And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
Have you ever noticed that not everybody understands the same thing when they use the same words? Think of the word work. You ask one man what that word means to him, and work is something that is a curse, a bitterness, and something to be avoided. Ask another man, and work is the measure of a man’s character, something that no good man shrinks back from doing.
Similarly, the phrase eternal life or the word heaven each has different things they stir up in different people. To the Hindu, living forever is the last thing they want to do, as they think of this life as suffering and long for escape. Kenny Chesney sings that everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to go now. Clearly, neither the Hindu nor the country singer has a proper grasp of eternal life.
But, how well do we do in thinking about eternal life? When Christians sing about eternal life, they often magnify such things as mansions, streets of gold, crowns, and gates of pearl. We often focus on spending time with our loved ones who have preceded us and meeting the saints of generations gone by. Some Christians adopt the worlds model of talking about those who have gone before us, and use the unbiblical language of some deceased relative we love looking down upon us and watching over us.
Jesus, however, in this prayer shows us exactly what is at the very center of eternal life, of heaven. Jesus shows us what is the gift that God has given Jesus the authority to give to those who belong to him. What is eternal life? If you sum it all up, heaven, eternal life, comes down to this: knowing God.
Remember that Moses, when God showed him favor, asked God for one ultimate gift, “Please, show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18). You can read David’s words in Psalm 16 and 63, declaring the glory of God and the beauty of God to be ultimately pleasurable and better than life. In Revelation 4, the 24 elders around the throne of God are constantly captivated by the infinite wonder and beauty in the presence of God.
The fact is, God created us with a great desire to see and experience that which is bigger than us and greater than us. This is why you gaze at sunsets, the night sky, the Grand Canyon, and the ocean. This is why you marvel at great feats of strength, incredible wisdom, fascinating technology, or awe-inspiring power. God created us to long for and to be satisfied by seeing and knowing something greater than we are. We have a hunger that simply is never satisfied to experience wonder. And God, the infinite and perfect and awesome and glorious one is the only one who can satisfy such a longing.
What is heaven? What is eternal life? Eternal life is to be in the presence of God, to be fully joyous over knowing him, over seeing him, over being in his presence. Heaven is perfect, a joy beyond anything that this earth can even begin to offer us, because heaven is the ultimate joy of being with and knowing God.
So, why all the talk about streets of gold and relatives? They are there to point us to the glory of God. Streets of gold remind us of the riches of God and will reflect his beauty. Saints of old and our saved relatives stand in heaven as reminders of God’s grace and Christ’s faithfulness. All these things will be part of heaven, but you won’t really be focused on such things. You will, if you have eternal life, be centered on and overwhelmed with the heart-filling, soul-satisfying, glorious presence of God.
And let me offer this warning. If the glory of God does not stir your heart so that you want to experience his presence, be concerned. Now, I understand that my description is a feeble attempt to describe something marvelous and beyond comprehension; so if I don’t inspire you, don’t worry. But if you, when you think about being in God’s presence and seeing his glory are not moved to long for him and to be in his presence forever, you should be concerned about the condition of your heart. David Platt said in a chapel message at Southern Seminary on 9/2/2008, “You don’t go to heaven if you don’t want God.” If being in God’s presence is not enough for you, it sounds to me like you may not know him and that you certainly don’t treasure him. So, be careful with your heart, and be sure that you are longing for the heaven that God has created you for.
And right now, you can begin living out your eternal life by coming to know and love and be amazed by God. He has revealed himself to you in his word. Treasure his word. Love his word. Spend time with him in prayer. Take worship seriously. Find joy in his presence now. Begin to live out the purpose of eternal life, knowing God.