Revisiting John 3:16 (pt 2)

We want to stress how broad God’s love is while John wants to stress how deep God’s love is.

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See the prologue and Pt 1 to this series.

In the previous post I suggested that we ought to consider Jn 3:16 along the lines of what a Pharisee like Nicodemus would have understood when Jesus said “God so loved the world.” For a guy like Nic that kind of statement would have signified God’s love for all nations since a devout Jew would have had two functional categories–Israel and the nations. Rather than blessing Israel and judging the rest, God was offering life in his kingdom to the world on the basis of a new, spiritual birthright through faith. In short, Nic would understand Jn 3:16within a broadly corporate framework–people groups rather than individual people.

But our vantage point is weak on corporate identity and big on individualism so that we understand Jn 3:16 in the spirit of democratic equality–God loves every single person. Nic interprets the world as a collective term for the nations while we interpret the world as a collective term for individual people. Whose interpretation is correct?

Neither. It’s a trick question. [Oh, you’re smooth. -Shive]

As every husband has learned after receiving messages from his wife, the correct interpretation isn’t what you think the author means but what the author intended the message to mean. So when we read ‘God so loved the world’ what we really need to know is John’s intended meaning for the world.

THE MEANING of WORLD in JOHN

For John, the world almost always refers to a domain rather than a physical place or population. It’s “the place of human rebellion against God in contrast to God’s kingdom” (New Dictionary of Biblical Theology) and although people are certainly part of this domain, John’s use of the term is too broad and abstract to limit it to something like a divine census. Even a casual review of the word in John’s gospel makes it clear that world means more than people.  Consider just a few examples:

John 12:25 “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.
John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.
John 15:19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world because of this the world hates you.
John 17:14 “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

Obviously, the world can’t mean all people in these verses and must be signifying something more than global population. But once we acknowledge this we’re almost forced to reconsider the intended meaning of world in Jn 3:16, too. Let me interject here that our reticence to refine our understanding of ‘God so loved the world‘ is understandable especially when we suspect that ‘refining’ is a nefarious attempt to restrict God’s love. And yet I think that by aligning our interpretation with John’s intended meaning we don’t minimize God’s love, we magnify it. Carson’s explanation is very helpful on this point when he says God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big and includes so many people, but because the world is so bad: that is the customary connotation of kosmos (‘world’).” We want to stress how broad God’s love is while John wants to stress how deep God’s love is.

CUT TO THE CHASE

If you’re still with me at this juncture you’re probably saying the same thing I say to my kids when they tell me they want a cell phone: So what’s your point?

The point is that Jn 3:16 just doesn’t work as a defeater verse for Calvinism, particularly in regard to unconditional election. Using the verse to that end depends on at least two related assumptions: (1) world means every single person (2) since God loves every single person, he must love them in exactly the same way. Both of these assumptions are taken to undermine the Calvinistic understanding of God’s elect. In fairness, those assumptions may be discovered and defended from other passages, just not from Jn 3:16.

Assumption #1 has already been shown to miss the broader meaning of world in John’s gospel which means that assumption #2 is moot. But for the sake of a full hearing it’s worth noting that #2 also fails in light of two other statements concerning the world that we find in John:

John 9:39 And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.”
John 17:9 I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given me; for they are Yours.

So the Father sent the Son into the world so that the world might be saved (3:17) and Jesus came into the world for judgment (9:39). God loved the world and Jesus did not pray for the world. Unless we are to define the Father’s love for the world differently than Jesus’ love for the world I think it’s safe to say that the Father’s love for the world is far more complex than a one-size-fits-all kind of affection.

Based on John’s meaning and use of world an objective interpreter would be hard-pressed to turn Jn 3:16 into a rebuttal of Calvinism. But since there are zealots on both the right and the left of this issue let me say a quick word to other side, too. While 3:16 isn’t a defeater verse for Calvinism it isn’t a support for it either. If world doesn’t exactly mean ‘every single person’ it certainly doesn’t signify ‘the elect.’ As I see it, the verse is theologically neutral on this matter.

Revisiting John 3:16 (pt 1)

The reasons for this piddly mini-series can be found in the prologue here.

There are unplumbed depths in the limpid clarity of this writing. What at first appears obvious is presently seen to pose problems.
–Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John

So long as we discuss soteriology we will discuss the meaning and implications of Jn 3:16 and for good reason. Few verses so succinctly capture such massive themes in redemption–God’s unmerited love for rebels, the giving of the incarnate Son as a sacrifice for sin, and the promise of eternal life for all who place their trust in him. But all that’s succinct is not always simple.

TALKING ‘NEW BIRTH’ WITH A PHARISEE

Too many times we invoke Jn 3:16 without appreciating the role of the surrounding context in determining its meaning. Before we get to some of the particulars in 3:16 itself we need to say a few things about the broader context.

First, 3:16 is part of the “new birth discourse” found in 3:1-21 which means that the verse can’t be interpreted on its own. Too often 3:16 is tossed around without any consideration of its place in the overall discourse.

Second, since we’re told that this new birth discourse is delivered to a Pharisees/Jewish ruler, we should ask what Jesus said and what Nicodemus would have heard. For example, what would a Jewish religious leader have understood Jesus to mean when he said “God so loved the world“? Expanding the scope of our question, how would 3:16 have been understood in conjunction with Jesus’ prior claim that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3)?

In Nic’s mind natural birth was all that was necessary for entrance into God’s kingdom since your physical birth determined who was in (Israel) and who was out (anyone not Israel). But even if Nic were to have grasped what it meant to be “born again” he still would have assumed that that sort of thing was reserved for those who were “in” Israel. It’s not until 3:16 that Jesus clarifies that the offer of life to “whoever believes” (3:15) is an offer that extends to the world. The takeaway is that God’s love is not limited to Israel as the kingdom is inherited by spiritual birthright available to people of every nation (i.e. the world). So whereas we interpret 3:16 as God so loved [every single person], Nic would interpret it as God so loved [all people]. Both statements are true, but the latter is a truer fit for the context. Think of the different interpretations as an approach to a pointillist panting–you can focus on the individual spots but you’d be missing the artist’s larger point (no pun intended).

Third, when we recognize the implicit relationship between new birth and God’s love for the world, we’re not surprised to find that this connection is established as early as Jn 1:12-13 where the right to become children of God is granted to those who believe in His name, who were born . . . of God. Interestingly, belief (1:12) is not said to be the condition for the new birth (1:13)–those who received Him (v 12a) are those who believe in His name (v 12c) are those who are born of God (v 13).

This lack of distinction between new birth and belief in 1:12-13 has interesting implications for 3:16 which stresses the necessity of belief for eternal life. If belief and (new) birth are both attributed to God’s work in 1:12-13 and if born again is attributed to the mysterious work of the Spirit in 3:6-8, should we then attribute believe in 3:16 to the will of man? Doubtful. We’d do better to follow the pattern laid out in 1:12-13 and to understand both born again and believe as a mysterious work of God by his Spirit.

But even if we were to discount the role of 1:12-13 in interpreting 3:16, I don’t think the verse stands up as a proof text for free will. To say that that whoever believes will not die simply means that . . . whoever believes will not die. The promise makes no claim concerning the ability or likelihood of enjoying the promise. Those issues can only be brought into 3:16 by inference or from other verses.

Jn 3:16–succinct but not necessarily simple.

Stay tuned for pt 2.

 

Revisiting John 3:16 (prologue)

Some discussions emanate from perennial issues that are sure to be revisited in the not-too-distant future and when those discussions happen on the Google machine it seems prudent to save your work. Such is the reason for this piddly mini-series on the interpretation of John 3:16.

The genesis of the subsequent posts was a friendly back and forth over the work of salvation as it’s popularly understood by Calvinists. [When will the mavericks be given a platform for their hybrid theologies?!? –Shive]. At some point–and such was the case here–the non-Calvinist invokes John 3:16 to make three related points: (1) God doesn’t love the elect in a special way because “God so loved the world” (2) everyone is a potential believer because the verse says “whoever believes” and (3) only by hermeneutical jujitsu can a Calvinist ever hope to neutralize this defeater verse (e.g. God so loved the world [of the elect]).

But I hope to show that Jn 3:16 is far more substantive than the straw men we construct when we ignore the larger context. On its own the verse is neither an anti-Calvinist trump card nor is it stealth support for unconditional election.

I say all this as a simple attempt to provide some context for the posts to come. Names will be withheld to protect the innocent and the content lightly edited so as to keep the profanity-laced tirades and ad hominem attacks to a minimum.

Stay tuned.

 

Reformation 500: Zwingli’s turn to ‘sola scriptura’

When I was younger, I gave myself overmuch to human teaching, like others of my day, and when about seven or eight years ago I undertook to devote myself entirely to the Scriptures I was always prevented by philosophy and theology. But eventually I came to the point where led by the Word and Spirit of God I saw the need to set aside all these things and to learn the doctrine of God direct from his own Word. Then I began to ask God for light and the Scriptures became far clearer to me.

–Bromiley, Zwingli and Bullinger, 90-91 (as cited in George, Theology of the Reformers).

The Crucifixion

I recently began reading The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ and have been very appreciative of what I’ve read so far. If Part 1 is any indication this may be the first of many passages I share from the book.

[Note to the Haters: the author, Fleming Rutledge, is an Episcopal priest and {gulp} a woman! How do ya like me now???]

On the significance of Christ’s crucifixion to the Christian faith Rutledge incisively observes:

In the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the only word used in connection with the entire span of Jesus’ life is “suffered.” “Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” Who, today, notices how extraordinary this is? What a way to describe the life and ministry of a man so famous for his teachings, parables, healings, exorcisms, and other works! None of these things are even mentioned in the creeds, and very little is said of them in the various New Testament epistles. The wording of the creeds is a vivid demonstration of the early Christians’ conviction that the passion was the culmination and consummation of everything that Jesus accomplished, so as to subsume everything else in the magnitude of its significance. Yet various versions of Christianity stripped of suffering and devoid of crucifixion are more common than ever in affluent America.

The results of our rebelliousness

But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities… {Isa 53:5, NAS}

As I was studying Isaiah 53 for a men’s Bible study I came across this poignant passage from Oswalt. Referring to the “piercing” and “crushing” of the Servant in v5 he states:

This effect in the Servant is the measure of how seriously God takes our rebellion and crookedness. We typically wish to make light of our “shortcomings,” to explain away our “mistakes.” But God will have none of it. The refusal of humanity to bow to the Creator’s rule, and our insistence on drawing up our own moral codes that pander to our lusts, are not shortcomings or mistakes. They are the stuff of death and corruption, and unless someone can be found to stand in our place, they will see us impaled on the swords of our own making and broken on the racks of our own design. But someone has been found. Someone has taken on himself the results of our rebelliousness, and we have been given the keys of the kingdom (2 Cor 5:21; 8:9; 1 Pet 2:24).

–John Oswalt, Isaiah (NICOT)

‘You are not able to serve the Lord’

Did ancient Israel know about reverse psychology? Exhibit A — Joshua’s farewell address to the people:

JOSHUA: fear the Lord and serve Him . . . put away the gods which your fathers served and serve the Lord (24:14) . . . choose for yourselves today whom you will serve (24:15).

PEOPLE: We will serve the Lord because He is our God (24:18).

JOSHUA: You will not be able to serve the Lord for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God… (24:19)

I’m no PSYOPs master (although I dabble from time to time with the kids) but this doesn’t sound like reverse psychology. No, what Joshua says is what he actually means; namely, Israel will not be able to follow through on her commitment to serve the Lord.

 

What we have here is a recurring paradox in the OT: God calls/commands his people to do  what he knows (and they prove) they cannot do. “You will not be able to serve the Lord.”

Now it would be tempting to launch into a withering discourse on man’s sin and depravity, but in this instance God’s word draws our minds not to human nature but to the divine nature. In other words, it is God’s nature that makes it impossible for his people to serve him:

The nature of God himself prevents Israel from serving him. His holy purity and jealous love both tie him in total devotion to his people and tie them off from fulfilling his demands. This has drastic consequences. God will not forgive Israel’s sins (cf. Exod 23:21). His expectations of them are too high. His love for them is too great. He cannot easily ignore their wrongdoings, their casual flirtations with other gods. The gods of the neighbors would simply wait for the worshiper to come back. Yahweh goes out to discipline the errant lover until she returns. –Trent Butler, Joshua, 275.

Incidentally, I think Paul touches this in Romans 7. Left to ourselves, even when the wanting and willing is present, the doing is not. His holiness ties us off from fulfilling his demands.

But what if God himself fulfilled his own demands for his people (Rom 8:3-4; Heb 10:5-7)? And what if he then gave us a share in his divine nature (2Pet 1:4) so that through him we could serve him (Jn 3:21)?

Well, it would take someone far better than Joshua to make that happen.

 

 

Sometimes Scripture is like your Facebook feed

Sorry for the delay. I had to go take a long, hot shower after that title. Let’s cut to the chase–I have a confessional booth to find.

On Sunday morning our adult Bible study is working through Joshua. We’ve reached the point in the narrative where Israel has taken possession of the land and all that remains (supposedly) is to parcel out the land to the various tribes.

Now the conquest portion of the book takes up eleven out of twenty-four chapters. But on closer inspection, the military campaign doesn’t actually begin until Joshua 6 which means that the conquest is contained in the span of six chapters and two of those chapters (7 & 9) are spent detailing failures that threaten the long-term success of the military campaign. So all told, Israel’s conquest of Canaan is relayed in the space of four action-packed chapters. The reader is left with the distinct impression that the conquest is a seamless sequence of victories–swift, thorough, and thrilling.

But is this an accurate picture?

The question is important for at least two reasons. First, we don’t just want to read Scripture; we want to read Scripture well. To that end we should remember that first impressions often fade in the light of sustained study. Second, the impressions we draw from the Bible’s story line shape our expectations for the Christian life. For example, the conquest motif in Joshua is certainly analogous to the spiritual battles God’s new covenant people must encounter before we enjoy our promised rest (2Cor 10:3-5; Gal 5:16-17; Eph 6:10ff). But what, exactly, should we expect in our conflict? Will ours be the inexorable blitzkrieg we see in Joshua?

Not exactly. But don’t be discouraged–that wasn’t Joshua’s experience either.

Several passages tip us off to the fact that Joshua’s life didn’t consist of one thrilling victory after another, but two will suffice for our purposes:

Joshua 11:18 “Joshua waged war a long time with all these kings.”

14:7, 10  “I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land . . . Now behold, the LORD has let me live, just as He spoke, these forty-five years, from the time that the LORD spoke this word to Moses, when Israel walked in the wilderness; and now behold, I am eighty-five years old today. {NAS}

Say what you will about a long time but a long time isn’t quick. [Call your local seismologist. I feel an epistemological earthquake coming on! –Shive] More specifically, Caleb’s statements in 14:7 & 10 turn the supposed Israelite blitzkrieg into a mundane five year campaign.

So the short story consisting of action-packed moments in a tightly ordered sequence actually stretches out over a span of at least five years. Additionally, when we compare the list of kings conquered in Joshua 12 with the kings previously cited in Joshua 6-11, we’re surprised to find that multiple battles occurred for which we have no record at all.

The point is that the biblical authors almost always give us the highlights rather than an exhaustive account. And highlights are, by definition, not normal. We’re not told about the hours spent returning to camp, gathering firewood, preparing food, and sharpening blades. We have no mention of sore feet and irritating co-workers. The story gives no thought to what transpired for the women and children as they waited for the men to finish the job. How did the families cope with boredom or burnt food? What happened when the kids in the next tent got too noisy? Terrible two’s anyone?

There’s nothing wrong with skipping over those details. Just like there’s nothing wrong with withholding from Facebook the details of a lunch order, traffic update, or every inconsequential thought that transverses our little synapses (seriously, people). Just the highlights will do. Just remember that no one’s life is uninterrupted highlights.

All of biblical history is written with an agenda, with a message to convey. As such, whatever doesn’t “fit the narrative” doesn’t see the page. By keeping this principle in mind we go a long way to guarding ourselves against unrealistic expectations in the Christian life. More often than not the Christian life is about meeting the seemingly uneventful with simple faithfulness with the occasional crisis and/or climax thrown in.

Not so long ago what I just described was considered “normal.” Then social media came along. Now we call it disappointing.

Sometimes the answer is complex

Unless we want to force an answer onto the text, some questions have to remain open.

One of the things I enjoy most in my line of work is having someone ask questions following a Bible study or sermon. Usually, questions are a good sign that someone (a) has been listening and (b) is thinking more broadly about what was said. [I’ve always had questions about your teaching and preaching. –Shive]

Of course, sometimes a simple question doesn’t have a simple answer and we’re reminded that we’re probing mysteries rather than solving problems. What follows is part of an exchange–slightly edited–I had with a member who was thinking through Jesus’ statements to Nicodemus in John 3. Unless we want to force an answer onto the text, some questions have to remain open.

MEMBER: Why did [Jesus] often respond to people with statements that they would not understand? His conversation with Nicodemus is one of those times. Here Nicodemus comes, asking honest questions and seems to be searching for the truth and Jesus keeps answering his questions with weird things about being born a second time and the wind blowing but you can’t see it. Just seems a bit mean. Like [my son] coming and asking me a math question and I give him a calculus explanation.

ME: Great question! The reasons Jesus had for talking over the heads of his audience varies depending on the situation & context. In the case of Nicodemus, I’d probably want to make two observations. First, Nicodemus approached Jesus as if he had some measure of spiritual knowledge to render judgments about Jesus (3:2–Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher…). But Nic’s confusion about things he actually should know (3:10) demonstrates that he doesn’t possess the spiritual insight he claimed. Jesus’ “incomprehensible” answer demonstrates that the wise are really not all that wise and puts them in their place. Second, notice that Jesus connects Nicodemus’ lack of understanding to unbelief (3:11-13) so that we should probably consider that Nic’s confusion is due to more than childlike ignorance.

MEMBER: But all of this “kingdom of God” talk most Jews acquainted with Jesus coming as their conquering king. Without the H.S. leading and guiding, should they really have known these truths about the Spirit’s indwelling and a second birth? Not sure which prophet speaks of the heart of stone being replaced with a heart of flesh and no one having to teach his neighbor about knowing God because all men will know Him. So I know the OT does speak a little to all of this but really not in a straight forward way. So, should Nicodemus have really been able to understand what Jesus was saying?

Again, just thinking in terms of my kids. If I want them to understand something that is vitally important ot their well being, safety, life, etc I don’t think I am going to speak in parables. I think I am going to flat out tell them as simply as I need to what I need them to know.

ME: I don’t know that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer since various explanations are found in John’s story line:

  • Some ignorance was due to hard hearts (Jn 5:39-40),
  • some things only Jesus’ sheep would hear/grasp (Jn 10:24-26)
  • some things could have been known but weren’t until after the fact (Jn 12:16),
  • some ignorance was the inescapable result of God’s work (Jn 12:37-43)
  • some things were spoken figuratively so as to keep things hazy until further revelation was given (Jn 16:25).

Ultimately, God grants insight/understanding as a gift according to his purpose (Mt 16:15-17; Mk 4:11-12; Luke 24:31, 44-45).

Sometimes we are ‘hunted into the Bible’

…no man, without trials and temptations, can attain to the true understanding of the Holy Scriptures.

It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Your statutes. {Psalm 119:71, NAS}

In this entry from Table Talk Martin Luther speaks of the contribution sufferings make to the study of Scripture (and prayer). Christian, your suffering is not in vain:

I, said Luther, did not learn my divinity at one only time, but I was constrained to search deeper and deeper, to which my temptations brought me; for no man, without trials and temptations, can attain to the true understanding of the Holy Scriptures. St. Paul had a devil that beat him with fists, and with temptations drove him diligently to study the Holy Scripture. I, said Luther, had cleaving and hanging on my neck the Pope, the Universities, all the deep-learned, and with them the devil himself; these hunted me into the Bible, where I diligently read, and thereby, God be praised, at length I attained to the true understanding of the same. Without such a devil, we are but only speculators of divinity, and according to our vain reasoning, we dream that so-and-so it must be, as the Monks and Friars in monasteries do.

The Holy Scripture of itself is certain and true enough; but God grant me the grace that I may catch hold on the right use thereof; for when Satan disputeth with me in this sort, namely, whether God be gracious unto me or no? then I must not meet him with this text: “Whoso loveth God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his strength, the same shall inherit the kingdom of God;” for then the devil presently objecteth, and hitteth me in the teeth, and saith, “Thou hast not loved God, with all thy heart,” etc., which, indeed, is true, and my own conscience therein, witnesseth against me; but at such a time I must arm myself and encounter him with this text, namely: “That Jesus Christ died for me, and through him I have a gracious God and Father; Christ hath made an atonement for me,” as St. Paul saith, “He is of God given unto us for wisdom, for righteousness, for holiness, and for redemption.”

Tyrants, sectaries, seducers, and heretics do nothing else but drive us into the Bible, to make us read more diligently therein, and with more fervency to sharpen our prayers.