What is eternal life?

Scripture Reading

Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.

John 5:39-40

Search the scriptures

This passage of scripture from Jesus is embodied in a larger message as conveyed to the Jews shortly after he had miraculously healed a man who suffered with an infirmity for thirty eight years. As Jesus continued his response to the Jews they sought to take him for healing a man on the sabbath. After that however, they then plotted to kill him for his comments that, as they claim, made himself equal with God (John 5:18). From there, Jesus embarked into a long discourse to illustrate the interrelationship of the Father and the Son and that the Son does nothing of himself but does whatsoever comes from the Father. About the midst of his discourse  however Jesus then starts to claim to the Jews how they search the scriptures in the quest for eternal life but their very scriptures bear testament to him. In fact, the very first use of the word eternal in the entire Bible pertains to God himself, “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms:” [Deut. 33:27a]

What is eternal

In this lengthy passage of scripture though, there could be many topics to expound upon but for the sake of this study we will focus on the phrase eternal life. Just what does Jesus mean when he says eternal life, how long is eternal life and how does someone obtain eternal life? With our finite minds, eternity, or something that is eternal is somewhat of an unfathomable period of time for us. We tend to think we can control our own destiny and when it comes to describing something of an eternal nature, few of us can comprehend just what Jesus means. After all, even a person fortunate enough to live to their 90’s or for the very few of us who live to 100 years of age think of this as having a good and long life. But in the context of eternity, the mathematical equivalency of our life on earth quickly becomes something more akin to a nano second of existence. Consider how the scriptures describe life in this verse, “Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” [James 4:14]

For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.

James 4:14b

Eternal life is indeed eternal, there is no end to it and to once again view it in the context of arithmetic it would contain zeros to the nth degree. Mathematicians even have a special symbol to describe infinity with two interlocking circles. But enough of all this math talk, let’s get back to the Bible and the words of Jesus. It is of interest to note that the word eternal is noted 47 times in scripture, only twice in the Old Testament, but 45 times in the New Testament. When it is associated in the scriptures with the word life it is based on the Greek word zoe which pertains more to spiritual life than physical life. This is important to note because it is the spirit that Jesus is referring to for eternal life. He makes this very point before the Jews when they become completely confused and perplexed over his words but then expounds on his teaching by saying, “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” [John 6:63] Quickeneth is an older word meaning to bring to life and in this case it is the spirit that comes to life.

The eternal Spirit

The root or origin of this eternal life stems from Jesus as described by the writer of the book of Hebrews in this passage of scripture, “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” [Heb. 9:14] Jesus himself described God as a Spirit while speaking with a woman from Samaria by saying, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” [John 4:24] Therefore, eternal life is of an eternal or forever nature and exists in the spiritual realm where people born of the flesh will ultimately live forever but as Jesus proclaimed it is the spirit that comes to life. Jesus also states a form of a conditional statement in the context of eternal life, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.” [John 5:24]  Jesus is talking about believing in him for eternal life (Rom. 10:9-10).

It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.

John 6:63

Elusive in nature

But eternal life for many can prove to be rather elusive in the scriptures for those who inquire about it such as this man, “And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? [Matt. 19:16] This is the first reference to eternal in the New Testament. Even the disciples of Jesus inquired directly with him over the quandary about obtaining eternal life but Jesus quickly noted how eternal life comes only from God, “When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” [Matt. 19:25-26]  Jesus also made the profound claim in the scriptures that eternal life is not something that everyone will find; in fact he states that few people will find it, “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”  [Matt. 7:14]

Let us get down to the core point though on the subject of eternal life from the scriptures. It is not something that is obtained by getting a degree in religious education, nor is it granted for attending church, conducting Bible studies, memorizing scripture or anything of that nature. Eternal life comes by believing and believing in something very specific about God. When Jesus spoke to a ruler of the Jews named Nicodemus, he proclaimed to him, “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” [John 3:15-16] This is indeed a very specific comment that believing in him, believing in his sacrificial death on the cross to atone for your sins is the gateway to eternal life. As one of his closest disciples, Peter stated once to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” [John 6:68b] God is the source and giver of eternal life.

…whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 

John 3:15b

Giver of eternal life

Jesus proclaimed this to the multitudes by saying, “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.” [John 10:28-29] What a blessed assurance Jesus makes in this statement where not only are believers safe in his hands but they are also safe in the Father’s hands! During a prayer of Jesus to the Father he once again makes this statement of eternal life amidst his disciples, “As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” [John 17:2-3] The apostle Paul proclaimed this same message to the early church of believers by stating, “That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.” [Rom. 5:21] Further, Paul ties in the redemption from sin into his message by saying, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” [Rom. 6:23]

Let us close off this Bible study by pausing for a moment to consider what all of this means for seekers of faith. We have covered a lot of scripture and this study merely represents a fraction of references to eternal or everlasting life in the Bible. For people who are not sure whether eternal life is what they desire or want it is important to know that the Christian faith has only one way to obtain this life, “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” [2 John 5:11] There is no other way, it is exclusive in nature to Jesus Christ and the condition of believing in him is of paramount importance as stated again by the apostle John, “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.” [1 John 5:11-13] What assurance, what peace, what joy, to know that we can have eternal life and that this comes not from any works or deeds on our part but by believing in the author of eternal salvation, Jesus Christ (Heb. 5:9). This dear reader is the everlasting gospel from the scriptures (Rev. 14:6).

Bible Study Questions

  1. Why do you think the religious rulers of the Jews sought to persecute and kill Jesus over his teaching and preaching? Hint Matt. 27:18
  2. How does the meaning of eternal life equate or measure in comparison to our physical life on earth?
  3. Fill in the blanks from John 4:14, “__________ is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in ___________ and in truth”
  4. True or false, everyone will receive eternal life with God in heaven? Hint Matt. 7:14
  5. In John 3:15-16, what is the most important word that Jesus states in this passage of scripture? Hint, it starts with the letter “b”.
  6. How would you describe what Jesus did on the cross for you?
  7. In 2 John 5:11, the apostle John proclaims that eternal life is in who?

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