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In my circles, talk of God’s kingdom resonates well. It’s earthy. It’s life-affirming. It’s a call to be out in the world working, creating, even reforming as agents of the King. The kingdom of God feels relevant, and it is.

Eternal life, on the other hand, can come off as merely an amorphous alternative to hell. At best, it can be difficult to connect with. At worst, it can seem like a diversion from things that deserve our attention—a distraction from the beauty of this world or an attempt to escape from its problems.

This reaction to the promise of eternal life is as old as the promise itself. In John’s gospel, where eternal life has an especially prominent place, Jesus’ relentless focus on eternal life drives many of His hearers away.

Consider John 6. Jesus feeds five thousand people with a few loaves and fish. The crowds then track Him down, hoping for more. Jesus, sensing their true motive, says: “You are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life” (vv. 26–27).

In other words, they see His power but miss His point. They want to leverage His power for the agendas they have brought with them. He wants to shift their focus altogether and spends the next forty verses teaching about eternal life. “After this,” John tells us, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (v. 66). Eternal life was off topic, even then.

But I’m struck, too, by how Peter responds when Jesus asks him if he wants to leave with the others. Peter says: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68). For the crowds, talk of eternal life left them uninterested. For Peter, this promise is the reason to stay. This is what made Jesus irreplaceably necessary for him.

How can we see what Peter saw? How do we see that eternal life, rather than a diversion, is the key to the relevance of Jesus and to experiencing His relevance in our everyday lives?

I want to suggest one helpful step toward experiencing the relevance of eternal life to the life we’re living now. When eternal life sounds otherworldly and remote for us, it may be because we’re not paying close enough attention to the truth about life under the sun.

A couple of years ago, my family spent a month’s sabbatical in Cambridge, England. At some point in that trip, I took a photo of my two little boys standing in front of their favorite local attraction—a bizarre and unforgettable piece of public art called the Corpus Clock. The clock includes some of the basic elements you’d expect: it’s covered in shiny gold, a pendulum at the bottom swings with the seconds, and its round face with lights marks the minutes and the hours. But there’s also a ring around the clock’s face that rotates click by click with each passing second. And perched on top of that ring is a hideous mechanical locust. The whole mechanism operates when the arms of this locust reach forward, grab the ring, and pull it in toward its mouth. Every passing second feeds its appetite, and it’s never satisfied.

Looking at the beautiful smiling faces of my kids in that photo, seeing how much they’ve changed even in the short time since I took it, I can’t miss the metaphor in the grotesque locust just above their heads. For a five-year-old boy, what’s not to love? But for those of us who take the point, it’s a perfect, haunting image of how time works. “Time,” C.S. Lewis said, “is one more name for death.”1 Like a swarm of locusts on a newly sprouted field, it destroys everything we love in this world.

Knowing your journey ends in a feast of untainted, cloudless, eternal joy completely reframes how you experience the passing pleasures of this life.

When we face this truth about life under the sun, our joys in this life will always be clouded by sorrow. Every moment that I enjoy what I have brings me one moment closer to losing what I have. The more deeply I love these good gifts, the more I’ll hurt when I lose them. And the more I really own this truth about time and loss, the more difficult it will be to enjoy what I have even while I still have it.

I appreciate the way French philosopher Michel de Montaigne framed this problem several hundred years ago. He imagined a group of condemned criminals on their way to execution, offered a host of exquisite pleasures along their journey. They’re led through fine palaces full of delicious foods and entertainment and whatever else they might want. Montaigne asks, “Do you think they can enjoy it,” or that “having the final purpose of their journey ever before their eyes will not spoil their taste for such entertainment?”2

I hope Montaigne’s point is clear enough. Knowing that nothing lasts forever can spoil your appetite for pleasure along the way. How can we enjoy anything when we know we’re eventually going to lose everything?

When we’ve learned to feel the weight of this question, we’re ready to understand why Jesus spoke so often of eternal life. And we’re ready to know with Peter that there’s nowhere else to go.

Jesus’ promise of eternal life isn’t a denial of or a distraction from the beauty or the pain of life in this world; rather, it’s a direct response to the mixture of joy and sorrow that always marks our experience in this world. And this promise has the power to transform how we enjoy our lives now as we wait for the life to come.

I said before that the theme of eternal life is all over John’s gospel. It’s in the subtext of Jesus’ first sign at Cana. It’s in His late-night conversation with Nicodemus about the kingdom (John 3:1–15). It’s in His offer to the unsatisfied woman at the well (4:1–15). It’s in His miracle of the loaves (6:1–27) and in His raising of Lazarus (11:1–27). It’s the essential good news packed into Jesus’ own resurrection, and it’s behind John’s purpose in putting these stories to paper (20:30–31).

In The Gospel of Glory, Richard Bauckham argues that behind John’s language about eternal life, behind Jesus’ signs with wine and bread and dead bodies brought to life, is a beautiful prophecy from Isaiah 25.3

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. (Isa. 25:6–8)

When Jesus offers eternal life, when He pictures that life with wine and feasting and resurrection, He’s promising “life beyond the reach of death,” the “healing and transfiguration of life in all the ways that mortal life falls short of life in its fullness.”4 He’s promising to swallow up death, to cast off the veil that holds even our sweetest pleasures in check.

Eternal life is not off topic. It belongs squarely in this world where beauty is always ephemeral and love eventually breaks your heart. This promise is exactly what we need to fully engage with what we know we’re going to lose.

For Montaigne’s condemned criminals, knowing the end is coming removes the pleasure from every bite along the way. But knowing your journey ends in a feast of untainted, cloudless, eternal joy completely reframes how you experience the passing pleasures of this life. These pleasures are appetizers. It’s their job to whet our appetites, not satisfy them.

That means we can savor sweet gifts while we have them in solidarity with the banquet to come. They are foretastes of glory divine.

And it means that when these gifts have passed, as everything must in time, we can know that the pains we feel are hunger pangs. It doesn’t have to drive us toward the past, as if we could possibly regain what we’ve lost. This pain draws us forward, to the feast Christ has prepared, knowing that Jesus saves the best wine for last.

 

  1. C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Bantam, 1976), 28. ↩︎
  2. Michel de Montaigne, “To Philosophize Is to Learn to Die,” in The Complete Essays, trans. and ed. M.A. Screech (New York: Penguin, 2003), 91–92. ↩︎
  3. Richard Bauckham, Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2015), 182–83. ↩︎
  4. Bauckham, Gospel of Glory, 71. ↩︎

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