Pastoral Ponderings: Knowing the words in John 3:16

This week’s column considers John’s verses in the Bible and its meaning

Robin King

Pastoral Ponderings

John 3:16

You might know John 3:16. It’s one of the best known verses in the Christian Bible.

If you went to Sunday School, you might have memorized it. Some people feel that it encapsulates, in one verse, the meaning of the gospel. I’m not so sure of that, but it’s a start.

If you’ve never been to church or read the Bible, you might still know it thanks to born again Christian Rollen “The Rainbow Man” Stewart. He first held up a John 3:16 placard at an NBA game in 1979 and since then, others have regularly brought the sign to baseball games, hockey games, football games, even the Super Bowl. Not Stewart, though. He’s currently serving three consecutive life terms in prison relating to a botched kidnapping attempt. He should have read John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Thing is, we often treat John 3:16 just like that. Like it’s a single, stand alone saying, as if we don’t need to know any more. It’s all right there. But that’s not how it happens. John has Jesus saying this in a conversation with a Jewish leader named Nicodemus who seems open, at least, to hearing what Jesus has to say. But when Jesus talks about the Spirit, he doesn’t seem to really understand. So Jesus moves on to talking about himself using a metaphor he thinks someone like Nicodemus would understand. He reminds him of a strange story involving a bronze serpent that heals.

It’s recorded in the book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible. It’s a story from when the Hebrew people were in the desert with Moses. They’d left slavery in Egypt far behind, but they hadn’t yet come to the Promised Land. They were complaining, as they did a lot in those days, rebelling against Moses’ leadership and complaining about how God was, and wasn’t, taking care of them. They doubted.

So God sends poisonous snakes that kill many of them, causing the people to come to Moses and beg forgiveness for complaining and doubting. Wait, it gets weirder. Moses talks to God and God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Those that look at it and believe will be healed and saved from the snakes. They do, they have faith, it’s all good and everyone moves on.

So Jesus tells Nicodemus that he, Jesus, like the bronze serpent. He will be lifted up and those who believe “may have eternal life in him.” Then, he hits him with John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

But he’s not done yet, he moves on to one of John’s “go to” images: light. Jesus says that those who believe will come to the light and those who don’t will stay in the darkness. In the light, good will be seen for being good, but evil stays in the dark where it can’t be seen.

I feel like I just went to a Bible study there. But that’s just it: that one verse cannot stand alone without the context of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.

Otherwise, we might assume that it’s only about how much God loves us. God loves us “so” much that he “gave” Jesus then becomes this is how much God loves us, that God sacrificed Jesus. And before you know it we can measure God’s love, and the measurement is Jesus’ death.

Please, no.

I believe God’s love is immeasurable and God’s gift is Jesus’ life. The love is immeasurable, unconditional and freely given and Jesus is the demonstration of that love at work. I don’t think the point here is God’s generosity in loving or giving, it’s our choosing to accept it, believe in it and do something with it.

Just like the bronze serpent story, it’s not enough to look up at Jesus and proclaim “we’re saved!” I think John includes this story of Jesus and Nicodemus to talk about how we love, not God. This is Jesus saying “God loves you, God sent me to show you how to live that love, now what are you going to do?” It’s your choice. What are you going to do?

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