Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What John 3:16 does (and does not) say

Of course, most people reading this blog will have heard a version of John 3:16. Many people consider it a concise description of "the gospel," and I would agree with that. The question is, if John 3:16 is a summary of the gospel, what gospel does it summarize?

The reason I bring this up is that the surrounding verses indicate that John 3:16 cannot possibly be a summary of the gospel of evangelical Christianity. Let's take a look at what John says after this oft-quoted verse.

John 3:16-17-
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.

So far, so good. Nothing odd there.

John 3:18a-
He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already,

At first this appears to drive home the commonly accepted gospel even more. We are told that those who do not believe have "been judged already." That sounds a lot like the idea of everyone being condemned to hell "by default" for their sins, and Christ is pictured as saving them, hence showing the love mentioned in John 3:16

But then we get to John 3:18b-
because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

And this really should raise an eyebrow or two. The evangelical gospel is primarily focused on heaven and hell, and how everyone more or less deserves the latter but through God's grace some receive the former. The issue here is that the "condemnation" John speaks of is not a condemnation for general sin, but rather a condemnation because someone "has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."

Reformed Christianity in particular is adamant that we are not condemned due to rejecting Christ (if so, that would not condemn the millions who never knew of Him). But here that is exactly what John is referring to.

Some would say that John is not speaking of "rejecting Christ" but simply "not believing." Those who "do not believe" (for whatever reason) are still "being judged" rather than having escaped that judgment. (Of course, this whole line of thought is contrary to those passages that describe the Judgment, where all are clearly Judged, believers and non-believers.)

But John is not talking about mere ignorance or "not believing," because he tells us exactly what the Judgment is for in the next verse, John 3:19-21

This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.

John is clearly describing two groups of people everyone who does evil and he who practices the truth. This latter forms another problem for evangelical Christianity, which says that no one can really practice the truth until they have already come to believe. But here John says the opposite: those who desire to please God are exactly those who come to Christ.

In any event, this last section shows that John is not saying "those who believe" versus "those who do not believe." He is making a separation between those who actively rejected Christ and those who actively came to Christ. You cannot with any intellectual integrity claim that a 12th century Native American "failed to believe" for the reason John gives here.
The same applies today even where some version of the Gospel is preached everywhere. If someone rejects the message of the church because history has exposed too much hypocrisy in the church to find it a solid source of spiritual wisdom, you certainly cannot say that person rejected Christ for the reason John gives.

So, if this passage serves as your gospel, you have to accept that it does not give a definitive description of who is condemned and who is not, for by its own words it would not apply to all people. Secondly, you would have to accept that the reason people come to Jesus is because they are dispositionally inclined to do God's will. That is very different from the reason most people accept for how or why someone believes.

This latter idea, that people believe in Christ or not based on whether they already have a desire to do God's will is a recurring theme of John's. Jesus says it about as clearly as one could hope for in John 7:17-

If anyone is willing to do [God's] will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or {whether} I speak from Myself.

This is repeated over and over, Jesus wants people to believe in Him because His words make sense. The commands He gives are ones that those who desire God naturally find value in, while those who were interested in their own gain are humiliated by Christ's commands.

This might all seem a bit odd, but it isn't odd if you take into consideration why and when John was written. John was written to Gentiles after the Temple had been destroyed which represented God's prophesied judgment against the Jewish leadership for rejecting Christ.

This is what John has in mind when saying This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.

Obviously, the men here does not everyone. "Everyone" didn't reject Christ. The Jewish leaders did. And why did they reject Christ? As John tells us: For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.

That is the reason the Jewish leaders rejected Christ. We are often told this fiction that the reason the Jews rejected Christ was that they were looking for a political leader rather than a spiritual one. That is simply not true. If that were the reason for rejecting Christ, then everyone would have done so. All the Jews (including Jesus' disciples) were expecting Jesus to eventually be anointed and become the new David, the new King (just as David had to wait on the fringes for Saul to be deposed). That is why the disciples are so shocked when Jesus is actually killed. The notion that He would rise from the dead to be king was unfathomable. They thought the game was up when He died [hence their forlorn response in Luke 24:21.]

You might be asking, so what is the point if John is just talking about the Jewish leaders?

To see the point of this you have to once again look at John's purpose. He is sharing the gospel with Gentiles, broadcasting that God's Kingdom is now open to them. The focus is not on the God so loved the world. The focus is on the whosoever. This notion of everyone (not just Jews) shows up throughout John. In particular it shows in the verse immediately before John 3:16. John 3:14-15 reads

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.

The "lifted up" has a double meaning. It refers to both Christ's crucifixion and ascension, but it also refers to the "lifting up of Christ" for the world to see. Why? so whoever believes can receive eternal life. Note the similar language Christ uses when discussing this very idea later in John 12:32 -
And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.

So, what we are seeing in John 3:16 is really a commentary on the destruction of the Temple [has been condemned already] and the reason for that judgment against the Jewish leaders.

You might wonder why John uses the term eternal life here if it is referring to the physical destruction of the temple as an indication of the judgment on the Jews. That's a topic for another blog, but it is linked (once again) to the context of this passage. The John 3:16-21 passage is a commentary on Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus. The eternal life here is linked to the kingdom of God Jesus refers to in John 3:3.

This Kingdom of God is not "heaven after we die," as Jesus makes clear in that dialogue. It is the baptism by the Holy Spirit, the seal of the new covenant God makes through Christ, a covenant in which everyone is invited to participate. The term that gets translated eternal life by John, when writing to Gentiles who do not know much about the Jewish O'lam Ha-Ba was the best way to get across the blessedness of living in the spirit. Eternal life is not even the best translation. Boundless life is probably a better one. [Greek does have a word that means "eternal" in the way we would think of the term, but it is not the word used here. It is used in Jude 13]. This shows in John's amazing definition of eternal life in John 17:3

This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.

Note that this is really meant as a definition (or as close as a definition as you can get) to eternal life (or, rather, the Greek John used for that term). The grammar here is one John uses elsewhere when giving a dictionary definition or precise explanation of what something is. Other examples where John uses the exact same grammar are: John 1:19, John 3:19, John 15:12, 1st John 1:15, 1st John 3:13.

And that is why John 3:16 is a fine description of the gospel: God sent Jesus to allow all people to recieve the Holy Spirit (which, if one reads Galatians 3:13-14 closely, you'll find Paul saying the same thing!!!) It just is not necessarily the gospel people generally think of.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Interesting David. Much that I am in agreement with here. Christianity in most people's expressions of it contains a very peculiar belief in the heaven which we go to when we die. People anticpate this rather than living a life in the Kingdom now. Even though it's a life frustrated by the 'now and not yet' dichotomy - there are many foretastes for now - many gifts of the spirit poured out.