John 3:16-21

John 3:16-21     Reflection

16 God loved the world so much
that he gave his only son,
so that whoever believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.

A cursory reading of the Gospel as a whole can give the impression that the world is evil. That was not the mind of the author. The world of persons, though consistently disfigured by them, is loved by God. Persons, however, can, and must, choose to believe or to disbelieve that love. Those who choose to disbelieve choose also to forgo life and often become the persecutors of those who choose to believe. God accepts people’s decisions – but their decisions do not affect God’s determination to love unconditionally.

The Disciple was absolutely certain of God’s love for the world (and his simultaneous dismay at the shapes the world had taken). He had drawn his certainty from the teaching of the historical Jesus and the later experience of life in the Christian community.

God’s giving of his only Son to the world carries a sense of gentleness (as opposed to vindictiveness) and hope on God’s part. It has the sense of entrusting him to the often violent and murderous world of persons. God’s gentleness is absolutely sovereign and is not dependent on the nature of the world’s response. The world’s need for radical conversion and change – the world's sin – is precisely the reason for the Father’s giving his Son to it. 

At the same time, God's patient forbearance illustrates God's readiness to face the vulnerability of loving. God does not withdraw from expecting (while all the while supporting) a similar vulnerability in those whom God loves. God does not necessarily protect loved ones from suffering.

To open themselves to the creative power of God’s love, people need to believe in Jesus. They need to believe that Jesus truly reveals in human form the graciousness and mercy of the unknowable God. Those who entrust themselves to Jesus experience eternal life. Those who refuse to trust God’s revelation in Jesus effectively close themselves off from genuine life, with the result that they perish.

Eternal life is essentially life lived with God. It is not a once-and-for-all possession; in fact, it is not possessed at all. Rather, the loving God possesses the believer. As believers surrender to that love, they are gradually, and increasingly, transformed. The process begins now, and continues beyond death into eternity.


17 “For God did not send his only son into the world
to condemn the world
but so that the world might be saved through him.

The text essentially restated the previous remark, with minor differences. It made the added point that God not only gave his Son to the world, but sent him to the world with a mission, which Jesus wholeheartedly embraced. It identified Jesus’ action in enabling people to enjoy eternal life as essentially connected to the world's being saved. The experience of the world's salvation and of people's enjoyment of eternal life are complementary parts of the same package.

Jesus does not condemn. Jesus offers the possibility of salvation and eternal life. 

Salvation – How? 

The text did not indicate how Jesus saved the world, other than by his being the revelation of the loving God, whom people could choose either to trust or not trust. 

When people today think of being saved, they frequently think of being saved from Original Sin or from the prospect of eternity in Hell. But that was not what the Gospel had in mind. (The doctrine of Original Sin was not formally developed until centuries after the Gospel was written; Hell was never mentioned in John’s Gospel; nor was the word Heaven used to refer to the future experience of believers.)

So, if the Gospel did not have Original Sin and Hell in mind, from what did Jesus come to save people? Whatever about Original Sin, Jesus certainly came to save people from the sinful attitudes embedded in “the world”, that so diminished personal and social life, and that seemed invariably enshrined in the unquestioned customs of almost all social, political and religious cultures.  John (the Baptist) had correctly identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” [1:39].

Most people would draw back from the possibility that life, as it is presently experienced – with its selfishness, competitiveness, drivenness, emptiness and violence [the practical shapes of sin] – would continue, basically unchanged, for eternity. They would want radical change. Eternity would be bearable, only if people would live, not only in harmony, but in deeply loving relationships.

In order to love, people need to be saved from what stops them loving unconditionally – from their fears, their insecurities and their fascination with themselves. They need, somehow, to be freed from the power of cultures and human systems that are driven by superficial desires, and that maintain the semblance of unity by exclusion of dissidents and by violence disguised as law.

Eternal life is life shared with the loving God. While experience reveals what it is not, it cannot reveal what it is. It can be known only as people undergo the continual transformation worked in them by God’s empowering love.

18 Those who believe in him are not condemned.  
Those who do not believe have already been condemned,
because they have not believed in the name of the only son of God..

Belief in Jesus, the Son of Man, is, however, the criterion that determines people’s destinies. People choose salvation and eternal life by opening themselves to the transforming love of God revealed in Jesus, or they close themselves off from life by refusing to accept Jesus as the revelation of the God who loves.

That people be condemned runs quite contrary to God’s will. God does not condemn. People condemn themselves to existence without love, because they perversely refuse to respond to God as love, revealed in Jesus.

The reality of condemnation is not something reserved for life beyond death. It is present experience as well. Those who reject the God of love, revealed in Jesus, freely close themselves off from the source of all growth in love; their potential is thwarted. However, in today’s world, through ignorance or through the inadequate witness given by believers, many people deny what they believe to be God, when, in fact, they are discarding inadequate images of God. Indeed, whenever they genuinely choose love, justice, or other transcendental values, unknowingly, they are often choosing the real God.

19 This is the judgment:
the light came into the world
and people loved the darkness rather than the light,
because their deeds were evil.
20 For all those who do evil deeds hate the light
and do not come near the light
so that their deeds will not be exposed;

People’s reluctance to believe that God loves them, and to surrender themselves to that love, continued to be a source of constant bewilderment to the Beloved Disciple. Jesus came into the world of human cultures, with their social, political and religious systems, to throw the spotlight onto the infinite grace and truth of God – God’s unconditioned graciousness, integrity and faithfulness. But, astonishingly, many people preferred not to believe. At a loss to know why they would refuse love, the Disciple simply attributed their disbelief to the fact that their deeds were evil

Social, political and religious systems will not tolerate dissidents and will exclude them by whatever means they deem effective. People held tightly in the grasp of their various systems can find it hard to face the God who is love. Fashioned in the image of God, people were created to love but choose not to live from love. They will not face the light, because it exposes their sin. For the Beloved Disciple, dissimulation was not an option.

Nicodemus had come in from the darkness towards the light, but, unable to move beyond the familiar and comfortable where he belonged and was respected, he disappeared back into the darkness – at least, for the time being.

21 … while those who act in conformity with truth come to the light
so that it becomes obvious that their deeds are done in God.

The Disciple concluded the discourse with a gentle affirmation of his fellow-disciples. 

The discourse had begun with Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night [3:2]. It concluded with Jesus revealing himself as the light that would expel all night.

Next >> John 3:22-36