The gospel lectionary reading for Lent 4 in Year B is John 3.14–22, the monologue ending of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, which includes perhaps the best-known verse in the New Testament at John 3.16. It is intimidating to talk about such a well-known passage—can we say anything new?—but also to deal with such a large theological subject as the love of God.
But there are some important things to note about the passage—not least that we appear to see a seamless transition from the speech of Jesus to the reflection of the gospel writer, in part demonstrated by the inclusion of reference to the later events of the resurrection and ascension. And although John 3.16 is well known, it is also mostly misread and misinterpreted, so there is plenty to say here as well!
Although our reading begins at verse 14, we need to look back a few verses to see the context; verse 14 isn’t half-way through a sentence, but it is half-way through an idea. The last reference to the conversation with Nicodemus comes in verses 9 and 10, where he and Jesus exchange questions. (‘Why does a Jew always answer a question with another question?’ ‘Tell me, why shouldn’t he?’) Nicodemus then recedes into the background, to reappear speaking tentatively for Jesus in John 7.50 before appearing to be one of his disciples who helps to anoint his body in John 19.39.
But verse 11 is puzzling. On the one hand, we have a characteristic saying of Jesus: ‘Amen, amen I say to you…’ but it is followed by a statement on behalf of a group: ‘we speak of what we know and we testify but you (plural) do not receive our testimony’. Testimony is primarily that which is borne by Jesus’ followers about the life and teaching of Jesus (though Jesus does talk about himself as a witness in John 5.31), and the language here sounds very much like those Jews who follow Jesus talking to the Jews who rejected him. So it appears as though the gospel author is integrating his own reflection with the words of Jesus, and as the passage goes on, commentary seems to take over. In the remainder of the text, Jesus is referred to in the third person as the Son of Man, and the language has parallels with the prologue in chapter 1.
In John Goldingay’s second volume on reading and interpreting the Bible, Models for the Interpretation of Scripture, he explores the four different ways in which the four gospels do their theological work: Mark by his driving narrative; Matthew by his organisation and application of the teaching of Jesus; John by his addition of authorial comment; and Luke by his adding to his gospel the account of the continued ministry of Jesus in the early church (pp 73–76).
[In the Fourth Gospel] the point of the story is driven home by direct teaching material attached to the story to bring out its theological and ethical implications (p 75).
Critical scholarship has, in the past, assumed that the early Christian communities were projecting their concerns back into the gospel narratives—but if so, they did not do a very good job, since key concerns (such as the challenges of the Gentile mission) were left only obliquely addressed, and key features of the narrative (such as Jesus’ use of ‘Son of Man’) were not obviously taken up. The gospel author isn’t here making up Jesus’ teaching, but retelling it in a way that brings out its significance—just as any good preacher or teacher will do.
A second feature complements this insight. We saw last week that there is explicit reference to the disciples ‘re-membering’, putting together the story of Jesus with the benefit of hindsight. We can see the same happening implicitly with the references to the Son of Man ‘ascending’ in John 3.13. The language here is similar to that of Paul in Eph 4.7 in his use of Ps 68: Jesus has ascended and so can send spiritual gifts. Looking through the Fourth Gospel, there are several times when the Son of Man language is associated with ‘ascending’—in the encounter with Nathanael in John 1.51, and in John 6.62 ‘if you see the Son of Man ascended to the place he was before’. This all points to the meaning of ‘lifted up’ in John 3.14: it is not just his being ‘lifted up’ on the cross, but also includes his resurrection and ascension—even though the ascension is not included in the events narrated, it is referred to as a theological theme. As we have seen in previous weeks, in Mark (along with the other Synoptics) Jesus talks of himself as Son of Man to point to his humanity, his humiliation in death, and his exaltation to the right hand of the Father, using the language of ‘the coming of the Son of Man’ from Dan 7.13, where the ‘coming’ is from the earth to the throne of God, not the other way around. The Fourth Gospel does not use this language explicitly, but appears to understand the term in the same way.
The first verse of our reading proper, John 3.14, draws on a very brief and otherwise insignificant event in the desert wanderings. Num 21.4–9 offers a concise account: the people are impatient at a detour in the journey; they complain against God and Moses; God sends ‘fiery’ (venomous) serpents amongst the people, who die when bitten; the people repent and ask Moses to intercede; God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole; and all who look on it are forgiven and healed.
Some commentators suggest that there might be a further allusion to the figure of the serpent in the garden of Eden, but if that is the case, the allusion is both odd and obscure, since the ‘lifting up’ of Jesus is offered as a parallel to the mounting of the serpent on the pole, so Jesus is here taking the place of the serpent.
The pole offers an obvious parallel to Jesus’ being nailed to the cross, with its crossbeam fixed to an upright pole. The gospel here uses ‘lifted up’, a term which occurs nowhere in Numbers 21, and most usually means ‘to exalt’ (as in the song ‘Lord, I lift your name up high…’). Here we have the start of a long Johannine double meaning and paradox: though being hoisted on a cross is the most shameful thing possible in the first century world, because it expresses God’s love and provides the means of salvation, this giving of himself becomes the glory of Jesus and the revelation of the glory of God.
In the wilderness, the lifted serpent becomes the means of salvation from God’s judgement, the forgiveness of sins, and healing from deathly poison. The gospel is surely pointing to all these in the cross of Jesus. Those who ‘look to’ the bronze serpent will live; those who ‘look to’ Jesus in trust and faith will receive eternal life. The normal sense of ‘eternal’ (aionios) in other literature is ‘unending’, but here is must include the sense of ‘life of the age [to come]’. In contrast to the other gospels, the Fourth Gospel has a very ‘realised’ sense of eschatology, in which the certain events of the future (both life and judgement) project forward into the present and make sense of world as it is.
There is one curious feature of the Numbers 21 story: though the Hebrew talks of the serpent being fixed to a pole, the Greek version of the OT (Septuagint, LXX) uses the language of being fixed to ‘a sign’ (semeion Num 21.9). This is what might have suggested the parallel, and again points to Jesus’ death and resurrection as the eighth ‘sign’ in the gospel to which the other seven point.
And so we come to the pivotal verse in this passage—and the one that is widely misread. ‘God so loved the world’ in contemporary English naturally has the sense ‘God loved the world so much…’ that he sent Jesus. But we are locked into a tradition from 1611 and the Authorized Version, when this phrase meant something different: in this way God loved the world. The change in word order in the ‘Comfortable words’ of the Book of Common Prayer make this clear:
So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. St. John 3.16
And this is what the text says. The adjective houtos means ‘this’, and the related adverb, found here, means ‘thusly’ or ‘in this way’, something a number of modern translations now correctly point to. But it is a risky thing to challenge a tradition! This is the way that God loves the world—not merely by speaking, no longer merely by offering the ‘sign’ of the serpent, but by bringing his tabernacle presence amongst us in the person of Jesus, who not only is the temple presence of the holy God, but remarkably offers himself up for us as a costly sacrifice.
The ‘world’ that God loves is the world that was made through him (John 1.10) but it has not recognised or received him, and so it is also (as the gospel narrative unfolds) the world that ‘hates’ Jesus and will also therefore ‘hate’ those who bear testimony to Jesus (John 15.18). Here is the paradox of God’s generous love: it comes as a gift, but a gift must be received. If I see someone drowning in a river, and I reach out my hand, then that hand must be grasped if the salvation I offer is to be received.
There is a temptation to make something of the vocabulary of ‘love’, here the verb agapao related to the noun agape. But this gospel actually uses the term interchangeably with another ‘love’ word phileo. In fact, the exposition of that love—a costly gift of Jesus—is sufficient for our understanding. Older versions describe Jesus as ‘the only begotten son’, a term which has found its way into the creeds. But the emphasis here is not on the metaphysical relationship between the Son and the Father, but the uniqueness of the Son. Although (John 1.12) can become children of God, Jesus remains unique—a one-of-a-kind Son, offered for us.
The continuing narrative does not proceed in a linear, logical, way, but circles around, repeating and rehearsing what has been said before, but unfolding the consequences as it does so. Thus the ‘For God’ in John 3.16 is parallel with ‘For God’ in John 3.17. The purpose and intention behind God’s sending of Jesus was not condemnation but salvation—a reiteration in parallel terms of the stark contrast between ‘perishing’ and ‘having eternal life’. The language of ‘condemnation’ is similar to that used by Paul in Romans 8.1: ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’.
But a further reiteration opens up the paradox between being saved and lost, being free from condemnation and facing judgement. If Jesus represents God’s offer of life, then those who reject him are rejecting that life. I wonder here is the gospel author is reflecting on the puzzles he and his community now face, puzzles that remain with us: if Jesus was God’s anointed son, why have some Jews accepted him and recognised him, and others haven’t? More broadly, if Jesus is the source of life, a generous gift from God, why do not all receive him? And ultimately, if the coming of Jesus demonstrates the extent of God’s love, how do we make sense of the language of judgement?
To answer these questions, the gospel once more reaches for the metaphor of light that it began with in John 1.4. Light brings ‘judgement’ in two ways. First, there is plenty that you can hide away in the darkness, which people will not see or realise—until you shine a light on it when all is revealed. This is in intention of bringing light—to show what is true, and reveal what has been hidden—and this is one aspect of Jesus’ ministry in this gospel.
Secondly, there is a rather different way in which light brings judgement. As the still image at the top nicely illustrates, when you light a candle, not only does it illuminate, but it also casts shadows. Those who turn from the light will remain in darkness; it is not the intention of the light-bringing to create darkness, but it is an inevitable consequence. In this way, light both reveals and divides—revealing what is already there, and creating a division between that which is lit and that which remains in darkness. These become key themes in the unfolding narrative of the gospel.
Finally, the text offers a two-way relationship between the light of Jesus and the darkness and light of our lives. On the one hand, as we come to Jesus we learn to live in the light. On other other, if we are concerned about light and truth, then we will be drawn to him.
William Temple ends his reflection (Readings in St John’s Gospel p 49) on the centre of this passage:
This great saying states the mode of his sovereignty, and therefore also the quality of his kingdom. The throne of that kingdom in this world is a cross, and its crown is made of thorns. It is this revolutionary disclosure which gives grounds for the sharp dismissal of diplomatic compliments. The whole conception of the kingdom is so novel that only those who are ready to make a new start can even see it, let alone enter it.
And the challenge this passage presents us with is: will we have this king to reign over us?