The Johannine Interpretation of the Christ Event: “The Eternal Life of God”
The apostle John interprets the Christ event in terms of "eternal life." The words life and eternal life are used about fifty times in the Johannine literature.
. . . for the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us. —1 John 1 :2.
The background of John's concept of eternal life is the Old Testament. In the Hebrew Scriptures God is presented as the "living God," who is the only fountain of life (Ps. 36:9). When man sinned in the beginning, he was driven from Paradise, where he had access to the tree of life (Gen. 3:22). Separated from God, man is only mortal.
And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.—1 John 5:11-13.
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. —John 3:16.
. . . but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name. —John 20:31.
The conviction deepens throughout the Old Testament that in the age to come there will be life for the man who has fellowship with God.
. . . in the later writings of the Old Testament we find the picture of the healing river, or living waters, which will flow out from Jerusalem in the Messianic Age (Ezek. 47.1-12; Zech. 14.8; Joel 3.18; cf. Isa. 12.3; 33.21), bringing life to the world. St. John, in whose writing Jewish eschatology is adapted to Christian ends with consummate skill, fastens on the idea and represents Christ as the fulfillment of the promise of 'living water' (John 4.10) in the latter days: 'The water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up into the life of the (new) Age' (John 4:14). . . .
Thus, the conception of life, which the New Testament takes over from later Judaism, is thoroughly eschatological. —Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, pp.71, 72.
The New Testament expression, "eternal life [Greek, zoe aionios]," is taken from Daniel 12:2: ". . . many of them that sleep in the dust shall awake, some to everlasting life [Septuagint, zoe aionios] . . ." Richardson points out that "the phrase is entirely Jewish" and "is not found in pagan religious and philosophical writers until long after the New Testament period."—Ibid., p.73.
There are two points we need to notice about this zoe alonios:
1. It is the life of the resurrection, not only in Daniel, but in Johannine literature. John reports Jesus as saying, ". . . every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on Him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day." John 6:40 (see also John 6:39, 44; 5:25-29). "There is never a hint in his [John's] gospel that the Greek idea of immortality, the mere survival of the soul, has replaced the Semitic concept of life" — that is to say, the life of the whole man in true creaturely existence (R. Schnachanburg, God's Rule and Kingdom (1963), p.280; cited in George Eldon Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth, p.72).
2. Zoe aionios is a Hebrew expression which really means "life of the age to come." Its meaning is primarily qualitative. Says Richardson
Ladd agrees, saying, "Both in the Synoptics and in John, eternal life is the life of the eschatological age to come."—Ladd, op. cit, p.76.
The fact is that in the New Testament zoe, or more fully zoe aionios, is an eschatological conception; it is one of the characteristic marks of the Age to Come, like glory, light, etc. In the contemporary rabbinic conception, the Age to Come (cf. Mark 10.30, ho erchomenos aion; Heb. 6.5, ho mellon aion), as distinct from this age (ho nun aion or ho aion houtos), was to be characterized by zoe, that is, zoe aionios, the life of the (coming) aion. Thus, what appears in EVV as 'eternal life' or 'life everlasting' really means 'the life of the Age to Come'. The phrase zoe aionios need not necessarily imply ever-lasting life (e.g. Enoch 10.10), but the usual meaning is life after death indefinitely prolonged in the World to Come (Dan. 12.2; Test. Asher 5.2; Ps. 501. 3.16; II (4) Esd. 7.12f.; 8.52-54).—Richardson, op. cit., pp. 73, 74.
John's message of eternal life, therefore, is the apostle's way of presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of the hopes of the Old Testament. Yet it is a radical break with Judaism on two counts:
1. Judaism taught that this eternal life would only appear in God's last day, or in the age to come. John declares that this eschatological day of salvation has already arrived in the Person of Jesus. In Him the life of the age to come has appeared. Eternity has broken into history. This message is every bit as startling as the Synoptic message that the kingdom of God has arrived in Jesus Christ, or the Pauline message that the eschatological judgment with its acquitting verdict has already been revealed in the Christ event, or the message of Hebrews that Calvary is Yom Kippur.
2. Judaism had come to believe that this "water of life" or "bread of life" was found in the Torah (the Law). Its faithful study and practice, it was said, would obtain for man the coveted life of the age to come. Said a noted Rabbi, "The Torah is great, because it gives to those that practice it life in this age and in the age to come." Pirge Aboth 6.7. But John's gospel denies that life can be found in this fashion (John 5:39, 40), even as Paul denies the claim that the law can give life (Gal. 3:21). The life of the age to come has been brought to us by God's Son. He is that living Bread, who gives eternal life (John 6:39-44). Men cannot acquire it by works, but only by believing on the name of the Son of God (John 6:28, 29). Even the apostle Paul did not press faith as the receptive instrument of salvation more than John, for John speaks about believing on Jesus more than 100 times. He declares that the purpose of writing his gospel is that we might believe and, by believing, possess the life of the age to come (John 20:31). If Paul is to be noted for his accent on justification by faith, John is to be noted for his theme of eternal life by faith. Yet they are both talking about two aspects of one reality. To Paul, justification is God's verdict of life (Rom. 5:18) and is accompanied by the gift of God's life-giving Spirit (Rom. 8:10). To John, believing on Jesus means a verdict of no condemnation, a passing from death unto life (John 5:24).
In the Synoptic Gospels we find that eternal life is synonymous with the kingdom of God (see Mark 10:15-17). The major difference between the Synoptics and John is that the former speak of eternal life as future (at the last-day resurrection), while John speaks of eternal life as a possession of believers now.
We must be careful at this point to think and speak in the framework of the Bible. The believer does not possess this life as an inherent quality any more than he possesses God's justifying righteousness as a property in His own nature. He possesses this life only by faith. Eternal life dwells in Him only "in faith." It has not become a quality of his humanity. Just as in the midst of his sinfulness he is righteous, so in the midst of his self-evident mortality he has life. By faith he is what he is not. In himself he is not righteous and not immortal, but in Christ he is both righteous and immortal. The Christian's righteousness before God is not in Himself, but in the One in whom he believes. In the same way, his life is extrinsic, outside of himself in the Person of Christ.". . . your life," says Paul, "is hid with Christ in God." Col. 3:3 (cf. 1 John 5:11, 12). This life will be an empirical possession of the believer only when Jesus comes again at the consummation of world history (Col. 3:4).