What is eternal life?

Pop quiz: what work was Jesus sent by the Father to do?

To die on the cross so that we could have eternal life, right?

Yes. But depending on how we understand “eternal life,” there’s more to it than that.

Listen to the beginning of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, just before his arrest and crucifixion:

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. (John 17:1-8, NRSV)

In the previous post, we considered the idea of glory; here, I want to focus on eternal life. There’s no question that Jesus came to give eternal life; typically, we think of this (with the help of the apostle Paul) as our being granted access to heaven because Jesus paid the penalty for our sins on the cross. But here in the prayer, with his crucifixion yet to come, Jesus says that he has already finished the work the Father sent him to do. What gives?

First, at this point in John’s story, Jesus’ obedience to the Father’s will is beyond question, so the cross may to some extent be a foregone conclusion. But second, it’s not as if Jesus’ work is like a to-do list with only one item on it: “die on the cross” — check. Rather, he has performed signs and taught words throughout his ministry that were meant to elicit belief without anyone having a clue about the coming crucifixion.

For me at least, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that Jesus is praying in response to what the disciples have just said: “Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God” (John 16:30). Though the disciples’ understanding is far from complete, Jesus seems to respond as if they had just passed an important milestone; as he says in his prayer, they now “know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me” (17:8).

Notice too how Jesus describes eternal life: “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3). We’re used to thinking of eternal life as the consequence of right belief, but Jesus seems to describe eternal life as involving the belief itself, and the kind of relationship with God that goes with it.

“Eternal” life in Scripture is not just a matter of life “everlasting,” as in an endless progression of years. It’s not just the quantity of life that matters, but its quality. The Jews anticipated that the Messiah would usher in a new and glorious age; everything would be different. Jesus was thus declaring that the new age had already begun. The gift of eternal life, therefore, is not just given after we die; it is experienced in new life now, a life that shows that a new era has dawned for those who have an intimate relationship with Jesus.

As he continues, Jesus will pray directly for his disciples — both the ones right there in front of  him and the ones to come, including us. Let us hear his words as those who know that we have the gift of eternal life now, even as we live and breathe.