- Eternal life in the past eternity
- Eternal life promised
- Eternal life in a Man
- Eternal life communicated to others
- Present possession of eternal life
- Eternal life and communion with the Father and the Son
- Characteristics of eternal life: obedience and love
- Stages of growth for possessors of eternal life
- Life in abundance
- Why is it called 'eternal' life?
- The future aspect of eternal life
Eternal life is one of the richest blessings that belongs to those who believe on the Son of God, but how many Christians know that they possess it and what it actually is? Some have confounded eternal life with eternal existence. However, all men possess an immortal soul, not only believers. Others go a step further and relate eternal life to the fact that Christians are spared from the 'second death', that they do not come into judgment, and that they will spend eternity in God's presence. This may be a little closer to the truth but eternal life, in fact, means much, much more.
The topic of eternal life is fascinating. Unfortunately, it has led to much controversy and it has been the target of the enemy's attacks (seeking to prevent believers from enjoying this blessing and the Lord's work that secured it). This article does not intend to revive controversy, but simply to help some to explore the topic and, hopefully, to enjoy this particular blessing more.
Eternal life in the past eternity
Eternal life is the life that divine Persons enjoyed in the past eternity. It is stated in 1 John 1:1 that the apostles were able to 'report to you the eternal life, which was with the Father'. The key phrase here is the term 'was with the Father'. We know from John's Gospel how this word 'was' is used: 'In the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God'. Without any doubt, the word 'was' - as opposed to 'became' flesh (John 1:14) - refers to the past eternity. This verse in John's epistle, then, shows that eternal life 'was with the Father' in the past eternity. In order to underline the connection between the first verses in John's Gospel and the first verses in his epistle, he refers to the Lord Jesus as 'the Word of life'.
A further proof that eternal life is the life that belongs to Persons in the Godhead can be found in John's first epistle (5:11): 'And this is the witness, that God has given to us eternal life; and this life is in his Son'. He has always had this eternal life in Himself. He was 'with the Father' in the past eternity and therefore the eternal life was with the Father. This is not to say that the Father did not have eternal life. In fact, we know that the Father possesses this same eternal life. We read in John 5:26, that 'the father has life in himself'. This life existed when the Persons of the Godhead had both relationship and fellowship with each other in the past eternity. The Father loved the Son before the foundation of the world (John 17:24).
Eternal life promised
Would you dare to say that men should receive this same life? Probably not, but this is what the bible teaches! Even in the past eternity1, 'before the ages of time', God had the purpose of making eternal life available to others. We therefore read in Titus 1, verse 2, of the 'eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised before the ages of time'.
Eternal life in a Man
Given that the Son has life in Himself it might be astonishing at first sight to read in John 5:26 that the Father 'has given to the Son also to have life in himself'. As God, the Lord has always possessed eternal life in Himself. In fact, He is the eternal life, as we read in 1 John 5:20: 'This is the true God, and eternal life'. Further, there is the short but meaningful phrase in John 1:4 'In him was life'. However, as Man, it was given to Him by the Father to have this eternal life.
Eternal life in a Man - who constantly and perfectly enjoyed this life - is a great theme. Eternal life in the past eternity alone would have left us with a fairly abstract notion of what it means. But it was actually revealed in a Man who did not just visit briefly but who 'dwelt among us' (John 1:14). This gave the opportunity for some to witness how eternal life acts in these surroundings, in 'every day type' situations. This is the startling message that John conveys in the beginning of his first epistle. The apostles had been there: they had heard, seen, contemplated and even handled with their hands that which concerns the eternal life that was 'revealed'.
When the Lord Jesus lived on this earth, eternal life was made visible: 'that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us' (1 John 1:2). Do you want to know how eternal life acts down here, on earth? Look at this lowly Man Jesus how He dealt with individuals and with crowds, how He reacted to faith and to unbelief, how he dealt with learners and opponents, with repentant sinners and with hypocrites, how he demonstrated perfect obedience and divine love. It is in the life of the Man Jesus that eternal life was 'manifested'.
Eternal life communicated to others
So far, we have established that eternal life is the life that belongs to divine Persons and to the Lord Jesus as Man. Scripture teaches further that eternal life is also communicated to others. In His prayer recorded in John 17, the Lord states that the Father had 'given him authority over all flesh, that [as to] all that thou hast given to him, he should give them eternal life'. In order to find out who is meant by this group ('all that thou hast given to him'), we can look at some verses which set out the necessary requirements for receiving eternal life. It is essential to believe in:
- the Son of Man John 3:15
- the Son of God John 3:16,36
- the Father ('him that sent me') John 5:24
To receive life, it is essential to believe in the Lord Jesus as the One who came from heaven and lived on earth as the incarnate Son of God: 'I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever' (John 6:51). But faith in His life alone is not sufficient. The remainder of this very verse goes on to say that the Lord became Man with a view to dying: 'and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world'. Faith in His death is necessary as well. This is also brought out in verse 53 of John 6: 'Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you'. The Lord had presented Himself under the figure of the 'bread of life' (verse 48). Having eaten the bread from heaven (verse 49, knowing the Lord in His manhood) and having eaten His flesh and drunk His blood (knowing the Lord in His death), the believer has eternal life. This is not a ceremonial action - it has nothing to do with the Lord's supper - but a figure illustrating the fact that we derive our very existence from the One who lived and died here as Son of Man.
The Lord's death therefore has a twofold relevance to the matter of receiving eternal life: firstly, it was necessary in order to make eternal life available (John 3:14), and secondly, faith in His death is a requirement for the reception of eternal life.
Summarising, we may state that it was the Father's will (John 6:40) to make eternal life available on the basis of faith (3:15,16). He gave the Son authority (17:2) to communicate it to those who believed in Him, knowing Him in His life as Man and in His death (6:51,53). The very idea that the life which God ever had should be communicated to man should lead us to worship. It was the reason for the Lord's mission: He said 'I am come that they might have life' (John 10:10). It is also the only way to possess this life. No one can ever possess this eternal life apart from or without the Lord Jesus. This is stated explicitly in 1 John 5:12: 'he that has the Son has life: he that has not the Son of God has not life'
So the believer has the same life which the Lord Himself has. There is, however, one difference. The Lord has eternal life 'in Himself'. The believer only has it in Him. To understand the difference, think of a tree and a leaf. Clearly, there is life in the leaf but this is the tree's life and the leaf has it only because of the tree. The tree, on the other hand does not need the leaf; it has life in its own right or in itself. Again, we quote the verse from John's first epistle (5:11): 'God has given to us eternal life; and this life is in his Son'.
Present possession of eternal life
It should be clear from scriptures such as John 3:16 that everyone who believes possesses ('hath') eternal life. It is not merely a promise for a future in heaven, but a blessing enjoyed on the earth, at present. Not only should believers experience this, but they should also be conscious of it as an objective fact. John writes explicitly: 'These things have I written unto you that . ye may know that ye have eternal life' (1 John 5:13).
Eternal life and communion with the Father and the Son
In John 17, verse 3, we read: "And this is the eternal life, that they should know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." This Scripture shows that the ability to know of the Son of God and the One who sent Him is the central feature of eternal life. 'Knowledge' in Scripture is the enjoyment of an existing relationship. This is what we will enjoy in eternity; but already now the present possession of this life enables us to have that communion with Divine Persons, with the Father and the Son. This shows the quality of this life ('eternal' life is not just a matter of duration, see the introduction and the section on 'Why is it called 'eternal' life?').
In his First Epistle, John stated that he was writing concerning the 'word of life' (Christ) and concerning the eternal life that had been manifested in Him on earth; and he reported on this subject with the declared objective that the recipients of the letter should have fellowship with them (the apostles), and their fellowship was indeed with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. The result would be that their joy would be full (1.John 1:1-4). Here in John 17 we learn that the character of this this eternal life that we possess is the knowledge of the Son of God and the One who sent him.
Characteristics of eternal life: obedience and love
The possession of eternal life is not just a theological curiosity. Nor is it 'merely' a subject that leads us to worship the Father and the Son. It is also a matter that is highly relevant to our practical life. Eternal life manifests itself in daily life circumstances. This was the case with our Lord when on earth. The believer possesses the same life and this has 'manifestations' as well.
The first feature of eternal life is obedience. 'And hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments' (1 John 2:3). Those who know God are those who have received eternal life. The second feature of eternal life is love: 'He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in the darkness until now. He that loves his brother abides in light' (1 John 2:9,10), and: 'We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren' (1 John 3:14).
Again, love is not just a theoretical concept but intensely practical: 'But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?' (1 John 3:16). Even material matters are affected by the fact that the believer possesses eternal life and therefore has the capacity to love.
Both of these features, obedience and love, the apostles had 'heard', 'seen', 'looked upon' and 'handled' (1 John 1:1) when the Lord was on earth. He was obedient unto death (Phil. 2:8) and loved 'unto the end' (John 13:1). And because we have received this same life 'which thing is true in Him and in you', (1 John 2:8) - we have the capacity to demonstrate the same features.
Stages of growth for possessors of eternal life
Even if every believer on the Lord Jesus possesses eternal life, there are stages of growth with regard to the enjoyment of eternal life and the degree to which we - our actions and attitudes - are characterised by it. In analogy with natural life, the apostle John refers to different groups within the family of God as 'little children;'2 'young men', and 'fathers' (1 John 2:13,14). All children of God have the new nature all possess eternal life, and yet there are stages of growth. Exactly as in the case of natural life, it would be highly regrettable, if there were no growth in the spiritual lives of those who have received eternal life.
Life in abundance
A further interesting scripture on the subject is found in John 10:10 where we read: 'I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly'. This verse suggests clearly (to me) that there is a difference of degree. It is one thing to have life but another to have it abundantly. Old Testament saints had life from God, had a new nature, but they did not know the Father and the Son (John 17:3). Although they had what was essentially the same life, they did not have the same quality or measure of it.
Another aspect of this difference seems to be indicated in 1 Cor. 15:45 where the Lord Jesus is referred to as a 'quickening spirit'. Connecting this reference with John 20:22, we understand that it is the risen Lord who, as a quickening spirit, gives resurrection life. In other words, life in abundance has this new dimension that it is not 'merely' the life of the Lord, but the life of the risen Lord. This is clearly something which Old Testament saints did not know. How rich is this life which the Lord has given us - 'abundantly'.
A further indication of the above is given in the Lord's words to Nicodemus in John 3. Having spoken about the earthly things related to new birth - which Nicodemus should have known about from the Old Testament (verse 10) - the Lord speaks about heavenly things (verse 13). Immediately after this, He speaks about eternal life. 'If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life'.
Clearly, eternal life is concerned with what is heavenly and not with the earthly blessings of Old Testament saints.
Why is it called 'eternal' life?
Eternal life is concerned with what is eternal and therefore with what is heavenly (see above) and invisible: 'for the things that are seen are for a time, but those that are not seen eternal' (2 Cor. 4:18). Eternal life, therefore, does not only last eternally, but is a life of enjoyment of eternal things and even eternal, i.e. divine Persons. This is confirmed by the Lord's own words in John 17:3. 'And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent'. We may well ask ourselves how far our lives are characterised by eternal life and by an interest in, and enjoyment of, eternal things.
The future aspect of eternal life
Paul, Jude, and the writers of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) often use the term eternal life with reference to future3 enjoyment (e.g. Luke 18:18,30, Roms 2:7, 6:22,23, Titus 3:7, Jude 21, etc.). This is no contradiction at all with John's ministry which sets out the blessing of the believer's present possession of eternal life. Although we possess this same life now, and although we have the capacity to have fellowship in it with the apostles and even with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3), there are a thousand influences that conspire to keep us from the enjoyment of it. When we are with the Lord, it will be altogether different. Nothing will come in and disturb. Eternal life will be fully enjoyed.
It is my wish that these lines may help believers to know the blessing of possessing eternal life, and to consciously enjoy fellowship with the Father and the Son and consequently with each other.
1 'Past eternity' refers to the 'time' when there was nothing apart from God, nothing that would even have had biological life. We use the phrase for lack of more appropriate words.
2 Whereas all members of the family of God are children (greek teknia: (1 John 2:1,12,28), there is a group that is referred to as 'little children' (greek: paidia, (1 John 2:14,18).
3 Either in the kingdom or in the Father's house.