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Who on Earth is Zoe?

I love words.

For example, where did that word ‘etymology’ come from? Hmm, I wonder. And since we’re on the subject of interesting words, I came across a new one on social media the other day:


It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? It means ‘marked by scandalous crime or vice.’ It’s hard to pronounce but it has some punch. An English word of Latin origin, it was used by a Scotsman, but I thought it needed testing. So I sounded it out loud – yes, I am known to do this fairly often, always in private – and I thought it sounded Scottish.*

I love words and their comedic effect, which reminds me of an episode of Blackadder, in which Edmund Blackadder intones, ‘‘Oh I'm sorry, sir. I'm anaspeptic, phrasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericombobulation!” They are inventions to mock Dr Johnson’s dictionary, but as some commentators point out, they are also words whose meaning you can conjecture if you have the skill of an etymologist. (Not entomologist. That’s for people who study insects.) Even prosaic words such as ‘trousers,’ ‘flammable,’ or ‘wardrobe,’ can have comedic value, as guests have demonstrated during a round of Word Dissociation on BBC Radio Four’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue.

To make a serious point now, let me turn to the Bible, where every word is the very breath of God. In the Scriptures, we are given pin-point accuracy in the extant Greek of the first century. I have written previously about different words for ‘time’ - chronos and kairos - and the depth of meaning we derive from knowing which one is used in which context. Well, it’s the same with our English word ‘life.’

There are three Greek words for ‘life’ in the New Testament: bios, psychē, and zoe.

1. Bios.

This is the word from which we get our word ‘biology.’ It means the life of the body, or physical life. It is used in Luke 8.14, ‘And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life.’

2. Psychē.

This is the word from which we derive the idea of the psyche. It is the prefix used in both ‘psychology’ and ‘psychiatry.’ In Matthew 16.25, it is used of the Lord Jesus when he says: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Here, the word ‘psyche’ is focused on the mind, will, and emotions.

As human beings, we have both a ‘bios’ and a ‘pyschē’ because God made us this way in Genesis 2.8. We read, ‘The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul.’ The word used in this latter phrase is the Hebrew word ‘nepeš’ which means soul. There is a lot of discussion in theological circles - and psychiatric circles too - about what this really means. My own view is that we instinctively know that we are both physical and spiritual beings. That’s why we can investigate the ‘yellow’ of daffodils but we can also give voice to how we feel, like William Wordsworth: ‘When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.’ We are moved in our hearts as well as curious in our minds. We can explore scientifically and we can wonder emotionally!

The third word in Greek for ‘life’ is zoe. And here we are on to something really special.

3. Zoe.

The Apostle John uses this word a lot when he records his understanding of Jesus. In John 1.4, he writes, 'In him was life, and the life was the light of men.’ It describes the kind of life uniquely possessed by God. Eternal, immortal, life not derived from anywhere or anyone else. In 1 John 1.1-2, we have a further expansion. He writes, ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.’

The Word mentioned in John 1.4 is the Lord Jesus. So is the ‘word of life’ in 1 John 1.1 and ‘life’ in 1 John 1.2. They are both synonymous with the person of Christ. In addition, ‘the eternal life’ in 1 John 1.2 says literally, ‘The life the eternal.’ This zoe is the divine spiritual life, not the human soulish life or our physical life. Furthermore, we can only receive it through a living link with Jesus. ‘Eternal’ denotes not only duration of time but also quality, which is perfect and complete, without any defect.

Now read John 10.10b replacing ‘life’ with zoe.

I came that they may have life (zoe) and have it abundantly.

Christ as the eternal life came so that we could have the eternal, divine life. He didn’t come so that we could have an improved human life. He came so we could have him. By our physical birth, we possess bios and psyche. But when we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, we are born again with the divine life. So now that we’ve received Christ, the divine life, our Christian life must be fully involved with him.

What Christ wants is for us to enjoy his life!

I hope you can see the power contained within words. Their precise meaning reveals so much to us. Indeed, in the word ‘zoe’ we have a word that shows us a new kind of life; it’s a gift from God, that comes only from him, and is for him. Hold that thought today as you serve him.

As you leave, take Galatians 2.20 into your day with fresh eyes:

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live (zaō) in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.


*Editor’s note: It sounded Scottish, so it clearly has Jim’s stamp of approval!


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