Read John 3:16-17
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,but to save the world through him. (NIV)
Some books are too good to read only once. Some films only reveal their deeper meaning after multiple viewings. Some verses in the Bible we gloss over because they are well-known to us and so bear no further thought. Familiarity has bred complacency,if not contempt. So it is with this text. There is a lot more to it than meets the eye. We dare not dismiss it as old familiar territory.
To begin with,it is easy to skim over that phrase,”for God so loved”. This is no distant uncaring-if-mighty deity. This is a person who loves other persons. And who wasn’t content to think loving thoughts but rather put his love into costly action. He gave his precious,one and only Son,his most valued treasure,to the banality of human existence and ultimately the horror of crucifixion. What is even easier to overlook is that little word,’world’. In this gospel,that word always refers to human society in opposition to God. So what we read here is actually,”God so loved those who hated him that he gave what was most precious to him…”. God’s love is indiscriminate and the gift of Jesus is offered to all.
And yet this love doesn’t have automatic effect. This text reminds us that God offers us life forever with him,now and after we die. But there is an alternative: we can perish. God doesn’t drag everyone into eternal life. Those who have no time for God on earth would find heaven hellish. So there has to be an alternative for such people,even though the precise nature of that alternative is a mystery. If we are to have such life,we are to believe. But here again,there is a tiny word,’in’,that is meaningful. To believe ‘in’ is not to acknowledge certain facts,as for example,to believe that a plane bound for Melbourne will take me to Melbourne. It involves a personal commitment to that belief: actually buying a ticket and boarding the plane. Christian belief is about practical trust and not just intellectual assent.
Our text reminds us,too,that God didn’t stay at a distance and shake his head at the mess the world was in. Nor did Jesus when he came to earth give stern moral lectures on how rotten we all are. He came not to tell us how bad we were but to show us a way of receiving mercy and forgiveness. He came to point us to how we could fulfil our true human destiny rather than muck around in the pigsties of sin. He didn’t point an accusing finger,but instead extended a welcoming and merciful hand of help.
So let’s never assume such a familiar text has nothing more to say to us. Texts like this are pregnant with meaning,and they remind us that it is not so much new revelation from God that we need,but a more profound interaction with what we already have. Texts such as this are old friends. We can’t be content with just one visit.