What is the bearing of the life in John 11: 25, 26—especially the words “and every one who lives and believes on me shall never die”?
To rightly understand the concept of life in these verses, we must first understand what is meant by death. Man is a tripartite being for the Bible speaks of “your whole spirit, and soul and body” (1 Thess. 5:23). Death is the separation of the spirit and soul from the body and so we read “For as the body without a spirit is dead” (James 2: 26) and “her soul was departing—for she died” (Gen. 35: 18). This state of separation from the body is described by Paul as “unclothed” (2 Cor. 5: 4), using the figure of a garment for the body. The state of death is described in the OT as Sheol and in the NT as Hades. When death is spoken of in the Bible it is always in relation to a person or that person’s body. Thus, we read of a “dead person” (Lev. 19: 28; 21: 1 etc.) or the person’s name (see Jud. 8: 33; 9: 55 etc.) or a “dead body” (Num. 6: 6; 9: 6 etc.). The Bible speaks of dead bodies, but you never read of dead souls or dead spirits in Scripture. Accordingly, resurrection is always identified with the body (see Matt. 27: 52; 1 Cor. 15: 35, 44) or the person (see John 12: 1, 9). Correspondingly, resurrection is never spoken of in relation to spirits or souls.
In John 11 the Lord declared that “Lazarus, our friend, has fallen asleep, but I go that I may awaked him out of sleep” (v11, my emphasis) but He “spoke “of his death” (v13). This is the sort of terminology used to describe death in both the OT and the NT (see Deut. 31: 16; 2 Sam. 7: 12; 1 Kings 1: 21; Acts 7: 60; 13: 36; etc.). In the NT believers are spoken of as “asleep in Christ” or “fallen asleep through Jesus” (1 Cor. 15: 18, 1 Thess. 4: 14; my emphasis). The language is figurative but figures in Scripture are both precise and accurate. The only way that a person exits natural sleep is by being woken or waking up. It is the same with the sleep of death. The only way in which a person exits death is by resurrection. The psalmist could say “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied, when I awake with thy likeness” (Ps. 17: 15; see 1 John 3: 2). This resurrection from the grave is true for believer and unbeliever alike, for as the Lord Himself said, “an hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear his voice, and shall go forth; those that have practised good, to resurrection of life, and those that have done evil, to resurrection of judgment” (John 5: 28, 29).
Now in speaking to Martha about her dead brother, the Lord said. “Thy brother shall rise again” (John 11: 23), causing Martha to respond with “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection in the last day” (v24). What is the last day? It is not the “day of eternity” (2 Pet. 3: 18). Scripture speaks of just two ages. The first age is called “this age” (Matt. 12: 32; 1 Cor. 2: 8; Eph. 1: 21; see also Luke 20: 34; 1 Cor. 2: 6; where the word world should be age) or “the present age” (1 Tim. 6: 17; 2 Tim. 4: 10). The second age is called “the coming [one]” (Matt. 12: 32), “the coming age” (Mark 10: 30) and the age “to come” (Eph. 1: 21). The age to come is called in John’s Gospel “the last day” (John 6: 39, 40, 44, 54;11: 24; 12: 48). This is the day Martha spoke of. She rightly associated the resurrection of Lazarus as a believer with the last day.
Let us now look at the verses in question. The Lord said to Martha “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes on me though he have died, shall live, and every one who lives and believes on me shall never die” (John 11: 25, 26). The words resurrection and life are both equally identified with the Lord. Resurrection is thus the gateway to life for all believers. Though he may “have died”, he is assured that he “shall live” (v25). But where and when? In the unclothed state before resurrection? No, for “shall live” is in the future tense. In any case, how can life be identified with death? Death and life are two opposite concepts. When then, will the dead believer live? He will live when he has been raised by the Lord, for the Lord is “the resurrection and the life”. Life here thus refers to a future life in the age to come—the last day. But then, what about the other statement on life: “every one who lives and believes on me shall never die” (v26)? Were the verbs lives and believes in this statement transposed, the term lives might then be taken to refer to spiritual life through believing on the Lord. However, that is not so. Thus “shall never die” cannot refer to the “present age” (1 Tim. 6: 17; 2 Tim. 4: 10) for unless the Lord returns, every one of us will die, just as multitudes have done previously! Nor can it refer to the unclothed state, for that is the state of death. It can only refer to the age to come when believers raised by the Lord will live, never to die again. In a word, they will have eternal life.