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John 3:14-21 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 3:1-13. NICODEMUS
Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus leads into this passage about three related subjects:
• The Son of Man being lifted up
• Eternal life
Jesus told Nicodemus, “Unless one is born anew, he can’t see the Kingdom of God” (v. 3). Nicodemus did not understand Jesus, but thought that Jesus was speaking of physical rebirth. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” he asked (v. 4). Good questions!
Jesus explained, but his explanation was as puzzling as his original statement: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit… The wind blows where it wants to, and you hear its sound, but don’t know where it comes from and where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (v. 6, 8). Just as Jesus’ parables conceal as much as they reveal, Jesus’ words do the same here. It is not surprising that Nicodemus fails to understand.
After commenting on Nicodemus’ lack of understanding, Jesus said, “If I told you earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but he who descended out of heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven” (vv. 12-13). It is this last comment about being“descended from heaven” that leads directly into our text. He who came down (descended) from heaven must be “lifted up” (v. 14).
There are no quotation marks in the original text to signal the end of Jesus’ discourse, so it is difficult to know where Jesus stops addressing Nicodemus directly and where John begins to explain Jesus’ meaning to his readers. In verse 11, when Jesus says, “most certainly I tell you,” the “you” is singular, so he is still addressing Nicodemus. Thereafter, however, the pronouns are plural. Many scholars think that Jesus is speaking through verse 15, and that verses 16-21 are John’s explanation. Others believe that Jesus is speaking through verse 21.
JOHN 3:14-21. OVERVIEW
This passage links three related subjects as noted above: (1) the lifting up of the Son of Man, which makes eternal life possible. (2) God’s love for the world, which prompted God’s gift of the Son so that those who believe in him should have eternal life. (3) The judgment or condemnation of those who do not believe in the Son.
These three are so closely related as to be one theme, but we often fail to treat them that way. We tend to memorize verse 16 and to disregard what goes before and what follows. The reason is clear. Verse 16 is positive and reassuring, and we delight in its message of God’s love and our salvation. Verses 14-15 link Jesus’ death to a rather odd Old Testament story, the meaning of which seems obscure. Verses 17-21 speak of judgment and condemnation, which makes them far less attractive than verse 16. We hear that which we want to hear, and we want to hear about love and salvation.
It is the preacher’s duty to bring these three subjects back into relationship. We must help people understand not only the grace but also the judgment of this text. The grace has no meaning in isolation from the judgment. If we have no sin, we need no forgiveness. If there is no judgment, we require no grace.
JOHN 3:14-15. SO MUST THE SON OF MAN BE LIFTED UP
14“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever (Greek: pas) believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Greek: zoe aionios).
These verses answer Nicodemus’ question, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4). Both the “lifted up” serpent and the “lifted up” Jesus confer new life on those who look upon or believe in them.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” (v. 14). The story is from Numbers 21:4-9, and every Jewish child knows it. The Israelites sinned by grumbling against God for bringing them out of Egypt into the wilderness. God punished them with a plague of fiery serpents, killing many Israelites. The Israelites confessed their sin and begged for mercy, so God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and hold it aloft on a pole. Whoever looked up at the bronze serpent was saved from the fiery serpents—given new life—born anew.
Keep in mind Jesus’ earlier comment about being born anew (v. 3) and Nicodemus’ question about re-entering his mother’s womb to be born again(v. 4). Jesus might expect Nicodemus to link the serpent story to Jesus’ words about being born anothen—again—from above.
“even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (zoe aionios) (v. 14-15). The parallels between the Moses story and the Jesus story are several. In both stories:
• The people were in danger of death because of their sin.
• God provides the agent of salvation—the bronze serpent in the first story and the Son of Man in the second.
• The agent of salvation is lifted up.
• The people are saved by looking at—or believing in—God’s agent of salvation.
However, there are two significant differences:
• The bronze snake was only a piece of bronze, having no saving power in itself. When Israelites began to make offerings to the bronze serpent, treating it as an idol, Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Kings 18:4). Jesus, however, is invested with saving power and is worthy of our worship.
• Looking at the “lifted up” bronze snake gave the Israelites extended physical life. Looking upon the“lifted up” Jesus gives us eternal life.
The term, “lifted up,” has multiple meanings in this Gospel. It refers to Jesus’ cross, but it also refers to his resurrection/ascension/glorification. Jesus will be lifted up on the cross, the great Paschal sacrifice; he will be raised up on the third day, conquering death. His cross and his resurrection/ascension are simply different facets of his glorification. This Gospel does not include an account of the ascension itself, but does include several allusions to it by Jesus (6:62; 7:33; 13:3; 14:28; 16:10, 16, 28; 17:11, 13; 20:17).
“that whoever (pas—everyone, all) believes (pisteuo) in him” (v. 15a). The fact that Jesus usespas (everyone, all) here serves as a hint that the Gospel will not be limited to Israel, but will extend to all the world—a fact that Jesus makes more explicit in verse 16.
To believe (pisteuo) is to be convinced that something is true—to trust it—to have faith. The author of Hebrews defines faith as the “assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Belief makes it possible for people to live confidently in the midst of difficulty.
But the object of our belief is critical. Belief in a false leader (such as Hitler) or system (such as Communism) can lead to catastrophic results. The promise that Jesus makes in these verses is for those who believe in him—who follow him—who find their hope in his promises.
“should not perish, but have eternal (aionios) life” (zoe) (v. 15b). This is the first mention of eternal life in this Gospel, where it is mentioned seventeen times, fifteen from the lips of Jesus. The word life, which often has the same sense, also appears frequently.
The Greek word aionios means age or having to do with an age, which reflects the Jewish believe in this age (evil, Galatians 1:4) and the age to come (righteous—the resurrection life). In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), eternal life is couched in “the age to come” terms (Luke 18:30). However, in the Gospel of John, God grants eternal life to the believer in the present (John 3:36; 5:40). C.H. Dodd called this “realized eschatology”—emphasizing eternal life as present now for those who believe in Jesus. This distinction, however, is less than perfect. In John 12:25, eternal life clearly has a future cast.
We tend to think of eternal life as life without end, and it does have that sense (6:58). However, it also refers to a quality of life lived in the presence of God. Later, in his prayer, Jesus will define eternal life thusly: “This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (17:3).
JOHN 3:16. FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD
16“For God so loved the world (Greek: kosmos) that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
“For God so loved the world (kosmos) that he gave his one and only Son” (v. 16a). This is an amazing statement given the generally negative view of the kosmos (world) in this Gospel:
• The kosmos (world) came into being through the Word, but the kosmos did not know the Word (1:9).
• The Lamb of God has come to take away the sins of the kosmos (1:29). God loved the kosmos, and sent his Son to save the kosmos (3:16-17)—but the people of the kosmos “loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil” (3:19).
• Jesus will give his flesh as bread for the life of the kosmos (6:51), but the kosmos hates him “because I testify about it, that its works are evil” (7:7; cf. 15:18).
• Jesus’ disciples are “of this kosmos“ but Jesus is “not of this kosmos“ (8:23).
• Jesus has come into this kosmos for judgment (9:39). However, the Pharisees fear that “the kosmos has gone after (Jesus)” (12:19).
• The kosmos cannot receive the Spirit of truth, “for it doesn’t see him, neither knows him” (14:17).
• Jesus prays for his disciples, who must remain in the kosmos while Jesus returns to the Father (17:11 ff.). Jesus’ kingdom “is not of this kosmos” (18:36).
How could God love such a world? Luther said, “If I were as our Lord God, and these vile people were as disobedient as they now be, I would knock the world to pieces” (quoted by Gossip, 510). The miracle is that God does not! God sends the Son “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Luther calls this verse “the gospel in miniature.” God’s motive is love and God’s objective is salvation. However, God provides not salvation but opportunity to the world. Those who actually receive eternal life are those who believe in the Son.
This would also be amazing to Nicodemus. He understands that God loves Israel, God’s chosen people, but would find it difficult to believe that God loves the world.
The wording of this verse is very much like that in the story of Abraham, who was commanded by God, “Now take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and go into the land of Moriah. Offer him there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of” (Genesis 22:2). Abraham prepared to obey this command, but was prevented by an angel of God from sacrificing his son. God, however, does not spare himself. God’s giving of his Son begins with the Incarnation, but requires the cross.
God’s response is not “weak indulgence (but) divine self-sacrifice” (Gossip, 510). It would have been far less costly for God to ignore the world’s sins and to allow people to live in darkness, but that would reflect, not love, but apathy.
Earthly parents provide an analogy. It is far more costly in time and energy for a parent to supervise a child rather than letting the child run wild. Some parents prefer not to constrain their child, but what appears to be a gift of freedom instead jeopardizes the child’s welfare. It is not a “hands-off” policy that demonstrates love, but a willingness to make the necessary sacrifices to keep the child safe. God made just such a sacrifice in sending the Son to save the world.
“have eternal life” The word “have” is present tense, suggesting that believers possess it in the here and now rather than having to wait for some future inheritance. This is Johannine “realized eschatology”—the already-received gift—eternal life as relationship with God beginning now.
John 3:16 is probably the most loved verse in the Bible, and we hear it frequently. It suffers from being so often repeated apart from its context. We must not forget that it is “whoever believes in (the Son of Man)” who “should not perish” (3:15)—and that the one “who doesn’t believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God” (3:18).
JOHN 3:17-21. FOR GOD DIDN’T SEND HIS SON INTO THE WORLD TO JUDGE
17“For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge (Greek: krine) the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18He who believes in him is not judged. He who doesn’t believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. 19This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil. 20For everyone who does evil hates the light, and doesn’t come to the light, lest his works would be exposed. 21But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his works may be revealed, that they have been done in God.”
“For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge (krine) the world, but that the world should be saved through him” (v. 17). This verse states God’s purpose in sending the Son. It is not to condemn (krine) the world, but to save it. Krine can mean judged, but in this context—set over against saved—it means condemned. God sends the Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it.
We dare not take the gift of God’s Son lightly. It was an enormously costly gift for God to give, and we ignore the gift at our peril.
This verse appears to be in conflict with 9:39, where Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment.” We should not imagine, however, that Jesus came into the world to shut the door on unbelievers. He came to hold open the door to the kingdom of God so those who would enter on God’s terms would be saved. It is human decision rather than divine fiat that condemns those who refuse to accept God’s terms.
Jesus’ saving work reveals a dark side of earthly life. If it is necessary for God to send the Son to save the world, it must be that the world needs saving—is lost. Furthermore, the Son’s work is efficacious only if the world accepts the proffered salvation. John puts it this way: “He who believes in him is not judged. He who doesn’t believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God” (v. 18).
“because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God” (v. 18b). Jesus’ name is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Joshua, which means “Yahweh (God) saves.” The New Testament gives Jesus many titles (Christ, Messiah, Lord, Master, etc.), but Jesus (“God saves”) is his name. The one who fails to believe in the name of the savior has not accepted the salvation offered by the savior, and thus “has been judged (krino: judged or condemned) already.”
Just as we had a clear statement of Jesus’ purpose in v. 16—that he came to save the world—so we have a clear statement now of the problem—“This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil” (v. 19). Such a person “hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works would be exposed” (v. 20). The images conjured up by such language are sinister but all too real. They remind us of the danger of dark streets—illicit transactions accomplished in out of the way places—people clothed in dark clothing to make themselves invisible in the night.
Both our history and our newspapers are replete with examples of people who love darkness because their deeds are evil. The twentieth century was filled with examples of monstrous evil. The Holocaust is the most familiar example, but other examples include Stalin’s purges, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Idi Amin’s reign of terror in Uganda, Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia, and many others. Each of these despots was responsible for the murders of millions, and there seemed no end to their blood lust. The twenty-first century is young, but has already demonstrated that there are, indeed, people who love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil—people who hate the light and will not come to the light—people who pursue evil and hate that which is good.
We are hesitant to judge other people, and rightfully so. We cannot know all the nuances of a person’s life, so the judgment is best left to God. However, some darkness is so dark and some light is so light that we can hardly miss seeing the difference.
The reality, however, is that there is some darkness-loving in every heart—dark secrets that we prefer not to share with anyone. There is some sense in which all of us live in the shadows.
“But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his works may be revealed, that they have been done in God” (v. 21). But just as the one who loves the darkness does evil works (v. 19), so also the one who loves the light will do good works. The picture here is a Godly person who does his/her good work without fanfare, but lives in faith that his/her works will “be revealed, that they have been done in God.”
There is, in the New Testament, a tension between faith and works. Are we saved by faith or works? Paul answers clearly that we have been saved by faith (Romans 3:27-28; 4:1-5; 11:6; Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 10). Salvation is available only through grace—as a gift from God.
But James says that genuine faith will result in works, and any faith that produces no good works is not real faith (James 2:14-18).
Paul would agree. While he emphasizes that we cannot win salvation by our good works, he also acknowledges “that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God?” (1 Corinthians 6:9). He enjoins us to live, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit, and says that the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:16-26).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan