In the English language we get by with a single word for life, but the ancient Greeks realized that the concept can include very different things. As a result, the New Testament uses not one but three words for life, each with a distinct meaning. An awareness of the varied “meanings of life” can help us better understand many important biblical verses.
The most basic word for life in ancient Greek, and in the New Testament, is bios, from which we take our bio-rooted words, like biology, of course. Bios was commonly used for life in that 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 has 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. However, in ancient Greek the word had a broader meaning, including the breath of life, the vital physical force that 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, as in Matthew 10:39: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
The final word for life, and the most important, is zoe. We take our zoo-rooted terms like zoology from this word. Zoe signifies not only the animate aspect of life, as opposed to non-life, but also life in the absolute and fullest sense. The word is used repeatedly in the New Testament in statements regarding the kind of eternal life God has (John 5:26) and wishes to give us — life that is both qualitatively and quantitatively greater than the life we have now.
Zoe is in verses like 1 John 5:11, 12: “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have 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 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, we read “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink . . . Is not life more than food . . . ?” Here, the word life is actually not bios, and the stress is not on the things that sustain life, but psuche – our very existence (just as Jesus said, “Is not life more than food . . . ?”).
As a final example, notice John 10:10b: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Here, knowing the word 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.
Signs of ‘life’
By simply checking which word for life is used in a given scripture, where it might make a difference, we can often come to a much fuller understanding of what is being said. To do that, all you need to do is check the verse in a Strong’s concordance or an online Greek-English interlinear New Testament.
It’s simple enough to know the true meaning of life.