I recently received an e-mail from a reader with a question about this verse: “Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.” The reader had seen a short internet article on this verse which concluded:
Why does Christ say “he who keeps My word” and not “he who believes in Me”? This shows that obedience is something He sees as a necessary ingredient for entrance into eternal life (cf 3:36). Only if saving faith issues in works of obedience does it make sense that Christ could use either belief or obedience as a condition for eternal life.
That explanation bothered him, as it does me.
Keeping Jesus’ Word
In his excellent book, The Reign of the Servant Kings, Jody Dillow suggests that keeping His word “means to ‘pay attention to’ or to ‘take to heart'” the gospel which Jesus preached (p. 400). Thus he interprets John 8:51 to mean that the one who has come to faith in Christ will never experience spiritual death (parallel to passages like John 5:24 and 11:26).
This is the way I too had understood John 8:51 and the expression keeping His word. However, when confronted anew with this question, I began to wonder. Upon further study I found that the expression keeping His word occurs on three other occasions in the NT, all in John’s writings, and that none of those uses support this conclusion.1 In fact, they led me to a completely different understanding.
In the immediate context, in John 8:55, Jesus indicates that He couldn’t say “I do not know Him,” because then “I [would] be a liar like you; but I do know Him and keep His word.” Jesus kept the Father’s word. Clearly there keeping His word does not refer merely to believing the gospel message. It assuredly refers to Jesus’ obedience to all the Father had sent Him to do.
In 1 John 2:5 keeping His word is parallel to keeping His commandments (1 John 2:3, 4), not to believing in Christ.
The other use, in John 17:6, is where Jesus said in His High Priestly prayer, “You have given them to Me, and they have kept Your word.” This most naturally refers to the fact that the eleven had persisted in following Him (albeit imperfectly).
In light of the other uses of this expression, the evidence is decidedly tipped in favor of keeping His word being a reference to ongoing obedience, not merely to faith in Christ. However, if this is so, what on earth did the Lord mean?
Shall Not See Death
If we stop to think about it, the expression he shall never see death is intriguing and far from simple and easy to understand. While many assume that it means something like “he shall never experience eternal condemnation,” that interpretation is very unlikely as we shall now see.
There is only one other NT occurrence of this expression. An OT saint named Simeon had been told “by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s anointed” (Luke 2:26). There the expression clearly refers to experiencing physical death. However, the parallel is not precise, for a different Greek word for seeing is used (horaō vs. theōreō). We will discuss the significance of this difference shortly.2
We do know what the Pharisees understood by Jesus’ reference to not seeing death. They repeated His statement, yet with a one word alteration, “If anyone keeps My word he shall never taste death” (John 8:52). All other references in the NT to tasting death refer to experiencing physical death (Matt 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27; Heb 2:9). Thus the Pharisees thought that He was claiming that those who persisted in obeying Him would not physically die.
Of course, one could argue that the Pharisees misinterpreted Jesus. After all, He does not confirm their paraphrase. In light of the meaning of theōreō, it is evident that while the Pharisees correctly understood Him to be talking about physical, not spiritual, death, they misunderstood what He meant by seeing death.
The word theōreō is used 22 times in John’s Gospel. The leading lexicon of the NT and other early Christian literature says it means to “be a spectator, look at, observe, perceive, see” (BAGD, p. 360). While it sometimes is used as a synonym for horaō (e.g., 14:19), the more common word for seeing, in many, if not most, of its uses in John it refers to more than simply seeing something (cf. John 6:19, 40, 62; 17:24). In those cases it refers to carefully observe something (as the words “spectator” or “observer” imply). For example, a person may see the sunset without being a spectator of it. Only the person who takes pains to carefully observe the sunset is a spectator. Similarly, the promise which Jesus is making is that he who keeps His word will not be a spectator of death.
Death has commonly been personified as the grim reaper, a man with a scary, skeletal face and body who comes to claim the dead. The persevering believer will not get a good look at that person. The obedient believer faces death differently than unbelievers or believers who are out of fellowship with God. He does not agonize over the transition. Death for him is not a fearsome enemy, nor an experience of terror, but it is actually something to anticipate fondly. He looks forward to crossing over because he knows that for him “to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).
Perseverance in good works is not a condition of eternal life. However, it is a condition of living well-and of dying well. Only the believer who is keeping Jesus’ word lives an abundant life and dies without perceiving death as a terrifying enemy.
1There are also three almost identical expressions, all of which are consistent with the uses of the precise expression keeping His word. In Rev 3:8 keeping My word refers to persevering in good works (cf. v 10), not to believing in Christ. And in Rev 22:7, 9 keeping the words (of the prophecy of the Book of Revelation) refers to applying the Book of Revelation to our lives, not to believing the gospel.
2There is one NT reference to the seemingly antithetical expression seeing life. John the Baptist said, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). Not seeing life refers to not having eternal life. Here again, however, a different Greek word is used for seeing (once again, horaō vs. theōreō). In addition, the context is decidedly different, with eternal life, as opposed to physical life, in view.