14“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“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.
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
We’ve got John 3:16 everywhere. It’s embroidered on our pillows, it’s stickered on our bumpers, it’s tattooed on our ankles and hanging from bedsheets at football games.
“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.” Interpretation: Believe in Jesus or burn.
Too bad for those who’ve been abused by clergy and have since rejected the faith. Too bad for the Pygmies in Africa who’ve never heard the name “Jesus.” Too bad for the mentally ill and the disabled. Too bad. Believe in Jesus or burn. Be cast out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
We’ve turned this verse into a checklist - one of those notes you’d send to the cute boy in fourth grade asking, “do you like me? Check yes, no, or maybe.”
We’ve turned it in to a pithy saying to win arguments and to end dialogue.
It’s the official slogan of the Christian Corporation.
It’s the secret knock to get in to the basement card game.
This verse is “the One ring to rule them all, One ring to find them, One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
We’ve forgotten the stories behind this verse, and we’ve started to idolize the verse, instead of worship the God whose incredible love is expressed in the verse.
We’ve forgotten our story. The stories of how God has touched us and changed us and molded us. The collective stories and the individual stories that testify to the truth behind this verse.
We’ve cemented this verse in our minds so much so that it has ceased to live, it has stopped being relevant and turned in to one of those scripture bombs you use to throw in an argument to prove your point about the exclusive nature of Christianity.
But if we look at the language again, we can see it anew.
In my language studies - both in my work with poetry and in my work with Biblical languages, it never ceases to surprise me how much the tiny words - the prepositions, the conjunctions, the articles - have such a huge impact on how we interpret the entire passage.
The traditional translation of this verse is “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”
The tricky little word here is “so.” And it’s used twice in this little verse.
The greek word, “outos” has been interpreted to mean “so” as in “the extent to which” — how much does God love us? So much. This interpretation emphasizes God’s great sacrifice, and, through centuries of really poor theological discourse it emphasizes the nature of substitutionary atonement - how our sin is so bad and God’s love is so great that the only way to get us back to God is through violence, through the horrific sacrifice of God’s only Son.
But, “outos” can also mean something more like, “in this way,” or “like this.” So a better translation might be, “For God loved the world in this way…” Or, “For God so loved the world, like this…” This interpretation then focuses on how God does what God does, the way that God loves.
This is the way that God loves the world.
God loves the world sacrificially.
God loves the world in the darkness, as it is, right now.
And Jesus is the way that God loves the world. And this is how God loves it - God turned violence into redemption, God transformed the horrific events on the cross into resurrection, God took our vengeance and rebirthed it for good.
God has loved through the entire story, through the whole narrative of human existence, God loves like this. That when we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
This can be seen even better if we remember the stories that lead up to this verse - remember the whole of the Judeo-Christian narrative.
This verse is but one of many, one verse out of thousands that tell the entirety of God’s love story for us. And if you only focus on this one verse, it’s like one of those pointillist paintings, you just get the dot, and none of the context around it. You just get a circle of color, not the entirety of the image.
John 3:16 is placed in the context of a greater simile - Just like Moses lifted the snake in the desert, so Jesus is going to be lifted up.
This is a reference to a really strange story in Numbers 21. In this story, the Israelites are wandering around in the desert, for years, and they’re complaining about the bad food and the lack of water. They want to go back to Egypt, where they were slaves and tortured and abused and oppressed. The Israelites are being fussy and dramatic. So God sends some poisonous snakes to bite them and kill them. Sort of like when Jonah scrapes his knee and he’s crying and so we offer to cut the whole leg off. Or maybe even more than that - another writer equated it to you breaking your arm and God cutting off your toe so that you don’t think about how much your arm hurts anymore.
Anyway, God tells Moses to take a poisonous snake and lift it high up on a pole, and somehow it turns to bronze, and whoever would look at it would be healed from their snakebite.
I told you this was a weird story.
So John is saying, “it’s just like that. Jesus has to be raised just like that, and whoever looks upon him will be healed.”
Except, except, there’s another story about this snake on a pole.
This is in 2 Kings 18.
Years after the wandering in the desert, after the Israelite nation has been established, and everyone is all comfortable and worshiping their idols and their work and their cars and their bank accounts, King Hezekiah has come to fix things. He removes the high places, the pillars and the “sacred pole” - all the places where people have been worshipping the wrong thing. And this king breaks “in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.”
The thing that symbolized what saved these people, the thing that they looked to for salvation, became an idol. And they made offerings to it, instead of worshiping the One from whom salvation came. They worshipped a snake on a stick instead of the God who brought them out of Egypt and into the land that God gave them.
Three stories woven together. The snakes in the desert, worshipping the snake on a pole, and Jesus, raised up on the cross, and then raised from the dead, and then raised into heaven to be with God.
You don’t get the full impact of this verse, until you get the stories behind them.
God loves the world in this way - that when we were complaining about the bad food, really bad stuff came and got us, but if we look at the bad stuff for what it is, what it really is, when we see how much it is destroying us, we are healed. BUT, if we start to idolize the bad stuff, then we’ve made another snake that bites us.
And maybe John 3:16 has become that snake that bites us.
We’ve forgotten all the stories behind the verse, and we’ve started to idolize the verse. It’s become another snake on a pole. A golden ring that we all salivate over so that we don’t go to hell when we die. It’s become a litmus test to determine if someone is in or out, on our side, or not.
But when we remember the stories, remember the full scope of the Judeo-Christian narrative, we press the reset button, we see the full picture, and the verse that has become a weapon suddenly becomes hopeful again.
God loves the world in this way - that when we complained about our sciatica and our arthritis, the frustration of waiting in traffic, and the annoyance of the guy who has 13 things in the 12 or less check-out lane, all while children are starving, and ISIS is murdering, and the planet is heating up for the profit of a few at the expense of the poor - God loves the world in this way, that when we see what is going on for what it really is, when remember the real story, when we put things in perspective, we come to understand what the Gospel truly means.
It’s not about who’s in and who’s out - it’s not about heaven and hell - about who gets the ring and who doesn’t - It’s about how God loves. It’s about transformation and resurrection and renewal. It’s about tearing down the idols that oppress us and living in freedom. It’s about coming to know the full depth and breadth and height of God’s love for us.
Thanks be to God.
*huge props to this: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/03/lectionary-commentary-john-316-the-rest-of-the-story-for-sunday-march-18-2012/
I don't think I could have gotten anywhere with this passage without that post...