by Ellen Sims
text: John 3:1-17
If you grew up “in church”—especially if you grew up in an Evangelical congregation that encouraged children to memorize scripture—you memorized John 3:16. In the King James Version.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Despite the way I’ve titled this sermon, I’m not really averse to that verse. I just distrust the way it’s often used– as code for insiders, especially when referenced simply by the biblical citation without the words of the verse.
You’ve seen the citation “John 3:16” on homemade signs held up like a tribal totem by spectators in sports stadiums, right? And on bumper stickers that seem to judge the righteousness of the people sitting behind the bumper sticker at red lights. As if merely seeing the magical numbers will confer salvation.
For some people “John 3:16” has become shorthand for a form of atonement theology which says basically this:
We are all sinners condemned to death by a God who can’t tolerate even a whiff of sin. Sin is to God what kryptonite is to Superman. The punishment for sin is death and eternal separation from God. But Jesus interceded on our behalf, so God bent the rules a bit to allow his perfect son to pay our penalty and die in our stead. All we have to do to escape eternal torture is to “believe” that Jesus did just that. That’s the “whosoever believeth on him shall be saved” part. We are “saved” by Jesus’s death —and by our own belief in this arrangement. Those who do not assent to this “belief” forfeit the right to have Jesus sub in for them, meaning they will still be consigned to eternal torment. You see, Jesus couldn’t just sacrifice himself for humanity. To avail yourself of Jesus’s sacrifice, this theology says you must 1) become aware of his sacrifice (even if you live in a culture that has no way of knowing about Jesus) and then 2) remorsefully acknowledge this means of salvation.
Now that’s not exactly how substitutionary atonement theology was explained to me. But those were at least the implications. And if you, as a child, persisted, as I did, in asking questions like “What about my Jewish friends? Are those good folks going to hell?”—you eventually heard: “Yes, that’s why if we love our friends we have to convince them to give their hearts to Jesus.”
If a critique of substitutionary atonement theology is new to some of you, please come talk with me if you find it troubling—or especially interesting. I’ll say more on this topic as we move closer to Good Friday. Like the horrified disciples left to make sense of the crucifixion of the One they believed could usher in the ways of God—and like all Jesus followers since—we, too, are challenged to make meaning from the violent death of God’s good peacemaker. But I, for one, no longer believe that Jesus had to die to save my soul. A closer look at John 3:16 is one step toward unpacking substitutionary atonement theology.
First, remember that the Gospel of John, written last of the canonical Gospels, is far more mystical than the other gospels. All four include a dialogue between Jesus and a rich and privileged man seeking to understand how to “see” or “enter” the kingdom of God Jesus had been proclaiming. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’s answer is pragmatic. He instructs the rich man seeking life eternal to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor—and that act will have eternal consequences and bring in the kingdom of heaven (Luke 18:22; Matt. 19:21; Mark 10:21). But in John’s version, Jesus tells this rich man, Nicodemus, that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3: 3). A sophisticated, mystical discourse develops about being born of both water and spirit. Unlike the synoptic Gospels, John points to Jesus himself as salvific, although many scholars doubt that the historical Jesus spoke of himself in this way.
Scholars also point out ambiguities in the original Greek. For instance, the Greek word translated as “so” in “for God so loved the world” doesn’t refer to the intensity of God’s love but means “in this manner or in this way.” Therefore, John 3:16 might be better rendered: “God loved the world in the way a father would give up his only son to save others. That’s how big God’s love is for us.” Note John 3:16 makes no mention of hell. In fact, John 3:17 says God’s work in Jesus is NOT to condemn but to save. These and other interpretive differences can add up to a very different understanding of Jesus’s purposes.
We also need to place John 3 in the context other Bible stories to which it alludes. In verse 14 we read this odd reference:
“Just 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.”
We might need a refresher on the story of Moses at this point. (Here I’m drawing from Carl Gregg’s commentary.) The Old Testament story of Moses lifting up the bronze snake goes back to the period after the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt and began wandering in the wilderness. They were complaining about the lack of food and water. So God responded to their complaints by sending “poisonous serpents among the people.” I guess if we took that part of the Bible literally, you and I would never complain again. But the point is not that God punished with snakes but that the Israelites needed some perspective. And they did stop complaining about bland food and started praying for God to contain the snakes. So God told Moses to create a bronze serpent and set it on a pole, and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the bronze serpent and live. So it’s this story the writer of John’s Gospel had in mind when explaining what God would do through Jesus. Just as Moses lifted up a bronze serpent to heal the people, so God lifted up Jesus “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” If our eyes are directed at Jesus, we will see and be able to follow his vision of divine love and be saved from whatever is poisonous and harmful swirling around at our feet.
But there’s another story from the Hebrew Bible that can help us understand John 3:16. Centuries after Moses, King Hezekiah became the ruler of Judah. He was a good king who brought in temple reforms that included destroying idol worship in the temple. The Hebrew Bible says he “removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole”—all items that were associated with worshiping gods other than Yahweh.
In particular “[Hezekiah] broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it. Apparently, the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness (or a convincing facsimile) was kept in the Temple as a relic” (Gregg). Over time, people had begun to worship Moses’ bronze serpent as an idol. Just as the people of Israel had found healing from venomous snake bites in the wilderness by looking at Moses’ bronze serpent, hundreds of years later, some Judeans hoped to find healing from the bronze serpent displayed in the Temple.
Carl Gregg explains, “Ironically, the bronze serpent had originally been built to remind the Israelites to trust God, to look to God for healing and salvation — to stop complaining about minor inconveniences and to be grateful for major events like freedom from oppression. But in Hezekiah’s day that same bronze serpent had become an end in itself. Judeans were worshiping the snake instead of the God to whom the statue pointed. So that idol-smashing King Hezekiah ‘broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made.’”
The writer of the Gospel of John finds healing in Jesus being lifted up on the cross — just as the Israelites found healing in Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. Just how Jesus continues to heal us today is a discussion for another time. But the saving work of Jesus is not activated by some guy holding up a “John 3:16” sign at a football game. The guy holding up the sign has gone beyond holding up the bronze serpent in the wilderness and is instead making that snake-on-a-pole into a hardened object that is an end in itself. It no longer is pointing beyond itself to God. Rather, the John 3:16 sign has become a simplistic formula: if you want to be healed, go visit the bronze snake in the Temple. But God cannot be reduced to a magic formula. The very verses preceding John 3:16 should warn us against casting living scripture into bronze and turning it into an idol we can put on a pole. The early Protestants rejected the way some in the Roman Catholic Church used—and sometimes sold—relics for healing. But Protestants have turned our living scriptures into petrified objects of veneration.
Today John 3:16 sometimes is used as a gimmick: read this verse or pray this prayer and you’re saved. But the saving ways of God and the kingdom of God are revealed in Jesus. As in Hezekiah’s day, the idol of John 3:16 may need to be broken today. John 3:16 alone is an insufficient shorthand for the healing that may need to happen in our hearts and in our world. There’s great beauty and truth in that verse—until we make too much of it. And too little of it. In some ways John 3:16 gets too abbreviated to be meaningful. We can’t take seriously our life’s work of spiritual formation if we’re using one verse as a magic talisman. One verse is too short, too coded, to open the door to God’s realm. In another sense it’s too long. Because the heart of that verse is one word: love. For God so loved the world. For God loves the world in this way. Look at Jesus. Now love—in just that way. This is “The Way” we hope to emulate. This is what God’s kingdom will look like. What we need is an authentic encounter with the mysterious Loving Presence we call God. Christians then can take steps to follow the way of Jesus—the way of God’s self-giving love—which can bring soul-deep transformation.
Easter, which is where our Lenten journey leads, is not about keeping Jesus pinned to that relic of a cross we’re tempted to pay homage to. If we do that, we will forget Jesus told us to take up OUR cross and FOLLOW HIM (Mark 8:34).