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.
This reading from John is the second part of one of the most famous passages in the New Testament. It’s the account of a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee and ruling council member Nicodemus. Yesterday we read and thought about first fifteen verses of the passage, which set the scene for the conversation. Nicodemus starts talking about the miracles Jesus was doing, but then Jesus goes directly to the famous saying, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
Not surprisingly, this statement from Jesus confuses Nicodemus, and the rest of yesterday’s reading was devoted to Jesus talking about the surprising and unpredictable action of the Holy Spirit.
Today’s reading starts with 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 everywhere – including public events like football games where someone is holding up a sign behind the goal post with “John 3:16” on it.
It’s been said that today’s reading can be understood as a short summary of the whole gospel message, and that makes sense. But it also seems to me that this passage touches on a couple of the key ideas that are at the heart of the Gospel of John. So if we’re really going to get the central message of the Gospel of John, we need to make sure we have a grasp of those ideas.
Let’s start with this: This passage starts out by saying, “For God so loved the world . . .” The phrase – the world – can mean different things. It can mean planet earth, it can mean all people everywhere, etc. But when the Gospel of John uses the phrase “the world,” it uses it to refer to all those who are alienated from God by the power of sin and evil.
Now, there’s a common (and strident) voice coming from a part of the church that seems to be saying that God is hostile to the world – that God understands himself to be at war with everyone outside the church. These Christians often quote passages from the apostle Paul that use unfortunate warlike wording. But it’s hard to square that ‘God hates the world’ idea with this passage. John (or his disciples, if they’re the ones who wrote this down) seem to understand that God’s love is not just for ‘the religious.’ It seems clear from this famous passage that God’s love extends to those who are alienated from him, too. And that love was so powerful that God was willing to leave behind the glory of heaven and come down 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 that’s true, if God really loves the world and its people that much, it cranks up the urgency of the work we’ve been called to do as followers of Jesus. We’re followers of the “one and only Son” God gave to save the world. It would seem that we’re supposed to be doing whatever we 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.
There’s another central idea of the Gospel of John that shows up in this passage. That’s the idea that there’s really only one sin: 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 naturally turn aside from all of the things that displease God, as a way of saying ‘thanks’ for your new life in Jesus.
The vision here seems to be that anyone who refuses to accept Jesus will just go on living according to the world’s standards, doing all those things that displease God – things that fail to show love for him and for other people: 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 passage always leads me to think about an idea that appears in the writings of C. S. Lewis – I think it’s in his book 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 126; Deuteronomy 9:23 – 10:5; and Hebrews 4:1-10.)