Sunday reflection: John 3:16-18

posted at 10:01 am on June 15, 2014 by Ed Morrissey

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussionPrevious Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 3:16-18:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

John 3:16 is perhaps the most widely recognized verses in the New Testament. The most substantive reason for its resonance is because it encapsulates the final phase of God’s plan of salvation for all humanity in a single sentence, which acts as its own declaration of faith for believers. The other reason flows from its utter simplicity, which allows Christians to use this verse in all sorts of ways to spread the Gospel, including the display of the chapter and verse reference on placards and other items at public events, especially sporting events. Tim Tebow even wore eye-black patches at the University of Florida with the reference, which not only gained notoriety but prompted (minimal) exegesis in some unusual places.

There is much more going on in John 3 and our other readings today, though, than just the familiar quote from Jesus.  In this chapter, John recounts a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin who had sympathy for Jesus and his message of salvation through repentance. Nicodemus came out to meet Jesus and the disciples after reports of the miracles Jesus had performed, hoping to gain some insight into His teachings.

Jesus at first tries to explain that Israel needs a spiritual rebirth: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus, though, understands rebirth only in a physical sense: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus then marvels that this concept could escape someone who is a “teacher of Israel,” and tries to explain the difference between the flesh and the spirit, which loses Nicodemus a second time.

This might be easy for us to miss, but this would have been a relatively revolutionary concept for the people of Israel at that time. They felt that they belonged to God through birthright as descendants of Abraham. While they certainly understood about sin and repentance — the Pharisees in particular — they would have balked at the notion that they needed a rebirth of any kind to enter into God’s favor.  All that was necessary, most would have thought, would be to be an Israelite who keeps the letter of the law. John the Baptist addressed this same issue at another time, in Matthew 3:7-10 (also Luke 3:7-9), when he warned the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to watch his baptisms:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.[“]

The concept and need for spiritual rebirth would have been much more foreign to Nicodemus than to us, and perhaps more so still for other members of the Sanhedrin class in Israel. The need for such a rebirth would undermine their claim for authority, and especially their claim to be learned in the ways of God, on which that authority rested.

In both of these passages, the clear exhortation is for repentance. John the Baptist explicitly calls for repentance and spiritual rebirth rather than just a genealogical claim on inheritance. Jesus speaks more analogically with Nicodemus in John 3:14-15, just before today’s Gospel reading: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Moses lifted up the serpent staff in the wilderness to heal those afflicted by snakebites from a punishment sent by God for Israel’s lack of faith in Numbers 21. When their faith turned back to God and they prayed for relief, God instructed Moses to make a staff with a “fiery serpent” on it so that those who repented of their sins might be healed.

Immediately following that passage, Jesus then explains that He is the new and complete healing for the world in John 3:16-18. In order to have a part in eternal life, simply being a physical descendant of Abraham will not be enough. People will need to form themselves spiritually through faith in God and belief in His Son, who brings healing and light into the world. In the final three verses of this conversation with Nicodemus, which are not included in today’s reading, Jesus makes the analogy of Himself as healer and light even more clear:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

The movement from darkness into light means spiritual rebirth and repentance for one’s sins, along with a true change in life that reflects this rebirth and faith. That message is emphasized in our other readings today. In Exodus 34:4-9, the Lord passes by Moses when he brings the stone tablets up Mount Sinai. Moses begs God to come along in their company, lamenting the “stiff-necked people” of Israel but praying for God’s forgiveness for their “wickedness and sins.” Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 13:11-13) that spiritual rebirth on its own isn’t sufficient either. “Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you,” Paul writes to the already-converted in Corinth, who have accepted Jesus Christ as savior but still struggle with the faith in practice. The path from darkness into light is a long one, fraught with the danger of backsliding.

Earlier, I noted that the concept of spiritual rebirth would have seemed foreign to Nicodemus, given the common understanding of God’s plan for Israel at the time. Is that so different than our own personal understanding in this age, though? At times in my life, I want to shrug off the responsibility that spiritual renewal puts in my life. “Hey, I didn’t break any commandments this week, Lord,” I want to say, “so I’m off the hook for prayer and reflection, right?” I’m sure I’m not alone in understanding and relating to the struggles that Augustine had before accepting his conversion to the faith, even though I already share that faith. The wish that we can get a pass from taking that daily journey from darkness into the light can be powerfully attractive. Isn’t it enough that I got baptized and confirmed? Can’t I just take the next 50 years off?

Well … no, but active love and faith in the Lord have their own rewards. His yoke is light, Jesus reminds us elsewhere, and He has already done the really heavy lifting in his death and resurrection. And we know that the work has succeeded, too, for God so loved the world — and each of us individually — that He gave His only Son so that those who believe will not perish but have eternal life.  Jesus does not bring condemnation but restoration. The crucified Jesus is the new staff of healing, raised in the wilderness of this world, so that all those who suffer in sin may be cleansed and restored to true life. All we need to do is to repent of our sins, and lift each other up so that all may see that staff in the wilderness.


The front page image is of the altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over Golgotha, the site of the Crucifixion, from my own personal collection.

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Comment pages: 1 2

Also, the “filthy rags” quote in Isaiah read in context is talking about “sin” turning our works into “filthy rags.” It isn’t saying that all our works (with God’s grace) are “filthy rags.”

Elisa on June 18, 2014 at 10:55 AM

Calvinism is blasphemous for saying that God chose in eternity past who He would save and who He would damn. Now God being God, I’d have no problem with that IF that’s what the Bible teaches. But that is not what it teaches.
S.P. Link on June 17, 2014 at 7:50 AM

^^The point you made to which I responded only with scripture.
Your subsequent response:

Not one of those verses speak of lost people chosen to be saved.
S.P. Link on June 17, 2014 at 10:40 AM

A plain reading of any of the verses I quoted would dispute that, but just to be clear that they do, indeed, speak of lost people chosen to be saved:

Eph 1:4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace

If your claim is true then redemption, forgiveness, us, and we are meaningless in this passage.

2Thes 2:13 But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: 14 whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Timothy 1: 8 Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God; 9 who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began,

The bold speaks for itself.

Thanks for the selective bold which makes my point. Augustinians – even those who don’t know that’s what they are – make this and other verses about the purported elect* unto salvation rather than about Christ.

S.P. Link on June 18, 2014 at 7:38 AM

You can point to no place in my posts where I said that these verses are about the elect RATHER than (i.e., to the exclusion of) Christ. They are undoubtedly concerned with the person and work of Jesus Christ.

However, that work of Christ has an object in mind, which is the Glory of God. Scripture shows that the redemption of His people — known, loved, and secured before the foundation of the world in the atonement provided in and through Jesus Christ — is one of the myriad ways in which God is glorified.

That glorification of God through the provision of salvation for His chosen people is borne out in all of those verses I quoted.

questionmark on June 18, 2014 at 5:07 PM

S.P. Link on June 18, 2014 at 12:03 PM

If the deceased loved one was an unbeliever or rejected God’s grace, then they would never be allowed in Purgatory. They would be damned to Hell. (May God have mercy on all our souls.)

Purgatory is not for that. It is not a way to work or earn our way into Heaven. It is not a way for us to justify ourselves or pay for our sins.

God’s saving work on the cross is complete and after we accept His grace and repent of our sins, our sins are forgiven, by His blood that pays our eternal punishment.

While we deserve eternal punishment for our sins, that punishment is removed.

Eternal punishment is the just consequence of sin – reject God and He rejects you. His blood removes that from us, if we accept Him.

But besides ETERNAL PUNISHMENT, there is TEMPORAL PUNISHMENT. Because sin has temporal consequences also.

The old explanation is that the son disobeys his father and plays ball too close to the neighbor’s house. Breaks the window. The son truly repents and the father forgives him. The son is not sent away, he still is loved and welcome in his father’s house. However, the neighbor’s window is still broken and it must be fixed. So the father makes the son fix it.

Even if you do not agree with our belief, I hope that in the future you will understand that it does not reject God’s saving work or mean that anything was lacking or that an unbeliever or one not deemed saved by God can in any way work his way to salvation. We believe in the same Scriptures as far as eternal punishment.

Besides the temporal punishment, the state of Purgatory is for cleansing. We all have small or large unrepented sins we sin AFTER we become believers and first accept His forgiveness. And we have impurities and unholiness and imperfections. Those are what are cleansed in the state of Purgatory, besides temporal punishment for sins committed after baptism.

Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox (and others such as me) believe that it is a joyful state, to prepare ourselves to see the Lord face to face. We put our best clothes on to meet someone important. We should want (with all humility) to cloth ourselves with His holiness before coming before Him in Heaven. So we are free of all unholiness. Sometimes we are in a perfect state of grace here on earth. But I know I am not always in that condition. Unfortunately.

Do you feel perfect or completely holy and completely detached from sin at all times? Always in a state of perfect grace?

Revelation says of Heaven that “nothing unclean shall enter into it.” And Jesus tells us to “be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”

Elisa on June 18, 2014 at 9:08 PM

S.P. Link on June 19, 2014 at 8:50 AM

I don’t think you read my post carefully or perhaps don’t understand the difference between eternal punishment and temporal punishment.

Perhaps I didn’t explain it well, because your post shows many misunderstandings of the Catholic position on this.

Since this thread is off the main page for a couple days, I guess we will just have to leave this discussion as is.

It has nothing to do with “feelings” or with having our sins washed clean after repentance and faith and baptism or with having any eternal punishment wiped away. That we agree on.

Elisa on June 19, 2014 at 12:00 PM

S.P. Link on June 19, 2014 at 12:39 PM

Again, you do not fully understand what Catholics believe on this topic.

I think I am a better judge of what I believe than you are, no? LoL

What you have written in your posts is not what I believe and I believe orthodox Catholic teaching.

You do not believe in temporal punishment for unrepented sins after baptism and conversion. I do. There are some Scriptures that support this, as well as early Church writings.

Even if you do not see a difference, (between eternal punishment and temporal punishment) you should understand that we do see the difference and we do not reject or impune His Scriptures, grace, promise or forgiveness.

Even small sins reject God to some degree. The just punishment for that is eternal punishment away from God.

But Our Lord Jesus Christ bore our sins and removed that just punishment. There was nothing lacking in His sacrifice.

If we accept His blood and grace and forgiveness and love Him, we trust in His promise that later small unrepented sins, impurities, imperfections and attachments to sin will not make God reject us and send us to eternal punishment.

That is what the Scriptures are talking about. Eternal punishment. That is wiped clean. Praise God. We agree on that.

Also, I am not talking about temporal punishment for sins BEFORE the grace for faith, repentance and baptism. I am talking about smaller unrepented sins AFTER initial repentance, faith and baptism. Unless of course one never sins again (even mildly) after their initial conversion.

A state of cleansing is a very old Christian belief that was handed down from the Jews. Most modern Jews do not know why they pray the Kaddish prayer after a loved one dies for only 11 months instead of a full year. It is because of the period of cleansing that early Jews believed in.

In fact, in the early Church (2nd and 3rd centuries) many Christians converts delayed baptism till later in their life on purpose for this very reason. The Church criticized this practice, telling people that, while it was true that baptism wiped away temporal punishment as well as eternal punishment, that “God is not mocked” and cannot be manipulated.

But, again, this thread is old now, so we will just leave it at this.

Elisa on June 19, 2014 at 7:26 PM

Jesus is the elect of God. Christians, in Christ, become the elect. It is part of our inheritance as adopted children of God.

davidk on June 17, 2014 at 1:37 PM

Not quite. Jesus IS God. God did not elect Himself. As for us becoming the elect, we don’t do it merely by proclaiming ourselves to be Christians. Indeed, Jesus himself teaches that mere faith is not sufficient, and John 2 reinforces that statement. You can say “LORD, LORD” all you want, but you have to have done something to get a favorable response.

Yet, whatever you do will not be enough, but with God, all things are possible. Here’s Deuteronomy 8 so one can understand what relationship must stand between God and man:

Be careful not to forget the LORD, your God, by failing to keep his commandments and ordinances and statutes which I enjoin on you today: lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built fine houses and lived in them, and your herds and flocks have increased, your silver and gold has increased, and all your property has increased, you then become haughty of heart and forget the LORD, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that house of slavery; he guided you through the vast and terrible wilderness with its saraph serpents and scorpions, its parched and waterless ground; he brought forth water for you from the flinty rock and fed you in the wilderness with manna, a food unknown to your ancestors, that he might afflict you and test you, but also make you prosperous in the end.

Otherwise, you might say in your heart, “It is my own power and the strength of my own hand that has got me this wealth.” Remember then the LORD, your God, for he is the one who gives you the power to get wealth, by fulfilling, as he has now done, the covenant he swore to your ancestors. But if you do forget the LORD, your God, and go after other gods, serving and bowing down to them, I bear witness to you this day that you will perish utterly. Like the nations which the LORD destroys before you, so shall you too perish for not listening to the voice of the LORD, your God.

So, when Christian, loaded with his burden, reaches up from the Slough of Despair, he cannot come out until Someone Else offers him a hand up, no matter how he tried. But, certainly, he would not have come out had he not reached up in the first place.

unclesmrgol on June 22, 2014 at 4:53 PM

You are grievously deceived, Elisa.

S.P. Link on June 21, 2014 at 12:38 PM

No, she is not. You are, as are any whom, through dead faith, think that works are nothing.

You are as bad as those who think that works are everything, for you view a work of your own mind as giving you eternal life.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that works are as essential as faith.

What need is there for Matthew 7:12 if works are for nothing?

And what about Matthew 7:21? Will you be one of those shouting “LORD, LORD” in the full belief that you are Chosen, only to hear the Lord say to depart?

Finally, what about James 2?

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

Can it?

unclesmrgol on June 22, 2014 at 5:09 PM

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