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.
This is one of the best known verses in the Bible, not least because of the choral setting of it in Stainer’s Crucifixion. It shows that the coming of Jesus into our world and his giving of his life is central to God’s purposes.
Modern translations of the Bible have punctuation, speech marks and paragraphs. In the third chapter of John’s gospel it is hard to know where Jesus’ speech stops and the evangelist’s explanation begins. Our verse comes shortly after Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again. Nicodemus does not seem to understand that this is metaphor. To enter the Kingdom of God is so radical it is like being born all over again. This new beginning is the work of the Holy Spirit, and he comes as he chooses.
Jesus compares the Spirit’s coming to the wind: the wind itself cannot be seen, we only sense the effects it has such as sound. The wind cannot be predicted, even with modern meteorology. How much more does the Spirit of God come and act as he chooses.
Jesus reprimands Nicodemus for not understanding what Jesus is saying: even though Jesus has spoken of earthly things Nicodemus does not believe. Nicodemus should have known better: Jesus addresses him as the teacher of Israel, and with his knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) Nicodemus should have been able to tune into Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus then refers to an Old Testament incident. Numbers 21:4-9 tells of a time during the Hebrews’ journey through the wilderness. They were grumbling, bringing down God’s anger. God sent venomous snakes among them. The remedy that was provided was for Moses to make a bronze snake and to put it on a pole: if anyone who had been bitten looked at the snake, they would be healed.
Jesus tells how we may be healed of our sin and freed from the anger of God. Rather than look at a bronze snake, we are to look at Christ: it is the Son of Man who is to be lifted up. Here Jesus is looking ahead to his crucifixion: he was to be lifted up on the cross. The gospel-writer draws this idea out further in John 12:32-33. ‘But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.”
Jesus was to give his life on the cross so that all kinds of people might find life in him. This life is available to anyone who puts their trust in Jesus. Here we see God’s love extended to all, through the Son giving himself. This new life is brought to us by the Holy Spirit: it is God’s gracious work from beginning to end, open to each of us to receive by trusting in Christ.
It is the Son of Man, Jesus, who was lifted up: our verse (3:16) tells us that this is the Father’s gift to all kinds of people. The source of Jesus’ self-giving is the Father’s love for the world. This is the world that God has made, the world that has gone astray. God loves it so much that nothing is too much trouble. God gives the best gift he has: his own Son. God’s purpose is for life to be available to all kinds of people.
Questions for discussion:
1. What is the most precious gift you can imagine one person giving to another?
2. Who might you give that gift to?
3. What has God given for the world?
4. What does that say about God’s love for us?
5. Given that we can never repay that love, how should we respond?
6. What is the best gift that we could give to God?