God Is “A” Spirit?
The process of translating from one language to another is an arduous undertaking that entails consideration of a wide variety of linguistic issues. It is very often the case that the “receptor language” may not have a single word that corresponds to a word in the “parent language.” Hence, translators may include additional words in order to convey the meaning of the original—words which they may (or may not) place in italics. Italicized words are intended to flag for the English reader the fact that the translators added the words in hopes of making the meaning of the original accessible.1 Most of the time, translators do well in their attempts to translate accurately and use italics effectively. However, on occasion their decisions can hamper comprehension.
In addition to inserting italicized words, English translations also contain words that were inserted by translators without being italicized. Again, perhaps most of the time, their decisions are well-intentioned and helpful. At other times, however, they can mislead the English reader. One such example is seen in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Among His remarks to her was the declaration that “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) Some translations insert the article “a” before “spirit.” This erroneous insertion of the indefinite article is unwarranted. Most English translations recognize this fact and render it accordingly.2
“God is spirit” is equivalent to comparable biblical constructions, including “God is light” (1 John 1:5) and “God is love” (1 John 4:8). In each case, we are being informed about the very nature and essence of God—not His personality.3 “Spirit,” “light,” and “love” are attributes of God. They are characteristics or qualities of His being. We humans possess a spirit and a physical body; but God is spirit. He is non-corporeal. Jesus said, “a spirit does not have flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39). Though in the eternal realm, “we will be like Him” and “we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2), nevertheless, His being will most surely far surpass and transcend our spiritual, heavenly bodies (1 Corinthians 15:44,49).
The depiction of the nature and character of God in the Bible is unlike any other representation of deity by humans throughout history. The God of the Bible is not physical,4 but rather transcends the physical. As the Creator, He brought into being all that is physical when He created the Universe. Humans are created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27)—which refers to spiritual aspects of the divine nature. Our physical bodies are not created in His image, since He is non-physical. For Jesus to leave the spiritual realm to come to the Earth to die a physical death and shed physical blood on our behalf, a physical body had to be “prepared” (Hebrews 10:5) for Him to inhabit temporarily.
A host of descriptions of the spiritual nature of deity may be found in the Bible—though human limitations can hamper our comprehension and our ability to conceptualize fully the divine nature. In closing, consider these two:
Blessed be Your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise! You alone are the LORD; You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and everything on it, the seas and all that is in them, and You preserve them all. The host of heaven worships You” (Nehemiah 9:5-6).
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel. See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven, whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:22-29).
1 For more on this thorny subject, see Jack Lewis (1991), Questions You’ve Asked About Bible Translations (Searcy, AR: Resource Publications), pp. 141-171; Walter Specht (1968), “The Use of Italics in English Versions of the New Testament,” Andrews University Studies, 6:88-109, January; John Eadie (1876), The English Bible (London: Macmillan), 2:180-285; William Wonderly (1956), “What About Italics?” Bible Translator, 7:114-116, July; F.H.A. Scrivener (1884), “On the Use of the Italic Type by the Translators, and on the Extension of their Principles by Subsequent Editors,” in The Authorized Edition of the English Bible (1611) (Cambridge: University Press), pp. 61-81.
2 English translations that include “a” are the ASV, AMPC, BRG, DARBY, DRA, GNV, GW, JUB, KJV, NOG, NMB, TPT, RGT, WYC, and YLC. Those that omit “a” are the AMP, CSB, CEB, CJB, CEV, DLNT, ERV, EHV, ESV, EXB, GNT, HCSB, ICB, ISV, PHILLIPS, LEB, TLB, MSG, MEV, MOUNCE, NABRE, NASB, NCV, NET, NIV, NKJV, NLV, NLT, NRSV, NTE, OJB, RSV, TLV, VOICE, and WEB.
3 Henry Alford (1980 reprint), Alford’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 1:732.
4 It is true that the Holy Spirit utilized anthropomorphisms to accommodate Himself to the finite human mind. But the Bible is consistent in its representation of deity as a non-physical, spiritual Being Whose eternal nature preceded the creation of physical matter. God created time, matter, and space—but He Himself exists outside of time and space.
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