One of the distinctive features of the Greek New Testament is that words which are used to describe ordinary mundane things are often elevated by the Holy Spirit to express ethical and spiritual truth. The Greek word zoè is one such word. In classical Greek, zoè was used to describe physical life, i.e., with the activity of breathing, whether it related to men or animals, hence our English word zoology.1 This was contrasted with the synonymous word bios, which although also meaning life, suggested a more ethical and qualitative aspect of life. But in the New Testament, this pattern is to some extent reversed, and zoè is frequently, but not exclusively, used to emphasize spiritual life, and, ultimately, eternal life when it is combined with the Greek word aìónion.2 As R. C. Trench succinctly put it over 150 years ago, ‘But, while zoè is life intensive, bios is life extensive’.3
In the Septuagint (LXX), zoè and the related verb zen are used regularly to translate the Hebrew word hayah, which occurs over 200 times in the Old Testament. This Hebrew word had a variety of meanings, but, significantly, it was used to describe the benefits of the life that Israel could live in the Promised Land, provided they complied with God’s law, Deut. 8. 1. One Hebrew translation of this text renders it as, ‘that you might thrive and increase’. Similar expressions are found in Psalm 119 verses 17, 77, and 93 as well as in Proverbs chapter 12 verse 28 where the emphasis is not simply on life itself, but on the good life that equates to a life of righteousness. This notion of a righteous life is further developed in the LXX of Daniel chapter 12 verse 2, where the noun zoèn is combined with the adjective aìónion to show that the resurrection of the righteous is to eternal life. All the literature of the Intertestamental period continues to reflect the combined use of zoèn and aìónion to highlight eternal life, so it is unsurprising, therefore, that when we turn to the New Testament this becomes a leading theme of our Lord’s ministry, highlighted principally in John’s Gospel narrative and his First Epistle.
The word zoè occurs over 130 times in the Greek New Testament. In a limited number of occasions zoè refers to ordinary physical life, whose antithesis is death, Rom. 8. 38. In Acts chapter 17 verse 25 when Paul preaches on Areopagus, he refers to God as the giver of all physical life. He also refers to physical life in Philippians chapter 1 verse 20, where he seeks to bring honour to Christ or, literally, for Christ to be seen by others in his life, either by the way that he lived that life, or by the way that he might give up that life. Physical life to Paul meant Christ, Phil. 1. 21! Other texts use zoè to refer to life as the period of a man’s life, Rom. 7. 1, and what it means to be alive physically as contrasted with those who are dead, 1 Thess. 4. 15. Paul exhorts us to present our lives to God as a living sacrifice, Rom. 12. 1, and that even the necessities of life can be met for those who preach the gospel on a full-time basis by acquiring a living from that exercise, 1 Cor. 9. 14. However, zoè in the New Testament mainly refers to spiritual life, especially as it is linked with Christ Himself. John makes much of this link in terms of who Christ is and what He does. He delights in telling us that ‘In him was life (zoè) and that life (zoè) was the light of men’, John 1. 4, cp. Ps. 36. 9, which is a parallel text to John chapter 5 verse 26, and confirms that ‘both 1. 4 and 5. 26 insist that the Word/Son shares in the self-existing life of God’.4 Moreover, since Christ is the ‘bread of life’, John 6. 35, 48, and gives life to the world, John 6. 33, even His words are life, John 6. 63, 68, and eternal life is only obtainable in Him, 1 John 5. 11, who is revealed to be (the) life (zoè), John 14. 6. Peter later asserts that Christ is the very ‘author of life’, Acts 3. 15. F. F. Bruce suggests that in Aramaic this would be the same as tòn árchegòn tës soteríase in Hebrews chapter 2 verse 10, and that both texts denote Christ as the source of life and salvation.5 These New Testament texts point unequivocally to the fact that faith in Christ in His sacrificial death is essential to the obtaining of eternal life, cp. John 3. 16. David Hill makes clear that ‘eternal life’ is not just something added on at death, but is organically related to the actual life lived. ‘One man’s act of righteousness led to acquittal and life … and that “life" is both the immediate and ultimate result of that state of things into which the Christian enters when he is declared righteous’.6 Paul’s perspective is even more dynamic when he states in Romans chapter 5 verse 10 that salvation will ultimately be effected in (’the power of’ JND) His (Christ’s) (risen) life. Some other passages where the word zoè is used in various spiritual contexts are illustrated in the table below.
Throughout the New Testament when the expression ‘eternal life’ is used in John or Paul’s writings, both reveal their dependency on the Jewish idea of the age that is to come in contrast to the present evil age, e.g., Gal. 1. 4. May our daily lives be so regulated by that future age that we ‘take hold of the life that really is life’, 1 Tim. 6. 19 NRSV.
|Mark 9. 43-47||Eternal life is equated with entry into the kingdom of God|
|Romans 6. 4||Our death with Christ means that we now walk innewness of life, aptly illustrated by baptism|
Romans 7. 7-12
Romans 8. 1-3
Galatians 3. 21
|The law was intended to give life, but was weakened by the flesh|
|Galatians 6. 8||Eternal life is the fruit of a life controlled by the Holy Spirit|
|Colossians 3. 1-4||Our present raised state is only possible through the life of Christ Himself|
|2 Timothy 1. 10||Eternal life and the abolition of death has been manifested in the decisive work of Christ our Saviour|
Aristotle made a distinction between human life and animal life by stating that, ‘Life is defined in the case of animals by the capacity for sensation, in the case of man, by the capacity for sensation and thought’ (1170a).
‘The adjective aìónios first appears in Plato, and from that period onwards it is used to mean ‘enduring for an indefinitely long period, perpetual, eternal’, David Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings – Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms, pg. 172.
Synonyms of the New Testament, pg. 86.
D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, p. 118.
The Acts of the Apostles – The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, pg. 109.
David Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings – Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms, pg. 191.
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