John 3:16, Part 1 (11/20/05)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
This morning we will examine the most famous passage in the Bible, John 3:16. This verse is part of a 17 verse passage that is rich with meaning. These 17 verses form a short narrative which involves a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is an interesting character. He is a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, who visits Jesus by night. There is a sermon right there, because theologians note that there is a subplot running through the Gospel of John involving the dualism between light and darkness. Nicodemus appears to Jesus at night, indicating that even though he has been following Jesus around he is still in the dark, theologically speaking.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that no person can see the kingdom of heaven unless they are born again or, probably a better translation of the original Greek, “born from above.” And just to prove he really doesn’t have a clue about what Jesus is talking about, Nicodemus asks, quote, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Let’s have a little sympathy for Nicodemus. Many of us are confused about what it means to be born again. And Jesus goes to some lengths in this passage to explain it. Jesus says we must be born of the Spirit. It is not enough to have a flesh and blood existence, which is automatically ours from birth. We must also live a spiritual life, and this is something that does not necessarily happen automatically.
As we move through this 17 verse passage, Jesus next calls himself “the Son of Man.” The debate over the title Son of Man is one of the most heated discussions going on in modern theology. It appears that this is the way Jesus most often referred to himself—as the Son of Man. However, many scholars insist he never referred to himself in that manner, that the gospel writers applied that title to him.
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The real debate is over what that phrase, Son of Man, means. Some say this was simply Jesus’ way of describing himself as a human being. Others say it has “end of the world” implications, and is taken from ancient apocalyptic writings. We’ll leave that one for the scholars to debate.
Moving on, Jesus then says he must be “lifted up” so that those who believe in him may have eternal life. That term, “lifted up,” is John’s way of talking about Jesus on the cross. In John’s theology, Jesus is exalted, and lifted up, when he hangs from the cross. And this 17 verse passage ends by saying that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but in order to save the world through him.
I love the Gospel of John. It is the most theological, the most mystical, of the four gospels. Reading John’s gospel too literally can cause a lot of problems. Most scholars agree that John was not concerned with creating an historic account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, many scholars do not think Jesus said any of the things attributed to him in the Gospel of John. John looked back on the life of Jesus and reinterpreted it in the light of his—John’s—own experience of the risen Christ. John was writing a theological tract about the mystical risen Christ, not a history of Jesus of Nazareth.
In the midst of the 17 verse passage in which Jesus talks with Nicodemus we discover that most famous passage of the Bible. You can hardly watch a football sail through a goalpost without seeing somebody holding up a sign that reads, “John 3:16.” The verse has been translated into every known language on earth. It reads, For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everybody who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Before proceeding, I should mention that there is nothing wrong with simply accepting this verse as a statement of fact without delving into it any further. I personally know people whose lives had hit bottom, and who literally became new creations by embracing these words. The idea of God’s Son coming into the world, teaching us how to live, and then accepting our sins upon himself, and paying for those sins with his death, is a powerful, powerful story.
Many of us have problems with the idea of sacrificial atonement—the idea that a blood sacrifice was required to make us acceptable in the eyes of God. But we still need to hang on to that story. Because if we get past worrying about the mechanics of the thing; get past our objection to the idea that God would require the death of his son; get past trying to figure out how such an idea makes any sense; then we see in the mystery of the story that the how’s and why’s don’t matter all that much. What matters is that countless millions of people have been changed through the prayerful contemplation of the idea behind John 3:16.
But we are Congregationalists. We like to think things through. We make the claim that head and heart are meant to be equal partners in faith. And so, I hope we can all secure a safe place in our hearts for the beauty and mystery of John 3:16 as we examine the verse more carefully. And true to our tradition, this is not for the purpose of picking the passage apart, but rather for the purpose of seeking even greater truths within the passage that a cursory reading might miss.
Let me say the verse one more time. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
There are four things we must examine if we want to plumb the depths of this verse. First, the phrase For God so loved the world. What does that mean, and do we really believe that God loves the world? Second, the phrase only begotten Son. What is a begotten Son? Third, the word believe. What does it mean to believe in Jesus? And fourth, the words eternal life. What do the words eternal life mean to us, and what did they mean to John when he wrote those words?
Let’s start at the beginning: God so loved the world. If this doesn’t confuse you a little bit, you’re one of the lucky few. Listen to some Bible passages regarding God and the world. In the 9th Psalm we read, “God judges the world with righteousness.” Isaiah writes, “God will punish the world for its evil.”
Those are Old Testament passages. The New Testament is even harder on the world. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says the cares of the world choke out the word of God. In Mark’s gospel Jesus says it is of no profit to gain the whole world when in doing so we lose our soul. Luke’s Jesus reminds us that it is the people “of the world” who selfishly and needlessly worry about food and clothing. And in John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that the world hates him. And most troubling from John’s gospel are these words of Jesus: Do not love the world or the things in the world.
If you add to all this the fact that a great deal of Protestant theology is based on the idea of the total depravity of humankind—the idea that there is nothing good inside a human being other than what God puts there after a person commits his or her life to Christ—I think we have to ask the question. Why does God love the world? And why is it we are to reject that which God loves?
This is not just some esoteric flight of fancy with no meaning in the real world. Historically, people have combined this attitude toward the world with that phrase from the book of Genesis in which God gives humanity “dominion” over every living thing on earth. This is a dangerous combination. If the world is not something to be loved, and God has given us dominion over it, then we can do with it whatever we want. We can pollute the rivers, kill off entire species, allow sewage to seep into our aquifers, poison the air we breathe, and claim that anybody who objects is unchristian.
Several years ago I was skipping through the radio dial and stumbled upon one of those so-called Christian radio stations. You know the stations I’m taking about. You can always tell when you’ve found one because they share certain characteristics. First, you will hear some preacher explaining that the depths of your Christian love can be measured by the intensity of your hatred of gays and lesbians. They will also insist it is the primary purpose of a Christian to save the heathen Jews and Muslims from the fires of hell to which they are bound due to their lack of faith in Jesus.
You will then hear some woman making a speech about how important it is for women to stay at home and raise their families. And she believes this so strongly she travels all over the country delivering speeches on the subject of why women should stay at home.
Soon you learn that unless your politics are at least as ultra-conservative as Rush Limbaugh’s, you have no right to call yourself a Christian. And last but not least you will hear James Dobson, with his comforting, grandfatherly voice, assure you that all the right wing diatribe you’ve been hearing is the gospel truth.
I usually skip by these stations pretty quickly, but I landed on one long enough to hear that I should stay tuned for an important message from Charlton Heston. I expected to hear his usual message, that it is the duty of true Americans to protect their homes with AK-47’s and grenade launchers. But he surprised me. The radio station played a tape of Charlton Heston addressing some group and attacking environmentalists. He said environmentalists fall into one of two camps. They are either subversives out to bring down the American economy, or they are worshippers of Mother Earth, heathens who have confused worship of the Creator with worship of the creation.
Unbelievably, it got worse. He went on to explain that for people to think they could destroy this planet is to laugh in the face of God. Why, no man can destroy what God has created, he proclaimed. And for us to believe we have the ability to poison ourselves into extinction, or even to cause any real harm to this world, is to say that we are more powerful than God. Heston insisted that there is nothing that even the worst of corporate polluters could do that God couldn’t fix with one snap of his mighty fingers.
Heston is not alone in his thinking. In the year 2000 a group of evangelical Christians created a document called the “Cornwall Declaration of Environmental Stewardship.” Signed by people such as James Dobson, James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell, it states that the modern environmental movement is based on false science, and that such myths as global warming and overpopulation are lies used by people with radical political agendas. It goes on to say that human beings must surely take precedence over nature. Those of us who embrace a more liberal form of the faith are frustrated that so many Christians do not seem to recognize that we humans are a part of nature. If we destroy nature, we ultimately destroy ourselves.
I honestly believe a great deal of this thinking comes from those ideas we discussed earlier—that God gave us dominion over the earth, and that we are not to love the world or the things in it. So much of the problem comes with that pesky word, “world.” But in spite of all the negatives about the world we read in the Bible, there are also many positives. Jeremiah says that God established the world with wisdom. The gospels refer to Jesus as the light of the world. Throughout the Bible we find the message that we are supposed to be joyous and thankful that we live in the world. Going back to the very beginning, to the first chapter of Genesis, God looks at the world in the moments following creation, and we read that God says it is all very good. And then we have the verse we are examining this morning, which clearly states that God loves the world.
So my question is, are we really supposed to hate that which God loves? Clearly, the answer is no. And it seems to me that all the problems come about due to that pesky word, world, having more than one meaning depending on its context. First, the term “world” sometimes refers to creation itself, the earth, the universe. And we are meant to embrace that world. That is the world over which God gave us dominion, and that is the world we must treat as a precious and fragile garden. We are given dominion over the earth not to be its abusers, but rather to be its caretakers. In that sense, we are surely to love the world just as God loves the world.
Often, however, and here’s where the confusion comes in, the word “world” is used to refer to the evils that lurk within creation. The world is placed over against the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the way things are meant to be, the way Jesus envisioned creation unfolding. And the world is that reality we have created, in which selfishness, nearsightedness, and a lack of caring have led humanity to the brink of destruction.
It is important to understand that when we are told to turn away from the world, we are not meant to turn away from the beauty of creation. We are meant to turn toward the beauty of creation. We do this by turning away from the worldly, away from the greed and selfishness which keep this amazing earth from being the kingdom of God. When we see the term “world” used in a negative context, we must recognize that it is referring to the sins of the world—pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and apathy.
I think I mentioned how much I love the Gospel of John, and now you see why. It is so rich, so packed with meaning. We started with a 17 verse passage, and narrowed it down to a single verse, John 3:16. And in studying that verse we were only able to make it through the first few words—for God so loved the world.
That’s the thing about the Gospel of John. A cursory reading causes all sorts of problems, but when plumbed for its theological depths, it can be a treasure chest of wisdom and spirituality. Next week we’ll move on to the rest of the verse, asking what John means when he says Jesus is God’s only begotten son. Then we’ll ask what it means to believe in Jesus. And we’ll try to figure out what John is talking about when he uses the words “eternal life.”
In the meantime let us not forget that God loves the world. Genesis tells us so. John tells us so. Our hearts tell us so.