John 3:16, Part 2

November 27, 2005



John 3:16 (Part 2) (11/27/05)

Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Last week we began a discussion of the most famous passage in the Bible, John 3:16, which 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.

We spent most of last Sunday talking about the first part of that verse—the part that says God so loved the world. It seems the Bible tells us time and again that this world is not something we should love, but rather something we should shun. Confused about why it is God would love the world we are told not to love, we discovered two meanings to that pesky little word, world.
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When the word world is used to talk about the worldly, the greedy, and the self-centered world we often create for ourselves, it is indeed something we are meant to turn away from. But world can also mean the creation of God, intended to be the kingdom of God, this beautiful planet we share with one another. That is the world God loves, and it is a world we too should love.

Let’s now turn to the phrase only begotten Son. This is one of those little phrases that people have argued over for two thousand years now. And frankly, there are tedious elements to the discussion that most of us find of no help in developing our faith and our relationship with God. Theologians use this phrase—only begotten Son—when discussing the Trinity. One of the main theological arguments that caused the first great divide in Christianity, the divide between east and west, between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, was over the nature of the Trinity. What is the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit within the godhead? The idea of “begotten” played into that argument.

Ultimately both sides agreed that unlike every other person who has ever lived, Jesus was not created by God—he was begotten by God. But what does that really mean? The Roman Catholic Church insists that Jesus “proceeds” from God, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from Jesus. The Eastern Orthodox Church insists that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit proceed directly from God. The church hasn’t figured any of this out after 2000 years of trying, so I doubt we can straighten out the whole mess on a Sunday morning.

The whole argument seems pretty ridiculous to me. There’s no need getting too philosophical about what it means for Jesus to be God’s only begotten Son. For John, who wrote those words, I think the point is this: Jesus had a unique relationship with God. We are all sons and daughters of God, but that wasn’t just another guy who was nailed to the cross. And because John was a mystic, let’s allow ourselves to get past the mechanics of this thing—the exact nature of Jesus’ sonship. What matters here, for John, is that God was within Jesus when he was crucified. In fact, God so filled Jesus that we can think of the crucifixion of Jesus as the crucifixion of God, or at least the crucifixion of God’s only begotten Son.

I certainly recognize that we can be repulsed by the idea of God sacrificing his son. It’s important for us to move beyond our first impression and consider the power of that metaphor. Consider the way mothers and fathers allow their children to go to war for their country. Sometimes those children do not return. Did those parents sacrifice their children? No. They allowed their children to be placed at risk for the sake of what they believed was right. They did it for that noble idea we call America.

The idea that God would take a similar risk with his Son on behalf of the whole world is a remarkably powerful story. That metaphor, that phrase that God gave his only begotten Son, has touched millions of hearts with a full and poignant meaning. I imagine John would tell us that if we’re going to sit around and argue about the mechanics of how Jesus and God are related we will miss the point. In reflecting on the phrase, For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten Son, the Interpreter’s Bible puts it this way:

Most of us are not at home in the Jewish sacrificial system, and metaphors from it can be confusing rather than illuminating. And some of those interpretations, popular in the Middle Ages, (especially those referring to a sacrifice to appease God’s anger) are to us incredible, even monstrous. But many a proud, sore heart, musing on its dead, can enter this verse without an interpreter, and hearing it, can look toward God with a quick and instant understanding.

For the author of that amazing and mystical book we call the Gospel of John, the impact of Jesus on the cross doesn’t work if Jesus is just a marvelously moral man, or a great teacher. John would insist that we must see God upon that cross. Our lives are changed by Jesus on the cross only if we see the very essence of God hanging there. God gave himself on behalf of the human race. Thus the importance of the phrase, “God’s only begotten Son.” That wasn’t God’s child on the cross. That was a part of God which tasted the pain of torture and death.

So to summarize our verse up to this point, when we say God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, it was John’s view that the time Jesus spent upon the cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love, and the definitive revelation of God’s nature. If you are seeking an angry and vengeful God, you will not find him in the Gospel of John. In John’s theology, God loves us so much, God could not possibly love us more. God’s loves is absolute, perfect, and the closest we can come to catching a glimpse of that love is to see Jesus unconditionally surrendered to God to the point that in Jesus, on the cross, we see God.

Next, our verse says, “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” There are two more things we have to figure out in order to understand John 3:16. What does it mean to believe in Jesus, and what is John talking about when he uses the phrase eternal life?

First, what does it mean to believe in Jesus? If we were to take a poll and have everybody present write down what it means to believe in Jesus, I expect we would get a wide variety of answers. Most people, however, would say that believing in Jesus has something to do with believing certain things about Jesus.

I have been told this by some of my friends who are in religiously fundamental churches. Many of these friends are quite pained by the fact I am in the ministry. And yes, they are still my friends, even though I find their theology distasteful and they find my theology heretical. One especially religious friend of mine had a great deal of trouble coming to grips with the idea that I was entering the ministry. She finally said that there was one thing she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt. There is no way a person could call themselves a Christian unless they believed in the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, and the blood atonement for our sins. Those were the three basics for her, each of which was not subject to debate.

For her, belief in Jesus means believing certain things about Jesus, thinking of Jesus the right way, being correct in proclaiming how Jesus came into this world and how he left it. That, to her, is the very essence of belief.

This was back in the days when I still argued with fundamentalists. I don’t do that any more. If I want a headache, I’ll just go over and start banging my head against the wall, which is just as productive as arguing religion with a fundamentalist. While we’re on this subject let me digress just a moment to make an important point, at least if you, like me, are not fond of self-induced headaches.

How should we respond when a person asks us if we have been saved? When you think about it, it is a very offensive question. When a person asks if you have been saved, what they are really saying is this: “The Creator of the universe is planning on sending you to hell for eternal torment because you don’t think about religion the way I do. Will you accept that I am right about religion, and that you are hellbound if you don’t agree with me?”

It would be bad enough for a person to say, “I don’t like the way you think politically. In fact, your politics are all wrong.” It would be plenty offensive for a person to say, “I think what you do for a living is disgusting. How can you sleep at night?” But this, this have you been saved question, is the most offensive of all. What they are saying is that God is so disgusted with you, you will get exactly what you deserve—eternal punishment. Your life is an offense in the eyes of God.

How do we respond to such a thing? Well, here is my answer. When somebody asks you if you have been saved, just say yes. Just say, “Yes, I have. I’ve been saved.” And you are not really lying. Because the question they are asking, in reality, is this: Have you been saved from the angry God who plans on sending you to hell for eternal torment? And you can honestly say, “Yes, I have been saved,” because you were saved from that God when your faith matured to the point you realized that is not the nature of God. That angry God is a figment of the fundamentalist’s imagination. God is love. And when we learn what that really means, we are saved from all those false images and sad distortions of God’s nature that certain people seem intent on spreading throughout the church.

Have you been saved? Just say yes. It beats the heck out of a headache every time. And if you think back on your personal experiences with this matter, you know what I say is true. You cannot win an argument with a fundamentalist. You cannot penetrate a mind that is sealed shut. So again, my advice is, when asked if you’ve been saved, say yes, continue to love and care for your fundamentalist friend, and change the subject as quickly as possible to something other than religion.

Of course, we spent quite a bit of time discussing the need of some to have specific truths upon which they can rely in my series of fundamentalism. There is nothing wrong with believing all those things about Jesus. The problem comes in insisting that believing those things about Jesus is the same thing as believing in Jesus.

Consider the virgin birth. There are 27 books in the New Testament, and each of those books has a common message, a common purpose. They were written for the purpose of proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the Son of God. I believe that message. I believe Jesus Christ is indeed the Son of God. But how odd it is that of those 27 books, only two mention the virgin birth. I mean, this is not an insignificant idea, the notion that this particular person came into the world through an amazing miracle. And yet, only Matthew and Luke see fit to even mention it.

It would seem obvious that all those other writers either did not believe Jesus was born of a virgin, or they didn’t think the matter carried much significance. And I fall into this latter category. I know wonderful and devoted Christians who believe Jesus was born of a virgin, and I know wonderful and devoted Christians who reject the notion that Jesus was born of a virgin. For me, it just doesn’t matter. If God chose to bring Jesus into the world through a mighty miracle, well, this is God’s universe, and I’m not about to tell God how things should be done. And if God chose to bring Jesus into the world the same way the rest of us come into this world, that’s fine with me too.

But when we consider the passage we now study, John 3:16, there are a few points to be made. First, John has a very high Christology, meaning John draws no line between God and Jesus. And John begins his gospel with Jesus Christ one with God, before the moment of creation, saying that all things came into being through him. John, with his very high Christology, gives us amazing mystical imagery about the nature of Jesus throughout his gospel. But he never once even remotely alludes to a virgin birth! How odd that John would have Christ as one with God before the world is created, would claim that Christ came into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and would forget to mention that Jesus came into the world through a mighty miracle!

And yet, in John 3:16, we are told that belief in Jesus is what gives us eternal life. We can say one thing with certainty. For the writer of the Gospel of John, belief in Jesus had nothing whatsoever to do with a virgin birth. John spends his whole gospel talking about the importance of belief in Jesus, but never mentions the virgin birth.

As for the resurrection, John certainly believed it was a fact. One could argue all day about whether John found it important for the physical body of Jesus to still exist… somewhere. But John’s imagery about the relationship of Christ to the people of the church seems clear that he is talking about a mystical union. John is not asking us to be in a relationship with Jesus’ physical body, with a 5’8” 160 pound body that still exists somewhere in the universe. John is asking us to enter into a mystical union with the eternal and risen Christ.

The other line in the sand for my fundamentalist friend was the blood atonement. This is another subject we approached in some detail in the series on fundamentalism. The problem most of us have with the notion of the blood atonement—the idea that the blood of Jesus is what cleanses our sinful souls—is that people try to turn that image into something concrete. The cross is the most powerful symbol we have. We’ve talked about how imagining Jesus on the cross can change a person’s life. There is no more powerful way to envision the love of God than to pray in the presence of the cross.

For many of us, we are changed by the love we see at the cross, not by some mechanical transaction that takes place between God and humanity when Jesus was crucified. And the shedding of Jesus’ blood says just as much about the nature of humanity as it does about the nature of God.

And all this leaves us with a question. If believing in Jesus does not mean believing certain things about Jesus, what does it mean? John clearly states we must believe in Jesus in order to enter eternal life. What is John talking about?

Believing in Jesus means the complete and unconditional surrender to everything Jesus stood for. It means seeing Jesus on the cross and being willing to walk that same path, believing it would be better to die right than to live wrong. It means turning away from our selfish impulses, our earthly desires, and dedicating our lives to the greater good, regardless of the consequences.

And let’s be honest. It would be a lot easier just to believe certain things about Jesus. It is much easier to proclaim a belief in the virgin birth than it is to love our enemies. It is much easier to accept the physical resurrection than it is to turn the other cheek. Accepting the blood atonement is easy compared with being willing to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.

But there is a reward for such devotion, and that reward is eternal life. We’ll conclude this little series on John 3:16 next week by examining the idea of eternal life. For now, I’ll leave you with the words of Dora Greenwell, as she reflected on John 3:16 and the meaning of Jesus upon the cross in light of the perplexing problems and contradictions that face us in this life:

When I look upon my agonizing and dying God, I was not told that all things are ordered for the best… but was met from the eyes and brow of him who was indeed acquainted with grief, with a look of solid recognition, such as may pass between friends who have endured between them some strange and secret sorrow, and are through that sorrow united in a bond that cannot be broken.