There are all kinds of phrases and idioms we use day to day even though we have lost their origins. We know what they mean, we know when to use them, but we don’t know where we got them. In so many cases they come to us by way of the Bible, and especially the King James Bible. This is exactly the case with the common little phrase “Give up the ghost.”
We use the expression “give up the ghost” to describe death—the disconnection of the soul (the ghost) from the body. Yet today we would not use the phrase in a solemn occasion (“We are gathered here today to honor our friend who gave up the ghost on Saturday”). Rather, we tend to use it humorously to describe the “death” of something that is inanimate or relatively unimportant, as in “My iPhone finally gave up the ghost.” A small-town newspaper laments, “History is strewn with towns that gave up the ghost when companies moved on” while a home renovation column in the Sydney Morning Herald begins “The vanity unit in our bathroom gave up the ghost recently, and as we are saving for a major renovation in a few years…” In this way we use it as a form of personification, to make it seem as if something has greater significance than it does intrinsically.
The phrase was popularized by the King James Version of the Bible, though the King James drew from the Coverdale Bible. The KJV uses it in a number of passages: Luke 23:46 and John 19:30 when describing the death of Jesus and Acts 12:23 when describing the death of Herod. “And immediately the angel of the Lord smote [Herod], because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.” Most current translation render “gave up the ghost” as “breathed his last” or simply “die.” A quick check of the Greek shows that the John passage is different from the others in that it explicitly references “pneuma” or “spirit.” Thus the ESV does well to translate it differently from the other two: “he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” It is only here where “give up the ghost” is a literal rather than idiomatic expression.
Though the idiom is no longer used in modern Bible translations, it lives on in the culture around us. In this way it gives us reason to consider its significance. It is drawn most naturally from John 19:30 and, thus, from the most momentous event in human history—the death of Jesus Christ. There is much we can and should learn from it. We see that Jesus “gave up his spirit” and this reminds us that Jesus was fully human even while he was fully God. There is and was unity of body and soul, of the material and the immaterial. 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, 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 while he had the power and authority to make it stop. This is consistent with what he said in John 10:17-18: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
And finally, this little phrase is a call for us to remember that we, too, are more than bodies, more than what can be seen, touched, and killed. Though our bodies can and will be destroyed, in that moment we, too, will give up the ghost. The soul will live on until it is at last reunited to a body that is remade, restored, and perfected. This is the great promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Not surprisingly, many Christian songs express worship for these beautiful realities. “In Christ Alone” is a stirring example:
No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.