In my last post, I said that we would finish John 3:11-21 with the consideration of God’s redemption of the world, or as I phrase it, the entirety of the created order. Here, again, is my translation of verses 16 through 21:
16 “For God loved the world in this way: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not be destroyed but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the created order to condemn creation, but in order that the created order might be rescued through him. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be called to account. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that their works done in God might be put on full display.”
Just a few preliminary notes. You may notice that I have definitely changed the “For God so love the world that…” most are used to when hearing John 3:16. I have changed it to “For God loved the world in this way…” There are several reasons for this decision. The first is that the Greek text of John 3:16 reads “ ‘outos gar epagesen.” The key word here is ‘outos, which can be translated as “so much,” but this English rendering ignores the fact that ‘outos is an adverb derived from a demonstrative pronoun that is meant to describe corresponding manner. Also, because ‘outos is linked with the corresponding conjunction oste a few words later, it seems clear that the writer is trying to describe the method and manner of God’s love in sending the Son. This point is also important because it connects the preceding passage about Jesus being lifted up as the serpent in the wilderness was lifted up.
What’s the larger point, you may ask? I think you have to read the larger passage in this way: Just as Moses lifted the serpent up to heal the people, so too will Jesus be lifted up on the cross (verse 14). Through belief upon the Son thus raised, we will receive healing and life just as did Israel did in the wilderness (verse 15). God has fully and finally demonstrated God’s love to us by this act of both great love and sacrifice in sending the Son for the redemption of the world from destruction, infusing it with God’s life through faith (verse 16). In the end, the point here is that the emphasis is on God’s act in giving Christ in this way (which of course elicits the response of faith from us), and not placing the emphasis on our our act or work of faith so as to escape some cataclysmic destruction of the world.
Too often, this passage is used to create a “conversion moment” on the part of the hearer so as to escape hell fire, an entry way into placing ourselves at the center of God’s redemptive purposes in Christ rather than simply giving thanks for the grace we have received through Him. Time and again, I will maintain along with many of our Reformed forebearers, we are beggars at God’s table who have been given a place through Christ, not because we were strong or healthy enough to receive this good word and respond accordingly. No. We are witnesses to what God has done in this way, and from a position of being both condemned as well as recipients of the Good News of God’s love, we can only give thanks and testimony. John 3:16 is meant to leave us at the foot of the cross, both weeping over our former blindness and exalting in the light of the world that has pulled back the curtain and revealed a God who loved us anyway!
And it is here, I would maintain, that we can begin to pull the camera back, so to speak, and see that God’s redemptive purposes are actually much larger than just the redemption of human life from our deserved judgment unto death. Time and again in 3:16-17, John uses the world cosmos that we usually translate as “world.” For God loved the world in this way. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world. To be sure, there is an interchange in this larger passage between God’s redemptive purposes for human life tied to the apparent fate of the world. Verses 18 through 21 illuminate the distinctions between believers and non-believers, and between judgment and redemption for those who have turned towards the darkness of ignoring the Good News in Jesus or the light of seeing in Him God’s love and reconciliation.
However, to read “world” as simply a macrocosm of individual human life, or that God is only concerned about human destiny, is to dwarf God’s larger redemptive purposes. I very much believe that John is fully aware of and conversant with the fall narrative of Genesis 3 in which the disobedience of Adam led to the curse of death, as well as his broken relationship with the natural order. Adam’s disobedience, just like Israel’s in the serpent story, leads to death and judgment delivered at the hands of God through a created order in disarray because the gardeners (our initial call and dignity as humans) are blinded by the darkness of their sinful disobedience. This disobedience necessarily involves a fouling of our relationship with, and thus our redemption must involve the fate of the created order in which we were originally placed as stewards.
And how can it be otherwise with John? The same John who writes about the pre-existence of the Word through which the world was made, including human life, is the same Word that animates and gives life to all things: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:3-4) And not only that, this Word has become flesh (John 1:14); the Word has taken on the dust from which Adam was made so as to restore Adam, his wife and their children to their original dignity by giving them their life back. In this new life given to them, they are restored and perfected in status as stewards of and co-rulers with God over all things in principled harmony.
This life, this presence of God tabernacling with us, is the light necessary to understand God’s will for our lives so that we may live in harmony with God’s creative purposes within the cosmic order. Here, we are in full conversation with visions like Revelation 21:23 in which the only light that dwells in the city is God and the Lamb, for all Adam’s children now live a re-created, resurrected life of glory animated with God’s very life that radiates out into a cosmos the glorifies God. Isaiah 60 is also a wonderful passage to keep in mind, for indeed our light has come, and as a result of our redemption, the nations will gather in submission, not to mentions herds of camels and flocks that gather peacefully at our gate (verses 6-7). Paul, too, joins in chorus in Romans 8:19-23:
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
In short, God giving the Son in this way is God’s final movement, God’s final overture in the rescue operation for the world God intended going back to both Noah and Abraham. Through God’s covenant people, God intended (as NT Wright states over and over in places like Surprised by Hope) to rescue the world, to set this disarray of the world in right relationship with God. Though we failed time and again, in the giving of the Son, God’s righteousness, God’s steadfast faithfulness towards us and the created order of which we are part, is put on display and brought to final fruition. In his resurrection, he has become the first born of this new creation (Colossians 1:15), showing us both our destiny and the fate of the world under Christ’s righteous rule. We await, as Paul tells us, the redemption of our bodies, and in fact the entire space-time continuum of bodies, because he has been lifted up in his death, resurrection and ascended reign at the right hand of the Father.