John 3:16 Reconsidered

FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Prayer of the Day: O God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16.

Like nearly everybody else of my generation raised in the church, I memorized John 3:16 at a very early age. I can’t say with absolute certainty that it was the first Bible verse I ever learned. My memory does not extend back that far. But if I had to bet on it, I would feel reasonably comfortable putting my money on John 3:16. Known among us protestants as “the little gospel,” John 3:16 was planted everywhere we set foot. It still is. You find this verse on bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, baby onesies, billboards, commemorative plates, note book covers, key chains and welcome mats. John 3:16 has become so well known (or so it is assumed) that I often see the naked citation without any text or context. “Obey John 3:16” declares one billboard I used to see on Route 80 traveling through Pennsylvania.[1]

John 3:16 was the subject of many of the sermons I heard over the years. The pastor of one church I attended in my youth suggested that we insert our first names in place of the word “world” and then recite it to ourselves: “For God loved Peter so much that he gave his only Son…” The gist of what our pastor was communicating is true, as far as it goes. God does love us individually with an abounding, sacrificial love ready to pay any price to have us. But, strictly speaking, the verse does not say that God loves me, that God loves the church, that God loves believers or even that God loves human beings. It says that God loves “the world.” In the original New Testament Greek, the word “world” is “kosmos” from which we derive our word “cosmos.” That is to say, God so loved the cosmos, the universe and each individual molecule of it that God sent to it the only Son.

Rather than reducing the scope of John 3:16 to the personal and individual level, we ought to be recognizing the broad sweep of its inclusive embrace. That, however, is not the way I was taught to read John 3:16. I was always given to understand that God’s promise of eternal life was exclusively for human beings and, more specifically, for human beings who accept Jesus as their “personal Lord and Savior.” Moreover, eternal life was something experienced only after death. “Eternal life” was thus equated with the “after life.” From all of this it was abundantly clear that, notwithstanding God’s professed love for it, the world was not going to be saved. To the contrary, it was doomed to perish. Only a limited number of human beings would be saved from this mass extinction event-those who believed on Jesus Christ.

This restrictive interpretation of John 3:16 was supposed to inspire a feverish missionary zeal for “winning souls.” It was imperative for those of us who believed to lead as many other people to faith in Jesus Christ as was possible before their personal demise or the close of the age, whichever came first. This was so because the only way a person could be certain of obtaining eternal life was through believing in Jesus and so being “saved.” That led to many late night discussions at youth retreats I attended in my formative years. There was no shortage of agonizing questions raised by what was supposed to be a verse proclaiming good news: What about those who died before they were old enough to understand the gospel? Baptism? But what about kids that were never baptized? Will they be lost because of their parents’ negligence? What about people who live in parts of the world where the gospel has never been heard? [2]

Had we but read one verse further, we would have learned that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him…” John 3:17. That might have moved us to consider whether we were not getting John 3:16 all wrong. Perhaps God has bigger plans in mind than simply rescuing a few souls from the deck of a sinking ship. Perhaps God means to save the whole ship. If we had looked more carefully at the rest of John’s gospel, we might have discerned God’s sweeping divine intent. For example, Jesus tells us that “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” John 10:16. Whether in the fold or out of the fold, Jesus has more sheep than those presently among his disciples. Note well that Jesus nowhere tells us that we are responsible for bringing these sheep into God’s fold or that we must compel them to listen to his voice. Neither the salvation of the world nor any of its inhabitants weighs on our shoulders. Jesus promises to take care of that.

It is also important to look more carefully at what John’s gospel has to say about eternal life. First and foremost, it is not only a future hope, but a present reality. “And this is eternal life,” says Jesus, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” John 17:3. Note well the present indicative. Life that is eternal is not merely so in duration. It is life qualitatively different from the sort of life the world knows, different because it is lived out of faithfulness to Jesus and the eternal love binding the Trinity. Life is eternal when it is poured into those things which are eternal. Saint Paul would say that these eternals are faith, hope and love, the greatest being love. I Corinthians 13:13. Eternal life is therefore not a prize to be obtained after death, but a gift to be enjoyed now with the assurance that not even death can take it away from us.

So what is the point of having a church if salvation is for the whole world? Actually, one of Jesus’ disciples posed that very question to him during his final hours together with them. “Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” John 14:22. Jesus responds, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John 14:23. In other words, the Incarnation, the “Word becoming flesh” announced in the opening lines of John’s gospel will continue within the community of disciples. “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world,” says Jesus. John 17:18. Jesus prays that his disciples will be one even as he and the Father are one “so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:23. It is through a church, an “ekklesia,” built on mutual love of its members for one another and for the world that the world will come to know its worth, its value and the destiny intended for it by its Creator.

So the church is called to be what Koinonia Farm founder, Clarence Jordan, famously called a demonstration model for God’s reign on earth. It exists as a continuation of Jesus’ ministry as God incarnate. I would say, therefore, that it is not the church’s mission to convert everyone to Christianity or to increase its membership. It is, however, critical for the church to make disciples from among all nations and for the church to be present in all nations. It is critical that the church be a community made up of every nation, tribe, people and tongue putting the lie to nationalism, white supremacy and patriarchy while witnessing to the unity of the human family and its responsibility for the care of all creation. God’s will for the cosmos is that it be drawn into the restorative love that unites the Father with the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Jesus graciously invites us to be part of that future now so that the world may know it, embrace it and welcome its arrival. That is eternal life.

Here is a poem by priest, poet and activist Daniel Berrigan that captures with great eloquence God’s incarnate love at work in the world and bears witness to the eternal life to which disciples of Jesus are called.

The Face of Christ  

The tragic beauty of the face of Christ
Shines in the face of man;

The abandoned old live on
in shabby rooms, far from comfort.
Outside,
din and purpose, the world, a fiery animal
reined in by youth. Within
a pallid tiring heart
shuffles about its dwelling.

Nothing, so little, comes of life’s promise.
0f broken men, despised minds
what does one make-
a roadside show, a graveyard of the heart?

Christ, fowler of street and hedgerow
cripples, the distempered old
-eyes blind as woodknots,
tongues tight as immigrants’-all
taken in His gospel net,
the hue and cry of existence.

Heaven, of such imperfection,
wary, ravaged, wild?

Yes. Compel them in.

Source: Selected & New Poems, (c. 1973 by Daniel Berrigan, pub. by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 80. Daniel Berrigan was born May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at St. Andrew-on-the-Hudson, New York in August 1939 and graduated in 1946. Thereafter, he entered the Jesuit’s Woodstock College in Baltimore graduating in 1952. He was ordained the same year and appointed professor of New Testament studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse in 1957. Berrigan is remembered by most people for his anti-war activities during the Vietnam era. He spent two years in prison for destroying draft records, damaging nuclear warheads and leading other acts of civil disobedience. He also joined with other prominent religious figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to found Clergy and Laity Against the War in Vietnam. In February of 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam and returned with three American prisoners of war he convinced the North Vietnamese to release. Berrigan died on April 30, 2016 of natural causes at a Jesuit health care facility in the Bronx. He was 94 years old.

[1] This is odd, because John 316 does not order, direct or even suggest that anyone do anything. It is simply a declarative sentence.

[2] There wasn’t much talk of hell and eternal punishment in the religion of my youth. The notion that this God who loved us would create a place where we might be tortured for eternity over a stolen apple was a bridge too far for me even in my “evangelical” days. Still, the prospect of a future that excluded people I knew and loved because they never arrived at a point where they could believe in Jesus was troubling enough.

2 thoughts on “John 3:16 Reconsidered

  1. Thank you. This is exquisite in it’s thoughtfulness and clarity.
    I am blessed to have read it. Thank you.

    Like

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