Listen to the audio of today’s reflection:
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done through God.
Today’s gospel reading continues one of the most famous passages in the New Testament, and for the second day in a row the reading includes one of the most famous verses in the New Testament. Yesterday we reflected on the first part of the passage, where John quotes Jesus as saying, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
Today’s part of the passage includes John 3:16, which might just be the most widely-quoted verse from the whole New Testament: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” This is the first verse a lot of our kids are taught to memorize, and it shows up in all kinds of devotional literature. You also see people in the background at public events holding up signs with “John 3:16” on them – like at football games when one of the teams attempts a field goal or an extra point.
It’s been said that today’s reading can be understood as a short summary of the whole gospel message, and that’s a reasonable thought. But it also seems to me that this passage brings together a couple of the key ideas that are central to the Gospel of John. So really getting the message of the Gospel of John sort of requires wrapping our heads around those ideas.
(You might remember that we observed a couple of days ago that the Gospel of John is different from Matthew, Mark and Luke, both in its overall structure and also in the theological ideas it emphasizes. John doesn’t contradict what’s said in the other gospels – it just provides some deeper examination of some of the issues in Jesus’ life and ministry.)
Let’s start with this: This passage starts with the words, “For God so loved the world . . .” When the Gospel of John uses the phrase “the world,” it usually means all those who are alienated from God by sin and evil. Now, if you listen to the way some Christians talk, you’d think that God is hostile to the world – at war with everyone outside the church. But it would be hard to make that idea square with this passage. It seems that John (or his disciples, if they’re the ones who wrote this down) understood that God’s love is not just for ‘the religious.’ This famous passage seems to make it clear that God’s love extends to those who are alienated from him, too. And that love even moved God to leave behind the glory of heaven to come down here into this world for the sake of all of those alienated people – I should say, ‘for the sake of all of us alienated people.’
If God really loves the world and its people that much, it would seem to increase the urgency of the work we’ve been called to do as followers of Jesus – as followers of the “one and only Son” he gave to save the world. It would seem to mean that we’re obligated to do whatever we possibly can to let those who are alienated from God know how much he loves them. And that would include doing whatever we possibly can to let people know about the great price he was willing to pay to bring them back into relationship with himself.
The other important idea in the Gospel of John that shows up in this passage is the idea that there’s really only one sin: That sin is the failure to accept Jesus as the Messiah and Lord of your life. It’s really that simple in John’s mind. When you accept Jesus and turn to follow him, you step out of the darkness and into the light.
That’s a little different than our usual way of thinking about sin. We might say, ‘But what about murder and stealing and sexual immorality and all the other sins we’re been taught about since we were kids?’ But John would probably say that all the other stuff we think of as sin is sort of peripheral to the main question of accepting and following Jesus. I think John would say that if you do accept Jesus as the Messiah and Lord of your life, you will turn aside from all of those behaviors as an aspect of your discipleship.
That’s no doubt where the whole ‘condemning yourself’ thing comes in. The vision here seems to be that anyone who refuses to accept Jesus will just go on living according to the world’s standards, committing all those peripheral sins of dishonesty, violence, sexual immorality, exploitation of others, etc. Those things show that a person is still alienated from God. According to John, we can’t blame God for somehow ‘being unfair’ by condemning those who are living in darkness. God has come into the world and sacrificed himself on the cross to bring them back to himself.
This idea always reminds me of a thought in one of the writings of C. S. Lewis – it might be in The Great Divorce. Lewis wrote that it’s a mistake to think of God angrily ‘sending people to hell.’ Instead, Lewis said, the Bible suggests that God stands brokenheartedly calling, “No, come back!” to people who insist on moving further and further away from him into the darkness of alienation and despair.
Which sort of sheds new light on what Jesus says in another gospel – in the fifteenth chapter of Luke. There, Jesus says that there’s a celebration in heaven each time someone acknowledges the lordship of Jesus and embraces him as Lord and Savior. It’s a powerful thought that at some point in our lives, the maker of the universe stopped to celebrate each of us being brought into the fold as followers of his Son.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for your great love for the world, and for the great price you paid to reconcile it to yourself. Help us to embrace your one and only Son more joyfully day by day as a sign of that love, and to join in your work of making him known to all those who have not yet come to acknowledged him as their Savior. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 102 and 147:12-20; Deuteronomy 9:23 – 10:5; and Hebrews 4:1-10.)