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What's Eternal Life
May 7, 1978

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

JOHN 3:16, 17:1-5

Thank you, Pam, for those delightful songs. I like the way the praise of God was intermingled with life. We praise God in and through our living, and they were very life affirming songs. Life is good. I like the one about the cat. It reminds me of the little girl whose cat died. She was beside herself and crying for days until a friend of her mother said, “Don't cry. Your cat is now in heaven with God.” That was very comforting to the little girl, but she thought about it and said, “Well, what will God do with an old dead cat?”

What is eternal life? What is heaven? People of all ages since the beginning of time have been preoccupied with that question. It has enthralled us. There's a longing in us for some kind of certainty, some kind of assurance. There seems to be something within us that demands that there's more to this life than what we know. If someone asks you what you believe about eternal life, what would you say? There have been so many views. 

Probably the spectrum of views is best represented by Egypt and the Old Testament—the Hebrews. On the one hand, we have the Egyptians who were preoccupied with death. They built gigantic pyramids for their rulers and placed artifacts within the pyramids for the deceased to use in the next life. They tried to preserve the body so that the soul would have a body in the next life. They were obsessed with the next life and spent all that time, money and energy on beautiful treasures that were buried in pyramids. 

At the other end of the spectrum are the Hebrews of the Old Testament who did not believe that there was any afterlife. The idea of any life after death only comes to us in the New Testament. The Old Testament belief was that when you died, you were dead but lived on in your children. Your name, your beliefs are carried on through your family. There was a great emphasis on family and there was great fear when children were not being born. 

Through the ages there are many varieties of views about what is eternal life. We read today about people who have almost died on operating tables. When they are revived, they share their experiences they had during that time. Of course, they weren't really dead, or they wouldn't have come back! But during that time, they tell us that their spirit left their body and looked down on the operating table, looked down on the body. A brilliant light is associated with it. They felt they were being met by people—loved ones, or Jesus, or angels. 

Other people have worked out an intricate system based on isolated passages out of the Bible which they interpret to fit their system. They've worked out an elaborate system telling us what's going to happen, including such elements that Jesus is going to come back bodily. A trumpet will blow. The saved will rise to meet Jesus. Graves will open and those who are saved will rise from the graves. Then the devil is loosed on the earth to promote great evil until Jesus comes. At the battle of Armageddon the devil is defeated once and for all. And then comes the glorious kingdom of heaven. Some people have worked out a system like that.

Other people believe that when you die you're immediately judged. Judgment occurs at death when you're either consigned to a fiery hell or to a blissful heaven. Others believe that there's a second chance after death, that we actually enter into some kind of a neutral state called purgatory where you have a second chance, where’s there is time for repentance after death. Some people are even baptized on behalf of the dead to give them a second chance for heaven. 

There are many various views of eternal life. The New Testament lesson today from the Gospel of John, deals with this subject. The phrase “eternal life” is very popular with John, he uses it over and over again in his gospel. In fact, it is the major theme of his gospel as recorded in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Eternal Life used in the Gospel of john is probably synonymous with the kingdom of God that is used in the other gospels. John does not use the phrase “kingdom of God”. So probably they are synonymous. John develops the idea of eternal life. 

Eternal life in the Gospel of John refers to an age, an end of time to which God is working. God is working in and through history, and in and through our lives to the consummation of the end of history, which is called eternal life. This goal, this climax is so beyond our imagination and our understanding that the Bible then resorts to the use of imagery, poetry, and similes. It is a glorious experience in a glorious age. It's like a Golden City laden with precious gems. Or, it's like a river, and how important the river was in that time and to those people. They lived in a dry country but there's a river flowing through it, and there's no night light, there's no darkness. There are no tears. It’s like a banquet. Jesus like that imagery— heaven is like a banquet, a party with joy. The Bible resorts to imagery, resorts to simile because eternal life is beyond our understanding. 

And then John makes the point of when does eternal life begin. When does this new age occur to which God is working? His answer is, “It occurs when you believe in Jesus Christ.” It begins in this present existence. John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the son has eternal life” —not in the future, not will have but has eternal life. Eternal life is a present reality, a present experience, He who has the son has life already. So there is a tension. There is a relationship between the present existence in Christ and the future consummation of the end of time. This present eternal life belongs to the coming perfect age. Eternal life is a present gift from Christ as well as a future privilege. Those two are tied together. 

Eternal life in the present is in the process of becoming the future, and it starts now. Our experience now in Christ and our experience together in the church is a rehearsal, a foretaste of what the final age will be like. We are already in it to a degree. It’s like a courtship and the engagement period before marriage. To be engaged is rehearsing what marriage will be like. You get a taste, you get a feeling of what relationship with this other person is going to mean. You don't get the full impact of what it will be like 50 years hence when you celebrate your golden wedding anniversary. You don't know what that is going to be like. You don't get the full impact of what the married relationship is like, but in the engagement period, you get a taste. 

Or, it's like the colleges that invite high school students to come to an open house. UOP has a High School Day. They take high school students to the campus. They eat in the dormitories, they see an athletic event, they go to classrooms, they hear lectures, they get a taste, a feeling of what it would be like to be a student. You don't really know though until you're a full participant, but you get a taste, you get a hint. Our experience now in Christ and with each other is a taste of eternal life. This experience that we now have in the present persists through death, and death of the physical body has no effect upon our personalities or our spirits or the real essence of who we are. Through death we continue into eternal life as we now know it in Christ.

So, what is eternal life? In our lesson today, John defines eternal life, the only time he defined it in the whole gospel. John 17:3, Jesus said, “Eternal life means to know you, the only true God, and to know Jesus Christ whom you sent.” What is eternal life? Eternal life is to know God. If someone asks you what is eternal life, say “to know God”. But the word “know” is not a good translation of what the Bible means. When you go from one language to another, you always lose something. What we usually mean by knowledge is only a small part of what the Bible means by knowledge. Knowledge to us is usually an intellectual acceptance or an intellectual understanding of some objective data, or of another person. We know about something, but the Bible means a lot more than that. 

First of all, what John means by knowing God is to believe that God sent Jesus, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him”— believes in Him is part of knowing God—to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, to believe that Jesus is the revelation of God, to believe that Jesus is the key, to believe that Jesus is the teacher, the best example and the living embodiment of what eternal life means. That's the first step in being a Christian. To be a Christian means, out of all the ideas in the world, out of other religions in the world, out of all the different approaches that people can take to God, Christians believe that we begin with Jesus. What we know about God is seen and revealed in Jesus Christ. If you believe that, if you take the stand that what you know about God and the future and eternal life has been revealed in Jesus Christ, that is the first step in knowing God. 

But, secondly, you must go further because it is more than just believing, more than just an intellectual assent to the idea that Jesus is the revelation. You must go a step further and put that belief into practice. John 14:23, “Whoever loves me will obey my teaching.” Knowing God means more than just believing. If we believe that Jesus’ way is the way of eternal life, then practice it. Put our lives where our mouth is. To the Greeks, to know God meant to contemplate the ultimate reality. But to the Bible, knowing God meant to acknowledge God and all his works, and to respond to the claims of God upon our lives. 

Knowing God means to put the beliefs into practice, to believe to such an extent that you will love your enemies, you will do good to those who persecute you, you will be honest, and so forth. To believe to such an extent that when the call of God comes to you in whatever fashion, you will obey, you will step out in faith, you will follow. That's what it means to know God. 

First, knowing God means to believe that Jesus is the Christ. Secondly, put those beliefs into practice by obeying, and thirdly, enter into relationship with God. There is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God. There is a difference between knowing about John Smith who lives in the next block. You know he is in the PTA; you know he's a druggist, you know such and such, but there is a difference between knowing about that person and knowing the person in an intimate, personal way. To know God means to know God in an intimate, personal way. Jesus went on in that same verse, verse 23, “Whoever loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love him and my father and I will come to him and live with him.” Live with him is a personal relationship. 

In the Old Testament, the word know, and knowing God is the same word used to refer to the sexual act, the intimate relationship between a man and a woman. It's the same word, meaning that it is possible to enter into an intimate, personal relationship with God. In a personal relationship with God, built upon a belief in Christ and practiced in the way we live, we know eternal life, and in this life we can experience a taste of the glory, beauty and joy that is beyond description of what God is bringing about.

© 1978 Douglas I. Norris