"Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death." What? What does Jesus mean by this? "Will never see death"? But everyone dies. Even the greatest people in history died, as Jesus' opponents point out, "Abraham died, as did the prophets." So how can our Lord say that those who keep his word will never see death?
Well, we must understand what Jesus means by death. He doesn't mean simply the halting of the heartbeat and the cooling of the flesh. Jesus himself will experience this death. The death Jesus speaks of is the second death, the death that continues after the body dies. That is eternal death in hell. But for those who know God, they will not experience this death. St. John records Jesus speaking in Revelation chapter two, "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death." (2:10-11) The first death will be experienced by all, except those still remaining at the resurrection of the dead. But those who are faithful unto death, who keep the words spoken to the Church will not experience the second death.
Scripture speaks of the first death of the faithful as sleep. David slept with his fathers and was buried (1 Kings 2:10). And Jesus also does not consider faithful men such as Abraham dead, but merely sleeping as he spoke to the Sadducees in Matthew 22, "As for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not God of the dead, but of the living." (22:31-32)
So those who keep Jesus' word will live forever, even if they experience the first death. Jesus opponents do not understand this, because they do not know God. Jesus knows God. He says, "I do know him and I keep his word." What does it mean to know God? To know God means to have a personal relationship with God, that is, to have faith in him. This is more than to simply have knowledge of God, to be able to recite the Creed or answer rudimentary questions concerning the Christian faith. No, to know God is to trust in him, to trust in his promise, and to know that God knows you, that he loves you and that he claims you as his own. If you know God you will never see death.
But how do we know God? Jesus said, "I do know him and I keep his word." You know God by keeping his word. This is the same message Jesus said before, "If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death." What does it mean to keep Jesus' word? To keep Jesus' word means to guard it, to cherish it, to trust in it. This is why it is so ironic that these Jewish people claimed Abraham as their father. Sure, by blood they are his children, but that's about it. Abraham is the man of faith. His children are those of faith. Abraham is a great example to us for what it means to keep God's word.
Abraham left his father's house and his father's land, because God promised to make him into a great nation. Abraham believed God when he promised to give him a son, even in his old age. And when God finally gave him a son, Abraham still trusted in God, believing that he would raise his son from the dead when God told him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Every word God spoke to Abraham, he treasured more than all his flocks, servants, and gold, yes, even more than his own son.
Jesus said, "Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad." Is Jesus joking? He's in his early thirties. Abraham died eighteen centuries earlier. How could Abraham have possibly seen Jesus' day? Abraham saw Jesus' day through faith. He believed God's promise. When Jesus said, "Abraham saw my day" he was saying that Abraham had faith in Christ according to the promise of God.
Abraham saw Jesus' day when God spoke to him, "I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Genesis 12:3) Abraham rejoiced to see Christ's day when he believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Abraham saw Christ's day and was glad when he saw the ram stuck in the thorns, prepared by God to replace his son as the sacrifice on the altar. Abraham had faith that God would send the Christ through his own body, who would bless all nations. Abraham rejoiced in the death of Christ.
And here we learn what word we must keep, so that we will never see death: the Gospel that Jesus Christ comes from God and from Abraham to bless all families of the earth; the Gospel that Jesus is our Lamb of God, who takes our place and is sacrificed for our sins.
Jesus said, "If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, 'He is our God.'" God the Father glorified Jesus by having him lifted up on the cross to die for all sinners. Jesus' death glorified God the Father by fulfilling his word and by saving God's people, whom he loves. The word we must keep is the Gospel, that God is glorified where Christ saves sinners. Christ saved you on the cross, when he entered into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. Christ saves you in your Baptism, where he joins you to his death and resurrection. Christ saves you when he feeds you his very body and blood given and shed for you on the cross in the Lord's Supper. This is the word we must keep, cherish, trust, and hold more precious than life itself.
If you do not keep God's Word then you are not of God. You don't know God. Many claim to know God, even to have a personal relationship with God. But you cannot have a personal relationship with God, you cannot truly know God unless you know Jesus Christ through his word. Unless you know Jesus as your Savior, who paid for all your sins on the cross and freely forgives you all your sins, you will not know God the Father.
How can you love God if you do not listen to his words? Have you ever had a friend, who never listened to you? Was he a good friend? Do you think he really knew you well? How can you know God if you do not listen to him? How can you love God, while hating his Son? You can't. You can't know or love God if you don't listen to his words. You cannot know God if you do not receive Jesus in faith as your Savior, who died for you and gives himself to you freely through word and Sacrament.
And so we must be like Abraham. We must see the day of the Lord when we hear the preaching of the Gospel. We must rejoice in Christ's day when we remember our Baptism and when we receive the Lord's Supper, knowing that these are the fruits of the cross by which we truly learn to know our God. We must be glad to hear the word of the cross, knowing that by keeping this word at all times we will not see the second death.
Jesus' opponents asked him how he could have seen Abraham when removed by centuries. Jesus responded, "Before Abraham was, I AM." When God spoke to Moses through the burning bush sending him to lead his people Israel, Moses asked him, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" (Exodus 3:13-14) Here Jesus makes the awesome claim to be God himself. Jesus is. He exists forever. When he says he knows the Father, he knows him from eternity. Jesus spoke the promise to Abraham of his own blessed birth from his lineage. This means that this Lamb of God, who died on the cross for your sins is not only a man. He is your God. Yet, he owns his human nature. The blood shed on the cross is God's blood. It truly irradicates your sin. It most certainly removes death from you. And so the divine body and blood you receive in the Supper is the medicine of immortality. Keep this word of Christ. Believe it. Own it as your own. And you will know God. And you will never see death into eternity. Amen.