SCRIPTURE: John 3:14-21
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VERSES 1-13: NICODEMUS
Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus leads into this passage about three related subjects:
• The Son of Man being lifted up
• Eternal life
These three are so closely related as to be one theme, but we often fail to treat them that way. We tend to memorize verse 16 and to disregard what goes before and what follows. It is the preacher's duty to bring these three subjects back into relationship. We must help people understand not only the grace but also the judgment of this text. The grace has no meaning in isolation from the judgment. If we have no sin, we need no forgiveness. If there is no judgment, we require no grace.
VERSES 14-15: SO MUST THE SON OF MAN BE LIFTED UP
14"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever (Greek: pas) believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (Greek: zoen aionion).
These verses answer Nicodemus' question, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb, and be born?" (v. 4).
"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness" (v. 14a). The story is from Numbers 21:4-9.
"even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (v. 14b-15). The parallels in the Moses story and the Jesus story are several. In both stories:
• The people were in danger of death because of their sin.
• God provided the agent of salvation –– the bronze serpent in the first story and the Son of Man in the second.
• The agent of salvation was lifted up.
• The people were saved by looking at –– or believing in –– God's agent of salvation.
However, there are two significant differences:
• The bronze snake was only a piece of bronze, having no saving power in itself.
• Looking at the "lifted up" bronze snake gave the Israelites extended physical life. Looking upon the "lifted up" Jesus gives us eternal life.
The term, "lifted up," has a double meaning in this Gospel. It refers to his being lifted up on the cross, but it also refers to his being lifted up in glorification, which in this Gospel refers to his exaltation –– his death, resurrection, and ascension.
"that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (v. 15). This is the first mention of the phrase, "eternal life," a major theme of this Gospel.
We tend to think of eternal life as life without end, and it does have that sense (6:58). However, the primary meaning is a quality of life lived in the presence of God (17:3).
VERSE 16: FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD
16"For God so loved the world (Greek: kosmos) that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son" (v. 16a). This is an amazing statement for this Gospel, which "generally operates with a negative view of the world, not because the world is inherently evil, but because the world rejects Jesus" (Gaventa, 228). But God gives the Son "that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (v. 16b). Luther calls this verse "the gospel in miniature."
The wording of this verse is very much like that in the story in which God told Abraham to sacrifice his son (Genesis 22:2). However, God stopped Abraham from making that sacrifice, but sacrifices his own Son instead.
"but have eternal life" (v. 16c). The word, "have," is present tense, suggesting that believers possess it in the here and now rather than having to wait for some future inheritance. This is Johannine "realized eschatology" –– the already-received gift –– eternal life as relationship with God beginning now.
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VERSES 17-21: HE WHO BELIEVES IS NOT JUDGED
17"For God didn't send his Son into the world to judge (Greek: krine) the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18He who believes in him is not judged. He who doesn't believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. 19This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil. 20For everyone who does evil hates the light, and doesn't come to the light, lest his works would be exposed. 21But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his works may be revealed, that they have been done in God."
"For God didn't send his Son into the world to judge (krine) the world, but that the world should be saved through him" (v. 17). This verse states God's purpose in sending the Son. It is not to condemn (krine) the world, but to save it. Krine can mean judged, but in this context –– set over against saved –– it means condemned. God sends the Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it.
Jesus' saving work reveals a dark side of earthly life. If it is necessary for God to send the Son to save the world, it must be that the world needs saving –– is lost. Furthermore, the Son's work is efficacious only if the world accepts the proffered salvation. John puts it this way: "He who believes in him is not judged. He who doesn't believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God" (v. 18).
"because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God" (v. 18b). "'Name' in Semitic usage refers to what is essential in a person; the name of the Son of God is Jesus, which means 'savior'" (Williamson, 37). Those who fail to believe in the name of the savior have not been saved but "has been judged already".
Just as we have a clear statement of Jesus' purpose in v. 16 –– that he came to save the world –– so we have a clear statement of the problem "that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil" (v. 19). The person "who does evil hates the light, and doesn't come to the light, lest his works would be exposed" (v. 20). The images conjured up by such language are sinister but all too real. They remind us of the danger of dark streets –– illicit transactions accomplished in out of the way places –– people clothed in dark clothing to make themselves invisible in the night.
While our salvation depends on what Christ has done for us on the cross, it doesn't become effective unless we accept it –– unless we believe "in the name of the one and only Son of God" (v. 18).
"But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his works may be revealed, that they have been done in God" (v. 21). "This strange expression makes it clear that the lover of light is not some intrinsically superior person. If he or she enjoys the light, it is because all that has been performed, for which there is no shame or conviction, has been done 'through God' in union with Him, and therefore by His power' (Carson, quoting Westcott, 208).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible(WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Beasley-Murray, George R., Word Biblical Commentary: John (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999)
Borchert, Gerald L., New American Commentary: John 1-11, Vol, 25A (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1996)
Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966)
Bruce, F. F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983).
Burridge, Richard A. in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
Carson, D. A., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991).
Craddock, Fred R.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Gaventa, Beverly R., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R. and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV––Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Gossip, Arthur John and Howard, Wilbert F., The Interpreter's Bible, Volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952)
Howard-Brook, Wes, Becoming the Children of God: John's Gospel and Radical Discipleship (New York: Maryknoll, 1994).
Lincoln, Andrew T., Black's New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to John (London: Continuum, 2005)
Moloney, Francis J., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998)
Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).
O'Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Palmer, Earl F., The Book That John Wrote (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1975)
Ridderbos, Herman (translated by John Vriend), The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Sloyan, Gerald, "John," Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Smith, D. Moody, Jr., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: John (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999)
Williamson, Lamar, Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004)
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