What does ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων mean in John 1:4?

John 1:4 (KJV);

  1. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

The best I can come up with is the knowledge of Jesus' exemplary life shows us how to live.: τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων representing knowledge for mankind and ἡ ζωὴ representing Jesus' life on Earth. This is said with no intention to leave out the fact of Jesus Christ's salvation story, which is covered in John's Gospel.

These verses give John 1:4 a broader meaning that includes salvation: John 8:32; 14:6-7.

This seems to make the most sense if "the life" = the example and atonement of Jesus' life.


8 Answers 8


A quotidian meaning of λόγος is "reason" - a faculty of man. It is the root of our English word "logical". So one might understand φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων not only as the illumination due to the Divine Logos alone, but also the natural illumination that man has been endowed with in concert with the Divine Logos.

One Greek commentary on the passage explains:

The Evangelist calls the Lord life, because it is He Who sustains the life of every living thing, and Who gives spiritual life to all reason-endowed creatures. He is light - not light perceivable by the senses, but noetic light that enlightens the soul. The Evangelist does not say that the Lord is the light of the Jews only, but of all men. We can say that every man has been enlightened by Him, inasmuch as each of us has received mind and reason [λόγος] from the Word [Λόγος] Who created us. The reason bestowed on us rational [λογιγοί] creatures is a light to enlighen us what we ought, and ought not, to do.*

* Theophylact of Ohrid, tr. from the Greek in The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to John (Chrysostom Press, 2007), p.15

  • 1
    Your answer is basically a good one. I have trouble finding one English word that completely describes λόγος. That's probably why translations still translate it word.
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Feb 3, 2018 at 14:27
  • Edit won't let me change just one character in your post. Should "no," be "not," on the last line?
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Feb 3, 2018 at 14:32

Thayer describes the light φῶς (phos) as per the appendix below, as,

  • truth and its knowledge, together with the spiritual purity congruous with it
  • the saving truth embodied in Christ and by his love and effort imparted to mankind

Thayer also provides a good scriptural survey of this meaning as well (see below). BDAG has a similar entry for this word.

Thus, "kingdom of light" become almost synonymous with "kingdom of heaven" and "kingdom of God". Thus, the life in Christ become the light (the great guiding truth) of Christ's followers; this idea being repeated in 1 John 1:1-5; John 8:12, etc.

Paul expands on this idea in 1 Cor 15:12-20 where he declares that if Christ in not risen then our faith is in vain! Quite right - without the life of Christ lighting our way, we have no hope for the future.

APPENDIX - Thayer entry for φῶς (quoted in part)

b. By a figure frequently in the N. T. (cf. in classic Greek τῆς ἀληθείας τό φῶς, Euripides, L T. 1046 etc.; see Liddell and Scott, under the word, II. 2), φῶς is used to denote truth and its knowledge, together with the spiritual purity congruous with it (opposed to τό σκότος b., ἡ σκοτία, which see): ἡ ζωή ἦν τό φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων, had the nature of light in men, i. e. became the source of human wisdom, John 1:4; especially the saving truth embodied in Christ and by his love and effort imparted to mankind, Matthew 4:16; John 1:5; John 3:19-21; Acts 26:18, 23; 2 Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:13{a} (cf. below); τό φῶς τό ἀληθινόν, 1 John 2:8; τό θαυμαστόν τοῦ Θεοῦ φῶς, 1 Peter 2:9 (Clement of Rome, 1 Cor. 36, 2 [ET] cf. 59, 2 [ET]); τό φῶς ὑμῶν, the divine truth with which ye are imbued, Matthew 5:16; ἔχειν τό φῶς τῆς ζωῆς, the light by which the true life is gained, John 8:12; τά ὅπλα (Lachmann marginal reading ἔργα) τοῦ φωτός, Romans 13:12; καρπός τοῦ φωτός, Ephesians 5:9 G L T Tr WH; ἐν τῷ φωτί περιπατεῖν, to live agreeably to saving wisdom, 1 John 1:7; ἐν τῷ φωτί εἶναι, to be imbued with saving wisdom, μένειν, to continue devoted to it, to persevere in keeping it, 1 John 2:9f; οἱ υἱοί τοῦ φωτός (see υἱός, 2, p. 635{a}), Luke 16:8; John 12:36; 1 Thessalonians 5:5; τέκνα φωτός (see τέκνον, c. β., p. 618^a), Ephesians 5:8. by metonymy, φῶς; is used of one in whom wisdom and spiritual purity shine forth, and who imparts the same to others: φῶς τῶν ἐν σκότει, Romans 2:19; (φῶς ἐθνῶν, Acts 13:47); in a pre-eminent sense is Jesus the Messiah called φῶς and τό φῶς: Luke 2:32; John 1:7; John 12:35f, 46; τό φῶς τοῦ κόσμου, John 8:12; John 9:5 (τό φῶς τοῦ κόσμου τό δοθέν ἐν ὑμῖν εἰς φωτισμόν παντός ἀνθρώπου, Test xii. Patr. test. Levi § 14); τό φῶς τό ἀληθινόν, John 1:9; by the same name the disciples of Jesus are distinguished, Matthew 5:14; Christians are called φῶς ἐν κυρίῳ, having obtained saving wisdom in communion with Christ, Ephesians 5:8. πᾶν τό φανερούμενον φῶς ἐστιν, everything made manifest by the aid of Christian truth has taken on the nature of light, so that its true character and quality are no longer hidden, Ephesians 5:13{b} (others take φῶς here in an outward or physical sense, and regard the statement as a general truth confirmatory of the assertion made respecting spiritual 'φωτός just before (cf. above)).

  • Does this mean Jesus' life was the truth and knowledge of humans (τῶν ἀνθρώπων), i.e. our example of how to live?
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 1:15
  • @PerryWebb - it essentially (IMHO) contains two elements (a) the truth about Christ's life now and how to live by grace, and (b) the truth about Christ's life providing eternal life with Him.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 1:57

What does “the life was the light of men” mean in John 1:4?

What does ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων mean in John 1:4?

John 1:2-4 (NASB)

2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.

Him [Jesus] that is the Word or Logos, was in the beginning with God, God being the source of life.

All things came into being through Him,[Jesus] and apart from Him, nothing came into being that has come into being. In this sense, all life came into existence through Jesus.

4 "In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men."

4a "In Him was life:"

By means of Him [Jesus], God made it possible for the sinful mankind to gain everlasting life, in this sense "In Him was life."

4b "And the life was the Light of men: "John writes; 1:9

The Word the true Light, gives spiritual light to all men.

John 1:9 (NASB)

9 "There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man."

Those who follow Me, the Light of the world, will possess the Light of life.

John 8:12 (NASB)

12 "Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”


In order to understand "the life was the light of men" I believe it is necessary to put the phrase in context with verse 3. Then a first question is where ὃ γέγονεν, the future indicative tense of γίνομαι belongs:

A: πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν [<--ὃ γέγονεν]
   All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

   ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων
   In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

B: πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν 
   All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

   [ὃ γέγονεν-->] ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων
   What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of men.

A is stronger grammatically; B is how it was understood by the earliest church fathers (and heretics).1 However, as both are plausible, this should be taken as a deliberate device because the writer intends the reader to understand both readings.

The perfect indicative is action completed in the past which has results existing in the present.2 The letter to the Romans supports attaching ὃ γέγονεν to what precedes as the primary reading:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20) [ESV]

Man is able to perceive what was made, ἐγένετο, a completed action in the past, by γέγονεν, results in the present. That is, the primary emphasis is on the present but only because the work of creation, which required the eternal power and divine nature of God, continues to show that fact.

The Life was the Light of Men
If we assume that "life" is speaking about transcendent life, that is eternal life in God and Christ for mankind,3 then a basic explanation is one from the Cambridge Greek Testament:

καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς. Not φῶς, but τὸ Φῶς, the one true Light, absolute Truth both intellectual and moral, free from ignorance and free from stain. The Source of Life is the Source of Light: He gives the power to know what is morally good.

The Greek Testament Critical Exegetical Commentary gives a more detailed explanation:

κ. ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τ. φῶς τ. ἀνθ] This is not to be understood of the teaching of the Incarnate Logos, but of the enlightening and life-sustaining influence of the eternal Son of God, in Whom was life. In the material world, light, the offspring of the Word of God, is the condition of life, and without it life degenerates and expires:—so also in the spiritual world that life which is in Him, is to the creature the very condition of all development and furtherance of the life of the spirit. All knowledge, all purity, all love, all happiness, spring up and grow from this life, which is the light to them all.

Since the Word was God, the life which came from the Word must be at least in part, Godly life, represented as light. This is not symbolism to the Torah which is light or to wisdom (i.e. teaching of the Incarnate Word) or even Greek philosophy or Philo's Logos. It a basic fact about creation (i.e. the enlightening and life-sustaining influence of the Word) which is God's nature:

...God is light in whom there is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)

There are some things which can be created ex nihilo, out of nothing. So, God does not need to be a sun in order to create the sun. The same cannot be said of life. Since God is living, created life cannot be ex nihilio: it must originate in God. In other words, life for man requires that from which exists only in God:

then 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 creature. (Genesis 2:7)

The man became a living being when he received from the LORD God that which was not created. So the life which is the light of men is foremost man's continued existence which is from God:

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power... (Hebrews 1:3)

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:11)

Yes there is a natural explanation for man's continuing existence after the creation of the first, but that is secondary. The primary reason is the will of God (cf. Isaiah 45:18). Moreover, since life is more than natural existence, life from God must be more than existence and in that sense it is part of the fabric of creation. Thus, because creation still shows God's eternal power and divine nature, light as wisdom or the light of the Torah, is the eternal power and divine nature of the Word, which was from the beginning with God. And life as the light of men which is knowledge of the Torah or wisdom are the secondary results of creation.

Therefore the second possibility, attaching ὃ γέγονεν to what follows reflects a "coexistent" truth. Since life is from that which was in God, "the life was the light of men" where light is seen as knowledge of the Torah or as wisdom reflects a consequence of physical life which is also from God. Just as the natural world shows God's nature, so life in man may show God's nature. But, when God gives wisdom or reveals Law, man is receiving that which was always existing. When one reads the phrase as ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων (What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people - NRSV) and understands "light" as the Law or as wisdom, one is simply recognizing the fabric of creation which shows God's eternal power and divine nature in man but is not unique to man.

Physical Life
This coexistent truth of transcendent life has a natural counterpart: light. If transcendent life is the light of men, physical life is possible only because there is physical light. This introduces another aspect of life which is present in the text. Grammatically, ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς = τὸ φῶς ἦν ἡ ζωὴ:

And the life was the light of men (και η ζωη ην το πως των αντρωπων — kai hē zōē ēn to phōs tōn anthrōpōn). Here the article with both ζωη — zōē and πως — phōs makes them interchangeable. "The light was the life of men" is also true.4

As with the flexible placement of ὃ γέγονεν the reader is to recognize the writer intends that both the life was the light of men and the light was the life of men are intended:

A: πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν [<--ὃ γέγονεν]
   All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

   ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν καὶ τὸ φῶς ἡ ζωὴ τῶν ἀνθρώπων
   In him was life and the light, was the life of men.

B: πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν 
   All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

   [ὃ γέγονεν-->] ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν καὶ τὸ φῶς ἡ ζωὴ τῶν ἀνθρώπων
   What has come into being in him was life and the light was the life of men.

...in him was life and the light was the life of men and again the primary reading is when ὃ γέγονεν is attached to what precedes. In fact, the secondary reading makes little sense because both life and the light are the life of men. In other words, the flexibility of text states a multifaceted truth. As the one who made all things, the Word is not only responsible for life which is light, He is also responsible for the natural light which is essential for life.

1. C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, S·P·C·K, 1962, pp. 130-131
2. Daniel B. Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax, Zondervan, 2000, p. 247
3. Fredrick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, The University Chicago Press, 2000, p. 430
4. Robinson's Word Pictures of the New Testament


John was speaking here about the beginning--the beginning of creation. Actually, the matter created on Day-One was the "waters" mentioned in verse 2 of Genesis 1. Actually, those "waters" were created ex nihilo. However, those waters were merely mentioned out of the blue as if they had never been created, although we know they were. That is a common practice throughout scripture whenever something or someone is being used as a type of something else. For example, Gen 14:18 merely mentions Melchizedek out of the blue as if he never had a father or mother, and certainly no blood lineage to an "eternal priesthood" of temporal men.

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was "the priest of the most high God."

Nowhere do we find Melchizedek offering up gifts and sacrifices for men in eternity future. He is the type, not our eternal high priest. Christ is the one here who was called of God to be our high priest. That type, however, set up the type for an "eternal" priesthood--not of Levi--that Jesus was to be considered the High Priest of. Whenever a type is established, the facts are somewhere made known so as to enable mankind to separate the type from the true figure. The tabernacle and its furniture are other examples.

The created waters of verse 2 were not the WORD of God. Those waters, however, being a special Hebrew dual word "mayim", and being "without form, and void invisible gaseous-like matter when first spoken of, then at a point in time being made visible liquid water seas and earth on day three, provide the basis for being used throughout scripture as a type of the Word of God. This type grants to us the examples of the WORD of God being both eternal invisible Spirit as well as the visible flesh-and blood Son of God-Son of man. The Gospel of John is replete with instances of the use of this type of the WORD of God.

The distinguishing feature for this type is the light that God formed, but did not create. Isaiah 45:6-7 clarifies:

That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the LORD, and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. (My emphasis)

So God meant what He said in verse 1 of Genesis:

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (My emphasis)

The light of verse three clearly had a beginning, and that beginning consisted of being formed from the waters that are repeatedly--over and over--used in scripture as a type of the WORD of God. That WORD who was with God and who was God is the subject matter of this portion of scripture.

All matter has the potential for being transformed into energy. Light is energy. That light was in the waters--the only matter mentioned as existing on day one--before the waters were even divided--before the several liquid seas were made and dry land earth were ever formed.The seas were "made"--not formed--, and the earth was formed--not created--from the day two-divided waters on day-three. In fact, all things seen were made from the invisible things God created as being unseen by His Word, as we see in Romans 1:19-20:

Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

And, in Hebrews 11:3:

Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

So waters being merely a type of the WORD of God provides us with additional understanding that the light was in the waters.

In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

The waters that the Spirit of God moved upon--or as some say, fluttered, or blew upon reveals that a certain amount of "work" was required to form, or transform part of the waters into light. In Him--in the Word, merely typified by the waters--was life; and the life was the light of men by faith in His WORD.


The breath of man is a lamp of Jehovah, Searching all the inner parts of the heart. Proverbs 20:27 Young's Literal Translation

φῶς κυρίου πνοὴ ἀνθρώπων ὃς ἐρευνᾷ ταμίεια κοιλίας LXX Proverbs 20:27

That Jesus was the only Shepherd of Israel.

  • 1
    Looks like a verse to ask a good question.
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 12:36
  • Nice! I hadn't even thought about it, I hope you ask the question according to your language (English)
    – Betho's
    Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 16:41

I'm struggling over how to select a best answer to this question. I'm not putting an answer here to be the best answer, but to give what seems to be left out in the answers. There are many forward looking answers here, but none seem to be looking back.

Light is important in the prophets such as Isaiah. The Gospels take these as prophecies about Christ. Note:

        Arise, shine, for your light has come, 
  and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 
        For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, 
  and thick darkness the peoples; 
              but the LORD will arise upon you, 
  and his glory will be seen upon you. 
        And nations shall come to your light, 
  and kings to the brightness of your rising. 
                (Isa. 60:1–3, ESV)

Compared to:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5, ESV)

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:9, ESV)

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, ESV)

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. (John 3:19, ESV)

Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. (Jn 12:41, ESV)

Other prominent verses in Isaiah are 9:2;42:6,16;49:6, especially 9:2, quoted in Matthew 4:16.

              The people who walked in darkness 
  have seen a great light; 
              those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, 
  on them has light shone. (ESV)

Also note Psalm 119:105.

  Your word is a lamp to my feet 
  and a light to my path. (ESV)

“In him was life.” Furthermore, the life was in Him (ἐν αὐτῷ) as in its source. With this placement, "the life" should thus be understood in the broadest terms.

Life was that which existed in Him, of which He was full. This must be taken in the most comprehensive sense, nothing that is life being excluded, physical, moral, eternal life (so already Chrysostom),—all life was contained in the Logos, as in its principle and source. – Meyer’s Commentary

That power which creates life and maintains all else in existence was in the Logos. To limit “life” here to any particular form of life is rendered impossible by John 1:3. – Expositor’s Greek

“And the life was the light of men.” Based on the context, this light is understood to be that of grace and truth (v14, 16-17). As such, it does not impart intellectual or moral understanding, but spiritual - the light that illumines the soul to know God (v18; cf Is 11:2 & 9, Jn 14:6). Though not moral in essence (v17), the absence of such light is associated with the darkness of wickedness and sin (cf Jer 9:3, Jer 4:22, Ps 82:4-5).

For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. – 2 Cor 4:6

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. – Jn 1:18

Both verbs (ἦν) in Jn 1:4 are in the imperfect tense. In the basic use of this tense, the imperfect describes an action or process occurring in the past, but “it catches it in mid-act” and does not give any information on when the action begins or ends (ezraproject.com). Because of the pair of imperfects in Jn 1:4, we cannot restrict “the life” in Jn 1:4 to a fixed span of time, though it does not rule out any particular period.

Citing the ἦν, Meyer’s commentary has Jn 1:4 as referencing the time of man’s innocence “when the Logos as the source of life was the light of men” and links it to a later period “where the light still shines indeed, but in darkness.”

This reference to the time when man, created after God’s image, remained in a state of innocency, is necessarily required by the ἦν, which, like the preceding ἦν, must refer to the creation-period indicated in John 1:3… In that fresh, untroubled primeval age, when the Logos as the source of life was the Light of men, the antithesis of light and darkness did not yet exist; this tragic antithesis, however, as John’s readers knew, originated with the fall, and had continued ever after. There follows, therefore, after a fond recalling of that fair bygone time (John 1:4), the painful and mournful declaration of the later and still enduring relation (John 1:5), where the light still shines indeed, but in darkness,—a darkness which had not received it. – Meyer’s Commentary

I too think that the words “the life was the light of men” harken back to a time when men walked in the garden of God's presence. Jesus came to open the way for men to go back, conditioned upon their reception of him (v12), to that state of relationship and union with God.

The "new creation," or the renovation of man and his restoration from a state of sin, is often compared with the "first creation;" and as the λόγος Logos was the source of "life" then, so, in a similar but higher sense, he is the source of "life" to the soul dead in trespasses and sins, Ephesians 2:1... The meaning is: that he is the source or the fountain of both natural and spiritual life. – Barnes Commentary

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