Eternal life is a topic that you are likely familiar with. It’s a topic that comes up a lot, because it’s something that basically everyone wants. We’re not just talking about those who believe in God, we’re talking about the general public. Certainly popular media likes the idea of eternal life, I can think of any number of songs you might hear on the radio that talk about living forever and/or not dying, running the gamut from Alphaville to Steppenwolf. Last week I watched a movie with a couple of my kids, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In that movie, the characters are looking for the Holy Grail, which is supposed to grant eternal life to anyone who drinks from it. It doesn’t work out quite as expected. Of course, things are often quite different than we expect.
I imagine you have heard plenty of preaching about eternal life, how to get it, and how important it is to pay attention to it. I don’t know that I’ve ever preached an entire sermon specifically on the subject of eternal life, but certainly it has been a topic that has come up many times, because it’s a topic that troubles us. A lot of people are concerned with it, some you you might even say are preoccupied with it. In fact, while I was preparing this very sermon, one of my kids came to me to talk about eternity and what it would look like.
We hear about eternal life, we talk about eternal life, we know that it’s a good thing which we want. Eternal life is something that captures our attention, because we know that this life is destined to come to an end.
It’s something that people are certainly concerned with, and rightly so, but have you ever stopped to think about what it actually means?
We are familiar with the concept of life, regular, normal, temporal life. Everyone here today is alive, and has been alive for quite some time, some of us for many decades. Even the youngest person listening has been alive for thousands of days, and tens of thousands of hours. We know what it’s like to be alive, because we all are alive, and we all have been alive for our entire lives. We know what it means to be alive, or we think we know. We may or may not be entirely happy with being alive, but for the most part we would like it to continue.
In contrast, we don’t know what it’s like to be dead. We have perhaps had friends and family members die, so we might be acquainted with death, but we have not experienced it. We don’t know what it’s like, and by and large, we are not anxious to find out. That’s typical for the human race, we are troubled and often fearful of the unknown.
It’s little wonder that the idea of eternal life is so attractive. Living is good, and dying not as good. But as much as we don’t like to think about it, death is certainly in the cards.
A quick disclaimer, yes, I believe in the rapture. I believe that it could be imminent, that there is no reason why it might not be this very day. But people have believed that for a very long time, and have passed into eternity regardless. All I can promise you is that Christ’s return in the clouds to take up His church is nearer today than it has ever been. But that was also the case yesterday, and on the day I was born, the day you were born, and every day since. We should not count on the rapture to spare us from experiencing death, because no man knows the day nor the hour. God’s mercy is great, and every day that He waits is a day that more believers are added to the church. I don’t know about you, but I’m certain that’s a good thing, a very good thing.
So as we wait, and as we work, and as we look forward to eternity, we consider what it is that we look forward to. Eternal life is not likely going to look the way many of us might first imagine it. As I said earlier, things are often quite different than we expect. Eternal life is not simply a matter of not dying. It is the destiny of each person to die, and after that the judgement, as we read in Hebrews chapter 9, verse 27, it is appointed unto man once to die, so then eternal life does not prevent physical death, as it generally takes place after death. People may want to continue forever in this life, and indeed, people have tried all sorts of things in order to extend and prolong their lives, from making sensible choices for diet and exercise to outlandish schemes such as having their body cryogenically frozen with the hope of coming back in the future when death is somehow solved. But we’re not ever going to solve death, not in human terms. Christ already solved it, already defeated it, and He did so by dying.
If we are going to die, if that is already on our appointment book, then what does it mean to have eternal life? It clearly can’t be a continuation of life as we know it, so it must mean something different.
Last month at Tuesday evening Bible study we finished looking at the Upper Room Discourse, which is the passage that runs from John chapter 14 through 17, and is the last complete talk that Christ had with His disciples prior to His death and resurrection. It concludes with a prayer that comprises all of John chapter 17, and when we were looking at that chapter I found a verse that caught my attention. It’s verse three in particular, but let’s read from verse 1. (John 17:1) These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee: (John 17:2) As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. (John 17:3) And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.
This is the verse that inspired this sermon, because it caught my attention that Tuesday evening, and it has remained in the periphery of my mind ever since, and has provoked me to consider the question of what is eternal life, what does it look like, what does it mean?
The passage first states that Christ has power to grant eternal life, and not to a select few, but to as many as He was given. If we read down the chapter, while at first it talks about the disciples who were gathered there with the Lord that evening, later in the chapter at verse 20 He extends the prayer and its blessings to those who will believe on Him through the witness of the disciples. That’s a very wide net, and a very open-ended timeframe, because it includes believers from the Day of Pentecost right up until this very day.
And what is this eternal life? Verse three says that eternal life is knowing God, and knowing Jesus Christ, whom He has sent. That is life eternal, or at the very least a central aspect of it. And while the disciples of course knew Him face to face, we likewise can know Him. We can have a relationship with Him, and with God the Father. That is the key element here. It’s not about never dying, it’s not about living in some sort of luxurious paradise, it’s not about having all your wants and desires granted. Those are all things that people associate with eternal life, things that they assume are part of the package deal. But none of that is mentioned here. It’s about knowing your Creator and having a relationship with Him. That is the essence of life eternal.
We read from John chapter 10 to start, in which Christ speaks of Himself as being the good shepherd, and of His followers as being His sheep. It’s an excellent analogy and a passage that is well used on the topic of salvation and eternal security, and of how Christ loves and cares for those who follow Him. It also talks quite specifically of eternal life. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me, and I give unto them eternal life.
We often focus on what comes next, how those who follow Christ are essentially held secure in His hand, they have no fear of perishing, nor of being taken away, not from the Son nor from the Father, who is greater than all. That is an important promise and an excellent assurance of the security of salvation, because to doubt this is to doubt that Christ saves at all, and if you do not believe that, then you need to look again, and look closer. Eternal life is not temporary, is not a short term thing, or even for that matter a long term thing. It’s a forever thing, there are two terms used in verse 28 that indicate that this is without end: the words eternal life and the words never perish.
As vital a subject as that is, though, it’s not my main point this morning. We should know that eternal life does not have an ending, that is central to it. But what makes this eternal life is not only the eternal part, it’s the life aspect. Being connected to your Creator, to your Saviour, to your God, that is life. Having a relationship with someone who can, will, and has saved you, that is life. Listening, following, obeying, that is life.
We might think that eternal life is a thing for the future, that it’s waiting for us on some distant day. But life with Christ starts here and now. I don’t necessarily mean today, but it could be today. In fact, if you do not know Him already, then today would be an excellent day to come to Him in repentance and humility, seeking forgiveness and salvation. He will gladly accept you with open arms and welcome you as a sheep added to the flock, safe and secure from eternal damnation. They shall never perish, Christ says of His sheep.
What does it mean to perish? It does not mean to die, because we all will die, and certainly all of the disciples did. It doesn’t mean that the soul ceases to exist. It’s important to remember that the opposite of eternal life is not oblivion, not an end of existence. The human soul does not fade out of being when the body dies, as much as some people might like to think so.
We should not doubt this, scripture warns of it repeatedly. We have it in parables, such as in Luke 16, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man died in his sins, and suffered in flames. In the closing chapters of the book of Revelation it tells us how those who continue in their sins will have their portion in the lake of fire, which it describes as the second death. In the book of Jude, it talks of eternal punishment for the wicked. In Matthew chapter 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats talks about those who did not listen to Christ, did not do service to Him but ignored what He said, how they but we are told there of how those are sent to suffer in eternal fire that had been prepared for the devil. And perhaps most applicable to us today, I’ll read in 2 Thessalonians chapter 1, at verse 7 (2Th 1:7) And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, (2Th 1:8) In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: (2Th 1:9) Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.
That last phrase in verse 9 is translated in other versions as away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might. Yes, there is the definite sense of eternal fire, but there is also the separation from God. God is not present in the lake of fire, and being separated from Him is as much a part of the punishment as is the physical suffering, the burning torment. We might have the first thought that being separated from God is rather minor compared to being on fire, but that’s based on our experience in that we know that coming into contact with fire is bad and painful. We know what that’s like. We don’t know what being forever separated from the Creator with no further hope of redemption is like. We haven’t experienced that, not yet. And hopefully not ever.
We do know that being separate from those you care about, those you love and who love you, we know what that is like, and how unpleasant that is. It’s tolerable for a little while, but after a time, we miss our loved ones more and more, and we long to see them again. Now imagine that with no end. Loneliness, separation, and zero chance of ever seeing them again, or of making new friends, of ever having a family. Of being lost, disconnected, exiled, alone. Still existing, still conscious, but alone. For eternity.
That is what it means to perish, to truly perish. That should be a sobering thought if ever you have one. The soul does not blink out of existence when it departs from the body. It goes somewhere. It’s all about location.
If you know Christ, if you are already counted among His followers, then you have the promise that you will never perish. That should be a great assurance, it is to me. As well, you have already started on the path of eternal life. I’m not saying that in the sense of walking down a road to get to eternal life, rather that eternal life is a path that you are travelling on, a way that follows in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you have heard His voice, if you have listened to the call to repent of your sinful ways, to turn from them and to turn to Him, then you are on that path. If you are following Him, then you are on that path. Eternal life starts now.
Eternal life is as much a journey as a destination. We often lose sight of that, because we look a long way down the road, we look past this life into the far future, and we wonder what that will look like.
Before that, let’s get out of the way what it won’t look like. First, there’s an idea that when we die we become angels. This is false. There is nothing in the Bible which says that. The closest thing in scripture to that is from Matthew chapter 22, the passage in which the Sadducees tried to stump the Lord with a question on marriage and the resurrection, and His answer was that in the resurrection people do not marry, but are like the angels in heaven. That’s not to imply that we will become angels, but rather that angels do not get married, and neither will we in eternity. We are not angels, we do not become angels, any more than cats become dogs or snakes become dragons.
Angels are created beings, as we are, but they are a different thing entirely. While we have some instances of angels described in scripture as looking like human beings, such as the visitors to Abraham and Lot in Genesis chapters 18 and 19, in most cases where someone in scripture encounters one or more angels there is no question that this is a different sort of creature altogether. People do not fall down in fear when they meet a random stranger. We see many instances of that when people in scripture meet angels. As well, in Psalm 8, mankind is described as being “a little lower than the angels.” We do not become angels, that is not what we should be looking towards.
We also will not sit around in the clouds playing harps all day. Harps and clouds are a convenient way for artists to depict heaven, and it’s become a cliché for how things will look in eternity. But it’s not based on much at all.
Concerning harps, that idea likely stems from Revelation chapter chapter 5, where we see the four living creatures and twenty four elders, each holding a harp, and from Revelation chapter 14, where John describes hearing a voice that sounded like harpists with harps. That’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that we all get harps. There may well be harps in eternity, but there’s nothing to say they will be handed out wholesale. I’m not expecting one, and I haven’t started harp lessons.
Will we all praise and worship God? Yes, there are many passages in Revelation and in the Psalms to indicate this, and it will certainly be one of the activities that takes place hereafter. Notice that it’s also one of the activities that takes place here and now. We worshipped God at the first meeting this morning, and we sang hymns at the start of this meeting. Looking at the kids who were at camp already this summer, and those who are going down today, or maybe next month, is there any singing at camp? Any at all? Maybe a little? We praise God at camp, and for some folks that’s a highlight of camp.
We praise God here and now, both because it’s something we should be doing, and something that we will be doing later. I don’t believe that we will sit around for eternity having an everlasting praise and worship service, but certainly, we will worship God, and continue to do so. What’s more, we will worship in His presence. That is certainly different than how things are now.
Concerning clouds, we associate clouds with heaven because we associate the heaven of God with the sky above us, and when we look up, we see clouds. In Revelation chapter 1, verse 7, Christ is described as coming with clouds. That does not mean that where He came from was made up of clouds, merely that there are clouds in the sky.
We’ve talked about what eternal life does not look like, but let’s take a few minutes and consider what it will look like. If you read the last couple of chapters of Revelation, we are told about a new heaven and a new earth that are created to replace this fallen one, and the holy city, the New Jerusalem. I’ll read a few verses from there now. From chapter 21, Rev 21:1-4 (1) And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. (2) And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (3) And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. (4) And 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.
I’ll pause there to point out that’s a few more things that are not part of eternal life – sorrow, tears, pain, death, all those things go away. They will not be missed. Quite the opposite of how things are now, how things are here in this life, and how they will be if we decide against following Christ. It should be a no-brainer as to which is better.
Skipping down to verse 10. Rev 21:10 And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, Rev 21:11 Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal; Rev 21:12 And had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: Rev 21:13 On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates. Rev 21:14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. Rev 21:15 And he that talked with me had a golden reed to measure the city, and the gates thereof, and the wall thereof. Rev 21:16 And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal. Rev 21:17 And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel. Rev 21:18 And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass. Rev 21:19 And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald; Rev 21:20 The fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprasus; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst. Rev 21:21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass. Rev 21:22 And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. Rev 21:23 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. Rev 21:24 And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. Rev 21:25 And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. Rev 21:26 And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it. Rev 21:27 And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Rev 22:1 And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. Rev 22:2 In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. Rev 22:3 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: Rev 22:4 And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. Rev 22:5 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.
In this passage we are given some description of what it will look like; notice there is no mention of clouds or harps. We could go through it in detail and analyze the meaning of how it is built with precious stones, and the gates are pearls, and about the pure water of the river of life. It doesn’t sound like an endless worship service to me. It sounds like a city quite different than what we know, what we have experienced. It sounds like there will be work to do, not heavy drudgery, but service to God. That should not be a surprise, we were created to do work from the very beginning. Adam was given the task of tending to the Garden of Eden, it was only after the fall that it became difficult. That’s all going to be over and done with here.
However, while that all sounds impressive and lovely, eternal life is not about the beauty of the location. It’s not about the precious stones or the streets made of gold. Those might sound cool, but they don’t really matter. Ultimately, it’s about the company. It’s about our host.
Earlier hear the first part of John 14 read. Let me read a few verses from there again. (1) Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. (2) In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. (3) And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.
Christ told His disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them, that He would in fact come and receive them and that they would be there with Him. And likewise, as we read earlier from John chapter 10, He said that those who are His sheep hear his voice and follow Him, and that they would not be separated from Him or lost.
The main thing about eternal life is not that we do not die, not that sufferings will end, not that tears will be wiped away. It’s about being with your Creator. It’s about having a relationship with your Saviour. It’s about knowing Him, and continuing to know Him better, to grow closer to Him, to becoming more like Him. That doesn’t start sometime in the future, we can know him now. And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.