“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.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:16-21 – NRSV)
This text is part of a dialogue Jesus has with Nicodemus, “a leading Jew who came to Jesus by night”. Jesus has spoken to Nicodemus about being “born from above”. He goes on to teach the teacher of Israel: “I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3:5-6).
“The Nicodemus scene is our first introduction to the Johannine discourse. It is the first oral exposition in John of the revelation brought by Jesus, and in capsule form it gives the principal themes of that revelation.” (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29), Yale University Press, 2008, 135.)
loved: The verb is agapaō. William Barclay writes: “Greek is one of the richest of all languages and it has an unrivalled power to express shades of meaning. It therefore often happens that Greek has a whole series of words to express different shades of meaning in one conception, while English has only one. In English we have only one word to express all kinds of love; Greek has no fewer than four. Agapē means love, and agapan is the verb which means to love. Love is the greatest of all the virtues, the characteristic virtue of the Christian faith.” (William Barclay, New Testament Words, (The William Barclay Library) (Kindle Locations 199-203). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.) Raymond Brown adds further: “The aorist implies a supreme act of love.” (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 133.)
the world: The very emphatic statement of God’s love is accompanied by another emphasis, not usual in John. Again Raymond Brown writes: “Cf. 1 John 4:9: ‘In this way was God’s love revealed in our midst: God has sent His only Son into the world that we may have life through him’. Notice that in I John the love is oriented toward Christians (‘we’) while in John 3:16 God loves the world. In all other examples in John, God’s love is directed to the disciples, for in its dualism John does not mention God’s love for the unjust as does Matt 5:45.” (Rayond Brown, op cit, 133.) And the “world” is mentioned again three times in the next sentence as the particular object of God’s infinite love.
believe: The concept of believing is always expressed as a verb – pisteuō – in John, never a noun. Pisteuo in one form or other – is expressed 97 times in John’s Gospel and 9 times in Johns First Letter. “To believe is the vital step required from man confronted with Jesus, the condition for receiving God’s gift of life.” (Dom Ralph Russell, “St John” in A New Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, General Editor Reginald C Fuller, Nelson, 1969, 799d.) To believe Jesus is to give oneself to him, trusting that he is the Son of God. Believing is not about doctrinal propositions, it is a relationship, a communion of life, it is an experience of mutual surrender. Though, out of such an experience, there will emerge content, a series of beliefs.
send: The verb is apostellein. Raymond Brown writes: “’Send’ with reference to the mission of Jesus is expressed in John by two verbs without any apparent distinction of meaning: pempein (26 times) and apostellein (18 times). The Synoptics use apostellein for the mission of Jesus (except Luke 20:13); Paul uses pempein. For John Jesus is sent to the world; for the Synoptics Jesus is sent to Israel (Matt 15:24; Luke 4:43).” (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 134.)
A saying has been passed down in the East from ancient times. When the finger points to the moon, look at the moon not the finger. The same wisdom can be applied to Christian theology and our language about God.
St Augustine said: “If you are able to understand what you are saying about God, it is not God” [Sermon, LII, vi, 16]. The founder of the Aquinas Academy, Fr Austin Woodbury SM – affectionately known as “The Doc” – was fond of reminding his students that our language about God is “likey”, “notty” and “morey”. This was Fr Woodbury’s way of saying that whatever language we use of God, we must never forget that we are saying, “God is like this, but not this, God is more than this”. The analogy of the lookout might help. For example, when thinking of God, go to the lookout marked “love”, not the lookout marked “hate”. God is not the lookout but the horizon towards which we gaze from the lookout. Thus, God is like what we understand by love, but God is not that, because God is infinitely more than that. But, if we orient ourselves in the direction of love we are opening ourselves to begin knowing God.
All this reminds us T S Eliot’s words in “Dry Salvages”, “These are only hints and guesses”. And we ought not forget that this failure of comprehension and language applies, in the end, to all our engagements with reality. People, events and things are inexhaustibly intelligible. This is, in a word, what we mean by mystery. The experience of being unable to understand or adequately describe someone or something is a humbling moment and potentially a breaking free of the prison of rationalism and materialism that so encumber our culture. Daily we are reminded, if we care to pay attention, that life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. We must learn again reverence and awe and the language of silence in the face of everyday experience.
The limits of our comprehension and our language that apply to the “being” of God also apply to the “doing” of God. What God has done – and continues to do – through Jesus Christ, is infinitely beyond our comprehension and any explanations we might develop. So when we speak of God as “Triune” – three persons in one God – we ought to contemplate “the moon” not “the finger”.
The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that, when we say “God”, we are pointing to a community. God is a communion of life, endlessly self-giving. Jesus’ death on the cross has given us a remarkable insight into this self-giving communion: It is also self-emptying! Since we are made in the image and likeness of God, we are made for self-giving communion. It is our nature to be self-emptying.
How might this affect the way you think of yourself and others?