It is because of this one scripture that most of the Christian world has formed its belief about what type of being God is. They contend that the word "spirit" is defined as a supernatural, non-physical substance having no shape or form, and therefore having no "body" with parts to it as we do. As such, God cannot have "eyes" or a "head", no "hands" or "arms", no "chest" or "loins", no "feet or "legs". Because of that assumption, it is believed by many that any such references found in the Bible to these parts of the human body when describing God must be symbolic and should not be taken literally. Furthermore, it is argued, that to say God looks like us limits His abilities and degrades His majesty. Therefore, if God is a "spirit" He must be a formless, bodiless being.
But is this what's really meant by "God is a spirit"?
The question we need to ask ourselves is: How does the word of God define the term "spirit"? Surprisingly, nowhere in the Bible does it give us a clear definition, therefore, the common belief of what a "spirit" is cannot be based on scripture, but rather is founded on speculation and imagination.
Although there is no clear definition given for this word, we can get some clues to our question by seeing how it was used by the writers of the Bible. Unfortunately, even this method presents us with some problems, since the word "spirit" can be used in many different ways. In fact, the dictionary lists twenty-five separate meanings for just this one word. With that in mind, let's examine the various ways the word "spirit" is used in the Bible.
The most common usage has reference to God Himself. It is used in such ways as: the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Lord, or the Holy Spirit (or Ghost). When God is speaking, He refers to it as "My Spirit". When others are speaking they often refer to it as "His Spirit", or simply, "the Spirit".
What exactly is "the Spirit of God"? Is it God Himself? Is it His power, influence, or authority? Is it another being acting at the command of God? Is it perhaps some sort of an energy force that flows from God? As amazing as it may sound, this common phrase is used by the biblical writers as though it needs no explanation, and so, no explanation is ever given by them. Yet, it is clear that, even among the most learned Jewish and Christian scholars, no one can state with absolute certainty what is meant by the phrase "the Spirit of God". As a result, all attempts to define it are merely someone's interpretation of what they think it means.
The least used meaning in the scriptures of the word "spirit" is to indicate the main characteristics or essence of someone or something. For example, after Elijah the prophet had ascended into heaven, Elisha took over his authority, and his power was so evident that the sons of the prophets said, "the spirit of Elijah rested with Elisha" (2 Kings 2:15). In the same way, the Bible also speaks of "the spirit of Egypt", and "the spirit of the [Babylonian] holy gods".
Another usage of this word is what can be called "gifts" or something that is given to a person such as a "spirit of judgment", a "spirit of understanding" or "counsel", or "knowledge". This also includes being given a "spirit of slumber" or the "spirit of a deep sleep". These are things which God gives to people based on their righteousness, or lack of it.
Still another use can be defined as "an influence working in the heart of man". This refers to an attitude or temperament or feelings of the heart. This includes having a spirit of "jealousy", "whoredoms", "meekness", or "holiness". It is having a "haughty" spirit, or a "proud" spirit. Other words the Bible uses in this manner are sorrowful, sad, broken, wounded, hasty, perverse, humble, contrite, excellent, fervent, and lying. Another way these feelings are expressed is by saying that a person has "anguish", "vexation", or "heaviness" of spirit.
The second most common use of the word "spirit" in the Bible refers to that part of man which provides him with life. The Bible declares that "there is a spirit in man" (Job 32:08). When we die, our physical body returns to the ground from where it came and the spirit returns to God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:07, Psalms 31:05). Furthermore, the body without the spirit is dead (James 2:26).
What exactly is this "spirit"? The Bible doesn't clearly say, but it does give us some information about its characteristics. First, we know that this "spirit" lives inside of us. The Psalmist wrote, "Therefore is my spirit overwhelmed within me" (143:04), and Daniel stated, "I Daniel was grieved in my spirit in the midst of my body" (7:15).
This "spirit" lives within the physical body and gives life to it. However, it seems that both the spirit and the body have the ability to determine what we do. In other words, we can let our physical body's desires govern our actions or let the "spirit" within us decide how we will behave. Therefore, we can sometimes encounter a conflict between the desires of our physical body and our spirit as to which will determine what we do.
Jesus told us that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41, Mark 6:49). The apostle Paul complained, "For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do." (Romans 7:19) Peter instructed us to "abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul." (I Peter 2:11). In Proverbs we are told, "He that ruleth his spirit is mightier than he that taketh a city." (Proverbs 16:32).
It appears that the spirit and the body are like a man riding a horse. Either the man can control the horse and make it do what he wants, or he can let go of the reins and allow the horse to do whatever it desires. Yet, even when the rider wants to be in control, until the horse is tamed, a struggle between these two beings will continually exist.
The horse represents our physical body, while the man on the horse represents the spirit within the body. The clear message of the scriptures is that we are to tame the desires of the flesh and bring it into subjection to the will of our spirit. Since we are to obey the commandments of God, it is also plain that the spirit is expected to bring both the physical body and itself into compliance with the wishes of God.
We also know that upon death, the spirit leaves the body and goes to a place inhabited by the dead. The scriptures refer to this realm by the names of "hell", "sheol", "hades", "gehenna", "Abraham's bosom", and "paradise". Jesus, when he was still alive on the earth declared, "Verily, Verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live... Marvel not at this; for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice" (John 5:25,28). Peter later stated, "For this cause was the gospel preached to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit" (I Peter 4:6).
When the body dies, it knows nothing, hears nothing, sees nothing and is incapable of movement. However, according to the Bible, the "spirit" within man continues to be very much alive and is capable of hearing, understanding and accepting what it hears. If repentance for our sins is part of the process of gaining salvation - which most Christian churches agree - then the departed "spirit" must also be capable of repenting. If this was not so, why would Jesus preach the gospel to the dead?
Consider the incident when King Saul was beset with troubles and God didn't answer his prayers. He went to see a woman who could communicate with the dead, and asked her to bring up the spirit of the prophet Samuel. According to the Bible, this dead prophet came forth and spoke to Saul (I Samuel 28:6-20).
It was Jesus Himself who gave us a more expanded view of what type of world the departed spirits live in and what they are capable of doing when he told the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Lazarus was in a place of happiness known as "Abraham's bosom", while the rich man suffered in hell. There was a gulf between the two men preventing either one from crossing over to where the other was, or even to touch one another. However, these two men could still converse together - the rich man asked Lazarus for water and also asked that he might have the opportunity to warn his relatives who were still alive on earth, and Lazarus explained to the rich man why he couldn't do either.
Although some say this story was only a parable and that it didn't actually happen, the Bible doesn't claim it to be a fictional account. However, even if it was, it is unthinkable that Jesus would use an imaginary place to convey eternal truths. Those who claim the Bible to be accurate in every word have no other choice than to believe that such a world exists as Jesus described it. Therefore, we must conclude that the spirit within man is capable of not only hearing and understanding, but of talking with other "spirits", feeling pain, torment, and happiness, needing to be refreshed by water, and experiencing sorrow and remorse.
Moreover, notice that the rich man and Lazarus recognized each other. This indicates that our spirit must also retain its own personality, knowledge, and appearance that it had while alive within its physical body. If this were not the case, the rich man would not only have failed to recognize Lazarus, and remember what he did while on earth to merit his suffering in hell, but Lazarus wouldn't have known who the rich man was when they talked, or have remembered anything about the relationship the two of them had during their mortal life.
Consider when the disciples were out at sea "and in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear" (Matthew 14:25,26). At that time, Jesus was a live, mortal, human being, yet he was mistaken for a "spirit". We learn two things from this event. First, it was believed back then that a "spirit" was in the form of a human, and secondly, that a "spirit" could float and move in the air. In today's language we would say that the disciples thought they had seen a "ghost", and, indeed, that is another word we could easily substitute for this definition of a "spirit".
It can be argued that these men, through either superstition or ignorance, believed in such things as ghosts even though nothing of the kind exists, and that Jesus didn't feel it important enough to correct their misguided notion. However, after His resurrection, Jesus suddenly appeared to the remaining eleven apostles who were fearfully hiding in a locked room. The Bible tells us that "Jesus stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be with you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them... It is I myself: handle me and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have" (Luke 24:36,37,39).
Notice that when the apostles saw Jesus and thought he was a spirit, Jesus corrected their mistake, not by saying that a spirit doesn't have human form, but, instead, by explaining that a spirit doesn't have "flesh and bones" as he presently had. This is the only clear definition in the Bible of what a "spirit" is, yet it lacks much in the way of specifics.
We know that "God is a spirit" and we now know that a spirit doesn't have flesh and bones. We have also seen that our "spirit" doesn't have flesh and bones, but it apparently does have a human form. It should be noted that nowhere in the Bible does it say that God doesn't have a human form. In fact, just the opposite is true. There are many places in the scriptures where God is described as looking just like a man, but is this just figurative language, or are these accurate descriptions of what God really looks like?
Perhaps we can get a better clue by asking what kind of beings angels are? The Bible states that God made his angels spirits (Hebrews 1:7). Every Christian church I'm aware of believes that angels are "spirit" beings who do not have flesh, blood, and bones, or, in other words, a physical body. We know they have the ability to speak, preach, ordain, transport people, give visions, execute judgments and carry out God's commands.
And what about Satan and his angels? The Bible refers to these as "unclean" or "evil" spirits. These spirits also have the ability to inhabit physical bodies and are able to speak. Consider the incident when some certain vagabond Jews tried casting evil spirits out of a man. "And the evil spirits answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye? And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded" (Acts 19:14-16).
Again we see that angelic "spirits" (good and evil) have the ability to speak, understand, move around, inhabit bodies and control them. In short, they have all the characteristics which our "spirits" possess, and which also include many of the things God is capable of doing. But what do angelic spirits look like?.
In the book of Genesis we read of a heavenly person who wrestled with Jacob (Genesis 32:24-30), and of two angels who visited Abraham and Lot before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis, chapters 18 & 19). In both incidents, these angels were beings in human form.
The Bible tell us that when Peter and John raced to the place where Jesus had been buried after His crucifixion three days earlier, "they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed there about, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments" (Luke 24:3,4, emphasis added). These were two angels of God who had the shape of a human, but did not have bodies of flesh and bones.
For Latter-day Saints, we have an additional definition of the word "spirit" that helps us better understand what kind of being God is. The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith, "For the Word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit" (D&C 84:45). A spirit, then, is also a being who is filled with truth and light. In the scriptures, the term "light" is often used as a synonym for righteousness or goodness.
God is the source of all truth. He is also full of righteousness and in him is no darkness (or evil) at all (1 John 1:5). With this understanding, we can therefore paraphrase the words of Jesus as recorded in John 4:24 thusly: "God is a Man of Righteousness, and is full of truth: and they that worship him must do so in righteousness and in all truthfulness." The apostle Paul expressed a similar concept when he wrote, "Be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness" (Ephesians 4:23,24).
But there's another way to look at this question. One of the most central features of the Christian faith is the belief in the resurrection. We believe that each of us will be resurrected; some in the resurrection of the just and some will come forth unto the resurrection of damnation (John 5:29). The resurrection is defined as our spirit being released from the world of the dead and inhabiting its own physical body once more. Thus, we will again become alive, both body and spirit, thereby retaining our human form.
Yet what will our resurrected body be like? Will it be the same type of body it is now? Paul explained that in the resurrection we will be given a different kind of a body, just like there are different kinds of flesh on the earth. "There is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds." It will be the same way in the resurrection. He continued to explain, saying that some people will be given a celestial body, some a terrestrial body and some a telestial body (1 Corinthians 15:35-42). It must be remembered that this is talking about the resurrection, and the definition of the resurrection is the reuniting of the spirit with its body!
Yet in the same chapter Paul also states, "that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (15:50). But if our resurrected body will have flesh, then how can we inherit the kingdom of God?
Also, consider the words of the Savior, when explaining to Peter how he knew that Jesus was the Christ: "Blessed art thou Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee but my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 16:17).
Since flesh and blood did not reveal this information to Peter, but Christ's Father in heaven, then it would appear that the Father doesn't have flesh and blood. But if Jesus had a body of flesh and bones after His resurrection when He appeared to His disciples, and He is God, then God, who is a spirit, must have flesh and bones.
The only conclusion we can come to after listening to Paul's explanation of the resurrection is that the flesh of a resurrected body is not the same as what we presently possess. Apparently, this type of flesh is capable of inheriting the kingdom of God. Christ had a body of flesh and bones after His resurrection, and He certainly lives in heaven. Thus it may be more accurate to say that earthly flesh, blood and bones cannot inherit the kingdom of God.
And what about God? We know He is a Spirit, but could it not mean that He is a person with a glorified, resurrected body, as Christ had after His resurrection, that doesn't have earthly flesh, blood and bones? From the writings of the apostle Paul, we know that those who are worthy to inherit the kingdom of heaven will possess a glorified resurrected body and will live with God. Then why is it so inconceivable or unscriptural to say that God is no different a being as we hope to one day become? After all, Jesus was the example of what we will be like in the resurrection, and doesn't the Bible teach that we were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27)?