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John 3.16 - the Gospel in a Nutshell?

By Duncan Roper


Our civilizational condition is one that, on the surface, is full of activity.  Digging deeper, however, there is a strong sense of it losing its way.  Hence, the good news of the Gospel of God, set out in the New Testament, strikes a very contemporary theme.  It is the way in which God has indeed done much that is of significance for the giving of spiritual health- as salvation – for a humanity that has lost its way in the world.  In our day this humanity, having presumptively placed itself in charge of a world that does not really belong to them (or us), has somehow found itself with a profound sense of loss concerning the spiritual understanding of the roots of its tasks and mission in the world.  However, who says that humankind actually owns the world?  Biblical teaching makes it very plain that we – humankind – may be in charge of the world.  However, just as strongly it emphasises that we are not its owner.   Rather, our status in the world is that of the stewards put in charge of looking after and it and unfolding its potential as an act of worship and service to its rightful owner.


Furthermore, this God-given task has not been given simply to great clerics and/or political leaders.  It has been given to all of us, both together and individually.  Our secular tasks – in the home, at school, on the farm, in business and the factory, the university and elsewhere, every bit as much as what is involved with church and private devotions, is concerned with the God-given calling of the whole human race to manage and care for the earth.  As the words of John 3.16, in a modern translation of the original Greek, put it:


This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but share in the life of God’s new age.


This translation of the words of John 3.16 has a significant twist to it.  It replaces the more familiar words of ‘the gift of eternal life’ with the ‘sharing in the life of God’s new age’.  It is perhaps significant that neither this nor the older translations, specifically say that the future life is in heaven, understood in the Greek view of Plato that has inspired the ‘heavenly’ religious impulse of much of Christianity for centuries.  Indeed this ‘other-worldly’ concern has its origins in the way the Eastern-imported views of Orphism and then of the Pythagoreanism of the sixth century BC came to make their contribution to the Greek outlook. .  But it is much more difficult to read the ‘heavenly destiny’ of human life into the translation due to Tom Wright, cited above.


The more traditional translation has often been described as ‘the Gospel in a Nutshell’.  As such the words of this short text speak of God’s Love, the World, believing in Jesus the Son of God and Eternal Life.  However, the usual way in which these terms have been taken to relate to one another leaves very much to be desired.  Indeed, they have very often been understood as emphasizing the love of God for humans in ways that separate our spiritual life from our God-given calling ‘to both till and keep the garden of creation’ that is a very central feature of our humanity - biblically defined as God’s image-bearers.  


This continues to be true to the extent that the verse has and continues to be read as focusing upon our hopes of the eternal salvation of our souls in a disembodied heaven once we die.  The following rendition of the words of the John 3.16, for example, was once found on the blackboard in the backroom kitchen, study area of a church: 


                         the people of 

For God so Loved ^ the World, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.


There can be no doubt that the efforts of those responsible for putting this on the blackboard were motivated by very noble intentions: the bringing home of the very personal and individual way the living person Jesus Christ can anchor our lives in today’s world.  This kind of attempt to emphasise that the love of God for his world is not abstract and far off, but rather focused upon the reality of our individual human-ness, is understandable.  However, it all too easily wrenches our heart relationship to God from its God-given context of ‘the world’.  In the first place ‘the world’ is not ‘me’.  I may have a part to play in it, but it is much bigger than ‘me’.  In the second place ‘the world’ may be a fallen world that for much the greater part defies the will of God.  However, doesn’t the emphasis of ‘the saving of the world’ in John 3.16 imply its restoration and redemption?  Equally, does it not call us – as the vice-regents of Creation – to repentance and faith to fulfil our calling as the stewards and managers of something that actually belongs, not to humans, but to God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth? 


Therefore, doesn’t the traditional reading of the verse miss the whole point?  Doesn’t the implied emphasis upon ‘me and my soul being saved from this dark world to go to a disembodied heaven above the skies’ render it as a form of gnostic escapism?


This possibility becomes even more apparent once we take into account the meaning of verse 17, the one that follows the quotation given above: 


After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved by him.


It should be noted that this rendering of verse John 3.17, again from Tom Wright, is a lot less controversial, as a cursory look at it in the King James Version, will verify.  The thrust of the mission of Jesus, as Messiah, to save the world, rather than escape from it to some disembodied heaven, is therefore incontestable. 


To appreciate something of the nineteenth historical (in)-significance of the gospel we might cite the sharp criticism of Karl Marx’s dismissal of the Christianity of his day as ‘the opiate of the masses’.  In more biblical terms we suggest that this nineteenth century ‘half-gospel,’ had a ‘spiritual’ meaning that was based upon ‘a split of our heart or soul relationship to God’ from our overall human responsibility to shape and cultivate (reforming) the natural, social and cultural dimensions of ‘the world’.  Of course Marx’s accusation against the Christianity of his day has a lot more baggage than this.  Nonetheless, we may affirm that, for much the greater part, the Christianity of Marx’s day was either characterised by a genuine spiritual conversion experience coupled to a ‘heavenly escape’ from the world or else a social involvement (the social gospel) in the world, that was short on preaching the need for a radical change of heart.  Thus the embracing of God’s grace by faith - as the spiritual fuel through which to engage with the huge challenges of the secular realms of culture - such as social welfare, agriculture, industry, medicine, science, scholarship, the arts, engineering and technology, is integral to the gospel.  However, the emphasis upon our ‘spiritual’ life that seeks to separate it from cultural and social engagement is equally deficient.  This is evident, for example, from the preaching of John the Baptist in the Judean wilderness.  The people, in positively responding to his message, then asked him: What shall we do?  He replied:


Anyone who has two cloaks, should give one to someone who hasn’t got one.  The same applies to anyone who has plenty of food.


Does this apply to nations as well as to individuals?  The sheer impossibility of the countries of ‘the third world’ ‘catching up’ with the level of the excessive use and waste of the resources of creation that is presently characteristic of ‘the first world,’ should cause us in the West to seriously re-consider what this might mean.


The gospel is good news to the dead in sin, to the down-trodden and broken-hearted.  It is all about the grace of God unleashed in the Cross and Resurrection.  However, as the Apostle Paul points out in Romans 12:1-2, this calls for a whole-hearted response for us to render our lives as a living sacrifice to this same God who, in Christ the Messiah, has made us the heirs of his coming rule in which humility and suffering are the stuff of greatness.  Our task today is to bring this calling down to earth in the lives of our families, marriages, work-places, church communities, states and nations in some fresh and innovative ways.


This is a mockup. Publish to view how it will appear live.