“The one who believes in the Son has eternal life; but the one who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” John 3:36 NASB
Believes in – You want eternal life, right? You want to avoid Hell, enjoy Heaven, live in eternal bliss, and put all your troubles behind you. Then, according to John, you must “believe in” the Son (with a Trinitarian capital “S”). But what does that mean? In order to understand what John writes, we have to know the language, the culture, and the doctrinal influences.
The Greek for this phrase is pisteuon eis. John never uses the word “belief.” He only uses the verb. For John, believing is an active, dynamic, continuous experience. It is not assent to a set of fixed propositions. Believing is what we do, not just what we think. The problem is that John often couples this verb with the preposition, eis. Unfortunately, when the preposition is translated as “in,” it suggests that believing is about agreement with the facts. For us, it’s like saying, “I believe in the Constitution.” That means I agree with the facts, the ideas, of the Constitution. It might imply that I live by those facts, but not necessarily. We have the same sort of problem here. Because the Church is generally an extension of the Greco-Roman worldview, cognitive agreement is the priority. To believe is to agree with certain doctrines, and in this case, the capital letter in “Son” implies that eternal life is the result of agreeing that Jesus is divine’ i.e., that Jesus is God. This has been the approach of the Church since the 5th Century. That’s why we have statements of faith rather than lives of faithfulness. That’s why the Church could dismiss the Mosaic code and substitute catechism, sacrament, and ritual. That’s why we are told the “sinner’s prayer” is an admission ticket to Heaven. Even if the idea of the Trinity didn’t divide Judaism and Christianity, Christianity’s perspective on the “law” would still produce a chasm. In Christianity, living is not as important as assenting. In Judaism, the opposite is true.
What, then, was John really writing? John’s Greek is influenced by Hebrew/Jewish concepts. As you will immediately notice, John continues the thought of “believing eis” with the requirement of obedience. Eternal life is not the result of simply believing. It is pisteuon eis as defined by its negation, apeithéō. “This word means ‘to be disobedient’ and is a significant term in the LXX for disobedience to God.” John’s full concept is this: eternal life is found in modeling the Messiah’s commitment of obedience to God. In other words, if we are obeying the Messiah, then we are embracing and living according to his instructions. And what were those instructions? “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). Yeshua was in line with the prophets. If you want to experience life with God, follow Torah.
Now we can correctly interpret the preposition eis. “In the NT eis expresses the living connection between divine and cosmic realities.”
eis denotes a friendly relationship a. between believers (Rom. 12:10; 16:6; 1 Cor. 16:3), b. between God and us (Rom. 5:8) or God and believers (2 Cor. 1:11; 1 Pet. 1:10), and c. between us and God: we were created for God (1 Cor. 8:6), and we are to repent toward God (Acts 20:21) and to believe in (eis) God or Christ, into whom, or whose name, we are baptized. (It should be noted that believing in Christ is rare in the Synoptic Gospels, Acts, and Paul, but common in John’s Gospel, where it is found over 30 times between 2:11 and 17:20.).
eis is a relational word. It’s not about my cognitive state of mind or my agreement with some doctrine. It’s about coming into a way of living. John uses it to describe inclusion in community, involvement in a dynamic communion between God and us, facilitated through the Messiah. eis is spatial. It’s where you reside, in the Kingdom or not in the Kingdom. And those who reside in the Kingdom obey the King, who, by the way, obeys his God, YHVH.
Topical Index: pisteuon eis, believe in, John 3:36