Reflections on the Gospel Lectionary Reading for March 15, 2015: John 3:14-21
The United States became “officially” biblically illiterate on January 9, 2009. The day before, Tim Tebow had “John” written in white on his eye-black under his right eye and 3:16 under his left eye in the OU vs. FL football game. Tebow made a name for himself by his outward religious expressions at sporting events.
However, the amazing thing that happened the next day was that “John 3:16” was the top search on Google search. The top five searches on January 9, 2009 were
1. John 3 16
2. Mary Lynn Rajskub
3. Windows 7 beta download
4. All inclusive vacations
5. Ana Ortiz
In other words, people no longer knew the once most-memorized text of the Bible. If people knew nothing else about the Bible, they would often know “For God so loved the world . . .”
Equally disturbing, to me at least, is that guy who held up the John 3:16 banner at all those NFL games over the years had been utterly unsuccessful.
The Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday includes this once well-known text. Beginning in John 3:14, our text reads,
… And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that 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. 18 Those 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. 19 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. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But 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.”
When we read John 3:16 in its larger context we see that God is not the only one who “loves” in our text. People are said to love, too. Embedded in this text is a call to respond to God’s love.
“Who said what?” is a bit of a problem in this text. Since ancient manuscripts of the NT had no real equivalent to quotation marks, scholars have argued over where Jesus ends his conversation with Nicodemus and where John begins his commentary. I’m among those who think Jesus finishes at v. 15 and that v. 16 begins John’s comments. This probably does not change how we read the text much, but in the spirit of full disclosure that is how I’m reading it. If you are interested in this issues, you can consult the commentaries on it or let me know, and I will send you the information.
However one resolves who said what, the content of v. 15 sets the context for hearing the whole text and it is important for hearing that text.
In a rather strange analogy, Jesus compares the “Son of Man,” referring to himself, to the serpent that Moses placed on a pole and lifted up (ὑψόω) in the wilderness. Of course, the story about Moses and the snake is also rather strange, and unexpected, given the association of the serpent with temptation in the creation narrative. The story is told in a few verses in the book of Numbers:
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Numbers 21:4–9 NRSV)
Discounting the idolatrous nature of the bronze serpent (and that it violates the second commandment), Jesus analogy rests on one point: just as the serpent was lifted up, so the Son of Man will be lifted up. A second point might be that those who looked at the serpent would live and those who believe in the Son of Man will have eternal life.
But back to the first thought, the notion of “being lifted” has something a double meaning in John’s writing. For Jesus to be “lifted up” could as easily mean to be exalted or to be crucified. John may want his readers to linger a bit on both and perhaps feel the interplay between the two.
So as we turn the corner into John 3:16, the “exalted” Son of Man is still echoing in our heads. We are now prepared to hear that God’s love for the world will cost God dearly: God gave, God sent. Vv. 16, 17, and 18 all move in the same direction. God gave his Son so that those who believe may have eternal life; God sent his Son so that the world might be save through him; those who believe are not condemn. God’s intent is that his creatures will live!
However, there is another side to the equation: “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” What caught my attention here is that John announces that those who do not believe are “condemned already” (κέκριται; perfect/completed tense in Greek of κρίνω, I judge). Clearly, John has certain people or group of people in mind. He has already mentioned those who believe so he does not believe all people are under consideration here. Rather these who do not believe are those who have encountered Jesus but chose not believe, or in John’s language, closed their eyes to the light of God. This only makes sense if you believe that Jesus is God’s representative, or as the text says, God’s Son. If that is true, then ignoring Jesus is rejecting the God of creation.
In fact, as God so loved the world, such people loved darkness rather than the light. And that, it seems to me, is the fulcrum of this text. God loved the world so much that he sent his Son as “light,” but those who love darkness will not see the Light.
The question of the text becomes, “Do you want to see? Well, do you?