Life Then and Now
1 John 3:14, 15 says,
14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
We pass “out of death into life” by receiving the incorruptible and immortal seed of the word, which begets Christ in us. Hatred or murder gives evidence that a man has not been begotten by God. John was probably recalling what he had written earlier in John 6:66-69,
66 As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore. 67 Jesus said therefore to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” 68 Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. 69 And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”
Jesus had been teaching the people that He was the manna from heaven in the wilderness. He had been telling them that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood. The people were shocked and horrified, thinking that He was advocating some form of cannibalism. They did not understand that He was speaking, not of literal eating, but of assimilating His words as their food. Hence, many “withdrew” and no longer followed Jesus.
But Simon Peter believed, and he was able to eat the “words of eternal life” that Jesus was feeding them. Ten other disciples believed as well. Only Judas was unable to eat of the Tree of Life (Jesus), for in betraying Him, Judas consented to His death and was therefore indirectly guilty of murder. John says, “no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
Words of Eternal Life
It is clear that the immortal seed of the word which begets the children of God is equivalent to the words of eternal life. Those who receive such life-giving words are begotten by God. Those who remain in the realm of death are those who have been begotten only by the will of the flesh through the first sinner, Adam. Adam’s seed brings forth new life, but it is mortal and temporary. Through Adam’s seed, death is passed down into all men (Rom. 5:12), causing all to abide in death. Therefore, we need a second begetting by the Spirit to receive life.
But in 1 John 3:15 the apostle does not use the term athanasia, which is rendered “immortality” in 1 Cor. 15:53. Instead he uses the phrase zoen aionion, “eternal life” (NASB). This phrase certainly includes immortality, but it is more than that. Many have also argued that the phrase has to do with a quality of life, and certainly that is also true. But in the end, aionion speaks of Time, for it is derived from aion, “eon, age.” It applies immortality to “an age.”
Wilson’s The Emphatic Diaglott of 1 John 3:15 reads,
15 Every one who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has aionian life abiding in him.
The Concordant Version is similar to this:
15 Everyone who is hating his brother is a man-killer, and you are aware that no man-killer at all has life eonian remaining in him.
Young’s Literal Translation reads this way:
15 Every one who is hating his brother—a man-killer he is, and ye have known that no man-killer hath life age-during in him remaining.
Rotherham’s The Emphasized Bible is similar, reading this way:
15 Whosoever is hating his brother is a murderer; and ye know that no murderer hath life age-during within him abiding.
Rotherham says this life is “age-during.” However, in other places (Matt. 25:46), Rotherham renders the term “age-abiding life.” Though his translation is not consistent, these mean essentially the same thing. The Cambridge Bible Commentary, commenting on Matt. 25:46, says:
46. eternal punishment, i.e., punishment characteristic of the Age to come, not meaning that it lasts for ever.
eternal life, i.e., the life that belongs to the Age to come, the full abundant life which is fellowship with God.
There is controversy between those who believe in unending punishment and those who believe that divine judgment is corrective, leading to restoration (hence, limited to an age).
Most of the popular translations, are content to use the term “eternal life,” using the Latin term from Jerome’s Vulgate. The word “eternal” is from aeternas. In ancient times, aeternas had a double meaning: (1) an age, and (2) unending time. This we are told in a scholar’s footnote found in Augustine’s City of God, XXII, I, which says,
“The words ‘eternal’ and ‘eternity’ from Latin aeternus, aeternitas, are related to aevum, which means BOTH ‘unending time’ and ‘a period of time’; for the second meaning the commoner word is aetas.
As the centuries passed, aeternitas came to have a single meaning, “eternity,” meaning unending time. But it was not so during the first few centuries of the early church. In fact, Augustine himself admitted in the fifth century that “most people” believed that all men would be saved after an age of judgment.
Dr. F. W. Farrar writes in his book, Mercy and Judgment, p. 178,
“Since aion meant ‘age,’ aionios means, properly, ‘belonging to an age,’ or ‘age-long,’ and anyone who asserts that it must mean ‘endless’ defends a position which even Augustine practically abandoned twelve centuries ago.”
Dr. Farrar implies that even Augustine realized that his argument advocating unending judgment could not be defended properly by the use of the Latin term aeternity—nor yet with the Greek term aionios. Nonetheless, the Roman church had already adopted Augustine’s original argument, and so this error has become dogma.
Immortality in The Age
John’s use of the term zoen aionion, “eternal life,” or (more properly) “age-abiding life,” refers to immortal life during The Age to come. John certainly understood this well, because he wrote about it in Revelation 20. It is the great “messianic age” that had been often discussed in Jewish circles for a long time.
Hebrew thinking was focused upon the system of Sabbaths, where time was divided into sevens, based on the creation pattern. Hence, there was a seven-day week, a seven-year rest cycle, and a 49-year cycle leading to the Year of Jubilee. The rabbis also spoke often of a 7,000-year cycle, because a day was like a year (Psalm 90:4).
John was familiar with this, and it formed his thought patterns from early childhood. Nowhere did John ever refute this in his later years. In fact, the idea of a Sabbath Millennium comes out clearly in Revelation 20, where we find two distinct resurrections, one on either end of a thousand-year age. Those who are raised in the first resurrection receive immortality during the messianic age, whereas “the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed” (Rev. 20:5).
In other words, the overcomers of the first resurrection are given life during The Age, that is, “eternal life,” or eonian life. Others will receive immortality later at the Great White Throne, as Jesus tells us in John 5:28, 29, but they will miss out on the greatest blessing of all—ruling as immortal “priests of God and of Christ” during The Age. Only a few will be immortal during The Age. Most others will remain mortal, and though their lives will be extended through divine health and healing, they will still grow old and die of natural causes.
Eternal life refers to an enhanced quality of life which is assigned specifically to The Age to come. It is imparted to the first group by means of resurrection and/or transformation, for “we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51). Nonetheless, John says, those who have already been begotten by the immortal seed of the word can say that they possess this life here and now.
The Present Reality
John wrote his letter partly “in order that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). His point was to show that we do not have to wait until later to have eternal life. The New Creation Man already has “resurrection life,” testified by one’s baptism, which is the witness that we have passed from death to life (Rom. 6:4; 1 John 3:14).
When we received the immortal seed of the word, a new creation was begotten in us, a new man that is immortal on account of this immortal seed abiding in him. The old man remains dead (mortal), of course, but if we identify with the new man, we can properly say that we are immortal, even though the flesh continues to fulfill its sentence of death.
Living according to our new identity, we may live the sinless life of the new creation man, which “cannot sin” (1 John 3:9). This new quality of life, found only in the new creation man, is ours today, if indeed we identify ourselves with that new man at all times.
In that way, we now have eternal life—the quality of life bestowed by immortality—even prior to the resurrection, where we will be set free from the old man. At present, we have two identities, each at war with the other (Rom. 7:23). The resurrection is designed to end that war. The old man will die, and the new man will emerge in total victory.
The old man, like Cain, is a murderer. The new man, represented by Abel, is the martyr being murdered. The old man has been sentenced to death and will not be saved. The new man will be raised from the dead and saved thoroughly, for he is not a murderer.
These are future things, and yet the immortality of the new man is already a present reality, giving us the potential to live as Christ Himself lived on this earth.