14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that 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. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
To some extent, this piece of conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus suffers from over-familiarity. Whenever we hear this text, our tendency is to zero in on the alleged ‘memory verse’ of late 20th century Protestantism. Even the manner in which some Bibles present this text, placing it in a paragraph of its own, separate from the surrounding verses, reflects the phenomenon. There is nothing in the Greek text that suggests that John 3:16 ought to be lifted out of its context and made into its own paragraph. As a rule, when a verse begins with ‘for’ (Greek: γὰρ), it is a good indication that what precedes that verse is what gives it meaning. To separate out verse 16 as a thing in itself is to suggest that the heart of Jesus’ life and ministry is ‘personal salvation to eternal life,’ apart from the context suggested by what precedes it. To that end, actual living piety—one’s given ‘life here and now’ on earth—is reduced to ensuring that one has attained personal salvation for ‘life then and there.’
The belief in eternal life is a beautiful thing. It provides solace as well as perspective. It is a faithful way of understanding the resurrection of Jesus as more than just a personal matter for him, but as a hope that affects us all. It can be trivialized and abused, to be sure, but that is no different from any other doctrine. The peace that comes through the proclamation of personal salvation toward eternal life is indeed a beautiful thing. It is, however, not the only thing—not even in this portion of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.
What is often omitted in the theology of personal salvation is the insight into the structure of repentance and forgiveness that is only evident if one reads this entire pericope, from verse 14 to verse 21. Verse 14, specifically, is a direct reference to a story in Numbers 21:4-9, where the people of Israel were subject to a plague of poisonous snakes. The narrator of the story has no trouble pinpointing the cause. The snakes were a punishment sent by God because of the incessant complaints that the people of Israel lodged against God about their provisions—even to the point of detesting the manna from heaven as ‘miserable food.’ The snakes came and the people repented, confessing their sins against God and asking Moses to pray that God would take away the punishment. That is to say, the people did exactly what the theology of personal salvation posits as the goal, they repented so God would respond with salvation. But the path from repentance to salvation was not direct.
God responded to Moses’ prayer by demanding that he erect a pole with a bronze serpent, so that those who had been bitten by God’s punishment might look and live. Salvation in this story comes not as an omnibus cure for spiritual ills, but as a way of reckoning with the structural evil of rejecting God’s provision. The people were required to look directly at the result of their unwillingness to accept God’s provision. If that is the context of John 3:16, the theology of personal salvation is surely misguided in two respects. First, it is wrong to isolate the individual’s personal fate from the context of community. No individual is named as the culprit in this story; it is about the community’s collective complaints, shared horror, and communal redemption. Second, it is wrong to reduce ‘life here and now’ to a simple testing ground for ‘life then and there.’ Life here and now is filled with God’s gracious provision. If the elevation of the bronze serpent interprets for us the elevation of Christ on the cross, salvation includes our own reckoning with how we either accept or reject Jesus as God’s provision. And the cross, of course, is not merely a device for elevating something so that all can gather around and see. It is an instrument for inflicting torture, in order to overcome enmity through violence. That is the sin we must gather to see, to look square in the eyes, and with which we must reckon.
Without the context of verses 14-21, John 3:16 becomes a simple formula saying, ‘All I have to do is believe and God will give me life beyond death.’ Within the context that surrounds it, John 3:16 profoundly demonstrates that the elevation of Jesus on the cross confronts us with our own rejection of God’s gracious provision, our stubborn refusal to accept God’s way, and the radical, communal reckoning that leads to the fullness of life.