Commentary on John 3:14-21
This lectionary passage is probably among the most well known Christian scripture in the world, making it challenging for the preacher to find something “new” to say about the passage.
I am specifically referring to John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” If we are able to move beyond the historical “romanticizing” of this particular verse in this pericope we might find some new fertile and revolutionary ideas laden within it. The romanticizing I am referring to is the somewhat simplistic view that God gave Jesus to come to earth to save it with love and literally by sacrificing his body without attempting to rid the world of evil, but by magically saving people who “believed” in him.
Most likely John did not intend to promote such a simplistic view of the salvific trajectory. It is therefore necessary to ask some pertinent questions of him and/or this gospel lesson: What does believing in him (Jesus) mean? Why did Jesus need to come into the world? Was it because of sin? If indeed Jesus came to the world to save it from sin, what kind of sin? For John, sin seems to be concrete and structural (that is injustice, hate, lack of mercy, etc.) rather than individualistic.
If we read this lectionary passage within the context of the redaction of the gospel of John and consider all seven verses as seriously as John 3:16, we might discover the revolutionary nature of John’s words, rather than what appears to be a historical romantic understanding of God’s salvific act in this well-known passage. In my perspective the key to unravelling the meaning of these verses can be found in verses 19-21. John states:
19This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”
So God loves the world and he sends his child to (magically) save it or to “fix” it. To change the world or save it requires a process that ends hate, injustice, oppression and replaces it with justice, compassion, mercy, love, equality, etc. However, verses 19-21 tell us that some choose hate over light, evil deeds over good deeds, and therefore they reject the light of the son of God. Others, however agree with Jesus’ quest to change or restore the world to its original intent from a world full of evil and injustice to a loving, just and caring world. Therefore, for John, believing in Jesus has more to do with what people believe regarding evil, hate, exploitation, and injustice rather an esoteric “religious” conversion.
Rudolph Bultmann offers a helpful insight into John’s thinking on this matter: “In the decision of faith or unbelief it becomes apparent what man [sic] really is.”1 In other words, for Bultmann one’s disposition to do good reflects a person’s true character, philosophy or belief system, and therefore becomes a factor in determining whether one rejects or accepts (believes in) Jesus. We can conclude that for John, believing in/accepting Jesus’ message had more to do with agreeing with His teachings than with having some sort of change of heart. The challenge posed by the advent of Jesus is that we are called to a stance about whom we are, what we stand for, and what exactly we believe.
As Jose Porfirio Miranda, the late biblical exegete, states: “From the time Christ demonstrated what a person can be, our dissatisfaction with what we are has become torturous.”2 There are quite a few challenges in this reading of the text. The call for Christians to make decisions about the evils of hate, exploitation, and oppression that surround us seems quite obvious and necessary to me as I write these sermon notes.
Can we really stay neutral in the midst of wrongdoing? It seems that John was letting us know that whether or not to believe in Jesus cannot be a neutral decision. Jesus demands a stance, which requires active decision-making. Neutrality and indecisiveness are not an option. To follow Jesus requires the courage to swim upstream against the strong currents that carry society’s brutal and sinful ideologies.
- Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John a Commentary. (Louisville: Westminster, 1971), 159.
- Jose Porfirio Miranda, Being and the Messiah: The message of St. John (Ossining: Orbis Books, 1977), 81.