Dec 30, 2018

“Seeing the Light” 12-30-18

John 3:16-21
December 30, 2018

During Advent we took an extended look at the Prologue to John’s Gospel, listening once again to the Good News that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  While I acknowledged that there are obviously aspects of the Prologue that would have arrested the attention of readers steeped in a Hellenistic world-view, I tried to show that most of the key ideas of the prologue—and the “Word” or logos in particular—are deeply rooted in the expectations of the Old Testament.  This morning, I wish to provide an “epilogue” to this series of messages on the Prologue to John’s Gospel.  I will do this not, by covering that ground again, but by looking ahead in John’s Gospel to a text where some of the key elements of the Prologue clustered.  John 3:16 is certainly the most striking.  Its connection, in context, to the Prologue is most clearly seen in the references to the “only begotten” Son and “light coming into the world.”  To fully appreciate the connection, though, we return briefly to the Prologue.

I have pointed out that the structure of the Prologue helps clarify its meaning.  Last week, I noted that the inverted parallels of verses 14-18 bring “abounding grace” or “grace upon grace” into special prominence.    However, there is one further structural aspect of the Prologue that I have not yet mentioned.  This one helps us grasp John’s objective in the entire Gospel.   The Prologue opens and closes with what we were taught in grammar courses to call “demonstrative pronouns.”  These are positioned in a way that makes them emphatic.  Thus, the Prologue opens, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He (literally, this one!) was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2)  Similarly—structurally speaking—the Prologue closes, “No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  Literally, this should be translated, “God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, that one! has made him known.”  So the Prologue opens by introducing the Word, with a reiterating “this one” and closes with a reference to the only begotten Son followed by a reiterating, “that one.”  So, structurally the Prologue is bracketed at the opening and closing with emphatic references to the identity of Jesus Christ.  He is the Word.  He is the Only Begotten Son (or, more likely, God, the Only Begotten).  And, most significantly for our understanding of the unfolding of John’s Gospel, “That one has made him known.”

Once again, appreciating the Old Testament background of John’s thought is essential.  The word translated by the NRSV in John 1:18 as “made known” commonly means to “tell at length” or “relate in full.”  For example, it is used in the Greek Old Testament to translate 1 Chronicles 16:24, “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples.”   So, the meaning is not simply to provide some sort of explanation or disclosure; instead, it is to “tell a story.”  This is the force of the final phrase of the Prologue: “The Only Begotten God—that one! has “told the Father’s story.”  Or more fully, it is in the Son’s telling of the Father’s story that we come to understand the Father whom we cannot see.”  (See also Luke 24:35; Acts 10:8; 15:12; 21:19)

Here is a basic consideration to guide us in reading through John’s Gospel.  In the Gospel, Jesus tells the Father’s story.  Thus, we can always ask ourselves as we read, “How does this portion add to the telling of the Father’s story?”  There are many episodes in John’s gospel which involve Jesus talking about what the Father is up to in the world.  For example, in John 4 Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well that the Father is looking for people who will worship in spirit and truth.  But in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus introduces the Father’s mission in the clearest possible terms.  He tells the beginning of the Father’s story in a way that anchors our understanding of the Father:  “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…”

I have remarked on more than one occasion that the Gospel according to John is not as simple as it might appear to be at first glance.  Apart from the limitations of our knowledge of the context in which John writes, we are continually confronted by his propensity to use words with double references.  Even in John 3:16, precisely what John means by “the world” requires a great deal of thought.  But for all that, there is nothing ambiguous about the Father’s story here.  His dealings with us, his interactions with the world, arise from love—a love so great that he gives his one and only Son to save the world.  So, if there is a reason to commend John’s gospel to the uninitiated as a point of entry into the Christian faith, this alone is sufficient.  In John’s gospel, the love of the Father and the saving significance of the mission of his Son are spelled out in very express terms.  In that respect it stands in contrast with the Synoptic gospels.  Jesus speaks of love in Matthew, Mark and Luke almost exclusively in relationship to the Great Commandment and love as the ethical standard of the Kingdom.   Love, in the Synoptics, is primarily about our response to God.  The love and grace of God for us is certainly not veiled in the Synoptic gospels. Moreover, in these gospels it is clear that the Son comes to seek and save the lost and give his life as a ransom.  But there is no expression in the Synoptics that speaks with the simple directness of “God so loved the world.”   This does not mean that John should be the starting point for introducing everyone to Christianity.  But, it does help us appreciate what the particular impact of beginning with John can be.

In my “epilogue” on the Prologue, there are three things I want you to take to heart from John 3:16-21.  These are the centrality of grace, the instrumentality of faith, and the indispensability of works.  Thus, my epilogue is somewhat “theological.”  I will call attention to the same themes in St. Paul’s writings so that, for all their differences, we may appreciate the essential agreement of Paul and John.  Ephesians 2:8-10 provide an instructive point of comparison: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

“God so loved the world.”  This is God’s grace.  Of course, to say “God loved” does not, of itself, entail grace.  God the Father loves God the Son and this is not, strictly speaking, grace.   But, God’s love to the Son of Man is grace.  Grace is unmerited favor.  God’s love for Adam, even before the Fall, was unmerited, and therefore gracious.   Moreover, it was also like the natural love of a parent for a child, a treasuring and delighting love.  The Fall, however,—which is nothing less than our rebellion, our willful turning of our backs on our heavenly Father, puts his gracious love for us in a different and fuller light—the light of mercy and abounding grace.  He loves us still; indeed he treasures us still, though we no longer deserve it.  This is grace.  It is this love from which our salvation springs.  “As a father has compassion on his children...” (Psalm 103:13)   “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

I mentioned that the meaning of “world” in John requires special thought.  In the first place, the world is the creation.  It was made by Christ.  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him…”  (John 1:10)  One cannot hear those words without also hearing the verdict of Genesis 1:31, “And indeed it was all very good.”  In the same way, when we hear, “God so loved the world,” I am persuaded that there is an affirmation of God’s joy and delight in all that he has made.  And yet John 1:10 ends, “And the world did not know him.”  So the term “world” is now powerfully nuanced with darkness.  The darkness of the world is the darkness of fallen humanity.  Thus, it is common to explain, “God so loved the world” as “God loved the fallen human race.”  That is absolutely right.  All I am saying, though, is that we do not have to “choose” here between good creation and fallen humanity as the object of God’s love.  He loves humanity savingly and their salvation entails the redemption of all that he has made.

The deepest contrast between John 1 and Genesis 1 is the impression made by light.  In Genesis 1, God says, “Let there be light, and there was light.”   One has the clear impression that the light of creation “lights up” the world.  Of course, darkness has its proper place in the good creation in the order of evening and morning, night and day.   But the created world was a place where the shining light expelled the darkness.   There was no darkness intruding itself into the full light of day.   In John 1, the impression is reversed.  “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness does not overcome it.” (John 1:5)   The darkness is pervasive, but it is not triumphant.  There is a light shining that cannot be extinguished.  John 3 makes it clear that what distinguishes the godly from the ungodly is the direction of movement relative to the light that is shining.   But it is precisely this world—a world well-suited as a home for people who want to hide their evil deeds—that God so loves.   It is for the salvation of this dark world that God sent his Son.

This is grace because it is an unmerited love, manifest in a gift.  This dark world cannot do anything to merit God’s love.  It is already under judgment, deserving only condemnation. Their deeds are evil.  Salvation will not come from anything the “dark side” is prepared to do.  So God gives his only begotten Son to save them.  As St. Paul said to the Ephesians, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…” (Eph. 2:4)  John Calvin, whom many regard as one who struggled to convincingly articulate the love of God, says this about John 3:17 “When he declares that he did not come to condemn the world, he thus points out the actual design of his coming; for what need was there that Christ should come to destroy us who were utterly ruined? We ought not, therefore, to look at anything else in Christ, than that God, out of his boundless goodness chose to extend his aid for saving us who were lost; and whenever our sins press us — whenever Satan would drive us to despair — we ought to hold out this shield, that God is unwilling that we should be overwhelmed with everlasting destruction, because he has appointed his Son to be the salvation of the world.”

This saving grace is for whoever believes.  As St. Paul says, salvation is through faith.  It is through faith that we receive everlasting life.  This faith is a looking unto Christ.  John 3:16 is introduced in vs 14 by the story of the snake-bitten Israelites in the wilderness.  Moses provided a replica of the venomous snake to “look to” as the remedy for the deadly plague.  In the same way, Christ-lifted-up is where we are to look for the remedy to our brokenness.  In John’s gospel, Christ’s lifting-up or exaltation is the Cross.  We are to look to the Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world.  This believing is not meritorious.  It is not the ground or basis of our salvation.  It is the “empty hands” in which we receive the gift of eternal life. 

Finally, note that “God so loved the world” leads on to good works.  We are not saved by works; however, we are not saved apart from them.   This is a continuing challenge.  We have to confess that the difference between the godly and the ungodly, the church and the world is often hard to trace.  There are non-Christians who do much good, whose works alleviate much hardship and brokenness.  And, there are many in the church whose works only exacerbate their own and others’ misery.  So, judgment will begin with the household of God.   Nevertheless, John draws a clear distinction between the two.  “This is the judgment, that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light…” (3:19) The distinction between the godly and the ungodly is not some neat line which visibly divides the world into the two camps.  The distinction, rather, is one of direction of movement in relationship to deeds.   There are those who retreat into the darkness so that the true character of their deeds may not be exposed.  And, there are those who come to the light so that the true character of their deeds may be made manifest.  The deeds of the latter have been “worked” in God. 

That the deeds of the latter have been “worked” (or worked out) in God points to lives lived in communion with God or fellowship with God.  They are not worked on their own.  They are brought to the light so it can be seen that these deeds are ultimately God’s doing.  The notion of autonomy is very strong in our culture.  We believe that there should be a place to stand from which we can assess life and work independent of God—a place from which we can assess even the very idea of God on our own.   But this is just another form of idolatry.  We were created to be co-laborers with God.  Deeds that are not done in God’s strength are not what we were made for.  Instead, we were made for deeds that glorify God.   As Paul says, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”   These deeds are characterized as “doing truth”—an expression that occurs elsewhere only in 1 John 1:6. “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true…”   Truth among God’s people is not merely to be a topic of conversation.  Truth is what we do.  In our lives, that begins with telling the truth about our own struggles with the darkness and bearing witness to the grace that we have found in God’s only begotten Son.   We look to the Cross.  We head for the light.   Amen.

Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906