1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “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.
17 “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.John 3:-1-17
The Politics of Love in John 3:16
One of my early childhood Sunday school memory verses was John 3:16, which I memorized both in my home language Telugu and in the KJV English (the legacy of colonial missionary enterprise). Perhaps that verse was part of a common curriculum for all those attending Sunday schools, for I remember my Sunday school teachers explaining the importance of this verse in the life of Christian faith, explaining that we are all saved because we are Christians. I also remember that this verse was displayed on placards at international sporting events in bold letters, “John 3:16.” Later in my adult life, I came to know that there was one Rollen Stewart in the US, who was spotted by television broadcasters at some major events with a rainbow wig and a T-shirt emblazoned with a slightly cryptic message: “John 3:16.” He was spotted at NBA finals, at the Moscow Olympics, and was also told to be at the royal wedding, where he was seen dancing just underneath the balcony where Princess Diana and Prince Charles stood in 1981. For Stewart, his television presence with a “John 3:16” T-shirt was a way of ‘spreading’ the gospel. And just two years ago, when driving on the highways in the US, I found huge billboards with “John 3:16” emblazoned on them, a message that was hard to pass by without paying attention.
What is the purpose of displaying John 3:16? To my surprise I have also seen Christians in my hometown in India carrying placards with “John 3:16” on their evangelistic gospel walk in the town called “March for Jesus.” Even in the UK’s Manchester Piccadilly, I have seen a guy walking with a placard with a similar signage of “John 3:16” and shouting loudly that ‘Jesus saves.’
In reflecting on John 3:16, a question that came to the forefront is: What do Bible verses mean in a non-Biblical world today? Are Christians meant to read that verse and know that since they believe in Christ they are saved, while the rest are perishing? For people who are not familiar that this is a verse taken from the Bible, in both a secular Western context as well as a multi-faith Indian context, what does “John 3:16” mean and what impact does it make on them? What is the message of John 3:16 for us today?
This verse is part of Jesus’s late-night conversation with the Jewish rabbi, Nicodemus, explaining the importance of being ‘born again,’ which emphasizes the role of the Spirit in leading people towards that experience. So it is important to understand what John 3:16 meant for Nicodemus, the audience to whom Jesus was speaking.
Nicodemus’ first words to Jesus that night were, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (3:2). As a ruler, as a teacher of law and as a man of power in his society, Nicodemus commanded authority and did things the way he did. But in Jesus, he recognized that no one could do the signs that Jesus was doing, such as the cleansing of the temple or turning water into wine, simply with human authority and power. Rather this required the power of God.
In a sense, Nicodemus’s encounter with Jesus was a lesson to the first century Johannine audience. Perhaps Nicodemus represented that kind of people who thought with their religious knowledge they could achieve anything in life, that with their religious rituals and experience they could achieve anything in life, and with their social status they possessed everything in life. Jesus, through his description about being ‘born again’ with water and spirit, and the nature of the Spirit like a wind, makes Nicodemus understand that no one can achieve anything by themselves, they need God’s help and God’s Spirit to lead them through. In order to further understand what it means to do things with the help of God, Jesus explains about John 3:16, which is about God so loved the world and in that love God gave God’s son offering eternal life in that eternal love.
For Nicodemus and the Johannine community, the political theology of John 3:16 is that God’s love for the world creates a numinous space where ‘earthly things’ and ‘heavenly things’ meet; where ‘born-again,’ ‘born from above’ and ‘born from below’ (from mother’s womb) meet; where ‘born of water’ and ‘born of the Spirit’ meet; where ‘born of the flesh’ and ‘born of the Spirit’ meet; where ‘wind from where begins’ and ‘wind where is goes’ meet; where ‘un-understanding’ (vv. 9-10) and ‘re-understanding’ meet; where ‘ascension’ and ‘descension’ of the Son of Man meet; where ‘Moses’ lifting of the serpent in the wilderness’ and ‘the Son of Man lifted up’ meet; and where ‘life’ and ‘eternal life’ meet. John 3:16 is a eucharistic space that reveals God’s love for the world as abundant and exceeding reflected in God giving up God’s son for the world, all for the sake of love and life. The text doesn’t record the response Nicodemus’s response on hearing these words from Jesus. We do not know whether Nicodemus accepted Jesus’s political theology of love–a love that might have meant the giving up of established traditions of power and authority.
One of the issues in the history of interpreting this verse is an over-emphasis on its latter half, so that “whoever believes in him (Jesus) may not perish but will have eternal life,” privileged the strength and power of the believer to determine their salvation. As a result, the emphasis on “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son” took a backseat, and consequently diminished the strength of God’s unconditional grace. All those who walk with this placard or those who installed the huge billboards of “John 3:16” are trying to project the love of God for this world based on people’s decisions, undermining the gracious unconditional love of God in Jesus to this world. They portray a narrow vision of God confined to the options of ‘either/or’ or ‘neither/nor,’ not realizing that God in Jesus is a God of all and for all, who has come not to condemn the world but to save the world (John 3:17).
Who is this God who so loved the world that he is able to give his son, send his son to save this world, offering faith as a gift and granting eternal life to the world? The God of John 3:16 is a God who is love and all this God knows is to love, give, send, and save everyone in this world. This verse invites us to celebrate the God in Jesus who is an embodiment of love and grace, who has come into this world to save by risking his own life, granting eternal life in the now, and for the cause of the reign of God here on earth.
Where did the God of love demonstrate his love? ‘For God so loved the world…’ The world with all its fragility was found by God as the recipient of God’s love. God loved this material world, the cosmos, with all its vulnerabilities and wounds. God not just loved the world, but God loved it in its superlative degree, ‘so loved.’. The emphasis on ‘so’ is important, for God in Jesus did not love this world half-heartedly, or partially or temporarily, or just on a ‘need based’ basis but loved this world ‘so much.’ The strength is in the love of God for this world. God did not ‘so love the’ world because of this world’s perfection, but despite all the imperfections God in Jesus loved this world, demonstrating to this world that the length and breadth of God’s love is beyond measure, unrestricted, unrestrained, unbound, unconditional, unimagined and even unexplained in human words.
The act of love for this world is in Jesus being with the world, identifying with human flesh and being lifted up on the Cross for the cause of standing up for the Kingdom of God. The politics of John 3:16 for us today is that we are called to celebrate God in Jesus’ unconditional and unrestricted love for this world. As followers of Christ, we are called to demonstrate ‘for God so loved the world,’ to this world, transcending the barriers we have made in the name of identity and tradition. I have always wondered, for people who are carrying this placard of “John 3:16” right on the streets where poverty, homelessness, hunger and consumerism exist–what is the message that they are communicating? Instead, John 3:16 invites us not to hold that placard and move around the streets today, but to live out that word by demonstrating the love of Christ through caring, compassion, standing for justice, and by giving all that we have for sake of love.
It is time that we need to move on from simply saying, ‘Jesus is love’ to showing ‘how does Jesus love today in our contexts? We are called to be ‘living letters’ of demonstrating the God in Jesus’ love, for it is the love of Christ that is inviting us to be like Christ. Believing should lead us to becoming, and becoming should create belonging, and this dep sense of belonging to God’s love should keep us be-loving. In recent weeks, there has been a rise of homophobia among conservative Christian groups with the Church of England’s proposal of offering blessings to same-sex couples in their churches. In such a context, the God of John 3:16, the God in Jesus inspires us to love, coupled with justice as our public witness to this world, transcending the barriers of hate and defeating forms of homophobia. The call for us is to be living testaments of John 3:16, living, risking, giving and offering for the cause of love, and only for love. May the God of love, God of John 3:16 be with us all so that we will live to love and strive towards a community of love for all.