“That meeting took forever!” “I’ve been waiting for you all day!” “We’re never going to get to Grandma’s house!”
When we use the language of impatience, we often exaggerate in order to make our point.
But when Jesus says “forever,” he is being very serious and deeply profound.
Let’s walk through five snapshots of Jesus’s life and ministry as recorded, in order, in the Gospel of John. In each of these situations, Jesus uses the Greek phrase εἰς τòν αἰῶνα, which is often translated “forever” (or “never” if its clause is negated). Literally, this phrase means “into the age”; it points indefinitely into the future. In the quotes below, I have italicized the phrase’s English translation so you can identify it easily.
- Jesus is enjoying great popularity; he has more followers than John the Baptist.
- “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)
- Jesus is still popular, but he begins losing many of his followers because of his strange and difficult teachings.
- “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; this bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51)
- “This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:58)
- Jesus is now arguing with the Pharisees, the religious leaders of his time.
- “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (John 8:51)
- Jesus has now divided the people; some believe in him, but others think he is guilty of blasphemy and want to stone him to death.
- “I give them [my people] eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:28)
- Jesus is now away from the crowds, grieving the death of his friend Lazarus with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus.
- “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:26)
Do you notice a pattern in these five scenes?
On the one hand, Jesus is decreasing in popularity as we walk through these passages. He begins with large crowds of followers, but those crowds slowly fall away and even turn against him. Finally, the crowds disappear altogether while Jesus deals with the painful loss of his friend.
On the other hand, Jesus uses increasingly intense language to describe the destiny of people who follow him. The phrase “will never thirst” becomes “will live forever.” Then that phrase is strengthened as well: “will never see death.” But no, that isn’t yet strong enough: “shall never perish.” Finally, Jesus makes it as clear and as strong as possible: “will never die.”
During the time that Jesus is becoming less popular, he is ratcheting up his language about the value of remaining faithful to him. The long-term rewards of discipleship are enormous and fly in the face of what people anticipate will happen in their lives. We all expect to become thirsty or hungry again, probably within 24 hours; if we are honest with ourselves, we all expect to die someday as well. But Jesus has the audacity to claim that his people will never thirst, never perish, never even die – and this he speaks while on his way to the tomb of Lazarus, who has already been dead for four days.
Jesus raises Lazarus back to life, which caused many people to put their faith in him. In the very next chapter of John, Jesus enters Jerusalem and begins talking about his own upcoming death. Like Lazarus, Jesus would die and be raised to life again. But unlike Lazarus, who eventually died again, Jesus never died again. He lives and reigns forevermore, seated at the hand of God the Father on high.
Jesus uses the phrase εἰς τòν αἰῶνα one last time in John’s gospel: “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.” (John 14:15-17)
Whoever lives and believes in Jesus will never die.
It’s not a statement of impatience or exaggeration. It’s a statement of faith, a statement of trust, a statement of the orientation of life for people who follow Jesus. We live with eternal hope and eternal purpose by participating in the never-ending love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: one God, now and forevermore.