For God So Loved the World
The Gospel this week gives us perhaps the most famous line in all of the scriptures, John 3:16, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son, so that the world might be saved through Him.” As is the case with the most familiar passages and ideas in the scriptures, it is possible that the widespread saturation of this particular line, proclaimed even in such unlikely places as the eye-black of pro football players, makes its original force and meaning difficult to capture. We may hear this essential truth of our faith, the Christ came for our sake, and think to ourselves “well, yes, of course, I knew that already.”
In order to reclaim some of the eternal truth living behind the well-worn text, perhaps all we need to do is put it back in the context of Jesus’ whole preaching, presented to us this Sunday. He tells us that “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so the Son of man must be lifted up.” He connects His being sent for our salvation both with Moses lifting up the bronze serpent to heal those wounded by serpents, and with His own Passion on the Cross.
In the days of the Exodus, God healed those in the Israelite camp who we being killed by snake venom with an image of the deadly snake raised on a poll. By looking at the image of what was killing them, thus ritually executed, the power of the venom disappeared, and the people lived. Jesus Himself is the fulfillment of this pattern. In Him, God takes on the form of humanity, wounded by sin. In this case, He allows Himself, out of love, to be physically wounded, and indeed, ritually executed, thus bearing our sins to the Cross. Now, those who look upon His sacrifice of love and accept it in a living and active faith are set free from the damage of sin that previously had envenomed and eaten away their souls. In Christ, God takes on the form of the disease, hands over His life in execution, and so frees the people from death itself.
This is the meaning of the famous John 3:16. It is not a casual truth that God loved the world enough to send His Son. That truth carries within it the Passion and death of Christ, in whom God was willing to become the image of our sinful and mortally wounded humanity—St. Paul will go further and say that Christ on the Cross “became sin”—in order to heal the sin that was killing each of us. The saving love of God for us is not a matter of whether heaven smiles at us from afar, but is a matter of life and death. It is the truth of our significance to our creator. It is the truth that the Almighty Lord was not willing to let us suffer the deadly consequences of sin, and be lost forever. It is the truth that love drew heaven down to earth, that love drew God to the point of death, that love drew God Himself past death for our sake. Let’s not forget this as we draw closer to the holy days of that great work.