John 3:16 and the Prodigal: (The Gospel and the Gospel)

For a very long time John 3:16 has been read as a summary of the gospel, which indeed it is. This well-known verse tells of God, the world, love, the Son, giving, sending, believing, eternal life and salvation. Paul gives an even shorter summary when he says, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself." But John and Paul do not provide the only summaries.

For centuries the Latin tradition has called the famous parable of the compassionate father (i.e., the Prodigal Son) Evangelium in Evangelio (the Gospel within the Gospel). Thus should not “the Gospel” (Luke 15) agree with “the Gospel” (John 3:16)? That is, shouldn’t the summaries of John and Paul agree with what Luke records from Jesus? Or are there a variety of gospels? Do the parable of the Prodigal Son and John 3:16 present the same message? I think they do, and each informs the other. One is metaphorical and the other conceptual theology. The connections between them can be briefly traced as follows.

John presents two sentences in step parallelism.

In v. 16:

  1. God so loved the world
    that he gave his only Son,
  2.    that whoever believes in him
       should not perish
  3.          but have eternal life.
In v. 17:
  1. For God sent the Son
    into the world,
  2.      not to condemn the world,
  3.          but that the world might be saved through him.
The verse presents three ideas and then repeats the series adding new information to each of the three. If abbreviated and combined the two sequences appear as follows:

The first is about God: loving/ giving/ sending.
The second centers on believing and not condemning/ not perishing.
The third focuses on eternal life/salvation.

Can these three themes be found in the parable of the Prodigal Son? We will examine them in turn.

The series begins with God who loves and incarnates himself into the world. God gives/sends his son. In the parable the central figure (as noted) is not the prodigal but the compassionate father. That father, a symbol for God, gently evolves into a symbol for Jesus. Twice in the same day, the father empties himself of his dignity as an Oriental father (incarnation) and takes upon himself the role of a suffering servant as he humiliates himself publicly and goes down and out to try to reconcile first his younger and then his older son. The Father in the house and the father in self-emptying humiliation are the same person.

John says that God gave/sent his only son into the world. This is clarified a few verses later in John’s Gospel where Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.” In the upper room Jesus tells the disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the father.” Clearly, in John’s Gospel, the father and the son are one. Paul affirms the same theology in 2 Corinthians as he writes, “God . . . has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” More succinctly Paul says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.” Even so, in the parable, the father in the house and the father who offers self-emptying love on the road/in the courtyard are one.

Putting John, Paul and Jesus together we can say: He who has seen the father running down the road to embrace the prodigal, and who has seen the father leave his guests in self-emptying love to try to reconcile his older son, has seen the Father giving himself in the person of Jesus in order, through offers of costly love, to reconcile the two sons (i.e., the world) to himself.

John and Paul present this theology in conceptual terms. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus creates the same theological meaning in story form.

John’s second theme focuses on: whoever believes will not perish/ is not condemned. The relationship between these two phrases in John and the parable are obvious. The father did not run down the road to the prodigal with a whip in his hand. His hands were open, not clenched. They were empty, not clutching a sword.

I have recently completed a monograph on the comparisons between the story of the Prodigal Son and the Saga of Jacob. When Jacob comes home, his brother, like the father in the parable, goes out to meet him. Both family members “run, fall on the neck and kiss” the wayward younger brother. But Esau has 400 armed men with him and Jacob fears for his life.

In both cases the father goes out not to condemn his sons but to reconcile them. With the elder son the father goes out to parakeleo, to “entreat/beseech/reconcile” his older son to himself.

How easy it would have been for the father to wait, aloof in the house, ready to attack the prodigal for his failings by shouting, “You no-good idiot! I see you lost the money I gave you!” Or vis-à-vis the older son the father has the full right to say,

I am your father! My guests are seated in the house. At a later time — in private — we can discuss whatever criticisms you may have of my dealings with your brother. Don’t you have the common decency to keep our family disagreements out of the public eye? What is the matter with you?! Your behavior is outrageous and I will not stand for it!

The father goes out neither to condemn nor to punish, but to reconcile through costly love.

Finally, John says that God comes into the world to offer eternal life/salvation. Once more, John’s conceptual language is a well-fitting glove on the hand of the metaphorical language of Jesus’ parable.

The father, a symbol for God and a symbol for God in Christ, wants joyous reconciled fellowship with his two sons. One son breaks the rules and the other keeps them. But on a very deep level, both sever their relationships with their father. To each the father must offer a costly demonstration of unexpected love. The purpose of these extraordinary efforts is resurrection (he was dead and is alive), joy (let us make merry and be glad) and salvation (he was lost and is found).

At the end of the day, the great summary of the gospel in John 3:16 presents a conceptual framework of God’s dealings with a sinful world. Jesus, in the parable, offers the same theology but in metaphorical language. I would submit that the two are viewing the same diamond but from different sides. Indeed, with Paul (Galatians 1:7-9) there is no other gospel.

Posted May 2, 2002


Kenneth E. Bailey, an author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies, lives in New Wilmington, Pa. He has twice been honored by theAssociated Church Press for his special Bible studies in The Outlook.

Send your comment on this viewpoint to The Outlook. Please give your hometown.