A person’s greatest possession is eternal life, exactly because it is more than a possession, but very existence. More than quantity, more than longevity, it is by nature the essence of Being.
Eternal life consists of knowing the true God and his Son Jesus Christ. “Now this is eternal life—that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent” Jn 17.3.
Some think that this statement is an explanation of the author’s inserted in the middle of Jesus’ prayer, rather than words spoken by the Lord himself. It may well be, considering the way Jesus is referred to. In either case, it comes to us by inspiration of the Holy Spirit and its truth defines the nature of this life.
Coming as it does in Jesus’ prayer before the cross, this definition of eternal life breathes its very spirit. It is life because it comes from, and is lived in the presence of, the eternal God.
Eternal life is defined, then, by knowing God himself—not merely facts or ideas or even stories about God. The Bible is the story of how God restores our relationship with him and how we can enter into this relationship. This knowledge of (or intimacy with—to use a modern term) God is an ancient theme in Scripture and one to be pursued with profit and pleasure. Jeremiah spoke of knowing God in no uncertain terms:
But those who wish to boast should boast in this alone: that they truly know me and understand that I am the Lord who demonstrates unfailing love and who brings justice and righteousness to the earth, and that I delight in these things. I, the Lord, have spoken! Jer 9.24 NLT
The concept of knowledge of God has been criticized recently among us, perhaps because of abuses among the denominations. Knowledge of God is not subjective. Humans can believe they know God, when in fact they do not. Knowing God is not a feeling, but a state with boundaries that can be identified. Many people think they sustain some sort of relationship with the Divine, but they are far from him.
Eternal life is not a level of being achieved by human effort, but rather a gift from above. In the previous verse, this time for certain words spoke by the Lord Jesus, he says to the Father,
Glorify your Son, so that your Son may glorify you—just as you have given him authority over all humanity, so that he may give eternal life to everyone you have given him. Jn 17.1b-2.
Only God is eternal. All created things, including man, are finite. To have eternal life is to participate in the life of God, to be blessed with intimacy in relationship with him. The sovereign God, all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere present, does not smother a person, but fills him.
The Jews in Jesus’ day concerned themselves with eternal life, and properly so. The Lord said to them, by way of criticism: “You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me” Jn 5.39.
Jesus noted their objective, and approved of it. He noted that they searched the Scriptures for it, and approved of it. He noted that the Scriptures pointed to him as the source of eternal life. But they missed the connection between himself and eternal life, because of their prejudices and political ambitions.
Eternal life is the goal of man’s faith/obedience response. We know well John 3.16, perhaps not as well John 3.36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (ESV; see also NASB, NLT, NRSV, REB).
The two sides of the coin, of having or not having eternal life, are described as believing and obeying. Believing implies obedience. In Romans Paul called it “the obedience of faith” Rom 1.5; 16.26.
Eternal life must be the ultimate goal. All else will fail and be destroyed. Only this will last. Get it, whatever it takes.
This article is adapted from chapter 2 of Randal’s upcoming book on the transformation of the disciple of Christ.