The Wartburg Project

December 27th, 2023

95. Put to Death in Flesh but Made Alive in Spirit

In 1 Peter 3:18 what does it mean that Jesus was put to death in flesh but was made alive in spirit?

Without doubt the biblical words flesh (basar and sarx) and spirit (ruach and pneuma) are among the trickiest biblical words to translate because each of them has so many different connotations.

Among the meanings of basar and sarx are flesh, meat, muscle, the body, and the sinful nature. All flesh may refer to all people or may even include animals. Among the meanings of ruach and pneuma are spirit, the soul, wind, and the Holy Spirit. A study of all these nuances goes beyond the limited scale of this FAQ. Here we are looking at a very narrow issue. What is the meaning of a contrast of the terms flesh and spirit in relationship to the person of the incarnate Christ? 

There are very few passages relevant to this topic. The first is 1 Peter 3:18.

Because Christ also suffered once for sins in our place, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in flesh but was made alive in spirit.

What does it mean that Christ was put to death sarki and was made alive pneumati? Among the suggested translations for sarki are in the body, in the flesh, and physically. While these translations are not wrong in themselves, they are inadequate because they set up a false contrast with the second part of the sentence. If Christ died in the body, but was raised in the spirit, this would falsely imply that his resurrection was not a resurrection of the body. The Living Bible is an example of such a false understanding: “Though his body died, his spirit lived on.”  It also does not seem that the point of reference here is to the Holy Spirit. There is no definite article before pneumati, and it is the Father and Jesus who are spoken of as the agents of his resurrection—Jesus was raised and he rose.

What was the difference observed in Jesus before and after his death and resurrection? He had a complete body and soul before his death, and he had a complete body and soul after his resurrection (Luke 24:39). The difference was that before his death and resurrection his divine glory was generally hidden behind an ordinary-looking body. There was nothing about his appearance that led people to say, “This is a god.” This condition during which his glory was hidden is called his state of humiliation. Now that Jesus has risen and ascended to heaven, his divine glory shines through his human nature (Revelation 1). We call this his state of exaltation.

It seems therefore that in 1 Peter 3:18, in flesh refers to a lowly appearance and in spirit refers to a glorious condition.  The same flesh/spirit contrast works very well in the nearby passage 1 Peter 4:6.

In fact, it was for this reason that the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, so that they might be judged the way people are judged in flesh and that they might live the way God lives in spirit.

Here, the same terms, in flesh and in spirit are applied to the believer’s passage from a humble state to an exalted state.

Let us see if the same distinction works in other passages on the topic.

16 Undeniably, great is the mystery of godliness: God was revealed in flesh, was justified in spirit, was seen by messengers, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory. (1Timothy 3:16)

The terms flesh and spirit here refer to Christ’s states of humiliation and exaltation. God was revealed in a lowly condition—he was laid in a manger, he was tired, he suffered and died. Christ was justified, that is, he was declared to be righteous and free from all our sin by his resurrection. His resurrection clearly showed that he really is God’s Son, the Savior who had paid for sin. God was declaring him to be Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). The word spirit here refers to the exalted state in which he appeared to his disciples after his resurrection.

This gospel is about his Son—who in the flesh was born a descendant of David, 4 who in the spirit of holiness was declared to be God’s powerful Son by his resurrection from the dead—Jesus Christ, our Lord. (Romans 1:3-4)

Here the Greek terms are somewhat different, kata sarka and kata pneuma, but the connotation seems the same. The term flesh is a reference to Christ’s state of humiliation (his lowly appearance while he was on earth). The term spirit is a reference to Christ’s state of exaltation (his glorious condition after his resurrection). The resurrection did not make Jesus God’s Son, but it showed that he was the Son of God. The spirit here again is not the Holy Spirit, but his spirit that is characterized by holiness.

There is one other passage that seems to support this interpretation of the flesh/spirit contrast.

In the days of his flesh, [Jesus] offered prayers and pleas with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. (Hebrews 5:7)

Jesus had flesh both before and after his resurrection. The term the days of his flesh therefore refers to Christ’s state of humiliation, during his ministry on earth, as it was reflected in his agony in Gethsemane. Christ still has his human flesh in heaven, though it is now glorified.

In all three passages, in which we find this flesh/spirit antithesis in regard to the person of Christ, the God-Man, it makes good sense to understand “flesh” as referring to the lowly mode of existence in which Christ chose to live here on earth as a weak and humble human being, who did not publicly display his equality with God (Philippians 2:6-8). The word “spirit,” on the other hand, refers to that glorified spiritual mode of existence in which the exalted Jesus now rules over all things at the right hand of God. 

One cannot derive this meaning just by looking up the words flesh and spirit in a dictionary. One must study the usage of these words in the whole context of Scripture.

The Christological Flesh-Spirit Antithesis by Siegbert W. Becker, which can be found in the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary free online library, provides a much more in-depth analysis of the topic.