by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon
Of the standard Greek nouns commonly translated as “life” in the New Testament, John’s Gospel uses only two: psyche and zoe. Psyche, often translated as “soul,” indicates the life or being of an individual. For example, in the sustained pastoral parable in John this is the term used when the
“Good Shepherd gives His psyche for the sake of the sheep” (John 10:11; cf. 10:15, 17).
This is also the word by Simon Peter when he rashly boasts,
“I will give my psyche for Your sake” (13:37-38).
A person’s psyche is what he is prepared to lay down for the love of his friends (15:13).
The second term, zoe, is used far more commonly in the Fourth Gospel, where it appears 36 times. Its cognate verb zo appears 17 times. This zoe is, first of all, proper to the Word:
“in Him was life” (John 1:4).
This is the “life in Himself” that the Son receives from the Father:
“For just as the Father has life in Himself, so he has given (edoken) the Son also to have life in Himself” (5:26).
This life, derived from the Father, the Son reveals to believers through the proclamation and communion of the Gospel:
“What was from the beginning (ap’ arches)—what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have gazed upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life (peri tou Logou tes zoes)— and the life (he zoe) was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and declare to you, the eternal life (ten zoen ten aionion) which was with the Father (pros ton Patera) and has been manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we declare also to you (1 John 1:1-3).
Those who believe in God’s Son
“have the testimony (martyria) of God in their hearts (5:10).
Believers, because of their faith in this testimony of the Father, share in the zoe of the Son:
“And this is the testimony: God gave 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” (5:11-12).
The life given in Christ is the very life of God. Such is the sum message of John:
“And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true (ton Alethinon) and we are in Him who is true (en toi Alethinoi), in his Son, Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life (Houtos estin ho alethinos Theos kai zoe aioanios)” (5:20-21).”
The Good Shepherd, even as He forfeits His individual human life (psyche) for the sheep (John 10:11, 15, 17), never loses the essential life (zoe) He receives from the Father: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live (zo), you also will live (zesete)” (14:19). The life of which John speaks is Christ Himself. This truth is conveyed in a series of “I AM” declarations:
“I am the resurrection and the life (zoe) (11:25).
“I am the way, the truth, and the life (zoe)” (14:6).
“I am the bread of life (ho artos tes zoes)” (6:35, 48).
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life (to phos tes zoes)” (8:12).
As God’s revelation in the world, the Son gives
“the living water (hydor zon)” (4:10-11; 7:38)
“the living bread (artos zon)” (6:51).
His words are
“spirit and life” (pnevma kai zoe) (6:6);
“words of eternal life” (6:68).
In short, He came to give zoe to the world (6:33; 10:10; 1 John 4:9).
Although, in his treatment of this new life, John does maintain the basic future/eschatological perspective common in the other New Testament sources (for instance, John 6:40, 44, 51, 54), he lays a greater emphasis on the promised zoe as a present reality. The faithful in Christ, by reason of their faith, already have eternal life. The life is not delayed; believers begin to live when they begin to believe.
John sounds this theme repeatedly.
“The hour is coming,” says the Lord, “and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live (zesousin)” (5:25).
We see this shift of emphasis when Martha professes her faith that Lazarus
“will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus answers that the future is now:
“I AM the resurrection and the zoe” (11:24-25).
The one who hears and believes has eternal life already (5:24). Even now
“we have passed from death to life” (1 John 3:14).