15 March 2015

John 3:14-21

“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.” (v. 16)

Psalm: Psalm 107


Today's passage contains probably one of the most famous verses in the whole of the Bible: John 3:16. For many Christians this one verse expresses so much about the nature of God that they reproduce it on countless posters, banners and even tattoos. However, it is part of a longer dialogue that began in John 3:1 when Nicodemus, "a leader of the Jews", came to speak to Jesus. We are told that he came "by night" (John 3:2), presumably because he did not want others to know that he was meeting this radical new preacher. This context of a nocturnal meeting brings into sharper focus what Jesus has to say later about darkness and light (verses 19-21): a man seeking the 'light of the world' feels he has to come by night. This theme of light and dark is one that runs through much of John's Gospel (John 1:1-9).

During the dialogue, Jesus also mentions a rather obscure incident in the Old Testament, when "Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness" (v. 14, referring to Numbers 21:5-9). This took place during the Exodus, when the Israelites were led by Moses out of Egypt into the wilderness for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. The people were suffering greatly from poisonous snakes and so God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it up on a pole. All those who had been bitten and looked upon the serpent were cured. Many commentators believe that Jesus wanted his hearers to understand that in the same way he, "the Son of Man" (v. 14) must be lifted up on a cross to heal the world of its sins and reconcile humanity to God. The meaning may have been clearer in the language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic, where the same word had connotations of being lifted up for crucifixion or to glory. In other words, Jesus is telling Nicodemus, and us, that the only way all the good things of which he speaks may come about - love, life, light - is through his sacrifice and death.

To Ponder

  • Today is Mothering Sunday when many people will record with gratitude all that mothers do in our world. Who has made sacrifices in your life, in order that you might become the person you are today?
  • John 3:16 is such a familiar verse that we may read it without taking in the magnitude of what it says about God and Jesus. How do we prevent such key Bible passages losing their impact?
  • How can we reach out to people who love "darkness rather than light" (v. 19)?

Bible notes author

The Revd Geoffrey Farrar

Geoffrey Farrar is currently a Methodist presbyter in the West Hertfordshire and Borders Circuit of the Methodist Church, where he has pastoral charge of three churches in the Watford area. He trained at Wesley House in Cambridge and has recently completed an MA in Ancient History with the University of Trinity Saint David.