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).

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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.

Text Study for John 3:14-21 (pt. 1); 4 Lent B 2021

Gospel Reading: John 3:14-21

John 3:16 is certainly the best-known New Testament reference in North America. Watch any public sporting event and you are likely to see a placard with that citation displayed in the crowd. I have no doubt that the fans holding such posters know the words of the text, and many non-Church folks know the words as well – from neighbors, from the odd Sunday School or Bible school encounter, or from dozens of plaques and pictures in hobby and craft stores.

For church folks, the verse is treasured as well. Martin Luther described John 3:16 as the heart of the Bible, “the gospel in miniature.” Others have often described it as the “gospel in a nutshell.” The verse flashes like a neon sign in the midst of an otherwise obscure and difficult passage. I suspect that many sermon listeners will focus on that verse to the exclusion of the rest of the passage, no matter what the preacher intends. So, a preacher might do well to begin with a close examination of this verse and then work outward to the rest of the text.

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The littlest words often cause the biggest translation headaches. One of those words is “so” – as in God “so” loved the world. I suspect that most contemporary English readers and listeners hear that word as describing the “amount” or “intensity” of God’s love for the world. That is not the meaning of that little word. Instead, it means “in this manner,” or “thus” or “as follows.” Therefore, John 3:16 is not talking about the degree of the love expressed but rather the way in which that love is expressed.

The verb John uses, “loved,” matters as well. Greek has a number of words which can express something we would, in English, describe as “love.” Greek language distinguishes between the affection for pets, the care for a friend, the erotic love for a partner, and the self-giving love for another in need. The verb John uses here, and repeatedly throughout the Gospel, is the last of those four possibilities – the verb form of agape.

In the same way that we post-Enlightenment, hyper-individualist interpreters are tempted to translate “so” as intensity, we are also tempted to translate “love” as merely an emotion. All our language about God is metaphorical, anthropomorphic, and limited. That’s a given. But we can exercise some care in how we use that language. “Love” in John 3:16 is not an emotion but rather an action. This active love contains in it the idea of unconditional commitment (see Wallace, 380).

To this point, here’s what we have. “God loved in this way…” What was God loving? Our translation says, “the world.” That’s accurate but incomplete. The Greek word is “cosmos.” We have taken that directly into English as a word for the whole universe. That’s a better translation in John 3:16 as well. God’s action of loving has been directed not merely toward the world inhabited by humans. That would be a different term. It is not only this particular ball of mud on which we find ourselves. Rather, God’s devoted attention and action is directed toward all that is – toward the whole of that Creation, which was created through the Word, as we read in John 1.

God was acting in love in this way toward the cosmos.  That gets us through the first seven Greek words in the verse. In what way was that Divine love being enacted? The next little word in the verse indicates that what follows is the result of that love or the outcome of that action of loving. That outcome of Divine love is the “actual result” of that love, as opposed to the “natural result.”

A natural result is an outcome that would be expected based on what came before. If I drink too much coffee while I am writing this piece, the natural result is more trips to the restroom. An actual result is not expected from the circumstances but has really happened. No one could have seen this coming, John says, but it has happened! (see Wallace, page 593).

What has happened? God acted in love in this way toward the cosmos. The outcome of that loving action was the giving of the only begotten son. The word translated as “only-begotten” is the Greek word “monogenes.” Entire doctoral dissertations and libraries of books have been written focused on that word and its meaning. So, I will try to scratch the surface here. In its basic definition, the word means “only” as in “only son.” Literally it means the only one who was brought into being.

I don’t mean to commit heresy in that previous sentence. The word does not suggest that Jesus as the Word is somehow “created.” The word describes the status of the Son rather than the mechanism by which the Son “became.” It’s clear from John 1 that the Only-begotten is not a creature but is rather the Creator. In John’s gospel, the word is applied exclusively to Jesus. In this gospel it can be translated as “only” in the sense of “unique.” John’s gospel gives us a way into understanding the relationship between Divine Father and Son.

God was acting in love in this way toward the cosmos, with the result that God gave the Only-begotten One. The verb for “gave” indicates that this is a one-time and completed action. It’s not that God only gives “once,” but rather that giving is what God does. God enacts love by giving – by giving the unique Son who, as we read in John 1:18, is close to the Father’s heart and has made the Father known to the world.

This is central to Martin Luther’s understanding of God’s nature as revealed to the cosmos in Jesus Christ. If we want one word to describe what God is and is like, Luther suggests that we use the word “Giver.” God needs nothing from us and wants everything for us. Since God needs nothing from us, we can have confidence that all we receive from God comes by grace and not as part of some contract or deal. It all comes “free of charge,” as Mirsolav Volf writes so well.

Now we are thirteen words into the Greek rendering of this verse – halfway home! Why did God do this? God gave “in order that.” There’s the next little word, a particle that indicates purpose, intent, and actual result. God was acting in love to give the Son in order that all who were believing in him might not be obliterated but rather might have life for all the ages.

The “might” in that sentence “might” give some readers pause, as if there would be some doubt about the outcome of God’s loving action in the giving of the Only-begotten Son. That Greek subjunctive doesn’t indicate doubt about the outcome here. It does, however, indicate that the action and the result have not yet been completed. There is always both a “now” dimension to the Good News of Jesus Christ present among us and a “not yet” dimension as we await and long for the fulfillment of that Good News as the end of the age.

The NRSV translates the Greek word “pas” as “all” here. The grammar lends itself to a more precise formulation. John is talking about each one of the “all” who believes. It can be translated as “everyone,” but really has the sense of “each and every one.” The participle, “believing,” is a singular, nominative construction (I know that’s in the weeds a bit, but it makes the point). John is talking about the gift that comes to each one who will embrace that gift by believing. But what does John mean here by “believing”?

The grammar here has a Greek participle, “believing” followed by the preposition that most often means “into.” Literally, John says that God gives the Son in order that each and every one who believes “into” him may receive the gift. That doesn’t fit with our English usage, so we have to work at it a bit. The sense of the preposition is not so much “believe in” as a static relationship but rather to “put one’s faith into,” as a kind of “motion” or direction. John isn’t talking about intellectual assent here. John is talking about active trust that results in discipleship. (See Wallace, page 359).

That active trust in Jesus is an ongoing rather than onetime reality. In John’s Gospel, there are certainly one-time acts of belief or assent. But disciples engage in ongoing trust in Jesus as the Only-begotten Son who gives life (see Wallace pages 522, 620-621). This ongoing active trust is in response to God’s active love made real now and promised in the future. We can come back to the ideas of being “lost” and having “life” when we build forward on this text in a future post.

Then we come back to the most troublesome little word – “for.” Most people who memorize this verse leave off that little initial particle. But it is critical for our understanding. John 3:16 doesn’t stand in splendid isolation, just waiting to be cross-stitched on to samplers for sale at the local Christian craft store.

No, the verse is part of a context and an argument. “For” means that the verse comes out of the verses that come before it – somehow (in ways we’ll explore in the next post or two). It is “a coordinate conjunction linking this sentence to the previous idea in John 3:14,” as Wallace writes (page 668). This little word also has an explanatory function and “indicates that additional information is being given about what is being described” (Wallace, page 673). Wallace suggests that we might translate it as “for,” but we could also use “you see,” or “that is,” or “namely.” Verse 17 also begins with a “for,” so that verse comes out of what has been said in 3:16 – somehow (in ways we’ll explore in the next post or two).

What does John 3:16 say? “So, you see, God unconditionally loved the cosmos in this way – God gave the Only-begotten Son, with the actual (but unexpected) result that everyone who continues to actively trust in him might not be wiped out but rather might have life that does not end.” I know it doesn’t trip lightly off the tongue in the way we expect. If, however, we want to use this verse as the “gospel in miniature,” we ought to know what it actually says.

If we are to be faithful to this “gospel in miniature,” we can treasure it as a verse of encouragement and hope. But if we wish to understand it, then the verse itself does not give us permission to allow it to stand alone. Rather, we need to see how it fits into John’s bigger picture in chapter three and in the whole gospel. More on that next time.

Resources and References

Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2005.

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