I hope my readers know that I try my best to give fresh, new, if sometimes controversial insight into the most wonderful of texts, which has been around in some form for approximately 4000 years, yet never, ever gets old. So, it should come as no shock that I felt somewhat surprised to find myself contemplating writing about the most recognized, memorized, and athletic eventized scripture in the history of the world: John 3:16. Actually, I have felt over the last week that my last post, Therefore, there is now no condemnation, was somehow incomplete. I realize it was long, but I think volumes could be and need to be written about condemnation.
Anyway, I was thinking about whether to continue the condemnation discussion or just move on. So, I sent a quick wire up to the Lord, "What do You want me to write about today?" Honestly, it was somewhat rhetorical, I wasn't really expecting an answer, but the answer came almost before I finished the question, "John". (A lesson for another day: God will answer even the most insignificant of questions, so be careful what you ask.) That was it, "John". But, it was so clear I knew it wasn't a mistake.
- "John what?"
- "John three."
- "John three? John three what?"
Okay, so I decided it was just me. I mean, come on, John 3:16. Everybody knows everything there is to know about John 3:16. Or, do they? "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."
When Jesus spoke those words, He was answering the questions of a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is referred to in John 3:1 as a ruler of the Jews. The phrase "ruler of the Jews" means Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest legal or judicial body of the Jewish people. Nicodemus was a teacher and interpreter of the law, and, as a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus' interpretations of the law could very well have become law. Like a high court judge today, if there is ambiguity in the law, and the court decides the issue in question, the decision becomes the law.
Yet, despite his credentials and knowledge of the law, Nicodemus just didn't get it.
Nicodemus recognized that Jesus had to be a teacher from God. All this cool stuff Jesus was doing and saying could not have come from anywhere else, but that was as close as Nicodemus got to really getting it. How did Jesus respond? I'm paraphrasing, "You're a teacher of Israel, you should know this stuff and you don't get it. You don't get the earthly things I'm telling you, how are you possibly going to get the heavenly stuff?"
So, what does Jesus do? He cuts to the chase and gives Nicodemus the greatest lesson ever. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." But, that's only half of it, here's the best part:
- For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned... And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. John 3:17-19.
Why does Nicodemus get this lesson when he wasn't getting the rest of it? Why Nicodemus, when Jesus even said Nicodemus wouldn't get it? Nicodemus gets this lesson because Nicodemus is the lesson. The Greek name Nicodemus means "victory of the people". Only God is capable of such wonderful irony: the ruler of the people unable to see the victory of the people, which is within him. You almost get the idea that Jesus must have wanted to bop Nicodemus on the head.
This is Paul's lesson from Romans that I talked about last week all over again. To be more precise, Paul's lesson in Romans is the lesson of Nicodemus all over again. Nicodemus was a prisoner to his own knowledge of the law. He could not escape.
But wait, then most of us would need the same bop on the head because we all fall into this trap. God did not send Jesus to condemn, but to save. From what? The condemnation of the law of sin and death. Nicodemus is really a picture of each of us. Nicodemus embodies the law as a ruler of the people. Nicodemus is also a portrait of the victory of the people, that elusive victory that remains just beyond the grasp. The lesson of Nicodemus is that the victory of the people is already a part of you.
Nicodemus didn't get it. And when we try to see the victory of the people (Jesus) through the lens of the ruler of the people (the law), we don't get it either. The victory of the people does not come through the ruler of the people. The victory of the people is the liberation of the people from the ruler.
Yes, an important lesson of John 3:16 is that God gave his only begotten Son to save the world, but the more important lesson is what the world was saved from: the ruler of the people, or the condemnation of the law of sin and death.