Is there any verse of scripture more familiar in our culture than John 3:16? It may be that for many in our culture it is the only verse they know, or at least, the only verse they know the reference for. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” Over the years, we’ve seen it displayed at athletic events; on bumper stickers or decals on cars, emblazoned on all matter of Christian kitsch.
For that very reason, many of us find its ubiquity and overuse problematic or even offensive. It’s as likely to divide or put people off as it is to attract people to Christianity, for not only does it seem to reduce the truth and beauty of Christianity to a slogan or formula, also, by the over-emphasis on belief, seems divide the world between believers and unbelievers, saved and unsaved, and those of us who struggle with doubt and uncertainty, wonder whether we are included among those who will inherit eternal life.
One problem with all this is that by extracting this single verse from its literary context in John’s gospel, it begins to float nebulously in the air of our culture, and we attach meanings to individual words or the whole sentence that may have little to do with what it means in the larger context of John’s gospel. Its language and themes are part of the larger tapestry of meaning that John is weaving as he attempts to explain who Jesus is and what it means to follow him.
Most importantly, we need to pay attention to the larger context of this verse. Our gospel reading comes from the third chapter of John, which begins with the encounter of Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus is identified as a Pharisee, a leader of the religious establishment. Significantly, he comes to Jesus by night and it’s clear from his questions that he regards Jesus sympathetically, even as one whose teaching has authority—he addresses Jesus as “Rabbi.” In their conversation, and this is typical for Jesus’ encounters with followers or would-be followers in John, Jesus makes statements that are ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations. That’s apparent from the other very famous statement in this chapter that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The word translated here as “born from above” can also be translated and is usually translated “born again.”
Jesus speaks enigmatically. In fact, it often seems that he intends to confuse his dialogue partner. There’s another puzzle here for it’s not at all clear that Nicodemus remains on the scene by the time we get to Jesus’ words in today’s reading (the phrase “Jesus said to Nicodemus” has been provided by the editors of the lectionary. It doesn’t appear in the text).
Jesus’ puzzling, ambiguous language continues in our gospel passage. There’s that phrase “lifted up.” While the connection between the Numbers story and Jesus’ crucifixion may be obvious, in John’s gospel, “lifted up” means more than crucifixion. A better translation here might be “exalted” for it better conveys what Jesus and John are getting at. In this gospel crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are all part of a single action or event. It’s a paradox—certainly the crucifixion is Jesus at his most human, and humiliated; but it is also the moment when his divine nature is most evident. It is the moment of his glorification.
It’s worth pointing out one other element in John’s analogy between the serpent and Jesus being lifted up. We may see in the use and abuse of John 3:16 condemnation and punishment—unless you believe, you will perish, you will not experience eternal life. For how many people does the cross symbolize that, condemnation and punishment? But in Numbers, looking at the serpent lifted up in the wilderness brought healing, only healing, rescue and deliverance from sin–. So too the cross, on it we see God’s love, looking at Christ lifted up, we receive love, forgiveness, healing.
Another word that causes us difficulty as we attempt to approach this passage is the verb “believe.” It’s a word that appears more often in John than anywhere else in the New Testament, but it’s worth noting that the word “faith” never appears in John’s gospel. It’s an action word, an ation verb, so we should think of it not simply as an intellectual assent to certain propositions, but rather, think of it dynamically. The later reference to “coming to the light” suggests the dynamism involved, so too does another favorite John word, “love.” Believing in John is about relationship, about abiding with, being with Jesus, loving Jesus and being loved by Jesus.
One of way of thinking about this verse, and this whole passage is to retranslate it a bit: This is how God loves the world–
God so loved the world—In the later verses of this passage, there is condemnation and judgment. But above all, there is love, God’s love. The passage confronts us with the question of our conception of God, our understanding of the fundamental nature of God, and our own nature and inclinations. Is God a God of love or a God of judgment? We might be inclined to see these two attributes as equal. Certainly, both are important and both are intrinsic to God’s character. But in this passage, love wins.
“This is how God loves the world.” This little sentence is really quite remarkable for John’s gospel. Everywhere else in the gospel, consistently, the world, the cosmos, is depicted in opposition to Jesus Christ. And that’s the case even though in chapter 1 the gospel writer proclaims that God created the world. Now we learn that the God who created the world loves the world. Indeed, God loves the world (not just humans, the created order) so much that God gave God’s only son that we might have everlasting life.
Judgment here comes not from God but from the human beings who reject God in Christ. To use the gospel’s imagery, “the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light.” That offers a different perspective on things. Instead of fearing a just and righteous God, we need to fear our own desires and choices—to preserve the dark and hidden corners of our lives and to live in the dark and hidden corners of the world.
It’s interesting that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, in the darkness. As I said, we don’t exactly know when he leaves the scene—after his last recorded response to Jesus’ words, his expression of disbelief and misunderstanding? Or did he stick around until this point, when Jesus speaks about those who love the darkness better than the light? If so, it’s pretty powerful to imagine him hearing those words, turning away, and walking back into the night, back into the darkness.
But that’s not the end of Nicodemus’ story. We encounter him again at the end of the gospel, at the end of Jesus’ life. John reports that he assisted with Jesus’ burial, supplying 100 pounds of a mixture of myrrh and aloes. Having earlier turned back into the darkness, now, having seen Jesus lifted up, Nicodemus walked into the light.
We experience sin and brokenness, in ourselves and in the world around us. Sometimes that sin so burdens us that we can see nothing else, or know nothing else. Certainly in our world, as we continue to witness the senseless death by gun violence in schools, treatment centers, shopping malls, and our inability as a culture to take the small steps that would make such horrors less common, we see our culture’s sin and brokenness.
We see it in the racism and homophobia that continue to plague us, in the marginalization of the poor, in our treatment of immigrants, we see it in all the ways that humans are prevented from flourishing, from reaching their goals and living into their full potential. We see it in so many ways around us, and in our hearts, too, in our broken relationships, our addictions and self-destructive behavior.
But God loves the world, God loves us. God offers us, in relationship with Jesus Christ, a different way, a different possibility for living. Sometimes, that is hard to know and to experience. Look up to the cross, look to Christ, lifted up, and see God’s love, not God’s punishment, see and experience healing and hope. See the possibility and promise of new life in him!