Commentary on John 3:14-21
John 3:16 is one of the best known, most loved verses in the New Testament.
It is cited by chapter and verse alone on road signs and on banners in bleachers, a witness to its “sound bite status” as one commentator observed. Christians know the verse well because it is a straightforward expression of God’s love for the world and promise of eternal life. Its summary of an essential truth of Christian belief tempts us to isolate it from its place within the gospel of John, however. When we do read further, we may wish we hadn’t, for the following verses seem contradictory. How can God so love the world that God sends his son in order to save the world (verse 17) and at the same time condemn so many in it (verse 18)?
We encounter a characteristic of the Gospel of John in this reading in the sharp divisions between believers and non-believers, saved and condemned, people who love darkness rather than light, do evil and not good (verses 19-21). Preachers face the challenge of confirming the gospel truth and yet observing some caution against accepting John’s dichotomies literally. Many years ago, Raymond Brown wrote an article with advice for preaching John, and I pull it out of the file every year when I introduce the Gospel of John to seminarians. The premise of the article, “The Johannine World for Preachers,” is the necessity to enter into the world of John and its symbolic universe. Brown advices, “Do not domesticate the Johannine Jesus. It is his style to say things that border on the offensive, be puzzled and even offended; but do not silence this Jesus by deciding what he should not have said and what your hearers should not hear.”
Brown offers good advice, but how do we enter the world of this gospel? No single approach explains the complex symbolic world of John’s narrative, but I think the characteristics of sectarianism are helpful for understanding historical context of the Johannine community at the end of the first century. The polarity between insiders and outsiders, the sharp contrast between the community and the dominant culture, those have the truth and those who do not is typical of sectarianism and prevalent in the gospel narrative.
Today’s lection continues the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews who comes to Jesus by night; he recognizes Jesus as a teacher from God (verse 1-2). Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus is sent from God, but he comes in secret he is obtuse. Jesus chides him for his lack of understanding. In John, some of the sharpest criticism is directed toward those who believe, or have insight about Jesus, but keep it secret. Another instance is the parents of the blind man who refuse to make a public statement about Jesus for fear of being exiled from the synagogue (9:22). We hear the condemnation of “the Jews” but the disdain of the parents who forsake their son and refuse to confess Jesus as Messiah in order to remain in the synagogue is equally severe.
Even some of the authorities believed in Jesus, but did not confess it for fear of being put out of the synagogue (12:42-43). The division in the Johannine world is not so much between Jews and Christians. The Johannine community has separated itself form the synagogue; other believers choose to stay. The gospel narrative indicates the experience of a minority group defining itself not only within the diversity of Judaism but also defining itself among followers of Jesus.
In this context, polemical language against the Jews and secret believers functioned to affirm members of a minority community defining itself in relationship to other communities making similar claims to truth. The purpose is not to exclude others, rather to support those who likely make difficult choices to belong. Likely the intent was to encourage others to join them.
As a small minority, the Johannine community did not have the power or influence to marginalize others or cause harm by excluding them. In the western world, Christianity has been the dominant religion for centuries, whether supported by the state or not, and it has the power to marginalize and exclude those who do not conform. In our hands, the gospel of John can do serious harm, indeed it has. So it is important that we make an effort to enter into the world of John when we interpret these texts.
John 3:16 is a good interpretive lens into the gospel. John begins with echoes of Genesis (1:1) and the goodness of God’s creation, the world, all that is in it. That note is sounded again so clearly here. For the sake of this world, God gives his most cherished beloved son. Any parent knows that the love for one’s child is so great one might sacrifice oneself for a child. In this human experience we grasp God’s self-giving love for us, giving us the incomparable gift of salvation, life forever through his beloved Son.
How else to respond but to love and cherish the world and every creature in it as beloved of God. If we take this response seriously, it will be an all-consuming challenge. We might take it in the direction of global warming and care for the earth. Or we might tackle poverty or hunger in light of the abundance most of us enjoy. Or advocate for peaceful resolution of differences.
Opportunities stretch from our doorstep around the globe. We might conclude that we are too busy to make it our business to judge who is saved or not, condemned or not. We might instead accept John’s challenge to followers of Jesus in his community as our own, that is moving outside our comfort zone to make a public confession of our faith.
1 Daniel N. Schowalter, “Fourth Sunday in Lent,” New Proclamation Year B, 2005-2006 Advent through Holy Week (Fortress Press: Minneapolis), p.187.
2 Raymond Brown, “The Johannine World for Preachers, ” Interpretation, January, 1989.
3 Ibid., p. 64.