lif (chayyim, nephesh, ruach, chayah; zoe, psuche, bios, pneuma):



1. Popular Use of the Term

2. Complexity of the Idea



1. In the Synoptic Gospels

2. In the Fourth Gospel

3. In the Ac of the Apostles

4. In the Writings of Paul

5. In the Writings of John

6. In the Other Books of the New Testament


I. The Terms.

Of the Hebrew terms, chayah is the verb which means "to live," "to have life," or the vital principle, "to continue to live," or "to live prosperously." In the Piel it signifies "to give life, or preserve, or quicken and restore life." The Hiphil is much like the Piel. The noun hayyim generally used in the plural is an abstract noun meaning "life," i.e. the possession of the vital principle with its energies and activities. Nephesh often means "living being" or "creature." Sometimes it has the force of the reflexive "self." At other times it refers to the seat of the soul, the personality, the emotions, the appetites--passions and even mental acts. Frequently it means "life," the "seat of life," and in this way it is used about 171 times in the Old Testament, referring to the principle of vitality in both men and animals. Ruach signifies "wind," "breath," principle or source of vitality, but is never used to signify life proper.

II. The Old Testament Teaching.

1. Popular Use of the Term:

The term "life" is used in the Old Testament in the popular sense. It meant life in the body, the existence and activity of the man in all his parts and energies. It is the person complete, conscious and active. There is no idea of the body being a fetter or prison to the soul; the body was essential to life and the writers had no desire to be separated from it. To them the physical sphere was a necessity, and a man was living when all his activities were performed in the light of God's face and favor. The secret and source of life to them was relationship with God. There was nothing good or desirable apart from this relation of fellowship. To overcome or be rid of sin was necessary to life. The real center of gravity in life was in the moral and religious part of man's nature. This must be in fellowship with God, the source of all life and activity.

2. Complexity of the Idea:

The conception of life is very complex. Several meanings are clearly indicated:

(1) Very frequently it refers to the vital principle itself, apart from its manifestations (Ge 2:7). Here it is the breath of life, or the breath from God which contained and communicated the vital principle to man and made him a nephesh or living being (see also Ge 1:30; 6:17; 7:22; 45:5, etc.).

(2) It is used to denote the period of one's actual existence, i.e. "lifetime" (Ge 23:1; 25:7; 47:9; Ex 6:16,18,20, etc.).

(3) The life is represented as a direct gift from God, and dependent absolutely upon Him for its continuance (Ge 1:11-27; 2:7; Nu 16:22).

(4) In a few cases it refers to the conception of children, denoting the time when conception was possible (Ge 18:10,14 margin; 2Ki 4:16,17 margin).

(5) In many cases it refers to the totality of man's relationships and activities, all of which make up life (De 32:47; 1Sa 25:29; Job 10:1, etc.).

(6) In a few instances it is used synonymously with the means of sustaining life (De 24:6; Pr 27:27).

(7) Many times it is used synonymously with happiness or well-being (De 30:15,19; Ezr 6:10; Ps 16:11; 30:5; Pr 2:19, and frequently).

(8) It is always represented as a very precious gift, and offenses against life were to be severely punished (Ge 9:4,5; Le 17:14; 24:17).

Capital punishment is here specifically enjoined because of the value of the life that has been taken. The lexicon talionis required life for life (Ex 21:23; De 19:21); and this even applies to the beast (Le 24:18). The life was represented as abiding in the blood and therefore the blood must not be eaten, or lightly shed upon the ground (Le 17:15; De 12:23). The Decalogue forbids murder or the taking of human life wrongfully (Ex 20:13; De 5:17). Garments taken in pledge must not be kept over night, for thereby the owner's life might be endangered (De 24:6). That life was considered precious appears in 2Ki 10:24; Es 7:7; Job 2:4; Pr 4:23; 6:26. The essence of sacrifice consisted in the fact that the life (the nephesh) resided in the blood; thus when blood was shed, life was lost (De 12:23; Le 17:11). Oppression on the part of judges and rulers was severely condemned because oppression was detrimental to life.

(9) Long life was much desired and sought by the Israelites, and under certain conditions this was possible (Ps 91:16). The longevity of the ante-diluvian patriarchs is a problem by itself (see ANTEDILUVIANS). It was one of the greatest of calamities to be cut off in the midst of life (Isa 38:10-12; 53:8); that a good old age was longed for is shown by Ex 20:12; Ps 21:4; 34:12; 61:6, etc. This long life was possible to the obedient to parents (Ex 20:12; De 5:16), and to those obedient to God (De 4:4; Pr 3:1,2; 10:27); to the wise (Pr 3:16; 9:11); to the pure in heart (Ps 34:12-14; 91:1-10; Ec 3:12,13); to those who feared God (Pr 10:27; Isa 65:18-21; 38:2-5, etc.).

(10) The possibility of an immortal life is dimly hinted at in the earliest writing, and much more clearly taught in the later. The Tree of Life in the midst of the garden indicated a possible immortality for man upon earth (Ge 2:9; 3:22,24) (see TREE OF LIFE).

Failing to partake of this and falling into sin by partaking of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil," they were driven forth from the garden lest they should eat of the tree of life and become immortal beings in their sinful condition. To deprive man of the possibility of making himself immortal while sinful was a blessing to the race; immortality without holiness is a curse rather than a blessing. The way to the tree of life was henceforth guarded by the cherubim and the flame of a sword, so that men could not partake of it in their condition of sin. This, however, did not exclude the possibility of a spiritual immortality in another sphere. Enoch's fellowship with God led to a bodily translation; so also Elijah, and several hundred years after their deaths, God called Himself the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, implying that they were really alive then. In Isa 26:19 there is a clear prophecy of a resurrection, and an end of death. Da 12:2 asserts a resurrection of many of the dead, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Some of the psalmists firmly believed in the continuity of the life in fellowship with God (Ps 16:10,11; 17:15; 23:6; 49:15; 73:24,25). The exact meaning of some of these statements is difficult to understand, yet this much is clear: there was a revolt against death in many pious minds, and a belief that the life of fellowship with God could not end or be broken even by death itself.


(11) The fundamental fact in the possession of life was vital relationship with God. Men first lived because God breathed into them the breath of life (Ge 2:7). Man's vital energies are the outflowing of the spirit or vital energies of God, and all activities are dependent upon the vitalizing power from God. When God sends forth His spirit, things are created, and live; when He withdraws that spirit they die (Ps 104:30). "In his favor is life" (Ps 30:5 the King James Version). He is the fountain of life (Ps 36:9; 63:3). "All my fountains are in thee" (Ps 87:7). The secret of Job's success and happiness was that the Almighty was with him (Job 29:2). This fellowship brought him health, friends, prosperity and all other blessings. The consciousness of the fellowship with God led men to revolt against the idea of going to Sheol where this fellowship must cease. They felt that such a relationship could not cease, and God would take them out of Sheol.

III. In the Apocrypha.

A similar conception of life appears here as in the Old Testament. Zoe and peuche are used and occur most frequently in the books of The Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclus. In 1 and 2 Esdras the word is little used; 2 Esdras 3:5; 16:61 are but a quotation from Ge 2:7, and refer to the vital principle; 2 Esdras 14:30, Tobit, Judith, Ad Esther use it in the same sense also. Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus use it in several senses closely resembling the use in Proverbs (compare Ecclesiasticus 4:12; Pr 3:18; 10:16). In general there is no additional meaning attached to the word. The Psalms of Solomon refer to everlasting life in 3:16; 13:10; 14:2,6.

IV. In the New Testament.

Of the Greek terms bios is used at times as the equivalent of the Hebrew chayyim. It refers to life extensively, i.e. the period of one's existence, a lifetime; also to the means of sustaining life, such as wealth, etc. Psuche is also equivalent to chayyim at times, but very frequently to nephesh and sometimes to ruach. Thus, it means the vital principle, a living being, the immaterial part of man, the seat of the affections, desires and appetites, etc. The term zoe corresponds very closely to chayyim, and means the vital principle, the state of one who is animate, the fullness of activities and relationship both in the physical and spiritual realms.

The content of the word zoe is the chief theme of the New Testament. The life is mediated by Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament this life was through fellowship with God, in the New Testament it is through Jesus Christ the Mediator. The Old Testament idea is carried to its completion, its highest development of meaning, being enriched by the supreme teaching and revelation of Jesus Christ. In the New Testament as well as in the Old Testament, the center of gravity in human life is in the moral and religious nature of man.

1. In the Synoptic Gospels:

The teaching here regarding life naturally links itself with Old Testament ideas and the prevailing conceptions of Judaism. The word is used in the sense of

(1) the vital principle, that which gives actual physical existence (Mt 2:20; Mr 10:45; Lu 12:22 f; 14:26).

(2) It is also the period of one's existence, i.e. lifetime (Lu 1:75; 16:25).

(3) Once it may mean the totality of man's relationships and activities (Lu 12:15) which do not consist in abundance of material possessions.

(4) Generally it means the real life, the vital connection with the world and God, the sum total of man's highest interests. It is called "eternal life" (Mt 19:29; 25:46). It is called "life" (Mt 18:8,9; 19:17; Mr 9:43,45,46). In these passages Jesus seems to imply that it is almost equivalent to "laying up treasures in heaven," or to "entering the kingdom of God." The entering into life and entering the kingdom are practically the same, for the kingdom is that spiritual realm where God controls, where the principles, activities and relationships of heaven prevail, and hence, to enter into these is to enter into "life."

(5) The lower life of earthly relationship and activities must be subordinated to the higher and spiritual (Mt 10:39; 16:25; Lu 9:24). These merely earthly interests may be very desirable and enjoyable, but whoever would cling to these and make them supreme is in danger of losing the higher. The spiritual being infinitely more valuable should be sought even if the other relationship should be lost entirely.

(6) Jesus also speaks of this life as something future, and to be realized at the consummation of the age (Mt 19:29; Lu 18:30), or the world to come.

This in no wise contradicts the statement that eternal life can be entered upon in this life. As Jesus Himself was in vital relationship with the spiritual world and lived the eternal life, He sought to bring others into the same blessed state. This life was far from being perfect. The perfection could come only at the consummation when all was perfection and then they would enter into the perfect fellowship with God and connection with the spirit-world and its blessed experiences. There is no conflict in His teaching here, no real difficulty, only an illustration of Browning's statement, "Man never is but wholly hopes to be." Thus in the synoptists Jesus teaches the reality of the eternal life as a present possession as well as future fruition. The future is but the flowering out and perfection of the present. Without the present bud, there can be no future flower.

(7) The conditions which Jesus lays down for entering into this life are faith in Himself as the one Mediator of the life, and the following of Him in a life of obedience. He alone knows the Father and can reveal Him to others (Mt 11:27). He alone can give true rest and can teach men how to live (Mt 11:28 f). The sure way to this life is: "Follow me." His whole ministry was virtually a prolonged effort to win confidence in Himself as Son and Mediator, to win obedience, and hence, bring men unto these spiritual relationships and activities which constitute the true life.

2. In the Fourth Gospel:

The fullest and richest teachings regarding life are found here. The greatest word of this Gospel is "life." The author says he wrote the Gospel in order that "ye may have life" (Joh 20:31). Most of the teachings recorded, circle around this great word "life." This teaching is in no way distinctive and different from that of the synoptists, but is supplementary, and completes the teaching of Jesus on the subject. The use of the word is not as varied, being concentrated on the one supreme subject.

(1) In a few cases it refers only to the vital principle which gives life or produces a lifetime (Joh 10:11,15-18; 13:37; 15:13).

(2) It represents Jesus the Loges as the origin and means of all life to the world. As the preincarnate Loges He was the source of life to the universe (Joh 1:4). As the incarnate Loges He said His life had been derived originally from the Father (Joh 5:26; 6:57; 10:18). He then was the means of life to men (Joh 3:15,16; 4:14; 5:21,39,40); and this was the purpose for which He came into the world (Joh 6:33,34,51; 10:10).

(3) The prevailing reference, however, is to those activities which are the expression of fellowship with God and Jesus Christ. These relationships are called "eternal life" (Joh 3:15,16,36; 4:14, etc.). The nearest approach to a definition of eternal life is found in Joh 17:3. Though not a scientific or metaphysical definition, it is nevertheless Jesus' own description of eternal life, and reveals His conception of it. It is thus more valuable than a formal definition. It is "to know God and Jesus Christ whom He hath sent."

This knowledge is vastly more than mere intellectual perception or understanding. It is moral knowledge, it is personal acquaintance, it is fellowship, a contact, if we may so speak, of personality with personality, an inner affinity and sympathy, an experience of similar thoughts, emotions, purposes, motives, desires, an interchange of the heart's deepest feelings and experiences. It is a bringing of the whole personality of man into right relationship with the personality of God. This relation is ethical, personal, binding the two together with ties which nothing can separate. It is into this experience that Jesus came to bring men. Such a life Jesus says is satisfying to all who hunger and thirst for it (Joh 4:14; 6:35); it is the source of light to all (Joh 1:4; 8:12); it is indestructible (Joh 6:58; 11:26); it is like a well of water in the soul (Joh 4:14); it is procured by personally partaking of those qualities which belong to Jesus (Joh 6:53).

(4) This life is a present possession and has also a glorious future fruition.

(a) To those who exercise faith in Jesus it is a present experience and possession (Joh 4:10; 5:24,40). Faith in Him as the Son of God is the psychological means by which persons are brought into this vital relationship with God. Those who exercised the faith immediately experienced this new power and fellowship and exercised the new activities.

(b) It has a glorious fruition in the future also (Joh 4:36; 5:29; 6:39,44,54). John does not give so much prominence to the eschatological phase of Jesus' teachings as to the present reality and actual possession of this blessed life.

(5) It has been objected that in speaking of the Loges as the source of life John is pursuing a metaphysical line, whereas the life which he so much emphasizes has an ethical basis, and he makes no attempt to reconcile the two. The objection may have force to one who has imbibed the Ritschlian idea of performing the impossible task of eliminating all metaphysics from theology. It will not appeal very strongly to the average Christian. It is a purely academic objection. The ordinary mind will think that if Jesus Christ is the source of ethical and eternal life it is because He possesses something of the essence and being of God, which makes His work for men possible. The metaphysical and the ethical may exist together, may run concurrently, the one being the source and seat of the other. There is no contradiction. Both metaphysics and ethics are a legitimate and necessary exercise of the human mind.

3. In the Ac of the Apostles:

In His intercessory prayer, John 17, Jesus said His mission was to give eternal life to as many as the Father had given Him (17:2). The record in Ac is the carrying out of that purpose. The word "life" is used in several senses:

(1) the vital principle or physical life (17:25; 20:10,24; 27:10,22);

(2) also the sum total of man's relationships and activities upon earth (5:20; 26:4);

(3) Jesus Christ is regarded as the source and principle of life, being called by Peter, "the Prince of life" (3:15). Also the life eternal or everlasting is spoken of with the same significance as in the Gospels (11:18; 13:46,48).

4. In the Writings of Paul:

Here also the words for "life" are used in various senses:

(1) the vital principle which gives physical vitality and existence (Ro 8:11,38; 11:15; 1Co 3:22; Php 1:20; 2:30);

(2) the sum total of man's relationships and activities (1Co 6:3,4; 1Ti 2:2; 4:8; 2Ti 1:1; 3:10 the King James Version);

(3) those relationships with God and with Christ in the spiritual realm, and the activities arising therefrom which constitute the real and eternal life.

This is mediated by Christ (Ro 5:10). It is in Christ (Ro 6:11). It is the free gift of God (Ro 6:23). It is also mediated or imparted to us through the Spirit (Ro 8:2,6,9,10; 2Co 2:16; 3:6; Ga 6:8). It comes through obedience to the word (Ro 7:10; Php 2:16); and through faith (1Ti 1:16). It may be apprehended in this life (1Ti 6:12,19). It is brought to light through the gospel (2Ti 1:10). It is a reward to those who by patience in well-doing seek it (Ro 2:7). It gives conquering power over sin and death (Ro 5:17,18,21). It is the end or reward of a sanctified life (Ro 6:22). It is a present possession and a hope (Tit 1:2; 3:7). It will be received in all its fullness hereafter (Ro 2:7; 2Co 5:4). Thus Paul's use of the word substantially agrees with the teaching in the Gospels, and no doubt was largely based upon it.

5. In the Writings of John:

In the Johannine Epistles and Revelation, the contents of the term "life" are the same as those in the Fourth Gospel. Life in certain passages (1 Joh 3:16; Re 8:9; 11:11; 12:11) is mere physical vitality and existence upon earth. The source of life is Christ Himself (1 Joh 1:1 f; 5:11 f,16). The blessed eternal life in Christ is a present possession to all those who are in fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 Joh 5:11,12). Here is an echo of the words of Jesus (Joh 17:3) where John describes the life, the eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested unto us. It is virtually fellowship with the Father and with the Son (1 Joh 1:2,4). Life is promised to those who are faithful (Re 2:7); and the crown of life is promised to those who are faithful unto death (Re 2:10). The crown of life doubtless refers to the realization of all the glorious possibilities that come through fellowship with God and the Son. The thirsty are invited to come and drink of the water of life freely (Re 21:6; 22:17). The river of life flows through the streets of the New Jerusalem (Re 22:1), and the tree of life blooms on its banks, bearing twelve manner of fruit (22:2,14).


6. In the Other Books of the New Testament:

The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of our lifetime or periods of existence upon earth (2:15; 7:3), likewise of the power of an indissoluble life (7:16); James promises the crown of life to the faithful (1:12). This reward is the fullness of life's possibilities hereafter. Our lifetime is mentioned in 4:14 and represented as brief as a vapor. Peter in 1Pe 3:7 speaks of man and wife as joint-heirs of the grace of life, and of loving life (1Pe 3:10), referring to the totality of relationships and activities. The "all things that pertain unto life and godliness" (2Pe 1:3) constitute the whole Christian life involving the life eternal.


Articles on "Life" in HDB, DCG, Jewish Encyclopedia;on "Soul," "Spirit," etc., ibid, and in Encyclopedia Brit, EB, Kitto, Smith, Standard, etc.; Laidlaw, Bible Doctrine of Man; Delitzsch, A System of Biblical Psychology; cornms. on the various passages; Davidson, Old Testament Theology; Oehler and Schultz, Old Testament Theology; Stevens, Johannine Theology and Pauline Theology; Holtzmann, New Testament Theology, I, 293 ff; G. Dalman, Words of Jesus; Phillips Brooks, More Abundant Life; B.F. Westcott, Historic Faith; F.J.A. Hort, The Way, the Truth, the Life; J.G. Hoare, Life in John's Gospels; E. White, Life and Christ; Salmond, The Christian Doctrine of Immortality; R.J. Knowling, Witness of the Epistles and The Testimony of Paul to Christ; commentaries on the various passages; McPherson, "The New Testament View of Life," The Expositor, I, set. v, 72 ff; Massie, "Two New Testament Words Denoting Life," The Expositor, II, series iv, 380 ff; Schrenk, Die Johannistische Anschauung yom Leben.

J. J. Reeve

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