What is Everlasting Life?
As part of our weekly Lord’s Day worship, most congregations of the RCUS confess the Apostles’ Creed in unison. Most of its statements are clear and straightforward, so that there isn’t too much to misunderstand. When it says that Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried,” we have some idea of what suffering, death and burial involve.
But what does the Apostles’ Creed mean when it mentions “life everlasting”? We know something about life, perhaps, but our brief existence of twenty, thirty or forty years on this earth hardly qualifies us to understand everlasting. For this we have to turn to the one who has been our dwelling place in all generation …even from everlasting to everlasting (Ps. 90:1–2). We must turn to the Father of eternity himself.
Commonly Mistaken Beliefs
There are a few common misconceptions about what everlasting life is that should be cleared up before we go too far into our subject.
At the top of the list is the notion that everlasting life is not that much different than the life that we know now. It may be a little easier, perhaps less stressful, but fundamentally the same. The basic idea is that in death we simply move from one world to another or from one existence to another.
The problem with this view is that it fails to connect everlasting life to the finished work of our Lord Jesus Christ, who assumed a complete human nature not to make life a little easier for us in the next world, but to take away our sin. Revelation 21:4, which describes everlasting life about as well as any passage in Scripture, says, God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. Even the effects of sin will no longer affect us in heaven.
The second misconception is exactly the opposite of the first. Instead of everlasting life being only a little different from our present life, it sees it as vastly different. When we die, we all become angels and play harps on fluffy, white clouds throughout all eternity. God made heaven just to make us happy.
But this is no more real than the previous view. Men do not become angels (or demons) when they die; to the contrary, men and angels are two completely different kinds of creatures. Nor will we just lounge around in heaven, enjoying song and admiring God’s handiwork. No, God made man to serve him. Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it (Gen. 2:15). In fact, one the key terms that God uses to describe his covenant people throughout the Bible is servant. And even in heaven God’s covenant people will continue to serve him. Revelation 22:3 says, And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him. While the exact nature of our future service has not been revealed, we can be sure that whatever it involves will be to our endless enjoyment.
And a third misconception is that everlasting life is something that we receive when we die. In this world we have this life, but in heaven we’ll have everlasting life.
But this isn’t so either. We may not have the fullness of everlasting life in this world, but everyone who trusts the shed blood of Jesus Christ and places his hope in the Lord’s triumphant resurrection has everlasting life here and now. This is the clear teaching of Scripture. John 3:36 says, He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life. Note the present tense verb hath or has (ἔχει). Eternal life is not something for which you have to wait. It’s yours already. Likewise, John 10:28 adds, And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. This verse is obviously addressing present concerns, since perishing or being plucked out of the Father’s hand will not be a concern for us in glory. And concerning this life, Jesus said, using a present tense verb (δίδωμι) again, “I am giving them everlasting life.” Our catechism picks up on the notion that eternal life is a present reality for us when it says, “I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy” (Heid. 58).
When you stop to think about it, it’s really quite amazing to realize that because we belong to Jesus Christ we already have a life that cannot end. This is, in fact, the greatest comfort of the Christian faith. Body and soul, both in life and in death, we will never be separated from our covenant God. That’s a promise that lasts forever.
Christ Gives Eternal Life to the Elect
Now, as we turn our attention to our text, the first thing we learn about eternal life is its source. The ultimate source of life is God the Father (cf. Rom. 6:23). It was the Father to whom the Son prayed in our text, and it was also the Father who gave the Son power over all flesh and an elect people of his own. Both are mentioned in verse 2.
What we have in this verse is a glimpse into the eternal, intra-Trinitarian Covenant of Redemption. In contemplation of the soon completion of his work on earth, the Son asked the Father to glorify him exactly as the Father had promised to do. His glorification would allow him, as the mediator of his people, to finish the work that he had begun on earth. The two promises mentioned here are intimately connected in the sense that the latter is dependent on the former. That is, the church cannot come to realization unless Christ has authority over all flesh. This allows him to distinguish his elect from the rest of mankind, to set some apart for salvation and to reject all others.
The Covenant of Redemption naturally leads to the Covenant of Grace. Adam’s failure to obey the Word of God brought him and all his natural descendants under God’s curse and the sentence of death. As Calvin reminds us, the fact that newborn infants are occasionally taken by death shows unmistakably that all men enter this world as depraved and guilty sinners. Distinguishing the elect from the rest of mankind, then, implies the removal of the curse. Christ gives life to his people — and not just any life, but everlasting life! He does this through the preaching of the Word of God and the omnipotent work of his Holy Spirit (Heid. 54).
Although God the Father is the ultimate source of everlasting life, our text teaches that this life becomes ours through the mediation of God the Son, who applies it to the elect by the power of God the Spirit. The three persons of the Trinity work together for our salvation according to the order by which they have chosen to reveal themselves: the Father elects, the Son redeems and the Spirit sanctifies.
The Essence of Eternal Life
So far, we’ve talked about eternal life without actually saying what it is. Since this is the heart of our concern, we should get to it without further delay. That takes us to verse 4. Jesus defined eternal life as knowing the only true God (i.e., in contrast to the polytheism of both Greek and Roman cultures) and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent (i.e., the one commissioned to secure our deliverance once and for all). The fact that our salvation demands a knowledge of Christ further teaches us that he is co-equal with the Father, for how could the knowledge of a mere creature be as necessary to our salvation as the knowledge of God himself? Thus, eternal life requires a knowledge of the triune God.
Today we ordinarily use the words know and knowledge in an intellectual sense. In fact, this is its only use in modern English according to the current edition of Webster’s Dictionary. Other uses of know (e.g., where Genesis 4:1 says that Adam knew Eve his wife) are labeled “archaic.”
While the Bible certainly uses know and knowledge in an intellectual sense, these words often convey quite a bit more. Genesis 4:1 is an obvious example, but consider a few other verses as well. In John 10:27 Jesus said, My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. Did the Lord mean nothing more than that he has memorized the names of his sheep (v. 3)? Of course not. He meant that he had chosen the sheep, loved them and called them to himself. A similar statement, though lacking the metaphor, appears in II Timothy 2:19. Paul wrote, Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his.
Perhaps even more compelling are the passages in which the Lord says that he doesn’t know someone. One such passage is Matthew 7:23. Many will prophesy in the Lord’s name, some will cast our demons and a few will even perform wondrous works. But in the Day of Judgment the Lord will say to them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. Being omniscient, Jesus could never cease to know these people in an intellectual sense. To the contrary, he knows everything about them and their so-called good works. In fact, he knows them better than they know themselves. But the point is that he did not love them, nor had he made them his people by the power of the Holy Spirit, and therefore he professed never to have known them at all.
Likewise, knowing God involves a lot more than familiarity with theological jargon or rattling off a few theological proof texts. An intellectual knowledge of God is indispensible, just as Christ must know his sheep intellectually if he would know them lovingly. We can know God to the extent that he has revealed himself in Scripture. We know, for example, that he is compassionate, merciful, faithful, true, omniscient, omnipresent, and holy. But there are a lot of people who have an intellectual knowledge of God and nothing more. Bertrand Russell and H.L. Mencken are two examples of men who were quite astute in theology but hated God. Knowing God in the way that Jesus meant in our text demands that we love him with all our heart and soul, worship him, serve him and rejoice in his infinite mercy. It involves adoration, trust, honor and devotion. Anything less than this is not really knowing God at all.
So, what does this mean for us? Well, if eternal life is knowing God, which is exactly what Jesus said, then it seems that we can experience a greater degree of that life now the better we know and enjoy him. The promise of growing in our appreciation of God and rejoicing in his increased blessing should be a great incentive for every believer to study the Bible more rigorously, pray with greater earnestness, attend worship more faithfully, and strive for a deeper walk with Christ. Is this not what God meant when he told Abraham, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly (Gen. 17:1–2)?
Heaven: The Fullness of Everlasting Life
In his commentary on Question and Answer 58 of our catechism, Ursinus defines everlasting life as “the perfect restoration of the image of God, with eternal joy and delight in God, heavenly glory, and the full fruition of all those good things which are necessary to a state of perfect happiness” (p. 319).
Everlasting life is our present possession. But as wonderful as that realization is, there is so much more to come. That’s the point that Ursinus emphasized for us. Only in the next life will we know God as fully as we can. Paul wrote that we will know him even as we are known by him (I Cor. 13:12).
But what does this mean? What will heaven be like? What glory will the Lord give to his beloved sons and daughters?
Here’s where we have a bit of a problem. The simple fact is that there is a lot about heaven that we just don’t know yet. Only in a very few places does the Bible draw back the curtain of glory to give us a tiny hint of what awaits us. The last two chapters of Revelation are one such place, but the picture given here is symbolic. It uses numerous images drawn from the rest of Scripture. The writers of our catechism demonstrated a remarkable amount of restrain and wisdom when they chose to describe everlasting life as “complete bliss, such as eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man; therein to praise God for ever.” Their point is that everlasting life is more than anyone still trudging his way through this vale of tears can now imagine.
But we do know a few things. Here are some of the more important ones.
First, eternal life entails a complete love for God. The Lord commands us to love him with all our heart, soul and mind. As much as we may wish to do so now, the sin that lingers within us makes this impossible. But in glory our entire being will be devoted to adoring Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Second, complete bliss means complete joy in God through Christ. Here our joy is interspersed with periods of trial, sickness, sorrow and death. Sometimes it seems we shed more tears of hurt than tears of joy. But, as we saw earlier, in heaven God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away (Rev. 21:4). This will be a joy that no man can take away (John 16:22).
Third, our glory will guarantee our perfect righteousness before God. In this world we have complete justification, but only partial sanctification. In fact, our sanctification is so incomplete that our catechism says that we currently have only a small beginning of the obedience that God requires of us (Heid. 114). But this only emphasizes the need to pursue God’s commandments all the more zealously until we find complete sanctification in the life to come (Heid. 115).
Fourth, in heaven the Lord will be everything we’ll ever need. Throughout the Bible the Lord promises to be certain things to us. For example, he assured Abraham that he was his shield and exceeding great reward (Gen. 15:1). The twenty-third Psalm teaches us that Christ is our shepherd, and therefore we will never lack any good thing. Yet, there is an especially high concentration of these kinds of statements in the last two chapters of Revelation, which describe the fullness of the life that we have in our Savior Jesus Christ: Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men (21:3); I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely (21:6); I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof (21:22–23); And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever (22:5). The apostle Paul put it succinctly when he wrote that in that day God, who filleth all in all (Eph. 1:23), will be our all in all (I Cor. 15:28).
And lastly, all of these blessing will be ours without interruption. The kingdoms of men come and go, but of Christ’s kingdom there shall be no end (Luke 1:33).
All of this, and a whole lot more, is what you have to look forward to if and only if you belong to Jesus Christ. You can be assured that he purchased it all for you, and not one whit of it will fail to be yours!
The knowledge of God that constitutes eternal life does not require that you know everything about God. To the contrary, you can know him only insofar as he has revealed himself. And yet, this knowledge is completely true and accurate. It is the knowledge by which you walk before him in righteousness in this world and eagerly long for his uninterrupted fellowship in the next.
A child does not have to know everything about his father to know that his father loves and cares for him. Suppose the child’s father is a physician. Certainly, the child does not understand chemistry or biology. He has no knowledge of pharmacology or electro-magnetic imaging. But he knows that his father goes to work every day to provide for his needs, that he comes home every evening, and that he takes time to play with him, instruct him and put him in bed at night. Thus, the child knows his father well enough to love and respect him. He knows that good things come from him.
If you would know God, the best place to start is with Jesus Christ, his Son. As the second person of the Trinity, he is God himself. In his incarnation, he is a perfect manifestation of God. He himself said, He that hath seen me hath seen the Father (John 14:9). And Paul wrote, For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (II Cor. 4:6). This is where eternal life begins (I John 5:20).
Our text says, And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. If this is not your God, then call upon him today to receive the gift of everlasting life. If you already have eternal life, then enjoy the fullness of that life as you walk with your God day by day. Amen.