Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reflection: Taking John 3:16 Seriously

Taking John 3:16 Seriously

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16, KJV).

For God thus loved the cosmos, that he gave his unique Son so that all those believing in him are not being destroyed, but are receiving the life of the ages.

I offer this second translation of John 3:16 not because it is superior to the traditional rendering, but because it is different and thus perhaps startling. Familiarity with the text – its use as memory verse and sporting events poster and bumper sticker – has perhaps dulled this living and active, two-edged sword of the word. If it no longer startles and amazes and thrills us, we have lost the very heart of the gospel. If so, it is time we hear this verse again and take it seriously.

John starts with the most basic and essential premise of all: God loved. Nothing is more important for grasping the gospel – and being grasped by it – than this: God’s unfailing, essential predisposition toward creation is love. John is bold to insist: “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love” (1 John 4:16, NRSV, emphasis added). If this is true, then to live and move and have our being in God (cf Acts 17:28) is to exist in and through – surrounded and supported by – unfailing, divine love. God’s every thought, every action toward his creation – toward you – is motivated by and expressive of his love. It is a love revealed in and through Jesus Christ, which is to say that it is a sacrificial, forgiving, merciful love, and yet a love strong enough and determined enough to take upon itself all the sin and pain and evil of the world and conquer them. It is not sentimental; it is resigned.

Because God’s love is revealed in and through Jesus Christ, it cannot be different than the love we see in Jesus. Nor can God’s loving character be different than Jesus’ loving character. With no particular desire to enter the atonement debates – at least not in this present context – any atonement theory that pits an angry, wrathful God the Father against a loving, merciful God the Son runs aground on John 3:16. God is love through and through: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That does not mean, of course, that God is “soft” on sin or that he will let evil have its way. It simply means that the cross, upon which God dealt decisively with sin, is a symbol of love and not wrath.

So yes, God loves you. But in one sense that does not make you special; it just makes God indiscriminate. The fact is – and here we must take John 3:16 more seriously than we have in the past – God loves not just us, but the entire cosmos, all of his created order. Before man was created, the world and all that was in it was declared to be good. The sad reality is that God created a perfect cosmos, gave it into our care, and we broke it by breaking ourselves. And this brokenness of man and creation is so inextricably bound that God will not – and perhaps cannot if he is true to his love – heal creation apart from healing man. Creation waits with eager longing for the redemption of the children of God so that it may be released from the futility imposed upon it by human sin (cf Rom 8:20-25). The cross is not merely a symbol of God’s love for humankind, but a declaration of his love for the entire cosmos and a recognition that atonement reaches beyond humankind to set the world – all of created order – to rights again. Yes, there will be a new heavens and a new earth, but not because these present ones do not matter – precisely the opposite. The present heavens and earth matter so much to God – God so loved them – that he sent his only begotten Son so that we might believe and the cosmos might be restored. John’s description of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world means precisely that – the sins of the world. The implications for environmental stewardship are as vast as the cosmos and must be taken seriously by all those who take John 3:16 seriously.

The embodiment – literally, the incarnation – of God’s love is his only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. God’s love is absolutely and unapologetically Christocentric. It is only the love of God revealed in and through Jesus Christ and received through our faith in his faithfulness that spares us from destruction and fills us with the life of the ages. But note, once again taking John 3:16 seriously, that the destruction from which God’s love in Jesus spares us is not some arbitrary punishment. Rather, it is the nature consequence of a life lived in sin apart from God. If it is God’s love in Christ that gives and sustains life, then rejection of that love in Christ naturally and inexorably leads to death. Just as surely, the love of God received through faith in Christ leads to eternal life. The exclusive centrality of Jesus Christ for the life of the world must propel the church in mission. If God loves the world – and he does – then the church must reflect that love in its proclamation of the gospel of Christ.

Taking John 3:16 seriously is the serious business of the church.

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