Bible Glossary

Certain words and ideas are found over and over again in the Bible because they refer to significant concepts that governed the lives of God’s people. These words have come down through the centuries as aspects of church life and thought and, today also, reflect the essence of what Christians believe. The entries here are the most important words to be found in the Bible and in Christian theology. If a person really understood what each of these ideas meant, in theory and in life, he or she would be on the way to becoming a mature believer. Each idea is defined, and a few references are given to the biblical context. For in-depth study look up the word in a concordance and trace how it has been used throughout the biblical revelation.


The process through which a person who does not belong to a given family is formally brought into it and made a full, legal family member with the rights and responsibilities of that position. The practice of adoption was not common among the Jews, but was more widespread in the Greek and Roman world. The apostle Paul used the term to illustrate the truth that believers have been given the status of “sonship” in the heavenly family; they can call God “Father” (Rom. 8:15 ; Gal. 4:6 ). Adoption makes it clear that our sonship is conferred on us, in distinction from Christ’s, which is inherent.


“Someone who is sent,” often “a messenger.” In the New Testament the word refers particularly to twelve men whom Jesus selected to be with him and whom he sent out to preach and to cast out demons (Mark 3:14-15). Other individuals than the Twelve bore that title–for example, Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:14). Apostles were important figures in the early church (I Cor. 12:28). They were appointed by Christ, not by men (Gal. 1:1), and they gave authoritative witness to what God had done in Christ (Acts 1:22).


Certainty of salvation, because of the promises of God and the effectiveness of Christ’s atonement (I John 5:13). The word does not occur often in the Bible, but the idea is more frequent. It is basic that people do not deserve their salvation because of their own efforts; that would leave them always uncertain, never knowing whether they had been good enough. But Christ did all that was needed, and we can rely on his perfect work. Further, believers have evidence of God’s power in their lives (I John 2:3-5; 3:19-21). Our assurance rests on the certainty that what God has begun he will complete (Phil. 1:6).


Literally “at-one-ment,” the making at one of those who have been separated. The word is used of Christ’s dying to bring God and sinners together. Sin had separated them (Isa. 59:2) and made them enemies (Col. 1:21); it was thus a very serious matter. A many-sided act was required to remove that sin; words like redemption and reconciliation bring out significant aspects of Christ’s saving work. Whatever had to be done about sin, Christ’s death did, and thus opened up salvation for sinners.


English form of a Greek word meaning “anointed”; “Messiah” is the English form of the Hebrew word with the same meaning. In Old Testament days God anointed people for special service, especially the king (II Sam. 1:14; 23:1) and the priest (Lev. 4:3). Eventually the understanding developed that an outstanding “anointed one” would appear, who would do God’s will in a very special way (Dan. 9:25-26). This great One is often referred to without the use of the term anointed (Isa. 9:6-7; 11:1-9). The New Testament shows that Jesus was this chosen One, God’s Messiah (John 4:25-26; cf. Matt. 23:10; Mark 9:41).


The decisive act in which a sinner turns away from sin in genuine repentance and accepts the salvation that Christ offers. The imagery in conversion is that of turning. A person is going along a road and realizes that he or she is on the wrong track. They will never reach the destination if they continue in that direction. So the person “turns,” or “is converted.” He or she ceases to go in the wrong direction and begins going in the right one. Conversion changes the direction of one’s course of life from the wrong way to the right way, the way that God wants.


A solemn agreement, such as the covenant between Jacob and Laban (Gen. 31:44). God’s love and grace are shown in his readiness to make covenants with people. When God promised Noah that he would not again destroy the world with a flood, he made a covenant with him (Gen. 6:18; 9:9-17). A very important covenant existed between God and Israel (Exod. 24:1-8), which is pictured in the book of Hebrews as the “old covenant.” When the people repeatedly broke that covenant, God promised a new covenant based on forgiveness and the writing of his law on people’s hearts. Jesus inaugurated this new covenant with his blood (Mark 14:24; 1 Cor. 11:25).


In Bible times, a student. Whereas a student today studies a subject (law, architecture, etc.), a disciple in olden days learned from a teacher. Attachment to a specific teacher was the essence of discipleship. The Pharisees and John the Baptist had disciples (Mark 2:18). The Jews saw themselves as disciples of Moses (John 9:28). The term is used often in the Gospels and Acts of the followers of Jesus. They learned from him and attached themselves wholeheartedly to him. It meant putting Christ before family and possessions. It meant taking up the cross (Luke 14:26-33). Today, too, to be a disciple of Jesus means total commitment.


“Teaching”; used of the content rather than the act of teaching. The Greek word may be used of the doctrines of men (Matt. 15:9), but, more important, refers to the teaching of Jesus (Matt. 7:28) and later the teaching of his followers. “My doctrine is not mine,” Jesus said, “but his that sent me” (John 7:16; i.e., it is from God). The word was used of Christian doctrine (Acts 2:42), to which believers are to be wholeheartedly committed (Rom. 6:17). It is important to “continue” in the doctrine (II John 1:9) and to be able both to teach it and to refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9).


Chosen by God. The idea of election goes back to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). God chose to make a nation of that patriarch’s descendants. He chose Israel to be his people. He worked his purposes out through that one nation and in due course sent his Messiah as a Jew. After that, God continued to choose, or elect, people in accordance with his purpose (Rom. 9:11), grace (Rom. 11:5), love (I Thess. 1:3), and foreknowledge (I Pet. 1:2). The “elect” can rely on God’s concern for them (Luke 18:7) and on their sure salvation (Rom. 8:33). They are to live lives befitting their status (Col. 3:12-14). Mystery is inherent in the concept of election, because we also know that God desires the salvation of all persons (I Tim. 2:4).


See `Propitiation’.


Relying on what God has done rather than on one’s own efforts. In the Old Testament, faith is rarely mentioned. The word trust is used frequently, and verbs like believe and rely are used to express the right attitude to God. The classic example is Abraham, whose faith was reckoned as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). At the heart of the Christian message is the story of the cross; Christ’s dying to bring salvation. Faith is an attitude of trust in which a believer receives God’s good gift of salvation (Acts 16:30-31) and lives in that awareness thereafter (Gal. 2:20; cf. Heb. 11:1).


“Good news.” Our word gospel comes from two Old English words. There is no good news like the good news that God sent his Son to die on a cross to get rid of our sins. I Corinthians 15:1-11 summarizes the good news, or gospel, that the apostle Paul preached. The term emphasizes the truth that salvation is entirely of grace. From its use for the central Christian message, the word came to be used as the title of each of the four books (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) that tell the story of Jesus’ life and atoning death.


God’s unmerited favor. The Greek words for joy and grace are related; grace causes joy. In the Christian understanding, nothing brings joy like the good news of what God has done in Christ to bring us salvation.

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the Gift of God” (Eph. 2:8-9). God’s grace also brings about qualities of conduct in the believer (II Cor. 9:8; 12:9; Eph. 4:7). The word grace came to be used as a kind of prayer (“grace to you”) in Christian greeting at the beginning and end of some of the New Testament letters (II Cor. 1:2; 13-14).


The abode of God (I Kings 8:30) and of the angels (Mark 13:32); believers will be there in due course (I Pet. 1:4). The New Testament uses striking imagery to bring out the wonder and loveliness of heaven (gates of pearl and a street of gold– Rev. 21:21). Heaven means eternal joy in the presence of God.


The abode of Satan and his angels (Matt. 25:41), described in the Bible with the imagery of eternal fire, outer darkness, being lost, perishing, and the like. It is impossible to envisage a state that can be described in so many different ways. Clearly it is horrible and is to be avoided at all costs (Mark 9:43).


Literally, “en-flesh-ment” (Latin carnis–“flesh”); the doctrine that the Son of God became human (John 1:14). Jesus did not play at becoming a man, but took on our flesh with all its problems and weaknesses. Incarnation, in the Christian understanding, means that Christ was both God and human.


Legal term meaning “acquittal,” a declaration that someone is in the right. Sinners are in the wrong before God. They have broken his laws, they deserve punishment, but on the cross Christ took their place. Now, when they put their trust in Christ, they are declared to be in the right, acquitted, justified. The cross shows God to be just, not simply in the fact that he forgives, but in the way he forgives. To pass over sins would show mercy, but it would not show justice. Forgiveness by the way of the cross shows both (Rom. 3:25-26).

Kingdom of God

An expression first used by Jesus, although the idea that God reigns is everywhere in the Old Testament. The coming of the kingdom of God was the most frequent topic in the teaching of Jesus (Mark 1:15). It expresses the truth that God is a great God who does what he wills in human affairs. Specifically he wills to save people through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. In one sense the kingdom of God is a present reality. People enter it now (Matt. 21:31). In another sense it is future (Matt. 16:28). God’s control is plain in both aspects, and in the end his “sovereign will” will be perfectly done.

Last Judgment

The evaluation of all humankind on the basis of works at Christ’s return (Matt. 25:31-32). The wicked will be condemned because of their evil deeds. Salvation is by grace and through faith (Eph. 2:8); the last judgment will test what believers have done with their lives (I Cor. 3:13-15). Some will be rewarded (Luke 19:16-19). Thus, although our salvation depends on what Christ has done, our eternal reward is related to the use we have made of God’s gifts to us.


God’s benevolent concern for humankind. All religions have some idea of the importance of love. Christian theology stresses the importance of love because God has revealed that he is love (I John 4:8, 16). Love is both what God is and what he has done; God always acts in love.

Love is a transitive reality–that is, it requires an object. In the Bible, love is described as personal (between persons) and selfless (desiring the best for others). Christians see God’s love in sending his Son to die on the cross to save sinners (Rom. 5:8; John 3:16; I John 4:10).

Christians are to be known by the fact that they love God and others (John 13:34-35). Their love is not to be like the love the world has (Luke 6:32, 35). Love is best seen in actions and in most cases is to be identified with what we do–in our compassion and commitment to those around us, attitudes and behavior are to reflect God’s love. Jesus said that only two commands are needed to govern our lives: love of God and love of neighbor. If such love is demonstrated, all the law and prophets are fulfilled.


See `Christ’.


God’s sovereign “working-out” of his purposes in the affairs of nations and in individual lives. God predestines those who are saved (Rom. 8:28-29; Eph. 1:4-5). He does not stand on the sidelines, a helpless spectator (so to speak), until we, with our repentance and conversion, give him permission to do something. Unless our names were written “in the book of life from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 17:8), we would not even make the motion of turning from sin. Predestination means that our salvation, from first to last, is God’s work. See also `Election’.


Offering whatever will turn away anger; paying the penalty. Propitiation has to do with persons, expiation with things. Sin arouses the wrath of God; if people are to be forgiven, something must be done about his anger. Jesus’ death on the cross brought about a process of propitiation; it was the means by which divine anger was averted from sinners.


Originally, the payment of a price to secure the release of a prisoner of war. The word came to be used also of the release of a slave, and sometimes of a person under sentence of death (Exod. 21:28-30). Redemption always means the payment of a price to secure release. People who sin become slaves of sin (John 8:34); they cannot free themselves from that slavery. Christ’s death on the cross was the payment of a ransom price (Mark 10:45) by which sinners are set free. Now that they are redeemed they must live as free people (I Cor. 6:19-20; Gal. 5:1).


Being reborn; the subject of Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus in John III (cf. Titus 3:5). This word is not found often in Scripture, but the idea is important. Regeneration is seen to be the work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-8). The “natural man” always thinks of salvation (however understood) as resting in one’s own hands, but Jesus taught that it is necessary for a divine work to take place if anyone is to be saved. Sinners must be reborn spiritually.


Something remaining. In the Old Testament some passages refer to total destruction of a nation (e.g., the Babylonians in Jer. 50:26). When God brings judgment on his people, however, he does not destroy the faithful with the wicked, but leaves a remnant (Ezek. 6:8; Mic. 2:12). The concept of a remnant stood for that part of the nation who were faithful even though most people rejected the ways of God (Isa. 4:2-4). The fact of the existence of a remnant is said to be due to God himself (Isa. 1:9; Zeph. 3:12). The remnant, then, is the real people of God, a concept we also find in the New Testament, “a remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5).


Sorrowing over and forsaking sin, a wholehearted turning away from all that is evil. This is more than regret or remorse, attitudes that point to sorrow over sin but no more. Repentance was looked for in Old Testament times (Ezek. 14:6; 18:30). It was the first item in the preaching of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:1-2), Jesus (Matt. 4:17), and the apostles (Mark 6:12; cf. Acts 2:38). Beyond repentance, faith is needed. But repentance is indispensable. Sin must be forsaken decisively.


The raising and transformation of a person who has died. Resuscitation means the bringing back of people to this life after they have left it, for example, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-15) or of Lazarus (John 11).

Resurrection is more than that. Jesus rose on the third day after he died, but his new body was transformed. It was not subject to the limitations of his former earthly life (Luke 24:16,31; John 20:19). Jesus’ resurrection, following his atoning death, is central to the Christian faith (I Cor. 15:14-19). Believers, too, will be resurrected (I Thess. 4:16; I Cor. 15:42-57).


Uncovering, making plain what was not known before. The word may be used of something God makes known during a church service (I Cor. 14:26), but more usually it has to do with something on a larger scale, like God’s righteousness, wrath (Rom. 1:17-18), or righteous judgment (Rom. 2:5). It may be used to describe a book (Rev. 1:1). God reveals things through the Spirit (I Cor. 2:10). The gospel is not something people have made up but has been revealed by Christ (Gal. 1:11-12). The fullness of revelation awaits the return of Christ (II Thess. 1:7; I Pet. 1:13).


Right standing, specifically before God. Among the Greeks, righteousness was an ethical virtue. Among the Hebrews it was a legal concept; the righteous man was the one who got the verdict of acceptability when tried at the bar of God’s justice. Christ’s death took away our sins and made it possible for sinners to have “the righteousness of God,” i.e., right standing before God (Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22; 5:17). That gift of righteousness is to be followed by upright living (Rom. 6:13-14).


Deliverance of various kinds, for example, deliverance from the enemy (Exod. 14:13). In the Bible it is God who brings salvation from temporal as well as spiritual ills. Thus in the Gospels, referring to his miraculous healings, Jesus sometimes says, “Thy faith hath healed you” (Luke 18:42). Characteristically, the term refers to salvation from sin (Rom. 1:16; I Thess. 5:9). Salvation means the decisive defeat of sin on the cross, but also victory over evil in a believer’s daily life. Its full content will be realized only in the life to come (Heb. 9:28; I Pet. 1:5).


The process of developing holiness. God said to Israel, “Ye shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45). Because God wants us to become like him, it is necessary that his people be a special kind of people, holy men and women. The basic idea in sanctification is “being set apart for God”; those thus set apart live in a way that is pleasing to God. They have no power of their own to do that, but God enables them (II Cor. 3:17-18). Sanctification is not an option. God requires it of all his people (I Thess. 4:3).

Second Coming

Christ’s return at the end of the world to establish God’s kingdom (I Cor. 15:23-25). The New Testament does not use this expression; it refers simply to “the coming” (parousia) or an “appearing” (Titus 2:13). There is dispute about the relationship of Christ’s second coming to the thousand years, or millennium (Rev. 20:4), but none as to the fact that it will be God’s decisive and indispensable intervention. Christ’s coming to destroy all evil will be the culmination of his redemptive work.


Anything that fails to conform to the law of God. Evil is complex phenomenon in the Scriptures. The idea of sin is conveyed by a variety of expressions with meanings like missing the mark, rebelling, going astray, transgressing, stumbling, etc. Basically “sin is the transgression of the law” (I John 3:4), referring to an inward attitude as well as to the breaking of written commandments. All people commit sin (I Kings 8:46; Rom. 3:23). To deny that we have sinned is to make God a liar (I John 1:10); all his dealings with humanity are on the basis that we are sinners. But the blood of Jesus cleanses from all sin (I John 1:7).


Term used to describe the fact that God is the supreme ruler of everything. God created the world and all that is in it. He sustains the entire created order in existence. He guides the affairs of human beings and nations. He providentially interacts with all that takes place. He works for the good of the world and finally will bring all things to a satisfactory conclusion. Because he is God, he has the absolute right to work his will. Sometimes sovereignty is misunderstood to mean that God forces his will on people and that we are not free to choose. That is false. God’s sovereignty includes the free choices of human beings. What makes God’s sovereignty effective is that his will is ultimately done–sometimes along with, sometimes in spite of our free choices.

Spiritual Gifts

Special gifts of the Spirit (charismata; e.g., Rom. 12:6-8; I Cor. 12:4-11, 28-31). There is some dispute as to whether these gifts were all meant as permanent endowments of the Christian church or as gifts only for its early days. In modern times, charismatics claim to exercise particular gifts, especially “tongues,” “healing,” and “prophecy.” Other believers emphasize the fruit of the Spirit more than spiritual gifts (Gal. 5:22-23).


Word meaning “tenth,” used of the offering of a tenth for religious purposes. Abraham gave a tenth to Melchizedek, the priest-king (Gen. 14:18-20). The Israelites were required to give a tithe to the Levites (Num. 18:21, 24), and the Levites in turn were to give a tithe of the tithe to the priests (Num. 18:25-28). The tithe was taken from things like grain, fruits, and animals (Lev. 27:30-32). There is no command to tithe in the New Testament (cf. I Cor. 16:2), but many Christians believe that the concept is a useful guide in their giving.


Speaking in a language one has not learned. Luke wrote of a gift of tongues on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4-6), when everybody understood what was being said. Elsewhere we read of the Spirit’s enabling people to speak in words that neither they nor anyone else understood unless they had another gift, that of interpretation (I Cor. 12:10, 28). The possessor of the gift of tongues used it to speak about God, but edified nobody but himself, Paul said (I Cor. 14:2-4). His mind was not active (I Cor. 14:14). Paul did not forbid the use of the gift, however, he spoke in tongues himself (I Cor. 14:18). But he regulated its use (I Cor. 14:27-28) and saw edification as a more important consideration (I Cor. 14:4-5).

Wrath of God

In Scripture, God’s strong and vigorous opposition to everything evil. There is a Greek verb that can be used both of anger and of the swelling of buds as the sap rises. It points to the kind of anger that results from a settled and consistent disposition, and not to a losing of one’s temper. God’s wrath is like that, rather than like human anger on a grand scale. With us, wrath always has elements of passion, lack of self-control, and irrationality. The wrath of God does not.