Love and Mercy: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Lent 4

 
Lectionary Commentary for Lent 4

Lent 4 (Year B): John 3:14-21 and Numbers 21:4-9

Big Picture:

1) Shortly after Jesus’ provocative disturbance-of-the-peace at the Jerusalem temple, Nicodemus visits Jesus by night.  Nicodemus, a religious leader, has begun to suspect that Jesus has indeed “come from God” - and so he wants to learn more.  At the end of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus comes with Joseph of Arimathea to wrap the dead body of Jesus in spices and cloth, suggesting that over the course of the Gospel he has become a secret disciple of Jesus - but in this initial meeting, Nicodemus is tentative and curious.  He has questions about what Jesus means by being “born anew” or “born from above” (the Greek phrase can mean either).  Today’s passage is the second half of Jesus’ response to Nicodemus.  This is a late-night, clandestine conversation between two people, and Jesus’ words are part of an attempt to persuasively explain his identity and mission to an interested, well-educated religious leader who has sought Jesus out and wants to hear more.

2) This passage contains arguably the most famous verse in the New Testament, John 3:16, a citation frequently seen on placards at sporting events and other public gatherings, in graffiti along roadsides, and so on.  For all its familiarity, it’s frequently misunderstood, partly because of a holdover from older English (see below), and partly because so much is packed into the verse and the surrounding passage.  Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the gospel in miniature,” and as such, this famous sentence pushes us to clarify how we understand God’s love and God’s justice to be related.  If we distort this key relationship, we can render the verse not the gospel but rather the anti-gospel, a proclamation not of love and invitation but of contempt and exclusion.  Put more positively, this verse presents us with a wonderful opportunity to clarify how we conceive God’s love and justice, and what Christian good news is really all about.

3) A key motif in John goes like this: Jesus makes a statement, and then others take him in a literal, commonplace sort of way, thereby missing that Jesus is actually speaking in a more elevated, “heavenly” way.  Last week’s passage is a perfect example: Jesus refers to raising up “the temple” in three days, but others (both authorities and disciples) miss that he’s actually “speaking of the temple of his body.”  His conversation with Nicodemus, too, plays with these levels of meaning in language; Jesus himself frames the levels as speaking of “earthly things” and speaking of “heavenly things” (John 3:12).  In the conversation with Nicodemus, he is expressly speaking in a "heavenly" way - and so we should tread lightly as we seek to understand him.

4) As the Israelites wander in the wilderness, there are nearly a dozen stories in Exodus and Numbers describing the people complaining or rebelling along the way - and this week's passage from Numbers is the last and arguably the most serious of them all, since the people speak “against God and against Moses,” a formulation unique to this story.  Hungry and impatient, the Israelites ungratefully frame the exodus from Egypt as “bringing us out into the wilderness to die,” and so God sends poisonous, deadly serpents to slither among them, wreaking havoc.  The people confess (“we have sinned”) and plead for help, and God directs Moses to fashion a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole, such that any bitten Israelite can “look at the serpent of bronze and live.”  There are indications in the storytelling - both in Numbers and in John - that the negative consequences in these accounts are aspects of the self-destructive nature of sin itself: (a) in Numbers, the Israelites’ complaints are conspicuously poisonous, bitter, self-contradictory (given manna to eat daily, the people say both “there is no food” and “we detest this miserable food”), and in that sense "serpentine"; and (b) in John, Jesus casts those who do not believe in him as condemned “already” as a result of their desire to stay in the shadows; in this sense they condemn themselves by choosing to stay away from the light.  In any case, the center of gravity in both stories - and the key link between them - is the saving action of God, as well as God’s intention to save not just a select few but rather all who look upon the bronze serpent (Numbers), and indeed the entire world (John).

Scripture:

1) Jesus’ reference to Numbers is well-tailored to his audience, Nicodemus, a Pharisee who would have known scripture exceedingly well - and the reference also serves as a compact, anticipatory portrait of Jesus’ coming crucifixion.  Jesus puns on the phrase, “lifted up”: Moses literally lifted up the bronze serpent and Jesus will be lifted up on the cross, and at the same time the phrase also alludes to Jesus' resurrection and ascension.  Above all, however, the reference to Numbers highlights God’s character as the One who saves even and especially in the face of rebellion:  the Israelites had self-destructively turned against God, but when they asked for deliverance from the consequences of their sin (and please note, their plea isn't out of any high-minded piety, but rather is driven by self-preservation!), God gracefully delivers them.

2) There’s a fascinating theology of the cross suggested here, distinct from both penal substitution theory (Jesus absorbing punishment on our behalf) and “Christus Victor” theory (Jesus conquering the powers of death).  While God could have saved the Israelites by having them look upon anything at all (or in some other way entirely), the chosen remedy is a bronze serpent, a reminder - even in the midst of healing and restoration - of (a) the deadly, self-destructive nature of sin, and (b) God's way of transforming even our worst into our redemption.  Likewise, the Christian cross can play this role, reminding us of the many ways we turn against each other in violence and betrayal, even as we remember God’s graceful forgiveness and deliverance, calling us into lives of peace, fidelity, and justice.  Moreover, the bronze serpent takes what was for the wandering Israelites one of the worst things in the world (a lethal snake) and remakes it into one of the best things (an instrument of healing).  Likewise, the Christian cross can be understood in the same way, an imperial tool of torture and death divinely remade into a sign of hope and new life, a sword into a ploughshare.  Thus the cross may be conceived as a poetic proclamation: God is turning the world upside down, redeeming even the worst of the worst, swords into ploughshares, crosses into trees of life - making all things new!

3) In seventeenth-century English, “so” frequently meant “in this way” - as in, “like so,” or “so help me God.”  And so in the King James Version of the Bible, it made perfect sense to translate the Greek houtos (“in this way”) with the English word “so” - and that's exactly what the KJV translators did in the famous sentence, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...” (John 3:16).  But today, we more often use “so” to mean “very” or “to a large extent” - as in, “I’m so sad,” or “She’s so smart!”  Thus John 3:16 is often misunderstood today as a statement about the extent or degree of God’s love - whereas actually it’s a statement about the way or pattern of God’s love, as in, “For God loved the world in this way: he gave his only Son…”  Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, a student of scripture, and in order to describe the character of God’s love, he makes two allusions to ancient scriptural archetypes:  (1) God's desire to save sinners, as in the story of the bronze serpent in the wilderness, and (2) giving up a beloved child, as in the story of Abraham and Isaac (“gave his only Son”).  In what way does God love the world?  First, God graciously, poetically delivers us from the self-destruction of sin; and second, God faithfully, astonishingly gives God’s only Son for the sake of our deliverance.

4) Whose deliverance, exactly?  The scope of salvation has long been a topic of debate among Christians, and this passage in John is a case study of that debate.  On one hand, some emphasize the idea that “eternal life” is only granted to those who “believe,” as if the sentence were italicized like this:  “For God loved the world in this way: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”  On the other hand, others emphasize God’s intention to save all people, as if the sentence were italicized like this:  “For God loved the world in this way: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”  On balance, there are at least three reasons to lean toward this second set of emphases.  First, throughout John’s Gospel, “the world” is a phrase typically used as shorthand for sin and estrangement from God, and this makes it all the more striking that Jesus says, “God loved the world,” not “God loved the remnant of those who believe.”  Second, in the story from Numbers, when God provides the remedy of the bronze serpent, the strategy isn't to save a few well-deserving Israelites, but rather to save all who had turned against God and then (for arguably less-than-noble reasons) asked God for deliverance.  And third, as if to clarify this very question, in the next verse Jesus underlines that God sends the Son not “to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).  Jesus then returns to the importance of believing in him - but remember, this is all for Nicodemus’ benefit.  Jesus says that those who don’t believe in him have elected to stay in the shadows - and Nicodemus, please note, comes to visit Jesus at night!  He is literally in the shadows, and Jesus is telling him that remaining there amounts to self-condemnation.  Moreover, the sharp “light-dark” contrast in these verses is both a “heavenly” way of talking (similar rhetoric can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls) and a form of exhorting a potential recruit to “come into the light.”  This isn't an overarching, programmatic, settle-the-question statement about the scope of salvation; it's a dialogue with Nicodemus, tailored to him.  The larger question of who will be included in the circle of salvation is left open - as it should be, since it's a question only God can answer.  But if this passage leans in a direction (and it does), it's toward the idea that God intends to save not a subset of humanity, but rather "the world."

Takeaways:

1) As we move through Lent toward Holy Week, this passage provides another angle on how to think about Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  The reference to the story in Numbers points to the cross and resurrection as acts of God’s love and mercy, for the sake of all - even and especially those who are caught up in sin’s self-destruction.  And the reference to the story of Abraham and Isaac ("gave his only Son") points to the cross and resurrection as signs of God’s faithfulness and generosity on our behalf.  In short, God loves “in this way” (houtos): graciously, mercifully, faithfully, generously - and universally, for the sake of “the world.”

2) For many people, this passage raises questions about the nature and scope of salvation.  Does God love the world, but intends to save only a remnant, only those who “believe in him”?  Though some Christians try to read this passage in those terms, at least four key factors point in the other direction: (1) the fact that this discourse is embedded within a story of Jesus persuading an interested religious leader to become his disciple; (2) the emphasis on unearned deliverance in the Numbers story; (3) the emphasis on love (and not condemnation) in John 3:16-17; and (4) the foundational ideas in Christian theology that love and humility should govern our reading of scripture, and that we have no right to impose limits on the extent of God’s graceful, saving work.  In the end, while offering assurance and encouraging fellow disciples and interested seekers to “believe in Jesus” is well and good, we dare not put boundaries around what counts - from God’s perspective - as “believing in him,” or indeed whether such belief can emerge after death, and so on.  At the end of the day, salvation is God’s business, not ours.  What we are charged to do is to proclaim again and again the good news of God’s love and mercy for “the world” without exception.