“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14–15, ESV)
Eternal life. Strange words, these. An expression that John will use again and again (fourteen times!) in his gospel makes its first appearance here. Whatever could Jesus mean telling Nicodemus that there was such a thing as eternal life and he (Jesus) could give it to him! [Has anyone ever told you that they could give you eternal life? Didn’t think so.] The sheer plain way that Jesus makes these truly breathtaking claims again and again never ceases to amaze me. It’s as if he just told Nicodemus that he was going out for pizza. One imagines Nicodemus suddenly leaning forward and saying, “Excuse me. Did I hear you correctly?”
The phrase itself means “a long period of time” or “a period of time without beginning or end,” or “a period of unending duration.” It was not an unfamiliar concept to the cultures of the Ancient Near East; the Egyptian dead were said to have passed to their eternal house.
The concept itself makes only one appearance in the Old Testament in Daniel 12.2: And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Nicodemus must have been familiar with the concept—if not how to get it—because we know that by the period of the Maccabees, it was something with which the populace was familiar. “He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead.” (2 Maccabees 12:43–44, NRSV). What else does one rise to if not to a life that will not end?
How do we see the concept of eternal life being unfolded in John?
- It was connected with the purpose of the entire gospel (John 20.31).
- Lazarus’ resurrection was a living parable of the concept—“Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”” (John 11:25–26, ESV)
- “The metaphors with which Jesus defined his own mission emphasize the present new life: living water that is “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14); living bread that satisfies the world’s spiritual hunger (Jn 6:35–40); the light of the world who leads his followers into the light of life (Jn 8:12); the good shepherd who brings abundant life (Jn 10:10); the life giver who raises the dead (Jn 11:25); the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6); and the genuine vine who sustains those who abide in him (Jn 15:5).” [Quoted from Baker Encyclopaedia of the Bible]. Eternal life was something that could be experienced in the present, not just something good only in the future. “The life of the age to come is already available in Christ to the believer” [Baker].
- Paul summarizes eternal life as something that begins now in 2 Cor. 5.17: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
How does one gain eternal life? One must believe in the lifted up Son of Man as Jesus states in our passage. Happy pursuit of eternal life, dear reader. It is there for you, but you must choose it.