Eternal life, according to Jesus in John 17:3, is the knowledge of the Triune God. If this is so, then our eternal vocation is to know God and enjoy Him forever. Also, if this holds true, then our endeavors here on earth must be to know Him as much as we can, with a singular and simple focus.
Jesus says this during the Passover week, as He is about to die on the cross. At the end of His three-year earthly ministry as the incarnated Son of God, and with the cross in sight, He gathers His own, those that the Father has given Him (v6), to whom He had manifested the Father’s Name. Jesus says this at a critical hour, the hour of the cross. He intends to reiterate that which is of significance, which He has taught His disciples from the moment He called them three years ago, the reason He became Man.
Eternal life is knowledge of the Trinity. Let that sink in, slowly.
And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do. And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was. John 17:3-5
These three verses are intense. They are personal, and they are revelatory. What Christ is saying here is this:
One, The Father is the source of eternal life. Two, the Son proceeds forth from the Father in an eternal relationship. And three, Jesus came to the earth to draw humanity into fellowship with this Triune God by the knowledge of God in Christ.
The Father as the Source of Eternal Life
In speaking about His Father, Jesus intimates that He is the only True God. In saying this, on the one hand, Jesus seeks to exalt the Father above every other false deity and so-called ‘gods’ that men worship in their disobedience. Jesus is in effect saying, ‘He alone is God’. On the other hand, as the only true God, He is the true and single source of all life, both temporal and eternal, since the false gods are false precisely because they are themselves created entities devoid of life in themselves.
What this also means is that one has eternal life only if they have the Father. He is the source of it, and it thus points to Him. To have eternal life is to have this knowledge of God the Father as the source of all good gifts, the ultimate gift being eternal life in Him. This eternal life is by essence the Father Himself, given as a gift to those who come to Him by faith in His Son.
The Son’s Procession
Jesus prays to God the Father, by calling Him ‘Father,’ and this, not just because He is human. It is not merely Jesus’ humanity crying out to God as His Father, but His entire being. The Father is not Father only to the humanness of Christ, but also to His divinity.
The reason John 3:16 calls Jesus ‘the only begotten of God’ is indeed because Jesus eternally proceeds forth from the Father, outside of time. This is the reason, as well, why the Son has never sent the Father, but the Father sends the Son. For the Son always goes forth from the Father, and returns to the Father, as the Father communicates His divine essence, all of Himself to the Son so that all the fullness of deity dwells in the Son ‘bodily’ (Col 2:9).
The Incarnation of Christ
In verse four of John 17, Jesus says ‘I have finished the work which you have given me to do.’ That work, which culminates on the cross, is how He, through His death draws all men to Himself, and in Him, draws them to the Father, from whom are all things, so that God may be all in all.
In His incarnation, Christ unites humanity to His divinity. It was Irenaeus Bishop of Lyons who suggested that the whole point of creation was for God to be one with Creation. And we don’t find any closer union of God and man other than when God became Man in Christ. So, when Christ dies on the cross, He intends to draw all men to Himself (John 12:32). This is why eternal life is knowing the Father and the Son. For it is in the Son that humanity is united to God the Father.
Of This Knowledge
By knowledge here Christ speaks of the intellectual, relational and experiential. We can know God with our minds, and God calls us to. That is what it means to ‘love God with our minds.’ We can, with a certain degree of accuracy speak intelligibly of God, for He has Himself spoken intelligibly about Himself through scripture.
But to do this, we must know Him relationally. That is why Christ speaks of those whom the Father has given Him, those to whom He has ‘manifested’ the Father’s Name. This is relational. Through Christ, and by His Spirit, the disciples could know God as ‘Father,’ and thus could pray to Him as ‘our Father in heaven.’ This is a relationship. This is beyond facts about God.
Through this relational and intellectual knowledge of God, we get to experience God dynamically and actively in a way that words may not, (and cannot) accurately articulate since the divine nature is indescribable, incomprehensible and beyond the human vocabularies.
These three must interrelate and autocorrect each other. As we experience God’s fullness, we learn ways to speak about Him accurately, guided by scripture. We also grow in our understanding of Him as Father, (Son and Spirit), and we rejoice more in Him experientially.
And this is eternal life. It is life, for we are in communion with the fountain of life Himself, and it is eternal because this never ends.
The Holy Spirit
All this is made possible because of the Spirit of God, whom we receive, by whom we are united to Christ (1 Cor 12:13), and who teaches us these things (John 14:26). Without Him, there is no life, and there is no salvation. Without His work, we remain dead in sin, and cannot know God.
So when Christ invites us into a relationship with Him, the Holy Spirit, who is also the Spirit of Christ, draws us into that fellowship with the Father and the Son. So eternal life is knowing the Father, who is the only true God and knowing Jesus whom He sent, and the Holy Spirit who causes us to know the Son through whom we know the Father. It is trinitarian.
When did you ever think about God in trinitarian terms? When was it that you thought of the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Not often. In our systematic theology class today, our professor mentioned how all of us are functional Tri-theists, thinking of the Father, Son and Spirit as separate beings, instead of knowing God as One being with three distinct Persons. We have slowly forgotten to maintain the unity of Persons without blurring the distinctions, or the distinctions in Personhood without obscuring the unity, in our minds.
I know this is hard for us. But remember, this is eternal life; knowing God in His Trinitarian nature, with a singular and simple focus.