by Lois Tverberg
This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. (John 17:2)
When we read the line above from Jesus, it makes us stop and pause. It seems odd that Jesus would define eternal life as knowing him and his Father. Isn’t eternal life living forever after we die?
An interesting insight comes from how the term “eternal life,” chayei olam (Hi-YAY Oh-LAHM) was understood by Jews in Jesus’ time.1 While the phrase often had our understanding of life after death, chayei olam often had a different emphasis, when it was contrasted with “chayei sha’ah” (fleeting life). Chayei sha’ah, fleeting life, is living a life that is only concerned about everyday things: working, making money, eating, and sleeping. Chayei olam, “lasting life” or “a life of eternity” refers to living a life focused on matters of eternal importance.
Traditionally, Jewish people have considered the study of the Bible truly living out one’s “eternal life.” A story is told about a rabbi who spent years in study of the Scriptures, and then walked past farmers tilling their land. He remarked, “they have abandoned lasting life (chayei olam) and involve themselves instead with fleeting life (chayei sha’ah).”2
Looking at Jesus’ words in this light, his idea of eternal life seems to fit into this second definition. He is saying that knowing God intimately and living with Jesus Christ as your Lord, here and now, is living as if you were already in eternity. This makes a lot of sense: what thing in our lives has more eternal significance that that?
It is fascinating that Jesus also seemed to be commenting on the Jewish idea that the way to live your “eternal life” right now is to study the Scriptures. He says, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you have eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). He is speaking to some of his fellow Jews who did not see that the Scriptures ultimately pointed toward him. Eternal life is not had even in studying the Scriptures, but in finding in them that Jesus is our Lord, and we can live for serving him.
1These terms are found written down first in the Talmud, which dates from around 500 AD. Many oral traditions are recorded in it that come from Jesus’ time and before.
2Quote is from the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b, as quoted at the following link: http://ww2.mcgill.ca/freedman/bf_risk.html.
See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.
For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg, OurRabbiJesus.com, 2014 (ebook).