Reading: John 3:16-21
Last week, I said it was good that we stopped reading before we got to John 3:16, because otherwise we’d be talking about that passage and miss the person of Nicodemus, and Nicodemus deserves a little bit of attention — so this week we are going over what Jesus said to Nicodemus starting with John 3:16, and finishing with 3:21. John 3:16, and to a lesser extent the following verses, are some of the most memorized passages of scripture for a reason — these words are rich in meaning, and because of this we will take this slowly and reflect on each phrase.
For God so loved the World
Our reading starts with a declaration that God so loved the world, then it tells what God did. Now, we all know that great love isn’t defined by a single grand gesture, but we do have to admit that the incarnation is a grand gesture.
Lets think about ways that God shows love for us: Scripture tells us that God planted a garden for our first parents and placed them there with all that they needed. When they could no longer live in the garden, God clothed them. God gathered communities and gave the Law and Prophets to teach how to live together in a just society.
He gave his only Begotten Son
Of course, there was a grand gesture. My Greek professor told us that the word μονογενής means unique or one of a kind. Chrysostom points out that God had a great many angels at hand, and could have sent a servant instead of the Divine Son. God didn’t send angels but someone unique; someone who had the power to show us who God was, and someone who had the power to save us.
That any who believe might be saved
When we read that Christ came to save those who believe, one question that comes to mind is “why do we need saved?” Sometimes it is not obviously clear what we need saved from. Scripture speaks of Christ saving us from our sins, many preachers I’ve heard have talked about Christ saving us from the consequences of our sins. Augustine tells us that Jesus came to heal the sick, and thus salvation is curative. Augustine was talking about the sickness of sin, but reading the gospels we know that Jesus did save people from physical illness as well.
The older I get, the more I realize that we need saved from many things. If we look at Jesus talking with Nicodemus and we think about what Nicodemus needed saved from, we see that it is not at all simple. Judea, and the world in general needed saved from the attitudes of Rome that made life cheap. Nicodemus was seeking salvation from corruption in his local government.
I know the world I live in needs healing and salvation. Some of the relationships I am in need healing and salvation. I need saved and the world that I observe needs saved. Jesus came for our salvation, and I believe this is much bigger than one little thing. I really believe that salvation is not only about eternity, but what we need today.
Did not send to condemn
It is interesting that John talks about Jesus not coming to condemn the world, because while Jesus forgives much, Jesus also condemns quite a few people and things. In John’s gospel, Jesus condemns the merchants in the temple and he calls the Pharisees liars, and children of the Devil. It is clear that he is willing to condemn, though the purpose is not condemnation.
Sent so the world might be saved
Remember how I said that I believe that Jesus came to save the world that we live in too? I observed that those that Jesus condemned tended to be the people in power. Jesus condemned the religious leaders, the wealthy, and the government officials. Jesus was kind to the marginalized instead of pointing out all the ways that their behaviors made their own positions worse.
I believe that Jesus was harsh with the people who had power because He wanted to offer needed salvation to the world. The people of Judea didn’t only need Rome to be less oppressive, they needed their own leaders to lead a better society. Sometimes condemnation isn’t about punishment, or revenge, but about protecting other people.
Those who believe are not condemned. Those who do not believe are already condemned
John Chrysostom writes:
If He “came not to judge the world,” how is “he that believes not judged already,” if the time of “judgment” has not yet arrived? He either means this, that the very fact of disbelieving without repentance is a punishment, (for to be without the light, contains in itself a very severe punishment,) or he announces beforehand what shall be. For as the murderer, though he be not as yet condemned by the decision of the judge, is still condemned by the nature of the thing, so is it with the unbeliever.
This is the Judgment
The Light has come into the world
This passage should remind us of the first chapter of John’s Gospel where it specifically tells us that the Word that Became flesh is Light that shines throughout the world and gives light to the whole world. One thing that Light does is that it shows everything that is hidden in darkness — so there is a reason that we might be afraid of the light, we don’t want to see what the light will show.
The people loved darkness rather than light
Fear of what the light might expose is one thing that would cause us to love the darkness. One thing that I’ve learned is that sometimes people don’t want the Light, because they just don’t want to know. I never understood why, but I’ve learned that people would rather live with corruption, suffering and injustice than to know about it and see it corrected.
Part of Jesus’ ministry was to shine light in a way that exposed the injustice of those who society trusted to bring justice to the community. Think of how shocking it would have been for people to learn about corruption in the party that was supposed to root out corruption. Imagine how shocking it would be to learn that those who insisted on the letter of the law ignored its spirit in their own lives. Sometimes when we see what the Light exposes, it is easy to become disillusioned, and we wish we didn’t know any more. One does not have to have anything to hide in order to wish things would stay hidden.
Those who do evil
Hate the light.
While a good person might love the darkness because it is too uncomfortable to see what the light exposes, the evil person really does have something to hide. If you’ve got something to hide that the light will expose, you have a real reason to hate the light. They have a real reason to avoid the light.
They do not come to the Light
They do not come into the Light because what they want to hidden will be exposed. They are already condemned for both reasons Chrysostom mentions: Both because they live in darkness, which is bad enough in itself, and because they face condemnation in the future when all things are brought to like whether we like it or not.
Those who do what is True
Come to the light.
As I said before, some hate the light because they are evil, and some love the darkness because it is too difficult to look at what the light exposes. Jesus is the Light that comes into the world, and that can be frightening; but those of us who come to Jesus for Salvation must come into the light.
The light shows that their deeds come from God.
The good news is the light exposes everything that is hidden by the darkness, both what is good and what is bad. The light exposes both greed and generosity; it exposes both hatred and love. It exposes both what is good and what is evil. Those who love the Light, and the Truth will also be exposed.
I find it remarkable that the biggest, grandest gesture of God’s love is to come into the world as Light and Truth. I find it remarkable, because it is something that the world desperately needs, but it is a gift that few of us ask for. It is so easy for us to lie to ourselves, close our eyes to the Truth, and to love the darkness. Our culture calls us to be independent, and if we have to be independent it is shameful for us to admit that we need saved from anything.
When we are brought into the light, we see that we need saved from so much; we need saved from ourselves, and we need saved from the sin that is so common in our society. As frightening as it is to see things brought into the Light, this really is the first step for things to get better; 12 step programs get it right when they say that the first step is admitting we have a problem.
If Jesus only showed us the Truth, and left us to deal with it ourselves, we wouldn’t have much hope. Knowing that we need saved without a way to gain salvation is not good news. The good news is that Jesus came into the world to live in the world so that the world, through Him might be saved. I believe Jesus saves us by example, by connecting the Human with the Divine, through the forgiveness of Sin, by winning those battles that we are unable to fight ourselves and by walking with us throughout our lives. Jesus came to show us what we needed, be what we need, and then to be with us every step of the way. This is good news, that “God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him might be saved.”