15. Living in God's Today
The healing of the centurion's boy was a traditional miracle story that manifested Jesus' life-giving power. In the Synoptic accounts (Mt 8,5--13 and Lk 7,1-10) his authority over life and death even at a distance is clearly brought out. John recounts the same event to highlight one of the main themes of his Gospel, namely that Jesus gives life and this this life begins immediately (4,46-54).
The official in question lived in Capernaum and came down to Cana to request Jesus to cure his son. He must have pleaded with Jesus to come quickly because "the boy was at the point of death". Jesus replied with a demand of faith. "Unless you see signs and miracles you will not believe". The official pleaded once more, "Sir, come with me before my child dies". Jesus accepted the father's insistent plea as an expression of initial faith. "Go back home", he told him "Your son will live!" The man believed Jesus' words and went back home. On his return journey his servants already met him with the good news that the boy had been cured. "At what time did he get better?", the father enquired. "Yesterday at one o'clock in the afternoon", was their reply. The father then recognised that this was exactly the time when Jesus had said, "Your son will live!". He and his whole family were confirmed in their faith and they became followers of Jesus.
The story proclaims what John will say dozens of times throughout his Gospel, namely that Jesus has come to give us life. 'I have come in order that my sheep may have life and have it in abundance" (10,10). In Jesus was life and that life was the light of people (1,4). He is the bread of God that came down from heaven and which gives life to the world (6,33). Jesus' words are spirit and life (6.63). He gives the light of life (8,12). In fact, giving mission that he can simply,declare: "I am the life" (11,25; 14,6). John sums up the whole purpose of his Gospel saying that he wrote it in order that believing in Jesus we might have life (20,31).
We also notice that the time element is important in the story. The official's son received the gift of life at the exact moment when Jesus spoke his reassuring word. The life Jesus brings does not take effect only in the future, in the hereafter. It happens here and now. It effects an immediate transformation. "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word.... has already passed from death to life" (5,24).
What is this life John is talking about? Is he referring to something tangible and meaningful? Can we recognise this life in us today? These are some of the questions we will be discussing in this chapter.
Salvation here and now
The life Jesus gives us is "eternal life". "Life" and "eternal life" are so much interchangible in John's Gospel that the two expressions occur with almost equal frequency and alternate as perfect synonyms.220 "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will have no life in you. But whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life" (6,53-54). "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not enjoy life" (3,36). We might, therefore, begin by asking ourselves what is "eternal" about the life Jesus gives?
When we think or speak of eternal life we usually refer to our existence in God after we shall have passed from this world to the next. It is with this meaning that the rich young man enquired of Jesus' "Master, what should I do to obtain eternal life?" (Mk 10,17). With the same meaning Jesus promises "eternal life in the age to come" to those who give up everything for him now in this world (Mk 10,31). In this sense Paul can say that the goal and fulfillment of our life will be eternal life (Rom 6,22). Eternal life is the reward which we will reap in the Spirit after a life of sowing in the Spirit (Gal 6,8). In this sense eternal life will only happen to us after our physical death. It will be the kind of life Paul describes by saying that the perishable will put on the imperishable, the mortal immortality (1 Cor 15,53). In other words: it means living in heaven.
Now it is abundantly clear from John's Gospel that this cannot be the meaning of eternal life for him. The reason is simple. For John eternal life begins now. It starts as soon as someone turns to Jesus in faith and is accepted by him. John himself brings this out very forcefully in the meeting between Jesus and Martha before Jesus will raise Lazarus from death. Martha declared to Jesus, "I know that my brother will rise again in the resurrection on the last day". Jesus corrects her. The resurrection will not only happen on the last day. It happens immediately for whoever believes in him now. "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, even though he dies, will yet live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die" (11,24-26). Jesus rejects either one's physical death or the resurrection on the last day as decisive moments.(1) The all-determining moment is now. Whoever believes in him - , will rise from death to life now. He will receive eternal life immediately. For Jesus is the resurrection and the life. This means: already now he raises from death and gives life. The intervening physical death will not change the person's fundemental status.(2)
Like the other early Christians John does accept the final events that will culminate and round off human history. On the Last Day the dead will rise out of their tombs to face Jesus in the universe judgement (5,27-29). On that "Last Day" Jesus will raise to eternal life all those who believed in him (6,39-40), all those who took part in his eucharistic meal (6,57). On that same fatal day the word Jesus has spoken will condemn unbelievers (12,48). The ultimate happiness for Jesus' disciples will be to be with him where he is and to behold the glory the Father has given him from all eternity (17,24). There they will be in the Father's house occupying the places Jesus will have prepared for them (14,1-3). In fact, everything in John's Gospel requires this culmination of a complete return to the Father from whom all originates. Salvation without such a complete fulfillment in heaven would make John's Gospel meaningless (3)
It is all the more remarkable and important that John shifts the beginning of these eschatological events to the present time. For his stress on realised eschatology is very consistent and deliberate. Sure, the last judgement will come. But that judgement will only confirm the judgement that has happened already now, in Jesus. Through Jesus' coming believers have already been acquitted, unbelievers have condemned themselves (3,17-19). He who believes in Jesus has already eternal life. He will not come into judgement again. for he has already passed from death to life (5,24). Yes, only after the resurrection, in heaven, will our status as children of God become manifest (Lk 20,36). But this sonship has already started now (1,12) Already now we are born directly from God (1,13), from water and the Spirit (3,5). No doubt, eventually we will come into God's full glory. But already now we can say we have seen his glory (1,14). In the same way the resurrection which will eventually involve a glorified body has already taken place now. If we believe we have passed from death to life (5,24).
These observations, though helpful, have not given us an adequate answer as to what eternal life really means. On the contrary, we may wonder even more what this "eternal quality" is that we can already enjoy in this life.
Back to origins
Why does John use the term "life" so often? Where did he derive it from? What is his source for claiming that Christian life begins immediately and why does he stress this fact so much? If we could give an answer to these questions we would not be far off from understanding what "eternal life" means for John.
Jesus himself did not speak of "life" as frequently or consistently as John does. But occasionally he does speak of "life" in a sense that comes close to that employed by John. He stated that it is better to enter life maimed or with one eye than to be thrown into hell with all your limbs in perfect order (Mk 9,43-48). He obviously referred to life after death, but the expression reminds us of the frequent parallel "entering the kingdom of heaven" which occurs in the same passage (Mk 9,47) and frequently elsewhere (Mk 10,23-25; Mt 5,20; 7,21; 18,3; etc), an expression which even John uses once (3,5). According to another ancient tradition Jesus had stated that "whoever would save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel's will save it" (Mk 8,35; Mt 10,39; Lk 17,33). John knows this tradition and quotes it in a characteristically Johannine way. "He who loves his life loses it; he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (12,25). John found in Jesus' words some point of contact with his own terminology.
Yet, when we compare Jesus' way of speaking and John's, it is obvious that John's term "life" is a translation of what Jesus had called "the kingdom of heaven". Jesus came to preach and bring about that kingdom; exactly as, according to John, he preaches about life and gives it. It also explains the quality of immediacy. For Jesus proclaimed right from the beginning that the kingdom of God was at hand (Mk 1,15; Mt 3,2; 4,17; etc.). And even though the kingdom would only come in its full glory at the last judgement, it had begun even now with Jesus' coming. "The kingdom of God has come upon you' (Mt 12,28). "The kingdom of God is in the midst of you" (Lk 17,21). The new space Jesus was talking about, the realm where his Father would be known and loved, where people would be poor in spirit, hungering and thirsting for holiness, merciful and pure in heart, that kingdom of his Father was inaugurated by his mission. That same reality, applied to the individual, John interpreted as "eternal life". And his reason for preferring this term John found in the Hellenistic world.
The search for meaning
From a study of contemporary Hellenistic religious literature we see that a search for the meaning of existence was expressed as the individual's quest for life. This world, the realm of darkness and sin was also considered the abode of death. Living out one's animal needs in this world without understanding one's origins and higher purpose, was considered being like a living corpse. True life was found only in the realm of the divine, with God. God the Father of all was life and light.(4) He was addressed as "Light and Good Spirit and Life".(5) A common prayer could appeal to God: "Life, save whatever is in us; light, illumine whatever is in us".(6)
According to the prevailing concept, man's innermost part, his soul, originated from the divine realm. It was as a spark of life and light imprisoned in dark and dead matter. By spiritual illumination a person could recognise his divine origin and be integrated once more into life and light. This is the "life", "the eternal life", held out to religious seekers. "He who is united to the immortal one will be immortal himself. He who has pleasure in life, will have life".(7) Gnostic religions offer mystical food. By drinking of the waters of life one can "live a life for eternity".(8) The manna which God gives is like a honeycomb reserved to angels. "Whoever eats of it will not die in eternity". Whoever is united to the eternal realm "has his name written in the book of life and it will not be cancelled in eternity". (9)
It is in this religious ambience that John's preference for the term "life" becomes clear. The life religious seekers were looking for could not be obtained by re-awakening the spark contained in one's own soul. It could only be obtained as a gift from Jesus who alone is the authentic revelation of the Father, the principle of life. "As the Father has life in himself, he has granted the Son to have life in himself" (5,26). The Father sent his Son because he loved people and wanted them not to perish but to have eternal life (3,16). The task entrusted by the Father to the Son was, in short, to give eternal life (12,50). This was the kind of language John's contemporaries understood. Not the Aramaic expression "the kingdom of heaven", but the terminology of life made sense to them. John's teaching can only be gauged fully when seen in the context of this dialogue with Hellenists.
Translation for today
If the Hellenistic context is the main clue, we can now return to our original question: what does this "life" mean for us today? If as Christians we are already now risen from death, what does it mean in practical terms?
Some forty years ago this question might have been answered with a reference to sanctifying grace, which was believed to be a real, but invisible condition adhering to the essence of our human soul. Every baptised Christian who had not committed a mortal sin, was said by theologians to be "in the state of sanctifying grace". This meant that the person was a child of God, living in God's friendship, carrying in one's heart the invisible treasure of grace and the equally unnoticeable indwelling of the Holy Trinity. The life Jesus gave, to be more precise: this sanctifying grace, was believed in. One knew it was there, but its presence would only be seen in the glory of the hereafter. But such a theological construction is obviously inadequate to express the reality of life John speaks about. When he maintains that Jesus gives "life", he was obviously referring to something his contemporaries could recognise. The life of those believing in Jesus had to be as tangible an experience as the mystical illumination described by Gnostics. The rising from death to life in Jesus had to make a real difference in terms of everyday human existence. What did this life consist in?
First of all, as we have seen in Section Two of this book, Christ brought us new life by giving us a new, tangible awareness of God.(10) The Christian knows that God is a God of love. He lives in intimate union with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He can now experience the life of God in himself. "Because I live you will live also" (14,19). Believers will live because they hear the voice of the Son of God resounding within them (5,25). The Holy Spirit makes rivers of life-giving water flow from their hearts (7,38). In the eucharistic meal they are nourished by Jesus who is the bread of life (6,48). By eating of this bread they will live for ever (6,51). This growing union with God is a profound religious experience that answers those fundamental existential questions: Where do I come from and to what purpose do I live?
Secondly, life in God gives us a new relationship to time. The word "eternal" in "eternal life" does not so much point to the infinite future implied in the Aramaic expression "to all eternity"; according to Hellenistic thinking it points rather to "timelessness". Already Plato had clearly distinguished between the movement of time in this world and the immovable, everlasting essence of the divine. Days and nights, months and years characterise the process of time in our life. We know past, present and future in this world. But only the present is applicable to eternity. Of eternity one cannot say that it was or will be; one can only say that it is. Eternal life therefore means living in timelessness. Having eternal life means living in God's eternal today.(11)
This is no empty claim. Experience of Christian prayer and Christian action shows that time can be conquered by a new awareness that goes beyond time.(12) Jesus could say: "Before Abraham was, I am" (8,58). In a derived sense, but not less truthfully, we can say: in spite of what happens to me, in God I am. Even death cannot upset my being anchored in timeless life itself (11,25).
Thirdly, the life Jesus offers gives a new meaning to our relationships. For living in God means remaining in love. And this love embraces our relationships with others (15,9-17). In fact,the experience of this love is one of the clearest signs by which we can discern that we have passed from death to life (1 Jn 3,14-15). Only Christian mysticism with its unique blend of contemplation and love possesses the power to release true intimacy as a special fruit. (13) Love and intimacy in turn produce characteristic Christian joy (15,11; 16.20-24; 17.13; 1 Jn 1.4).
Existence with a purpose
The meaning of Christian life can also be defined through its opposites. left to himself man is locked up in his earthly existence.
"He belongs to the earth and thinks of the earth" (3,31). He seeks to still his hunger for life with perishable food (6,26-27). Pursuing his desires he may become their slave and thus get embroiled in sin (8,34). He may even become so attached to the material world that he hides in its darkness and shuns the light (3,20). Such a person is truly on the point of death (4,47).
Jesus enables us to break out of such a meaningless existence. By giving us a new intimacy with God (17,3), he provides a radically new interpretation of our world and the fate of each individual in it. Rooting us in timelessness, he helps us overcome our basic human fear of death. He also transforms and recreates the social world of our human togetherness. Yes, in Jesus we find life; and that life is the space we live in (1,4).
For reflection. The ladder to God's throne.
When Jesus set eyes on Nathaneal he praised him. "A true Israelite", Jesus said, "without deceipt". "How do you know me?", Nathanael asked. "I saw you, before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree". "What?!", Nathanael exclaimed. "Are you surprised?", Jesus said. "You will see greater things, I assure you. You will see heaven opened and angels of God coming down and climbing up over the Son of Man" (read 1,43-51).
Perhaps Nathanael had prayed for guidance under the fig tree. Jesus promises that he will be given the same kind of vision Jacob had who saw God's angels going up and down a ladder on the holy place of Bethel (Gen 28,10-17). But Nathanael's vision will be about Jesus. He will see how in Jesus' life the eternal, heavenly, divine dimension breaks through all the time.
What about the quality of my life? Is there room for a divine dimension to break through? Do I live my life consciously, or am I being lived?
In our Western society the rhythm of our day is dictated by tight schedules and timetables. Do I always feel under pressure? Am I aware of an aspect of timelessness in all I do? Do I treasure the moments when that experience is more palpable?
Do I ever think of death? Would I be prepared to die now? Could I say I have faced the fundamental options of life thoroughly enough not to be unduly worried about the moment of death?
Is "the kingdom of heaven" which Jesus preached the space in which I want to live my life? What price am I ready to pay in return for real life?
(1) It is not so much a blurring of the physical and the spiritual as C.F.D. MOULE would have it ("The Meaning of 'life' in the Gospels and Epistles of St. John", Theology 78 (1975) 114-125). It is rather a new quality of life through which physical death no longer matters. See also L.P. TRUDINGER, "The Meaning of 'life' in John. Some Further Reflections," Biblical Theology Bulletin 6 (1976) 258-263.
(2) E. KÜBLER-ROSS confirms this truth from everyday experience with the dying. We cannot die peacefully if we have unfinished business or unresolved relationships. People who have made all decisions thoughtfully and have faced challenges and options fully are prepared to die. The moment of death itself does not affect our inner status. On Death and Dying, Tavistock, London 1970.
(3). It is not correct, therefore, to consider the texts with an explicit future eschatology as later additions (5,28-29; 6,39-40.44.57; 12,48). As R. SCHNACKENBURG shows convincingly (The Gospel according to John, vol II, pp.538-540; see note 35 above) belief in these future events is rooted in John's whole thinking. Even if the explicit passages are an addition by the Final Redactor, they express correctly what the Evangelist held. See also: J. WANKE, "Die Zukunft des Glaubenden. Theologische Erwagungen zur johanneischen Eschatologie", Theologie und Glaube 71 (1981) 129-139.
(4) Corpus HermeticumI 12.
(5) IRENAEUS, Adversus Haereses I 21.3.
(6) Corpus Hermeticum XIII 19.
(7). Odes of Solomon 4,8-9. In the book of Enoch we read: "Till the present day such wisdom has never been given by the Lord of Spirits as I have received according to my insight, according to the good pleasure of the Lord of Spirits by whom the lot of eternal life has been given to me" (1 Enoch 37,4). Cf. E. PINTO, Jesus the Son and Giver of Life in the Fourth Gospel, Urbaniana, Rome 1981. p.113.
(8) Odes of Solomn6,18.
(9) Joseph and Aseneth 16,8, 15,3.
(10). J. C. COETZEE defines John's "eternal life" as "the glorious and continued oneness with Christ and his Father". Cf. "Life in John's writings and the Qumran scrolls", Neotestamentica 6 (1972) 48-66.
(11). C. H. DODD, Interpretation , pp.144-150.
(12). Read about this in A. BLOOM, School for Prayer, Darton, Longman and Todd, London 1970, pp.49-62.
(13). W. JOHNSTON, "Meditation and intimacy" in Silent Music, Fontana, Col1ins 1976, pp.141-148.
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