Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (11 March 2018)

Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (11 March 2018)

Jesus said to Nicodemus: Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

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 3:14-21 – NRSV)

Introductory notes


At the heart of this Gospel is a radical re-aligning of authority. Jesus has just made it clear to Nicodemus – and the reader – that he is the authority on what God is doing here: “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:11-13). Jesus then goes on to exercise that authority with the announcement that opens today’s Gospel: “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”.

Francis Moloney notes: “(the) only one who can authoritatively reveal the heavenly things: the Son of Man who has come down from heaven (v. 13b).” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998, 95.)

Jesus’ is not only saying that he is the anointed of God but he is also saying how this is to be fulfilled: through his “being lifted up”. John’s Gospel draws us ever more deeply into the mystery of the Cross – Jesus’ “exaltation”.

“In the Fourth Gospel these themes—the divine revelation, exaltation and the obedient suffering of the Son—constantly congregate around the title ‘the Son of Man’ ….. He must be lifted up: that is the determined purpose of God (cf. Mk. 8:31; 10:45). By his being lifted up, Jesus the Son of Man will be returned to the glory he once shared with his Father, while those who turn to him, as the Israelites turned to the bronze snake, will experience new birth.” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 202.)


Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness: See Numbers 21:8-9. The word erēmō (from erēmos), “wilderness”, is charged with meaning for the Jewish people: “The wilderness is regarded both positively and negatively in the OT. Negatively, the wilderness through which Israel journeyed to Canaan was ‘great and terrible’ (Dt. 1:19), a place of ‘flinty rock’ and ‘no water’ populated by ‘fiery serpents and scorpions’ (8:15), a ‘howling waste’ (32:10). In the wilderness Israel rebelled against Yahweh. The murmuring motif that runs through the Exodus narratives describes open rebellion, not merely disgruntlement ….. Frequently complaining that God had brought them into the wilderness to die (e.g., Ex. 14:11f), the generation that left Egypt brought upon themselves the destruction that they feared. Because of their disobedience, Yahweh condemned them to wander in the wilderness for forty years (Nu. 14:33) and to perish there. The memory of that experience was kept alive throughout Israel’s history. Both psalmist and prophet returned to that theme (e.g., Ps. 78:40; Ezk. 20:13).

“The wilderness experience also had its positive side. Not only was it ‘great and terrible’: it was where the mountain of God was located (Ex. 4:27). The desert was the route by which the Israelites escaped their bondage in Egypt; here Yahweh guided them (Dt. 1:31; Ps. 78:52), fed them (Ex. 16:32), and established his covenant with them (Ex. 19:1–6; cf. Acts 7:36, 44). Moreover, God promised through the prophets that in the future He would make the wilderness to be so well watered that forest and cultivated trees would grow there, and it would be a place where justice and righteousness would dwell (Isa. 32:15f.; 41:18f.).” (G Wyper, “Wilderness” in G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Vol. 4), Revised, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979-1988, 1062.)

In fact the “negative” and “positive” are more inter-dependent and inter-active than might appear from this description. The two – like dying and living – are organically linked. They are of a piece. This will become powerfully evident when Jesus is “lifted up”.

so must the Son of Man be lifted up: The experience long ago, in the midst of the wilderness of the Exodus Event, foreshadows Jesus’ being “lifted up” for the healing of “all those who believe”. That the lifting up of the bronze serpent is only a foreshadowing of the Christ Event becomes clear when we read 2 Kings 18:4-5. King Hezekiah – he was a good king because “he trusted in the LORD the God of Israel” – “removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.”

Jesus’ “Passover” is at the heart of a New Exodus Event that takes place through the wilderness of Calvary and the Cross – God’s definitive act of redemption. But the link between Jesus’ death and glory is not yet clear: “the link between death and glory will develop. As the narrative unfolds it will become the leitmotif of the passion narrative”. (Francis J Moloney, op cit, 101.)

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son: Just as the previous verse is an announcement by Jesus, so this verse and what follows is probably an explication and explanation by John himself. “In two passages in this Gospel, both in this chapter (3:15–21 and 3:31–36), the words of a speaker (Jesus and John the Baptist respectively) are succeeded by the explanatory reflections of the Evangelist.” (D A Carson, op cit, 203.)

Carson continues: “As the new birth, the acquisition of eternal life, has been grounded in the ‘lifting up’ of the Son (vv. 14–15), so also that ‘lifting up’, the climax of the Son’s mission, is itself grounded in the love of God. The mission of the Son and its consequences is the theme of this paragraph, but John begins by insisting that the Son’s mission was itself the consequence of God’s love. The Greek construction behind so loved that he gave his one and only Son (houtōs plus hōste plus the indicative instead of the infinitive) emphasizes the intensity of the love, and insists that the envisaged consequence really did ensue; the words ‘his one and only Son’ …. stress the greatness of the gift. The Father gave his best, his unique and beloved Son (cf. Rom. 8:32).

“Both the verb ‘to love’ (agapaō) and the noun ‘love’ (agapē) occur much more frequently in chs. 13–17 than anywhere else in the Fourth Gospel, reflecting the fact that John devotes special attention to the love relationships amongst the Father, the Son and the disciples. The Father loves the Son (3:35; 10:17; 15:9–10; 17:23–24, 26; using another verb, 5:20), the Son loves the Father (14:31); Jesus loves his own, his true disciples (11:5; 13:1, 33, 34; 14:21; 15:9–10, 12; 21:7, 20), and they must love him (14:15, 21, 23f., 28; 21:15–25). They must also love one another (13:34–35; 15:12–13, 17; 17:26). Sometimes John speaks of the Father’s love for the disciples (14:21, 23; 17:23), but more frequently the Father’s love for the disciples is mediated through his Son. The world, fallen and rebellious human beings in general, does not and cannot love God (3:19; 5:42; 8:42).” (Op cit, 204.)

All of which might give special force to the exchange between Jesus and Peter in the “Appendix” to John’s Gospel (Chapter 21). There are two contrasting views on this. Firstly, let us listen to John’s account of that dialogue between Jesus and Peter in Chapter 21.

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love (philō) you’. Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs’. A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love (agapas) me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love (philō) you’. Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep’. He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love (phileis) me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (philō) you’. Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go’. (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me’.” (John 21:15-19)

In the dialogue between Jesus and Peter, Jesus uses the Greek word for the highest form of love, agapao, in the first two questions, and the Greek word for the love of friendship, phileō, in the third question. In each of Peter’s responses, on the other hand, the lesser form of love – the love of friendship, phileō – is consistently used.

However, against making a special issue of the differing verbs, one scholar writes:

“(1) We have already seen that the two verbs are used interchangeably in this Gospel. The expression ‘beloved disciple’, more literally ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, can be based on either verb. The Father loves the Son—and both verbs serve (3:35; 5:20). Jesus loved Lazarus—and again both verbs serve (11:5, 36).

“(2) No reliable distinction can be based on the LXX. For instance, Jacob’s preferential love for Joseph is expressed with both verbs (Gn. 37:3, 4). When Amnon incestuously rapes his sister Tamar, both verbs can be used to refer to his ‘love’ (2 Sam. 13). Despite one verb for ‘love’ in the Hebrew text of Proverbs 8:17, the LXX uses both agapaō and phileō.

“(3) Convincing evidence has been advanced that the verb agapaō was coming into prominence throughout Greek literature from about the fourth century BC onward, as one of the standard verbs for ‘to love’. One of the reasons for this change is that phileō has taken on the additional meaning ‘to kiss’, in some contexts. In other words, agapaō does not come into play because it is a peculiarly sacred word.

“(4) Even in the New Testament, agapaō is not always distinguished by a good object: Demas regrettably ‘loved’ the present age (2 Tim. 4:10).

“(5) Nor does it help to argue, with Hendriksen (2. 494–500), that because the total range of meaning of each verb is not the same as that of the other (e.g. agapaō never means ‘to kiss’), therefore there is necessarily some distinction to be made here. But this conclusion is invalid. All agree that synonyms enjoy differences of association, nuance and emotional colouring within their total semantic range. ‘But within any one individual passage these differences do not amount to a distinction of real theological reference: they do not specify a difference in the kind of love referred to.’

“(6) Amongst those who insist a distinction between the two verbs is to be maintained in each verse, there is no agreement. Thus, Trench insists agapaō is philanthropic and altruistic, but without emotional attachment, and therefore much too cold for Peter’s affection. That is why the apostle prefers phileō. By contrast, for Westcott (2. 367) agapaō denotes the higher love that will in time come to be known as the distinctively Christian love, while Peter cannot bring himself to profess more than ‘the feeling of natural love’, phileō. Bruce (p. 405) wisely comments: ‘When two such distinguished Greek scholars (both, moreover, tending to argue from the standards of classical Greek) see the significance of the synonyms so differently, we may wonder if indeed we are intended to see such distinct significance.’

“(7) By now it has become clear that the Evangelist constantly uses minor variations for stylistic reasons of his own (cf. Morris, SFG, pp. 293–319). This is confirmed by the present passage. In addition to the two words for ‘love’, John resorts to three other pairs: boskō and poimainō (‘feed’ and ‘take care of’ the sheep), arnia and probata (‘lambs’ and ‘sheep’), and oida and ginōskō (both rendered ‘you know’ in v. 17). These have not stirred homiletical imaginations; it is difficult to see why the first pair should.

“Jesus’ initial question probes Peter to the depth of his being. He does not try to answer in terms of the relative strength of his love as compared with that of other disciples. He appeals rather to the Lord’s knowledge. Despite my bitter failure, he says in effect, I love you—you know that I love you. Jesus accepts his declaration, doubtless to Peter’s relief, and commissions him: Feed my lambs. The emphasis is now on the pastoral rather than the evangelistic (cf. v. 11). Peter’s love for his Lord, and the evidence of his reinstatement, are both to be displayed in Peter’s pastoral care for the Lord’s flock (cf. Jn. 10).

“But that is not the end of the matter. Three times Jesus asks the same question. When Peter is particularly grieved (v. 17), it is not because Jesus has changed verbs, but because the same question is being asked for the third time. As he had disowned Jesus three times, so Jesus requires this elementary yet profound confession three times. There is no trace of self-righteousness in Peter’s response. He can only appeal to the fact that the Lord knows everything, and therefore knows Peter’s heart: Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you. And that is enough. Lest there be any doubt that Peter is fully restored to future service, Jesus again commands, Feed my lambs. This ministry ‘is described in verbs, not nouns: Tend, feed, not Be a pastor, hold the office of pastor. And the sheep are Christ’s sheep, not Peter’s. Not, Tend your flock, but Tend my sheep’ (Barrett, Essays, pp. 165–166). That Peter fulfilled the terms of the service required of him receives its best attestation in 1 Peter (esp. 5:1–4).” (D A Carson, op cit, 676-678.)


In today’s Gospel – John 3:14-21 – we hear a word that sums up the Good News: “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.” I will never tire of hearing that! “God so loved the world ….” If we heard that – really heard that – everything else would look after itself. For one thing we would escape the awful curse of moralism whereby we think we have to earn God’s love by “right behaviour” – whatever that might mean. God’s love is not for sale! It is given freely, unmerited, everywhere, all the time. God speaks to us in the events of our daily lives, always asking the same thing: “Will you let me love you into freedom?” All you have to do is believe. Simple? Yes and no. Actually, when we do hear this invitation, we begin a journey. That journey is full of ambivalences.

One of the most beautiful modern expressions of this truth – the truth of God’s love and the truth of our journey in response – was given to us by a French, Jewish woman. Simone Weil was born in Paris, 3 February 1909. She died in Ashford, Kent, England 24 August 1943. Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times”. Simone was a brilliant student, and apart from her decidedly left-leaning politics, she was deeply interested in world religions. She said she always had a Christian outlook, despite her upbringing in an avowedly agnostic household, her parents having abandoned any practice of their Jewish heritage. She was deeply moved by Jesus’ teaching on love of neighbour, especially the poor. That Christian outlook moved her more particularly towards Catholicism in her later years, especially after she met the Dominican priest, Jean-Marie Perrin. Though she never was baptized, she manifested an extraordinary relationship with Jesus Christ. For example, in one of her essays she wrote the following:

“God and humanity are like two lovers who have missed their rendezvouz. Each is there before the time, but each at a different place, and they wait, and wait, and wait. He stands motionless, nailed to the spot for the whole of time. She is distraught and impatient. But alas for her if she gets tired and goes away. …. The crucifixion of Christ is the image of the fixity of God. God is attention without distraction. One must imitate the patience and humility of God.” (Simone Weil, “The Things of the World” in G. A. Panichas (ed.) The Simone Weil Reader, David McKay Company Inc., 1977, 424f.)

The love of God awakens a deep, heartfelt longing in us. It goes to the very heart of our existence: This is why we exist! This is the ground, the experiential beginning of the Christian life. Naturally, we want more. We know it as gift, unmerited and unconditional. It makes us grateful. We are drawn by delight rather than driven by duty.