Unfortunately, this blog post does not claim to offer the true significance of existence – but it does look at the meanings of the words for “life” in the New Testament, and the lessons we can draw from them. It is often pointed out that the different words used for “love” in the Greek New Testament help us better understand the breadth of that concept. In the same way, the three Greek words used for “life” can also give us insight into some important biblical verses.
The most basic word for life found in ancient Greek, and in the New Testament, was bios – from which we take our bio- rooted words such as biosphere, of course. Bios was commonly used for life in the simple sense, for the period of one’s “lifetime” and for those things that sustain physical life such as physical resources and even wealth. It is found with this meaning in scriptures such as Luke 21:4: “All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
The next word for life is psuche from which we take our psych- rooted words relating to the mind such as psychology, though in ancient Greek the word had a broader meaning including the breath of life, the vital physical force which animates the body, the physical life or “soul.” We find this word most often in the New Testament with the simple meaning of our physical life – in verses such as Matthew 10:39: “He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.”
The final word for life, and the most important, is zoe. We take our zoo- rooted terms such as zoology from this word, but zoe signifies not only the animate aspect of life as opposed to non-life, but also life in the absolute and fullest sense. It is the word used repeatedly in the New Testament in statements regarding the kind of eternal life God has (John 5:26) and wishes to give to us – life which is both qualitatively and quantitatively greater than the life we have now. Zoe is found in verses such as 1 John 5:11-12: “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.”
Keeping the different meanings of these three words in mind can often give us greater understanding of passages in the New Testament. An example is 1 John 2:16: “For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.” Here, knowing that the word “life” in “the pride of life” is a translation of the word bios helps us to see that the pride being spoken of is not arrogance, but pride of physical possessions – which fits better with the context.
In Matthew 6:25, where we find: “For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink ... Is not life more than food …?” the word “life” is actually not bios, and the stress is not on the things that sustain life, but psuche – our very existence itself (just as Jesus said “is not life more than food…”).
As a final example, notice John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life and may have life abundantly.” Here, knowing the the word used for life is zoe, we see that Jesus’ goal was not that we just have a better or more abundant physical life, but that we get true life and come to have that life abundantly.
By simply checking which word for “life” is used in a given scripture, when it might make a difference, we can often come to a fuller understanding of what is being said. To do that, all we need do is check the verse in an online Greek interlinear New Testament such as the one here. It’s a simple enough procedure in order to be able to know the meaning of life.