Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 15, 2015

John 3:14-21 Commentary

Comments and Observations

John 3:16 may be the most famous Bible verse in the world but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand.  As Frederick Dale Bruner points out in his commentary on The Gospel of John, this entire chapter is fraught with mystery.

The story takes place at night, the meeting seems to be done somewhat in secret, and most of Jesus’ rhetoric to Nicodemus seems calculated to confuse and then to evoke wonder and awe once some measure of understanding begins to break through after all.

What’s more, in the midst of this conversation—Bruner calls it Jesus’ “Nicodemus Sermon”—Jesus evokes one of the oddest images from the Old Testament in bringing up that bronze serpent on a pole out in the wilderness that, weirdly enough, became an instrument of healing to the snake-bitten Israelites at that time (that story is the Old Testament lection for this Sunday in Lent in Year B as well).

When I was a child, somewhere in a children’s Bible storybook (or maybe it was on a painting my Sunday school teacher showed me), I saw an image of this story.  It showed Jesus and Nicodemus seated in the dead of night on a kind of terrace.  As Jesus talked, a wispy image of that bronze serpent appeared over Jesus’ head (almost like a cartoon bubble might appear over Charlie Brown’s head in a comic strip) even as Nicodemus listened to Jesus’ words with his mouth hanging partly open from the mystery of it all.

I don’t generally find great inspiration in the artwork in children’s storybook Bibles but that one actually may fit the bill here as John presents the scene.  It’s a mysterious encounter.  And well-known though the words of John 3:16 may now be, they are part of this mystery.  Maybe we can revive for ourselves and for those to whom we preach the vividness of John 3:16 if we view it through this mystery lens.

After all, what we encounter here is confounding.  Because no sooner does Jesus utter those famous words than he goes on in verse 17 to say that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it.


There sure have been a lot of Christians across the last two millennia who seem to think that condemnation is where it’s at when it comes to preaching, teaching, and evangelizing.  Not a few Christians in North America seem convinced that a major part of their vocation as believers is to wag judgmental fingers in the faces of all kinds of people.  After all, what are all those placards and protest signs paraded in front of socio-political opponents on a range of “culture war” issues if not a message of condemnation?

But here in John 3 Jesus indicates that although there are plenty of condemned people in the world—it’s pretty tough to read John 3:18-20 and deny that Jesus was aware of bad and evil people who really exist in this world—pointing out to them their condemned status is not exactly job #1 for either the Son of God himself nor those who enter his marvelous Light to become saved.  Yes, the condemned are out there and yes, they stand in contrast to those who live in the Light.  And yes, the evil will resist the Light and they won’t willingly walk into the Light lest they be exposed.

All true.  But the message that is to be both proclaimed and lived is one of Life and Light and Truth.  “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.”  So why do so many of us who are baptized into that Son’s name feel that it is our job after all to condemn the world?  Again, we need to be clear that plenty of people stand self-condemned.  There is a difference between those who serve God in Christ and those who serve only themselves or any number of the false gods of the age.

Of course!

But even in the Season of Lent when we focus on sin and on what Jesus came to do to save us from our sin, we dare not forget that above all what we have to proclaim, preach, and teach is Good News.

Questions to Ask/Issues to Address

As is reflected in also the Old Testament sermon commentary for this Sunday in Lent, God’s chosen way of salvation is finally so strange, so unexpected.  I don’t mean to trivialize the most serious matter in the world but there is a sense in which upon encountering God’s plan of salvation for the first time, most any thoughtful person would be tempted to slap his palm onto his forehead while exclaiming, “Who woulda thunk it!!”

Who indeed?  Even as in Numbers 21 God used a symbol of the very problem to be solved as the solution to the problem—snakebite victims had to stare at the image of a snake—so in the New Testament we look to the very thing that frightens us the most—death itself—and somehow find there a path to an eternal life that means death no longer has the final word for any of us.

God made the sinless one to be treated as the most sinful one ever.

God made the eternally alive Son of God die.

Now for the rest of us: Get some of that death into you and you live after all.

Strange.  Striking.  Unexpected.

But as also noted in the Numbers 21 article—and riffing on an observation of Neal Plantinga—there are analogies.  A couple of years ago ahead of my first ever trip to Africa, I had to visit a Health Center to receive multiple shots.  To ward off things like typhoid and yellow fever, my body was injected with small or inert strains of the very diseases I would just as soon avoid.  Getting a dose of the diseases in question gave my antibodies a head start, a way to develop an immunity strategy that put my body ahead of the game in case the real-deal disease ever tried to enter my body big-time.  If vaccines work, it’s the body’s way of saying to an incoming disease, “We’ve got your number, pal, because we’ve seen just enough of you before to know what to do now.  So adios, adieu, hit the road!  We are so ready to resist you!”

That’s how God dealt with the scourge of sin and its grim wage of death: he inoculated us with a bit of that very thing through our baptism into Christ.  We die with Christ so that death cannot do its dirty, final work in us.  The Holy Spirit comes to live in us and knows just what to do when death comes knocking (as it still does for each one of us).  In baptism we have all been there before when it comes to death and so the eternal life that Christ gave us knows what to do to kick death out once and for all.

Textual Points

In his commentary on John, Dale Bruner points out that he once saw John 3:16 laid out as follows as a way to highlight the amazing power in this most famous of Bible verses:

“God The greatest subject ever
So (much) The greatest extent ever
Loved The greatest affection ever
The world (kosmos) The greatest object ever
That He gave His One-and-Only Son, The greatest gift ever
So that every single individual, whoever, The greatest opportunity ever
Who is [simply] entrusting oneself to him The greatest commitment ever
Would never be destroyed, The greatest rescue ever
But would even now have a deep, lasting Life.” The greatest promise ever

Illustration Idea

You’ve probably heard the story about the guy who is walking down the street but who suddenly falls into this deep hole he did not see.  The hole is deep, the walls are steep.

A psychiatrist happens by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Doc, can you help me here?”  The doctor writes a prescription for Lexapro and throws it into the hole.  A priest comes by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Father, can you help me out here?”  The priest writes out a prayer and tosses it down into the hole.

Then the guy’s best friend comes by, sees his friend down in the hole, and immediately jumps in.  “What did you do that for?” the guy says, “Now we’re both stuck.”  “Nah,” the friend says, “I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

In this world of sin and evil, there are so many dark and deep pits into which we fall.  And for each of us there is finally a six-foot deep hole in the ground waiting for us at some cemetery somewhere.  Thanks be to God that Jesus has been down in that hole himself and he knows the way out.

You’ve probably also heard of the way out.

It’s called Easter.


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