Breathing is something that we’re barely conscious of most of the time.
We breath in.
We breath out.
We breath in again.
Well, you get the idea!
In fact, the average person does this around 23,000 times a day without much thought. We manage to skilfully coordinate our breathing with our eating, our drinking and our speaking. We even breath when we’re unconscious.
But there are times when we’re far more aware of our breath. An intense game of tennis, or a fast-paced jog around the park can leave us gasping for air. Even climbing the stairs to quickly might get us panting. Suddenly we’re conscious of our desperate need for breath.
Of course, many people live life with a far greater awareness of this fact. Anyone with asthma, or another respiratory condition, knows the panicked sensation of breathlessness all too well. This dependence on our next breath is a poignant reminder of our human frailty. Most healthy adults can survive on one breath for 30 seconds, maybe even a couple of minutes. But then, without our next breath, that’s it.
For human life, we need breath: minute by minute, and second by second.
And this is just one way in which the COVID-19 crisis undermines the human pretence of self-sufficiency. Actually, we are completely sufficient, and this cruel virus reminds us of that fact. As many have struggled for breath, while battling COVID-19, we’re reminded that we are far from invincible. And in this way, our present situation powerfully echoes the deep significance of breath, within the imagery of the Bible.
Dust + Breath = Life
The opening pages of scripture introduce us to breath, as a powerful image of life.
“the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
To be specific, this is God’s life. Without God’s breath, Adam is nothing but a heap of dust. But with it, he is a living creature. This simple sentence conveys so much about our nature: we come from God and we are completely dependent on God. He sustains us constantly, just as he sustains the entire cosmos. Perhaps that’s why breath is such a fitting image for God’s creating and sustaining power: we need a constant supply. Living creatures need food to survive, but we can skip a meal without fading away; we could probably last a few days without food and suffer no lasting ill effects. But try giving up breathing for an afternoon…
Just as God breathed his life into the first human, so our every breath is a reminder of his hand sustaining us too. Every hour, every minute, every second, we depend on the God who breaths life.
Dust – Breath = Death
But as the story of Genesis unfolds, something terrible happens: people stop breathing. At the flood we read, “Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died” (Genesis 7:22). Then, “Abraham breathed his last and died,” and Isaac “breathed his last and died,” and then Jacob “breathed his last” too (Genesis 25:8; 35:29; 49:33).
This isn’t the way things are meant to be. There isn’t supposed to be a last breath. But our world is broken, marred by sin and plagued by death. And one of the tragic consequences of sin is the end of life. The Psalmist describes a human without breath: “they die and return to the dust” (Psalm 149:29).
Right now, we are acutely aware of this sobering reality and every tragic death during this global pandemic underscores it. As this brutal virus renders bodies incapable of even drawing breath, we are reminded that our world desperately needs to be restored. And our problems run far deeper than just the physical; this schism leaves humanity estranged from God’s life giving-presence in every plane of its being.
Bones + Breath = Life
As we continue through the Bible, a familiar pattern mirrors our own experience: everybody dies, even God’s chosen people Israel. Their death is spiritual, as well as physical, just like the rest of fallen humanity. But at the backend of our Old Testament, a prophet called Ezekiel sees a vision. He’s shown a valley full of dry bones, and as he’s led among the bones, God asks him, “Can these bones live.” I’m sure my immediate answer would have been “No.” It seems obvious, doesn’t it. Whoever these skeletal remains belonged to, they’re long gone now. But Ezekiel answers more wisely: “Sovereign Lord, you alone know” (Ezekiel 37:3).
But the scene becomes stranger still, as God gives Ezekiel a message for the bones:
“Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”
This incredible vision signals one of the most central themes of the New Testament: resurrection. When God breaths into dusty bones, they come to life. Death is turned back.
It’s significant that the Hebrew word that’s we translate “breath” can just as easily mean “spirit.” The same is true in the Greek of the New Testament and the biblical authors make use of these double meanings. Ezekiel gives us a tantalising prospect: when God breaths out his Spirit, even death can be undone; when God breaths out his Spirit, sin is overcome; when God breaths out his Spirit, new life springs from the dust.
Jesus + Breath = Hope
It’s no surprise that all these themes come together in the person of Jesus. He stepped into our broken world, clothing himself in our fallen humanity. Jesus lived with all the frailty of human existence and, at the cross, he felt the full effects of sin and death. Just like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and countless millions before, he “breathed his last” (Mark 15:37).
But unlike everyone else, he didn’t stay dead. In an unprecedented move of new creation on the third day, God breathed his Spirit over Jesus’ lifeless corpse and—like Ezekiel’s dry bones—his life returned. But, this new life is not restricted to Jesus. In one of his resurrection appearances to the disciples, we’re told that “he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Like us, the early Christians weren’t transformed instantly to experience Jesus’ resurrection life, but this breathing out of the Spirit gives hope and assurance of the coming new creation, free at last from sin and death.
The apostle Paul reflects:
“we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself…
Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
(2 Corinthians 4:14, 16-17)
As you’ve been reading, perhaps you’ve become a bit more aware of what your breath is doing. Consider each breath. Every time you inhale and exhale, be reminded of your dependence on God. He is the one who gives us every breath.
And next time you’re short of breath, be reminded of that things are not as they should be. As you hear sobering reports of those who’ve tragically breathed their last due to COVID-19, let this be a poignant reminder that sin and death have invaded God’s good creation.
But right now, take a deep breath. Let it fill your lungs. Feel the life-giving effect of breath. And let this be an image of hope. Just as God breath his life into the first man, just as he breathed his new creation power into the corpse of Jesus, just as Jesus breathed out the Spirit of God over the first disciples, so God is breathing his life into you.
As Christians, God has filled us with his Spirit, and the Spirit’s presence is inwardly renewing us day by day. Even as we waste away physically, life springs up inside, and we have confidence of a fast-approaching new creation where we will never be short of breath.
Miles Tradewell | Minister