What does the word ‘saint’ mean and refer to, in the Bible?

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In the religious world, there is much talk about “saints” and “sainthood”. In some churches, the members of the church are customarily called “saints”. In contrast to that, in the Catholic Church only a few people are considered to be “saints”, and only a long time after their death, following a process of “beatification” and “canonisation”. The Catholics pray to their “saints” and venerate (worship) them.

Dictionaries define “saint” as “a person of exceptional holiness”, “a person sanctified”, “one of the blessed in Heaven”, “one of God’s chosen people”, or something similar. But, what does the word “saint” mean and refer to, in the Bible? Putting that in other words: What does sainthood consist of?

The origin of the English word ‘saint’.

The word “saint” came into use in the English language around the 1100s, as an adjective used of those whom the Catholic Church had declared “beatified” and “canonised”. At that time, the meaning of the word “saint” was “holy”, corresponding to the Latin adjective sanctus which meant “holy”, “sacred”. So, in those days, “saint Eligius” simply meant “holy Eligius”.

Later, in the 1300s or so, the word “saint” began to be used even as a noun, “a saint”, but it still referred to the Catholic “saints” and was not used of living persons.

From the 1500s and onward, the English word “saint” began to be used also of (living) persons of “extraordinary holiness”, and then even of church members and so on.

A note: The spelling has varied, over the centuries. The 1395 Wycliffe bible had “seyntis”, the 1525 Tyndale version “sainctes”, the 1535 Coverdale “sayntes”. In the 1560 Geneva bible it was “saintes”; in the 1568 edition of the Geneva it became “saints”.

The word ‘saint’ in the Bible.

Here, the 1769 edition of king James’ bible is used as an example. This is how the word “saint” is used in that translation:

When the New Testament talks about “saints” (“holy ones”, Greek tous hagious), that mostly refers to those who received the Holy Spirit in the first century. They were set apart for God. Indeed, their “holiness” meant that God had separated them from this world, and made them a special people for himself and for his son Jesus.

So, the New Testament talks about ‘saints’. Does any of that refer to people of our day?

The short answer to that question is that people of our day are not mentioned in the New Testament or in the Bible in general, except indirectly, in regard to still future things. There is also a longer answer, but please read the following note first.

There is a strange custom to read the Bible in such a manner that the reader thinks that all the “nice” things in that book apply and refer to the reader. That is not so, of course. One does not become a saint, by reading about the saints. When one studies the New Testament and sees such words as “saint”, “elect”, “you”, “we” and so on, one must keep in mind that in almost all cases, those words refer to people of the first century.

A longer answer to the question concerning what and whom the word “saints” means and refers to in the New Testament, can be found by checking some example passages in that book. Here we go:


When the New Testament talks about “saints”, that refers to those who received the Holy spirit in biblical times, first century CE or earlier. It was when those people received the Holy Spirit, that they became separated for God, and thus “sanctified”, “holy ones”, “saints”.

When one reads the Bible, one must not think that all the “nice” things in that book refer to the reader. One does not become a saint, by reading about those who were and are that. We, people of our day are not mentioned in the Scriptures, other than indirectly, in regard to still future things. (Why is that? Well, we were not around, when that book was written.)

See also the “recommended reading” section, below.

Please send or mention the address to this site to others. You can also link to these pages. The address to the table of contents page is biblepages.net/articles.htm

Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters

What happened to the saints? Why is there no record of their doings, after the middle of the first century? → nga040.htm

Who are the 144000 and the great multitude of Revelation 7? And, who are the first-fruits or virgins of Revelation 14:1–4? → nta030.htm

The two witnesses of the book of Revelation. Also: Similarities between their work and that of Moses, Elijah and John the Baptist. → nta010.htm

What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → nga080.htm

Pride and humility in connection with religion. → nga100.htm

What does the Bible say about the matter of resurrection? → nba080.htm

Matthew 16:18, “I will build my assembly, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it”. What and where was the ekklêsia or assembly which Jesus said he would form? Was it an earthly religious organisation as some claim, or something else? → naa010.htm

The origin and meaning of the word “church”. → nga060.htm

“Church eras” – do they exist? Are there seven “eras of the church”, as some say – “Sardis era”, “Philadelphian era”, “Laodicean era” and so on? → naa030.htm

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