Ask someone on the street to quote a Bible verse, any Bible verse, and you may get a blank stare.
But ask them to name a Bible verse and you are in business: John 3:16. It’s the perfect verse to plaster on a bumper, or brandish on a sign at a football game. John 3:16 has become a kind of trademark for evangelical Christians — a way to reduce and simplify one version of the Christian gospel to a quick sound bite.
In one sense, this use is justified. Following the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-10), verse 16 does fall within a discourse (3:11-21) in which Jesus offers a kind of summation of God’s good purposes for the world. Jesus’ speech takes the form of second order reflection upon the meaning of his own life, so much so that interpreters have debated whether these verses are best understood as the words of a character within the story, or as an aside in which the narrator addresses the reader directly. On balance, it is probably best to take these verses as depicting the words of Jesus, yet the “meta” character of this discourse is striking — here we see Jesus offering a Christological reflection on himself.
But if it is true that these verses zoom out to address the big picture of God’s work in Christ, it is not true that the message is simple, nor can verse 16 be understood well as an abstract slogan, apart from its immediate context within John. In the first place, the context suggests that the truth about God’s purposes in Christ is confusing and troubling, not obvious and cross-stitch-worthy. Nicodemus finds this Good News confusing (John 3:10) because it demands that he let go of all that he has accomplished and understood — let go and become like a newborn, ready to receive the world on completely new terms. There is an ethical dimension to understanding. Some things are hard to grasp not because they are conceptually subtle, but because they ask so much of us. We don’t want to understand, because if we understand, we are implicated.
God loved the world so much that God gave the Son so that we may believe and have eternal life (John 3:16). What is it about this “simple” Good News that we don’t want to understand?
In the first place, we must contend with the peculiar and troubling image Jesus has chosen to describe himself: he says that he is like the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness (John 3:14, see Numbers 21:9). In the story from Numbers, God sent poisonous serpents into the Israelite camp as punishment for the people complaining against God. When the people repented, God told Moses to fashion a serpent out of bronze and lift it on a pole, so that anyone bitten by a serpent could look upon it and live. In the same way that the serpent was lifted on a pole, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:15). The term translated “lift up” (hypsoo) can also mean “exalt,” and John uses that double meaning to communicate a theological paradox. It points to both the physical lifting of Jesus into the air on a cross, and the lifting up in exaltation of Jesus by God (see also John 8:28, and John 12:32). In terms of human agency, of course, the cross is a moment of profound humiliation and defeat. But in John’s theological imagination, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are collapsed into a single movement of divine agency: Jesus exalted by God. Just as the Israelites were paradoxically required to look upon the very thing that brought death in order to receive life, so we are asked to look upon Jesus’ “lifting up” in humiliating crucifixion and receive it as part of God’s plan to glorify Jesus and save the world. The image of Jesus as the serpent “lifted up” is paradoxical, not simple.
What does it mean to “believe” this Good News that in Jesus “lifted up” God seeks the world’s salvation, and not condemnation (John 3:17)? Simplistically, we might say that it requires us to offer our intellectual assent to the proposition that all of this happened in just the way the story describes, and to accept that it means precisely what John claims that it means. To “believe that” Jesus died and was raised to save us is easy to understand in the sense that it requires almost nothing of us. But such simplicity does not honor the larger story John is telling. This is a story about an encounter with Jesus that left an intelligent and accomplished man scratching his head in bewilderment as he went back out into the darkness. This is a story about how any one of us might reject the light offered to us because of the way it exposes what is dark in us (John 3:19–20). To “believe” this Good News in a way that brings salvation requires more than “believing that;” it requires “trusting in.” To “trust in” Jesus is not simply to believe something about what happened long ago, but also to let our own lives be transformed by the Jesus we encounter in this story:
1) Placing our trust in this Jesus means withholding our ultimate loyalty and trust from other things that ask us to pledge our allegiance. Remembering that he was publicly executed as an enemy of empire, we must be honest with ourselves about the subtle ways we are complicit in and benefit from imperial coercion. The “lifting up” of Jesus on a Roman cross places ever before us the question of who we will serve.
2) Placing our trust in this Jesus means noticing that the new life Jesus offered was especially difficult for the religiously accomplished. We must repent of the ways our self-satisfied religiosity becomes a barrier to understanding the new things Jesus offers and asks of us. The “lifting up” of Jesus is a stumbling block for those obsessed with decorum and conformity to tradition.
3) Placing our trust in this Jesus means confronting the inconvenient truth that God’s purposes for those God loves are not synonymous with our own common-sense values of happiness, health, and safety. The trail of faith that Jesus blazed reveals that, while there is nothing in this world worth killing for, there are things worth dying for. The “lifting up” of Jesus reminds us that the true life God has promised us is not the life that we can secure for ourselves through self-interest and caution.
Nearly everything about this text feels far removed from 21st-century life.
It chafes against both our theological sensibilities and our scientific good sense. Surely God does not send poisonous snakes to punish human beings for their missteps? Certainly just looking at a bronze snake does not assuage a medical ailment like snakebite. Where is the anti-venom? Where is the splint? And where is the God with whom we feel safe and comfortable?
The Hebrews who wandered through the wilderness did not experience God as a safe and comfortable companion. In the great showdown with Pharaoh in Exodus 1-14, God sends ten vicious plagues to show the superiority of the God of Israel over Egypt’s gods, including Pharaoh, who made his own claims to divinity. On the way out of Egypt, God appears as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of cloud by night, a sight that incites panic in the Egyptians (Exodus 13:21, 14:24). At Sinai, God thunders on the mountain in fire and smoke, terrifying the Israelites (Exodus 19:18, 20:18-1). These are not the images of God that call us to snuggle up in God’s everlasting arms, “safe and secure from all alarms,” as the old hymn goes.
Despite these great displays of God’s power, the Israelites do not have much confidence that God will, in fact, deliver them into the Promised Land. It only takes three verses to move from their songs of triumph (Exodus 15:1-21) to their first grumbling (Exodus 15:24). In this week’s text from Numbers, the peoples’ complaint sounds like something that could be attributed to Yogi Berra: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food (lechem) and no water, and we detest this miserable food (lechem)” (v. 5). In other words, we don’t have any food, and it tastes terrible, too! (The wording of the complaint is also vaguely reminiscent of the wonderful line from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck tries to speak well of a farmer-preacher by proclaiming that he “never charged nothing for his preaching, and it was worth it, too.”)
In the text of Numbers 21, the utterance of the complaint is immediately followed by the statement, “Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died” (v. 6). Neither the narrator nor God ever explicitly says that God sent the snakes because the people complained. That causality does seem to be implied, especially because the people themselves name their “speaking against” God and Moses as the ultimate source of their suffering (v. 7). The narrative specifies that God sends the snakes, but never does either God or the narrator call the snakes a punishment; the people themselves draw that conclusion.
I wonder if the Israelites might have fallen into the old post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: “after this, therefore because of this.” Maybe God did not send the snakes because of their quarreling after all. Crying out to God in complaint is not usually condemned in Scripture; there is a whole genre of psalms that centers on complaint or lament! Of course, there are times in Scripture when “speaking against” God or God’s messenger does bring catastrophe. When Miriam and Aaron “speak against” Moses’ Cushite wife, Miriam is stricken with a skin disease (Numbers 12:1-16), and God’s anger is clearly described as the cause. Even so, in this week’s reading, we, like the Israelites themselves, are left to draw our own conclusions. Is God punishing the people with the snakes? If God sent the snakes, then surely the people deserved it?! Otherwise there was no discernible reason, and now this God is much less predictable, much less safe, than we ever could have imagined.
The people name their sin and then ask Moses to pray for them. This role as intermediary is what Moses does best: facilitating communication between God and God’s people. In this story, God does not give the people what they ask for. They want Moses to get God to “take away the serpents from us” (Numbers 21:7). But the serpents do not go away, nor do they stop biting. Instead, God instructs Moses on how to heal the people who are bitten; they are still bitten, but they live. Deliverance does not come in the way that they expect.
As 21st-century Christians it may take us out of our comfort zones to imagine God as a dangerous, unpredictable presence in our lives. Yet, if we claim that we’ve got God all figured out, then we have ignored the mystery and divine freedom with which God is characterized throughout much of Scripture. A domesticated, unmoving God does not pull a people out of slavery, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land; no, we need a God who is, in those oft-repeated words of Don Juel, “on the loose!”
Moses’ serpent-on-a-pole shows up again in the Old Testament, at 2 Kings 18:4: “[Hezekiah] removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.” The Israelites had forgotten the living, free, dangerous God who commanded the construction of the serpent of the wilderness, and they focused instead on a bronzed, domesticated, manufactured idol that they could see and understand. Perhaps it is the task of preaching to break up our bronzed serpents and to turn our attention instead to the God of the wilderness: dangerous, maybe, and unpredictable for sure, but always present, always faithful.
The texts for this Sunday provide the preacher with a whole kaleidoscope of themes and images.
We hear of snakes in the desert (Numbers 21, John 3:14), shipwrecks at sea (Psalm 107), and grace, faith, and good works (Ephesians 2). In the midst of all this is the most well-known verse in the Bible, John 3:16.
So what’s a preacher to do? Many will no doubt choose to tell the story of Nick at night and put John 3:16 in its full context (John 3:14-21). Our focus here, however, is on Psalm 107. The psalm itself concludes with an invitation to “consider” what it has to say — about God’s “steadfast love.” We shall begin by doing just that, and then try to bring the kaleidoscopic textual pieces together into a beautiful picture.
Psalm 107: some preliminaries
Psalm 107 begins with “O give thanks to the Lord for he is good” and ends with a directive to “consider the steadfast love of the LORD.” In between are four further references to God’s “steadfast love” (vv. 8, 15, 21, 31).
Psalm 107 fits the pattern of the hymn of praise, with a call to praise “O give thanks,” followed by reasons for praise “for he is good; for his steadfast love (Hebrew, hesed) endures forever” addressed to the congregation (v. 1; for an example of the two-part hymn of praise, see Psalm 113:1-3, 4-9). Four reports of God’s saving acts provide further reasons for praise (vv. 4-32) as does a reference to God’s activity of blessing (vv. 33-38).
The pattern of each report of God’s rescuing activity is the same:
1) a description of the people in trouble (vv. 4-5, 10-12, 17-18, 23-27),
2) a report that they prayed and God rescued them (vv. 6, 13-14, 19-20, 28-30),
3) a call to give thanks (vv. 8, 15-16, 21-22, 31-32).
Verse 43 sounds like a word from an editor/teacher, inviting participants to reflect on God’s steadfast love.
Hesed: the steadfast love of the Lord
Note the sense of hesed innon-theological contexts. David and Jonathan made a covenant with one another, sealing their friendship (1 Samuel 18:1-3). Jonathan asked David to remember him and his family, no matter what the future might bring, saying “If I am still alive, show me the faithful love (hesed) of the LORD … never cut off your faithful love (hesed) from my house …”(1 Samuel 20:14-15). The meaning of hesed in this context is loyal love between two parties who have made a formal pledge through a covenant (see also 1 Samuel 20:8). It is also part of the vocabulary for describing the loyal love between two parties in a marriage (Jeremiah 2:2, “devotion”; and Hosea 2:19, “steadfast love.”
The biblical book of Hosea is especially helpful for understanding the notion of hesed. The prophet uses his own marriage and divorce as an illustration. His wife had become unfaithful and he divorced her. But seeing her up for sale as a slave one day, he discovered he still loved her and bought her back (Hosea 1-3). The prophet’s story then became an illustration of the unfaithfulness of Israel to her God. The word hesed may be used to express God’s love for the people (Hosea 2:19). But it is also used to refer to the people’s lack of loyal love to God. Speaking in the name of God the prophet says to the people:
Your love (hesed) is like a morning cloud,
Like the dew that goes away early.
For I desire steadfast love (hesed) and not sacrifice,
The knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:4,6)
Thus hesed has the sense of loyal love between two parties bound by covenant.
Hesed: an illustration to make the point
An illustration: Ask the congregation or class to find Psalm 136 in the pew Bible or the hymnbook. Read the first half of each verse and ask the congregation to read the response for each, “for his steadfast love endures forever.” Ask the people, “What will you take home when you leave church today?” They will answer “for his steadfast love endures forever.” You then add, “And that’s worth remembering!” The Hebrew original is of course hesed.
John 3:16: write it on a postcard!
For some 16 years I taught Greek classes at a midwestern college. The students were mostly juniors, preparing for seminary study. One student had told me repeatedly how much he feared Greek. The course began and he seemed to be doing all right. I noticed that every so often he would look in the cover of his book, read something, and then return to whatever we were doing in class. When I asked him about it after class one day, he showed me. In his book he had pasted a post card from a friend. On it were the words from John 3:16. Then the friend had written: “If Jesus gave his life for you, you can book Greek for him!” The power of that Gospel word!
I always had our first year students memorize John 3:16 in Greek. There they encountered the New Testament Greek word, which is close to the “steadfast love” or hesed in the Old Testament. That word in Greek is agape, pronounced ah-gah-pay with the accent on the gah. The noun forms as well the verb are found all over the New Testament. John 3:16, for example, reads “For God so loved (a-gah-payed) the world that he gave … ”
The word agape is also found in the second lesson for this day, in both noun and verb forms. Ephesians 2:1-10 speaks of the “great love (agape) with which he loved (ah-gah-payed) us … ” (v. 4). The lesson as a whole is a commentary on the relationships between God’s grace (vv. 5,7,8) and the human response in faith (v. 8) all of which results in good works (v. 10).
Bringing these four kaleidoscopic texts together thus results in a picture of the steadfast love (hesed) with which God has loved (ah-gah-payed) us in Christ.
You’ve been saved for the purpose of good works.
There, I said it. I feel much better, thank you. Actually, I did not say it; “Paul” did.1 And Jesus seems to have said something along these lines also (Matthew 5:16 — understood within the entire narrative context of Matthew). Martin Luther argues this in “The Freedom of a Christian” (who, let’s face it, functionally stands in as Jesus for some people). While Ephesians 2:1-10 sings the “saved by grace” tune pretty loudly, there are a couple of “in order that” clauses that bring out the “good works” side of the equation also.
Now, I know many will say, “Of course. First is the divine initiative and the good works flow out of God’s work in us.” Even the Lutheran liturgy expresses this in our confession liturgy: “forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways … ” Indeed. Yet, perhaps still more can be said. The phrase from the Lutheran liturgy highlights something important for understanding the good works for which we’ve been saved: “walking.” It’s a word we find in Ephesians 2:1-10 — the Greek verb peripatew. It’s often overlooked, but it shows up both at the beginning and at the end of this pericope (vss. 1 & 10). One could make the case that this idea — peripatew — frames what Paul says here.
Paul is getting at something other than just “doing” good works; he’s writing about “walking.” Sometimes, I’m afraid, it seems we’re inclined to read this passage through the lens of what I have termed MPS: “Moral Perfection Syndrome.” God demands moral perfection. We can’t do enough good stuff, we sin, and because we’re not “perfect” we are in big divine trouble. Jesus needs to save us and forgive us because of what we can’t do. MPS, I think, negatively affects how we read passages like Ephesians 2:1-10.
The verb peripatew, used metaphorically, as many of you probably know, pertains to the orientation of one’s life. Many people today peripatew in the stream of popular Americana, of People magazine, of American Idol and The Voice, of Disney, of sports culture, the “American Dream,” and of a general cultural mentality that shamelessly promotes the elevation of the self above all else. To reduce the idea of peripatew to the steps one takes and the choices one makes risks misunderstanding the profound claims Paul makes here. The common translation “following” (NRSV; NIV; ESV) does not quite encapsulate the thickness of this term. We’re not saved just from our bad individual choices or what we “follow.” God delivers us from an entire mode of existence — indeed transfers us from one sphere to another — not just from the inability to make enough of the “right” choices.
Paul reminds his audience that they were once peripatew-ing according to “the course of this world” (NRSV; ESV); “the ways of this world” (NIV). These translations again suffer from MPS by thinking in terms of steps, choices, ways, etc. The word translated “ways” or “course” is aeon. Scholars debate whether it should be best understood as a force, not unlike “capital-S Sin” in Paul’s letters, or in a temporal sense “the age of this world.” Since the early 2nd century B.C.E., people personified Aeon, and it referred to a deity of sorts. Something to which certainly some people could be captive from Paul’s perspective. For some interpreters it is more probable that Paul uses the word temporally. Either way, the emphasis lies on something more substantial than “ways” or “course.”
The idea might be equivalent to the house in which we live and make our dwelling. One sets up a house according to everyday living habits, preferences, and things we take for granted. And the set up reinforces these everyday habits. We put the toothpaste in a certain drawer; we place pots and pans in certain places because of how and why we use them. This is more than just “ways” or “course” of the house. It’s an entire environment that makes for certain ways of going about the details.
“Whose house?” This is an important question. The following clauses, “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (NIV), can further define the aeon as a cosmic or divine force (“the one ruling the kingdom of the air … ”) or it can itemize the “ruler” as a component of this aeon understood temporally. The point is that the house in which the old humanity made its dwelling was operated by an outside party. And it’s not Jesus Christ.
It is only after defining the meta-structures operating in this world that Paul then comments on the individual transgressions and missteps in following the flesh (which Paul does not say is inherently evil or sinful). Our individual actions are products of the house and its environment, under the operations of its ruler.
When we operated according to the transgressions and sins — the mode of life in the old house of the old aeon, Paul says to his audience, “you were dead.” In contrast to this, Paul says we are “made alive” in Christ, and “created” in Christ. Our transfer is a genuinely new thing; we are created new. We’re not just to feel better about our relationship with God while still dwelling in the old house.
This transfer from houses and their overlords, according to verses 5 and 8, is an act of “grace.” “Grace” in Paul’s world was not “pardon” but an act of benevolence that usually resulted in a better situation for the recipient. As the theme song from the late 70s show, The Jefferson’s, says: “we’re movin’ on up.” Or, rather, we’ve been moved on up. And it’s in that transfer that we’re saved — saved from the self-imposed disaster and ruin that inevitably results from life dwelling in the house of the old aeon.
As Paul goes on in Ephesians, he will stress the importance of reconciliation. Not just our reconciliation with God, but with each other. This new house under the Lordship of Jesus has no place for divided humanity. The “other” is no longer the “other” but sister/brother. We have been saved and remade in Christ for this, for the “good works” that are simply part of the mode of life in the new house under the benevolent and gracious house Lord. We’re not saved by good works, but saved so that the good works that reconcile and are evidence of reconciliation would be our mode of life. It’s not for us; it’s for the reconciliation of the world (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
1 For an entire generation of scholarship, Ephesians was not considered authentically Pauline. This perspective remains, but not as solidly as it once did. Many of the presuppositions behind seeing Ephesians as pseudonymous have been questioned in recent years, and what “Pauline” might mean is considerably more complex than just whether it was written pseudonymously or not. I retain “Paul” in quotes to recognize the uncertainty, but without conceding to pseudonymous authorship, at least as it has been understood.