Thought for the day
What does it mean to be saved? We have the secular sense of being rescued or spared somehow. The root meaning of the word in Greek and Latin is to be healed. So, the beginning is some recognition of need, of something fractured, unwell in my life. It includes faith in God who wants us to be both whole and holy, fully alive. The big “sickness” is death itself—from which we are saved/healed through God’s love to us in the lifting up of Jesus in death into resurrection.
Heavenly physician, heal whatever is us is dead or wounded or unfree that we may know the wholeness, freedom, life and joy of the Gospel. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
John 3:14 Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
John 3:16 For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. 19 Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed. 21 But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God.
In John 3:16, we touch one of the best-known and best-loved passages in the Bible. Not everyone understands and/or likes what comes before and after – the imagery in vv. 14-15 is difficult for us and the exclusionary tone of vv. 17-21 disturbs us today. The context of the time of writing can be of some help.
Kind of writing
The passage is a composite meditation, reflecting the teaching of the Johannine community. The story starts with Nicodemus and continues with Jesus’ speaking, but these words are really the theology of the later community.
Old Testament background
Light is often used in the Old Testament for God’s guidance and word (see the Psalms especially). However, the “big” background to our passage is Moses in the desert and the sacrifice of Isaac.
(i) Isaac. The wording in John 3:16 echoes the story of the (not actually required) sacrifice of Isaac, one of the “texts of terror” from the Bible. (We heard Genesis 22 on the Second Sunday of Lent.) It is echoed here to extraordinary effect: Abraham was tested to see if he had the heart to give his longed-for son back to God, in an apparently immoral, incomprehensible and even contradictory request. The story borders on the absurd. In the Fourth Gospel, the writer turns it around: we learn that God has the heart to give his beloved Son with the added shock that the sacrifice is carried through and the Son of God dies on the cross. The centrality of the cross and resurrection in John’s teaching was one of the causes of the splits both from Judaism and within the Johannine community itself. Abraham was in everybody’s mind: mentioned by Jesus, Paul, Hebrews and all four Gospels at different times.
(ii) Moses. In the book of Numbers, ch. 21, there is a mysterious story of the people’s rebellion and God’s punishment by snake bites. “And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” (Numbers 21:8-9) For our purposes, the symbolism lies in the paradoxical fact that the cure resembles the disease. This paradox holds in a good deal of psychological treatment and even in the use of pharmaceuticals. The use of it in today’s Gospel carries the meaning that the “cure” for the death of each human is Jesus’ facing death on our behalf.
New Testament foreground
(i) The language used here echoes the words of Jesus in the Synoptic gospels: “No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lamp stand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.” (Luke 8:16-17) “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lamp stand so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.” (Luke 11:33-36)
(ii) There is extensive use of light symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:7-9) “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:5) Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” (John 12:35-36) “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” (John 12:46)
For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2Corinthians 4:6)
From the First Letter of St John, it seems clear that the community for which he was writing experienced tremendous division and schism – a rejection of the spiritual guide of the community and his teaching. “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.” (1John 5:10) Those who do not believe are those who did once, but now have turned away. The focus is not on anyone who does not believe but on those who once did and have consciously abandoned the faith.
Verse 14 In this gospel, “lifting up” means the cross (physical) and the resurrection (spiritual).
Verse 15 Faith / belief is very much at the heart of the Fourth Gospel. The last beatitude in 20:18 reflects this: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29)
Verse 16 The key words are “loved”, “gave” and “believe”. Eternal life means life now in Jesus, not simply a future reality. Authentic life from and in Christ might be a good translation. Cf. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3; see also John 3:15-16, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2-3.)
Verse 17 This verse underscores the deeply positive purpose of God.
Verse 18 These are they who once believed and then consciously and culpably have rejected life in Christ.
Verse 19 The Gospel writer will return to this difficult theme in chapter 5. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24) The image of light is full of potential (John 1:4-5, 7-9; 3:19-21; 5:35; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46); it is matched in this Gospel with the language of darkness and night (John 1:5; 3:2, 19; 6:17; 8:12; 9:4; 11:10; 12:35, 46; 13:30; 19:39; 20:1; 21:3).
Verse 20 Here we have an echo of Jesus’ sayings in the Synoptic gospels.
Verse 21 The positive conclusion to the whole teaching also echoes synoptic material.
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus speaks of himself being lifted up, a term that can mean a physical lifting, or also exaltation. By this play on words the evangelist explains to us that Jesus’ gift of himself in the passion was a glorious revelation of love, despite all its injustice and brutality. Bring to mind occasions when the love shown by Jesus in his passion was a sacrament of God’s love for you.
2. It would be very cushy for us if we could be a source of life to others without cost to ourselves. The true life-givers know that they need the generosity of being lifted up by giving their lives so that others may have life. Recall when you have had that generosity and give thanks for others who have been like that for you.
3. We receive life from God when our faith enables us to trust in God’s love for us. We give life to one another when the love between us is trustworthy. Recall memories of that kind of trustworthy love. For whom have you been able to be a ‘Jesus person’ and give a love that another could trust? Who has shown that kind of love to you and been for you a sacrament of God’s love?
4. When people cannot find a love in which to trust they are truly in darkness rather than light. Perhaps you have had such moments. What was it like to be in that darkness, and what was it like to come into the light again when you found a love you could trust?
5. People loved darkness rather than light…so that their deeds may not be exposed. Judgement and condemnation are very inhibiting forces and we easily slip into them. Occasionally we meet someone who is non-judgemental, who does not come into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved. What has it been like for you when you met a non-judgemental person? What has it been like for you, and for other people, when you have been able to adopt a non-judgemental approach them?
O God, rich in mercy, you so loved the world that when we were dead in our sins, you sent your only Son for our deliverance.
Lifted up from the earth, he is light and life; exalted upon the cross he is truth and salvation.
Raise us up with Christ and make us rich in good works, that we may walk as children of light toward the paschal feast of heaven.
We ask this through Christ, our deliverance and hope, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, holy and mighty God for ever and ever. Amen.