Commentary on John 3:14-21
Though I’ve never been much of a baseball fan, I’ve seen plenty of games on TV over the years thanks to my baseball-loving husband, son, and son-in-law. Which means I’ve seen plenty of “John 3:16” signs behind home plate, eagerly displayed by would-be Christian evangelists.
My husband, who came to Christian faith and was baptized as an adult, assures me that it doesn’t work, at least not on him. He sees it as a “believe it or else” warning sign, like the “Jesus or hell” sign I recently saw displayed on a freeway overpass. Such approaches to evangelism would just push him further and further away from faith and church. (What did work for him, he has told me, was a gently shared story of faith from one of his coworkers at a part-time job when he was in college.)
But the intention is noble, and the choice of text is apt: many interpreters believe that John 3:16 is indeed a summary—and a powerful one at that—of Christian theology both in John’s Gospel and in general.
John 3:14–21 is roughly the second half of the great story of Nicodemus’ nighttime encounter and conversation with Jesus, recounted in John 3:1–21. By the time we get to the start of our Gospel text for this week, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus have broadened to become the voice of the Johannine community addressing the readers/hearers of that later time. The conversation proper between Jesus and Nicodemus is reaching its end by verse 11, where the text shifts to the plural pronouns: “We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you [plural in Greek] do not receive our testimony.” (We again find the singular in verse 12.) Thus does John address the synagogue of his time and the outside, unbelieving world of the readers’/hearers’ time and place.
Just one word
Black leader Mary MacLeod Bethune (1875–1955), who grew up as a young girl in the Jim Crow South and whom Allen Dwight Callahan describes as “educator, activist, and presidential advisor,” writes:
With these words [John 3:16] the scales fell from my eyes and the light came flooding in. My sense of inferiority, my fear of handicaps, dropped away. “Whosoever,” it said. No Jew nor Gentile, no Catholic nor Protestant, no black nor white; just “whosoever.” It means that I, a humble Negro girl, had just as much chance as anybody in the sight and love of God. These words stored up a battery of faith and confidence and determination in my heart, which has not failed me to this day.1
This is a powerful witness and reading of our text that not only appropriates it for deep personal faith but at the same time sees and indicates some of its wider applications.
In the context in which I live and work and serve the church—a deeply progressive region in the United States—we could justifiably expand the text’s reach still further:
- Neither Jew nor Gentile nor any other ethnic group;
- Neither Catholic nor Protestant nor those of any other or no faith at all;
- Neither Black nor White nor Brown nor any other race;
- Neither straight nor LGBTQ+;
- Neither those belonging to any of the opposing political parties
The list could go on; you get the idea.
How might this application be broadened in your specific ministry context?
The worldwide reach of God’s love
“For God so loved the world …” These words indicate yet a different sort of broadening of Jesus’ message in our text.
We should note that while “world” in John’s Gospel certainly refers to everything in all creation—“the world came into being through him ” (1:9); “All things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being” (1:3)—the world is often used to refer specifically to those realms within the human community that resist or are hostile to God and Christ, as in John 7:7 where Jesus says: “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil.” Boring and Craddock are crisp: “While the world is often pictured in the Fourth Gospel as hostile to God, it is also God’s creation. God loves his enemies, those who have rebelled against him, and is thus the model for Christian love.”2
This reference to the “world” introduces another axis along which God’s love expands, includes more and more, grows deeper and wider—as we move through the text.
Homiletical ruminations …
While so much more could be said on John 3:16 as a whole, the preacher might do well to stop here, ponder, and consider queries such as the following:
Does the congregation include folks in the distinct categories mentioned above?
- In its worship life?
- In its community outreach?
- In its prayers?
In what specific ways does the congregation reflect the love of God for the “world” into the surrounding community?
- In their eucharistic theology?
- In their outreach practices?
- In other ways?
- Quoted in Allen Dwight Callahan, “The Gospel of John,“ in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), where it is in turn quoted from Gerda Lerner, Black Women in White America (New York: Vintage, 1973), 136. Bethune quotes the King James Version for the key word “whosoever,” which Callahan describes using the lovely phrase “the inclusively indefinite relative pronoun.” The Revised Standard Version revises this to “whoever,” which is in turn modified in both NRSV and NRSVue to “everyone.” (Interestingly, both the New Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition translate the exact same Greek word as “whoever” in verse 15 and as “everyone” in verse 16.) Though less poetic and powerful, this latter is the most strictly faithful to the Greek word used here, pas. But the meaning is the same.
- M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 298.