What is eternal life?
If asked to explain “eternal life,” how would you answer?
Is it living forever, or is it something more?
Let’s look at John’s Gospel for insights into this critical term.
“Eternal life” translates the Greek words zōē aiōnios. These words are reversed (aiōnios zōē) once in John 17:3. This combination of words is found seventeen times in John, while it is only eight times in the other Gospels combined. I conclude that this is an important phrase and concept for John.
There are several words in Greek for life, including zōē, bios, and psuchē. You will recognize them as the roots for our English words, zoology, biology, and psychology. One Bible scholar writes that zōē is “the nobler word, expressing as it continually does, all of the highest and best which the saints possess in God.”
The word aiōnios builds on aiōn, meaning “an age.” Vine states that “aiōnios … negatives the end either of a space of time or of unmeasured time, and is used chiefly where something future is spoken of.” We will return to this idea in a moment.
We now look at six wonderful things about eternal life. This is a brief introduction to the meaning of eternal life using the acronym S.H.A.R.E.D.
John introduces zōē in the Prologue (1:4),
in him was life, and the life was the light of humanity.
‘Life’ in its broadest sense is embodied in the Word, who is identified as Jesus Christ. Leon Morris writes, “Life does not exist in its own right.” All living things owe their existence to the Word.
Jesus introduced the term “eternal life” at the end of his conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:15). What follows in 3:16-21 are the narrator’s rich theological insights, the product of decades of mature reflection and understanding. That section opens with the well-known verse,
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
In this text, God’s love for the world in giving His unique Son is the basis for providing eternal life to those who believe in Jesus Christ. We also encounter texts such as (6:63), “it is the Spirit who gives life.”
The source of eternal life is the Triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit).
A new humanity is being created “in Christ.” As seen in the Prologue, there is a birth that is “of God” (1:12-13). Again, in Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, there is a birth that is both “anew” and “from above” (3:1-15). Without this birth, a person can neither enter the Kingdom of God nor become a child of God.
Those born of God are a new humanity created for life—eternal life—in His Kingdom.
Earlier, we noted that “aiōnios … is used chiefly where something future is spoken of.”
Several texts in John signify that eternal life is not only future but also present.
Here is a verse indicating eternal life as future, in the age to come, or “the last day”:
For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” (6:40)
And yet, this quality of life that is future is also a present reality as revealed by these statements:
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. (3:36)
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. (5:24)
Oscar Cullmann coined the phrase, “already, but not yet.” We already possess eternal life in Christ, but we do not yet experience the fullness of eternal life. As David Briones puts it, “we live for now in ‘the overlap of the ages.’”
By relationship, I mean participation in the life of the Triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit). This is what the Lord Jesus says in 6:53-56,
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.”
Even the disciples said, “This is a difficult statement …” (6:60). Unfortunately, these words are often misunderstood.
I find help in the follow up by Jesus (6:63):
It is the Spirit who gives life;
The flesh profits nothing;
The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.
Jesus is not instructing his followers to physically eat his flesh and drink his blood. In some way, we are to participate in his life. We will look at this more closely in the future. For now, it is enough to understand that eternal life is actual participation in the life of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. This is consistent with the words of Jesus in 17:3,
Now this is eternal life– that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent. (17:3 NET)
John confirms this in the opening of his first letter (1 John 1:1-3), where he writes,
… indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.
Those who have received Christ and have eternal life—God’s life—also share in the life of the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.
By ‘end,’ I mean destiny—the ultimate telos or end for those who have eternal life.
First, what that destiny is not. Those who have eternal life,
Instead, those who have eternal life
Considering the promises associated with eternal life, they are all in our favor—God declares a resounding “YES” for all who receive Jesus Christ. It reminds me of Paul’s words,
For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; (2 Corinthians 1:20)
Perhaps the most obvious feature of eternal life is its duration—it is eternal. It knows no end.
We have just begun to skim the surface of what eternal life is. There is much more.
In basic terms, eternal life is S.H.A.R.E.D. life with the Father, Son, and Spirit both now and into the unending future.
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