Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
John 3:16. Even in this age when education through memorization has fallen out of favor, many Christians know this verse by heart.
In a church I served, every Sunday school student in elementary school was required to recite this verse from memory. (One student, I am told, insisted on doing so while standing on his head. But, he got the job done.) John 3:16. Printed on shopping bags of some retailers, held up on posters at sporting events, embossed on vanity car license plates in every state. 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.” The gospel in one verse, right? A lovely encapsulation of the character of God and the work of Jesus Christ. Much catchier than, say, John 3:14: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so much the Son of Man be lifted up.” Much more inclusive sounding than John 3:18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Much more encouraging than John 3:19: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and the people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”
Isolating each verse makes it clear why John 3:16 gets the airtime that some of the others in this reading don’t. Although a case could be made for John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Perhaps not as concise, but it still packs a theological punch.
But if we take John 3:16 (or any verse) in isolation, we lose the fullness of God’s Word to us. I would also argue that in our time, emblazoning John 3:16 on poster, bag or billboard means little to nothing. Who is John? What do those numbers represent? Even printing the verse out doesn’t help much as in our post-pluralistic society; people are not waking up at night wrestling with matters of eternal life. I am not sure that those in our pews are often wringing their hands or clutching their pearls over the matter, either. The state of our present world, yes. Their status in eternity, not so much.
But this is exactly where expanding beyond John 3:16 speaks a timeless and timely word. How about this for resonance? “People loved darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest their works should be exposed.” The language of evil and wicked may not make the headlines, but wicked deeds and their evil results sure do.
Here is a quick sampling from today’s headlines as I write this reflection:
“Conviction in fatal school bathroom attack overturned”
“Aly Raisman sues Olympic Committee over sex abuse”
“Parents arrested after 3 children found living inside box for years”
And I haven’t clicked on the “global news” tab yet.
People love darkness more than light because their works were evil.
This is the world God so loves. That’s the shocking truth of John 3:16 and John 3:17. God so loves this world filled to overflowing with evil works and darkness. God loves this world so much that God sends the Son of Man, God’s Son, not to condemn it, but to save it.
This week while traveling, I took a walk around the neighborhood near my hotel. I walked past a Home Depot where a large group of men were standing, waiting, hoping, to get picked up to work for the day. I walked past a person with a cardboard sign asking for help on not one corner, but at every intersection. I witnessed a person defecating by the side of the road and while at first, I confess I was disgusted, upon reflection I was deeply saddened. How do we live in a culture that denies people the dignity of an accessible bathroom? I said out loud to myself as I walked, “God, we aren’t doing such a good job here.” I really thought, “God, how do you love this world?” There are days I certainly don’t. Days where I witness people who are truly loving the darkness, exploiting the poor, abusing the vulnerable, pushing aside the weak, ridiculing the different, laughing at those who suffer.
Then I 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.”
And John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
This world. God loves this world. God chooses not to condemn this world. God desires salvation and life eternal and abundance for this world. And if we love the light more than the darkness, we are called to desire those very things for this world, too.
That’s the call for those of us who have received the gift of God’s Son, to love the world God so loves, to reflect the light of Christ and be the light that both exposes evil and reveals truth. This requires entering those places of deep darkness, not turning away from them.
It isn’t enough to hold up posters, or put a bumper sticker on our car, or memorize the verse. We who were once dead in sin but are now alive together with Christ – not through our own doing, but through God’s power and grace – are “created in Christ Jesus for good works” and must walk in those good works, especially in places of darkness and evil.
The gift of God’s eternal life and love is just that, a gift — one that we receive and do not earn. We, too, love the dark and have no shortage of evil deeds on our cosmic resume. And yet, God so loves the world, so loves each and all of us, that the Son of Man, God’s own Son, comes to save, not condemn. The judgment is this: whether we turn toward the light or away from it, whether we reflect it or hide it, whether we become a beacon or a stumbling block, whether we follow the light and walk in good works or huddle on the sidelines waiting to pounce on the vulnerable. In short, do our lives reveal the truth that God so loves the world or do we, through our deeds, condemn it?
God so loves this world. Do we?
- What does eternal life mean in John’s Gospel? If John has a “realized eschatology,” what are the implication of God’s gift of eternal life here and now?
- Why do people love the darkness more than light? What is appealing about the darkness?
- When you think about God’s judgment, do you think about John 3:19? If not, what biblical verses or stories do you think about? How do they differ or resonate with John 3:19?
- Read the text from Numbers appointed for this Sunday. Notice how Moses advocates for the very people who have complained against him. What can we learn from Moses in this story?
- Ephesians 2:10 says we are God’s “workmanship.” What does that mean? What would it look like if we were to think of ourselves in this way?
- It is the fourth week of Lent. How are your Lenten practices going? What have you learned? Any insights you have gleaned?
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