Commentary on John 3:14-21
The central verse in this passage is perhaps the best known Bible verse in the world.
John 3:16 shows up in many public places. Hoisted on posters, etched on jewelry, and isolated from this passage, “For God so loved the world…” has become emblematic of the central message of Christian faith. This centrality is not undeserved. The power of this verse, however, is enhanced when it is read carefully and in context.
The lectionary divides Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus, which begins in 3:11 and extends to 3:21, at verse 14. The passage begins with a play on the word “lift up.” It describes God’s command to Moses to lift up the serpent in the wilderness and the lifting up that is in store for Jesus. The passage makes little sense without the background story from Numbers 21:4-9. In that narrative, the people became “impatient” on their way. Still in the wilderness after their departure from Egypt, and despairing of being able to survive in a land with no food and water, they complained against God and Moses.
Consequently, terrible serpents appeared, bit the people, and killed them. When they repented, the Lord told Moses to make a serpent and set it on a pole so that anyone who had been bitten might look at it and live. The serpent was a mark of God’s anger and God’s mercy. God’s people might be saved by the God of life, if only they would look upon the image of that which would have brought about their death.
To see the Son of Man lifted up calls for “belief” for the sake of eternal life, not simply a restoration of earthly life. God once saved the people by calling upon them to gaze on the serpent. Now, God would save the people by having them gaze in belief upon the Son, lifted up.
Next comes John 3:16, in which the “so” is often misunderstood. The Greek houtos means “so” in the sense of “just so,” or “in this way,” or the more archaic, “thusly.” We could translate the verse as “This is the way God loved the world, with the result that he gave his only Son, in order that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 is not about how much God loved the world. It is about in what way God loved the world.
The single most important thing to notice about this verse is that God loved the world. God deeply loved the world that God created, and God longs for this creation to live. It is not only God’s own people whom God will save, as in the Numbers story. It is the cosmos that God has loved, precisely by having given the only son,. God loved by having given the son, a non-coercive act that sets in motion real consequences.
Yet God’s action was not disinterested. The purpose of God’s having sent the Son was to save the world, just as the purpose of commanding Moses to erect a serpent on a pole was to save the people from death. The son came to save, to grant eternal life because God loved the world. That was Jesus’ announcement. I’m here because the God who loved you of old, still does. He sent me to tell you, to show you, to gather you up into life with him forever.
Jesus’ coming is like the bringing of a light into a dark space. The contrast of light and dark is intense. Indeed, the coming of the Son into the world leads to numerous pairs of contrasting realities:
- condemn and save
- believe and not believe
- stay in the darkness and come into the light
- do evil and doing what is true
These opposites express the sharp distinction that is created when our dark cosmos is entered by the light of God. Like the people in the story in Numbers, we have already been bitten or are in imminent danger of being bitten. Death is inevitable. When the bronze serpent is brought into the world, we look and live, or we do not. As Jesus comes into the world, we trust that which bears God’s gracious love, or we do not. We receive eternal life or we continue to live apart from God, condemned.
If this begins to sound like a theology that demands our deciding to believe or not, we have several reminders in the context that help us to hear more deeply what John wants to say.
First, these verses are embedded in a story where Jesus continues to engage, argue, and persuade people who are slowly transformed into believers. In John 3, Nicodemus is the seeker by night who is left in confusion, only to reappear in 19:39 to help care for Jesus’ body. He has emerged from darkness into light over the course of Jesus’ ministry.
So also the Samaritan woman of John 4 whose long conversation with Jesus ends in a tentative belief, far from where she first began. Consider the blind man healed in John 9, whose move from darkness to light happens rather quickly in physiological terms, but more slowly in terms of identifying Jesus. The intense contrast between believing and not believing, darkness and light, and evil and truth are descriptions of realities, but not of the process by which human beings come to recognize truth, light, life, and God’s own son.
Finally, verses 18-21 follow the first and most important contrast, the contrasting ways to depict God’s own goal and longing. God’s way of loving the world was to send the Son to save it. Jesus is God’s expression of love and longing. The light comes to find us, to illuminate our path for our sake, because God wants us. God reaches out through the Son with the sheer purpose of sharing everlasting life with us.
Yes, John tells us there are real consequences in our daily life and our everlasting relationship with God. But he tells us in order to help us see the contrasts, look clearly at our lives, appreciate the gracious gift of God as a gift of love, and live in fearless confidence of that love. Have we ever been so truly and consistently desired by another as we are by God? No indeed. God loved the world in this way that he gave the Son so that we might live forever with God.