John 3:16 (pt 3)

18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 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. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

Well, well, well. Since the last post it seems an SBC poohbah has demonstrated just how much we need this piddly series. But I digress.  [You can’t digress on your opening sentence, you dolt! —Shive]

In part 1 we said that Jn 3:16 needs to be read as part of the larger new birth discourse recorded in 3:1-21 so that we interpret 3:16 in its context and not in isolation. So this post will consider 3:16 in light of the discourse conclusion in vv 18-21. I’ll make two observations from the passage followed by an explanation of their importance in the debate over 3:16.

THE SPAGHETTI JUNCTION OF FAITH

First, verses 18-19 establish a connection between what one believes and what one loves. We start with a contrasting parallel between ‘the judged’ and the ‘not judged’ which turns on whether or not they believe. We even get a little repetition thrown in with the parallelism as a way to emphasize believe:

BELIEVE               → not JUDGED
doesn’t BELIEVE → JUDGED already → hasn’t BELIEVED

The repetition of v18 leaves the reader expecting to hear something more about believe in v19 since the verse alternates back to judgment. Maybe something like This is the judgment that the Light has come into the world and men [believed/trusted/entrusted themselves to] darkness rather than light… What we get instead is a statement about what a man loves which is all the more significant because it breaks the established pattern:

(18)believe–judge–believe–judge–believe–(19)judgment–love

What are we to make of this? On the one hand, believing and loving are distinct acts/conditions; on the other hand, the interchange between the two prevents us from considering them in isolation. People believe what they love and love what they believe.

Second, God‘s work is the difference between those who love/come to the Light and those who don’t. In verses 20-21 we have another contrasting parallel built on the relationship between a man’s work and his approach to the Light. Those who hate the Light do so because their deeds are evil and because the Light exposes them as such. The one who practices the truth, however, has nothing to fear from the Light. In fact, he comes to the Light in order that his works may be shown to have been worked in God. It’s precisely at this last phrase that the parallel breaks down for while the Light-hater’s work is attributed to himself the Light-lover’s work is attributed to God. Consequently, the ultimate difference between the two turns on the fact that one works on his own while the other is worked on by God.

It’s Complicated

The point in all of this is that much more is at work in 3:16’s whoever believes than what is generally assumed which brings us back to the problem of leveraging the verse against Calvinism. In my experience, whenever 3:16 is treated like Calvinist kryptonite the verse is divorced from its context and belief is reduced to a  simple, rational choice that turns on an act of the will.

believe-love-deedsBut when we take the verse in context we have to explain how belief and love work in concert with each other. I suppose we could claim that “love is a choice” but a moment’s reflection shows that that just won’t do because: (a) it can’t be supported by Scripture and (b) it fails the test of practical experience (would any rational person choose to love the Patriots?).

No, 3:16-21 would have us understand that (un)belief is bound to what a man loves and what he does. Unfortunately, this three-dimensional symbiosis is rarely observed or considered in 3:16 which perpetuates the treatment of belief as a single gear that needs to turn in a new direction even as the entire passage depicts belief, love, and deeds as interlocking gears that turn on and with each other. You can’t service the faith gear apart from rebuilding the engine and that kind of work involves more than a choice.

Revisiting John 3:16 (pt 2)

We want to stress how broad God’s love is while John wants to stress how deep God’s love is.

See the prologue and Pt 1 to this series.

In the previous post I suggested that we ought to consider Jn 3:16 along the lines of what a Pharisee like Nicodemus would have understood when Jesus said “God so loved the world.” For a guy like Nic that kind of statement would have signified God’s love for all nations since a devout Jew would have had two functional categories–Israel and the nations. Rather than blessing Israel and judging the rest, God was offering life in his kingdom to the world on the basis of a new, spiritual birthright through faith. In short, Nic would understand Jn 3:16within a broadly corporate framework–people groups rather than individual people.

But our vantage point is weak on corporate identity and big on individualism so that we understand Jn 3:16 in the spirit of democratic equality–God loves every single person. Nic interprets the world as a collective term for the nations while we interpret the world as a collective term for individual people. Whose interpretation is correct?

Neither. It’s a trick question. [Oh, you’re smooth. -Shive]

As every husband has learned after receiving messages from his wife, the correct interpretation isn’t what you think the author means but what the author intended the message to mean. So when we read ‘God so loved the world’ what we really need to know is John’s intended meaning for the world.

THE MEANING of WORLD in JOHN

For John, the world almost always refers to a domain rather than a physical place or population. It’s “the place of human rebellion against God in contrast to God’s kingdom” (New Dictionary of Biblical Theology) and although people are certainly part of this domain, John’s use of the term is too broad and abstract to limit it to something like a divine census. Even a casual review of the word in John’s gospel makes it clear that world means more than people.  Consider just a few examples:

John 12:25 “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.
John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.
John 15:19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world because of this the world hates you.
John 17:14 “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

Obviously, the world can’t mean all people in these verses and must be signifying something more than global population. But once we acknowledge this we’re almost forced to reconsider the intended meaning of world in Jn 3:16, too. Let me interject here that our reticence to refine our understanding of ‘God so loved the world‘ is understandable especially when we suspect that ‘refining’ is a nefarious attempt to restrict God’s love. And yet I think that by aligning our interpretation with John’s intended meaning we don’t minimize God’s love, we magnify it. Carson’s explanation is very helpful on this point when he says God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big and includes so many people, but because the world is so bad: that is the customary connotation of kosmos (‘world’).” We want to stress how broad God’s love is while John wants to stress how deep God’s love is.

CUT TO THE CHASE

If you’re still with me at this juncture you’re probably saying the same thing I say to my kids when they tell me they want a cell phone: So what’s your point?

The point is that Jn 3:16 just doesn’t work as a defeater verse for Calvinism, particularly in regard to unconditional election. Using the verse to that end depends on at least two related assumptions: (1) world means every single person (2) since God loves every single person, he must love them in exactly the same way. Both of these assumptions are taken to undermine the Calvinistic understanding of God’s elect. In fairness, those assumptions may be discovered and defended from other passages, just not from Jn 3:16.

Assumption #1 has already been shown to miss the broader meaning of world in John’s gospel which means that assumption #2 is moot. But for the sake of a full hearing it’s worth noting that #2 also fails in light of two other statements concerning the world that we find in John:

John 9:39 And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.”
John 17:9 I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given me; for they are Yours.

So the Father sent the Son into the world so that the world might be saved (3:17) and Jesus came into the world for judgment (9:39). God loved the world and Jesus did not pray for the world. Unless we are to define the Father’s love for the world differently than Jesus’ love for the world I think it’s safe to say that the Father’s love for the world is far more complex than a one-size-fits-all kind of affection.

Based on John’s meaning and use of world an objective interpreter would be hard-pressed to turn Jn 3:16 into a rebuttal of Calvinism. But since there are zealots on both the right and the left of this issue let me say a quick word to other side, too. While 3:16 isn’t a defeater verse for Calvinism it isn’t a support for it either. If world doesn’t exactly mean ‘every single person’ it certainly doesn’t signify ‘the elect.’ As I see it, the verse is theologically neutral on this matter.

Sometimes the answer is complex

Unless we want to force an answer onto the text, some questions have to remain open.

One of the things I enjoy most in my line of work is having someone ask questions following a Bible study or sermon. Usually, questions are a good sign that someone (a) has been listening and (b) is thinking more broadly about what was said. [I’ve always had questions about your teaching and preaching. –Shive]

Of course, sometimes a simple question doesn’t have a simple answer and we’re reminded that we’re probing mysteries rather than solving problems. What follows is part of an exchange–slightly edited–I had with a member who was thinking through Jesus’ statements to Nicodemus in John 3. Unless we want to force an answer onto the text, some questions have to remain open.

MEMBER: Why did [Jesus] often respond to people with statements that they would not understand? His conversation with Nicodemus is one of those times. Here Nicodemus comes, asking honest questions and seems to be searching for the truth and Jesus keeps answering his questions with weird things about being born a second time and the wind blowing but you can’t see it. Just seems a bit mean. Like [my son] coming and asking me a math question and I give him a calculus explanation.

ME: Great question! The reasons Jesus had for talking over the heads of his audience varies depending on the situation & context. In the case of Nicodemus, I’d probably want to make two observations. First, Nicodemus approached Jesus as if he had some measure of spiritual knowledge to render judgments about Jesus (3:2–Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher…). But Nic’s confusion about things he actually should know (3:10) demonstrates that he doesn’t possess the spiritual insight he claimed. Jesus’ “incomprehensible” answer demonstrates that the wise are really not all that wise and puts them in their place. Second, notice that Jesus connects Nicodemus’ lack of understanding to unbelief (3:11-13) so that we should probably consider that Nic’s confusion is due to more than childlike ignorance.

MEMBER: But all of this “kingdom of God” talk most Jews acquainted with Jesus coming as their conquering king. Without the H.S. leading and guiding, should they really have known these truths about the Spirit’s indwelling and a second birth? Not sure which prophet speaks of the heart of stone being replaced with a heart of flesh and no one having to teach his neighbor about knowing God because all men will know Him. So I know the OT does speak a little to all of this but really not in a straight forward way. So, should Nicodemus have really been able to understand what Jesus was saying?

Again, just thinking in terms of my kids. If I want them to understand something that is vitally important ot their well being, safety, life, etc I don’t think I am going to speak in parables. I think I am going to flat out tell them as simply as I need to what I need them to know.

ME: I don’t know that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer since various explanations are found in John’s story line:

  • Some ignorance was due to hard hearts (Jn 5:39-40),
  • some things only Jesus’ sheep would hear/grasp (Jn 10:24-26)
  • some things could have been known but weren’t until after the fact (Jn 12:16),
  • some ignorance was the inescapable result of God’s work (Jn 12:37-43)
  • some things were spoken figuratively so as to keep things hazy until further revelation was given (Jn 16:25).

Ultimately, God grants insight/understanding as a gift according to his purpose (Mt 16:15-17; Mk 4:11-12; Luke 24:31, 44-45).

Strange Scripture: Jesus breathes on the disciples

If you’ve never come across a strange passage of Scripture you need to read more. Consider Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to his disciples in John 20:19-23. Assuming you’ve reckoned with the strangeness of God becoming a man & then being raised back to life after his execution (Acts 17:18, 20), you could still be forgiven for finding this exchange curious:

And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (Jn 20:22)

The question for most Christians on this point doesn’t concern hygiene but theology. Namely, is this the point & time at which the Holy Spirit (HS) was given to the Church or did the HS come later on Pentecost (Acts 2)?*

Here are some reasons why we might interpret John 20 as a symbolic act that anticipated the HS’s arrival in Acts 2:

1) Jesus previously said that the HS would come after He returned to the Father (Jn 16:7), but Jesus is obviously still with his disciples.

2) Jesus has previously used a symbolic act to speak of an imminent event as if it were already happening (Jn 13:7-8; see also 12:23, 31; 17:4).

3) John 20 is decidedly anti-climactic compared to Acts 2. If the disciples received the HS in John 20, it appears to have made no tangible difference. They’re still fearful, slow to understand, etc.

4) Peter marks the HS falling on the disciples in Acts 2 “the beginning” (Acts 11:15). He can’t be alluding to the event in Jn 20 because the proof of the HS falling on Cornelius (and his house) was speaking in tongues which happened in Acts 2.

*one’s answer to this question is related to broader questions about the Church’s birth, the HS’s ministry to the Church, the possibility of a “second blessing” of the Spirit, etc.

 

The author wishes to thank the slumbering congregant who provided the impetus for this post.

 

Does Jesus not know how to close a deal?

John 8:30-31 As He spoke these things many came to believe in Him. Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed in Him:

  • If you abide in My word you are truly My disciples (v31)
  • Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin (v34)
  • My words have no place in you. (v37)
  • If God were your father you would love Me
  • You don’t understand what I’m saying because you can’t hear My word (v43)
  • Your father is the devil (v44)
  • You don’t believe Me because I speak the truth (v45)
  • You don’t hear the words of God because you aren’t of God (v47)
  • You’re liars (55)

Is it just me or is this not a gracious way to receive new followers? Did no one bother to tell Jesus that these people “believed in Him”?

Discuss.

Jesus’ Gordian knot

Working through a study of John has brought me to a couple of passages (I anticipate more) where Jesus’ exchanges with his loyal opposition are, let’s just say, less than stellar. A case in point: John 5:12-20. Here’s a paraphrase of the exchange [with an editorial comment added for clarification]:

Jesus: I am the light of the world (v12)

Pharisees: Says you (v13)

Jesus: Even though my testimony is enough, my Father also bears witness to my claim (vv14-18)

Pharisees: Where is your father? [Point him out. Let’s hear his testimony.] (v19)

Jesus: You don’t know either one of us. If you knew me you would know my Father also. (v20)


If I’m reading this exchange right I’d say that Jesus is guilty of some serious question begging here. Small wonder that the reader ends up with this Gordian knot: if the Pharisees knew the Father they would believe Jesus but they can’t know the Father until they believe Jesus.

Can this circular logic be broken? Better yet, how will a man standing outside this circle of knowledge come to find himself inside the circle?