Second Sunday in Lent

Love is a decision of the will

stairs in the jungle, leading to haze
Photo by Sebin Thomas on Unsplash

March 5, 2023

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Commentary on John 3:1-17

John 3:16 is one of the most beloved texts in the Bible, but is typically used without reference to its historical, literary contexts. The lectionary calls the congregation’s attention to those contexts by placing John 3:16 in its context in the revelatory encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. The lectionary interrupts the full context, however, by omitting John 1:18-21, a passage that raises serious theological questions about John 3:16,

Whereas Matthew subscribes to apocalyptic Judaism, John leans towards a fusion of Judaism with themes from Greek philosophy influenced by Platonism, such as found in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, an approximate contemporary of Jesus. From this perspective, John sees the world as a two-story universe.

  • The “world” is the lower story, a sphere of hate, darkness, falsehood, slavery, and scarcity. The “world” for John is thus not just the creation, teeming with humankind, animals and other natura but is a sphere of existence that lives in pain with only partial knowledge of God. Inhabitants of the world die. Furthermore, for John, many aspects of Judaism (and many Jews) belong to the “world.” Indeed, John’s synagogue had tensions with other synagogues similar to those of Matthew (see commentary on the First Sunday in Lent, February 26, 2023).
  • The upper story is heaven, centered around God. It is a sphere of life, light, truth, freedom and abundance. God reveals the possibility of heaven through Jesus. Eternal life is an essential quality of heaven.

Nicodemus’ arrival at night indicates that this ruler of the Jews is living in the shadow of the world. However, John portrays Nicodemus as being curious about Jesus, not understanding him. By including Nicodemus in the Gospel, John indicates that not all Jews are inherently imprisoned in the world. Nicodemus represents Jewish people who have introductory curiosity and even intuition about Jesus, but who need much more.

The Jesus of John gives Nicodemus—and the reader—the essential next step: “to be born from above.” Those entrapped in the world must receive the revelation that comes from heaven (John 3:3). According to 3:16, being born from above means believing in Jesus as the way to eternal life and heaven, a concept explained below. John offers the congregation a reason they can accept these things: Jesus is the only one who has been in heaven and has descended to the world (John 3:13-15).

John 3:16-17 offers a powerful theological rationale for why God sent Jesus into the world. God loves the world. Given the Johannine world view, this perspective is stunning. The attitudes and behaviors of the world are inimical to God. According to everyday logic, God should be angry with the world and punish it. Yet, God loves the world. For John, love includes a dimension of feeling but goes beyond to include actions for the good of the other and the community. Love is a decision of the will.

God loves the world, so God consequently acts for the good of the world. God’s action is to give Jesus. In Bible School in the 1950s we sang, “For God so loved the world, [God] gave [God’s] only [child],who died on Calvary’s tree, from sin to set me free.” But in the Fourth Gospel, God’s giving of Jesus refers not to the crucifixion alone but to the entire event of Jesus descending from heaven and revealing the way to eternal life. Those who believe in Jesus will inherit eternal life; that is, as long as they continue to be in the world they will live as a colony of heaven. They will experience qualities associated with heaven, such as life, love, truth, freedom and abundance even as they experience conflict with the world. At death they will follow Jesus from the world to heaven (John 14:1-7).

For John 3:18-21 then says plainly that those who do not believe in Jesus are already condemned. To be condemned is to continue to live in the prison of the world, and to die without hope of continued life. Those who do not believe in Jesus love the darkness (the world as defined above) more than they love the light (God, Jesus, and the possibility of heaven).

There is an important nuance to John’s use of the two-story universe and the experience of both salvation and condemnation that preachers often like. As we have implied, those who believe in Jesus experience eternal life in the midst of the world, living, as we have said, as a colony of heaven. As preachers often say, “You don’t have to die to experience heaven. You can experience it right now.” By contrast, those who do not believe in Jesus “are condemned already,” that is, their experience in the world is itself a mode of condemnation.

When approaching John 3:18-21, preachers today need to be careful not to project too many of our contemporary theological issues onto the ancient text. Nevertheless, many  Christians are troubled by John’s exclusivism. It moves against the deepest claim of John 3:16, namely that God loves the world. To condemn is hardly to act for the good of the other. Moreover, John’s viewpoint runs against the grain of contemporary inclusive theological urges to respect the validity of many religions and universal salvation. A side note: preachers should define universal salvation when speaking of it.

The preacher who ventures to critique the text is advised to do so with circumspection, taking into account three factors:

  1. John’s historical situation was radically different from that of today’s community. John’s congregation was a minority community struggling to survive against the challenges of the world. John evidently thought that strong rhetoric was needed to help the congregation maintain its identity and witness. Contemporary contexts and changes in theological perspective call for more inclusive rhetoric.
  2. Many people in congregations today continue to believe as John believed. The preacher should not announce that “John was wrong” in a flippant way. The preacher may need to do considerable pastoral and theological spadework with such folks.
  3. Nevertheless, the preacher can pick up the positive possibilities of the text by inviting the congregation to turn away from values and practices associated with the “world” and to turn towards those associated with heaven. Many individuals, communities, and cultures perceive the saving possibilities of life dimly and would welcome a little illumination for a life that more resembles the Johannine heaven.