I’ve read this passage in John 6:68 tons of times, yet as I read these words for the umpteenth time for my Gospel of John class at Concordia Seminary, this confession the twelve disciples make struck me. Like the rich ruler, we often wonder, “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 18:18), not realising the irony behind the question. The irony behind the rich ruler’s question is that he’s (supposedly) kept the entire Law. By keeping the Law, he should have eternal life. But, Jesus says, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Luke 18:22).
The point—much to the ancient monastics’ dismay—is not to sell all you have and live in poverty to properly follow Jesus and inherit eternal life. The rich man could not do this, which emphasises Jesus’ point: there’s nothing you can do to inherit eternal life. Even the word “inherit” gives it away. Nobody does anything to earn an inheritance; it’s merely given to you.
You receive your parents’ inheritance not because you’ve done anything to deserve it but simply because you’re their child. They gave you life; you cannot demand your “right” to your inheritance—or anything, for that matter—simply because you exist. Even then, they can always remove your inheritance if you do something stupid. Thus, we receive an inheritance not because we do anything, but we can lose it by doing something, particularly something stupid that would estrange us from the inheritance giver.
Anyway, this isn’t about Luke 18; this is about those vital words of confession in John 6, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Eternal life is not in what you do; eternal life is in the Word of Christ. That is to say, eternal life is what Jesus speaks.
This is not only remarkable but also in line with the main motif of John’s Gospel. He begins his Gospel account, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through Him [notice “the Word” is a He], and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-4, 14).
Among many other things, John’s Gospel account is all about the Word of God—more specifically, the word of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, literally. Because He is the Word, Jesus came to speak His Word, and not for the sake of speaking but to create life, specifically eternal life.
It is no accident that John begins his Gospel account with the Genesis formula. Any Jewish person reading this would’ve immediately connected this to Genesis. In the beginning, God created all things simply by speaking. God created everything with words. Thus, by saying God’s Word took on human flesh is no simple matter. Even more, “To say, ‘In the beginning was the Word’ is to say in the beginning is God’s act of communication. Without communication God remains unknown and unknowable. For the Gospel to say anything about God means that God must first disclose something of himself” (Koester, 26-27).
God wants to be known. In order to be known, He has to speak to us. This is just what He did when He not only spoke directly to the patriarchs and prophets but also when He spoke through the Prophets (which He continues to do in the pastor’s oral proclamation). Yet this wasn’t enough. So, to make Himself even more known, the second person of the Trinity—the Word of God—took on human flesh to make God known to the world. This is why Jesus says, “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). God and the Word are one and the same; this is why Jesus can say that those who have seen Him have actually seen God’s face.
But I digress. As God created life through speaking—through His Word—so Jesus the Word made flesh creates eternal life through speaking. Therefore, when Simon Peter with the other disciples confess, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,” this is not saying, “You know how to get eternal life, so please tell us,” but rather, “The Word you speak to us gives us life eternal.” When you hear the Word of Christ in the Scriptures and you believe the Word He has spoken, by faith He actually creates in you new life, which is eternal.
There’s a reason why we sing these words as our Alleluia and Verse in Divine Service Setting One just before we hear the Holy Gospel (LSB pp. 156-157). We sing the disciples’ confession, “Alleluia. Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia, alleluia.” Then what follows are the words of the Word who speaks to us those words of eternal life, which becomes ours in full.
“How does Jesus’ speaking create eternal life in me?” I don’t know; I don’t claim to know how it works. All I know is that it’s what He does. I cannot claim to understand how the world came to be through God’s speaking anymore than I can claim to understand how life eternal comes to be through Christ’s speaking. What I do know is this: When God speaks, stuff happens. When God first spoke, He created life. When Christ speaks, He gives you and me life eternal.
Koester, Craig R. The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.