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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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LIFE (ζωή).—The term applied by Jesus, alike in the Synoptic and the Johannine records of His teaching, to the supreme blessing mediated by Him to men. Certain elements in the conception are common to the two records, but their differences are so marked that it will be necessary to consider them separately.

1. The idea of Life in the Synoptic teaching is substantially that of the OT, unfolded in all its potential wealth of meaning. Hebrew thought, averse to metaphysical speculation, conceived of life as the sum of energies which make up man’s actual existence. The soul separated from the body did not cease to be, but it forfeited its portion in the true life. It either departed to the shadowy world of Sheol, or, according to the later view of Ecclesiastes, was reabsorbed (?) into the Divine Being,—‘returned to God who gave it’ (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Thus the highest good was simply ‘length of days,’—the continuance of the bodily existence right on to its natural term. Two factors, however, were latent in the OT conception from the beginning, and became more and more prominent in the course of the after-development. (1) The radical element in life is activity. Mere physical being is distinguished from that essential ‘life’ which consists in the unrestricted play of all the energies, especially of the higher and more characteristic. In the loftier passages of the Psalms, more particularly, the idea of ‘life’ has almost always a pregnant sense. It is associated with joy, peace, prosperity, wisdom, righteousness; man ‘lives’ according as he has free scope for the activities which are distinctive of his spiritual nature. God Himself is emphatically the ‘living One,’ as contrasted with men in their limitation and helplessness. (2) Since God alone possesses life in the highest sense, fellowship with Him is the one condition on which men can obtain it. ‘By every word of God doth man live’ (Deuteronomy 8:3). ‘With thee is the fountain of life’ (Psalms 36:9). In the higher regions of OT thought, life and communion with God are interchangeable ideas. The belief in immortality is never expressly stated, but, as Jesus Himself indicates, it was implicit in this conception of a God who was not the God of the dead but of the living. See art. Living.

Jesus accepted the idea of life as it had come to Him through the OT. To Him also life is primarily the physical existence (cf. Matthew 6:25 ‘Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat and drink,’ etc.), and He advances on this conception along ethical and religious lines, in the same manner as the Psalmists and Prophets. (1) He distinguishes between the essential ‘life’ and the outward subsidiary things with which it is so easily confused. ‘The life is more than meat’ (Luke 12:23). ‘A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth’ (v. 15). ‘What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his life?’ (Mark 8:36). (2) Thus He arrives at the idea of something central and inalienable which constitutes the reality of life. This He discovers in the moral activity. The body with its manifold faculties is only the organ by which man accomplishes his true task of obedience to God. Meat, raiment, and all the rest are necessary, ‘but seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.’ (3) In this way He is led to the conception of a higher, spiritual life, gained through the sacrifice of the lower. ‘If a man hate not his own life, he cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26). ‘He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it’ (Matthew 10:39; Matthew 16:25).

Here, however, we become aware of the difficulty which meets us under different forms throughout our Lord’s teaching. In His account of the supreme blessing for which lower things must be sacrificed, He seems to pass abruptly from ethical to eschatological ideas. ‘Life’ is a reward laid up for the righteous in the world to come. It is regarded sometimes as a new state of being (Matthew 25:46), sometimes as a sort of prize that can be bestowed in the same manner as houses and goods and lands (Mark 10:30). The precise meaning to be attached to ‘the world to come’ in which this ‘life’ will be imparted, depends on our interpretation of the general conception of the Kingdom of God. Our Lord would appear to waver between the idea of a world beyond death and that of a Messianic age or aeon, apocalyptically revealed on earth. In either case, however, He thinks of ‘life’ as of something still in the future, the peculiar blessing of the realized Kingdom of God.

This future possession is defined more particularly in several passages as ‘eternal life,’ and the epithet might appear at first sight to imply a distinction. We find, however, on closer examination that the term ‘life’ itself usually involves the emphatic meaning. ‘This do and thou shalt live’ (Luke 10:28) is our Lord’s reply to the inquiry concerning ‘eternal life.’ So when He says, ‘It is better to enter into life halt or maimed’ (Matthew 18:8, Mark 9:43), or ‘Narrow is the way that leadeth unto life’ (Matthew 7:14), it is evidently the future blessing that is in His mind. There is good ground for the conjecture that Jesus Himself never used the expression ‘eternal life.’

Since the ethical and eschatological ideas are denoted by the same word, we are justified in assuming that in the mind of Jesus they were bound up with one another. The ‘life’ which is projected into the future and described figuratively as a gift bestowed from without, is in the last resort the life of moral activity. This becomes more apparent when we take account of certain further elements in our Lord’s teaching.

(a) The condition on which the future reward is given is faithful performance of the moral task in the present. Those shall ‘live’ who keep the commandments. The narrow way that leads to life is the way of obedience and sacrifice. By voluntary loss of earthly things in the cause of Christ, the disciples will gain ‘life’ (Mark 10:30). The apocalyptic imagery does not conceal from us the essential thought of Jesus, that the promised ‘life’ is nothing but the outcome and fulfilment of a moral obedience begun on earth.

(b) Life is not only a future fulfilment, but has a real beginning in the present. Thus in the saying, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead’ (Matthew 8:22 = Luke 9:60), Jesus implies that the disciples even now enter into possession of a new and higher life. They are the ‘living’ as opposed to the children of this world, who are spiritually dead. The same thought appears in the parable of the Prodigal Son: ‘he was dead and is alive again’ (Luke 15:32). Life in its full reality is the blessing of the world to come, but it will be different in degree, not in kind, from the present life of true discipleship.

(c) One element is common to the two types of ‘life,’ and marks their ultimate identity. The future consummation, described by Jesus in vivid pictorial language, is in its substance a closer fellowship with God. In the Kingdom which He anticipated, the pure in heart were to see God (Matthew 5:8); those who hungered and thirsted after righteousness were to be satisfied with God’s presence (v. 6). This perfect communion with God is the supreme reward laid up for the believer. It constitutes the inner meaning and content of the future Life. In like manner the present life of moral obedience is in its essence a life of fellowship with God. The aim of Jesus is to bring His disciples even now into such a harmony with the Divine will that they may be children of their Father who is in heaven, resembling Him and holding real communion with Him. The eschatological idea of life thus resolves itself at its centre into the purely ethical and religious. The Kingdom is already come when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus is Himself the Mediator of the new life. He imparts to His disciples His own consciousness of God’s presence and Fatherhood. He inspires in them a faith and obedience which without Him would have been for ever impossible. Through knowledge of Him and participation in His spirit, they enter into that fellowship with God which is eternal life. See Mediator.

2. In the Fourth Gospel the idea of Life is much more prominent than in the Synoptics. The Evangelist expressly states (John 20:31) that he has ‘written these things that believing ye may have life,’ and this statement of his main intention is fully borne out by the detailed study of the Gospel. The teaching of Jesus, as he records it, centres wholly on the subject of Life.

This in itself need not be regarded as a breach with the authentic tradition. We have seen that in the Synoptics also the idea of Life lies at the heart of our Lord’s teaching, since life is the peculiar blessing of the Kingdom of God. St. John, after his manner, detaches the essential thought from the eschatological framework. The future ‘kingdom’ becomes simply ‘life.’

The idea of Life as a present possession (already implicit in the Synoptic teaching) becomes in the Fourth Gospel central and determinative. ‘He that believeth on the Son hath (even now) everlasting life’ (John 3:36). ‘He that heareth my word … is passed out of death into life’ (John 5:24). The whole purpose of the work of Christ, as conceived by the Evangelist, was to communicate to His disciples, here and now, the eternal life. To those who have received His gift the death of the body is only a physical incident, a ‘falling asleep’ (John 11:11). The true death is the state of sin and privation, out of which they have been delivered, once and for all, in the act of surrender to Christ.

Isolated passages in the Gospel might seem to conflict with this, the characteristic and prevailing view. In the 6th chapter more especially, the conception of Life as a spiritual possession in the present appears side by side with repeated allusions to a resurrection ‘at the last day’ (John 6:39; John 6:44; John 6:54). These allusions are partly to be explained as reminiscences of an earlier type of doctrine, not completely in harmony with the writer’s own; such ‘concessions’ to a traditional belief meet us continually in this Gospel. At the same time, they serve to emphasize a real, though secondary, aspect of John’s own teaching. He anticipates in the future world a full manifestation of the Life which under earthly conditions is necessarily hidden. For the believer, as for Christ Himself, the escape from this world and its limitations marks the entrance into a larger activity and ‘glory’ (cf. John 14:2-3).

The Evangelist nowhere attempts to define his conception of Life. The great saying, ‘This is life eternal,’ etc. (John 17:3), cannot be construed as a definition. It only declares that the knowledge of God through Jesus Christ carries with it the assurance of life (cf. ‘His commandment is life everlasting’ [John 12:50]). The nature of the life is indicated only in vague and half-figurative terms. It is indestructible (John 6:58, John 11:26), satisfies all spiritual thirst and hunger (John 6:35, John 4:14), is the source of light (John 1:4, John 8:12). But, while little is said by way of express definition, the general import of the Johannine conception is sufficiently clear. The Life which Christ communicates is the absolute, Divine Life. ‘As the Father has life in himself, so he hath given the Son to have life in himself’ (John 5:26., cf. John 1:4). It is assumed that in God and in the Logos, who is one with Him, a life resides which is different in kind from that of men, and is the real, the ‘eternal’ Life.

The conception arises from the blending in the Fourth Gospel of Hebrew and early Christian with Greek-philosophical influences. Hebrew thought did not concern itself with questions regarding the ultimate nature of God. He was the ‘living’ God, who could be known only through His activity in the creation and moral government of the world. The Greek thinkers, on the other hand, tried to get behind His activity to His essential Being. He was the absolute and self-existent, over against the world of phenomena. His Life, so far as Life could be predicated of Him, was an energy of pure thought, abstracted from every form of sensible manifestation (cf. Arist. Metaph. xii. 7). The Fourth Evangelist, carrying out more fully the suggestion of Philo, combines the Hebrew and Greek ideas. He thinks of God as the ‘only true’ (John 17:3), the absolute Being who is eternally separate from the world which He has created. Nevertheless He is a living and personal God. The Life which He possesses is analogous to the life in man, but of a higher order, spiritual instead of earthly.

It follows from this attempt to combine Hebrew with Greek ideas, that the ethical moment falls largely out of sight. The difference between the human and the Divine Life is one of essence. Till man has undergone a radical change, not in heart merely but in the very constitution of his being, there can be no thought of his participating in the life of God. St. John thus involves himself in a conception which may be described as semi-physical. The Divine life is regarded as a sort of higher substance inherent in the nature of God. How can man, who is ‘born of flesh’ (John 3:6), become partaker in this substance, and so experience a new birth as a child of God? This is the religious problem as it presents itself to St. John.

The solution is afforded by the doctrine of the Incarnate Word. Jesus Christ, as the eternal Logos, possessed ‘life in himself,’ and yet assumed humanity and entered into our lower world. He therefore became the vehicle through which the life of God is imparted to men, or at least to those elect natures who are predisposed to receive it. He not only possesses, but is Himself the Life. To impart His gift He must also impart Himself, since life is inalienable from the living Person. This idea, which lies at the very centre of St. John’s thinking, determines his theory of the communication of Life through Christ.

The subjective condition, apart from which the gift cannot be bestowed, is belief in Jesus as the Son of God. This belief is primarily an act of intellectual assent to the claim of Christ; but such an act implies a religious experience which has led up to it and gives it value. It runs back in the last resort to the ‘drawing by the Father’ (John 6:44), the work of God’s Spirit in the heart. Through the act of belief a man is brought into such a relation to Christ that His power as Life-giver becomes operative.

Three means are indicated by which Christ imparts the gift to those who have believed. (1) It is conveyed through His word, regarded not simply as the medium of His message, but in the Hebrew sense as active and creative. The words spoken by Jesus are of the same nature as the quickening word of God. They are ‘spirit and life,’ carrying with them some portion of His own being. He can say indifferently, ‘My word shall abide in you’ and ‘I shall abide in you’ (John 15:7). It is this imparting of Himself through His words that renders them ‘words of eternal life.’ (2) The gift is conveyed likewise in the Sacraments, more especially in the Lord’s Supper. The Eucharistic reference in the 6th chapter appears to the present writer unmistakable, and, while the Supper is interpreted in a spiritual sense, its real validity is also emphasized. Ignatius, writing in the same age, describes the Eucharist as the φάρμακον ἀθανασίας (Ephes. 20), and St. John accepts this current belief, and harmonizes it with his own doctrine of Life: ‘Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, ye have no life in you’ (John 6:53). Since Jesus in His own Person is the Life, it can be given only through an actual incorporation of His ‘flesh and blood,’ and this is offered in the mystery of the Eucharist. The idea of Life as a semi-physical essence here comes to its sharpest expression. (3) In this same chapter, however, we have the indication of another and still more mysterious means by which the Life is imparted. The Eucharist, while it possesses in itself a real validity, is typical of an abiding union of the believer with Christ. He is like the vine (John 15:1 ff.), out of which the several branches draw their nourishment. He is united with His disciples in a relation so profound and intimate that they feel themselves to be one with Him. They abide in Him and He in them, and the life which He possesses becomes their life, springing up within them like a perennial well (John 4:14). This doctrine of a mystical union with Christ in which He imparts His Divine life to the believer, contains the central and characteristic thought of the Fourth Gospel.

Thus far we have considered the Johannine idea of Life as it is determined by the Logos theory. It becomes apparent, however, the more we study the Gospel, that the writer is working throughout with two conceptions, essentially different from each other and never completely reconciled. The incarnate Logos is at the same time the historical Jesus, who revealed God and drew all men to Himself by the moral grandeur of His personality and life. Doctrines which are presented theologically on the lines of the Logos hypothesis are also capable of a purely religious interpretation. They require to be so interpreted if we are not to miss their underlying and vital import.

Life regarded from this other side bears a meaning substantially the same as in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus was the Living One, inasmuch as He realized in His own Person the love and goodness and holiness which constitute the inmost nature of God. The life He sought to communicate was nothing else than His own Spirit, as it was revealed in the scene of the feet-washing (John 13), and in the subsequent discourse with His disciples. Even in the Eucharistic chapter in which the theological view of Life is expressed most forcibly, we can discern this other view in the background. To partake of Christ’s flesh and blood is to become wholly conformed to Him, absorbing into oneself the very spirit by which He lived. We cannot read the chapter attentively without feeling that St. John is always passing from the metaphysical conception to this moral and religious one. Both are present in his mind, and he endeavours to fuse them, though such a fusion is in the nature of things impossible.

The cardinal doctrine of union with Christ assumes a new meaning in the light of this other aspect of St. John’s thought. What is elsewhere described as a mystical indwelling becomes a moral fellowship. ‘Henceforth I call you not servants, but friends; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth; but I have called you friends’ (John 15:15). The disciples are to enter into a perfect harmony of mind and will with their Master. His spirit is not to act on them from the outside, through set commandments, but inwardly and spontaneously. The relation of discipleship thus passes into one of ‘friendship,’—a friendship so close that they lose all sense of separateness between themselves and Christ. He ‘abides in them,’ and replaces their will with His own.

To the Synoptic teaching St. John adds one element of priceless value. He perceives that the new Life proclaimed by Jesus was bound up indissolubly with His living Person. ‘In him was life’ (John 1:4), and it is not enough to render some vague obedience to His teaching. There must be a real and personal communion with Christ, so that He may impart His very self to His disciple. In his presentation of this truth, John avails himself of metaphysical modes of thinking which are not wholly adequate to the Christian message. The conception of Christ as Logos obscures the true significance of His Person and of the higher life imparted through Him. But the essential thought of the Gospel is independent of the form, borrowed from an alien philosophy, in which it is expressed. Jesus Christ is not only the Life-giver, but is Himself the Life. He imparts His gift to those who know Him by an inward fellowship, and become one with Him in heart and will. See also Living.

Literature.—H. Holtzmann, NT Theol. i. 293 ff. (1897); Schrenck, Die johan. Anschauung vom ‘Leben’ (1898); Titius, Die NT Lehre von der Seligkeit (esp. the Johannine section, 1900); Grill, Untersuchungen über die Entstehung des vierten Evang. 206–327 (1902); G. Dalman, Words of Jesus, 156; G. B. Stevens, Johannine Theology, 241, 312; P. Brooks, More Abundant Life; B. F. Westcott, Historic Faith, 142; F. J. A. Hort, The Way, the Truth, the Life (1893); E. Hatch, Memorials, 181; J. G. Hoare, Life in St. John’s Gospel, (1901).

E. F. Scott.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Life'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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