Gave up the ghost
— 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:
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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