I think if you asked anyone on the street to define it, they'd say something like, "Eternal life is life that goes on forever; it never ends." And granted, that's the literal definition. But from a Biblical standpoint, is that it? Is there more to it?
We know that the children of God, those who follow Jesus Christ, are given eternal life as an inheritance:
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.
And these [the unrighteous/disobedient] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
It seems to me that the Jews were aware that eternal life could be inherited:
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'" And he said to him, "Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth." And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
(I love that passage, by the way. It rips my heart out to think of that man walking away--from eternal life, really--but it shows us such a deeply exciting look into who Jesus is. He looked at him and loved him.)
When I read about eternal life in the New Testament, certainly the idea of "life that goes on forever" is a correct interpretation, but it's not a complete one. I'd say it's "abundant life that goes on forever and is connected intimately and wholly with relationship to the Messiah." This is the heart of the meaning of life in a New Testament context, as I read it.
I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
John 3:14-16, 36
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life....He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him."
In fact, eternal life is actually explicitly defined, a couple of times, in this New Covenant!
Jesus said, "I know that His commandment is eternal life; therefore the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me" (John 12:50). Peter said to Jesus, ""Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God." The very words of God ARE, and GIVE, eternal life. Interestingly, Jesus is called the logos, or Word, of God in John 1.
Jesus is the only way to this eternal life because He IS eternal life. He is the Source, the never-ending Spring of living water! It is through relationship with HIM that eternal life exists for us!
Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
That was actually the passage that made me think of John 17, and in turn, this topic, this morning.
Think of how many people have searched for eternal life throughout human history. Many, maybe most, myths and ancient legends have to do with the human desire to attain eternal life and to be like God or the gods. The answer to all those quests and desires is so simple. It's not found through spelunking through ancient caves, looking for documents or chalices. It's not found through killing a twelve-headed monster or saving a virgin from a gruesome death.
It's found by simply trusting in, following and obeying the Lord Jesus Christ, the originator and giver of life.
What is eternal life?
This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
For me that one passage could sum up every other scripture quoted here. Eternal life is, quite simply, knowing God and knowing Jesus. The opportunity to know them (in a way man has never known God before) is the opportunity to experience, and to continue to experience, abundant, joyful life, outside of the boundaries of time and space: for eternity.
Jesus is central to this eternal life because it COMES from Him! 'Jesus' and 'eternal life' cannot be separated as concepts or realities. Eternity outside of the presence of Christ isn't life; it's eternal death. We're eternal creatures, one way or the other. But that's another post.
Jesus answered and said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life."
The human body can go much longer without food than without water. Jesus is necessary for spiritual life in the same way that water is necessary for physical life to continue.
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.
The Bible only gives life insofar as it presents the Words of God. It is these Words that give life IF the hearer's heart is penetrated by them, and the eyes opened by the Spirit (John 6:63).
John 6:27, 39-40
Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal....And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them to eternal life at the last day. For it is my Father's will that all who see his Son and believe in him should have eternal life--that I should raise them at the last day.
Notice that it is Jesus, the giver of eternal life, who raises His people on the last day--raising them to eternal life.
And the bottom line for us is this: we are striving for a prize, and that is abundant life with Jesus that goes on forever. We must not grow weary in pursuing it.
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.