An Inductive Exposition

Commentaries that have a more inductive method acknowledge the implications of man as spirit, soul and body as taught in 1 Thessalonians 5:23: “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” (NKJV).

Here is the interpretation of Expositor’s Bible Commentary: New Testament (Abridged Edition):

Throughout the letter Paul has been concerned with sanctification (3:13; 4:3-4, 7-8). Now he prays that God will indeed “sanctify” (i.e., separate to himself) his readers “through and through.” This expression speaks of the ultimate maturity of Christian character. It presents the qualitative side of spiritual advance in its final perfection.

The quantitative objective of the prayer is in the word “whole”. Wholeness pertains to three parts of the human make-up, “spirit, soul and body.” Paul petitions that this wholeness may be “kept” (or “preserved”) and that it may be “blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The question arises as to how Paul conceives of the human being in the words “spirit, soul and body.” Among the various explanations of this expression are these four: (1) Paul intends no systematic dissection of human personality. Instead, he uses a loose rhetorical expression emphasizing the totality of personality, … (2) “Spirit” and “soul” are interchangeable, both referring to a person’s immaterial substance. “Body” then completes the picture by referring to the material part: “your whole spirit (i.e., soul) and body.” This sees the human being as dichotomous. (3) Others divide the last sentence of v.23 either into two independent parts or join “may your whole spirit” with the first part of the verse (both of these require adding words that are not in the Greek). (4) Paul saw a human being as a threefold substance, body, soul, and spirit.

Of the four options, this fourth one is by far the preferred interpretation, being generally recognized since the early fathers. The symmetrical arrangement of three nouns with their articles and their connection (in Greek) by means of two “ands” render this the most natural explanation. That Paul elsewhere does not make such a distinction is no argument against trichotomy. A trichotomous understanding of v.23 has so much to commend it that other interpretations cannot compete without summoning arguments from elsewhere. The difference between the material part (“body”) and the immaterial parts (“spirit”; and “soul”) is obvious in other places in Paul’s writings (e.g., Ro 7:17-23; 1Co 2:14-15; 14:14; 15:44).

The “spirit” is the part that enables us to perceive the divine. Through this component we can know and communicate with God. This higher element, though damaged through the fall of Adam, is sufficiently intact to provide each individual a consciousness of God. The “soul” is the sphere of our will and emotions, the true center of personality, which gives us a self-consciousness that relates to the physical world through the body and to God through the spirit. The “body” is the physical side of the human person. This analysis of humankind had been Paul’s training in the OT, though much unresolved mystery remains regarding the interrelationships between the different parts, including the body. How one affects the other is fully understood only by the Creator.

For such a composite creature Paul therefore prays, seeking an unblamable wholeness in the presence “of our Lord Jesus Christ” (cf. 2:19; 3:13).

Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III Editors: Expositor’s Bible Commentary: New Testament, Abridged Edition (Zondervan, 2004).