Thought for the day
The Trinity is not first of all a puzzle, which in principle could be solved, bur rather a mystery, a relationship which is first of all lived, never exhausted and only inadequately spoken of in words. This is true of any of the significant relationships in our lives and true, therefore, all the more so of God. Within the mystery of that relationship, we recognise God, from whom we come, in whom we live and move and have our being. We recognise the Son, the way, the truth and the life. We recognise the Spirit, who helps us to pray when we do not know how to pray as we ought.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be upon us all. 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.
The prescribed reading is very familiar and often quoted. In order to understand so familiar a passage more clearly, verses before and after have been included in italics. In John 3:16, we touch one of the best-known and best-loved passages in the whole 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 community context of the time of writing can be of some help because of the extent of divisions, even schisms, in the Johannine community.
Kind of writing
The passage is a composite meditation, reflecting the teaching of the Johannine community, taking us to the end of chapter 3. 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 OT for God’s guidance and word (see the Psalms especially). However, the “big” background to our passage is (i) Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac and (ii) Moses in the desert.
(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. It is echoed here for an 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 and incomprehensible, even contradictory and absurd request. 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 is to die on the cross. The centrality of the cross and resurrection John was one of the causes of the split 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: healing involves facing the root cause of the complaint. 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 in the verses added 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)
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed– namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness. (Romans 3:21–26 NET)
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. See 1 John 5:10.
Verse 14 In this gospel, “lifting up” means both the cross (physical) and the resurrection (spiritual) at the same time.
Verse 15 Faith / belief is very much at the heart of the Fourth Gospel, where the verb occurs 98 times. The last beatitude in 20:18 reflects things. “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, and 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 The deeply positive purpose of God. Behind the words used stands the image of Abraham and the (near) sacrifice of Isaac.
Verse 18 These are they who once believed and then consciously and therefore culpably rejected life in Christ. It doesn’t mean just anyone without faith.
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 An echo of Jesus’ sayings in the Synoptic gospels, as noted above.
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. People loved darkness rather than light…so that their deeds may not be exposed. Judgment and condemnation are very inhibiting forces and we easily slip into them. Occasionally we meet someone who is non-judgmental, 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-judgmental person? What has it been like for you, and for other people, when you have been able to adopt a non-judgmental approach them?
Merciful and gracious Father, you showed the fullness of your love when you gave your only Son for our salvation and sent down upon us the power of your Spirit.
Complete within us the work of your love, that we who have communion in Christ may come to share fully the undying life he lives with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.