Reconsidering John 3:16 (A Progressive Baptist's Interpretation)
In The Lord of the Rings there was one ring to rule them all. In the Bible if there is one verse to rule them all it is John 3:16. If one learned just one Bible verse in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School it was most likely this verse. We see it posted on billboards and held up at sporting events. The one time I could be a Bible thumper is when the camera view picks up the guy or gal in the stands behind home plate waving a sign with John 3:16. I would like to pound them over the head with it. There is no reason to give this verse exclusively to the conservatives. Progressives need to reclaim it, perhaps though in less dramatic style.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . .”
God so loved the world, says John, that God sent Jesus “not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:17). For the world to be saved is for the world to be healed of its many wounds and made whole. For the world to be saved is for the world to be liberated from all its injustices, inequities, and oppressions. For the world to be saved is for the world to be reconciled to God and one another from all its alienations, divisions, and polarizations. For the world to be saved is for the world to be regenerated and renewed, so that life emerges out of death. The image of new life (new wine, new birth, living water, bread from heaven, etc.) is the one the writer/community of John’s Gospel employed most often.
When this Gospel says that God gave his “only” Son there is no good reason to limit this to mean that Jesus is the only way one can encounter God and step into the flow of eternal life. The Greek word means something like “unique, one-of-a-kind” and speaks of the unique relationship Jesus had with God. John has already pointed out in his prologue that God has other children (1:12). In like manner, there is no need to conclude that Jesus is the only way one can encounter God, especially sense the true light that is incarnate in Jesus is the light that enlightens every person (1:9).
The revelation that has been made known in Jesus has certainly been the primary means through which I have discovered God’s power and presence, but not exclusively so. I have also encountered and discovered God’s power for life through my interaction with others – through words, actions, expressions, writings, and conversations. I have discovered God’s presence in the wonder and mystery of creation, and in common, ordinary everyday experiences. As a Jesus follower I filter all my experiences through the sacred story of Jesus, because Jesus is my primary source and medium for encountering God. But Jesus is not my only source or medium for experiencing God.
So we should not be surprised or skeptical of other people’s experience of God and participation in the life of God who live in other cultures or come out of other religious traditions and do not know the tradition of Jesus. God can speak through other mediators and means and we must learn to respect their experience and not reject their experience or claim that our experience is superior to theirs.
“so that everyone who believes in him . . .”
To believe in Jesus is first and foremost “to trust in Jesus.” There are different levels and degrees of trust. There is the trust students have in their teachers, patients have in their physicians, and children have in their parents. There is the trust between friends and between life partners. When John invites his readers to trust in Jesus he is calling for a complete, holistic, even radical kind of trust and surrender to Jesus and what he lived for and stood for.
The Johannine community experienced Jesus as the great breakthrough of the Divine into humanity. What he stood for was what God stood for. The values he embodied and taught were God’s values. To trust in Jesus was to trust in and be faithful to all that Jesus revealed to be of God. And the supreme value was love – which is why Jesus says in John’s Gospel: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35).
To believe in Jesus then is to make Jesus and what he stood for what we stand for. It is to make the values he lived by our values. This is what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord. When the first disciples confessed Jesus to be their Lord they were not professing belief in some metaphysical doctrine about Jesus’ divinity, they were professing that their first allegiance was to the God Jesus revealed and no longer to the empire and to the emperor who claimed to be lord (“son of God” and “God manifest” were titles claimed by the Roman emperor). No longer was their first allegiance to the values of the empire, but rather to the values of God’s kingdom (God’s will and way in the world). This is why the first disciples all embraced nonviolence as a way of life; they were convinced this was critical to who Jesus was and what he stood for.
Everyone has a god or gods – something they put their trust in and live for. It might be money or power or prestige or career or country or family – but everyone’s life centers on something. To trust in Jesus and make him Lord is to trust in what Jesus trusted and to make what he stood for and died for, what he valued and lived for central in our lives.
I think some Christians like to argue over doctrine about Jesus in order to avoid actually following Jesus and making his values their values. I think for some church-goers doctrine is a means of distraction, a kind of ploy to avoid having to take Jesus’ life, values, and teaching seriously.
“may not perish, but have eternal life.”
Eternal life is God’s kind of life. Those who share in eternal life share in God’s struggle with the death-dealing, violent, destructive, life-diminishing powers at work in the world by mediating and expressing life-giving powers like love, peace, faith, and hope.
Eternal life involves an endless cycle of giving and receiving. Brother David Steindl-Rast illustrates the life of blessing (eternal life) by observing the flow of the Jordan River. The Jordan flows down from Mount Hermon pouring out its blessings as if flows – life giving water for parched soil. Nowhere is the richness of life it brings more evident than by the Sea of Galilee. Its shores are a paradise of fields, orchards, and gardens. The water in the lake is clear, teeming with fish. From there the Jordan meanders down to another body of water, the Dead Sea. What a contrast! The water is so dense with salt, one floats in it. Its shores are barren. The water in the Dead Sea is not even fit for irrigation. It’s the same water that feeds the Sea of Galilee, but the Dead Sea has no outflow like the lake of Galilee. It just gathers in one place and stagnates. Brother David Steindl-Rast says that life and blessing that stops flowing becomes a curse. (Essential Writings, p. 54)
I was affiliated with a church once where the largest group was a Bible study group that met as a Sunday School class and usually through the week for some kind of special Bible study. The leaders of the church kept going to this group for help. We had some new, young families with children visiting, but not enough workers to help teach and care for them. The leaders went to this class and asked for help several times, but no response. They preferred to remain in their group. Most of the group were mostly dull, boring, and contrary. They wouldn’t hesitate to call the preacher out if he happened to say something or teach something that they thought was contrary to sound doctrine. They took in, but they didn’t give out. There was inflow, but no outflow.
Whenever we bless someone, whenever we offer encouragement or give of our time, presence, provision, or resources to enhance life, to make life better for someone – we are simply returning what has been given to us as a gift. Life hasn’t been bought or earned, it’s been given. It’s all grace and gift. I love the way Brother David Steindl-Rast says it in a prayer:
Giver of all good gifts, you give us space and time
This new day, in this place, is your gift.
Make me live gratefully.
This day is opportunity
To receive your blessing in a thousand forms
And to bless.
To listen to your word in all that I hear,
And to respond in obedience of heart.
To drink deeply from your life,
And to make others come alive.
By radiant smile, by cheerful answer,
And by a secret blessing.
(Essential Writings, p. 54)
This is the eternal life that John talks about in his Gospel. It’s the life of love, compassion, goodness, truth, and grace that we are invited to step into and participate in right now. It’s constantly evolving, expanding, and flowing into new places. Scientists tell that the universe is still expanding. When one part of the universe dies, another part is just beginning. The life that God is, that fills everything, “in whom we live, move, and have our being” (as Paul says in Acts 17) cannot be contained, it’s still emerging, growing, becoming. When we step into the flow of this divine life our souls become more, we grow, we expand in our capacity for love and kindness and goodness, we become more courageous and active in the pursuit of justice and peace, our vision for the planet widens and deepens.
(This post was originally published at Baptist News Global).