Jesus Comes for Life! Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

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Read John 3:14-21

Almost every extra point in American football is kicked toward a sign in the crowd that reads “John 3:16.” Even if most viewers no longer know the words of the verse, they know it matters to Christians.

I wish someone would hold up a sign that says “John 3:17.” Alert viewers might notice the difference. The curious might even Google the text to see what it says. I think they might be surprised by what they find.

Indeed,” John writes, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Even the clunky NRSV translation makes the point clear.

Jesus comes for life!

This is not the message our curious football fans hear in popular culture – or in most Christian churches in America. What they hear is that God punishes. Obey the rules or get punished. Assent to certain propositions or get punished. Stop asking questions or get punished. Vote in a particular way or get punished.

Even the more popular forms of culture Christianity are just the mirror image of this punishing God. If you do the right things, believe the right things, vote the right way – then God will reward you with health and wealth, with peace and privilege, with straight teeth and thick hair. If you obey, then God will give you your best life now.

Of course, if you are struggling, that must be your fault.

People who see the John 3:16 signs have been conditioned to expect the God who Punishes. The Christian message seems to be that the beatings will continue until morale improves.

But that can’t be right!

Jesus comes for life!

Even the beloved verse on the signs is experienced as much more stick than carrot. “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son…” So far, so good. Then comes the hammer – “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

The second half of the verse is like an iron fist inside a velvet glove. People read the reverse of the verse and shudder. Those who don’t believe in Jesus will perish, they read, and have eternal death. People aren’t making this crap up. That’s what they hear from lots of American “Christians.”

So much for the verse Martin Luther called “the gospel in miniature.”

But that can’t be right!

Jesus comes for life!

Perhaps we ought to spend some time on the verse most Christians think they know. If you want the full scoop, you can read sixteen hundred words in last Monday’s post on how to translate John 3:16. Otherwise, I’ll give you the executive summary.

God so loved…” The word translated as “so” doesn’t mean “so much.” John writes about the method of God’s love, not the intensity. That love is the self-giving, other-regarding love which reveals God’s very heart. This is the love which wants nothing for self and everything for the Other.

God loved the world in this way…The “world” to which John points is the cosmos, all of Creation – from quarks to galaxy clusters and everything in between. God’s love is cosmic in scope and depth.

The way God loved the cosmos is by giving. This is the fundamental character of God. God is the Giver. We can speculate about all the divine “omni’s” – omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient. But that’s not where Christian scripture focuses. God is the Giver – for free, without expectation or condition, fully.

God loved the world in this way: God gave the Only Son… This isn’t Jesus’ genealogy. This isn’t a story about the inner workings of the Trinity. This is a testimony to God’s gift. In John 1:18 we read, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made [God] known.” God gives God’s very heart for the life of the world.

Jesus comes for life!

Now we are thirteen words into the Greek rendering of this verse – halfway home! Why did God do this? God gave “in order that.” God gave God’s own heart to make it possible for each and every member of the cosmos to embrace the gift of God’s love. Yes, I trust that’s God’s desire to give life is universal. I trust that because that’s what Christian scripture says.

In the second half of John 3:16, things sound a bit iffy. There’s this talk about “may not perish” and “may have eternal life” in the NRSV translation. It could sound like there’s some doubt about God’s love. The grammar here doesn’t indicate doubt. Instead, it simply means that the action hasn’t yet been completed.

God’s gift of God’s loving heart to the whole cosmos is accomplished in Jesus. The response to that gift is not completed but continues. The cosmos is not yet saved but is indeed in the process of being saved.

That’s true for me each and every day. As Bishop Kallistos Ware has often said, “I can’t say that I have been saved. But I can say that I am being saved each and every day.” The details of that “saving” will get more attention next week. So, stay tuned for that.

Jesus comes for life!

The opposite of being saved appears to be “perishing.” But that’s not a helpful translation. The opposite of being saved is being “lost.” In fact, that’s the term Martin Luther uses in his translation of the New Testament. The word can mean “lost” in the way that a sunken ship is lost at sea. But it can also mean “not yet found,” as in the way a wandering lamb is separated from a flock.

That seems to fit much more with the Jesus we meet in the Christian scriptures. “The Son of Man came,” we read in Luke 19:10, “to seek out and to save the lost.” Luke uses the same word for “lost” that shows up in John 3:16 as “perish.” Jesus comes so the lost may be found.

This is how Jesus defines his own faithfulness in John 17. In John, the disciples are a microcosm of the faith community to come. “I guarded them,” Jesus prays in verse twelve, “and not one of them was lost except the ‘son of lostness’ so that the scripture would be fulfilled.” On the one hand, Jesus guards his little flock. On the other hand, the son of lostness (Judas) walked away into a deeper darkness.

Perhaps I’ll address the mystery of human rebellion, embodied in Judas, another time. But I hope my point is clear.

Jesus comes for life!

Perhaps now we can read John 3:16 in the life-giving, good news, way it was written. Here’s my feeble attempt at a translation.

“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 lost 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.

Jesus comes to give life to the lost…and to keep on giving life to the lost…and to give life to the lost some more. If that’s what you hear from a Christian, from some preacher, from a church service online – well, that’s the Good News of Jesus Christ!

If the message you hear is that the beatings will continue until morale improves, then run in the other direction as fast as you can! That’s not the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Jesus comes for life!

Now, what about John 3:17 – the verse I would rather have on those end zone signs? As a result of this Good News of Jesus Christ, we Christians know that God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world but rather that the world might be saved through him. Anyone who uses the Christian faith to judge and condemn people has gotten it wrong.

The NRSV translation struggles with a Greek word group here. From this word group we get the English word “crisis.” The NRSV gives us “condemn” and “judgment” as translations from this word group. But that’s not helpful. We like judging and condemning other people far too much for these translations to do us much good.

“Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in 1885. We love hierarchies. We love to be “better than” someone else in order to feel good enough as we are. We love to penalize those who are different, often simply for being different. In the headlines today, for example, are instances of laws that make “walking while trans” a crime.

Oh, how we love to punish those who make us uncomfortable!

Jesus doesn’t come in order to penalize difference. He doesn’t come to punish those who make us uncomfortable. Instead, he comes to challenge our desire to do that. He comes to overturn systems that abuse and exploit. Perhaps you remember the Temple Incident from last week?

Jesus doesn’t come to judge or condemn. We can do that quite well enough on our own. Jesus comes to provoke a crisis that will expose the powers of sin, death, and the devil. Jesus comes to provoke a crisis with the human faces of those powers – corruption, violence, and empire. Jesus comes to judge…judgment itself! Jesus comes to provoke a crisis that tramples down death by death and opens a path to life – abundant life!

He comes to offer the whole cosmos the invitation to trust in God the Giver. That’s what it means to “believe” here in John’s gospel.

“Believing” isn’t some kind of intellectual assent to a checklist of doctrines. “Believing” isn’t some kind of behavioral to-do (or to-not-do) counsel of perfection. “Believing” isn’t some kind of imperialist, colonialist, hierarchy that rewards us by penalizing those “below” us.

“Believing” certainly isn’t something we can control or contain. It’s not something we can define or determine. The Spirit blows where it wants to blow, Jesus says. Don’t be surprised if it shows up where you least expect it. And stop trying to put limits on how that Wind of God works.

“Believing” is our halting, day-by-day response to God’s offer of abundant life. Next week, we’ll talk more about the shape of that life and how it works out for us.

Jesus comes for life – abundant life! If you get a chance, maybe you want to make a new Bible verse sign to hold up for people to see…

Nicodemus (First Person Sermon) — Throwback Thursday Books

This is a first-person sermon I wrote several years ago, based on John 3:1-17, and the story of Nicodemus. It could readily be used for as the message for March 14, 2021. This sermon and other first person sermons can be found in my little book, The Half-Blind Mumbler (available as e-book or paperback). You can purchase this book by going to my “Books for Sale” page.

(Nicodemus enters, stretching and rubbing a very sore back): A hundred pounds of spices! A hundred pounds—just thinking about lifting that load is enough to make my back ache. But I had to carry that bundle over a mile, in the dark, and on my own. I have not done that much physical work in many a year. But I certainly couldn’t have any of my servants carry it for me. 

All of it had to be done in secret and under the cover of darkness. After all, I certainly don’t want to end up like him…

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I am Nicodemus. I am a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the chief legal body in Judea. For that reason, I am known as a ruler of the Jews. I have a reputation for being one of the chief teachers of our faith here in Jerusalem. I am quite certain now that I don’t deserve that reputation. 

Let me tell you why.

We have just laid Jesus’ body to rest. I am sure you have heard all about Jesus of Nazareth. Many of us had great hopes for him. My good friend, Joseph of Arimathea, had even become one of his disciples. Of course, Joseph could not be open about his allegiance. That might have been fatal for Joseph.

So Joseph went to the procurator, Pilate, in the middle of the night. He asked for Jesus’ body so that it would not hang on that cross to be defiled by the wild animals. Pilate agreed. My part in this little plot was to bring the linen cloths and the spices to prepare and preserve the body. Joseph has a family tomb in a secluded garden. No one saw us. We are safe.

Safe. That always seems to be my path.

My name in Greek means “conqueror of the people.” That sounds impressive, does it not? Conqueror of the people! Please do not be impressed. At most, I have conquered a difficult piece of Hebrew or a large jar of wine. My conquests extend no farther.

We buried Jesus in the dark. That is how I came to him the first time as well—under the cover of darkness and secrecy. 

It was just before Passover in Jerusalem. We were having our annual Sanhedrin conference. We debated the usual issues—taxes, purity laws, too many Gentiles in Jerusalem, and the upkeep of the Temple. As we discussed the Temple, a messenger burst into our session.

“Some lunatic is causing a riot in the Temple courtyard! He made a whip of cords and started beating the merchants and moneychangers. Tables are thrown all over. Money is scattered in every corner. The livestock is running wild in the streets. And he keeps shouting, ‘Stop making my Father’s house a market place!’”

 We all ran into the courtyard and saw him—Jesus of Nazareth. He was covered in sweat, gasping for breath. “What is the meaning of this?” the chief priest screamed. “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Jesus raised his chin in defiance. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

“Are you mad?” the chief priest laughed. “It has taken Herod forty-six years to build the Temple, and it is not finished yet. How will you do the job in three days!” The Sanhedrin members were sure Jesus was a crazy fool. We went back to our debating.

His words, however, would not leave me. For some reason, I needed to know more. Many in the crowd shared that view and encouraged me to seek him out. I was unwilling to risk a public conversation. So I found out where he was staying. We met under the cover of darkness—secret, and safe.

I am a Pharisee. No matter what you might think, I was not opposed to Jesus. I want God’s kingdom to come as much as anyone. I heard about Jesus’ power and his teaching. Perhaps there was something to it all. I had to know. “Teacher,” I said with the greatest respect, “we know you have come from God. After all, no one can do these signs as you have apart from God’s presence.”

I treated Jesus with honor. In return, I received a challenge. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The word Jesus used was very complicated. Did he mean “born from above” or “born again” or “born anew”? It could have been any of those meanings. I didn’t understand him at all.

“How can these things be?” I asked. Jesus was blunt. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” I did not hear many of his words after that. I now know what he did. He used mysterious phrases because he didn’t know me. And he did not know my motives. For all Jesus knew, I might have come to trap him into an arrest. He evaded precisely such traps many times in his life.

What hurt the most was how right he was about me. “‘Very truly, I tell you,’ he said to me, ‘we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.’”

That was it. I did understand, but I did not like what I heard. Jesus talked about a whole new way of living in God’s kingdom. For centuries we had been trying to find our way to God. Now Jesus said that God was coming to us. And God was coming to us through him!

I came to Jesus in the darkness. And that was the problem. I did not hear many of his words, but these words have stuck with me. “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” I was safe in the dark. I was afraid to come into the light. I was afraid to change my mind.

After that, I left. But I was not the same.

Some months later, Jesus came to Jerusalem again. It was the Festival of Booths, the time when we Jews celebrate the gift of God’s law to Moses. In the middle of the festival, Jesus began teaching in the Temple. The crowd debated whether he was from God or not. He was persuading large numbers of people that he was right.

I was becoming more and more convinced.

The Sanhedrin debated the issue briefly. Then a vote was taken. The council sent the temple guard to arrest Jesus for blasphemy. The guards, however, took some time to listen to Jesus. They hesitated. They returned to the authorities empty-handed. 

“Why did you not arrest him?” the authorities demanded. 

“Never has anyone spoken like this!” the officers of the guard replied. The authorities scoffed. They described the crowd as ignorant of the law and cursed by God. I was not ready to take a public stand on Jesus. But I could not let this terrible process continue. 

I stood up before the council and raised a point of order. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” I asked. 

The president of the council responded with an insult. “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?” he sneered. “Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” 

I was publicly humiliated. But at least I bought Jesus some time. He was gone before they could send the guards back to the temple.

This last time, however, he did not escape. He came once again for the Passover. This time the chief priests had an inside contact. They bought off one of his disciples. They arrested him in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

The trial was quick—merely a formality. I could have spoken in his defense, but it would have made no difference. All that would have happened is that I would have ended up dead alongside him. And courage is not my strong suit, remember?

The Romans crucified him at the Place of the Skull. He was one more failed messiah, humiliated and broken by the might of the Roman eagle.

Joseph decided that Jesus had endured enough. That is when he asked to be allowed to bury the body. I may be short on courage, but I have plenty of money. So I bought the spices and the sheets. If only a strong backbone could be so easily purchased.

I sought him out in the dark. But I know that I cannot remain in that darkness. I remember now some of his words from that first encounter. “But those who do what is true come to the light,” he said, and he looked closely at me, “so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

I have lived in the darkness long enough. Now he is buried with respect and honor. Tomorrow is the Sabbath. On the third, I will go to the Sanhedrin speak the truth that I have heard from him. That will be the first day of the week. 

Who knows what might happen after sunrise that day!

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. 2); 4 Lent B 2021

The cross shows up in John’s gospel early and often. In chapter two, Jesus replaces the Temple with his crucified and risen body. Here in chapter three, he describes being raised up on a pole like the bronze snake in the wilderness. That is, of course, a clear reference to the incident in our first reading from Numbers 21.

We get the power of irony in John in its fullness here. Jesus is raised up on the cross in order to be raised to eternal life. Just as the means of death in the wilderness becomes the source of life and healing in Numbers 21, so the means of death becomes the source of life and healing on Golgotha. Jesus descends into shame to be raised into glory. Jesus tramples down death by death, as the Eastern Church says in its liturgy.

Seeing God’s glory shining through the cross is what it means to see and understand the “heavenly” realities. John is not talking here about being able to see into God’s “throne room.” John is talking about understanding how God really works in the world. Luther would describe this as the theology of the Cross. The source of life is hidden under the form of its opposite, only to be seen with the insight given by the Holy Spirit. What appears to the world as defeat, death, and despair appears to the believer as victory, life, and hope. Here at the midpoint of Lent, we get a glimpse of the Easter glory to come from John’s perspective.

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We continue the instruction we received with Peter at Caesarea Philippi – to set our minds on divine things rather than on human things. Repentance – metanoia – means understanding heavenly things and thus seeing the cross for what it is. Repentance means seeing the cross as God’s chosen instrument of self-giving love for the life of the world. Only repentance can open us to the vision of Reality hidden under the form of its opposite. A theology of glory demands that we see the glory on the surface and is willing to use violence to make it so. It is the theology of glory that kills Jesus.

We can’t think or study or debate our way into that new understanding. That’s the way of the theology of glory and can only lead to darkness. That’s the weight of the conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:1-10. I don’t think one should preach on this Sunday’s gospel text without reading or at least referencing that conversation. The new understanding does not come through discursive logic. Rather, it comes through a new birth, a starting over, beginning from a new place.

This is being born “from above,” where the heavenly things are located. The heavenly things are in the light. Nicodemus is in the dark. He comes at night with his understanding in the shadows as well as his body. Perhaps it is the darkness of the tomb, or perhaps it is the darkness of the womb. Who knows? Will Nicodemus love the darkness more than the light? Or will the light shine in his darkness and not be overwhelmed by the shadows?

We get hints later in John’s gospel that Nicodemus “gets it.” He speaks on behalf of Jesus in the Sanhedrin. He assists Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. But his fate is left in doubt for us as the readers. We don’t know for sure.

The allusion to Numbers 21 in our reading is pretty transparent on its face. John 3:14 explains the connection. “And just as Moses elevated the serpent in the wilderness, so also it is necessary for the Son of Man to be elevated…” (my translation). John doesn’t use the Greek word for “raised” here. The vocabulary has more to do with “exaltation” than with resurrection. For John, the crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascension are all part of the same process of exaltation and glorification.

We also can catch a glimpse of a connection to Jesus’ “passion predictions” in the Synoptic gospels. The connection can be lost in English translations, but it is obvious in the Greek. We have that little word, dei, (“it is necessary”), that we encountered in Mark 8 a few weeks ago. While we do not need to regard suffering as a “payment” in some transactional sense, John also understands that Jesus’ confrontation with sin, death, and the devil, is going to produce the cross and resurrection. That’s what happens when Life takes on Death.

The result of witnessing the exaltation is that “each and everyone who puts their trust in him may have life for all the ages” (my translation). We will take some time on this idea of “eternal life” in John’s gospel in the next post.

There may be a bit more going on here in verses 14 and 15 as well. Is this another example of “little text, big context”? Perhaps it is. The larger context of Numbers 21 is that the first generation of wilderness leaders is dying. The first to go is Miriam, Moses’ sister. Soon after, Aaron is “gathered to his fathers.” Moses will not be far behind his siblings.

Who will lead us out of this wilderness now, the people wonder? The anxiety of this wondering provokes murmuring. The murmuring leads to complaining. But this time the complaining is different. It is directed not merely at Moses, but rather at God. It is perhaps no accident that the new leader to come is Joshua – also known as “Yeshua” or “Jesus.” John’s gospel may have this larger context in mind when referring to the Numbers 21 text.

The old teachers and leaders of Israel, represented by Nicodemus, don’t get it. They can’t take Israel where God is leading. What is required is a new birth, a birth from above, a birth do-over. The new age requires a new teaching and a new Teacher – a Teacher and Leader who comes “from above.” The same old thinking cannot take us to a new place or reveal to us a new reality. Einstein’s definition of insanity shimmers in the background here.

As we prepare to come of out of Covid-tide, there is perhaps a word for us as well. Can we embrace this new future and keep our old ways of thinking? Or must we be born from above in some way to transcend the loss and grief, the chaos and challenges of the last year?

The word for “above” (Greek, anothen) has much more to do with authority than it does with location. The boss at work, for example, may office on an upper floor or right next door. Regardless of the actual geography, it still makes sense to say that orders came “from upstairs.” Authority increases as we go “up” an organizational ladder or “up” the chain of command. We ascend to an office or position. “Above” is about authority rather than geography.

The writer of Ephesians works on this idea in the first two chapters of the letter. For example, we have this language. “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:20-21, NRSV). The emphasis is on the authority rather than the geography. As Martin Luther liked to say, the right hand of God is wherever God’s power is at work.

That heavenly authority is effective in the “earthly” realm as well. “And [God] has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23, NRSV). That rule is now embodied, therefore in the Church, as the writer describes in chapter two. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…’ (Ephesians 2:4-6, NRSV).

Clearly, we are not physically seated in the heavenly places at this moment, although Ephesians reminds us that there is more to come (see 2:7). But our seat next to Jesus is about the life we have been given and the stewardship commended to us by the authority of Jesus to extend that gift of life to a world beholden to death.

We accept and access this gift of life “by believing,” as John says. In the previous post we discussed that this is not merely intellectual assent but is rather putting all our trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Messiah. That trust comes to us first as a gift from the Holy Spirit and not as an accomplishment of apologetics, discursive logic, or study of theology.

John 3:5 makes a clear connection to the gift of spiritual insight that comes through the new birth of baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. The Spirit blows where it chooses, not where we demand. So, we are chosen, not the choosers. The blowing of the Wind reminds us that this gift of believing is an act of Creation. Just as the Spirit blew over the waters of Creation at the beginning, so that Spirit blows over the chaotic waters of our lives and brings light and peace.

It’s not clear who is speaking from verse 11 on. Scholars debate where to put the quotation marks. That ambiguity is, I think, intentional on the part of the writer. The voice of Jesus speaks in and through the Church by the Spirit’s choice and initiative. The testimony is that the Son of Man is the real location of God in the world. In chapter three we have several references to Jacob’s vision at Bethel. This is really the master story underlying the narrative in John 2 and 3. Jacob has his vision of the ladder to heaven. When he awakes, he exclaims, “This is the house of God…God was in this place, and I didn’t even know it!”

That’s the sort of epiphany that Nicodemus needs in order to be born from above. So it is for us. In the next post, we will explore that further.

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.

Photo by Dmitry Demidov on

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.