Gospel: John 3:14-21

Darkness and Light

Have you ever been in the "dark" about something? What happened when a "light" was thrown on the subject?

Confusion. Times we're clueless. Subjects in which we pray for "enlightenment," a journey away from "darkness."

It's easy to use the analogies of "light" and "darkness" when academic notions are discussed. "Light" is mastery of the subject. "Darkness" is ignorance. However, when we apply these analogies to the faith and morality, we can no longer speak of "light" as mastery, but as commitment. "Light" becomes faithfulness. "Darkness" becomes rejection.

In Jesus' discourse to Nicodemus, he spoke of "light" and "darkness." But, the light was not the believer's commitment to God. The "Light" was Christ, the Father's commitment to his creation.

Popular Translation

Jesus said to Nicodemus the Pharisee:

14 Just as Moses lifted up a snake image made from bronze in the desert, the Son of Man needs to be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who places their trust in him will live forever in him.

16 God loved the world so very much that he gave the world his only Son.

Everyone who places their trust in the Son will not be lost, but will live forever.

17 God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world 'guilty,' but to save the world.

18 The person who places his trust in the Son does not receive a sentence of 'guilty.'

But the person who does not trust the Son is 'guilty,' because he did not trust in the name of God's only Son.

19 This is God's judgment.

God's Light, his only Son, came into the world, but people preferred the darkness to God's Light because they did evil things.

20 Everyone who does evil hates God's Light and won't come to his Light, because what they did will be shown as evil and will be rejected.

21 But everyone who is faithful to God comes to his Light, to show what they do is done in God.

This Sunday's gospel presents Jesus' final comments to Nicodemus, who visited the Master at night. John used this opportunity to contrast light from dark, salvation from condemnation. He saw the "world" as those who hid from the light (dishonorable) and those who act in the light (the honorable). Of course, the honorable look to Jesus.

Literal Translation

14 Just as Moses lifted the (bronze) snake up in the desert, so it is necessary for the SON of MAN to be lifted up, 15 that all believing in HIM might have eternal life (in HIM).

3:14 "Moses lifted up the snake" is a reference to Numbers 21:6-9:

6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that he takes away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (RSV)

John paralleled the symbols of the bronze snake and the cross. According to Genesis 2, the poisonous snake personified evil (i.e., Satan). John saw everyone in the world had been bitten by that snake. And the only way to be saved was to look up to the crucified One, just as the Israelites looked up at the bronze snake to be saved.

3:15 Greek allows the phrase "in him" to be used either with the participle "believing" or the object "eternal life." In the Jewish mind, "eternal life" meant "life in the coming age" of life in the Kingdom. It was a condition or quality of life filled with "Shalom," God's peace, comfort, and love. "Eternal life," then, could be experienced in the present, as well as after death. Trust in Jesus led to this condition of God's Shalom, here and now. Early Christians held Shalom could only be found in Christ. (Hence, "trust in him" and "eternal life in him")

The gospel opened with a parallel image about the Kingdom. Those who would live in the Kingdom ("have eternal life") would gaze upon the Son of Man lifted up (just as the dying Israelites were saved when they gazed at the bronzed snake). For John the evangelist, Jesus was lifted up on the cross and he was lifted up in the resurrection. Both were the same movement. Hence, to see Jesus lifted up, the Christian must see the crucified Jesus as the Risen Christ. When the world condemned Jesus, the Father raised him up to new life. A sign of failure and rejection became a sign of hope.

Notice the believer looked at the Son of Man lifted up. Since one can only see in the "light," the thematic scene is set for the contrast between light and darkness.

16 For God loved the world so much that he gave (his) only begotten SON, that all trusting in him might not be destroyed but might have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the SON into the world that he might judge (against) the world, but that the world might be saved through HIM. 18 The one (placing his) trust into HIM is not judged, but the one not (placing) trust is already judged, because he has not trusted in the name of the only begotten SON of God.

3:17 " . . . judge (against) the world . . . " The ancient world equated judgment with condemnation.

3:18a " . . . (placing) trust in him . . . not (placing) trust . . . " In one sense, placing trust in the Lord meant the believer gave him or herself over to the presence of the Lord. The one who did not place trust in the Lord, placed trust in the self or in the world so he or she could be like "God" (i.e., their own masters). He or she shut out the presence of the Lord. Like Adam and Eve, this simple act of selfishness broke the relationship with God and led to alienation.

3:18b " . . . he has not trusted in the name of the only begotten SON of God." In the time of Jesus, the name revealed the power and inner character of the person. By believing in the name of Jesus, the faithful gave themselves to the power and inner reality of Jesus. According to the contemporaries of John, belief in the name of Jesus meant an encounter with the Son.

Like any good Hebrew, John did not believe in fate. All evil had its roots in the freely chosen acts of people. But, John saw there was only one way to reject evil: a trust relationship with God's Son. The Father had given the world his Son, a much greater gift than creation itself. For, through the Son, God was present to his people.

John implicitly equated the "sin" of rejecting the Son to the "original sin" of Adam. Those who did not "trust in the name of God's only begotten Son" did not trust in his power to make God present. They insisted on finding their own way, like Adam. Those who chose their way condemn themselves, simply because they did not walk with their Creator.

19 This is the judgment: that light has come into the world and men loved the dark rather than the light, for their works were evil. 20 Everyone practicing foul (deeds) hates the light and does not come to the light, so that his works might not be shown (and rejected). 21 But, the one acting true comes to the light so his works might be shown that (they) are worked in God.

3:19 " . . . that light has come into the world . . . " The verb "has come" inferred that the "light" arrived and is still present. "...men loved the dark more than the light." The verb "loved" can also infer past action that spills into the present. So, these two verbs parallel each other. The light came into the world and remained; the evil of people came into the world and remained. In other words, God always offers grace; people refuse it. This is God's judgment.

3:20 " . . . that his works might not be shown (and rejected)." The verb of this clause means "to show in a (negative) light." Hence the notion of rejection is implied.

3:21 "acting true" is literally "doing the truth." In this sense, truth is not meant as a quality of a statement ("This statement is true") or the right relationship between a condition in reality and our mental conception of that condition. The "truth" in 3:21 is found in personal relationship. Truth is equivalent to faithfulness. The one "doing the truth" is "true" to God. What he or she does is "in God" because that person is obedient to God's will.

John came back to the notion of light, implied with the image of sight in 3:14. The "light," of course, was God's Son. However, one cannot necessarily equate the presence of the "light" to the appearance of the historic Jesus. In John 1, God's Word (another symbol for the Son) was the instrument of creation and existed in the world before the "Word was made flesh" (John1:14). Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, all heard God's Word. But the Word took definitive form in flesh.

So, the "light" came into the world and existed with God's people throughout history. He revealed himself completely as Jesus of Nazareth. But throughout history, people rejected the "light" because of the evil they did. In fact, these people feared the "light," because it would reveal what they have really done. The truth would be known. But, those who are faithful, perform acts of faith and charity (deeds In "God") because of their orientation. They have nothing to hide. They stand as if the final judgment had already occurred.

As a final note, Nicodemus came to see Jesus in the dark, fearing his fellow Pharisees. In his peers' eyes, such a meeting was dishonorable. Yet, Jesus spoke to him (and us) about true honor: faith. In the end, Nicodemus would step into the daylight to bury Jesus. He would perform not only an honorable act of charity (burying the dead), he would implicitly gaze upon the cross and see his true Master (see John 19:38-42).

Catechism Theme: The Only Son of God (CCC 441-445)

What does the phrase "son of God" mean? Simply, God gave his creature a special relationship. The phrase recognized that special, "adopted" status. The title was given to angels, his People, and the kings of Israel.

However, when Peter acknowledged Jesus as "the Christ, Son of the Living God" (Matthew 16:16), he responded to a revelation. Jesus had a divine Sonship that was unique. He was the "only begotten" Son of God the Father. The Father revealed the divine Sonship when he addressed Jesus as "my beloved Son" at the Baptism and the Transfiguration.

The Church recognizes the divine Sonship in three ways: the pre-existent Word, the Incarnated human, and the Risen Lord. God's Word was the instrument of the Father in creation and, with the Spirit, revealed God's will to his people. When the time was right, the Word took on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. After his death, Jesus rose from the dead as the Risen Lord. His adopted humanity will forever be united with his divinity in his glorified body. In all three ways, the Son revealed the Father's love for his creatures, and his willingness to raise all humanity to the status of "adopted" sons and daughters.

How does faith in Christ make life a little clearer? How has God guided you through dark times and murky waters?

Throughout this study, we have seen analogies. Light vs. dark. Acquitted vs. judged. Saved vs. condemned. Analogies make understanding easier, especially in the moving themes of John. Unfortunately, analogies sometimes break down when we are faced with real life.

There is, however, one constant, unchanging factor in our faith life: God's faithfulness to us. God invites us to respond in kind. His invitation is his Son, the One he gave to the world. Do we accept the faithfulness we find in his Son? Do we commit ourselves to return his faithfulness? These are the questions the gospel of John asks us.

Reflect on God's faithfulness to you. How has his faithfulness opened your eyes? How will it guide you this next week?