Why are books that claim to reveal heaven so popular with people? Why are books like the Baptist minister's 90 Minutes in Heaven and a four-year-old's revelation that Heaven is For Real on the best seller charts? Even if these people really were in heaven doesn't it strike you as strange that when Paul speaks of being caught up to heaven he says he heard things which a man is not permitted to speak, but these two are permitted? Stranger still, why do millions read and study the words of men while ignoring the Word of God both in the flesh and on the printed page? Jesus, the Word made flesh, came from heaven and returned there. Don't you think His Words on the subject might be worth a hearing? A studying? A believing? What does He say about eternal life?
First, what does Jesus say eternal life is? Notice He doesn't say it is extended time. He doesn't say as "Amazing Grace" sings, "When we've been there ten thousand years/ Bright shining as the sun/ We've no less days to sing God's praise/ Than when we first begun!" I've always liked that verse, but it definitely portrays eternal life as extended life. Can you imagine doing anything for 10,000 years?
That's another thing Jesus doesn't do. He doesn't describe eternal life in terms of what people will be doing. Jesus doesn't describe eternal life in terms of what we will experience after death. That's the bread and butter of these books. The purport to tell you after death experiences. They claim to do what Harry Houdini failed to do. Houdini said that after his death he would return to his wife and utter the code words "Rosabelle believe" if heaven was real. Houdini was never able to communicate from the other side. A Baptist minister and four-year-old say they have.
Jesus speaks of what He knows, and He doesn't speak of eternal life as an experience after death but as knowing something right now. Could He be any plainer? "Now this is eternal life that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent." Eternal life is a knowing, not something known once and for all but an ongoing, increasing knowledge.
Notice Jesus uses the phrase "Jesus Christ." The Gospels only use both names together four times. When doing so, who Jesus is and what Jesus does is being emphasized. Eternal life is knowing Jesus as True God and True Man, and it's knowing that Jesus' work is to come into the world and save sinners. Eternal life is knowing the True God and the God Man whom He sent into the world.
How is God the Father and God the Son to be known? In the words of others about God? In the conclusions you come to about God? In your contemplating the works of God? Augustine said, "There is in the mind no knowledge of God except the knowledge of how it does not know Him" (On Order, ii, 18, 47). If the Law has done its work and humbled me I must confess that all I know about God is that I don't know Him at all. He must reveal Himself to me. And Jesus says He reveals the only True God to mankind by giving us the words the True God gave to Him.
We're going to come back to this at the end. For now, let's move on to the question of who gets eternal life? Now you would think that if eternal life is knowing, then Jesus would say it belongs to those who know the most, study His Word the most. And the connection with the Word is there, but notice it comes after something else. Jesus says that He has revealed the True God "to those whom You gave me. They were yours; You gave them to Me, and they have kept (not obeyed) Your Word."
Starting to tingle just a bit? Starting to see that it's otherwise than you have hereto now believed? Keeping the Word, studying the Word follows being given by the Father to the Son. You can't miss this plain teaching in this short text. God the Son in praying to God the Father on the last night of His life says, "For You granted the Son authority over all people that He might give eternal life to all those You have given Him." "I have revealed You to those whom You gave Me out of the world. They were Yours You gave them to Me." Last, Jesus refers to "those You have given Me," using a Greek construction that means forever given Me.
Jesus is picking up several things He has said earlier in John. In John 6 Jesus doesn't marvel that most of the Jews reject Him because no one can come to Him unless the Father literally drags them. And in John 10 Jesus says that the Father has given those who will be saved into His hand and no one can snatch them out of His hands.
So who gets eternal life is not a matter of selling people Jesus, arguing people to Jesus, meeting their felt needs, or building a relationship with them. Who gets eternal life is a matter of being given by the Father to the Son? And what's the 64,000 dollar question now? How do you know if you have been so given? Do you think if God would take you to heaven then you'd know for sure? Haven't you ever dreamed of heaven? Wasn't that good enough? Don't you sometimes have days where you feel like you have eternal life? How come that doesn't stay with you? What about your faith, your believing?
Two things about believing. You know who are the champions of believing? You know who put everything on their believing totally in God? Muslims. They believe firmly, certainly, passionately that they have eternal life because they believe and have submitted their life to Allah. Second, no man at any time can say that He fears, loves, and trusts in God above all things all the time. Every single Christian everyday of his life has to confess what the man in John 5 did, "Lord I believe; help my unbelief."
Another thing people try to point to as proof that they have eternal life is their good works. Two things about that. Go to any large corporation web site. Every one has a section like "Corporate responsibility" or "Community Involvement" where they crow about the good works they do. And they do them. Second, we who confess with Isaiah 64 that "all our righteous works are as filthy rags," can hardly get much certainty or comfort about eternal life from them.
The key to answering have you been given by God the Father to God the Son is to follow the path Jesus lays down in this text. Eternal life is to know God the Father and God the Son. Those who have been given to God the Son by God the Father are the ones who know both. Those who have been given to Jesus are the ones Jesus has manifested God's name to.
The insert isn't clear on this. It translates, "I have revealed You to those whom you gave Me out of the World." That's not what the Greek says. It says, "I have manifested the Name of You to the people whom You gave to Me out of this world." When you don't translate "name," you miss the connection with the end of the text. Jesus prays, "Holy Father keep (not protect) them by the power of Your Name the Name which You have forever given to Me."
God's Name is only manifested to the ones given by God the Father to God the Son, and these are the ones who are to know they have eternal life. Jesus goes on to say that He gives His Word to those the Father has given to Him and these receive it and believe it. God's Name being manifested to you and God's Word being given to you, received by you, and believed by you is proof positive that you have eternal life.
We begin the Divine Service in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and what does the Divine Name cause us to do? Confess our sins. We don't claim a right to be in His presence. We claim to be only poor, miserable sinners before Him deserving punishment now and in eternity. Then the pastor absolves us, sends our sins away from us as far as east is from west. On the basis of what? On the basis of the command in Jesus' Word to forgive sinners their sins in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Do you have the Divine Name? You do if are baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Does the forgiveness that Jesus won for the world belong to you? Does what Jesus did in His perfect life and His guilty death belong to you? Sure it does without a doubt if you're hearing your sins sent away in the name of that same Triune God.
But are you being kept in this saving faith by the power of the name? If you're not being kept then of course you will be lost. You are being kept. You are being strengthened and preserved in Communion. Here you are given His Body and Blood, the very same Body that was given over to death on the cross for your sins and the very same Blood that was shed for you there. And aren't you told that you are to depart from Communion knowing that Jesus wills that His Body and Blood strengthens and preserves you, i.e. keeps you, in the true faith? And in whose name do you approach this Table, commune, and depart in peace? Not yours, but His.
You have to put the whole matter of eternal life, of going to heaven, of being saved not in your hands but in Jesus'. It started in eternity with you're being in God the Father's hands and then in time being given by Him to the God-Man's hands. Not sin, not death, not Devil could make Jesus drop you. He won eternal life for you on Good Friday and gives it to you in your Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. In these 3 you know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He sent. In these 3 you are to see yourself safe in the hands of Jesus. In these 3 the Name is put on you, over you, and in you, and you are kept by that name for eternity.
There are deep things in John 17. So deep that a 17th century German Lutheran pastor never dared to preach on it in over 40 years of preaching, but on his deathbed he had it read to him three times. Friends, it's a lot safer and salutary to read Jesus' words of eternal life than it is to read the words of those who claim to have been to heaven. Jesus promises to be keeping you through His Words. He makes no promises about their words. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Seventh Sunday of Easter (20110605); John 17: 1-11