One of my early childhood Sunday school memory verses was John 3:16, which I memorised both in my home language Telugu and in the KJV English. Perhaps that verse was part of a common curriculum for all those attending Sunday schools, for I remember my Sunday school teachers explaining how important this verse is in the life of Christian faith, explaining that we are all saved because we are Christians. I also remember that this verse was displayed on placards at international sporting events in bold letters “John 3:16.” Later in my adult life, I did come to know that there was one Rollen Stewart in the US, who went to some major events to be spotted by Television broadcasters with a rainbow wig and a T-shirt emblazoned with a slightly cryptic message: “John 3:16.” He was spotted at NBA finals, at Moscow Olympics and was also told to be at the Royal wedding, where he was seen dancing just underneath the balcony where Princess Diana and Prince Charles stood in 1981. For Stewart his television presence with “John 3:16” T-shirt was a way of ‘spreading’ the gospel. Two years back, when driving on the highways in the US, I found huge billboards with a signage of “John 3:16” on it, for no one can pass by without being captured by the sight of that billboard.
I was wondering what would have been the purpose of displaying John 3:16? To my surprise I have seen Christians in my home town in India carrying a placard with “John 3:16” on their evangelistic gospel walk in the town called “March for Jesus.” Even in the UK, in Manchester Piccadilly, I have spotted a guy walking with a placard with a similar signage of “John 3:16” shouting out loud that ‘Jesus saves.’ To put it in a broader theological frame, what does Bible and Bible verses mean in a non-Biblical world today? Is it meant for Christians to go and read that verse to know that since they believed in Christ they are saved, while the rest are perishing? For people who are not familiar that this is a verse taken from the Bible, in a secular Western context and in a multi-faith Indian context, what does “John 3:16” signage mean and what impact does it make on them? What is the message of John 3:16 for us today?
On this fourth Sunday in Lent, the prescribed lectionary gospel reading is from John 3:14-20, which gives a context to this often-quoted John 3:16 verse, and it will be helpful for us to reflect on it. This verse is part of Jesus’ late-night conversation with an old Jewish Rabbi Nicodemus, explaining about the importance of being ‘born again’, which is ‘born from above’ and how Spirt of God leads people towards that experience. Let me bring that verse up again for our reflection here:
“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.”
One of the problems that we have seen in the history of interpreting this verse has been that there has been an over-emphasis on the later part of this verse, where time and again it was referred to “whoever believes in him (Jesus) may not perish but will have eternal life,” privileging the strength on and of the believer, commanding power to the individual self and enjoying the gift of eternal life based on their choice. In which process, the emphasis on “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son” got a backbench leading to an extent of diminishing the strength in the grace of God wo loves the world unconditionally. All those who walk with this placard or those who installed the huge billboards of “John 3:16” are trying to project the love of God for this world based on people’s decisions, undermining the gracious unconditional love of God in Jesus to this world, and are portraying a narrow vision of God confined to the options of ‘either/or’ or ‘neither/nor’, not realising that God in Jesus is a God of all and for all, who has come not to condemn the world but to save the world (John 3:17). The other thing about this verse is about ‘believing’ which many put the emphasis on ‘believing’ as human act, not recognising that ‘belief’/ ‘faith’ is a gift and a fruit of the Spirit to this world. And the final thing about this verse is the emphasis on ‘eternal life’ as a reward of such believing, which many think it is about ‘life after death’ not recognising that when Jesus was speaking eternal life in John’s gospel it was all about life here and now.
Who is this God who so loved the world that he is able to give his son, send his son to save this world, offering belief/faith as a gift and granting eternal life to the world? The God of John 3:16 is a God who is love and all this God knows is to love, give, send, and save everyone in this world. This verse invites us to celebrate the God in Jesus who is an embodiment of love and grace, who has come into this world to save, by risking his own life, granting eternal life in the now, for the cause of the Kingdom of God here on the earth. Allow me to share three things from this God of love:
1. The Area of Love:
Where did God of love demonstrate his love? ‘For God so loved the world…’ The world with all its fragility was found by God as the recipient of God’s love. God loved this material world, the cosmos, with all its vulnerabilities and wounds. God not just loved the world, but God loved it in its superlative degree, ‘so loved’, loved it to the moon and back. The emphasis on ‘so’ is important, for God in Jesus did not love this world half-heartedly, or partially or temporarily, but loved this world ‘so much.’ The strength is in the love of God for this world. God did not ‘so love the’ world because of this world’s perfection, but despite all the imperfections God in Jesus loved this world, demonstrating to this world that the length and breadth of God’s love is beyond measure, unrestricted, unrestrained, unbound, unconditional, unimagined and even unexplained in human words.
2. The Act of Love:
The act of love for this underserving world is exhibited by sending his son and giving his son to this world. Love is all about giving, with no conditions apply, giving everything including life for the cause of saving this world. In John 3:14, Jesus gives a clue to understand the act of love “that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” The act of love for this world is in Jesus being with the world, identifying with the human flesh and being lifted up on the Cross for the cause of standing up for the Kingdom of God. To that extent of dying a public criminal death on the Cross, that this God in Jesus loves this world. There is no greater love than a friend dying for the other, and Jesus on the Cross did it and demonstrated it, inviting all those believing and following him to love the others to that extent. John 3:16 comes to life in correlation to I John 3:16, where John writes, “we know love by this, that he laid his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” The act of love that Jesus showed to this world becomes meaningful, when the followers of Christ similar to Jesus lay down their lives for one another, and not in holding a placard of John 3:16.
3. The Aim of Love:
Why is this God in Jesus so loving this world? The aim is to save this world and to grant eternal life. The aim of God in Jesus coming into this world is not to condemn people on any count but to save them at any cost. Salvation and eternal life offered as gifts by God in Jesus is not about ‘other-worldly’ stuff, but is about transforming the lives of people, communities and the entire world, for it is to establish love and give life a chance to love all of God’s creation. The aim of God in Jesus so loving this world is not about condemnation and perishing, rather is about ‘new creation’ is about ‘new heaven and new earth,’ is about celebrating life over death and love over hate. Eternal life is all about eternal love, where love transcends all boundaries, identities, limits and barriers. Believing in Jesus is about demonstrating such a love to all of the creation today, where we are called to give up our power and privilege. Believing in Jesus is about creating a sense of belonging in this world that we are all being loved by God, and its God’ love that offers us grace to love God and love one another. Only then John 3:16 comes alive in our context for our times today.
On this fourth Sunday of Lent, which is observed as Mothering Sunday in the UK, the message is clear and loud, that we are called to celebrate God in Jesus’ unconditional and unrestricted love for this world. And as followers of Christ, we are called to demonstrate ‘for God so loved the world,’ to this world, transcending all the barriers we have made in the name of identity and tradition. I have always wondered, for people who are carrying this placard of “John 3:16” right on the streets where poverty, homelessness, hunger, consumerism is existing as realities, what is the message that they are communicating? All what John 3:16 is inviting us is not in holding that placard and moving around the streets today, but in living that word, demonstrating the love of Christ for one another by caring, by compassion and by standing for justice. It is time that we need to move on from just saying, ‘Jesus is love’ to showing ‘how Jesus is love today in our contexts?’ You, I and the church today are called to be ‘living letters’ of demonstrating the God in Jesus’ love, for it is the love of Christ that is inviting us to be like Christ. Believing should lead us to becoming, and becoming should create belonging, and such a sense of belonging to God’s love should keep us be-loving.
The world this week is shocked to know that there are people who are discussing the colour of the unborn child in the context of mixed marriages. Has the love for one another died today where racism still thrives? Has the colour, race, gender and caste of a person a barrier to love in this world today? God in Jesus is inspiring us to love, and only to love, as our public witness to this world, transcending the barriers of hate. The country was also shocked to know that violence against women continues unabated with the news of Sarah Everard in the UK, and it is called as an ‘epidemic’ that needs immediate action. Has the love for one another died today in our context where patriarchy and misogyny still thrives? God in Jesus is inspiring us to love and treat one another justly and equally. “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.” The call for us is to be living testaments of John 3:16, living, risking, giving and offering for the cause of love, and only for love. The text of the Bible comes alive only in living it out, in demonstrating it and not just in reading or in holding it out in the public. May God of love, God of John 3:16 be with us all so that we will live to love and strive towards a community of love for all. Amen
Raj Bharat Patta,
14th March 2021
Pic credit: http://john3-16signs.com/What_is_Sign_ministry__.html