But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to object to the statements made by Paul and even to abuse him. Then Paul and Barnabas boldly declared, “We had to speak God’s word to you first, but since you reject it and consider yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we are now going to turn to the gentiles. For that is what the Lord ordered us to do: ‘I have made you a light to the gentiles to be the means of salvation to the very ends of the earth.'” When the gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord. Meanwhile, all who had been destined to eternal life believed, and the word of the Lord began to spread throughout the whole region. Acts 13.45-49.
This morning’s passage records the missionary activity of Paul and Barnabas in Pisidian Antioch, a town on a high plateau beyond the Taurus Mountains in Asia Minor. As the verses make clear, the Jews in that place to whom Paul had initially brought the gospel, rejected it, but many of the Gentiles to whom Paul then took the good news of Jesus received it gladly. But what I find myself being drawn to as I read these verses this morning is the way that Paul (and Luke who is the author of Acts) describes the rejection and acceptance of the gospel in terms of being “unworthy of eternal life” or “destined for eternal life”.
What is “eternal life”? We use the expression all the time (just as the New Testament does) but rarely bother to explain to anyone what it means. I imagine that if I knew nothing about Christianity and someone began to tell me that Jesus could give me “eternal life” I would think I was being offered immortality of the soul … presumably in heaven; but is that what the person sharing the gospel with me would have in mind?
“Eternal life” is a translation of the Greek expression he aionios zoe and it was something that greatly concerned every Jew for it was the equivalent to the Hebrew expression hayye ha’olam habba — “the life of the age to come”. This was the Messianic age; the age when God’s rule over his creation would be restored and his Anointed One would rule over all the nations of the world from the throne of David in Jerusalem. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (Isaiah 9.6-7).
If you were a Jew and you died before that age to come had arrived, then you hoped to be resurrected into it. Had not Daniel said that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12.2). And there is that expression “everlasting life” which became “eternal life” in Greek and thereafter became short-hand for “the life of the age to come”.
All that lay behind the rich young ruler’s question to Jesus: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18.18). He was asking how he could ensure his place in the Messianic kingdom. It was not a question about going to heaven or becoming an immortal soul. And nor did Paul see it in those terms. But the difference between Paul and his fellow Jews was that Paul knew that “the age to come” had already dawned. To be sure it had not arrived in all its fullness, but, in the person of Jesus, the Messiah had come and, by his resurrection from the dead, the Messianic age had been inaugurated. Anyone could now “enter” it. Anyone could now “inherit eternal life”. Eternal life was not primarily “life that lasts forever”. It was not about duration but about quality and content. It was and is the life of Christ filling a human being and thus bringing him or her into his kingdom.
As Jesus himself taught, eternal life is a present gift from God. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16). It is the life that I enjoy today as Christ dwells in my heart by his Spirit, and the life that will one day be given full and glorious expression in the new heavens and the new earth that are still to come (Revelation 21 and 22).