illness, death is the appointment for us all.

Every human being is appointed to die once and then face the judgment seat of God ( Hebrews 9:27 )), where every knee will bow, and tongue will confess ( Philippians 2:10-11 ).

This is the future for all men and women. The time is appointed for us by God, not by our choosing, no matter what we believe. As sinners, we are already slaves of death.

This is the gospel that God sent his Son for the world so those who would believe in Jesus wouldn’t be slaves of death but have imperishable, eternal life.=

At the center of the gospel is the person, Jesus, who was sent as a sacrifice for our sins. This Son of God had never sinned and by extension, never under the slavery of death.

This is the background for a mysterious statement from the King James Version of the Bible. At his death on the cross, Jesus “gave up the ghost.”

What Is the Context When Jesus ‘Gave Up the Ghost’ in Luke 23:46 ?

Chapter 23 of Luke recounts the events leading up to the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Jesus had been arrested and tried by the Sanhedrin, the religious ruling council of the Jews, people who were supposed to be upholding the Old Testament Law and the truth of God.

Since the Jews were a conquered people, they didn’t have the authority to carry out a death sentence, so they sent Jesus to Pilate, the local Roman governor.

Luke 23 begins with Pilate’s questioning of Jesus. When Pilate realizes this is both a religious matter dealing with the local kingship of Judah, he sends Jesus to Herod.

Upon being questioned by Herod, Jesus said nothing, even though the chief priests and scribes accused Jesus. Herod and his troops mocked the Son of God, placing a type of kingly robe on him as a joke, and sent Jesus back to Pilate.

Pilate could still find nothing wrong with Jesus and decided to simply chastise Jesus and release him, since by local law and agreement with the Jews around Passover , he could release one prisoner to the Jews.

The Jewish leaders roused the people to instead called for Pilate to release murderous political revolutionary Barabbas. The Jews cried, “Crucify!” until Pilate relented and delivered Jesus up to be crucified.

Jesus forgives the men who drove the nails into his hands, all while being mocked by the crowd. If he was the Son of God and could do such miracles, why didn’t he save himself?

This is a valid question.

After dealing with the two thieves, one of whom is promised the Kingdom because he defends the innocence of Jesus, the sun darkened, and the veil of the Temple was torn in two.

At this point, we get to the crux of it. Luke 23:46 in the KJV says, “And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.”

He gave up the ghost.

What Was the Significance That Jesus ‘Gave Up the Ghost’?

The phrase “gave up the ghost” is an old English translation of the Greek phrase “ paradidōmi to pneuma .” The old English phrase means the moment a person dies as if the soul is released when the body transpires.

Other translations don’t use this old phrase for death, however. Even the New King James Version changes it to, “He breathed his last.”

Why is it important for the KJV to use “gave up the ghost”?

First, we can look into the text of Luke 23:46 to give a hint. What words did Jesus say before dying? Jesus said nothing randomly, nor did he speak of his own, as he clearly expressed. He only spoke what the Father spoke ( John 12:49 ), so these final words were intentional and had meaning.

Before his death, Jesus said, “Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit.” Here Jesus states he chose the moment of his death, that he had the power to choose exactly when he died.

Some might argue it is possible Jesus simply understood he was about to die; the moment was close. This happens to people who aren’t the Son of God, a mystical reality where regular everyday people sometimes know they are about to die and express it just beforehand.

Even without looking at other gospel accounts of his death, we see the moment carried extreme significance. The sky darkened. The veil was torn in two. These were important symbols of a spiritual breaking of the old ways and bringing of the New Covenant.

Further, we have other evidence from Jesus’ words of his power to choose when he died. In John 10:17-18 KJV, Jesus says, “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.”

By his own words, then, Jesus told people no one took his life, Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin, or even the men putting the nails in his hands. It was completely his choice. The Father commanded, but Jesus chose to obey.

God is love, and love doesn’t force, coerce, or manipulate. Love speaks truth and gives a choice. Because Jesus was the Son of God and loved us and his Father, he obeyed; knowing the joy set before him ( Hebrews 12:2 ), he chose the cross.

Therefore, we see why the King James makes an interesting choice with the phrase, “gave up the ghost.” When used to describe the death of regular people, “giving up the ghost” doesn’t mean they chose to die in the moment, only that their soul left their body.


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But with Jesus, the term takes on a deeper meaning. He chose to come to the Earth as a man and die on the cross. Unlike every other human being, he had the power over death while alive and chose exactly when it would happen in obedience to his Father.

What do other accounts add to this discussion?

What are Other Gospel Accounts of the Moment of Jesus’ Death?

Luke is the only gospel recording Jesus’ words after crying out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” after crying out with a loud voice and immediately preceding “giving up the ghost.”

Mark and Matthew give us different last words from Jesus, which are “Eli, Eli, sabachtani?” which meant, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ( Matthew 27:46 and Mark 13:34 ). Jesus says this when the darkness covers the Earth, also written about in the other Gospels.

However, both Matthew and Mark include Jesus crying out with a loud voice before he died, and afterward, Jesus yielded up his spirit.

Yielding his spirit is the same sentiment as “into your hands I commend my spirit” and “he gave up the ghost.” Jesus yielding his spirit also meant he chose to die at that moment.

John’s gospel provides a slightly different perspective on the moment of Jesus’ death. The final words in John 19:28-30 are “It is finished!” followed by bowing his head and giving up his spirit.

“It is finished” correlates with the completion of the work of Christ in salvation and also the signs around his death like the earthquake and the veil being torn in two.

Again, we have “he gave up his spirit” in death, a clear indication of a personal choice by Jesus to die exactly then, revealing his power over death even while living in a human body.

But didn’t he show this power over death in other narratives, as well? He raised the dead several times, notably Lazarus ( John 11 ). He declared during the raising of Lazarus that he, himself, was the resurrection and the life.

He who is resurrection and life cannot be subject to death in any way. He already was the resurrection before he physically manifested that reality in literally rising from the dead.

This is the life he gives to his followers.

What Are Important Lessons We Can Learn from Luke 23:46 ?

As stated before, God is love, and he will not force us to follow him. We must choose to die to ourselves and live for God. However, that choice is only available because Jesus paved the way, the firstborn from the dead, and invites us into a work we could not do.

We can’t overcome the power of death on our own. Only Jesus could accomplish that by choosing to die as the perfect righteous Son of God in a human body to defeat the power of death over humanity. This is a finished work Christ invites us into through faith and grace.

If we will believe, we can then make the choice. God will not force us. Nor will he manipulate or coerce us to love and follow him. Even the power to make the choice comes from his grace, which we don’t deserve and could never earn.

But if we do, then we also choose to die to ourselves and follow the teachings of the Bible.

Jesus said in Mark 8:34-35 , “When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

Just like Jesus, we must see the joy before us, the eternal life offered, and endure our own cross. This is a life we would lose anyway since we are slaves of sin and death, and no amount of effort on our part can break those chains.

We must offer up our lives willingly, overcoming sin and death by the blood of the Lamb, the word of our own testimony, and not loving our own lives ( Revelation 12:11 ).

When we willingly choose to give up our lives for Jesus and the Gospel, the power of death over us is eternally broken. We are filled with the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead ( Romans 8:11 )). Jesus, who is the Resurrection, lives within us through the born-again New Creation. Even when our bodies die, we will be resurrected in new bodies like Jesus had ( 1 Corinthians 15:49 ).

Even Death itself can’t kill the Resurrection, and we are able to say now and later, along with all the saints of God, “Oh Death, where is your sting? Hades, where is your victory?”

Like Christ, let us give our lives, our souls, willingly unto the God who will translate us into an eternal life no worldly power can kill, giving us victory now and later over the power of Death.

For further reading:

What Did Jesus Mean by ‘Father, Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit’?

What Is the Significance of Jesus’ Last Words on the Cross?

Is the Holy Ghost Different from the Holy Spirit?

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What is "giving up the ghost" and is it done voluntarily?


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