What Does “Gave up the Ghost” Mean in Scripture?
- Mike Leake Borrowed Light
- 2022 9 Jun
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.
The King James Version of the Bible picked up this “gave up the ghost” phrase and used it a bit more frequently. While also using the phrasing from Acts 12:23, we also read in Acts 5:5 that the lying Ananias “fell down, and gave up the ghost”. In Lamentations Jeremiah mourns that the priests and elders “gave up the ghost in the city”. But it’s not only the wicked of whom this expression is used. Genesis 25 and Genesis 35 that both Abraham and Isaac “gave up the ghost, and died”. But most famously we read in Mark 15:37, John 19:30, and Luke 23:46 that Jesus on the Cross “gave up the ghost.”
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”.
More modern translations will either translate this as simply “die” or in John 19:30 we read that Jesus “bowed his head and gave up his spirit”. The Greek in John 19:30 is indeed a bit different than in the other gospel accounts. There the term “spirit” (pneuma) is specifically used. In Mark and Luke, the word ekpneo (breathed out, expire) is used. That is why in Mark and Luke you’ll read that Jesus “breathed his last” instead of “gave up his spirit”. In Acts, the word used for the death of Ananias, Sapphira, and Herod is ekpsycho. It is the same concept. So, there is something unique about John 19:30.
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 17th and 18th 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:
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, and 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 though He had the power and authority to stop it.
The way someone died in the 17th and 18th 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.
Photo Credit: Unsplash/Dyu-Ha
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These verses serve as a source of renewal for the mind and restoration for the heart by reinforcing the notion that, while human weakness is inevitable, God's strength is always available to uplift, guide, and empower us.
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