Imagine being able to watch your favorite movie of all time for the very first time again. Or imagine being able to listen to your favorite song for the very first time again. Or read your favorite book for the very first time. Or even this – for those of you who have found the love of your life: Imagine being able to meet the love of your life again for the first time.
Of course, this seems like a foolish task, for whenever we encounter something that is our favorite, we are shaped by it and we come to a different understanding as a result.
But just imagine what it could be like to be able to have that very first encounter again, with no predetermined idea of what was to come. Foolish? Perhaps. But most definitely fascinating.
So it is with this idea in mind that I invite you to imagine today that this is the very first time you’ve ever encountered John 3:16. You’ve never heard the words, let alone memorized them. You don’t know what’s coming next after “For God so loved the world…” You’ve never seen a bumper sticker or sign emblazoned with this Scripture reference. Just imagine that you are completely unaware of these words and the importance they may have for you. Just imagine that you cannot or will not assume to know what they mean. Just imagine that you are completely open to what the words might be, to what they might mean for you, and what they might say about God.
And I know that this is like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. But I am confident it’s worth a shot because, if nothing else, this sort of openness to hearing these words again for the first time will help us avoid the sin of certainty, one of the most insidious elements of contemporary Christianity.
But this is not the first time that the sin of certainty has been committed. For it’s this very dynamic that sets the scene in John 3. A gospel text youve never, ever heard before. Right?
This religious lawyer Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus under the cover of night. And the first words out of his mouth show his sinful inclination: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God.”
Nicodemus tells Jesus, “We know all about you. We’ve got you all figured out. We know what God can and cannot do. We know what’s possible and impossible for God. We’ve got our eye on you.”
Arching his eyebrows and with a bemused look on his face, Jesus responds, “Very truly I tell you…” Now, this is a very antiseptic translation of the words which are much more pointed. Jesus says, “Listen up! You think you’ve got me figured out and you think you’ve got God under control, but no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
And this punctures Nicodemus’s certainty as he begins to ponder the biological possibilities before Jesus cuts him off by again saying, “Listen up! Maybe you don’t have it all figured out. Maybe you don’t know all there is to know about the Kingdom of God. You’re so certain, but the Spirit is like the wind, it blows where it chooses. Nicodemus, being born from above is a mystery!”
Finally, with the remaining shreds of his certainty stripped away, Nicodemus admits he doesn’t know: “How can these things be?”
And with those arched eyebrows and bemused look Jesus says, “Hey, you’re the religious lawyer. You know all about me. You know all about God, right? Certainly, you know how these things can be!”
Remember, you’ve never heard this, so now is not the time to call into question Jesus’ potential sarcasm!
Jesus continues, “Listen up! We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you all do not receive our testimony. You don’t believe what we have to say. I could tell you all about heavenly things since I’m the one who came down from heaven, but you don’t even understand the earthly things I’ve been talking about!”
Now this is a surprise! Being born from above and experiencing the Kingdom of God and the work of the Spirit are earthly things! Not heavenly, but earthly!
Jesus goes on to say, “Moses lifted up that serpent on a stick in the wilderness to heal and in the same way I will be lifted up on a piece of wood in order to heal and give eternal life.”
And then we hear these brand-new words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
“For God so loved the world…” Oh, here’s an interesting Greek interlude from David Lose. (And you probably didn’t know such a thing existed as an interesting Greek interlude.) The word for world here is cosmos, a word we know. And every other time it appears in John’s gospel – you can trust me, I read ahead to check – cosmos refers to the world in opposition to God.
So David Lose rightfully says that we could read these words to say, “For God so loved the God-hating world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And then Jesus says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Amazing to hear for the first time, right?
The reason I wanted you to imagine that you were hearing this promise-packed passage for the first time is that our familiarity with it can make us like Nicodemus, assuming that we’ve got it all figured out and that we can be certain of what it means.
This isn’t to say that our preconceptions are all wrong, but that I think John 3:16 has lost some of its potency and power by being so familiar. Because what I often hear this fabulous verse reduced to is not a proclamation of the mystery of the Spirit and the boundless nature of God’s love, but it gets turned into a question of just where the “believing threshold” lies.
Let me explain. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” gets pushed to the background in favor of “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I think all of the verse is important, but in imagining hearing it for the first time, I am most struck by the depth and extent of God’s love. I am not brought to think about what it means and what it takes to “believe in Jesus.”
To be clear: there’s nothing wrong with believing in Jesus. It’s encouraged. Believing is A-OK. I’m 100% pro-believing in Jesus.
But the sin of certainty rears its ugly head when any one of us assumes that we know exactly what it means to believe in Jesus.
- Some say that to believe in Jesus you must accept him as your Lord and Savior.
- Some say that believing means prescribing to specific historical creeds.
- Some say that believing means promising allegiance to a particular church hierarchy.
- Some say that believing means coming to worship often.
- Some say that believing means having Jesus in your heart.
- Some say that believing means taking every jot and tittle of the Bible as inerrant or literal.
- Some say that believing means having particular and specific knowledge about Jesus.
You see, all these ideas get us stuck on the “believing threshold” and cause us to play the “in-and-out” game which means “I’m in because I know what it means to believe and you’re out because you don’t believe in Jesus in the very same way that I do. I am certain of this.”
But hearing John 3:16 again for the first time, I don’t think Jesus is at all concerned with the “believing threshold.” Instead, it is much more stunning to hear that the way God deals with the God-hating world is to love it, to love us, to love you!
And although in our certainty and in our debates about the believing threshold we try to put limits on God’s love and tame the Spirit from blowing where it chooses, John 3:16 actually tells us that God never gives up on any of us, God’s love is unconditional, and God loves us.
This is the gospel in a nutshell, as Martin Luther put it, because it is the pure promise of God’s love.
And perhaps the biggest stunner that comes from rescuing these words from certainty is that John 3:16 is not at all about having your ticket punched for heaven. Jesus says he’s not talking about that! John 3:16 tells us that eternal life is experiencing this life in the presence of the eternal God. It happens here and now. Eternal life is a present-tense, earthly reality. It is the result of God’s love for us, for you.
And when we experience this eternal life, we are transformed as we live in God’s presence and seek to love and serve the world, following Jesus’ lead.
There is no “if” to God’s love. Yes, we can try to live outside of God’s presence and that will be an experience of perishing. But since God doesn’t give up, God even loves those who don’t believe. God cares for those who choose to perish. And God seeks after the God-hating world, even you and me.
So instead of clinging to our self-serving certainty and squabbling over the precise nature of the deliberately imprecise idea of believing in Jesus, hear again for the first time the pure promise of the good news of Jesus Christ: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”