Text Study for John 3:14-21 (pt. 3); 4 Lent B 2021

The challenge of John’s gospel is that there’s so much to say and so little time to say it. Jesus, the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, creates a crisis for the world, John says, and offers the defining revelation of God’s very heart if we’re open to it. The conclusion to John’s introduction points to the epiphany. “And [Jesus] says to [Nathanael], ‘I solemnly swear to you that you shall see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’” (John 1:51, my translation).

Jesus refers to Jacob’s vision of a ladder between heaven and earth, recorded in Genesis 28:10-22. Jacob faces a personal crisis. Jacob had defrauded his brother, Esau, on several occasions and now is on the run to preserve his life. He has headed off to spend time with extended family and find an appropriate wife while his older brother cools off. On the way Jacob goes alone into the wilds and beds down for the night. He falls asleep and has the vision of a ladder stretching up into heaven. Angels were ascending and descending on the ladder (verse 12).

Photo by Tom Leishman on Pexels.com

The Lord suddenly stands beside Jacob and renews the covenant promises made to Abraham and Isaac. These are promises of the land, of numerous offspring, and of God’s presence and protection for Jacob wherever he goes. Jacob wakes up from the dream, terrified and filled with wonder. “How awesome is this place!” he exclaims, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (verse 17). Jacob names the place Beth-El (“God’s house”) and creates an altar to commemorate the event. Jacob makes a vow of faithfulness and then prepares to meet his destiny (and his future spouses).

This story stands in the background of all that happens in the next few chapters of John’s gospel and perhaps throughout much of that gospel. Jesus’ first sign in John happens at a wedding feast and reveals his glory (John 2:11). Then Jesus travels to Jerusalem and enters God’s house, the Temple. Jesus identifies that house as “my Father’s house,” and thus stakes a claim of ownership on the house of God. Moreover, Jesus claims that he will fulfill the function of that house in his own body as he is “raised up” on the cross. The ideas of “ascending” and “descending” are frequent in these chapters.

Then we come to Nicodemus, who seeks a night revelation from Jesus. He also gets the ascended/descended treatment in John 3:13. That is paired with the reference to the bronze serpent discussed in an earlier post. More to the point, Jesus creates a crisis for Nicodemus and for the world in his coming. Just as Jacob seeks some guidance for his journey and resolution to his dilemma, so Nicodemus desires the same. That crisis is described in John 3:17-21.

I use the word “crisis” advisedly and intentionally. John uses the Greek word, krisis, in 3:19 to describe what is happening because God has sent the Son into the cosmos. But this is the crisis,” John writes, “that the light has come into the cosmos and human beings loved the darkness more than the light, for their works were evil” (my translation). The NRSV translates this as “judgment,” but our English usage limits, I fear, our understanding of what this means.

The Greek word indeed has the sense of the decision of a judge. The decision can and often does carry with it a penalty of some kind. However, the basic sense of this word group is to “separate,” to “sort,” or even to “sift” a commodity. The Chinese characters that make up the idea of crisis are, by themselves, pointing to a precarious change point. That’s really closer to the Greek meaning here than the English sense of a kind of forensic judgment.

The thing is that John uses several shades of meaning in the course of just a few sentences. In verse 17 we read, “For God did not send the Son of Man into the cosmos in order to judge the cosmos but rather in order that the cosmos might be saved through him” (my translation). Judgment is not the purpose of the coming of the Word. Creating a crisis, a precarious change point, a crossroads, is the purpose. Jesus is the “Beth-El” of the cosmos, but most folks don’t know it. That apparently includes Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel who isn’t aware of what’s happening in front of him.

Verse 18 makes this more explicit. Those who continue to put their full trust in the Son of Man are not confronted with this crisis. They are making their choice. Those who are not continuing to put their full trust in the Son of Man are still confronted with this precarious change point because they are not currently giving their allegiance to the name of the Only-begotten Son of God. The Incarnation is the center of cosmic history. It is always a crisis for us, no matter when in history we might live.

Why does this matter? John is speaking primarily to people who are already (Jewish) Christians. They face a crisis. They are in conflict with the larger Jewish community which finds their allegiance to Jesus no longer compatible with their Jewish identity and practice. So John is pastoring folks who are deciding whether to continue with that allegiance or to abandon it in favor of family and tradition. John is not, at least in chapter three, addressing those who have not yet come to some “faith” in Jesus. So, when these verses are used to hammer the unbeliever with threats of condemnation, these verses are then being misused (See Wallace, page 621, note 22).

This passage has much more to say to the lifelong Christian who has now thrown over that orthodox faith for some conspiracy theory than it does to the atheist who has, as of yet, had no allegiance to Jesus as Messiah, Savior, and Lord. Or it may speak to the one in four of our congregation members who has simply stopped doing church altogether during The Pandemic and is unlikely to return when things move toward some semblance of “normal.”

One of the themes of our Lenten journey is persevering in the faith in the midst of crises and challenges. That theme is directed to people who have trusted in Jesus and may be wondering if they will continue in that trust and allegiance. I don’t find the NRSV translation to be as clear in this regard as I might wish.

I find the NRSV translation of the krino/krisis word group as “condemned” and “condemnation” to be most unfortunate here. The English word has the sense of a negative verdict reached and rendered. It is difficult to fit that translation with the hopeful openness of verses 16 and 17. It leaves little room for the ongoing nature of the crisis and seems to make it into a one-off, now or never, all or nothing, here and now decision.

Wallace sees the verb in verse 18 as “gnomic perfect” (back into grammatical weeds, friends). Wallace notes that this tense can be used “to speak of a generic or proverbial occurrence.” So, the grammar describes the way in which things work out whenever one faces this crisis and does not fully trust in the Son of Man. The verb points to a situation “that is envisioned on many occasions or for many individuals” (page 580). Whenever we face this precarious change point, we are challenged to choose trust over distrust.

Now we come to verse 19. “But this is the crisis,” John writes, “that the light has come into the cosmos and human beings loved the darkness more than the light, for their works were evil” (my translation). The NRSV translates the word in question as “judgment,” but that seems confusing. Is it the case that loving the darkness more than the light is the consequence or even punishment for the evil works of human beings? That seems to be garbled theology at best. It makes more sense to me to read this as a crisis. The light was coming into the world, and human beings were challenged to love the light more than the darkness. They failed (and fail) in that challenge because of the powers of sin, death, and evil in their lives and in the cosmos.

Now we have found our way back to Nicodemus. He comes to Jesus in the darkness. Is he seeking “the true light, which enlightened all human beings,” which was “coming into the cosmos” (see John 1:9)? Or was he one who would not welcome that light into his life? Jesus calls on him to be born anew, as a little child. If he is willing to forsake the darkness and embrace the light, then he could receive the power to become one of the children of God (John 1:12). Such children were born from the will of God.

The coming of the Light creates the crisis by making manifest the deeds of human beings. Each one who is continuing to do vile things “hates the light” and “is not coming to the light” in order that the person’s works might not be shown to be in error (verse 20). This verse seems to narrate what Luther refers to as the proper use of the Law – to expose our sin and to drive us in desperate hope to the cross for forgiveness, life, and salvation. I don’t get that sense from the NRSV translation, but it seems much clearer once again in the Greek.

The crisis reveals the character of our works rather than punishing us for them. Will we flee for refuge to the Light of the World, or will we continue to retreat into the darkness of despair?

We find the converse of this in verse 21. “Now, the one who continues to do the truth comes to the light,” John writes, “in order that the person’s works might be made manifest because they are being carried out in God.” Has Nicodemus come to the light, or will he recede into the darkness? Will John’s community continue to come to the light and fearlessly witness to Jesus as Messiah, or will they blend into their larger community?

This is the crisis John addresses here and throughout the Gospel. The true light which has come into the world “enlightens” or “shines a light” on all human beings (John 1:9). Will our deeds be exposed in error and found to be rooted in the Truth?

And we still haven’t talked about “eternal life.” Well, stay tuned.

Resources and References

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

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