I’ve recently been involved in many discussions about the gospel of eternal life. Many people think that it’s not necessary to insist on the unbeliever’s understanding that Jesus offers eternal life to everybody who believes in Him for it. The unbeliever can be saved without knowing that. Instead, he can simply believe in Jesus regarding a variety of things. For example, one can be eternally saved if he believes that Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross and rose from the dead.
This got me thinking. What did the Jews in the first century believe about the coming Christ? I know that there were many different beliefs among the people. Some believed that the Messiah would come and defeat Rome and bring in a time of prosperity similar to the days of David and Solomon. Many believed that if they kept the Law of Moses they would enter into that kingdom. Perhaps the Pharisees are the most well-known example of such people. Some Jews believed the kingdom would be eternal and that those who entered into it would live forever. Others, however, believed that those who entered into this kingdom would die. Eternal life was not even being offered by God. The coming kingdom was a source of intense national pride. Most Jews probably felt they needed to be circumcised in order to be a part of either an eternal kingdom or a temporal one.
From what I’ve been told, a Jewish group known as the Essenes believed they would be a part of the kingdom if they separated themselves from what they saw as the apostate Jewish religious system of their day. Some of them even moved out into the desert around Jerusalem in order to be counted worthy of this honor. There are indications that some Jews, including the Essenes, believed in two Messiahs. Of course, there were those who, like Abraham, knew they were going to be in an eternal kingdom because they believed in the coming Messiah for that gift.
All of these different groups believed in the coming Messiah. All of them believed in a coming kingdom. All of them were religious people. But it is obvious that what they believed was necessary for entrance into that kingdom, as well as what kind of kingdom it would be, varied widely from one group to another.
It is easy to draw certain parallels to the theological landscape today. There are various groups who believe that Jesus is the Messiah whom the OT promised would come. They are all religious people and are sincere in their beliefs. But they differ widely on what they believe He offers. Most would say He offers them entrance into a future kingdom if they do enough good works. Others say people will get in if they perform certain religious rituals. For some, eternal life is provisional. It can be lost. For others, a person won’t get eternal life until after they die, and then only if they have been holy enough.
Many would say that all such people have eternal life, even though they don’t realize it. There is no need to evangelize them, since knowing that Jesus offers eternal life is not essential.
But it should be noted that Jesus did not take that attitude in His earthly ministry. He evangelized those who had a wrong view about what He was offering. He was offering eternal life to all who believed in Him for it.
For those who thought they needed to work to earn such a blessing, Jesus had a strong rebuke. He pointed out that even though they were religious and believed in the coming Messiah and His kingdom, they did not have eternal life. In an example of evangelism, He states, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).
In the first century, Jesus evangelized religious people who did not believe they had eternal life simply by believing in Him for it. They thought they had to live a particular way in the hope that they would be counted worthy to be in the kingdom. There were many Jews like that.
There are many people like that today. They are good people. They are religious people. They need to hear the message of life just as much as the Jews in John 5. They need to be evangelized.