For God so loved the world…
A familiar verse, etched in many of our memories since childhood, John 3:16 etched on jewelry, on billboards, on signs held up at sporting events. One of those ubiquitous Christian symbols that can be off-putting and life-giving, a marker of identity and difference, life and death, judgment and welcome. A verse deployed to threaten and cajole, to convert, and yes, to offer salvation.
I wonder sometimes what the effect had been if the verses hadn’t been divided in the way they were. That is to say, instead of ending where it does with “may have eternal life” but had included the next sentence: “Indeed, God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Instead of condemnation and judgment, the offer of salvation and life.
But we have what we have and the weight of tradition, of centuries of Christian devotion and evangelism, leave us little room to think differently or imaginatively about this verse. But let me try.
First off, context. One of the challenges of our tradition of dividing scripture into verses as well as chapters (they’re a fairly late development, only becoming universal in the seventeenth century), is that it is easy to extract a single sentence, or phrase, or verse, from its literary context and use it as a mantra or to prove a doctrinal point. John 3:16 is part of a larger literary unit, and even our gospel reading which encompasses 14-21, is pulled out of a larger narrative, that of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.
It’s one of those encounters in the Gospel of John that is jam-packed with theological significance. Carefully constructed, rich with symbolism, the encounter uses images of light and darkness to highlight some of the key themes of the gospel. Nicodemus is said to be a Pharisee, a leader of the “Jews.” He comes to Jesus by night, calls him “Rabbi” (teacher or master) and asks about the source of his authority.
In fact, it’s not at all clear when the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus ends, whether we are to assume that Nicodemus is still present, or even if Jesus himself is speaking these verses from 14-21. In fact, it may be, I interpret this not as Jesus himself speaking, but as the gospel writer trying to say some important things about who Jesus is, why God sent him, and what relationship with Jesus means for his followers.
I want to highlight a couple of themes here. First of all “lifted up.” Having heard the story of Moses, the Israelites, and the serpent in the wilderness, hearing the gospel, we are in on the reference made here to Moses and the Serpent, and are inclined to think of “lifted up” in those terms, a serpent of bronze erected on a pole so the Israelites could look at it, and Jesus, crucified for all to see.
But lifted up means more than that in the Gospel of John, or more accurately, “lifted up” includes in it ascension as well as crucifixion—a single act of God, encapsulated in another favorite Johannine word “glorification.” We can see an allusion to “lifted up” as ascension as well as crucifixion in v. 13, which immediately precedes our gospel reading: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” I’ll have more to say about all this next week when we look at another significant section of John’s gospel, John 12.
For now, I would like to turn our attention to another word—“world” or in Greek, “Cosmos” universe. Its occurrence here will catch the attention of a careful reader of John because it takes us back to John 1, In the beginning was the word. A few verses into that hymnic prologue, we read, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” Throughout John’s gospel, “world” or “cosmos” is understood negatively, even if, as in chapter 1, the world was created by God. The world stands in opposition to Jesus Christ in John’s gospel, yet here we see that “God so loved the world.”
Now two things. First of all, “the world” the “cosmos”—not just human beings. We might think about God loving the world in much more inclusive, expansive terms than we typically do. For those of us who care about the environment, worry about climate change, the fact that God loves the world challenges us to rethink our own understanding of the world in which we live and our relationship to it.
Secondly, we would do well to translate this phrase a little differently. Instead of, “For God so loved the world”—it has a slightly different emphasis: “This is how God loves the world.” To put it another way: we see the extent and nature of God’s love for the world in that God sent God’s only son so that all who believed in him would have eternal life.
The significance is this. Instead of putting the emphasis on human response: believing, and the effects of that response, eternal life, it might be better to emphasize the extent and nature of God’s love. God loves the world so much that God sent God’s only son….
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.
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.
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!