Besides Psalm 23, John 3:16 is one of the most popular verses in the Bible.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
We see it on billboards and posters at sporting events. It is known by believers and non-believers alike.
But do we really know what it means?
Often when people hear this verse the focus becomes on “belief” and if we believe “enough.” In particular, the focus becomes “Do you believe Jesus died for you or not?” And if the answer is “no” – then sorry, you’re out.
While what we believe does matter (and I don’t mean to take away the significance of belief in our lives of faith or the judgment God extends to those who follow the ways of darkness rather than the light [John 3:18-21]); it seems to me that our usual focus on this verse is perhaps a bit skewed.
Its message is God’s love for the world. Rather than focus on God’s creative and restorative activity in the world; we more often act as though God is distant from the world or could care less about us and all the pain, suffering, injustice, cruelty and sinfulness we see at work around us. It seems as though the crooked, the tyrants and the sinister too often get away with their exploitation of others and the most vulnerable pay the price. We cry out to God for help and nothing changes. From our limited vantage point, the darkness appears to have the upper hand. We take the role of judgment upon ourselves to administer rather than leave it to God, since God appears to have left us to our own devices.
If God is absent, why should we care about Psalm 23 or John 3:16?
Maybe that’s the point.
Jesus makes clear that the cross is the sign where we can find God active in this world. Jesus is the light shining in darkness (John 1:5) even if it looks like the darkness is winning. Like the sign of Moses that was lifted up for all to see while people were dying (John 3:4-15), the cross is lifted up to remind us that God is here – in our suffering, in our sense of abandonment, in our doubts, in our pain and even in our death. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world but to suffer and die to save the world (John 3:17) alongside each of us, lifted up for all to see. The sign of death becomes the sign of life. Easter comes sooner and much closer than we might think.
The cross stands as a sign of hope to believe in – not one that excludes or singles out those who don’t belong, but embraces the world (and everyone in it) with a love so radical, generous, intimate, extensive and bright – it reveals an eternal God who meets us in our lack of belief, despair and suffering when darkness overpowers us. In the cross Jesus offers us an eternal self-giving love in a deep and personal way that leads to a new way of life – both here and hereafter. The eternal light of Jesus shines — even in our temporal darkness. This is the foolishness of the cross Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 that confounds the wise, and befuddles the ways of the world. It is in following this way of the cross here and now that Jesus invites us to live in a new and empowering direction into God’s future, by embracing each other and the hurts of the world in the same embodied sacrificial love Jesus so freely shares with us.
That’s hope I can believe in.
How about you?