By H. Forbes Witherby.
5. The Eternal Life.
The Eternal Life Divine — its display expresses what it is — not comprehended by men — life and its characteristics — a few of its rays.
We have endeavoured to lay before our readers the main truths of man's state by nature; of the necessity for the new birth; and of the means God uses to effect the new birth in man, namely, His word and His Spirit. We now approach the consideration of the life itself, which he that is born anew possesses. We will first occupy ourselves with the nature of this life; in future chapters we will consider the communication of this life to men — the possession of this life — then the bondage and the liberty — walk on earth — and the glory to come, of those who possess it.
The subject is exhaustless; it reaches right into eternity and our everlasting blessedness. We merely touch upon it in a suggestive manner. At the very commencement of this theme, let us express the earnest hope that these pages may be the means of leading our readers to search into the scriptures, and to dig out for themselves its truths upon this subject. We can hope to do no more than does the finger-post by the wayside, which merely points the traveller to the city where he would rest.
The everlasting life is divine. This is our starting point. We begin with God, the source and the giver of life. The nature of God Himself is the explanation of the nature and the character of the life; and we cannot understand what the eternal life is unless we know God. The life is that of "the everlasting God" (Rom. 16:26), His, who was and is, and is to come; we read also, "The Father hath life in Himself" (John 5:26), hence our meditations upon the eternal life lead our thoughts to God and the Father.
It is not only God in His sovereignty that we think of when we are occupied with the life, but God in His gracious relationship with men, for it is not said God, but, "the Father hath life in Himself"; and again, when the Lord is spoken of as manifesting the life, the scriptures thus speak, "That eternal life which was with the Father." (1 John 1:2.) The name "Father," carries the idea of relationship with it, nor such a relationship as exists between the Creator and the creature, but that which marks the intimacy and communion of a family.
We cannot have too emphatically before us the divine character and nature of the eternal life, which is ours, who believe on the Son; and at the very outset, let us state distinctly that all who truly believe on Him have the life; as we read, "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son of God shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him." (John 3:36.) This life is divine, it is not the old Adam life renewed, not fallen human nature renovated; it is that life, which ever was with the Father, which was before angels were, before sin was, or man was created. Neither is this life an intermingling of good with the life we received from Adam, the first man; he was of the earth; the new life is obtained from the Lord who came from heaven.
As we have the truths connected with divine life before us, we see clearly that no intellectual culture, no moral training, no religious exercise, can produce in man a life which was from everlasting, which was manifest upon this earth in the person of the Son of God, and which is communicated to man by the act of God. The possessor of the life is born of God, and God dwells in him, and he in God. (1 John 4:15, 16.)
There is a measureless gap separating man in his natural state from God. The Gentiles, says the scripture, are estranged from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them. God is unknown to man in the flesh, and human knowledge, however great, only rears its altar "to the Unknown God." (Acts 17:23.) Ignorance of God is stamped upon all man's religious thought, which has not Christ for its spring. Human minds expand, and learning flourishes in the moral wastes of this earth where God is unknown, and where demons are worshipped. Intellectual development has nothing to say to this holy life; each pursues its separate course, neither approaches the other. Indeed, we may say that so far as human progress in its intellectual character is in view, Satan, the god of this world, is its main-spring. The ideal of it is, "Ye shall be as gods," and the personification of modern intellectualism is man independent of God. The motive of one life is the will of God, the motive of the other is the will of man; the energy of the one is the Spirit of God, that of the other is self-pleasing, and sometimes Satan. To comprehend what the eternal life is we must go to Christ and learn the truth as it is in Jesus, whose ways and words on earth manifested this life to man. If the truth as it is in Jesus, be unseen by the soul, the eternal life is unknown, for the Son declares who God the Father is.
"In Him was life" (John 1:4), is recorded of the Son of God. Each man's life has a beginning, and human life in itself has a commencement. When a man begins to exist human life is then his, but when the Lord is presented to us, we find One in whom life eternal ever was, and in whom it had no commencement. Life was from everlasting in Him; yet having the eternity of the life before us, we have more — the Son of the Father Himself, the everlasting Word, and by His person we gain an understanding of the life in its character.
The display, the manifestation of the life, teaches us what it is. Unless the life had been manifested, man must ever have remained in ignorance of it. In natural things, without testimony, we cannot know what kind of life men live who dwell in other parts of the world. For example: the heathen in the centre of Africa have no notion of the nature of a christian home in England, and to gain any conception of such a home they must first hear of it; while to rejoice in it, the heathen would have to leave and to abhor his life of heathenism. The eternal life, being in itself divine, distinct from and above man, can only be known by man as it is revealed to him.
The second Man, the life-giving Spirit, came from above; "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1:4); the incarnate Son of God tabernacled among men; and the record of what He was here reveals to the heart of man springs of heavenly love and holiness, which are as distinct from the springs of mere human action as is earth from heaven. Eternal life has been displayed in the Son of God the Father; "For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us." (1 John 1:2.) The Son ever was with the Father, but in time He appeared amongst men, and thus taking upon Him the form of a servant, "was seen of angels," and in Him the life was manifested. The everlasting repose of the Father's presence was ever the dwelling-place of Him, the Life; but in divine love the Son revealed the Father to men on this earth in the body God prepared for Him.
The Holy Babe was born into this world, and then to human eyes, and ears, and hands, "the eternal life which was with the Father" became visible, audible, tangible. Then to man, the creature of God, the Life was present in the presence of the Son: thus the apostle writes, "that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life." (1 John 1:1.)
A great sovereign might traverse a part of his dominions in pomp and state, and be seen for a moment by his subjects when on his journey, and in this distant manner be manifested before them but if he left his regal glory and came and abode amongst them, mixed with them, entered into their trials and joys, and expressed by words and deeds his character in the midst of them, the manifestation would possess quite another meaning to their hearts. Now, the disciple who teaches most of the life was he whose head had lain upon the bosom of Jesus, in holy but loving familiarity; his eyes had seen the Lord, and his hands had handled of the Word of Life. The only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has declared Him, and the disciple whom Jesus loved, dwell-in.°, in the love, teaches us of that Eternal Life which was with the Father.
Even as pertaining to His divinity, the Lord had no beginning (John 1:1), so as to His humanity, it is reckoned "from the beginning." (1 John 1:1.) The beginning of the display of that which is really life dates from the manifestation of the Son. Those who believe on Him delight to turn to Him, the second Man, the last Adam, as their first as well as their last. True, as men on earth, they may trace back their history up to Adam, and sigh over human departure from God and lost earthly happiness, but in Him who came from heaven, the Eternal Life, they have a life which is perfect, and with which are bound up holiness and happiness for all ages. How mean are the sceptic's thoughts concerning the origin of man and human development, in the presence of the Eternal Life in its divine origin and its future glory! How vain present speculations as to man's future, as we consider the divinely unfolded end which lies before the children of God!
That which was true in Christ even the shining out of the eternal life in Him when on earth, is now true of all His people, "true in Him and in you." The characteristics of the life are the same in His people as they were in Him; no doubt too feebly expressed, and this because self, alas, is allowed so much sway; but "the darkness is past (or passing), and the true light now shineth." (1 John 2:8.) What was true of the Lord in His ways on earth is true of His people, for Christ is our life, and He is in us. If by reason of allowed sin, or of self indulgence, the expression of the life of Christ is hindered in us — and how often it is hindered — let us take shame to ourselves, but on no account let us doubt the plain statements in the word of God as to the character of the eternal life which has been communicated to us.
"Light, more light," the sceptic cries, as he gropes about in his darkness; "Life, perfect life," rejoices the believer, as he dwells in God and God in him. He has the perfect life, but he longs that the Holy Spirit of God, who abides in him, may so work that this eternal life may be unhindered in its expression in him. This life is perfect immediately we receive it, but it is capable of measureless practical unfoldings the nature of which 'we are made partakers is divine, but the treasure is at present in earthen vessels, in bodies which too often serve sin. The very circumstances of this world militate against the blossoming and fruit-bearing of the life by the Spirit; and more, self, the old man, is too frequently asserting itself, so that the wild stock of the old man is rampant, and the life of the new man thereby hindered in its action. The only way by which the truth as it is in Jesus can be expressed by the people of God, is by the believer taking God's side against himself. The daily life of the believer should be lived out on the principle of the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, having been put off according to the former conversation; and the new man, which is created according to God in righteousness and holiness of truth, having been put on, and the spirit of the mind being renewed. The time was when the people of God were darkness, but now they are light in the Lord, therefore they are to walk as children of the light, (Eph. 4:21; Eph. 5:8.)
The eternal life was not understood by men. The world did not recognize Jesus when He was in it. His life was of a character diverse from that which is natural to mankind. The fallen life derived from Adam and the eternal life that was with the Father, have nothing in common. The motions of His heart, the principle of His actions, the object of His words, were all from another source, not of this world. The world knew Him not, and to this day remains in its ignorance of Him.
The Jews, to whom the Lord said, "Ye have no life in you" (John 6:53), were likewise estranged from God, for though they could trace their descent from Abraham, the descent was merely natural; they were not, in truth, of the Father of the faithful, of faith, which, if vital, is personal, not hereditary. The light shone amongst them, but they perceived not its character.
And how is it in our day? The profession of christianity does not entail the possession of life. Educational belief in the doctrine of the atonement, however important, is not new and divinely-given life; neither is the ability to discern between evangelical and superstitious teaching life. No human strength of any kind renders life our own; it is the gift of God.
We cannot disassociate life from its characteristics even in nature. To live is one thing; the character of the life lived is another. A tree has its life, an animal has its life, but the life of each pertains to a different kingdom in nature. When we speak of the eternal life we 'cannot rightly mentally disassociate that life from its characteristics, for it is not simply that eternal life is a life without a beginning, and having an endless duration, but it pertains to God, and therefore to His character. The way to perceive what the eternal life is which was with the Father is to receive Him who is the Life and also the Light of men.
Light and life are so intermingled, as we see in John's gospel and epistles, that they cannot be separated morally; the light demonstrates the presence of the life; by the light the life is made evident, at least, where there are eyes to see; for what is impossible physically, is true of the Light of life — "The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not." (John 1:5.) Light and love are characteristics of the life eternal, and are united in the person of the Son of God, and are manifested to us by Him.
Take such a word as this, which relates to the essential glory of the Lord, "In Him was life," we read on, "and the life was the light of men;" here we have the eternity of the life in Him, who is everlasting, and also the objects of the love of God, to whom, and for whom, the life had its manifestation even men! He was not the light of the angelic hosts, but of the weak worm, man. The nature of God is given in these two short texts, "God is Light," "God is Love," and both the light and the love are before us in the life manifested upon this earth. The life in its manifestation is, if we may so express it, light and love -the very nature of God, and that nature revealed to men.
A few rays of this light shall briefly occupy us. Holiness is one of its component parts. The light which our natural eyes enjoy is composed of variously colored rays, all of which are blended into the pure light in which we live and move. As the spiritual ray of divine holiness penetrates into our darkness, it discovers to us, by its own brilliancy, our moral state. The holiness of God makes manifest man's sin. The Lord Jesus, the Light, demonstrates to us what we are.
How the Pharisees all left Him when He shone into their hearts, saying, "He that is without sin among you." (John 8:7.) They could not stand in their sinfulness, in the presence of His holiness. "Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou bast, and distribute unto the poor" (Luke 18:22), revealed the heart of the ruler, as again did the Lord's words to those Pharisees who watched Him in the synagogue to see whether He would heal the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath day. (Mark 3:1, 6.) The rays of the light were not comprehended.
The light acts in two ways on men's hearts. On the one hand, "Every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved;" on the other hand, "He that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God." (John 3:20, 21.)
In the Pharisees rejecting the counsel of God against themselves (Luke 7:30), we see the light hated. These men would not submit to take the place of guilty sinners, and so remained in their natural darkness. Thus also was it with the council before which Stephen was brought: the men of it were cut to the heart, convicted of their sinfulness; but they did not seek salvation; they gnashed on the preacher with their teeth (Acts 7:54). The truth was hated and darkness loved; the light only brought out what was within the hearts of the hearers of the truth.
In Saul, the persecutor, we see the light approached, for he owned his ways and was obedient (Acts 26:19); and the same principle is evident in the case of the jailor of Philippi (Acts 16), and indeed in all who are really Christ's. The Lord's words are, "I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on Me should not abide in darkness" (John 12:46); and those who follow Him shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. (John 8:12.)
Love is a component of this light. How love, His own divine love, shone into the weak heart of her who came behind Him in the press, and touched the hem of His garment She thought she might steal away the good she sought for herself and escape; but He came not only to heal but to satisfy. The Lord brought the poor woman into His presence and taught her His comforts. He shone into her soul as she told Him all the truth. So was it with the blind beggar, of whom we read in the ninth chapter of John's gospel. The Lord opened his eyes; but He did far more, He revealed Himself to the poor man's heart. The Lord healed him and satisfied him with the shining into his heart of the knowledge that He was the Son of God. We may say, that these were rays of the light of life which entered the souls of men, and filled their hearts with the sense of divine love.
Holiness and Love combined penetrated into Peter's soul when Jesus, turning and looking upon him, recalled to the over-confident apostle his assertions and His Master's words, and Peter wept bitterly. A similar ray shone into Martha's cumbered and distracted heart, and made manifest to her, that the more than necessary household carefulness robbed her of her highest privilege, and not only so, but hindered the Lord in His grace of bestowing blessings upon her.
The life in its character is explained by the path of the Son of God when upon this earth. In deed and in truth a very man, but also the very God, we see in Him the life unknown in its abundance before His advent. Creatures had seen in the works of creation the witness of God's power and divinity, but when the Son was manifested in the form of a man He expressed the Father's heart and the love of God. It may be, because John's gospel and epistles treat so largely on this subject that the children of God are so greatly attracted to them: for, being possessors of the life, there is that in God's children which, by reason of the nature they possess, delights in the nature of God. The life is presented to us in a peculiar way in John's gospel and epistles, and is perhaps more easily entered into in spirit, than the counsels and purposes of God of which the apostle Paul principally treats. All the children of God have the life, but all may not have the knowledge of the counsels of God.
Let the gospels be read with the moral beauties of Christ as the object of search, and then that which is the eternal life, which was with the Father, will be more readily apprehended. This life given to us is in its nature divine, as we have said — it is the life of God, but, in a peculiar way, it is also connected with God as the Father. "God" brings before us the divine nature; "Father," the peculiar character in which God now reveals Himself to His people. The life connects us with God. We are partakers of the divine nature, and the life delights in its source and in the character of Him of whose nature it is. Having the life, we are connected with God; He is our Father; we are His children; His heart is toward us, and we delight in Him by the Spirit in this marvellous relationship. He who has eternal life has the very life of the Son of God, and is a child of God; to have eternal life is to be in intimate and holy relationship with God.
However, we may be in a relationship and yet not know the relationship in which we are; many of God's children are in this position, therefore let us seek to know what is the life which we have. Philip, though having had the Lord so long with him, said, Show us the Father, and it sufficeth us." Are there not still many Philips? But what is to answer such enquirers? The same Person who had been with him from the beginning, the same words, the same works — Jesus, the Son of God the Father" Hast thou not known Me?" (John 14:7-11.)