Keeping it in Context, part 2: John 3.16

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

One of the most popular quotes in the entire Second Testament is also one that is most often used improperly and out of context. This phrase comes in the middle of a story about a Pharisee named Nicodemus. The first thing we have to remember about the context of this story is that Pharisees were equal parts political movement, social movement, and Jewish school of thought.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Pharisaic beliefs became the basis for Rabbinical Judaism, which eventually became the mainline Judaism we know today. Since John was written only a couple of generations after the destruction of the temple, keeping the Jewish liturgical and ritual traditions alive was very much on the minds of the Rabbis. So too in Jesus’ time. Nicodemus was a highly educated, intelligent fellow very concerned about the traditions of his people.
As usual, Jesus walks into this setting ready to overturn tables. While Jesus respects his traditions, he could give a hoot about traditional liturgy and ritual. In fact, if we read the Second Testament carefully, we clearly see that Jesus is an itinerant preacher who has no use for ritual whatsoever. Nicodemus is very aware of this when he tells Jesus, “You must be of God, for no person could do the things you do without being of God.” Jesus replies, “No one can see the kin-dom of God without being born again,” a phrase which completely mystifies Nicodemus. “How can someone be born again if they’re old?” He exclaims. “Am I to climb back into my mother’s womb?”

Nicodemus, like so many of us today, misunderstands Jesus because he takes him literally. The word the Fourth Evangelist uses here has an intentional double meaning. We’re not sure what word Jesus may have said in Aramaic, but the Greek word, anothen, can mean both again and anew. In this case, the word anew is probably a better choice, because Jesus is speaking in the metaphor of the ancient Jewish mystic. This language was already largely lost by the Second Temple period. Today, it is a language that is completely lost on Christians separated from their Jewish heritage. Pick up any Bible and almost all of them relegate the translation of anothen as anew to a footnote, indicating to the reader that this is a second choice, and so influencing our spiritual thought negatively. Anew is a much better choice in this case, because the context of this story is Jewish mysticism.

Being born of the Spirit anew is a new way of looking at life by accepting and experiencing a new relationship with God. Remember the context! In the 1st Century CE only priests had a direct connection to God. This idea would continue into the 16th Century until Martin Luther inadvertently started the Reformation. Again, Jesus says “Wrong!” to this idea of priestly privilege. Jesus had a direct connection to God, and knows that every single soul on the planet can—and is by birthright supposed to—have the same connection. When Jesus talks about being born anew, he’s not talking about worshipping the ground he walks on. He’s not talking about literal rebirth. He’s talking about becoming reborn of the spirit of God, just like him.

By this point in the short story, Jesus feigns shock that Nicodemus—a teacher of the Jewish people, doesn’t know these things. Jesus knew full well that the mystical teachings of Judaism had already been forgotten. While Jesus may not have been a fan of the liturgy and rituals of his time, he was a big fan of the mystical heritage of Judaism. Jesus was a Jewish mystic. It’s part of the reason he continues to be so easily misinterpreted.

Finally, we come to the infamous line about Jesus being the son of God, sent by God to “save the world.” Whoever believes in Jesus shall have “eternal life.” Over the past couple of thousand years, this line has been taken completely out of context. It has come to mean that if someone doesn’t “believe in” Jesus (whatever that means), they will be condemned to an eternity in Hell. This is completely wrong, and that it has become one of the foundations of modern Christianity is in large part why modern Christianity is in sharp decline. Modern Christianity looks so little like the loving, accepting, all-inclusive teaching of Jesus, were he to actually come back today, he’d probably think we were all Pharisees—steeped in ritual and traditional liturgy, with little to no understanding of the meaning of his words.

First of all, this line is about God’s love for the world. The first line of 3.16, so often translated as “God gave his only son” is better translated as God sent his only son. Again, there are two Greek verbs here that are often used interchangeably, but they completely change the meaning. While it’s cool to think of Jesus as a gift of God, understanding Jesus as sent from God allows us to move away from the idea that Jesus was given as a human sacrifice, which he was not. God loves the world, so God sends a perfect example of humanity. Jesus is an offering of new life and new relationship—one which, if we accept, changes the world completely. Jesus doesn’t die for our sins, he lives to show us what real humanity looks like. That’s God’s true gift.

Next, the phrase “eternal life” in this context is not about eternal, immortal life after we pass from this mortal coil. It’s not about going to heaven or hell after we die, all dependent on whether or not we accept Jesus Christ as our “Lord and Saviour.” Eternal life in this context is about living our lives in the eternal presence of God. Eternal life is not something dangling over our heads like the 
sword of Damocles—it is available here and now. It’s not eschatological, it’s about the present. It’s not about imminent and ever-present peril to our souls, it’s about the imminent and ever-present being of God. It is about Oneness with God, as exhibited and lived by Jesus.

God indeed loves the world, and constantly sends sons and daughters as bringers of light, as examples of what it means to be truly human and completely in sync with the loving energy of God. And you know who those people are? They’re the Mother Teresa’s and Gandhis and Martin Luther King, Jrs., sure. But they’re also you and I and everyone we know and love—every human on the planet, all ready to be born anew.

Meditation: God of constant reinvention, touch my heart, touch my mind, touch my soul.

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