God so loved the world

Our church choir sang this song last Sunday[1] and its been an earworm for me for weeks as we practiced it:

The lyrics are simple and familiar:

God so loved the world,
God so loved the world,
That he gave his only Son,
He gave his only Son,
That whoever believes.
Whoever believes in him,
Shall not perish,
But have everlasting life.

For God sent not his Son,
God sent not his Son,
Into the world to condemn the world;
But that the world through Him,
The world through Him,
Might be saved.

It’s John 3:16, which might be the best known verse in the Christian scripture, and John 3:17, which doesn’t get as much attention. Having meditated on it while practicing the song, I have an idea why this is so.

John 3:16 sets up a simple exchange:

  1. God offers Jesus so that . . .
  2. Everyone who believes will have everlasting life.

Both sides share responsibility and there’s a hidden assumption that people who don’t believe will perish. Christians universally love this message because it means we’ve found the key to being in God’s good grace. God loves me because I believe in Him.

But oh the context! John 3:17 makes things more complicated. If God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn it, how can we claim a moral high ground? When people hold up John 3:16 signs it shows they are taking an active role in spreading the Gospel.[2] People don’t hold up John 3:17 signs. We desperately want to be the main character in our salvation story.

The more context you take in, the more insistent Jesus is that He alone saves. Our response is just to believe and that’s not even that high a bar:

No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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.—John 3:13-15

This references as story in Numbers 21 when God sent serpents to punish the people of Israel in the wilderness. When they repented, God gave them instructions to build a bronze serpent so that anyone who looked at it would live. Lifting up the serpent doesn’t help. Only looking at it matters. Woe to us if we block others from seeing Jesus in our desire to be lauded for lifting Him up!

This isn’t a message that everyone gets saved either. More context:

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.—John 3:18-21

In the introduction to his book, John said that Jesus was the light that has come into the world. We might hide our evil deeds in the darkness, but when we step into the light they are exposed. It’s an intensely uncomfortable process, but necessary.[3] Again it’s Jesus (the light) that matters most and not us.

  1. I’m singing tenor in the top row, second from the left in the solid green shirt and awkward posture. ↩︎

  2. Obviously that’s not the only reason and I think there is value in helping people find the message that Jesus came into the world to save people. This is more of a rhetorical flourish on my part than anything else. ↩︎

  3. I can’t help but think of Eustace descaled in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. ↩︎