“And 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, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:14-21 ESV)
Who said, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’? It is possibly the most famous verse and one of the most loved Bible verses of all. But who said it?
The quick witted among you might say that it was me! It was my voice who asked the question and quoted the verse. Or you might have said it was me because you heard it in our gospel account today. And of course, you’re not wrong! But that’s not how we generally respond to such questions. There is a difference we say between authorship and transmission. We recognise that who said, ‘To be or not to be?’ can be answered with – Hamlet (the character), whoever is the actor on stage, or William Shakespeare (the playwright).
So we turn to the text and we’re not 100% sure. The Greek manuscripts don’t have punctuation – just capital letters strung in a long row – and we can see that earlier, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus. They’re having a conversation – Nicodemus has come to get his head straight about Jesus and his teachings – for what Jesus is doing points that Jesus is coming from God and Nicodemus wants to know what it all means – and by that I mean the question or issue that everyone faces who has ever heard that there is a Jesus – who are you and what do you mean by what you say and do?
Jesus talks about being born into the Kingdom of God and Nicodemus is confused. How can a person be born a second time? No, this is a birth of water and the Spirit and without it there is no Kingdom of God and this is the work of the Spirit of God. Poor Nicodemus is still confused! And Jesus chides him – gently in my imagination – with encouragement – I even like to think with a twinkle in his eye – Nicodemus is searching – at least he’s asking the right questions! So Jesus gives Nicodemus another message – linked to the wilderness and God’s rescue of his people from Egypt and journeying with them in the wilderness where they were stubborn and rebellious and there was the time of the snakes that God sent to punish and the bronze snake that God sent to rescue. Look at the bronze snake and live. And Jesus talks about the Son of Man being lifted up and those who believe in him will have eternal life.
And then we have ‘For God so loved the world …’ and the rest of our Gospel reading this morning and the inverted commas continue in most translations of our English bibles and I think most of us assume Jesus is still speaking to Nicodemus. But I raise the teasing question – what if this is John’s commentary to his readers about what has just happened between Jesus and Nicodemus and knowing what Jesus went on and did? What if John is in effect saying to his readers, ‘Look, Jesus is sent to receive our punishment and to be our Saviour’? What if it is John who is interpreting what God is doing in relation to this planet and he sees it all – creation – in the beginning was the Word and the Word as with God and was God – Jesus – the Word made flesh – Jesus giving new life and a reason to celebrate – think the wedding at Cana – Jesus the fulfilment of the temple which means that through Jesus, God and people can dwell together – and John will write a lot more! – what if he sees all this as LOVE?
Nicodemus comes with questions. Jesus gives answers pointing ultimately to himself as the answer. And maybe John in these verses from 16-21 is addressing his readers very specifically and saying God loves you – yes, you if you are hearing these words! You believe these words you have life and if you not believe you are condemned already (v.18). People face choices all the time – and spiritually too – that if people do not believe in Jesus today then yes, they are condemned today but there’s always tomorrow – until there is no tomorrow.
Why would people reject Jesus? Why would they reject such love? John says that it is because people love the darkness rather than the light – and yes, it is a perverse mystery but any time spent on this planet, any student of history, any news watcher will nod in sad agreement about human nature. And yes, to be sure Jesus’ followers and the organised Church have tried to hide their sins to make themselves look good when the message and lifestyle should always be: we are sinners, we struggle with our sins, we honestly face our sins and we repent, and we seek to serve others with justice and compassion.
But even our and the Church’s bad behaviour are not reasons enough for people not to follow Jesus! Our sins can be used as another excuse to reject Jesus but finally Jesus and his cross still stand and the message is still proclaimed – this means God loved the world – and yes, this includes you – so world or person in the world, what now?
And this is the part in a Lutheran service where the message goes to God’s love – to justification – to what God does in forgiving us because of Jesus – and love inspires, empowers, equips us and we follow Jesus. What else can you do when you’re loved like that?!
However if we were at Billy Graham crusade this is the part where the message goes to your decision, your choice, about following Jesus. He loves you – now respond! Don’t reject such love but come down and give your life to Jesus.
We don’t know how Nicodemus responded that night. We know that when Jesus made his message one where he and God were linked too closely people picked up stones! That’s why I think Jesus used the phrase ‘Son of Man’ much more but he never denied his link or relationship to the Father. Nicodemus fades back into the night but the few times we glimpse him afterwards he is defending Jesus, following Jesus secretly, and later burying Jesus.
Whether words from Jesus or about Jesus – that is what the New Testament is about – the apostolic witness – or words about Jesus written today in the 21st century – like the ones you are hearing – when they also are in the apostolic tradition, the mystery of this Word of God is that by the power of the Holy Spirit people are changed from dead to living, from unbelief to belief, and people can experience it in all sorts of ways – suddenly, gradually, dramatically, it can almost sneak up on them – and what dawns is the realisation that when we meet Jesus – no matter which aspect – teacher, son of Mary, Son of Man, miracle worker, a teacher of prayer, fighter, rebuker, challenger, sacrifice, even dead (!) – we are meeting and encountering God’s love!! That is why we can today ‘summarise’ Jesus with the word ‘Lord’ or ‘Son of God’.
We don’t decide for Jesus rather he decides for us – he chooses to rescue us – to die for us – so that we are not condemned. Loved by this Jesus yes, we can then make daily decisions about how we live our lives – in light or darkness, with hope or despair, in love or fear, with repentance or blindness, with serving others or grabbing self centredness, with death or with eternal life.
Who said, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’? Ultimately I’m not sure it matters as long as the focus is on Jesus.
Who is he? I hope we all can say and we want the world to say ‘My Lord and my God’.
What is he all about? Jesus died so that we might live and he lives so that our lives with him are the best we can ever live.
- John 3:14 - 21