If you are ever inclined to be philosophical, try an internet search for quotes that begin with the words “life is…” Some of my favourites are listed below:
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” ? John Lennon
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” ? Albert Einstein
“Life’s hard. It’s even harder when you’re stupid.” ? John Wayne
“Life is to be enjoyed, not endured” ? Gordon B. Hinckley
“Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect.” ? Margaret Mitchell
“Life is too short, or too long, for me to allow myself the luxury of living it so badly.” ? Paulo Coelho
“Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.” ? Helen Keller
“The whole of life is just like watching a film. Only it’s as though you always get in ten minutes after the big picture has started, and no-one will tell you the plot, so you have to work it out all yourself from the clues.” ? Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures
“Life is a long lesson in humility.” ? J.M. Barrie, The Little Minister
“Life is like an onion; you peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.” ? Carl Sandburg
“Life … is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” ? William Shakespeare, Macbeth
…And then there’s my favorite “life is…” quote of all, attributed to Forrest Gump’s mother: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”
It seems that almost everybody has an idea or two about life, but we all do not agree. Even if we were unified, who’s to say that we would be right? What we need is advice from the One who invented life. We can find such advice, but we have to look in the right place – the Bible.
Summing up what God has to say about life is not going to be easy. It is a complex thing, and it cannot be put in a nutshell or on a bumper sticker. But, if one is willing to listen, he will find that the Bible does teach about life. He must be very careful, however, not to assume he knows what is there.
The bad news
The most prevalent message throughout the whole Bible about life is that it is limited. It is a precious thing because it runs out. Life has a beginning and an end, and the end always comes too soon. A series of images are placed before the Bible reader that emphasizes this limited nature of life.
What is Life ? Life is a shadow
One of Job’s “friends” warned him of the limited nature of life by saying “our days on earth are a shadow.”1 He did not mean that life is an illusion. He meant that our days pass by quickly, disappearing as soon as the light hits them. Job, himself, used the same imagery when he said “Man who is born of a woman …flees like a shadow and continues not.”2 You cannot look at a shadow, and come back in an hour or two and find it in the same place. Like life, shadows are always coming and going. Shadows do not stay put.
David expressed the same thought when he prayed “For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.”3 David combined the shadow imagery with two words that identify a temporary resident in the land. The Israelites were temporary residents in Egypt. But, even after they left Egypt and took up residence in Canaan, they found that they were strangers and sojourners there. This life is much too short to be thought of as permanent.
In his poetry, David reflects on this fact as well. He refuses to fear man, because “his days are like a passing shadow.”4 He puts his trust in the One who is permanent, and relies on the LORD for rescue.
David’s son, Solomon reflected on this reality as well. He challenges his readers to consider their vain lives which will pass “like a shadow.”5 He taught that people should not put their hopes in their plans for the future, because no one knows what will happen to those plans. What matters is not tomorrow, because tomorrow is not guaranteed us. What matters is today, fearing God, and keeping his commandments today.6
Another Old Testament saint, identified merely as “one afflicted” writes “I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink, because of your indignation and anger; for you have taken me up and thrown me down. My days are like an evening shadow.”7 These are the words of someone who has suffered much, and does not always know why. Life just happens, and only God knows why it happens the way it does. Lots of things just seem unfair, particularly the more we realize that the limits of life do not allow for do-overs. Often we realize too late that our days are like an evening shadow, soon to be over – swallowed up in death, and nothing we can do will change that fact.
But it is not just the Old Testament that portrays life in this gloomy fashion. James instructs rich believers that they will “fade away in the midst of (their) pursuits.” No matter how powerful you are, your life is limited.
What is Life ? Life is a mist
Another way the Bible says the same thing is by comparing our lives to a mist or a cloud of vapor. Job laments “The eye of him who sees me will behold me no more; while your eyes are on me, I shall be gone. As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him anymore.”8 Life’s end is compared to a cloud that vanishes before one’s eyes. People disappear like they are getting beamed off by a transporter (my apologies if you have never watched Star Trek). Now you see them, now you don’t.
It is precisely for this reason that James warns his readers not to presume upon their own ability to accomplish what they want to with their lives. He writes “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”9The point is not that we should never make plans. The point is that we should not presume that we will have the time for all our plans to be accomplished. We are not in charge down here. The sovereign God is. It is his will that matters.
What is Life ? Life is a sprint
The Bible presents our lives as a race, but not a long marathon. They are more like a 100 yard dash. Just when we are in our best stride, the finish line appears. Job lamented that his “days are swifter than a runner; they flee away; they see no good. They go by like skiffs of reed, like an eagle swooping on the prey.”10 If you have ever watched an bird swoop down to catch a mouse or a fish, you get the idea. All the drama is over in seconds. Life is a chase, and whether you are a victim or a victor, the chase is over quickly.
Job rightly concluded that “”Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble.”11 As Ethan the Ezrahite prayed, he asked the LORD to remember how short his time is.12 The Proverbs instructs us “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.”13 We never know how long we have. Our days are few. The older we get, the more we get the proper perspective on age. When we are young, we all think we are immortal. We assume we will have enough time to do everything we will want to do. Before we know it, we are looking back on a life spent, rather than forward on dreams and wishes. We never seem to have enough time. That is probably how Jacob felt, when he told Pharaoh that his days were “few and evil.”14 He was 130 years old at the time!
So the Bible warns us that life is a sprint. It may bring great joy or sorrow, great accomplishment or failure, but it will be over too soon. When it is over, it is over. We “are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.”15Such are the limits of this life we are born into.
inhale – exhale
Another image the Bible uses to describe human life is the breath. Breathe in, breathe out, that’s it. David proclaims “surely all mankind is a mere breath!”16 Asaph lamented that God’s people are “a wind that passes and comes not again.”17Moses said that “we bring our years to an end like a sigh.”18 The very process that identifies us as being alive is also a metaphor for our lives. We will all be dead much longer than we were alive (at least this life). That is all the more reason to make this life – that short time between inhaling and exhaling – matter.
don’t bring flowers
I have an unusual request for those of you who might attend my funeral. Please do not bring flowers. I know … flowers are supposed to show love and respect. They are something pretty you can put near a casket. They smell nice. But memorial services often take days, and then the flowers are put graveside. And what do they do? They rot. Just like all vegetation, plucked from the soil, they immediately begin to decay. Often even during the funeral service you can smell the flowers turning stale. People have to put up with a lot at funerals. They have to say goodbye to their loved ones. They have to come to terms with their loss. They have to pay their final respects. Is it asking too much for my friends to not have to do that in the midst of decaying vegetation?
The Bible uses the reality of rotting grass and flowers as a symbol for the brevity of life as well. Job says that man “comes out like a flower and withers.”19 He may start off looking good, but that does not last long. Almost everyone looks good in their baby pictures. The older you get, the more you start asking where that beautiful baby went. Mirrors are not very kind. They remind us that the flower that we were when we came out has begun to wither.
Moses compared a human life to grass, because “in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.”20 Psalm 102 is described as “A Prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the LORD.” One of his complaints is “I wither away like grass.”21 At some point in your life, you are going to recognize that you are not living, you are dying. Things are getting softer, grayer, more wrinkly. Your body has stopped growing and progressing. It is now digressing.
Isaiah used this reality to show the difference between all creation and its creator:
“All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers,
the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers,
the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.” 22
The apostle Peter quoted this text as well. He took the same context (the permanence of God compared our impermanence) and applied it to the born-again believer. He taught that “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”23
our resurrected life will be permanent
This is great news, because it speaks of God’s promise that our resurrected life will be permanent. But it is also a reminder that our present life is not permanent. We were not born immortal and imperishable. We were born into this world as a flower, destined to decay and die. If it were not for God’s grace in promising believers another life – a resurrection, our only destiny would be death.
Other images in the Bible remind us of humanity’s present inclination toward decay. Job reminds us that “Man wastes away like a rotten thing, like a garment that is moth-eaten.”24Isaiah encourages his readers to put their trust in God, not to fear man, because “I, I am he who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass,” “For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but my righteousness will be forever, and my salvation to all generations.”25
This reality of a decaying world is not evil in itself. It is a reminder of the evil present in this world, and the Bible explains why this world is not permanent. God has an eternity in store for his beloved, and its beauty will never fade. It encourages us not to put our hopes and aspirations and trust in the things that are (presently) seen. We should “look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”26
dust to dust
God created humanity from the dust of the earth, and his word continues to remind us that dust is the destiny of that creation. Even the great Abraham, father of the faithful, referred to himself as “but dust and ashes.”27He held no delusions of a nature that made him incapable of decay and death.
David agreed. He spoke of the rich and prosperous, and reminded his readers that they too would become dust. He taught “All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul.”28 And this text clarifies that such language does not merely reflect the fate of the body. It is the soul – the whole life – that the rich cannot keep alive. Death is the undoing of creation, which was a combination of dust and life. For “the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”29 Death reverses the process. The breath of life returns to God, but the soul dies.
David combines a number of these images of human destiny in one of his psalms:
“For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it,
and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.” 30
The consistent picture in the Bible is that humanity does not have what it takes to live forever. That is why we need God’s deliverance from this destiny of dust. Another psalmist puts it this way:
“I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD his God.”31
So, my friend, that is the bad news. We are destined for decay and death, and no human being can ever change that. But the Bible does not leave us there. The good news of the gospel is also consistently taught in the Bible. It has already been hinted at in those texts that encourage us to put our hope in the LORD. He is the answer to the question posed by all these graves.
The good news
The gospel is not a denial of mortality and death. It merely replaces the period of death with a comma. For believers in Christ, this life is still temporary, but the next life will be permanent. The Bible makes this clear in a variety of ways:
Jesus promised that “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”32 It is a promise that this life alone does not establish our fate. Those who have rejected him, and have not experienced his judgment will at the resurrection of judgment, ending in destruction. Those who have believed in him will die like everyone else, but they will be raised to eternal life.
To receive Christ today is to receive that promise. So, the Bible speaks of receiving eternal life.
“Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you,
there is no one who has left house or brothers
or sisters or mother or father or children or lands,
for my sake and for the gospel,
who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers
and children and lands, with persecutions,
and in the age to come eternal life.” 33
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial,
for when he has stood the test
he will receive the crown of life,
which God has promised to those who love him.” 34
The Bible speaks of the believer having eternal life as a present possession, not because all people are born with it, but because it is promised by one who is reliable and faithful.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only Son,
that whoever believes in him
should not perish but have eternal life.” 35
“Truly, truly, I say to you,
whoever hears my word
and believes him who sent me has eternal life.
He does not come into judgment,
but has passed from death to life.” 36
Believers possess eternal life today because the God who ever lives has chosen to raise them from the dead. Our end has a comma, not a period, because the God whom the Bible says is the only one who has immortality37 has chosen to someday share that immortal nature with us. The Bible describes that reality in a number of ways:
To the Samaritan woman at the well “Jesus said … “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.””38 Notice that this eternal life is a gift, not an entitlement. Notice also that Jesus says that he will give it (future tense). He has not yet given it, but he will. He was not speaking of what believers can have today – that is, the assurance of salvation. He was speaking of the immortality that makes a person “never thirsty forever.” He was speaking of the drink to end all drinks.
When Jesus described himself as the bread of life, the Manna that came from heaven, he encouraged his listeners not to “labour for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”39 Once again, the tense is future, because this is a promised gift. Life is something to seek, to labour for. It is not an innate possession.
Paul spoke of God’s coming judgment, when God “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”40 Two judgments, but only one is referred to as a gift. Only one will be eternal life. The other judgment (wrath and fury) will of necessity end in death. Paul clarifies this by saying later “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”41 Those are the two options for eternity: death for sin or life in Christ.
That Jesus promises this eternal life in the future is also shown by it being referred to as an inheritance. An inheritance is a legal promise. It is a way of legally promising someone that they will receive the gift you want them to have. Notice how this biblical language states or implies that eternal life will be inherited:
“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” 42
“And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?””43
“And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”” 44
“the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” 45
“that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” 46
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” 47
So, although the Bible presents the bad news of our present mortality in all its starkness, it gives equal representation to the glorious good news – the hope of eternal life for those who believe and serve Christ. His kingdom is an eternal kingdom, and those who are part of that kingdom will be eternal as well. But something must happen before that promise becomes reality.
Jesus taught “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”48 God desires something that has not yet taken place. He desires (his will is) that believers in his Son have eternal life. The way he has chosen to accomplish this is that he has given his Son authority to raise us up on the last day. When Jesus returns, he will raise the dead. This resurrection is not an incidental part of God’s plan, it is crucial to it.
Jesus taught three specific things about the nature of those who be raised to eternal life.
“those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead … cannot die anymore,
because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”49
- The believer who is raised is raised immortal. He cannot die anymore. The curse of death which had been placed on him in Eden no longer applies.
- The believer who is raised is raised with a new status. He is no longer “a little lower than the heavenly beings”50 because he is now equal to the angels.
- The believer who is raised is raised with a new character. It is a full resurrection, not a mere resuscitation. He has gone from being an adopted son by grace to a son of God by nature. He is comfortable in the presence of the Almighty because those things about him that were part of the old nature have passed away for good.
Jesus, praying for his disciples before his crucifixion, said “you have given (me) authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”51 There is more to eternal life than merely living forever. It involves a shared life with the Father and the Son. It is an eternal relationship. Apart from this relationship, eternity would have no meaning.
We learn best how to live that eternal life today, not by trying to stay alive longer, but by cultivating that relationship. The LORD has provided three major means for us to do so.
- By seeking counsel from God in his word we learn to hear what he wants to say to us.
- By seeking his face in prayer we learn to communicate our thoughts, feelings and desires to him.
- By seeking fellowship with other members of the body of Christ (the church) we learn to see him as he has chosen to manifest himself today.
When Paul and Barnabas were preaching at Antioch of Pisidia, the Bible says that “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”52 This is comforting, because it speaks of God’s sovereignty in salvation. It is also comforting in that it does not speak of any believers that were excluded. In other words, there were no sincere people in Antioch who would have become Christians, but did not have the chance.
Jesus encouraged John on Patmos with these words:
“”Fear not, I am the first and the last,
and the living one.
I died, and behold I am alive forevermore,
and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” 53
These words are an encouragement because we all have an appointment with Death and Hades as well. That inevitable reality that the bad news of the Bible makes so clear, speaks of a prison that we all go to at death. Good and bad, young and old, rich and poor – we all have a sentence in that prison. But the good news is that we have a friend who has escaped, and he has the keys. We have a redeemer, a rescuer, a saviour.
The Bible challenges us to accept both the bad news of death, and the good news of the promise of eternal life through Christ. Responding to this challenge will help the world see the difference between us and the rest. The hallmarks that identify true believers in this age are:
- True believers seek that which has been promised. As Paul put it, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”54
- True believers take hold of that which is promised. Paul urged Timothy to “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called”55 He did not command Timothy to rest on assumptions. He urged him to take every action necessary to ensure that his hope was sure.
- True believers wait for that which is promised. Jude urged his readers to “keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.”56 He called for not passive waiting, but active anticipation. A person who actively anticipates eternity in God’s presence will be seeking to sustain his relationship with God today.
The Bible gives an honest perspective on life. It teaches us that life is not permanent, but it someday can be. The difference is Jesus Christ, and the resurrection that is his alone to give. He has promised this resurrection to us by his grace — “And this is the promise that he made to us- eternal life.”57
- Job 8:9
- Job 14:1,2
- 1 Chronicles 29:15
- Psalm 144:4
- Ecclesiastes 6:12.
- Ecclesiastes 12:13.
- Psalm 102:9-11
- Job 7:8-10
- James 4:13-14
- Job 9:25-26
- Job 14:1
- Psalm 89:47
- Proverbs 27:1
- Genesis 47:9
- 2 Samuel 14:14
- Psalm 39:11; 144:4
- Psalm 78:39
- Psalm 90:9
- Job 14:2.
- Psalm 90:6
- Psalm 102:1,11
- Isaiah 40:6-8.
- 1 Peter 1:23
- Job 13:28
- Isaiah 51:12, 8
- 2 Corinthians 4:18
- Genesis 18:27
- Psalm 22:29 KJV
- Genesis 2:7
- Psalm 103:14-16
- Psalm 146:2-5
- John 5:28-29
- Mark 10:29-30; Luke 18:29-30
- James 1:12
- John 3:14-16
- John 5:24
- 1 Timothy 6:16
- John 4:13-14.
- John 6:27
- Romans 2:6-8
- Romans 6:23.
- Matthew 19:29
- Mark 10:17; Luke 18:18
- Luke 10:25.
- Ephesians 1:13-14
- Ephesians 1:18.
- Colossians 3:23-24.
- John 6:40
- Luke 20:35-36
- Psalm 8:5
- John 17:2-3
- Acts 13:48
- Revelation 1:17-18.
- Philippians 3:12-14
- 1 Timothy 6:12.
- Jude 21
- 1 John 2:25