Flashback Episode — Receiving and Keeping Eternal Life: John 3:23-36


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In our last episode, we discussed a passage where John the Baptist declares who Jesus was to the crowd present listening to him, and we learned that a couple of John’s own followers left John to start following Jesus. In many ways, our passage for this episode picks up where that one left off because we now have the opportunity to look back at John the Baptist’s group of followers, and how he responds to Jesus’ ministry growing, and how they perceive John’s ministry being affected by Jesus.

I wonder if John the Baptist surprised his followers with his response. Let’s read about what happened. Our passage is found in the gospel of John, chapter 3, and we will be reading from the New Century Version. Starting in verse 23, we read that:

23 John was also baptizing in Aenon, near Salim, because there was plenty of water there. People were going there to be baptized. 24 (This was before John was put into prison.)

25 Some of John’s followers had an argument with a Jew about religious washing. 26 So they came to John and said, “Teacher, remember the man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan River, the one you spoke about so much? He is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

27 John answered, “A man can get only what God gives him. 28 You yourselves heard me say, ‘I am not the Christ, but I am the one sent to prepare the way for him.’ 29 The bride belongs only to the bridegroom. But the friend who helps the bridegroom stands by and listens to him. He is thrilled that he gets to hear the bridegroom’s voice. In the same way, I am really happy. 30 He must become greater, and I must become less important.

31 “The One who comes from above is greater than all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and talks about things on the earth. But the One who comes from heaven is greater than all. 32 He tells what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts what he says. 33 Whoever accepts what he says has proven that God is true. 34 The One whom God sent speaks the words of God, because God gives him the Spirit fully. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given him power over everything. 36 Those who believe in the Son have eternal life, but those who do not obey the Son will never have life. God’s anger stays on them.”

While reading this passage, one big thing that jumped out at me is how John concludes his statement about God’s relationship with Jesus. John tells us the key to both gaining eternal life and losing it. He says, “Those who believe in the Son have eternal life, but those who do not obey the Son will never have life. God’s anger stays on them.” (v. 36)

This is a very powerful verse because in it we have two parallel, and somewhat paradoxical, ideas regarding eternal life. The first of these two ideas is that belief in Jesus, God’s Son, is what is necessary for gaining salvation. This means that no action or set of actions can earn eternal life for us. It is all a matter of belief, and who we choose to put our faith, belief, and trust in.

To contrast this first idea, we have the second one which might sound on the surface as if it cancels the first idea out. John tells us that “those who do not obey the Son will never have life”. (v. 36b)

It would seem that this second idea stresses obedience as a requirement for keeping eternal life. This means that faith alone cannot assure us of eternal life if we believe our actions, attitude, and obedience are irrelevant. This passage strongly suggests that while actions cannot earn us salvation, our actions can forfeit the salvation that we were once given.

This passage describes the foundation of two of the biggest “church” words we have today that are not explained often enough. These words are justification and sanctification.

We can explain justification with the first portion of our passage. Justification tells us that we cannot do anything to earn eternal life. Instead, we recognize that sin has infected our lives, and Jesus came to live the life we couldn’t because of sin, and Jesus offers us His reward for the perfect life He lived because He took our punishment when He didn’t deserve it.

The act of justification is this exchange: We accept Jesus’ reward for His perfect life and He takes the punishment for our imperfect lives. This exchange makes no logical sense. God did not have to step in to offer justification for anyone. The only reason this happened is because of God’s character of love. God loves humanity with every aspect of Himself, and because of this, we are given the gift of justification – the opportunity of receiving God’s reward for a perfect life when we do not deserve it. Justification happens at the moment we choose to accept God’s gift through Jesus into our lives and our hearts.

The second portion of our passage describes the other big theological word, which is sanctification. While justification became available to all of humanity the instant Jesus died, sanctification is the way we respond to the gift of justification. Sanctification is based on where we focus after accepting God’s gift. It is also how we choose to sacrifice our lives and our desires in regard to God’s plan for our lives.

Sanctification involves giving up the things in our lives that don’t draw us closer to God in favor of the things that do. Sanctification also draws us to focus on God and become more like Him. The closer we draw to God, the more His light and love can shine through our lives.

Both justification and sanctification involve our free will and our freedom of choice. God doesn’t justify us if we choose to reject His gift, and God won’t sanctify us if we are not willing to give up sin in our lives. This is where John’s statement about obedience is applied. Obeying Jesus after we accept His gift is how we are sanctified. After accepting Jesus into our hearts and lives, we are still free to reject Him in the future.

This is where many Christians get stuck. When we accept Jesus, nothing Satan can do can steal us away from Jesus, because Jesus defeated Satan. However, we are still free to walk away from Jesus and give up the gift we once had received. God isn’t going to drag anyone kicking and screaming into heaven.

Instead, we show God and the world around us that we have accepted Jesus’ gift by living in obedience to His will. Accepting Jesus is an internal choice, but what we do with this choice that is visible to others is how we make our decision public.

This idea is one of the biggest concepts in Christianity and we’ve only really touched the surface of it. What really stands out in our passage is that before Jesus has really stepped onto the public scene in a big way, we find John the Baptist sharing this big truth regarding faith and action; and regarding justification and sanctification. “Those who believe in the Son have eternal life, but those who do not obey the Son will never have life. God’s anger stays on them.” (v. 36)

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

As I always challenge you to do, intentionally seek God first in your life. If you haven’t accepted God’s gift of eternal life through Jesus, do so today. Simply make the choice to acknowledge that you cannot earn salvation on your own and that you need Jesus to take your place. At the moment you make this decision, know that you have been justified and that Jesus’ reward is yours.

Then, as I always challenge you to do, be sure to pray, read, and study the Bible for yourself, and intentionally focus on drawing closer to God and Jesus through what has been revealed in the Bible. Let God’s word and His truth affect your life and apply and obey what He teaches you about Himself.

And as you learn, grow, and move towards Jesus, never stop short of where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him, because when we decide to stop when God is calling us to come, we ultimately begin drifting away from Him. Drifting away from Jesus is how we forfeit the gift of eternal life, and that is why it is so important that we choose to keep moving towards God and keep focusing our hearts, minds, and lives on Him!

Flashback Episode: Year 4 – Episode 5: When an argument breaks out between some people following John the Baptist, discover a profound statement John makes about Jesus, and while also sharing the foundation of two of the biggest theological ideas present in Christianity.

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