The story of Abraham and the Apostle Paul’s interpretation of that story in the Christian context are central to my understanding of the Christian faith. When I was a young Christian, the people who influenced me most were those who talked about concepts like grace vs. law, justification by faith, and the free gift of forgiveness. As I read the first two lessons forthe Second Sunday in Lent (Gen. 12:1-4a; Rom. 4: 1-5, 13-17), I find myself drawn back to those moments when I, like a sponge, soaked up any bit of understanding I was given. I was filled with the gospel as expressed in the Abraham/Paul story of God’s amazing promise and humanity’s only response.
Then I read the gospel lesson (John 3:1-17), and I wonder why these are all stuck together. John’s story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night is a compelling tale. It’s a man risking his status in the community in order to ask Jesus his burning question: “Who are you???” It’s Jesus’ urging us all to be reborn by the Spirit. It contains the verse that for so many is the encapsulation of our faith—John 3:16. (I think that “encapsulation” is often misunderstood, so I usually avoid it.) But where is the connection with the Abraham story?
Maybe there’s some ground to cover in what I would argue is the necessary pairing of John 3:16 and John 3:17.
So many of us think of John 3:16 as the end-all, be-all of the Christian faith: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life. It is important. You can’t deny that. But how is it important? What is Jesus really saying there?
Is he saying, “God sent his son so that those who believe might be saved…so you’d better believe or else?”
Is he saying, “God sent his son so that those who believe will live an everlasting life…and those who don’t will perish?”
Is he saying, “God sent his son so that those who believe will be forever separated from those who don’t in the clearest possible test of what it means to be saved or damned?”
Does that mean Me + Belief = Salvation while You + Unbelief = Damnation?
That’s why we need verse 17. Indeed, God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Put those two verses together, and never let them be split apart. When read with the verse after it, John 3:16 is a reminder that God is in the saving-the-world business. Without it, it can be a weapon that Christians use to bludgeon the rest of the world over the head until they are relegated to hell. But that’s not the story of faith God has been revealing to the world since he first called Abraham.
God offers blessing to those who believe because God is a God of blessing. The divine economy is not built upon the premise that one must lose if another is to gain. God showering his blessing upon those who accept him at his word does not necessitate God raining down fire upon those who don’t. (There’s an argument for that—and against that—but that’s another set of readings.) We follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Jesus. (Kathy Grieb makes this point in her commentary The Story ofRomans.) Abraham heard God’s promise of blessing and trusted it enough to leave everything behind and set out for a new land. Jesus heard God’s promise of redemption and trusted it enough to give up his life so that God might redeem the world. Those are stories of blessing. To add a consequence of curse is a wonderfully human and wonderfully short-sighted tendency that we are begged to resist. (See what else Paul has to say about the Law in the rest of Romans.)
I want to see the guy in the crowd at the WWE match holding up the sign that says “John 3:17.” I want to see him standing right next to the guy who holds up the sign that says “John 3:16.” They go together. They can’t be separated.