A Word for Today: Good (Gk. Kalos)


It is not uncommon today, when someone is asked the question ‘How are you?’ to hear the response ‘Good, thanks’. What, of course, the respondent means is that they are well in terms of their overall health. Surprisingly, however, the English adjective ‘good’ has actually more to do with virtue or moral quality than it does with a person’s general state of physical well-being. Thus, in theory, one could argue that the respondent is claiming a status for themselves, which may not necessarily be correct! Such are the peculiarities of the modern use of language, but in the Graeco-Roman world in which the New Testament was written, the Greek word kalós, meaning ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’, was used consistently to describe that which was attractive or virtuous. Or, as Edward Selwyn states about the use of kalós by the apostle Peter in his first letter, chapter 2 verse 12, ‘kalós and not ágathós is the adjective used here, because it implies that the conduct in question not only is good, but also appears so. This point was of particular importance in a society which applied to the highest kind of human character the term kalós kàgathós, i.e., one whose intrinsic goodness is also beautiful in others’ eyes.’1

This idea of a goodness that is seen and realized by others is reflected in the widespread use of the word in classical Greek where, according to William Barclay, ‘kalós is one of the noblest of words; and through all its history it never loses a certain splendour’.2 This is evident in the writings of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle who divided the nobility (kalón) into the naturally beautiful and the morally beautiful. He then defines the kalón by order and suggests that they are the good in an absolute sense.3 Plato also grappled with kalós and did not think that goodness was simply subjective or marginal, but that it was fundamental to all real explanation, and hence all understanding.4 Even when we look later at the writings of individuals such as Tacitus, the Roman historian, we still find similar comments being made of the equivalent Latin term for kalós, ‘honestus’. In his work, entitled ‘Histories’, Tacitus narrates the lives of various Roman Emperors, and defines the word ‘honestus’ as ‘that quality which makes a man worthy of praise, even if you strip him of everything else’.5 So, conceptually, kalós came to mean good in an absolute sense, or in the sense of morally good, being above reproach.

In the Septuagint (LXX), kalós is used to translate a number of Hebrew words, to indicate that which is beautiful, intrinsically attractive, and morally good. We find the word used in the creation story when God declares that the light that He created was good, because it was an expression of His ordered beauty, Gen. 1. 4. In Genesis chapter 12 verse 14 the reference is to human beauty when the Egyptians admire Sarai’s beauty, much to the discomfort of her husband Abram. Meeting the requirements of God in terms of personal conduct is viewed as not only pleasing to God, but as morally good in Micah chapter 6 verse 8, cp. Deut. 10. 12-13.

Moving into the New Testament we find that the adjective kalós occurs over one hundred times in a variety of differing contexts. Essentially, the word for the most part is used again with reference to that which is morally upright, beautiful, or excellent. It is a word that majors on the innate qualities of the noun that it is seeking to qualify. Here in the table below are just a few examples of the descriptive power of kalós in the New Testament:

The word kalós occurs twenty-four times throughout the Pastoral Epistles, where Paul places a significant emphasis on the beauty and attractiveness of the Christian way of life. This life is underpinned by right behaviour and moral conduct. As William Mounce writes, ‘Paul is concerned not only that Christians believe the correct things but also that they behave properly’.6 It has often been said that men read the lives of Christians more than they do the pages of the Bible. May our lives, therefore, be so transparent before men, 2 Cor. 3. 2, that we thereby beautify the doctrine of God our Saviour, Titus 2. 10, and encourage others to find Christ for themselves, Matt. 5. 16.

John 10. 11 Our Lord describes Himself as the ‘good’ or ‘noble’ shepherd. He alone is morally good and free from any defects.
Hebrews 10. 24 Believers are encouraged to stimulate one another to love, and right, or noble, conduct.
James 2. 7 The name by which believers are called is described as ‘noble’ because it speaks of Christ Himself. This makes a direct impression on all those who come into contact with it.
2 Corinthians 8. 21 Here the word kalós is used to emphasize the integrity required of the believer before both God and men. In the words of J. B. Phillips, ‘and we want to be absolutely above-board not only in the sight of God but in the eyes of men.’ Cp. Rom. 12. 17.
Galatians 6. 9 Paul tells the Galatians that they must not grow tired of doing good or what is right, for they were certain of reaping a future harvest.
1 Thessalonians 5. 21 Important for believers to test everything, and retain only what is good or comely, cp. Phil. 4. 8.
Matthew 13. 24 The good ‘seed’ that is sown into the ground is the word of God. It has the capability of producing an excellent harvest.
Mark 9. 50 The reference to ‘salt’ being good, or excellent, highlights its intrinsic value and purifying quality.
Luke 21. 5 The word here can mean beautiful, as it describes the ‘stones’ of the Temple In Jerusalem.

For further reading/study


  • William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Bible Commentaries [Comments on kalós, 1 Tim. 1. 8], pp. 32-33.


  • I. H. Marshall, The Pastoral Epistles, International Critical Commentary [Excursus 6 – Goodness and Good Works in the Pastoral Epistles], pp. 227-231.



The First Epistle of Peter – The Greek Text with Introduction, Notes and Essays, pg. 170.


New Testament Words, pg. 151.


Rhetoric 1364b 27.


J. Annas, An Introduction to Plato’s Republic, pg. 243.


Histories 4. 5.


Pastoral Epistles, Word Bible Commentaries, pg. 33.


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