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The Meaning of “Life”

Jesus praying in the garden.jpg

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” Jesus says in the Good Shepherd discourse in John’s Gospel (John 10:10 ESV, the version quoted throughout). But what does he mean?

Was Jesus’ mission to increase the wealth and possessions and opportunities of his disciples in their earthly lives? (I’ve heard preachers on TV suggest that’s what Christianity will do for us.) Or was his mission directed toward merely increasing the span of time that his followers live? The Gospels’ promise of “eternal life” is sometimes understood along those lines, perhaps more often unreflectively than reflectively.

One problem with both of  those interpretations of the text in John is that Jesus doesn’t say only that he came to grant life in abundance. First he says that he came so that his followers “may have life,” period. Apart from Jesus’ mission, the statement suggests, there is no life at all to be had. But can that really be what Jesus meant? After all, millions of people lived before Jesus was born, so surely he can’t mean to say no one who lived on earth before him really enjoyed life of any kind. Can he?

To answer this question, it’s helpful to know a little Greek, or at least be able to access the Greek words represented in English translations of the New Testament, as a number of print and electronic resources make possible. (STEP Bible is an excellent resource accessible on the web or by download, made available at no cost by Tyndale House.)

There are two different Greek words frequently translated “life” in John’s Gospel. Jesus’ statement in John 10:10 uses the word that appears more frequently, zōē — 36 times in the Gospel, plus another 17 occurrences of the cognate verb zaō. In 16 of its uses, the word zōē occurs in the expression translated “eternal life,” as it does just a few verses after our passage in Jesus’ declaration, “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).

In his revelation that he is “the bread that came down from heaven,” on which one who feeds “will live forever” (John 6:58), Jesus comments, “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me” (John 6:57). The italicized words are all forms of the verb related to zōē, and this statement takes us to the heart of John’s teaching about the life that Jesus came to bring us. It is the very life of God, “the living Father,” in which Jesus participates (“I live because of the Father”) which he has come to share with “whoever feeds on me,” who then “will live because of me.” In his great prayer to the Father, Jesus says that eternal life is to “know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

The point is made even more forcefully in the conclusion of 1 John, in which in reference either to Jesus or more likely to God the Father (for reasons given by Stephen Smalley in his commentary), John declares, “This is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20); it is only the divine life of God that is truly eternal, and creatures of dust like us can only hope to live eternally if we are granted a share in that divine life. To grant us that possibility, as John tells us in the opening of both 1 John (1:1–3) and the Gospel (1:1–18), the Son of God crossed the infinite distance between heaven and earth, between eternity and time, leaving a heavenly fellowship with the Father unbroken from eternity to live the life of a human being. (Paul tells the story of Jesus the same way in Philippians 2:5–11.)

Returning to John 10:10, we note that in the very next verse, Jesus uses a different Greek word (psychē, 10 uses in the Gospel) to refer to the human life that the incarnate Jesus experienced along with other human beings: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Two chapters later, Jesus offers what at first appears to be a paradox: “Whoever loves his life (psychē) loses it, and whoever hates his life (psychē) in this world will keep it for eternal life (zōē)” (John 12:25); the paradox is resolved when we realize that Jesus is talking about two different “lives,” the life of a creature and the life of the Creator. To embrace the second, Jesus teaches, we must release our hold on the first. 

Jesus came among us to share our earthly life, ultimately laying his own human life down for our sake, so that through his death and resurrection we might enter into his fellowship with the Father and come to experience “life eternal,” which no human being could ever attain through skill or effort or the accumulation of possessions. (In 1 John 2:16, John uses a third word translated “life” in the ESV: bios, from which the English word biology is derived. But the word would be better translated in this passage as “goods,” as the ESV translates the same word in 1 John 3:17, or “possessions,” as the New Jerusalem Bible translates, as John uses bios to refer to the material goods that sustain creature’s earthly life, or psychē, something like the English terms “living” or “livelihood.”)

Jesus came that we might have a life we could not acquire without his aid, and he came that we might have it in infinite abundance.

As John tells us, Jesus’ promise isn’t merely that he can give us more of the same things we enjoy in earthly life, nor that he can introduce us to a life that never ends. Rather, he offers to share with us a new life entirely, different in quality from the life that we experience if we never look beyond our earthly horizon to the eternal fellowship of Father and Son.

Jesus invites us to enter that fellowship and so fulfill his prayer that we “may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). That’s the deepest meaning of “life” in John’s Gospel and letters, and the ultimate meaning of each of our lives, according to Christian teaching.

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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others.  Austin Grad — one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas — is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.

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