14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “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. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
John 3:16. – 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.
Arguably the most well-known and famous bible verses of all time. People will hang it on the wall, put it on a bumper sticker, and (most famously) hold it up on a big sign at a sporting event.
When you see someone with that sign, how do you experience it? What do you think of that guy holding up the sign? Is it a sign of love and invitation or is it more a sign of judgment? Do you sense that this person is trying to spread God’s love or trying to condemn those who don’t love God?
It would be nice if they had the text written out with part of it underlined, so we could know what their point is. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Or 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.
Which always makes me wonder a little bit. What does that guy holding the sign think is going to happen?
If he thinks it is going to change people’s heart, he likely to be disappointed. You see, my sense is that most people experience it as a judgment. Most people hear it as a message of exclusion, rather than inclusion. Who’s in and who’s out. A couple of years ago, Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber asked people on Facebook what John 3:16 makes them think about. What surprised her was how many people have negative experiences with this verse. Here is what some of them said:
John 3:16 is a message of exclusion – as in we are the ones who will be saved – clearly not you, another person said :The way some Christians talk, God has it out for the world, and another: this verse is thrown in people’s face in a violent-feeling manner; as if aggression will get someone to believe, and finally (her) friend Brad just simply said that John 3:16 makes him think of Weirdos and Violence.
What have we done when the most famous bible verse in the world has become one that seems to slam the doors of the church in people’s face instead of opening the doors of the church to welcome them in? In fact, Nadia says that we seem to have changed this verse to say, “Christ came to condemn the world but some of the world might be saved through our belief.”
We’ve done something wrong if this text has become a text of judgment instead of one of love and welcome. You see, as is so often the case, we have taken this scripture out of context. And so many of us know, when our words are taken out of context, the meaning of our words can become distorted. And so let’s put it back into its context and see what we can learn.
When Jesus says these famous words, he is speaking to Nicodemus. Now, Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a leader in the Jewish community. Nicodemus’ form of religion was completely centered on who was in and who was out. Insiders and outsiders. Because of this, Nicodemus and his religious community were both threatened and opposed to Jesus and his followers, because Jesus completely upsets the whole idea of who is in and who is out. In fact, Jesus won’t allow for any insiders and outsiders, but rather Jesus tears down any walls that would divide us. And now in our story, Nicodemus has come to speak to Jesus, and he comes to Jesus at night.
Now, why would you think Nicodemus came to Jesus at night?
Because he didn’t want to be seen. Because he didn’t want anyone to know he was there. You see, Jesus and his disciples, his followers are the outsiders. They are the ones persecuted by the Pharisees. And what Jesus has to say to him, is “Don’t you see, Nicodemus? God loves the world. Not just you and your people. But the entire world.”
In fact, in the very next chapter, Jesus takes the disciples to the world that God loves so much. To Samaria. Which is that other place. The place you weren’t supposed to go. Jews were never supposed to go there because it was where the gentiles were. It was unclean to go there. It would be like Jesus taking Vikings fans to Lambeau field, and saying, See God is here too. And God loves packer fans too. Or God taking liberals across the aisle to conservatives saying, See God is here too.
God so loved the world, Jesus says to Nicodemus. And “the world” maybe the last place and the last person you would think it would be.
Too often we stop at verse 16. 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. And most people hear it as exclusive judgment. But how many of us know verse 17? Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Maybe that is a more important message these days. That this is not a condemning statement, but a welcoming statement. A statement that God loves the world. Maybe someone should go to a sporting event with “John 3:17” on a sign. In fact, I’ll put my money where my mouth is. I’ll give $20 bucks to the first person who can send me a picture of them at a sporting event holding up a sign that says, “John 3:17 – God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world.”
Now, if you are paying attention, then you might say, “Oh yeah, pastor, well what about John 3:18.” Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Jesus says those who don’t believe are already condemn. So it sounds like it does have to do with our belief. That you have to believe in order to have God’s love. Is that what Jesus is saying? No. Jesus isn’t setting up a condition. What Jesus is saying is that yes, God loves the world. But the gospel of God’s unconditional love for you does you no good unless you believe it.
I once knew this person who just could not accept that his family loved him. They would tell him and tell him and tell him, but he just couldn’t believe it. Now, that doesn’t mean the family stopped loving him. It simply means he missed out on a life of knowing he mattered and was loved. The family doesn’t condemn him. But in a way, he condemned himself. So maybe the same is true with God. Maybe God doesn’t condemn us when we don’t accept God’s love. But maybe we simply condemn ourselves. When we cannot see that God’s love is wider than we can imagine and that it even includes us, then we’ve condemn our own life and we miss out on the joy of the freedom of knowing you are loved unconditionally.
Martin Luther says that John 3:16 is the gospel in a nutshell. The gospel, meaning good news. When the gospel in a nutshell no longer sounds like good news to majority of people out there, then it’s not good news. We’ve still got work to do. Because God’s mission is not just to love and save you and I, but rather the entire world. Amen.