For the Life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested unto us!
What do we mean, when we speak of the Life everlasting?
Do we mean that men's souls are immortal, and will live for ever after death, either in happiness or misery?
We must mean more than that. At least we ought to mean more than that, if we be Christian men. For the Bible tells us, that Christ brought life and immortality to light. Therefore they must have been in darkness before Christ's coming; and men did not know as much about life and immortality before Christ's coming as they know -- or ought to know -- now.
But if we need only believe that we shall live for ever after death in happiness or misery, then Christ has not brought life and immortality to light. He has thrown no fresh light upon the matter.
And why? For this simple reason, that the old heathen knew as much as that before Christ came.
The old Greeks and Romans, and Persians, and our own forefathers before they became Christians, believed that men's souls would live for ever happy or miserable. The Mussulmans, Mahommedans, Turks as they are called in the Prayer-book, believe as much as that now. They believe that men's souls live for ever after death, and go to 'heaven' or 'hell.'
So those words 'everlasting Life' must needs mean something more than that. What do they mean?
First. What does everlasting mean?
It means exactly the same as eternal. The two words are the same: only everlasting is English, and eternal Latin. But they have the same sense.
Now everlasting and eternal mean something which has neither beginning nor end. That is certain. The wisest of the heathen knew that: but we are apt to forget it. We are apt to think a thing may be everlasting, because it has no end, though it has a beginning. We are careless thinkers, if we fancy that. God is eternal because he has neither beginning nor end.
But here come two puzzles.
First. The Athanasian Creed says that there is but one Eternal, that is, God; and never were truer words written.
But do we not make out two Eternals? For God is one Eternal; and eternal life is another Eternal. Now which is right; we, or the Athanasian Creed? I shall hold by the Athanasian Creed, my friends, and ask you to think again over the matter: thus -- If there be but one Eternal, there is but one way of escaping out of our puzzle, which makes two Eternals; and that is, to go back to the old doctrine of St. Paul, and St. John, and the wisest of the Fathers, and say -- There is but one Eternal; and therefore eternal life is in the Eternal God. And it is eternal Life because it is God's life; the life which God lives; and it is eternal just because, and only because, it is the life of God; and eternal death is nothing but the want of God's eternal life.
Certainly, whether you think this true or not, St. John thought it true; for he says so most positively in the text. He says that the Life was manifested -- showed plainly upon earth, and that he had seen it. And he says that he saw it in a man, whom his eyes had seen, and his hands had handled. How could that be?
My friends, how else could it be? How can you see life, but by seeing some one live it? You cannot see a man's life, unless you see him live such and such a life, or hear of his living such and such a life, and so knowing what his life, manners, character, are. And so no one could have seen God's life, or known what life God lived, and what character God's was, had it not been for the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was made flesh, and dwelt among us, that by seeing him, the Son, we might see the Father, whose likeness he was, and is, and ever will be.
But now, says St. John, we know what God's eternal life is; for we know what Christ's life was on earth. And more, we know that it is a life which men may live; for Christ lived it perfectly and utterly, though He was a man.
What sort of life, then, is everlasting life?
Who can tell altogether and completely? And yet who cannot tell in part? Use the common sense, my friends, which God has given to you, and think; -- If eternal life be the life of God, it must be a good life; for God is good. That is the first, and the most certain thing which we can say of it. It must be a righteous and just life; a loving and merciful life; for God is righteous, just, loving, merciful; and more, it must be an useful life, a life of good works; for God is eternally useful, doing good to all his creatures, working for ever for the benefit of all which he has made.
Yes -- a life of good works. There is no good life without good works. When you talk of a man's life, you mean not only what he feels and thinks, but what he does. What is in his heart goes for nothing, unless he brings it out in his actions, as far as he can.
Therefore St. James says, 'Thou hast faith, and I have works. Shew me thy faith WITHOUT thy works,' (and who can do that?) 'and I will shew thee my faith by my works.'
And St. John says, there is no use SAYING you love. 'Let us love not in word and in tongue, but in deed and in truth;' and again -- and would to God that most people who talk so glibly about heaven and hell, and the ways of getting thither, would recollect this one plain text -- 'Little children, let no man deceive you. He that DOETH righteousness is righteous, even as God is righteous.' And therefore it is that St. Paul bids rich men 'be rich also in noble deeds,' generous and liberal of their money to all who want, that they may 'lay hold of that which is really life,' namely, the eternal life of goodness.
And therefore also, my friends, we may be sure that God loves in deed and in truth: because it is written that God is love.
For if a man loves, he longs to help those whom he loves. It is the very essence of love, that it cannot be still, cannot be idle, cannot be satisfied with itself, cannot contain itself, but must go out to do good to those whom it loves, to seek and to save that which is lost. And therefore God is perfect love, and his eternal life a life of eternal love, because he sends his Son eternally to seek and to save that which is lost.
This, then, is eternal life; a life of everlasting love showing itself in everlasting good works; and whosoever lives that life, he lives the life of God, and hath eternal life.
What I have just said will help you, I think, to understand another royal text about eternal life.
For now' we may understand why it is written, that this is life eternal, to know the true and only God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. For if eternal life be God's life, we must know God, and God's character, to know what eternal life is like: and if no man has seen God at any time, and God's life can only be seen in the life of Christ, then we must know Christ, and Christ's life, to know God and God's life; that the saying may be fulfilled in us, God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.
One other royal text, did I say? We may understand many, perhaps all, the texts which speak of life, and eternal life, if we will look at them in this way. We may see why St. Paul says that to be spiritually minded is life; and that the life of Jesus may be manifested in men: and how the sin of the old heathen lay in this, that they were alienated from the life of God. We may understand how Christ's commandment is everlasting life; how the water which he gives, can spring up within a man's heart to everlasting life -- all such texts we may, and shall, understand more and more, if we will bear in mind that everlasting life is the life of God and of Christ, a life of love; a life of perfect, active, self-sacrificing goodness, which is the one only true life for all rational beings, whether on earth or in heaven.
In heaven, my friends, as well as on earth. Form your own notions, as you will, about angels, and saints in heaven, for every one must have some notions about them, and try to picture to himself what the souls of those whom he has loved and lost are doing in the other world: but bear this in mind: that if the saints in heaven live the everlasting life, they must be living a life of usefulness, of love and of good works.
And here I must say, friends, that however much the Roman Catholics may be wrong on many points, they have remembered one thing about the life everlasting, which we are too apt to forget; and that is, that everlasting life cannot be a selfish, idle life, spent only in being happy oneself. They believe that the saints in heaven are NOT idle; that they are eternally helping mankind; doing all sorts of good offices for those souls who need them; that, as St. Paul says of the angels, they are ministering spirits, sent forth to minister to those who are heirs of salvation. And I cannot see why they should not be right. For if the saints' delight was to do good on earth, much more will it be to do good in heaven. If they helped poor sufferers, if they taught the ignorant, if they comforted the afflicted, here on earth, much more will they be able, much more will they be willing, to help, comfort, teach them, now that they are in the full power, the full freedom, the full love and zeal of the everlasting life. If their hearts were warmed and softened by the fire of God's love here, how much more there! If they lived God's life of love here, how much more there, before the throne of God, and the face of Christ!
But if any one shall say, that the souls of good men in heaven cannot help us who are here on earth, I answer, When did they ascend into heaven, to find out that? If they had ever been there, friends, be sure they would have had better news to bring home than this -- that those whom we have honoured and loved on earth have lost the power which they used to have, of comforting us who are struggling here below. That notion springs altogether out of a superstitious fancy that heaven is a great many millions of miles away from this earth -- which fancy, wherever men get it from, they certainly do not get it from the Bible. Moreover it seems to me, that if the saints in heaven cannot help men, then they cannot be happy in heaven. Cannot be happy? Ay, must be miserable. For what greater misery for really good men, than to see things going wrong, and not to be able to mend them; to see poor creatures suffering, and not to be able to comfort them? No, my friends, we will believe -- what every one who loves a beloved friend comes sooner or later to believe -- that those whom we have honoured and loved, though taken from our eyes, are near to our spirits; that they still fight for us, under the banner of their Master Christ, and still work for us, by virtue of his life of love, which they live in him and by him for ever.
Pray to them, indeed, we need not, as if they would help us out of any self-will of their own. There, I think, the Roman Catholics are wrong. They pray to the saints as if the saints had wills of their own, and fancies of their own, and were respecters of persons; and could have favourites, and grant private favours to those who especially admired and (I fear I must say it) flattered them. But why should we do that? That is to lower God's saints in our own eyes. For if we believe that they are made perfect, and like perfectly the everlasting life, then we must believe that there is no self-will in them: but that they do God's will, and not their own, and go on God's errands, and not their own; that he, and not their own liking, sends them whithersoever he wills; and that if we ask of HIM -- of God our Father himself, that is enough for us.
And what shall we ask?
Ask -- 'Father, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.'
For in asking that, we ask for the best of all things. We ask for the happiness, the power, the glory of saints and angels. We ask to be put into tune with God's whole universe, from the meanest flower beneath our feet, to the most glorious spirit whom God ever created. We ask for the one everlasting life which can never die, fail, change, or disappoint: yea, for the everlasting life which Christ the only begotten Son lives from eternity to eternity, for ever saying to his Father, 'Thy will be done.'
Yes -- when we ask God to make us do his will, then indeed we ask for everlasting life.
Does that seem little? Would you rather ask for all manner of pleasant things, if not in this life, at least in the life to come?
Oh, my friends, consider this. We were not put into this world to get pleasant things; and we shall not be put into the next world, as it seems to me, to get pleasant things. We were put into this world to do God's will. And we shall be put (I believe) into the next world for the very same purpose -- to do God's will; and if we do that, we shall find pleasure enough in doing it. I do not doubt that in the next world all manner of harmless pleasure will come to us likewise; because that will be, we hope, a perfect and a just world, not a piecemeal, confused, often unjust world, like this: but pleasant things will come to us in the next life, only in proportion as we shall be doing God's will in the next life; and we shall be happy and blessed, only because we shall be living that eternal life of which I have been preaching to you all along, the life which Christ lives and has lived and will live for ever, saying to the Eternal Father -- I come to do thy will -- not my will but thine be done.
Oh! may God give to us all his Spirit; the Spirit by which Christ did his Father's will, and lived his Father's life in the soul and body of a mortal man, that we may live here a life of obedience and of good works, which is the only true and living life of faith; and that when we die it may be said of us -- 'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; for they rest from their labours, and their works do follow them.'
They rest from their labours. All their struggles, disappointments, failures, backslidings, which made them unhappy here, because they could not perfectly do the will of God, are past and over for ever. But their works follow them. The good which they did on earth -- that is not past and over. It cannot die. It lives and grows for ever, following on in their path long after they are dead, and bearing fruit unto everlasting life, not only in them, but in men whom they never saw, and in generations yet unborn.