When I was growing up, if you asked me what it means to have eternal life, I would have said something like “being in heaven with Jesus.” I think this illustrates how a lot of Christians in America think about eternal life—it is a future experience reserved for us in heaven.
This idea is generally true. As the Bible says, God has raised us and made us to sit with Christ in heaven (Eph 2:6); we are individually citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20); as members of the body of Christ, our names are registered in heaven (Heb 12:22); and there is an incorruptible, undefiled inheritance awaiting us in heaven (1 Pet 1:4).
But when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, His prayer put a different emphasis on the meaning of eternal life. As He prayed in John 17:3,
And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
Notice what Jesus said—eternal life means knowing God the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ.
Following Christ is not primarily about getting to heaven, although that is part of the promise. It also is not about obeying a moral code, being a good citizen, or contributing to a better society, although God does instruct us to do these things. At its core, following Christ is about living in relationship with God and experiencing His loving presence in our lives.
This knowing God and experiencing His presence is captured in John 15. As Jesus says,
As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. (John 15:9)
Abiding is the idea of remaining and resting in Christ. All relationships require time, energy, and effort to grow in closeness and depth. Our relationship with God is no different. It requires a commitment to spending time speaking with Him, listening to Him, and living with our hearts and minds oriented toward Him on a regular basis.
In America it is easy to fall into the trap building earthly wealth and neglecting our relationship with God. 21st century America is like 1st century Laodicea in this regard. But Christ rebuked the Laodiceans for storing up earthly riches for themselves. And He invited them instead to store up heavenly riches for themselves by recommitting to their relationship with Him,
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. (Revelation 3:20)
Following Christ centers around our relationship with God. This means opening our hearts to His loving, abiding presence. Yes, when we pass from this life to the next, our experience of His presence will be fully realized. But even now we can begin to experience eternal life by prioritizing our relationship with God and orienting our hearts and minds toward Him.