And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. – John 17:3 ESV
In what has come to be known as His high priestly prayer, Jesus gives us a wonderful definition of what it means to have eternal life. For far too many, eternal life is little more than heavenly “fire insurance,” a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card that will allow them to escape the penalty and pain of hell. Eternal life gets them a guaranteed place in heaven. In other words, it becomes all about a future destination. But Jesus emphasized that it is really all about a relationship that begins here on earth and culminates in heaven. The whole point of heaven is the unbroken relationship with God it will provide – free from the effects of sin. The whole point of hell is that it will be an eternal existence completely separated from any kind of access to or relationship with God. The point is far less about the physical pain and suffering of hell than it is about the emotional and spiritual suffering that will be the result of an eternal existence completely severed from any hope of a relationship with God. There will be no more common grace extended by God to any and all. No joy, no laughter, no gentle rains, calming breezes, no moments of rest or the simple pleasures of a good meal. In this life, it is God who graciously allows all to experience the joys of his creation. “For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (Matthew 5:45 NLT). In hell, wherever it will be, those things will no longer be available because God’s presence will be inaccessible and unavailable.
But in His prayer, Jesus did not focus on heaven, even though He had already promised His disciples that He would return for them and take them to be with Him there. “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3 ESV). His prayer equates eternal life, not with heaven, but with a relationship with God the Father and with Himself as the Son of God. Eternal life is about a restored relationship with God. It begins at salvation and finds its full fruition at the point of our glorification when we see Jesus face to face. The moment anyone, by faith, acknowledges Jesus as their sin substitute and the sole source of their salvation, they are reconciled or made right with God. They go from being His enemies to His adopted child and heir. “You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault” (Colossians 1:21-22 NLT). “For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son” (Romans 5:10 NLT). The salvation provided by God through Jesus is not about a destination, but a relationship. It is about God reconciling lost and hopeless men and women to a right relationship with Himself. It is about God doing for us what we could never have done on our own. We could never have earned our way back into God’s good graces. “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT).
Eternal life is about knowing God. It is about having a right relationship with Him and Jesus is the one who makes it possible. But being made right with God, while wonderful, loses its significance if we do not find ourselves desiring to grow in our knowledge of the one who made our salvation possible. In Paul’s prayer for the believers in Colossae, he asked “God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better” (Colossians 1:9-10 NLT). A growing knowledge of God – that is the essence of eternal life. Warren Wiersbe has described this growing intimacy and awareness of God in this way. “To know God personally is salvation. To know Him increasingly is sanctification. To know him perfectly is glorification.” We are to experience a growing and ever-expanding understanding of God as we live submitted to His Spirit, read about Him in His Word, and grow increasingly more committed to His will for our lives and this world. Coming to know Christ was intended to allow us to get to know God – intimately, personally and progressively more and more. That is the essence of what it means to have eternal life. It is less about knowing where you are going when you die than it is about knowing God – the one with whom you will spend eternity after you die.