What Does Salvation Really Mean?

We all know that words change meaning over time.  Many of the words we commonly throw around in Christian circles such as salvation, eternal life, hell, etc. have taken on different meanings over the years and have diverged from their original meanings as used in the New Testament.  I think it is important to define our terms and to have clarity on what Jesus or the apostles really meant when they used a certain Greek word.  We tend to read our current cultural Christianity *into* the Scriptures, rather than reading out the meaning that would have been apparent to the first century audience to whom the New Testament was originally written.

One of these words is the word “salvation.”  When we 21st century evangelical Christians hear the word “saved” or “salvation”, we tend to think, “a state where an individual’s sins are forgiven and they are assured a place in heaven when they die.”  This however is not what the Greek word means that is translated as “salvation” in our New Testament.

The most common word translated salvation in the New Testament is soteria, which is Strongs Concordance  number 4991.  Here is the definition:

4991 sōtēría (from 4982 /sṓzō, "to save, rescue") – salvation, i.e. God's rescue which delivers believers out of destruction and into His safety.

As you can see, soteria is derived from another Greek word sozo (Strongs Concordance number 4982), which means “to save or to rescue.”  The simplest way to think of this is just the concept of “rescue.”  I prefer to use that term because it doesn’t have all the religious baggage associated with the word “salvation.”

For the purpose of this blog let’s study the way this term “rescue” is used in the four gospels.  In order to see what people are being rescued from we need to study the context.  As we look at the context of the passages using the word soteria in the gospels, we find at least six things that people are rescued from:

1.      Rescue from sickness (Mark 5:34)
2.      Rescue from physical enemies (Luke 1:71)
3.      Rescue from greed (Luke 19:9)
4.      Rescue from physical harm (Matthew 10:22)
5.      Rescue from the power of sin (Matthew 1:21)
6.      Rescue from impending national judgment (Matthew 19:25)

Our first example is found in Mark chapter 5, and here the word “soteria” is used for rescue from sickness.  This is the story of the woman with the issue of blood being healed as she touches the hem of Jesus’ robe. The New International Version of the Bible says it this way in verses 33 and 34.

"33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

The word translated “healed” there is a derivative of sozo.  It has nothing to do with heaven or even with forgiveness of sins.  It simply means in this context to be healed of a sickness.

We find another example in the gospels in Luke chapter 1:67-75 when Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, regains his power of speech and declares this beautiful prophetic praise to the Lord.  In this context the word translated “salvation” simply means rescue from enemies. (notice verses 71 and 74 in particular).
(again from the NIV)

"67 His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
    and to remember his holy covenant,
73     the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
    and to enable us to serve him without fear
75     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days."

The Jewish people hearing this prophecy would probably have thought, “God will remember his covenant and save us from our enemies the Romans.  He is sending His Messiah to rescue us from Roman oppression!” 

By the way, the bolded terms in the above passage from Luke are all derivatives of the Greek word soteria, meaning rescue or salvation. 

Here is another one from Luke’s gospel with a slightly different meaning for rescue.  In Luke 19 we read about Zacchaeus the Jewish tax collector and how Jesus invited himself to dinner at his house.  After their conversation Zacchaeus decided to live an honest life and he pledged to pay back all the tax money he had stolen and more besides.  Notice the response from Jesus. (Luke 19:8-9, NIV)

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”
Here in this passage the word translated “salvation” is again the Greek word soteria.   In this case Zacchaeus has experienced rescue, not from sickness or external enemies, but rather from the internal enemy of greed. 

Our next passage is from Matthew chapter 10 where Jesus is describing the persecution that his disciples will face as they carry the message of the Kingdom of God to the villages and towns of Israel: (Matthew 10:16-23)

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 23 When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

The word translated “saved” in verse 22 is again the Greek word soteria.  Here it simply means to be rescued from harm. It has nothing to do with forgiveness of sins for these disciples or the promise that they would go to heaven if they stood firm in their beliefs.  When we think that, we are reading our modern ideas into the text. 

There are examples in the gospels where the word “soteria” is associated with rescue from the power of sin.  For example, in Matthew’s gospel when an angel speaks to Joseph in a dream:

“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

So the idea here is that Jesus will rescue people from the power of sin. His work will result in a people who are able to live free from sin! Even in this example though, there is no connection with the idea of “going to heaven.”   In fact, the idea of “going to heaven when we die” did not exist in the Jewish culture of that time and it was not a part of Jesus’ teachings either.  The first century Jews believed that those who were faithful to the covenant would die, go into a sort of sleeping state and then be raised up on the last day at the Resurrection.  (see John 11:24 where Mary the sister of Lazarus articulates this belief).

The word “salvation” in the gospels is also used to mean rescue from the impending judgment on the unbelieving nation of Israel.  Jesus public ministry began with his proclamation that the “70 weeks” of Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 9:24 had been fulfilled and the time for the inauguration of God’s Kingdom on earth was at hand.  (see Mark 1:15).  Jesus and John also clearly taught that God was about to bring severe judgment on the nation of Israel and particularly on the city of Jerusalem and the temple itself because of the unbelief and rebellion of the Jewish people. (Luke 3:7, Luke 11:50-51, Matthew 24). 

Jesus said that the generation living at that time in Jerusalem would not pass away until this judgment had been poured out and the beautiful temple in Jerusalem had been completely destroyed.  (Matthew 24:34)  So this was a time both of the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth and the impending judgment of God on the apostate nation of Israel.  This national judgment happened about 40 years later in 70 A.D. when the Roman armies destroyed the city of Jerusalem.  This judgment marked the end of the Old Covenant age.  (The disciples were asking Jesus when the end of the age would take place if you look at Matthew 24:1.  A Biblical generation is understood to be a period of 40 years, so Jesus’ prediction was spot on).

I say all this as background for our next passage with the word “soteria” in it. Matthew records an event where a rich young man comes to Jesus and asks him what he must do to have the life of the ages.  (“eternal life” is a poor translation of the Greek here).  The “life of the ages” is the new life that Jesus taught is associated with the coming Kingdom.  (John 17:3) It is a life of knowing God intimately. (see my blog on the meaning of "eternal life").  After Jesus asks the rich man to give up his wealth and follow him as a traveling disciple in order to obtain this new life, the rich man is unable to do it and walks away sadly.  Here is the follow-up conversation among Jesus and his disciples as recorded in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 19, verses 24 to 26:

24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” 26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

So here the idea of “being saved” is associated with finding new life in God’s Kingdom.  When an individual living in first century Palestine would believe on and obey Jesus as their King, that individual was promised the new life of God’s Kingdom and would also be rescued from the judgment coming on the unbelieving and rebellious generation of jewish people. I think this impending judgment is what the disciples had in mind when they asked Jesus, “who then can be saved?” Again this usage of the term “saved” has nothing to do with any kind of post-mortem existence in heaven.  In addition, the idea of forgiveness of sins is not mentioned.  It is simply the idea of being rescued from the impending judgment.

By the way, Jesus statement that broad is the way that leads to destruction and many are those who go on that road while narrow is the way that leads to life is probably best understood in the context of this coming national judgment.  (see Matthew 7:13) Those among the Jewish people who would embrace his teachings and obey them would find this new Kingdom life, and those who rejected his teachings would be destroyed in the coming national judgment. This passage is commonly misunderstood to mean that Jesus said there will be more people who go to hell than who go to heaven.  Again our modern Christian concepts of “going to hell” or “going to heaven” were not part of Jesus’ teachings.  (see my blog on Gehenna for more info on Jesus teachings on hell.)

I have found it really helpful just to substitute the word “rescue” or “bring to safety” whenever I see the words “salvation” or “saved” in the New Testament.  That practice really brings out the intended meaning of the passages and helps me move away from incorrect concepts.

We don’t have time in this blog to cover the usage of the term “soteria” in Paul’s letters, but Paul associates the concept mostly with rescue from the power of sin. 

I hope this study has been helpful for you.

- Bill

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