Say it with me: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
But can you recite verse 15 and verse 17? Even that is not considering the context. John 3:16 is a wonderful verse but can it truly stand alone?
Let’s look at the content of John 3:16 to see what it says and what it doesn’t say. It speaks of faith in Jesus Christ, God’s love for his creation, eternal life, Jesus sent to earth as the son of God because God loves his creation and anyone with faith in Jesus Christ, the son of God, they have this eternal life.
But what isn’t in this verse? My sin, my depravity, the devil, angels, Israel, rapture, baptism, communion, the Holy Spirit, the kingdom, Abraham and a thousand other details mentioned in the sublime string of the Bible. Perhaps we have made an idol of this verse, which was never intended to be a verse which stands alone.
We have to ask ourselves, concerning John 3:16, what’s the context? We must explore examples and ascertain the aspirations of Jesus to Nicodemus–his audience and one who was a Pharisee. Let’s look at the immediate context and explore the greater context.
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Him by night, and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you do not receive our witness. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things? And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.'”
Now i know what you are thinking; “Russell P, after quoting all of this context, you think we’ve turned a part of the Word of God into an idol, that’s blasphemy.”
No it is not because it wasn’t written as a verse to stand alone. We rip it out of context and treat it like it is a summation of the Bible. It was never intended to stand alone and this goes to the author’s aspirations to his audience and the aspirations of Jesus to the Pharisee, Nicodemus.
We keep the Bible caged by our dubious dogma, taught traditions, presuppositions and preconceived notions. Therefore we must utilize the CAGED method of Biblical hermeneutics, where; context is king, author’s aspirations to his audience are apex, genre is the general, expository exegesis of examples enlightens and dividing rightly the word of truth either confirms or cancels our preconceived notions and presuppositions.
What was the aspiration of Jesus to Nicodemus? Look at the context closely. Jesus brings a ruler and teacher of Israel back to the book of numbers. We must also go there to explore examples.
“Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey. And the people spoke against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.’ And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.’ And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live.’ And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.”
We understand this; like the sons of Israel, we to have all sinned and deserve death but also like the sons of Israel, a replacement was set on a standard and he was crucified in our stead, if only we would look to him and live. This is the essence of the gospel. Nevertheless, Jesus’ aspiration to Nicodemus goes much deeper than this.
Remember Jesus acknowledged that Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel. Therefore the knowledge of the Old Testament would have been seared on Nicodemus’ heart and mind. Nicodemus knew something which I highly doubt that we know.
Remember that Nicodemus confessed Jesus as one sent from God, because Nicodemus said: “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” But we also know the response of Jesus.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus had knowledge but didn’t have wisdom. Truly, truly I write to you, look at the context, Nicodemus believed Jesus was sent from God. That is, Nicodemus believed, with knowledge but not with wisdom or Spirit. Jesus worked with Nicodemus to show him his knowledge but also, his incredible lack of wisdom and his lack of true faith. We miss it but I believe Nicodemus didn’t.
How can I say that we have turned John 3:16 into an idol? The mega churches. Their theology rarely goes beyond “Jesus loves you.” There is no confrontation of sin; the snakebite is not seen. Millions of Americans belong to these so-called churches but how many of them even know that John 3:16 was spoken by Jesus to a Pharisee? How many of them know the actual context of John 3:16? For that matter, how many of us know?
Jesus pointed Nicodemus, a ruler and teacher of Israel, to Numbers 21. It’s imperative to explore this example. Jesus says that he will be lifted up like the bronze serpent on the pole in Numbers 21, where we watch Israel wander in the wilderness and complain against God. By placing himself on the pole, Jesus points to the snake bite, which is imagery of our sin. Like the bronze serpent represents life, after being bit, Jesus was foreshadowing his cross. Something of which John 3:16, ripped out of context, doesn’t display. John 3:16 is a wonderful verse but it does not sum up the Bible. We make it, and ripping verses out of context, the standard. We believe all there is to evangelism is, “Jesus just wants to love on you, man.”
Speaking of the standard, what ever happened to the bronze serpent on the standard? Interestingly enough, the sons of Israel held on to it, long after it became useless. It was in their possession longer than Solomon’s temple stood. What did they do with it long after the fiery serpents were eliminated? They made an idol of it-bad theology. They didn’t see the imagery of the suffering servant but thought that the pole itself had the power.
Look at 2 Kings 18. “Now it came about in the third year of Hoshea, the son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah became king. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem; and his mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. And he did right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father David had done. He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan.”
God sent the serpents and sent the remedy but the people took the remedy out of context. Rather than worship God in the ways that they had been instructed, they worshiped the image without seeing the imagery. Think of it, Hezekiah smashed a revered, religious relic. Look at the context, Hezekiah did right in the sight of the Lord and smashed something that the great Moses had made. God instructed the creation of this serpent on a pole but Hezekiah was right to destroy it. In the same way, we need to smash the idol we’ve made of John 3:16 by placing it back in its context. A context that points back to the standard and even the smashing of the standard. Notice what 2 Kings 18 says about Hezekiah after he smashed the serpent on the standard.
“He trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel; so that after him there was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among those who were before him. For he clung to the LORD; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the LORD had commanded Moses.”
If the Coronavirus has shown us anything, it is that the mega-church pastors preaching prosperity have been exposed. We have to eliminate the out-of context culture.
Yes, John 3:16 contains the words of Jesus and his words will never pass away. Nevertheless, we apply John 3:16 improperly. Simply because they are the words of Jesus doesn’t mean we can use them as we see fit. Here are some other words of Jesus we don’t apply to everyone; “You brood of vipers.”
However Jesus said, “God so loved the world.” If we see a “so” we should look for a “that.” “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” In other words, based on the context, we have all been bitten by the serpent and need to look to the remedy, Jesus lifted up on the cross. Nicodemus believed God sent Jesus and according to a dogmatic interpretation of John 3:16, Nicodemus would have eternal life. But the context tells a very different story.
Nicodemus knew the Law and prophets and believed Jesus was sent from God, and this seems more than enough to earn eternal life. However Jesus was actually reprimanding Nicodemus using his knowledge of the Law and prophets. That is, even though Nicodemus believed in the Law, prophets and Jesus, he worshiped in vain, holding to taught traditions and letter-of-the-Law hermeneutics. Nicodemus was without the Spirit.
Notice again the confession of Nicodemus. “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus doesn’t say, “right on” or, “you got it” but confounds Nicodemus with his reply.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus does not understand. Jesus takes it a step further. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus still doesn’t understand, because he has not been born again, yet. He then asks, “How can these things be?” Rather than saying anything knew, Jesus walks Nicodemus back to the book of Numbers of which, Nicodemus knew but didn’t understand. He thought that the boring book of Numbers was merely a historical narrative and didn’t see the signs or shadows. Again, because he followed the alleged letter of the Law and had no Spirit. Nicodemus taught traditions to the people but like those who burned incense to a pole, he was blind and bankrupt.
Like the sermons from the former Staples Center, a certain communist country in the Caribbean is going through the motions of idol and idle worship. Upon writing this, my good friends (call them Ricky and Daria) are struggling with their church leaders to have them consider the context. I have sat through “sermons” while on the island, which were hours long, without hearing more than two or three verses quoted, and those, ripped out of context. Unfortunately it goes much further than idle babbling and into idolatry. Pastors are becoming celebrities like the slick, smiling pastor in Huston. The only pastor combating this was chased out of the country by the powers of persecution from the powers that be. And because of the Coronavirus, we cannot go to minister to them at this time. Join me in praying for “Ricky and “Daria.” Pray that they will reflect the true light of Christ on the island. And as you do your devotions, remember to consider the continuing context.
Speaking of the continuing context, next time we will dive deeper into darkness and then the light, death and eternal life. Lord willing of course.