What is eternal life? (John 17:1-5)

What is eternal life? (John 17:1-5)


We have been working our way through the gospel of John for some time now. In recent chapters, we’ve seen Jesus preparing his disciples for his coming death, resurrection, and ascension.

The end of chapter 13 marked the beginning of this long section which is mostly Jesus speaking. He has taught the disciples about himself, about the nature of God as a Trinity, and about the work of the Holy Spirit. He has prepared them to face persecution, to welcome the discipline of the Lord in sanctification, and to trust him in the midst of a turbulent world.

Now in chapter 17, Jesus is no longer speaking to the disciples. He is speaking to the Father in prayer. This is often called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. He prays first for himself, then for the disciples, then all who will believe in the future, which includes those who believe now.

Today we’ll look at the first 5 verses, the opening lines of his prayer where he is praying for himself. But there are two profound truths for us in this text.


Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. 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 17:1–5 NKJV]

Summary of the Text:

When Jesus says “the hour has come” in verse 1, he speaking of the end of his earthly ministry, and the hour of his death. We’ve seen that same language from him before in the last few chapters.

I would like to point out that while Jesus is praying for himself in this passage, he is God. So it is legitimate to say that Jesus is praying for the glory of God in these verses, which is consistent with how he taught his disciples to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, to begin with who God is and his glory in the earth.

1. Two important truths

I said before we read that there were two profound truths in these 5 verses. So what are they?

If you’ll notice in these 5 verses you’ll see two keywords/phrases that are repeated multiple times.

In verses 2 & 3 you see the phrase “eternal life” repeated.

And in verses 1, 4, & 5 you see the words glorify, glory, or glorified repeated multiple times.

So these seem to be the two main points of Jesus’ prayer. He is saying something about eternal life and something about glory, or glorifying. Eternal life seems to be the lesser of the two points because the other is given so much more attention in Jesus’ prayer.

Anytime you see words or phrases repeated in a text, that’s a clue that they are important. So these are the two main concepts, eternal life and glory.

Jesus defines both of these concepts for us. And he demonstrates the application of both for us.

We’ll deal with them in this order from lesser to greater.

2. Eternal Life

We all want eternal life. Think about it. Even non-believers want eternal life. Follow the news headlines for very long and you’ll see stories about scientists researching ways to prolong life, ways to preserve the essence of a person beyond the limits of a human body that wears out.

You’ll also see stories about these guys who perpetrate mass shootings. The thing about these is if you dig deep enough you’ll find that their motivation, at least in part, is to make a name for themselves, to go down in history. This is nothing more than a feeble attempt to gain eternal life.

So the question is, how have you pursued eternal life?

Eating healthy, exercising, and otherwise being a good steward of the body God gave you is a good thing. But an obsession with health and a preoccupation with looking young, could be a signal that you are in some way reaching for eternal life.

By the same token, having children is a blessing, and being a good parent is a godly pursuit. But insisting that you have biological offspring when God has made that difficult or impossible under natural circumstances, and in light of the orphan crisis in our world today, could be a sign that you are seeking some form of eternal life by passing on your DNA. I’m not saying it is always a sin to pursue medical help in conceiving children. I am saying you may want to examine your motives.

The bigger question is, how does Christ define eternal life, how do we obtain it, and is it worth having?

Let’s start with the what question.

What is eternal life?

And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. [John 17:3]

Jesus’ answer is that eternal life is knowing God. Notice that He doesn’t say eternal life is knowing “of” God. It is knowing God. That’s a subtle difference, but it’s the difference between eternal life and death.

It is possible to know of God, to know a lot of things about Him, without knowing Him.

I can read the newspaper articles, the books, even his autobiography, and know a lot about the president, but I don’t know him. We’ve never even met. He’s my President because I live in this country, but he’s not my friend or even my acquaintance. Before I could legitimately claim to know him, I would have to meet him and spend considerable time with him.

The same is true for God. You can read the bible and know a lot about God, that doesn’t mean you know Him. Listen to what James says,

You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe–and tremble! [James 2:19]

In other words, knowing some things, even true things, about God without knowing God, only qualifies you to be a demon!

You must know God!

Jesus has previously told us in chapter 14 that to know him is to know the Father. Here he says we must know both the Father and the Son. He is saying we must know God as he truly is.

There has been a story in the news recently about Wheaton College. Wheaton is a Christian school and is currently catching some flack from the media for suspending a teacher. The teacher wore a Muslim head covering to school and said she was standing in solidarity with Muslims who are her brothers and sisters because Muslims and Christians worship the same God. She wasn’t suspended for her choice of attire. She was suspended for her comments. The media has been all over this accusing Wheaton of being anti-Muslim.

The truth is, they just expected a professor at a Christian university to understand the tenants of the Christian faith. Yes, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all trace their roots and inspiration back at least as far as Abraham. But Christianity distinguishes itself from the other two by insisting on a God who eternally exists in Trinity, three persons, one essence. To deny the Son, which Isalm clearly does, is to deny the Father, and thereby to deny the God of the bible.

So, you must not only know about Him, but you must know Him. And you must know Him, the specific God revealed in the scriptures as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Three in One, Trinity.

Anything less than that and you are qualified only to be a demon.

Our next question is:

How do we obtain eternal life?

How do we come to be in a relationship with God? How can we know Him? In other words, how are we saved?

This is one of two primary questions we must always ask when seeking the truthfulness of any religion or religious group.

  1. Who is God?
  2. How do we come to know Him?

It is on these two questions that every false religion and cult go wrong.

If they deny the Trinity (not just the word, but what the word properly understood teaches), if they deny that God is one, if they deny that God is the Creator unique and separate from His creation (the Fatherhood of God), if they deny the eternal deity of Christ, if they deny the personhood of the Holy Spirit, they are worshiping a false god.

If they get salvation wrong, how do we come to know God, then they are teaching a false gospel.

So Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny the Trinity, are false religions worshiping false gods.

Roman Catholicism, which denies the biblical way of salvation, justification by faith alone, is teaching a false gospel.

So how do we obtain eternal life?

Listen to Jesus in this text.

Father, the hour has come, Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. [John 17:1, 2]

What does this teach us about eternal life?

1. First, eternal life is a gift, given by the Son.

that He should give eternal life…

Man may not grasp eternal life of his own strength but must receive it as a gift.

2. Second, the Son gives eternal life by authority of the Father.

as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life…

The Son, Jesus, has the authority to give eternal life because the Father has given Him such authority. This means it belongs to Christ alone to give eternal life. No one else my grant this gift.

Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. [Acts 4:12]

There is no salvation in the name of Allah or Mohammad. There is no salvation in the name of Joseph Smith. There is no salvation in the name of Mary, or any other saint. There is no salvation in your own name. The only salvation to be had is by faith in the name of Jesus Christ, our High Priest and Mediator.

3. Third, those who are recipients of this gift, are themselves given to the Son by the Father.

…that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. [John 17:2]

It doesn’t say that He gives salvation to as many as ask for it,
Though that is indeed true.
It doesn’t say He gives salvation to as many as deserve it,
For there are none who do.
It doesn’t say He gives salvation to all mankind,
Though we might wish that He saved all men.
It says He gives salvation … to as many … as were given to Him.

This is not a new concept if you’ve been reading and following along in John. In chapter 6 Jesus said:

All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I wil raise him up at the last day. [John 6:37-40]

No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. [John 6:44]

In other words, salvation is an act of Christ rooted in the will of the Father. We are unwilling and incapable of coming to God unless the Father draws us to Himself by way of His Spirit in a decisive act of grace apart from our will or ability. And when He does so, we come through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Why should we care about eternal life to begin with?

We should care about eternal life because of what it is. Jesus says eternal life is knowing, as in being in a relationship with, the only true God. God! The only, true, God.

How awesome is that? Jesus gives to sinful men and women, right relationship with the only true God.

The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah writes,

Thus says the Lord:

“Let not the wise man
glory in his wisdom,
Let not the mighty man
glory in his might,
Nor let the rich man
glory in his riches;
But let him who glories glory in this,
That he understand and know Me,
That I am the Lord, exercising
lovingkindness, judgment,
and righteousness in the earth.
For in these I delight,
says the Lord. [Jeremiah 9:23, 24]

It is better to know God than to be wise, powerful, or rich. That’s why we should care because knowing God is better than the best this life can offer. Knowing God is life everlasting.


An important part of reading the bible is to remember what Jesus has said about the bible back in chapter 5.

You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. [John 5:39]

We read the bible because the Spirit uses it to lead us to Christ, who puts us in relationship with the Father. So what does this passage teach us about God?

In verse 2 we see that God has authority over all flesh. We also see that He uses that authority for the salvation of many. We also learn that in saving sinners God is glorified. We’ll get further into that idea next time we visit this text.

In verse 3 we learn that God is true. In fact, He is the only true God. All other gods are false. Who would want to worship a false god, when the real thing was available?!

Verse 5 teaches us that God eternally exists in relationship with Himself and that each member of the Trinity holds the others in honor.

In sum, God is eternally existent in Trinity, in glory, honor, and truth, and that He has authority over all His creation. Further, God has acted in time to the benefit of his creation by willing and accomplishing the salvation of many.

The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit once offered up to God, has fully satisfied the justice of God, procured reconciliation, and purchased an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven for all those whom the Father has given unto Him. [2nd LBCF ch.8 p.5]