1. The breath of a living being (2 Thessalonians 2:8). The word pneuma is sometimes used in the New Testament to mean "breath" or any movement of air or wind (John 3:8, etc.), but Paul does not use the word in this way.
2. A characteristic of human behavior. This may be negative as in “a spirit of fear” (2 Timothy 1:7) and “spirit of sleep” (Romans 11:8), or positive as in “a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1) and a “spirit of wisdom” (Ephesians 1:17). The positive references often refer to qualities of the Spirit of God (see 5, below) expressed in us – we must look at the context of each instance to decide. In this sense of behavior, pneuma is sometimes used as an adverb or adjective with the meaning of “spiritually” or even “crafty” ( 2 Corinthians 12:16)!
3. A non-material part of the human being (1 Corinthians 2:11). Paul refers to Timothy's spirit (2 Corinthians 7: 13) and tells us to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Ephesians 4:23). Compare James 2:26, which says that “…the body without the spirit is dead….”
4. A non-physical being. Just as John 4:24 says “God is spirit….,” 1 Corinthians 15:45 says that after his resurrection Jesus Christ became a “life-giving spirit.” Compare also Hebrews 1:14 which says, “Are not all angels ministering spirits…?”
5. The Spirit of God (2 Corinthians 3:3) or equivalents such as “the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19), “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead” (Romans 8:11), “the Spirit of His Son” (Galatians 4:6), “the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:14-18) or “the Spirit of Christ” (Romans 8:9).
How do these different ways Paul uses the word pneuma or “spirit” affect our understanding of his writings? Often even Bible translators have to try to decide whether Paul meant “Spirit” as in meaning number 5 – the Spirit of God – or “spirit” as in one of the other possible meanings of the word. Consider the fact that the King James Version translated pneuma as “Spirit” 138 times and as “spirit” 123 times, whereas the New International Version translated the word as “Spirit” 246 times and as “spirit” 92 times. That means the word is translated differently over one hundred times between these two versions – a considerable difference!
Sometimes context makes it clear which meaning of “spirit” is intended. In 1 Corinthians 2:11, for example, Paul writes: “For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” Both instances of pneuma are translated spirit, but it is clear one is human spirit and the other God’s Spirit that is meant.
But the lesson for us in our own study is that we should look carefully when Paul uses the word “spirit.” Should it be capitalized or not? And if not, which of the meanings of the word given above best fits the context? In the Book of Galatians, for example, Paul frequently mentions “spirit” but does not qualify the word, so we need to read each instance carefully to see what he meant.
There are clues we can utilize. When Paul uses the definite article and says “the spirit,” it is usually the Spirit of God (unless he states otherwise as in “the spirit of fear”). If Paul is talking about the Holy Spirit in the verses before an instance of just “spirit,” he usually means the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12:3-7). When he writes that people have “received the spirit,” he means the Spirit of God.
But even with the clues we have, translation is often not easy. For example, “gentleness” can be a characteristic of the human spirit or the Spirit of God – we must look carefully to try to decide which spirit is meant. When Paul writes that he is absent in body but present “in the spirit” (1 Corinthians 5:3-4), he may mean in his human spirit, just as we use the expression today, but he may mean he is connected to his audience by the fellowship of the Spirit of God he and they have received – so they are of “one spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:17).
No great doctrinal uncertainties hang on the exact meaning of pneuma in the writings of Paul or elsewhere in the New Testament, but we can often deepen our understanding of God’s word by thinking about the possible meanings when we do read this word in our study.