What is eternal life? When does it begin, and how do you get it? Is it simply the alternative to hell, or is there more to it than that? Many have speculated about these questions, but since His is the only opinion that really matters, what does God say about this?
“Now, since God has left us the promise that we may enter His rest, let us be very careful so none of you will fail to enter.” (Hebrews 4:1 NCV)
The New Testament book of Hebrews is a much more significant book of the Bible than many give it credit for, but in order to properly comprehend it, we must have a basic understanding of whom it was written to. As its name implies, it was an epistle–a letter–written to Jewish Christians. These were people who had believed in Jesus, but who had been raised in the Hebrew faith and were thoroughly familiar with the writings of the Old Testament Scriptures–much more so than many of us these days are. Yet because of our unfamiliarity with the Old Testament, we are at risk of missing the significance of this rich foundational doctrine! So, what are we told about eternity? Let’s examine the actual text of God’s Word to find out (I’m going to be using the New Century Version because it is easy to understand while retaining the correct meaning):
“So brothers and sisters, be careful that none of you has an evil, unbelieving heart that will turn you away from the living God. But encourage each other every day while it is “today.” Help each other so none of you will become hardened because sin has tricked you. We all share in Christ if we keep till the end the sure faith we had in the beginning. This is what the Scripture says: “Today listen to what he says. Do not be stubborn as in the past when you turned against God.” Who heard God’s voice and was against him? It was all those people Moses led out of Egypt. And with whom was God angry for forty years? He was angry with those who sinned, who died in the desert. And to whom was God talking when he promised that they would never enter his rest? He was talking to those who did not obey him. So we see they were not allowed to enter and have God’s rest, because they did not believe.” (Hebrews 3:12-19 NCV)
After God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt they arrived at the boundary of the land God had promised their forefather Abraham some four hundred years earlier within a very short time–several months at most. They sent twelve spies into Canaan, and received a mixed report. Ten of the spies said they couldn’t take it, and two–Joshua and Caleb–trusted that with God’s help they would be victorious. Yet the people did not believe and refused to enter into the land they would have found rest within. As a result, God punished them by causing them to wander in the desert for forty years, until everyone over twenty who had doubted died. The writer of Hebrews continues:
“Now, since God has left us the promise that we may enter His rest let us be very careful so none of you will fail to enter [note that the focus has shifted from the Old Testament Israelites to the followers of Christ]. The Good News was preached to us just as it was to them [they had seen enough of the power and reliability of God to trust Him, just as we have seen enough to trust Him]. But the teaching they heard did not help them, because they heard it but did not accept it with faith. We who have believed are able to enter [we ARE able–present, not future, tense] and have God’s rest. As God has said, “I was angry and made a promise, ‘They will never enter my rest.’ ” But God’s work was finished from the time he made the world. In the Scriptures he talked about the seventh day of the week: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his works.” [Entering God’s rest is now compared to God ceasing from His creative work on the seventh day of Creation after all was completed.] And again in the Scripture God said, “They will never enter my rest.” It is still true that some people will enter God’s rest, but those who first heard the way to be saved [the Israelites] did not enter, because they did not obey. So God planned another day, called “today.” He spoke about that day through David a long time later in the same Scripture used before: “Today listen to what he says. Do not be stubborn.” We know that Joshua did not lead the people into that rest [God is referring to a different rest than that of Joshua leading the Israelites into the Promised Land] because God spoke later about another day. This shows that the rest for God’s people is still coming. Anyone who enters God’s rest will rest from his work as God did. Let us try as hard as we can to enter God’s rest so that no one will fail by following the example of those who refused to obey [the unbelieving and disobedient Israelites].” (Hebrews 4:1-11 NCV)
This passage compares two two different rests–(1) the rest for the Israelites from their wanderings in the desert once they finally entered the land promised to their ancestor Abraham, and (2) the rest for us, the people of God. Yet to what is God referring to when He speaks of our “rest?” On a superficial examination, it seems that when God refers to a rest for the followers of Christ He means heaven, and it is certainly true that that is our hope. Yet there is a greater significance to these verses.
Right before Jesus went to the cross, John records the prayer Jesus prayed, part of which is here:
“After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (John 17:1-5 NIV)
Eternal life is knowing the Father, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He sent, and even though it is difficult to comprehend, some part of it begins now. We hear the same idea repeated in I John 5:13:
“And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:11-13 NIV)
Knowing and following Christ–being in Him–IS eternal life, and it begins in the here and now. So when the writer of Hebrews exhorts us to be very careful that none of us fails to enter God’s rest, he is, in fact, encouragining us to make sure our faith is genuine–that it results in obedience. Just as the ancient Israelites did not enter God’s rest in Canaan because of disbelief which resulted in disobedience, disbelief which results in disobedience is what will keep us from entering the eternal rest God has prepared for us through Christ.
Yet while in Christ belief results in obedience, we no longer have to strive to earn our way into the presence of God–we rest in His completed work of redemption on the cross. It is Christ Himself who is our rest. Remember that it was He who said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 NIV)
So, what is eternal life? Jesus clearly answered this question–“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” When does it begin, and how do you get it? We get it through faith in Christ–a faith resulting in obedience, one that genuinely believes–and are assured that “Whoever has the Son [already] has life.” Do you have eternal life?
Dear Heavenly Father,
Help me know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent–have eternal life! Amen.