The Significance of 3:17
I had a member of my staff many years ago that used 3:17 for virtually everything. He had it on his wall … a tee shirt … a coffee cup. After he had been with me for a brief period of time, I finally asked the obvious: “What is 3:17 about?” And he had the most amazing response.
He said, “Everywhere you go, you always see ‘John 3:16.’ It’s on bumper stickers and artwork and tee shirts. People even hold it on signs in end zones at football games. People often use that passage to draw lines between people who believe and don’t believe and use it to pronounce those who get God’s love and those who don’t get God’s love. I’m pretty sure people wouldn’t be that way if they paid attention to John 3:17. ‘God did NOT send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’”
We are people who live according to some very dualistic principles without even knowing it. Even in computing, we are caught up in binary code … everything is understood according to 1’s and 0’s. Our entire computer systems fall apart if we introduce a 2 or a 7 into the code. It just doesn’t work.
In the same way, we are constantly dividing the world according to notions of black and white … who is in and who is out … who is right and who is wrong … who is saved and who is damned. And it is easy to use that first favorite verse that way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” We take something intended to be the “Good News” and weaponize it to further divide the world.
John 3:17 is intended to give it balance. It is intended to remind us that Jesus does not live according to dualistic principles or binary code. Jesus introduces in this very important sentence the possibility of a third way of being. This isn’t just about those who believe and those who don’t believe; it is about the radical love of God that respects none of our boxes or boundaries. It is about a radical grace that is greater than any possible conception of judgment. It is about a reconciliation that is beyond our divisiveness.
Ultimately, it is about an abundant, abiding wholeness that is beyond the worst brokenness we have experienced … it is about life that is beyond our darkest fear of death.
So when you see or hear John 3:16 written or spoken, I invite you to join me in refusing to stop there. Like my former colleague, make John 3:17 be your new favorite: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Lord God, you come to us as the God of wholeness and life amidst our world of brokenness and death. Remind us of your reconciling, radical third way of speaking into our divisive world your ways of grace! Amen.