Now This Is Eternal Life: That They May Know You
It’s the last midnight, the night before the crucifixion as recorded in John 17:1-5. Jesus is with his disciples in an upper room; darkness has fallen over the city of Jerusalem. They’ve shared a meal together. He’s talked at length to them, and now he turns to praying for them. There always comes a time, even in the most desperate of circumstances, especially in the most desperate of circumstances, when everything’s been said there is to say. Talking has gone as far as it can go. And we must turn to God and pray. There’s nothing else to do.
Jesus begins this way: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your son!” Somehow what will happen the next day – a crucifixion – means glorification! It’s a theme that runs through the Gospel of John: “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw everyone to myself” (12:32). And it’s true that sometimes it’s in life’s darkest moments that the glory of God shine through most clearly. Certainly it is in the cross that we see most clearly the glory – the true nature – of God.
But it’s verse 3 in our text that stands out. It reads, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” It tempts us to consider what it is that we know of God. And for far, far too many people, it’s not good. Historically the church has far too often depicted God as an angry vengeful tyrant, acting in petty, petulant, vindictive ways that no decent loving person would; a ferocious God with a hair-trigger temper, demanding that we jump through arbitrary hoops, waiting for us to fail, to be wrong on even one thing; the angry God of Jonathan Edwards into whose hands we dare not trust ourselves. And if we stop and look and consider what churches have often said, if we were to buy certain traditional understandings of certain doctrines, if we were to accept the premises of what many churches insist on, we would see that God is being pictured (albeit wrongly) as someone who punishes in us all the imperfections he himself has.
For far too long in my life I pictured God as primarily angry, habitually angry. And this view of God does enormous spiritual damage. It makes real trust in God all but impossible. It twists morality toward what is hard, cold, inflexible and merciless. And eventually it drives us toward permissiveness because if almost nothing is good enough, if God is this impossibly strict, then why should we try?
It is so very, very good then that I have come to see God who is in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them (2 Corinthians 5:19), who’s not given to temper tantrums or smoldering rage, who doesn’t need to be convinced to like us. Now I know that he’s a shepherd who goes out into the wilderness looking for us when we are lost. We may be prodigals who left our true home, squandered our inheritance, and now make a living in the squalor of moral pigpens, but our Father waits for us, and when we are still a long ways off runs to us, throws his arms around us and kisses us. More than even this, he becomes one of us. He dies for us. He was in Christ that crucifixion weekend being scourged, stripped, spat upon, feeling the nails driven in, enduring the thirst and the taunts, gasping for every breath.
And knowing all of that is great. Except for this – we are still on the surface of things. These are still all just things we know about God, when if we go back to John 17:3, Jesus is praying that we might know God, that we might connect to God directly, encounter his presence, know him intimately as only two people who love one another can, and experience the divine flow so that streams of living water might flow from within us.
And it’s in this context that Jesus reveals: “Now this is eternal life.” Now this is eternal life; this is! It is such a great concept. And yes, I think of life after death in Heaven, but not floating in clouds, rather being released into a creation restored, renewed, liberated from its current bondage to decay, being with God, personally knowing Jesus, being caught up in the Spirit. And I think of glorious adventure, of spiritual companions, of taking on the role for which I have been being prepared my whole lifetime. And I look forward to the redemption of my body, to not being held back by sin, by ego or by being ravaged by fear, stress and self-consciousness. And yet even that is not what Jesus is talking about in our text. Look again at John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God.”
Do you see what he’s saying? It’s a point that’s made over and over again in the Gospel of John. Eternal life is a present reality. Eternal life, this quality of the age to come, timeless life (that captures it, sort of!), life that circumstance and death cannot destroy, happens now. Right here, right now. So Jesus would say back in John 5:24, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
It’s ours now, or it could be if we would just stop and look and see, if we would break into our preoccupations with ourselves and know God. It’s ours now, this life filled with expectancy, a sure, settled conviction that good will happen, this life surrounded by grace, animated by trust, this transcendent life, increasingly conscious of God within us and all around us, as close as the air we breathe, no even closer, inside us, this joyful life, often euphoric, inseparable from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. C.S. Lewis, knowing all this, wrote in his great spiritual classic, The Great Divorce (p. 7), “Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell; and earth, if put second to Heaven, will turn out to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”
Earth, if put second to Heaven, will turn out to have been from the beginning, a part of Heaven itself. It comes down to knowing God, to being still and aware of God’s presence within and all around us, to experiencing God’s love pouring into us and joy and vitality pouring out of us, to feeling one with God, open to the divine flow, with streams of living water flowing from within us.
Now I forget this over and over. I’ve mentioned good days and bad days before – how it all comes down to being connected to God, to putting God first in the morning, to remembering God often throughout the day, for short bursts remembering that every breath I take is God’s. In the food I eat, the work I do, the people I meet, the struggles I face, I mindfully sense the presence of God. And that makes all the difference.
This is amazing truth. Don’t miss it. Don’t try to live another day without it. May your good days become more and more and your bad days fewer and fewer. In your preoccupations with other things, don’t miss this. You may have a sense that other things are more important for you right now. They aren’t. You may have a sense that you’ll get to this later. Why?
Go back to our text now and keep reading, and you’ll see why Jesus prays as he does that we might know God: in verse 13, so that we might have the full measure of his joy within us, the euphoria of the God-connection; in verse 15, so that we might be protected from the evil one (I need that, how about you?); in verse 17, so that we might be sanctified, that is, set apart for sacred use, set apart for things that matter; in verse 21, so that we might be one, aware of our inter-connectedness with one another; and in verse 23, so that Christ might be in us. This is always the great secret to the universe, and the key that unlocks our way to true life. “Christ in you” Paul calls it in his letter to the Colossians; in our text, it’s God in Christ and Christ in us.
This is what we are called to. Always. Forever. From the moment of our birth. You may be thinking you’ll get to this later. Why wait? This is euphoric. It protects you from the darkness that always otherwise threatens to overcome you. It sets you apart – finally – for the things that really matter. And it assures you that you are never alone. We are inter-connected with one another, with the great web of being, surrounded by grace, animated by trust.
The call is to eternal life, right here, right now, to knowing God, yes, knowing about God, but to something so much more amazing – to knowing God, to transcendent life, aware over and over of the loving presence of God within you and all around you, washed over and over again in the gentle love of God. And you may think: You’ll get to it later. And God, the God of rapture and joy, will wonder: Why?
– Dale Pauls