Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Without a doubt, the most famous verse in the Bible is John 3:16. Inevitably, you will see someone holding up a sign proclaiming “John 3: 16” in large letter as the camera pans around the stadium. In my opinion, it’s an example of an aggressive, in–your–face piety which also implies a sharp word of judgment: “Believe, or else!” It goes against the intent of the verse in question.
If you’re not familiar with it, the verse reads, “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.”
Let’s go through it carefully to see what it really says.
We begin by noting that this verse is not an isolated proverb, or a stand–alone rule for Christians. It comes in the context of a late–night discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus, one of Israel’s religious leaders. It’s part of a much longer conversation.
It begins “God so loved…” That’s the foundation for everything else we find in this verse. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is the foundation for the whole of our relationship with God. God loves. Period. Full stop.
Now the word “so” provides a difficulty in translation. It can mean “God loved the world this much”; or it can mean “God’s love for the world is shown in this way”. In either case, the original Greek can mean both things. God’s love is this deep, and it is shown in this way.
Who did God love? “The world.” Now, we’d normally think, “Well, okay, that’s kind of general, but it’s good to include everyone.” But that’s not what John means by “the world”. For John, the “world” always refers to that which is indifferent or even hostile to God. Suddenly the meaning changes — God loves those who are indifferent or hostile to God. God’s passion reaches out to everyone.
How much? God so loved the world “that he gave”. Notice that the word “sacrifice” doesn’t appear anywhere. John 3:16 doesn’t mention at all that we have sinned, that we needed the Son to ransom us. In this verse, God did not sacrifice the Son. God gave the Son — a gift, freely given from God’s heart.
Who did God give? “His only Son.” Older translations use the phrase “his only begotten Son”, but that’s a mistranslation. Jesus isn’t God’s only son. We are all daughters and sons of God. The Greek word “monogenes” means uniquely born. In this phrase, God’s only son has to do with the uniqueness of Jesus’ relationship with God. It says that Jesus enjoyed an intimacy with God which we only approximate.
We get to the heart of the verse with the next phrase: “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish.” Those who hold the signs up at football games understand this to mean that if we don’t believe in Jesus, we’re going to go to hell.
Nonsense. The Greek word for believe doesn’t mean agreeing that something is true. It means to trust. Jean Vanier describes trust as “a dynamic relationship that grows and evolves. It is an openness to another. It is a gift of self … [and therefore] this gospel is about growing in trust, growing in a relationship of love with Jesus. Belief is not trusting and adhering to an abstract doctrine, it is believing and trusting in the person of Jesus and in his words.”
This phrase has to do with living in a relationship of trust and grace, of compassion and love with Jesus, and also with the world which God loves so deeply. It has to do with the quality of our life in relationship with the one to whom we have entrusted ourselves.
As we live that way, the hope is that we “may not perish”. Again, that’s interpreted as dying in the eternal fires of hell. Again, that’s a misunderstanding.
The word “perish” simply means to be lost. It’s very similar to what it means in the parables which Luke tells about the lost sheep, or the lost coin, or the lost son in Luke 15. To perish is to be like a coin that rolls away under the furniture. To perish is to be like a sheep that wanders from the herd. To be perish is to be like the youngest son who goes to a far country and loses any sense of who he is.
And in each of those examples in Luke, the person involved searches and searches until the lost item is found. That’s what it means for God to love the world so much. We won’t be lost. God will find us.
And finally, as we live in that kind of relationship, the promise is that we “may have eternal life.” Now this really is an unfortunate translation. The normal meaning of the word “eternal” is that it refers to something that lasts forever. And we usually assume that it begins after we die.
But it ain’t necessarily so in Greek. The Greek phrase actually means “the life of the age to come.” What John is saying is that as we live in trust, we live life here and now in such a way as to show the values of the age to come. To quote Vanier again, “It is the life of the Eternal One flowing in and through each of us, given to us as we are born from above through our trust in Jesus. We receive the life that is in him.”
We can live eternal life now, living by the gospel values of God, values of love, grace, compassion, hope, and joy.
John 3:16 is not a threat. Indeed, it is the promise of a life marked by abundance and hope.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook