Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
March 18, 2012
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
We’ve all heard it countless times before. We’ve heard it read. We’ve heard it sung. We’ve seen the citation held up on signs in football stadiums. It’s often called the most famous verse in the Bible. Many of us, I suspect, can recite it from memory, probably in its King James version. It’s John 3:16, which in the NRSV translation we heard reads:. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” On the one hand it’s so familiar to most Christians that it’s almost trite. On the other hand it is for many Christians a concise summary of the entire Christian faith. John 3:16 is so familiar that I’m afraid most Christians who hear it never stop to think about what it really means. Most of us don’t take the time to delve into the verse to discover its depth and its different shades of meaning. Beyond that, for many of us in the more progressive Christian churches we dismiss John 3:16 because it has become so associated with conservative, evangelical Christianity that we think that the only meaning it can have is one we don’t much like, namely, that if you believe in Jesus you’ll go to heaven, and if you don’t believe in Jesus you won’t. I actually think that we make a mistake when we dismiss John 3:16 or react negatively to what we think it means. You see, John 3:16 is actually one of the most linguistically and theologically complex verses in the New Testament. It is also one with immense power and spiritual potential. So let’s take a closer look at it and see if maybe John 3:16 doesn’t turn out to be worth our while after all.
So far from being simple, John 3:16 makes at least five complex theological assertions. First, God loved the world. Second, there is someone called God’s only Son. Third, God “gave” the world that Son. Fourth, God did that to accomplish something for those who believe in God’s only Son. Fifth, what God sought to accomplish for those who believe in God’s only Son was that they should not die but have something called eternal life. There is immense meaning in every one of these assertions, but today I want to look briefly at only three of them, the terms “gave,” “believe in him,” and “eternal life.” They are packed with meaning, and they are often badly misunderstood.
For starters then, what does John mean when he says God “gave” God’s only Son to the world? In my experience most people understand “gave” here to mean “gave to be crucified.” That meaning is certainly present in John, but is that all that “gave” means here? I don’t think so. After all, being crucified wasn’t all Jesus did. He also healed, and he also taught. If all God gave him to the world to do was die, then why did he bother with his ministry in the first place? Why didn’t he just appear, then promptly get crucified? But of course that’s not what happened. So I think that we have to understand God “giving” the world Jesus to refer to everything we know about Jesus, not just to his being crucified. What he taught and how he lived are at least as important as that he was crucified.
Then there’s “believe in him.” The Greek word that usually gets translated as “believe” doesn’t actually mean what most people today take “believe” to mean. As Marcus Borg and others point out, today we mostly take “believe” to mean something like “give intellectual assent to the truth of some alleged fact.” When we say we believe something to be true we usually mean that we think that it is true.
That, however, is not what that Greek word that gets translated as “believe” means. It means something more like “trust in” or “rely on.” To use a line from Borg, it means what we mean when we say to a person “I believe in you” more than when we say “I believe you.” The Gospel of John may intend to say here “whoever takes what Jesus says about himself in the Gospel of John to be true,” although some scholars argue that that isn’t actually what John means. Yet the word used here doesn’t really mean that, or at least it doesn’t mean only that. We could just as correctly, or more correctly, translate this part of John 3:16 as “whoever trusts in him,” or “whoever relies on him.”
Then there’s the last phrase in John 3:16, “eternal life,” the thing we’re supposed to get from believing in Jesus. “Eternal life” is a key concept in John. It appears in the Gospel of John 17 times but only 8 times in the other three Gospels combined. John’s phrase “eternal life” is usually badly misunderstood. We mostly take it to mean live forever in heaven after we die. But John at one point actually tells us what he means by “eternal life,” and it’s not live forever in heaven after we die. At John 17:3 John has Jesus say in a prayer: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Notice: John’s Jesus doesn’t say “and this is how you get eternal life, by knowing God and Jesus.” He says “this is eternal life.” When we use John’s own definition of eternal life the last part of John 3:16 reads “should not perish but should know the one true God and Jesus Christ whom that God sent into the world.”
Are you starting to get the idea that there’s more to John 3:16 than meets the ear? I hope so, because I am convinced that there is. Taken together, the meanings of some of the key phrases in that verse that we have uncovered here make the verse read: “God sent God’s Son into the world in Jesus to preach God’s truth, to die a human death, and to rise again. God did that because God so loves the world, and God did it so that everyone who trusts that Jesus taught the word of God and lived the way of God with the authority of God’s Son will have true, abundant life in the knowledge of God’s true nature, God’s will, and God’s ways.” That’s not as catchy as the usual translations perhaps, but I am convinced that it conveys the meaning of the verse far better than any mere translation.
My friends, that meaning of John 3:16 is very good news indeed. That meaning of John 3:16 opens that verse up to us in a way makes it truly life giving. It points us not only to Jesus’ death as having meaning, although his death certainly does have great meaning. It points to Jesus’ teaching, the teaching that leads us to abundant life lived in the ways and knowledge of God. It doesn’t require us to give intellectual assent to any theological propositions about Jesus. We may do that as well, but in this understanding “believe” is about trust. It is about our trusting that the God we know in and through Jesus Christ is with us always and will never fail us. This understanding makes faith in Jesus Christ about so much more than going to heaven when we die. It doesn’t say that we don’t go to heaven when we die of course, but this understanding of John 3:16 leads us to eternal life here and now, in this life. It leads us to life in the knowledge of the one true God whom we know in Jesus Christ.
This understanding of John 3:16 isn’t about what we think, and it isn’t about going to heaven when we die. It is about how we find the abundant life that John’s Jesus also says he came to bring us. John 10:10 We find that abundant life by trusting Jesus not merely thinking the right things about him. We find that abundant life by following Jesus, not by merely accepting traditional doctrines about him. We find that abundant life in living the life of the Kingdom of God, that teaching about God’s will and way that God “gave” us Jesus to teach us and to show us.
So, does John 3:16 mean that we have to think the right things in order to be saved? That’s what most Christians probably think it means. It may be what you thought it means. And it’s not that what we think about God and about Jesus isn’t important. It is, but the life of Christian faith is so much more than that. In this understanding John 3:16 is about that more. It is about life, this life and not so much the next one. With this understanding of John 3:16 it can be for us the foundational Bible text that it is for so many Christians, but with a different meaning. A meaning that brings life, abundant life in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.