Several Greek words are translated as "light" in the Gospels. Almost all of these words are forms of fire. Today we have forms of earthly light that are not obviously also forms of fire. This was not true in Jesus's day when all earthly forms of producing light were forms of fire. This earthly light is temporary because its fuel is consumed.
This fits with one of Jesus major theme in the Sermon on the Mount, (from Matthew 6:4 to Matthew 7:5, were what is visible but temporary, treasures on earth, is contrasted with what if hidden but permanent, treasures in the sky. In this context, heavenly light, that is, the light from the sky, is something very different than fire. It burns, but it is never consumed, like a certain bush. Heavenly light is permanent, never burning out, but it is sometimes hidden at night. Another form of heavenly light is also hidden within use.
So the Greek word for "fire" is used by Jesus as punishment, while the word for "light" is associated with knowledge, truth, and virtue. In at least one way, Jesus even equates fire with darkness. Earthly first is temporary but it is visible, attracting attention.
All of these words also have different associations in the Greek of the era than they do with the English words of our time. It is difficult for English speakers to understand these connections because of word meaning differences, how these words are usually translated, and cultural differences. However, Christ also created meanings in these words that they did not have before him.
This article explores those differences.
Note: the word in Greek letters in parentheses, such as (φῶς), link to the Perseus Greek dictionary while the Romanized versions, such as phos, link to how and where the word is translated in the Bible. Standard meaning in Greek of the era is often very different from the Biblical use of words.
The Meaning of "Light" (and "Darkness")
Many different Greek words are translated as "light" in the Gospels--phos,(φῶς) pheggos (φέγγος), and, less correctly, lychnos (λύχνος). The first word, phos, is used generically for light. The second, pheggos, is used only twice, both times to describe heavenly light. Lychnos refers to the earthly light from burning, but it is used as a metaphor for internal light. All of these terms are associated, at one time or another, either with wisdom, truth, and virtue (see below). Biblical translation has a tendency to use the most general meaning or poetic meaning rather than the specific meaning indicated by Jesus's choice of words.
In Greek, none of these words have the same sense of knowledge or virtue that the word "light" has in English. These aspect of English may have come from Jesus's equating these ideas. The metaphoric meanings of the most general and common word (phos) for "light" in Greek is "happiness", "victory", and "glory". After the Bible, the most common Greek word for light (phos) began to be used to mean "illumination of the mind", which may have com from its Hebrew source via the Septuagint Greek (again see below). However, there is a connection between the word for "light" and "truth" discussed below.
The most obvious source of the meaning of "light" as knowledge comes from the association of light with sight. Greek frequent uses a word that means "to see, eido (ἴδωσιν), to mean "to know." This word works very much like we use "see" to mean "know" in English statements like, "Do you see what I am saying?" Similarly, Jesus also uses the absence of sight, blindness, to mean ignorance as in Matthew 15:14. Other less common words for understanding, such as katanoeo (κατανοεῖς), are also used in relation to sight (see Matthew 7:3 And why do you see the mote in your brother's eye).
Jesus o uses "light", specifically phos, to mean knowledge in his frequent use of it in contrasts with "darkness". The Greek word for "darkness" that is used is skotos (σκότος), which means "darkness" and "secret." It is a metaphor for "obscure," "ignorance", and "the netherworld." This word specifically means "the darkness of death" and "the darkness of the womb". Of course, in many parables and sayings, Jesus refers to those who are cast out as going into the outer "darkness", which may be a contrast between the darkness of death and the "inner darkness" of the womb. This word also means "dizziness" and "vertigo" for some reason. This brings in a surprising connection to "fire", which is not dark, which we will discuss later in this article.
Darkness is also related to blindness and "blind" is one of the meanings of the adjective form of darkness, skoteinos (σκοτινὸν). Jesus uses another word for "blindness", typhlos (τυφλοί) more commonly, but he uses the word skoteinos when wordplay is needed because it is related to two other words. One is the common word for darkness, skotos, which is its root. The other is an adjective with the same ending -teinos, but with the root of light, phos, photeinos. This word means "bright" and "shining." Jesus uses all four of these words contrasting their various meaning against each other.
Darkness is not the same as what is "hidden." Darkness is the absence of light, either earthly and temporary, or transcendent and eternal, but the eternal is also hidden from the temporary and by the temporary. In looking at this from the perspective of time, "the future" is always hidden but it is always "showing up." We think of the future as "ahead" of us, but the Greeks thought of it as "behind" us. Why? Because we can see what is ahead, but we cannot see what is behind. The Greeks saw us as walking backwards into the future, seeing what was past, but not what was future.
Jesus also uses context to define this light as "virtue". Again, this happens by contrast with darkness. For example, in John 3:21, Christ says that people hate the light and love the dark because their works are worthless. The reason is that they do not want their deeds to be seen. Similarly, in Matthew 5:16, Christ tells people to let their light shine before men to see their good works and to give glory to their Father.
The Nature of Truth
The connection between "light" and "truth" is more obvious in the Greek. A fun way of saying this is that the meaning of "truth" is obscured in English. This is because, in Greek, the word for "truth" is aletheia (ἀλήθεια), which means literally "the state of not being hidden." And the concept of being hidden covers ideas such as disguises and acting. However, God is also hidden (The Greek concept of "truth" means "reality" as opposed to appearances. It is not the technical "truth" of words, courts, and or even mere facts. It is the philosophical truth of understanding what is real, what is really going on beneath the surface.
So "truth" requires "light". Christ connects this concept, which comes built-into the Greek, with the concept of "virtue". People want to hide their mistakes and shortcomings. They are willing to let their good deeds be seen.
This also explains Christ opposition to doing good works just to be seen. This is just another form of hiding, or, as he describes it, "acting". Our English word "hypocrite" is the Greek word meaning actor.
Greek Words Translated as "Light"
Those who study the Bible in English translation must be careful about interpreting references to "light" in Scripture. This is dangerous because not all the words translated as "light" are the generic phos, described above. The following Greek words are all translated as "light" in the Gospels: phos,(φῶς) pheggos (φέγγος), and lychnos (λύχνος). Another word, photeinos (φωτινὸν) is translated as "full of light."
Of these words, the one that comes the closest to the meaning of the English word "light" is phos, which we have discussed above. It means "light", specifically "daylight" and, more generally, "illumination". Its metaphoric meaning is "deliverance", "happiness", "victory", and "glory". When Christ contrast "light" with "darkness", this is the word he uses. This word is used four times by Jesus in Matthew including "you are the light of the world". It is used ten times in John, including famous statements such as "I am the light of the world." This is the Greek word used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew 'owr, which has many metaphorical meanings, one of them being the "light of learning".
Another general word for light is pheggos, which means "light", specifically, "moonlight", and "splendor". It is used only three times by Jesus in the Gospels. In Matthew (Matthew 24:29) and Mark (Mar 13:24), it is used to refer to "moonlight" or the lack of it. However, Luke (Luke 11:33) uses to mean the light of a candle in a verse that is a different version of one where Matthew uses phos (Matthew 5:15).
The "candle" in those two verses is lynchos, which means a "portable light," or "lamp." However, this word is also translated as "light" in Matthew 6:22). This word is also translated as "light" in Jhn 5:35 and Luke 12:35. It is most often translated as "candle" in the NT, though it is hard to understand why. Perhaps because there is also another word translated as "lamp" in the Gospels, lampas (λαμπάδων), which is obviously the source of our word "lamp". It specifically means "torch", but it also means"light," and any type of "lamp." This word is used to describe what the the ten virgins carried for light when going to meet the bridegroom. These are clearly oil lamps because they are described as burning oil in the parable. However, candles made of wax were uncommon in Christ's era and region, much less common than they were in churches in the KJV era. More likely, lynchos refers to an oil lamp in the house, where lampas refers to an oil lamp or torch meant to be carried.
Importantly, in Christ's time, all of these sources of light were understood to be forms of fire, with the possible exception of the moon.The sun was considered to be a ball of fire, and candles and lamps were obviously fire. All of them gave off heat, which is why the moon's light seemed more mysterious. The stars were also considered objects of fire, but so small and distant, they did not generate heat.
Christ also uses a number of words relating to the opposite of light, "darkness".
typhlos, which means "blind", "lacking vision of the future," [of things]"dim", "obscure", "dark," [of passages] "blind", "enclosed", "with no outlet," and is a metaphor for lacking sense."
The Meaning of Fire
It is important to note that in Christ's time, "fire" was understood to be the only source of light on earth. The various lights in the sky could only be interpreted in terms of what was understood on earth. We must also remember that fire was an important tool, provide heat, which is critical in many human activities. For Christ, the two most important are baking bread and disposing of trash. If "light" was "good", how could "fire", which was what generated light, be "bad"?
Of course, like everything on earth, fire combines both good and bad. Fire consumes things, destroying them. Fire doesn't only generate light but also heat. While heat has many useful applications, it is also painful. There is no form of fire that people can make direct contact with and not feel the pain. Any prolonged exposure is a painful form of death.
This idea brings us to Christ's use of the word for "fire". The Greek word translated in the NT as "fire" is pyr (πυρός.), which means "fire" generally, though there are other words used for "fire" in Greek, this is by far the most common. It also specifically means a "sacrificial fire" or a "funeral fire". It means "light" when you are talking about the light of torches. Christ uses this word for the first time in Matthew 5:22, where it is offered to in the context of "judgment", which is a word the means "decision" and "separation".
There is one example where Christ comes close to using the words for "fire" and "light" in the same context. In describes his role as "I come to send a fire on earth". This is very close to John 12:46 where Christ says, "I am come a light into the world". The Greek words for "come", "fire" and "on/into" are the same.
Christ only discusses "fire" in the context of a judgment of some type. From the first time it is used, it is also used in the context of a word that is translated as "hell". Christ uses it six times in this context. But the "Greek" word used is geenna (γέενναν) which is Greek for Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom (the Hebrew word), south of Jerusalem where trash, including diseased animals and human corpses, was burned. A constant fire was kept burning there for the purpose of cleaning up waste. Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom (the Hebrew word), south of Jerusalem where trash, including diseased animals and human corpses, was burned. A constant fire was kept burning there for the purpose of cleaning up waste. Hinnom (the Hebrew word), south of Jerusalem where trash, including diseased animals and human corpses, was burned. A constant fire was kept burning there for the purpose of cleaning up waste.
Tossing into Fire and Darkness
Also interestingly, there are several examples where Christ uses "fire" and "darkness" in similar ways. In Matthew 13:42 and again in Matthew 13:50, Christ describes how the "weeds" ("false wheat") and "the wicked" are cast into the fire, where there will be "wailing and gnashing teeth." Of course, this phrase is used most often in relation to casting people into the "outer darkness" for example in Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, and Matthew 25:30. The same description is also used for "where the hypocrites" are put in Matthew 24:51.
"Fire", "hell" and "darkness" are united by the used of the verb translated as "to cast out". "Cast out" is from ekballo and means "throw out", "cast out of a place," and "expose." The prefix, ek means "out of", "from," and "away from" and the root word, ballo is "to throw" or "to scatter." The word ballo was translated unusually as "send" in the ballo was translated unusually as "send" in the Luke 12:49, "I come to send a fire on earth."
Both "ekballo" and "ballo" are favorite words that Christ uses in a lot of different contexts. Their uses often seem extreme, as in plucking out your eye and tossing it away. The overall effect is light-hearted and humorous. ekballo" and "ballo" are favorite words that Christ uses in a lot of different contexts. Their uses often seem extreme, as in plucking out your eye and tossing it away. The overall effect is light-hearted and humorous. ballo" are favorite words that Christ uses in a lot of different contexts. Their uses often seem extreme, as in plucking out your eye and tossing it away. The overall effect is light-hearted and humorous.
Another word commonly associated with "fire" and "tossing out" is the word translated as "furnace" in Matthew 13:42 and Matthew 13:50. However, the actual Greek word is kaminos, (κάμινον) which means "oven," or "furnace." However, the word is used more frequently for ovens used for baking bread or bricks. The context in which it is used is burning weeds. Those weeds are gathered to be burned at the same time that wheat is gathered to be made into bread. In ancient Judea, where trees were valuable, weeds were used as fuel. Christ also references this fact in Matthew 6:30, where he states that the "grasses of the field" are here today and tomorrow "tossed into ovens" (the word is, unsurprisingly ballo). Though the Greek word for "oven" is different, it too describes an oven, though a smaller one, used for baking bread.
The overall context overall context for Christ's statement about people being "tossed into a fire" is negative precisely to the same degree being tossed into the darkness. The description of the suffering, however, is odd: "weeping and gnashing of teeth." This phrase is used as an example of Christ's use of exaggeration as humor (see Christ's Humor), but it is particularly strange when applied to being tossed into a fire because the "gnashing of teeth" actually means "chattering of teeth" as if cold. This makes sense in the context of the "outer darkness" but not so much in the context of being tossed in a fire. A wide variety of people suffer this fate
We should note that in Greek, "teeth" are a metaphor for pain. This fact tells you something about the dentistry of the times. So this phrase describes pain, even if it is described in a colorful way.
To understand how serious this punishment is, we should note the behaviors to which is it applied. The first statement regarding the liability of being "tossed into the fires of the trash heap" is insulting your brother (Matthew 5:22). The next is looking at a woman as a sex object, where plucking out an eyeball or cutting off a hand is offered as an alternative (Matthew 5:29). These both seem to be obvious examples of Christ's use of exaggeration in using humor (more about this in this article). This does not mean that being tossed into a fire is not painful, but that Christ is describing something other than eternal torture.
We should mention that Christ mentions the Greek word translated as "everlasting" or "eternal" in connection with "fire" twice. Once in Matthew 18:8, which is another verse where cutting off and hand or foot is suggested as better than having the whole body thrown into "everlasting" file. And, much more seriously, in Matthew 25:41, where those "on the left" are sent into "everlasting punishment" (Matthew 25:46). However, the word translated as "everlasting" is the same word translated as "eternal" life. The word translated as "everlasting" and "eternal" doesn't quite mean those ideas. It specifically means "perpetual" or "ageless." It literally means, "lasting for an age". The fire outside of Jerusalem was a perpetual fire, in the sense that it never went out.
Christ is pretty specific in saying that the part of the human life that is destroyed in the fire is "the body", which he mentions many times. However, in Matthew 10:28, he also mentions the "soul", but to understand what that means, we have to look carefully at how Christ defines the Greek concept of psyche, which is discussed extensively in this article. Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 may express this same idea when he says "the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire." The psyche, the memory of a life, is lost to preserve the anima, the divine spirit of our unique self-awareness. Paul's language here echoes Christ's discussion of foundations in Matthew 7:20, which itself immediately follows his statement that trees not producing good fruit are thrown in the fire, Matthew 7:20. Paul's verse also echoes Christ's words in Matthew 5:16, "Let your light so shine...", which connects the idea of fire to light. It may well be that what is burned away is what is worthless.
Burning the Waste
It may be important to remember that Christ uses the word for "fire" directly only in terms of punishment, but that that punishment is in the consistent context of consuming trash. However, we should also recognize that the effects of fire refer to by Jesus are baking bread in ovens and giving light through lamps.
As a final note, we might notice that in Matthew 6:30, Christ uses a Greek word for a small, clay vessel used for baking bread, translated as "oven". In our ovens, the fire is on the outside, but the bread is on the inside. But the ovens Christ describes are different. The first is made in the clay vessel and the dough for the bread is attached to its sides. Christ says that the "grass" thrown inside, he is describing it being baked, not burned up in a fire. So the "grass", that is, the foliage, of "the lilies of the field" (Matthew 6:28) becomes the fuel for baking bread. This image is similar to the one evoked by the "Parable of the Weeds", where the weeds are bundled to be burnt, while the wheat the makes the bread is gathered into barns (Matthew 13:30). As the good seeds ("children of the kingdom") and the weeds ("children of worthlessness") were raised in the field ("the world"), they both end up in the pot together, the weeds fueling the fire and the wheat benefiting from it.
We should also mention a larger context here that relates "burning" to "sin". In Jewish law, Jews could atone for their sins by offering an "atoning sacrifice", where a person's goods are destroyed in a fire to atone for his mistakes. Christ mentions this offering in Matthew 5:23, "Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar." This "sin offering" was discontinued in Judaism after the loss of the temple, but, for Christ, the accumulations "in the sky" (Matthew 6:19 Do not Lay up treasures for yourselves on earth) that are preserved. Those accumulations can be worthwhile or worthless leading to reward or the fire.