Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Reading John 3:16 Responsibly I

by Henk Hart

Greek Manuscript of the New Testament

In this blog and the next I share my reading of John 3:16 in the context of John’s gospel and against the background of Psalm 121, the psalm that celebrates the Creator as Helper and thus throws light on the opening verses of John's gospel. Bible reading exposes us to a message, so I have shaped my reading as a meditation with a message. So this is in every way a subjective reading, but I hope also a responsible reading. One of many possible responsible readings.

Reading John 3:16 Responsibly I

"For God so loved the world...." John 3:16. Likely the best known verse in the Bible. Or the most ill treated verse, torn from the gospel as a naked fragment brazenly broadcast on bulky billboards. Let’s take it off the billboard and place it in the context of John's gospel and the setting of Psalm 121. Will we recognize it there?

Psalm 121, with its moving language for God as helper, deliverer, rescuer, savior, has a strong relation to both Lent and historical Christian worship. For the great celebration of the exodus from slavery, Passover, Israel's primal event of deliverance, pilgrims sang songs of ascent, climbing Mount Zion while singing. Psalm 121, one of these 15 songs of ascent, celebrates the creator God as helper:
"I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth."
For ages Christian worship started with these very words: "Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

For God so loved the world. God’s love is cosmic.

During their Lenten pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples would sing these words. For God so loved the world—

God, the maker of heaven and earth. God almighty.

God as our helper first appears in the creation story, when God realizes that Adam is alone and needs help. The creator is savior from the very beginning, a helper for the helpless Adam, our helper.[1]

For God so loved the world.

It was an arch confession for Israel to sing: "Our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth." This God protects us from all danger, whether we are coming or going, by day or by night:
"The sun shall not strike you by day,
       nor the moon by night. ...
The Lord will keep
       your going out and your coming in...."
God Almighty, maker of all that is made, so loved the world. How sensible that John begins his gospel of redeeming love with the Word of God through whom all things were made:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... All things came into being through him, ... What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[2] John tells Good News starting with God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, our helper.

For God so loved the world.

But listen: "He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him."

What is this? Is John writing about the Jews? Not likely. Recognizing God's presence is not a Jewish but a human challenge. When we read this today we need to hear its echo in Romans: God is visible in all of creation, but human foolishness makes us blind. So when love for the world makes God appear in our flesh, that's a problem. Suppose Hillary Clinton became pregnant (don't laugh, remember Sarah!) and became convinced her baby would be Immanu-el, God with us? Hillary's baby? If that's a problem, why isn’t Jesus a problem? He came from Nazareth, son of carpenter Joseph and his wife Mary. Why would anyone recognize the maker of heaven and earth in a wood worker's child? Would we? Is that how God helps? Whether we're coming or going, by day or by night?

John helps with a story. If we do not recognize Jesus as creator, have we not heard of the wedding in Cana? Where the wine ran out? Great need for help, a wedding without wine. God's creation is for celebration, cosmic joy. In Cana there is only water, six huge vats for washing off the world's misery, six vats for ritual cleansing. Then the Word, through whom all things were made, present in the flesh (for God so loved the world), speaks to these vats. And the party can go on: there is wine. John tells this story of glory as the miracle of miracles.[3] Now the disciples realize this Word-of-God come-in-the-flesh deserves their trust, the way you trust God, whether you're coming or going, by day or by night. The wedding goes on with wine, for God so loved the world.[4]


[1] The Hebrew word for the helper God makes for Adam, ezer, is not used often in the Bible and when it is, it (mostly) refers to God as helper.

[2] The packed and charged language John uses is open to different readings. Reading a number of translations helps to get the depth of these words. Here I have used the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] The Greek has various ways of saying “first.” One of those is “arch” as in archangel or archbishop, which is the word John uses. So given Jesus as the Word of creation, I read John as saying: this was the arch sign, the sign of signs, the original sign, the sign that names all signs, the sign that says: I make all things new. God’s love made manifest in the Word incarnate is cosmic in scope, too much for a billboard.

[4] Next week, on the first day of Lent, I continue this reading of John 3:16 with a look at the story of Nicodemus coming to visit Jesus at night.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Image: P. Bodmer II, Papyrus 66 (Gregory-Aland) in the public domain. Used from wikipedia.

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