[A couple of years back, Apollos brought this alternate understanding of John 17:3 to my attention.  I was still well indoctrinated back then so I couldn’t quite see his logic and hadn’t given it much thought until a recent email from another reader who had a similar understanding to Apollos’ arrived urging me to write about it.  This is the result.]

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NWT Reference Bible
This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ.

For the past 60 years, this is the version of John 17:3 that we as Jehovah’s Witnesses have used repeatedly in the field ministry to help people understand the need to study the Bible with us so as to gain everlasting life. This rendering has changed slightly with the release of the 2013 edition of our Bible.

NWT 2013 Edition
This means everlasting life, their coming to know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.

Both renderings can support the idea that everlasting life depends on acquiring knowledge of God.  That is certainly how we apply it in our publications.

At first glance, this concept would seem to be self-evident; a no-brainer as they say.  How else are we going to be forgiven our sins and granted life eternal by God if we don’t get to know him first?  Given the logical and noncontroversial nature of this understanding, it is surprising that more translations do not align with our rendering.

Here’s a sampling:

International Standard Version
And this is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent—Jesus the Messiah.

New International Version
Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

International Standard Version
And this is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent—Jesus the Messiah.

King James Bible
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

Byington Bible (published by WTB&TS)
“and this is what the eternal life is, that they should know you, the only true God, and the on whom you sent, Jesus Christ.”

The foregoing renderings are pretty typical as can be seen by a quick visit to http://www.biblehub.com where you can enter “John 17:3” into the search field and view over 20 parallel renderings of Jesus’ words.  Once there, click on the interlinear tab and then click on the number 1097 above the Greek word ginóskó.  One of the definitions given is “to know, especially through personal experience (first-hand acquaintance).”

The Kingdom Interlinear renders this “This but is the everlasting life in order that they may be knowing you the only true God and whom you sent forth Jesus Christ.”

Not all translations disagree with our rendering, but the majority do. What is more important is that the Greek appears to be saying that ‘everlasting life is for knowing God’.  This is in line with the thought expressed at Ecclesiastes 3:11.

“…Even time indefinite he has put in their heart, that mankind may never find out the work that the [true] God has made from the start to the finish.”

Even though we may live forever we will never get to fully know Jehovah God. And the reason we were given everlasting life, the reason time indefinite was put into our heart, was so that we could continually grow in knowledge of God through “personal experience and first-hand acquaintance.”

It would appear therefore that we are missing the point by misapplying the Scripture as we do. We imply that one must first get knowledge of God to live forever.  However, following that logic to its conclusion forces us to ask just how much knowledge is required to gain everlasting life?  Where’s the mark on the ruler, the line in the sand, the tipping point at which we have acquired enough knowledge so that we can get everlasting life?

Of course, no human can ever fully know God,[i] so the idea we communicate at the door is that a certain level of knowledge is needed and once achieved, then everlasting life is possible.  This is reinforced by the procedure through which all candidates must pass to be baptized.   They must answer a series of some 80+ questions that are found divided into three segments in the Organized to Do Jehovah’s Will book.  This is designed to test their knowledge to make sure that their decision to be baptized is based on accurate knowledge of the Bible as taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

So pivotal is our understanding of John 17:3 to the concept on which we base our Bible education work that we had a 1989 study book titled You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth which was replaced in 1995 by another study book titled Knowledge That Lead to Everlasting Life.

There is a subtle but important distinction between the two ideas of 1) “I want to get to know God so I can live forever;” and 2) “I want to live forever so that I can get to know God.”

It is clear that Satan has a far more extensive knowledge of God than any human can hope to acquire in a lifetime of study and personal experience.  Additionally, Adam already had everlasting life when he was created and yet he did not know God. Like a newborn child, he began to acquire knowledge of God through his daily association with his heavenly father and his study of creation.  If Adam had not sinned, he would now be 6,000 years richer in his knowledge of God.  But it wasn’t lack of knowledge that caused them to sin.

Again, we’re not saying that getting to know God is unimportant. It is vastly important.  So important in fact that it is the very goal of life. To put the horse in front of the cart, “Life is there so that we can know God.” To say that “Knowledge is there so that we can get life”, puts the cart in front of the horse.

Of course, our situation as sinful humans is unnatural. Things were not meant to be this way. Therefore, to be redeemed we have to accept and put faith in Jesus. We have to obey his commands. All of that does require getting knowledge.  Still, that is not the point Jesus is making at John 17:3.

Our overemphasis and misapplication of this Scripture has led to a sort of “paint by numbers” approach to Christianity. We are taught and have come to believe that if we accept the teachings of the Governing Body as “the truth”, attend our meetings regularly, go out in field service as much as possible, and stay within the ark-like Organization, we can be pretty much assured of everlasting life. We don’t need to know everything there is to know about God or Jesus Christ, but just enough to get a passing grade.

Too often we sound like sales people with a product.  Ours is Everlasting Life and the Resurrection of the Dead.  Like sales people we are taught to overcome objections and to push the benefits of our product.  There is nothing wrong about wanting to live forever. It is a natural desire. The hope of the resurrection is crucial as well.  As Hebrews 11:6 shows, it isn’t enough to believe in God. We have to also believe that “he becomes the rewarder of those earnestly seeking him.”  Nevertheless, it is not a sales pitch full of benefits that will draw people in and hold them. Each must have a real desire to know God.  Only those “earnestly seeking” Jehovah will stay the course, because they do not serve for selfish goals based on what God can give them, but rather out of love and a desire to be loved.

A wife wants to know her husband.  As he opens his heart to her, she feels loved by him and loves him all the more.  Likewise, a father wishes his children to know him, though that knowledge grows slowly over years and decades, but eventually—if he’s a good father—a powerful bond of love and genuine appreciation will develop.  We are the bride of Christ and children of our Father, Jehovah.

The focus of our message as Jehovah’s Witnesses distracts from the idyllic image portrayed in John 17:3. Jehovah made a physical creation, formed in his image. This new creature, male and female, was to enjoy everlasting life—a never-ending growth in knowledge of Jehovah and his firstborn Son.  This will yet come to pass.  This love for God and his Son will deepen as the mysteries of the universe gradually unfold before us, revealing even deeper mysteries within.  We will never get to the bottom of it all.  More than this, we will come to know God better and better through first-hand acquaintance, such as Adam had, but recklessly lost.  We cannot imagine where it will all take us, this everlasting life with knowledge of God as its purpose.  There is no destination, but only the journey; a journey without end.  Now that is something worth striving for.


[i] 1 Cor. 2:16; Eccl. 3:11