John 3:16 Redux

I’ve been watching the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (and my bracket is pretty wrecked partially due to my confidence in the three teams from Iowa. Oh, well). I have always enjoyed basketball – even though I have no skills to play the game. (I’m slow as a garden slug and have a vertical jump of about one-quarter inch). I noticed something in the games I have watched. At least as far as I could tell, as I scan the crowds I have not seen any of the often ubiquitous hand-lettered signs that say “John 3:16.” My feeling about that? Oddly enough, relief.

That may seem like a crazy response for a pastor. Hear me out. I think, along with Martin Luther, that this verse is a summary of the whole gospel. In a minimum of words it expresses a deep truth about God in Christ. Along with verses 17-21 that follow, this is a beautiful part of the Gospel according to John that every Christian should know and ponder for a lifetime. While I am always wary of taking one Bible verse and plucking it from the page as if it somehow is just content for a bumper sticker version of the Bible, I don’t object to folks who want to hold up signs with any Bible verse cited.

My problem is that John 3:16 gets hijacked to condemn “non-believers” far too often for my taste. It also is used to turn the abundant life Jesus brings into some kind of ethereal, death avoidance program that is of no earthly good in the here and now. Given that this is pretty close to the polar opposite of what the verse (and those that follow) have to proclaim, I worry about how people use those signs.

John 3:16 says: “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.”  Three simple moves render this verse hopeless.

  1. We think that “believe” means a conscious decision to accept something that makes no sense.
  2. We add a non-existent clause after the word “believes” that reads “but nobody that doesn’t believe the way I do.”
  3. We read “eternal life” as “life after death.” With these three little moves we squeeze all the grace of the gospel out of this verse and render it one more dry, lifeless law we must obey so we don’t have to worry about really dying. You better believe the right way or you won’t ever get into heaven!

These 27 words (NRSV) actually say nothing like this. They are full of grace and hope. Jesus says them to Nicodemus, a law-abiding leader, who Jesus is trying to extricate from thinking his law-abiding will give him eternal anything! So, Jesus says to Nicodemus and all of us little “Nicodemuses” the following:

For God so loved the world… Hold up. “World” is always a negative word in John. It describes the powers, principalities, and people who stand against God, against Jesus, against the light of God. This “world” is something in which you and I are deeply mired. This dark broken place, shapes us all. You and I are part of what “world” means. So, we could read it “For God so LOVED the broken, violent, self-absorbed, God-hating, darkness loving world…”

That he gave… Gave, like you give a gift to your kid or spouse. Not “offered” or “dangled in front of us.”

his only Son…  the thing closest to the heart of God; the most valued possession.

so that everyone who believes in him… The Greek word pistueo, translated as believes does not refer to assenting to a doctrine or choosing the right thoughts. It means to have faith or trust in something or someone. Trust is something that happens, it is a move as much of the heart and soul as mind. You don’t trust your parents or spouse because you decided to do so. You do it because they have proven trustworthy, because you love them. So, the people included here are every single person who trusts Jesus – no matter how haltingly or imperfectly. Jesus is telling Nicodemus to let go of “right belief” and replace it with loving trust.

may not perish… This does not refer to death. Everyone will die. The death rate is one per person. Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. This refers to life lived in the darkness, putting our trust in dead laws, dead possessions, dead promises made by dead power brokers. We are all perishing right now because we put our trust in things that die or fade away. The list of things that do not die has just one item – Jesus.

but may have eternal lifeTo trust Jesus Christ, the freely given son, is to have eternal life and live in the light right now, this very moment. If Nicodemus can trust this Messiah, he can live free of the terrifying thought that he might not follow the law perfectly. He can live free of the expectations placed on him by the world (which is broken) and most brutally, by himself. He can live in an eternity today because Jesus gives that gift away like water.

So, if signs that say “John 3:16 ” are offering more darkness and plans for me to get myself out of trouble with God, then please, put them away. But, if they are  proclaiming the powerful, liberating grace of God, get busy making signs.

2 thoughts on “John 3:16 Redux

  1. David Tindell says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful and incisive analysis of the verse. I tend to believe that Jesus meant exactly what he said: God loved us so much that he sent Christ to show us the way to eternal life. But I also think, as Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount and on other occasions, that simply believing is not enough. We must do.

    • Pastor Tim Olson says:

      Thanks, David. The “doing” is always a response to God’s love and call. It is never a means of grace, that is, a requirement for “earning” God’s love. That has been given in Christ, fully.

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