John xvii. 3: “And this is life eternal, that they should know thee the only true God, and him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ.”Man instinctively clings to existence and naturally covets life. This innate prompting inclines us to put a fanciful interpretation upon this wonderful passage of Scripture, in which Jesus touched the deepest depths of moral, sentient being. When the Master speaks of eternal life, the poor, halting, human thought catches only at the idea of continued existence, a duration of being unmeasured by the flight of years, untouched by the finger of dissolution. The time element in the Divine message fixes the attention with irresistible attraction, and all else is nearly lost sight of, if not quite forgotten.
It is because man generally shrinks from death and dislikes the thought of passing away. It piques us to think that there are birds of the air and beasts of the field of greater longevity than ourselves. The trees of the forest whose grateful shade we seek, cast their shadow upon our fathers’ fathers, and our children’s children will seek their shelter long after we are for gotten. The mountains lift their gigantic peaks to the heavens and look proudly down upon the pigmy race of mortals, whose duration, comparatively, is like the morning vapors that play about their summits for a little time and then vanish away.
You look upon the obelisk in Central Park, New York; it is startling to reflect that the little boy Moses played about it, and the eyes of the manly Joseph beheld it centuries before. We stand upon the beach of the ocean and listen to the voice of its mighty waters; but the same ocean sang the same dirge of wrecked fleets to other ears a hundred generations ago. The rivers that playfully toss our barks on their bosoms seem to sing with their rippling waves the words of Tennyson: “Men may come, and men may go, But we go on forever.”
It disturbs man, the master of the world, the chiefest and best of earthly creations, to reflect that the inanimate things about him abide, while he must so soon pass away. And so he catches eagerly at the thought of continued existence, of enduring life.
But it is by no means certain that mere existence, even through interminable flights of years, irrespective of character or quality, would be an unmixed good, a thing to be desired, a prize to be coveted. Many a poor creature is so dazed by trouble and overwhelmed by sorrow as to pray for death. Not a day passes but some one, with suicidal hand, loosens the silver cord and breaks the golden bowl in the vain expectation that death will bring an escape from self in the oblivion of a dreamless, eternal sleep. What multitudes of lives are so full of shame and folly and consequent wretchedness as not to be worth living! How many, on account of the sin behind them and the woe before them, have infinitely more occasion than Job ever had to pray his prayer, “O, that I might have my request: and that God would grant me the thing that I long for! Even that it would please God to destroy me, that he would let loose his hand upon me and cut me off!”
All this Jesus knew full well, far better than mere mortal ever knew it: and so when He spoke of giving eternal life to all whom the Father had given Him, he immediately explains what eternal life is, that all the world might understand that it was not merely unceasing existence. “And this is life eternal that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou didst send.” Oh, blessed parenthesis in the perfect prayer that flashes such a light upon the true destiny of man! Life is more than existence, thank God! else might we all sing the atheistic song: “Count all the joys that thou hast seen; Count all the tears from anguish keen; And know, whatever thou hast seen, ‘Twere better never to have been.”
This leads me then to consider,
I. What this eternal life is which God’s Word so exalts and teaches us to prize.
Jesus, from whose word there can be no appeal, tells us plainly that it is to KNOW GOD, and to know Christ. It was for this, then, that man was created in the Divine image and made a living soul, that he might “know God.” This is the highest possible attainment of any creature — his consummate life — to “know God.” This is the great end which the Christian religion sets before us, the sum of all good, the crown of all blessedness — to “know God.”
But let us not be careless now. This is a superficial age. Our reading is superficial, our thinking, our convictions, our very religion — the thing of all things that ought to be deep and genuine — is too commonly a thing of opinions and profession and form and fashion, that does not go down into the deeps of the heart-life.
We may well pause and reflect upon this wonderful statement. There are so many kinds of knowledge! It must be some peculiar kind that can be called by the Master Himself eternal life. For instance, it can not be a mere intellectual belief in or admission of the existence of God. It is not a mere apprehension that there is such a being with certain qualities and attributes. Nor is it a cold, philosophical speculation about Him; nor yet a formal knowledge of what He has said of Himself. It is such a knowledge of God as involves a union with Him, a living, conscious possession of fellowship with Him, so that we are in Him,” and one with Him in spirit and life.
The difference between these two kinds of knowledge can be illustrated in many ways. Suppose a man has been brought up to be a drunkard from a child. He takes a scientific work on the deleterious influences of alcohol on the human system. He there learns how it deranges the stomach, and every vital organ; how it injures and hardens the brain; how it perverts the appetite and arouses the passions; how it gives to every drop of blood an open mouth that clamors for drink; how it burns up man, body and soul. He there learns, also, by contrast, the superiority of a life of total abstinence over a life of intemperance. The man commits every statement in the book to memory, and can pass examination on every page. But there he stands, a bloated, beastly, diseased, half-drunken debauchee. What does he know after all about a life of temperance. He knows it intellectually, out of the book; but he does not know it actually, experimentally, at all. He has had no experience of a life of sobriety; of what it is to have a steady eye and a clear brain, an undiseased, underanged body, he knows nothing whatever.
Two persons enter a concert-room and listen to the same sacred oratories rendered by a noble company of artists. One has trained his ear till it is sensitive to harmony and delicately appreciative of every exquisite modulation of sound. His mind and judgment also are cultured, and the great theme of the almost-inspired composer is grasped and permitted to take possession of his being. His heart, too is touched by the Spirit of God, and brought into sympathy with the words of Holy Writ to which the music is set. He listens — listens with bated breath and suffused eye and thrilled heart, as waves of inspiring melody roll in upon his spirit and carry him, as it were, on a swelling tide of rapture into the very presence of the living God. But the other person has neither a musical ear, nor a cultured mind, nor a spiritual heart: he listens to the same sounds and hears what? Only noise, noise, noise, of which he soon wearies, and begins to whisper and chatter silly nothings of his empty mind like a magpie. Now, the two persons, in one sense, heard the same: yet, Oh, how much one heard that the other did not, could not hear!
Two persons read the same poem. The mind of one comes into sympathy with the author, sees his visions, and feels the power and beauty of his thoughts, and his deepest feelings and emotions are stirred, as he lives over again what the master-mind lived when he wrote. The other person reads the same lines and speaks the same words; but to him they are cold and dead. He sees nothing and feels nothing — not even the dullness and deadness of his own impoverished mind.
A Christian artist looks upon Raphael’s Transfiguration. To him the immortal painting is almost a living scene. He feels the majesty of the conception, appreciates the harmony of the coloring, the beauty of outline, the skill of every touch; and as he looks upon the face of Jesus, his heart moves within him, and he feels like bowing down in reverent worship. But another comes along with so little of the artist’s nature in him that he looks upon the same canvas with lack-luster eye and unkindled spirit, and then turns away in utter unconcern.
A man can repeat the twentieth chapter of Exodus without mistake, the ten commandments and all; but he is a blasphemer and a Sabbath-breaker and a thief and a liar and a murderer. The moral law has made no more impression on his soul than it did upon the tables of stone which Moses dashed to the earth. Oh, how unlike is his spirit to that of the great law-giver, who loved and revered God’s commands as if they had been graven on his very heart by the finger of God.
Now, if these illustrations have not failed, you will perceive from them how very different is the formal knowledge of the intellect from that vital heart knowledge which enters into the experience and becomes life. You see how different persons hear and read and see and know the same things; yet the one class receives nothing, while the other is taught and thrilled and inspired and transformed.
In precisely these different ways do men know God. Some know that He is, know His attributes and moral qualities and will and Word; and yet they do not know Him. It is all intellectual and external to their real selves; it is not vital and transforming; it does not shape and control and possess the heart. They are still practically as those “who have no hope and are without God in the world.”
But others know God, Oh, so differently! know Him with a knowledge that lights and comforts and guides and inspires their hearts evermore. They know Him as a Father; and their reverent hearts reach out to Him the hand of filial love, as children who should say in confidence and trust: “The way is dark, my Father. Cloud on cloud Is gathering thickly o’er my head, and loud The thunders roar above me. See, I stand Like one bewildered. Father, take my hand, And through the gloom lead safely home Thy child.”
Again, they know Him as a God of love, who plans in mercy and provides in grace; who watches over His children with untold tenderness; who does for them what is wisest and best. And knowing this they rest, in perfect peace, in the all-enfolding arms of Infinite Love.
Again, they know Him as an infinitely holy God, who hates sin with an unutterable hatred; and they, too, begin to love righteousness and to hate iniquity for the sake of Him whom their soul loveth. They begin to battle with temptation and to oppose evil. Aye, they seek the heart-cleansing work of the Holy Ghost in their hearts. And so their knowledge of God becomes vital and vitalizing. In countless ways it affects them for good and brings them into harmony with Him. They are lifted up out of their sinful groveling into a career of victory over sin, and endless growth in grace and spiritual exaltation. As the sap comes out of the earth into the tree, and, in, some mysterious way, becomes wood and leaf and flower and fruit, so this true knowledge of God becomes, in the receptive and friendly heart, a transforming power; becomes conduct, yea, life, the beginning of life eternal.
As the sunlight falls from Heaven upon the flowers and paints their petals with the hues of the morning, so the knowledge which God imparts of Himself to willing hearts somehow clothes them with a Divine beauty and a tender grace not otherwise their own.
In like manner, also, said the Master, is the knowledge of Jesus Christ eternal life. The knowledge of Jesus, the incarnate God, the Redeemer, the atoning Savior; this, too, is eternal life. But how different may be the knowledge of Jesus which different men entertain! Judas and John walked alike with Jesus in unchecked, unrestrained intimacy for above three years. But how different was the knowledge of the selfish, cold-hearted traitor from that of the disciple who leaned on Jesus’ bosom and drank so deeply the spirit of His love! One of the noblest, uninspired tributes ever paid to Jesus was written by the infidel Rousseau; but how widely different was his knowledge of the great being he praised from that of the Apostle Paul, to whom “to live was Christ;” who ate and drank and waked and slept, who preached and wrote and toiled and suffered and died for his Master; and who knew no life apart from Him! Robert Ingersol had more Christian training when a child than Dwight Moody, and each knew Jesus in h is own way. But how different is the knowledge of the prayerless, sneering infidel from that of the flaming evangel of the cross whose life is prayer, who thinks and talks and writes and lives only for his Savior!
There is a knowledge of Jesus, like the knowledge of Socrates, or any other historic character, which leaves the will unsubdued, and the passions unchecked, and the heart untouched. But, Oh, there is a knowledge of Jesus which captures and captivates the soul, which melts the proud heart into submission, which calls out the most trustful, childish faith in Him as a Savior from sin.
There is a knowledge of Jesus which brings the soul to the cross, where faith in the shed blood, and the joy of forgiving love, and the peace of conscious pardon are found together. There is a knowledge of Jesus which basks in the sunshine of His affection, and walks in His light day by day; which finds in Him all needed inspiration; which looks to Him for all needed help and guidance; which knows no wish, and cherishes no desire, and forms no purpose aside from His sweet will.
Yes, there is a knowledge of Jesus obtained in the Pentecostal chamber. The adoring soul falls at His feet, not merely as One who died for our sins, but as One who lives to perform His high-priestly office and baptize the seeking, waiting heart with the Holy Ghost and fire. It is this baptism which cleanses the heart from inbred sin, and brings enduement of power for service, and swings one out into “the life more abundant,” “the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ.”
Such knowledge of Jesus is life, the sweetest, purest, highest, holiest life that is possible to man. Yea, such knowledge is life eternal; for, linking as it does the human with the Divine, it makes man too good and too godlike to ever die. And now
II. We can see that the knowledge of God and Christ Leads to life eternal. This knowledge is not only the thing itself, but it is also The Way to it.
This is the way in which Christ gives eternal life, by giving us a knowledge of God. And this is the way in which we receive it, by sitting as a pupil at Jesus’ feet and learning of God. Whoever would have eternal life, let him go to school to the Son of God; let him seek night interviews with Him as Nicodemus did; let him wait upon Jesus, and serve Him, and drink in His spirit, as did the beloved disciple. Let him learn the infinite depths of compassion and charity and mercy for suffering, sinful fellow-mortals which characterized the Savior. Let him learn of the Redeemer the nobility of self-sacrifice, the joy of dying to self that others may live. Let him learn from the Holy One what it is to be one with God in complete submission to His will, unattracted and unstained by the evils of a sinful world.
The gaining of such knowledge is the gaining of eternal life, with all the unutterable blessedness which it involves. The adjusting of the heart and life to such knowledge is entering into the kingdom of Heaven, is finding the pearl of greatest price, the richest and best possible gift of God. “Whosoever findeth it findeth life.”
Seek it, ye sin-laden, troubled ones, who long for the peace that passeth understanding, and the rest which the world cannot give: seek with teachable heart the great Master. Knock at the portals of this Divine knowledge and ye shall enter in and find rest to your souls.
I close with two remarks:
Heaven, for which the sorrowing world hath ever been longing, which imagination hath wrought upon, and fancy hath lovingly pictured, is a condition, a state of heart no less than a place. We dream of a realm far away, with walls and towers and gates of pearl and streets of gold, and mansions and harps and crowns and a throne; and our heaven is an earthly picture of Oriental, barbaric splendor. How much of this may enter into the reality we cannot know. But would it not be more real and more helpful to think of the abode of the blessed as being anywhere with God, and Heaven’s reward as knowing God as He is, and being with Him and like Him?
Oh, to live through endless ages of ever-increasing knowledge and enjoyment of God! to unroll and fathom the mysteries of His love which we have long desired to look into! to stand with angels and glorified saints and look upon the new displays of Divine goodness and the fresh revelations which God shall make of Himself — ah! that will be blessedness, that will be life, that will be HEAVEN forever and ever!
2. We learn that Heaven begins here; that eternal life has the first flush of its morning dawn here in this present mortal life. This it is — to know God and Jesus Christ His Son — a knowledge that begins now, or is never gained. As the years roll on it will be ever deeper and wider and fuller. Budding now, it will have its perfect flower and fruitage in the eternal world. But it must begin here. Oh, let it begin here and now. Let this be the springtime of the eternal summer, the seed-time of learning God and Christ, which shall prelude the eternal harvest of knowing God as He is, and the blessedness of being forever like Him.