“God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” John 3:16-21
As we journey through our Easter season, we continue to rejoice not only in Jesus’ Resurrection which is closely linked to the Incarnation, but also at the recognition of who Jesus is in light of the Resurrection. It was, after all, the Resurrection and appearance to His disciples that allowed Jesus’ disciples to be firmly convinced of who He was and what He could do. Their confidence in who He was and of His power gave them courage to face even death with dignity, courage, and hope.
Of course John 3:16 is probably one of the most famous passages in the Bible–written even on the underside of In-N-Out Burger drink cups! What good news this is for us to know just how much we are loved by God and to what extent God would go that we “might not perish” but instead “have eternal life.” This good news defies the too-common image of God on the throne sitting there to pronounce judgement in an uncaring and cold way. This image of God is dominant in a “there must be consequences” type of leadership style. John offers us a different vision or image of God’s leadership today–not one of judgement alone, but also one of mercy, sacrifice, and love. In John’s image, the Good Judge rightfully condemns humanity for its sins, but then gets off the judgement seat and takes our place unto death. This is a God that does not stand over us, but with us, even in our stead.
And what must one do, we ask, to merit this amazing act of love by God. John’s answer…believe. John says, “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned.” Do we believe? “Of course we do,” one might easily say! But believing with the mind and believing in the heart are two very different realities. I often illustrate this difference with my students by asking for a volunteer and then telling that student that I WILL NOT hit him in the arm. I ask if he believes me. He says that he does believe me (knowing that I would lose my job for hitting a student!), but nonetheless his flinch at my swing tells a different story. If he truly believed me in his heart then there would be no flinch at all. It turns out that he believes me with his head (thinking that I could lose my job) and with his mouth, but not with his heart. And so it is with many who claim to believe in the Lord Jesus, I’m afraid.
This truth is well taught in the last verse of this same chapter in John’s Gospel when Jesus tells His disciples, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him.” (vs. 36) In this passage, belief = eternal life. You might think that disbelief would mean no eternal life, but actually it’s not disbelief that bars eternal life, but rather disobedience. So, according to Jesus, the opposite of belief is not disbelief, but disobedience. In other words, belief is not a matter of the head, but of the heart, and it’s the heart that motivates one to act in love. Jesus gives but one command, “Love one another.” (JN 13:34) A failure to love is a failure to obey, and obedience is THE greatest indicator of our belief in Jesus Christ. In other words, words are cheap–we knew that already. We know too that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What matters to Jesus is not what we say or what we intend to do, but what we actually do.
Hence the verdict above. “The light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.” When alone, in the silence, and when no one is watching, do we prefer darkness or light–not in our head and with our mouth but with our heart? Christ’s disciples are called to daily commit themselves to the light that is Christ and loving kindness. We must begin to reconcile what we say with what we do if we are to have any hope of eternal life with God. God did indeed come into the world to save it, but we must believe and obey to enjoy that Salvation. Amen?