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John 3:16


Jesus said, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

JOHN 3:14-21

Sermon: The Rev. Dr. Maryann Amor

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.

John 3:16 is a part of our world unlike other Bible passages…let me show you a few examples: John 3:16, the clothing line; John 3:16, the Malaysian restaurant; John 3:16 on the faces of athletes and sports fans; and, of course, John 3:16 on the signs of street preachers.

The popularity of John 3:16 stems from the fact that many can quote it by heart, often treating it as the Gospel in a nutshell…in other words, don’t bother with the rest of the Gospels, as long as you know John 3:16 you know it all. As long as you believe in Jesus, as the one true saviour, the only way to God, you are set…if you don’t do this, aren’t Christian, you will face eternal damnation.

Now the problem with this way of interpreting John 3:16 is that it misses the entire point of the passage. It takes the one verse out of the Bible, ignoring everything else. When this happens, we miss what Jesus is saying and the depth of what he is offering to the world as a whole.

The Gospel of John is characterized by dualisms, light/dark, love/hate, save/condemn. It is extremely complex with the author repeating words and phrases, creating a layered, rich tapestry of language and images that some scholars think is meant for those who have secret knowledge to interpret the text.

John 3:16 fits within the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee, leader of the Jews, who comes to Jesus at night…this is symbolic, nighttime, darkness, this is a man who, even though he is in a leadership role, lacks knowledge. He says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that you do, except if God is with him.” These words prompt Jesus to push Nicodemus’ simplistic understanding of who he is…Jesus speaks about people being born of the spirit, then he speaks about himself using the words of John 3:16. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he is more than just a teacher, sent from God…he is the word of God, incarnate, enfleshed, abiding among humanity to give it eternal life.

Nicodemus, like so many people, lives in darkness because he doesn’t fully understand Jesus. The point of John 3:16 within the context of the Gospel is to address this lack of knowledge. The message is that God doesn’t stand apart from humanity, as so many might imagine…God doesn’t live up on high, but God loves us so much that God comes to us physically to abide with us, as the word made flesh. And this gift has been sent to the whole world.

While many interpret John 3:16 as condemning anyone who isn’t Christian, at its core the passage suggests that God’s love is so much bigger than whether one is Christian or not. Mary MacLeod Bethune, a civil rights activist writes, “With [the words of John 3:16] the scales fell from my eyes and the light came flooding in. My sense of inferiority, my fear of handicaps, dropped away. [Everyone,] it said…It means that I, a humble Negro girl, had just as much chance as anybody in the sight and love of God. These words stored up a battery of faith and confidence and determination in my heart, which has not failed me to this day.”

In the Gospels, Jesus dines with prostitutes and tax collectors, he interacts with the Samaritan woman, he heals the unclean…Jesus also offers teachings that are not limited to one group, for example, “that life was the light for all people”. He calls people to live for others, “I have given you an example. You should do as I have done for you; Here is my command. Love one another.”

When John 3:16 is seen as a part of the larger Gospel, when it is read not in isolation but with everything else, it is not saying that only Christians get eternal life, instead, Jesus is saying that both our and Nicodemus’ understanding of God is incomplete, dark. The truth, the light, is that God so loved the world that God came to earth to physically be present with humanity, that God so loved the world that not a single person will find themselves unacceptable to God or apart from God.

Following Bethune, this interpretation is saying that every human being is worthy…every ethnic group; those of any or no faith at all; people of every colour and every race; straight, LGBTQ+; those belonging to any and all political parties. Everyone is loved, blessed, and saved in God’s eyes.

We are called to go out and live this truth, to live as people who know that God loves all of us so much that God has come to us, God is here with us, nobody is alone in suffering, nobody is left to endure the difficulties of being human by themselves…but God abides with us, with all of us. This is the message of our faith that we remember when we witness the baby Jesus in the manger and that we will see again at Easter when his broken body is resurrected. God in human form, God with us, in the filth of a manger, in the pain of childbirth, in death on a cross, in resurrection, in eternal life.

This image is so much bigger than the things that separate us…this image of God is so loving and powerful that it unites humanity. Can we believe this truth and live it each day of our lives, can it shape how we are as a church family and our ministries to our neighbours, to those different than us, to strangers? Can everything we do be focused on helping others to see that God loves them and is here, physically present in the world around us? That nobody will ever truly perish, but we have eternal life, because God is such a deep source of love and goodness? John 3:16 is not about wearing the hoodie, eating Malaysian food, or holding up a sign…it is not about eternal life for some, damnation for others, but it is simply about love. So let us go out and live this truth.


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