READ : John 17:3
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee, since thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”
John 17:1-3 rsv
The newspapers here in Michigan carry pictures from time to time of those who have won fortunes in the lottery. Sometimes we watch them just after they have heard the news. As you might expect, there are big smiles, warm embraces, victory signs, thumbs up. Suppose now for a moment that someone came to these same people with an authoritative word that they had just been given eternal life. How would they react to that?
According to Jesus, this is the treasure of lasting value. This is the supreme good. The whole purpose of God’s love for the world and Christ’s coming to it at Christmas was that people should have this true life. Without eternal life, He says, all of us are doomed to perish. With it, we find joy unspeakable and full of glory. If there is then such a thing, if the staggering promise can be true, it’s surely worth knowing about, isn’t it? What does eternal life, living eternally, really mean?
Listen to these words from a prayer Jesus prayed in the presence of His disciples on the night before He died. I’m reading from John 17 at verse 1:
Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee, since thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.
From this passage and others like it in the gospel, we can say at least this much about Jesus’ view of eternal life. First, it means living, and not merely existing. Second, it’s present, not only future. And third, it’s knowing God and not simply enjoying ourselves.
LIVING, NOT MERELY EXISTING
Think with me about that first idea. Eternal life is not merely continued existence. It’s a quality of living. All of us are familiar with the difference between barely eking out an existence and living a full life. Sometimes we refer to people “at the bare subsistence level.” That is, they have just enough to keep body and soul together, just enough to remain in the land of the living, but not enough to enjoy much about life while they’re here. Our slang expressions and exclamations often express the same idea. We say, “This is the life! . . . Hey, we’re really living now!” We’re talking then about a quality or an intensity of life that goes beyond the ordinary.
The New Testament expresses a distinction somewhat like that by using two different Greek words for life. One is the word bios which means physical vitality, animal existence. It’s the word from which we get our term biology. The other word, zo?, means life with a special quality about it. It’s the term Jesus always uses when He talks about eternal life.
Everyone is concerned, I suppose, about finding the good life. Politicians tend to promise it to everyone. Educators claim to be preparing the young for it. It seems to us that the gifted, the wealthy, the cultured and influential people around us have found it. But strangely, many of these favored ones are not happy with the life they have found. Perhaps you’ve experienced something like that. You think that life will really be complete if you can just reach the top in your profession. But when you get there, it doesn’t seem so great after all. Or you think, “If I could only be comfortable financially, then life would take on new brightness and freedom.” Later you become affluent, but discover that the expected gladness isn’t there. Sometimes the most attractive, creative, successful people in the world find life hardly worth living.
When we think about that, it’s small comfort to hear that scientists may soon be able to extend the length of human life, perhaps some day even providing a kind of immortality here in this world. By steadily lengthening our life expectancy until they finally find the means to prevent its ending, surgery and medicine will supposedly do away with death. We’ll be like those ancient cars seen in auto shows, kept on the road indefinitely by replacing the worn-out parts. Instead of spark plugs and mufflers, we’ll get new hearts, new lungs, new kidneys, maybe even new brains, when and as we may require them.
Well, even if that prospect is ahead for us, eternal life is something infinitely better. It doesn’t mean grimly hanging on to a fading life in this world or the bare survival of the human race or even a kind of continuing influence in future generations. This is a brand new life, a life which no one inherits by nature, one that can’t be learned from books or bought with money or cooked up in a laboratory. It’s God’s own kind of life, the life of the age to come.
PRESENT, AS WELL AS FUTURE
That brings us to our second thought about eternal life: it’s not only future, but also present. It is, of course, a future reality we can depend on. The word eternal means in the Greek language, “of or pertaining to an age.” Eternal life is the life of an age or an eon. In the New Testament that age is the coming one, the future beyond history, the unimaginable prospect God is preparing. Eternal life is the kind of life to be lived then, the quality of life that belongs to God’s future. It’s the life we’ll know when His purpose has been fully accomplished and His kingdom has finally come.
Isn’t that a good thing to know, that there’s life ahead for us? Here in this world, everything – transplants notwithstanding – ends in death. And it’s the dread that nothing (or at least nothing good), lies beyond death that robs this present life of meaning for many people. Let’s face it squarely: what ends in nothing doesn’t amount to very much, does it? If death turns out to be a blank, an exit to nowhere, all talk about the good life is like whistling in the dark, a buffer against despair. But the glad message of the Christian gospel is that there is a life beyond. There’s a coming age and though the earth may burn or the sun may cool, there’s a future – and a good one – for God’s human children.
But to say that eternal life is future is to tell only half the story. The New Testament sings with the confidence that this life of the coming age has already broken into our history. Eternal life is not only then; it’s also now. People can not only look forward to it; they can presently taste and enjoy it.
How vital it is to see that! Christians have often been accused of using the future hope as an escape from the present. Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the people,” the drug by which ruling classes keep oppressed ones content with their lot. It’s true that whenever the Christian faith is set forth as offering rewards and blessings only for the future, its meaning is dulled. Christians often quote the words, “Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). That verse speaks of our future hope. Yet how often have you heard quoted the words which immediately follow, “But God has revealed them to us by His Spirit”? You see, eternal life is a new life beyond our power to grasp or appreciate, but by the power of the Holy Spirit we can even now begin to experience it. The Holy Spirit given us now is the Spirit of the coming age. He brings eternal life into our experience now. He gives us a glimpse of the glory, as it were, a foretaste of heaven’s feast, a first installment of the true life. That’s why the New Testament speaks so much about people having eternal life right now.
KNOWING GOD, NOT MERELY ENJOYING OURSELVES
We haven’t touched yet the heart of what it means. Listen to this word of Jesus again: “This is eternal life, that they may know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” Eternal life means knowing God Himself and not merely enjoying ourselves. I’m afraid that latter idea is the most common one with the average person – that heaven, eternal life, is a state of constant bliss where we enjoy ourselves to the full. For one group, it may be a place of sensual pleasure; for another, a happy hunting ground. And how many people have you heard say, only half in jest, that if heaven has no golf course or no fishing or shopping, they’re not interested in going there?
All such thought about the life to come betrays a deep misunderstanding. It seems to imply that people can be truly blessed, genuinely fulfilled as human beings, without God in the picture at all. But the whole message of the Bible denies that. At the beginning, the glory of our creation was that we were made in God’s image, for fellowship with Him. The deep tragedy of our sin was that we cut ourselves off from God and, in doing so, turned away from each other and from our own true happiness. All the record of God’s self-revealing, of His unfolding purpose in history, is the story of barriers being broken down, fellowship restored, prodigals returning to the Father’s house.
It’s for this that the Son of God became man at Christmas, lived among us and died in our place, that He might bring us to God. In the visions of the book of the Revelation, the crowning blessedness of heaven is expressed in words like these: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3,4). There, where God’s people are freed from sorrows and evils, their highest joy will be this: that God Himself will be with them, and they will see His face.
That’s what Jesus means when He says that life eternal is to know the only true God – not merely to know about Him but to know Him in personal relationship. Eternal life is not a blessing for which knowing God prepares us, or qualifies us. Knowing Him is itself the life. Do we really grasp that? Can we stop imagining that the gift is somehow more valuable than the Giver? Have we begun to understand, in the familiar words of an old creed that “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”? Eternal life is life from God, with God, in God. That’s why there can be no heaven for those who want to shut God out of their lives, for those who have no time for Him, no desire to worship Him. They would be miserable in heaven, for there God is all in all. They would have no taste for it, no capacity for enjoying eternal life. That life means knowing the Lord, dwelling in His presence, rejoicing in Him forever.
It’s not that eternal life means lolling about through endless ages, strumming harps. Jesus seems to hint in His parables that there are higher responsibilities there, further trusts to fulfill. At the heart of everything is an entrance into the joy of the Lord, living with Him, celebrating His love. And this knowledge of God which is eternal life can begin right now.
How then can we have it? How do we come to a living, personal knowledge of God? The word of the gospel tells us that knowing God is bound up with knowing Jesus Christ whom He has sent. How do we find the invisible God? We find Him as He has made Himself visible in the life of Jesus His Son. How can we hear the voice of God? In listening to the words of the One who came to bring the Father’s message. In Christ, God comes to us, calls us, invites us. In Christ He draws near, holds out His hand to us, allows us to approach and know Him. When you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, you are putting your trust in the living One who made heaven and earth and gave His Son on your behalf. When you know Christ, you’ve begun to know the true and living God. Receiving Christ by faith, you receive the life that is life indeed. That, friends, is the whole story of the Bible, the greatest love story ever told. It’s the grandest message of Christmas. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”