This week we are going to talk about John 3:16 and surrounding verses. This may be the most well-known passage in scripture. It is oft quoted, frequently cited, and is well known within the general public. Like the contextual realities of the passage itself, which emerge from the darkness bearing Nicodemus to Jesus’ door; this passage is much more ambiguous than it seems (or perhaps needs to be).
I will begin by saying this: how can God love the world so much and all who are in it that eternal life becomes conditional on our acceptance of anything? Why does perishing enter the picture at all? If God is who God is and God’s love is as great as has been presented, why would God need anything from humanity? Were we created only to give God something in return? Why create people who might disappoint you and inevitably be condemned to hell because you didn’t get the love you thought you deserved? There’s something about this seems self-serving and doesn’t sound right. God is saying, “I love humanity so much, I’m sacrificing my son in human form for you, and I will kill those of you who don’t accept this premise.” According to the traditional interpretation, belief is the key to not perishing but love remains the essence of existence. I exist because I’m loved but because I have not believed in the right way and in the person who loves me, I will perish. This is this the madness of John 3:16. You can’t tell me God loves me unconditionally, doesn’t want to send me to hell, and yet those things only apply to my life unless I subscribe to a set of beliefs which didn’t fully exist at the time John’s gospel was written.
John’s gospel was penned some 60-65 years after the death of Jesus. Most of the people who lived through these experiences were dead. Many had recorded their stories with other gospel writers earlier in the first century. This story, of a well-heeled Pharisees named Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the dead of night, appears only in John’s gospel. What was John’s purpose for sharing such a story? It’s certainly not a well-formed mature picture of the Christian life. As a guide to understanding the cross and salvation, it falls woefully short. Only some 200-300 years later, with the development of church councils and creeds, did the church work out a clearer understanding of how it understood Jesus’ work of salvation on the cross. So why allow such undue emphasis on a scripture passage which reflects more about how John viewed Jesus and most likely doesn’t reflect a single word which Jesus uttered?
Control. The church likes to be in control. On those rare occasions we stop arguing among ourselves we start telling everyone else how to live. If we control Jesus’ words we attempt to retain power over how people lead their lives. If we can tell the world in a simplistic formula, “say this and you’ll get into heaven”, we’ll increase our numbers and our ability to manipulate people. It’s that simple. John 3:16 has become a “gimmick” verse. You cart it out at ball games and revivals. It’s the kind of verse which is guaranteed to get emotional responses. God cannot be reduced to a formula. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection aren’t slogan verses designed to draw people to tear filled altar calls.
Jesus came so that we may know God’s love in a way that couldn’t be reduced to formulaic gimmicks, slogans, or one stop shopping Christianity. Jesus came to make the complicated harder, the clear muddy, and the well-defined religion of the past a thing of the past.