An important leader of the Pharisees named Nicodemus comes at night to visit Jesus. They have a discussion about the kingdom of God and being born again.
I wrote about this in a blog called “A Down To Earth Take On Baptism And Being Born Again” in which I seek to demystify the experience of being born again. Certainly the Spirit of God is involved in the new birth, but it also has very down-to-earth implications. In this blog I’ll be zeroing in on two verses in the story. The first is John 3:16, of which I’ll made two observations.
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. NRSV
Eternal life or everlasting life is often understood as a timeless, blissful existence in heaven, but N.T. Wright and others contest this popular understanding. Jesus himself doesn’t define eternal life as a timeless heaven either, but as knowing he and his Father. (John 17:3)
Wright points out that many ancient Jews thought of time in “ages” or “eons”. The “present age” was the time before the coming of the Messiah, and the “age to come” was the age that would begin when Messiah arrived. Wright describes it this way:
The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” “ 1
With this in mind, Wright translates “eternal life” as “the life of God’s new age”. This is important because it reorients Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus to the here and now instead of the afterlife. It is during the Messianic age, which began with the first advent of Jesus that the kingdom of God and being born again are concerned. So, we can now say…
John 3: 16 is not a verse about going to heaven when you die; it is about living the life of God’s new age here and now through a change of citizenship and allegiance.
Jesus never speaks of dual citizenship. Being born again and baptism should affect a new citizenship in God’s kingdom with a change of allegiance from any particular political party of ruler to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is why the confession “Jesus is Lord” became the basis for much persecution of the early church. It was understood politically as a direct challenge to Caesar’s authority. The early church did not partner with any earthly political movement. Their total allegiance was to a different King and kingdom, which put them at odds with the nationalistic systems of their day.
In this way, the first advent of Jesus can be understood as an apocalyptic event. It was the actual inauguration of the age to come.
The second observation about John 3:16 comes from James Alison. He notes that the Greek adjective houtos that is translated as “so” in “for God so loved the world” more often means “in this manner”.2 This makes a considerable difference in how we understand John 3:16-17. If houtos is translated as “so”, it functions to intensify God’s love, but if translated as “in this manner” it becomes descriptive of what God’s love does. This means that it is what God actually did, not what we presume about how God felt about us that we should use to understand God and his love toward us.
So, if we combine the insights of N.T. Wright and James Alison, we could translate John 3:16 as follows:
For it was in this manner, you see, that God loved the world; he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.
This gets us to the crux of why Jesus came. God loved the world IN A PARTICULAR WAY, FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. And the purpose was that we should share in the life of God’s new age here and now!
NOT TO BIDE OUR TIME EITHER WAITING TO DIE, OR WAITING FOR THE 2ND COMING, BUT TO SHARE IN THE REVOLUTIONARY LIFE OF GOD’S NEW AGE HERE AND NOW!
The next verse describes the manner of God’s love, and it is mind-blowing!
After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved by him. John 3:17 KNT
It is in this manner that God loves the world – totally without judgment or condemnation. This is a negative description of how God loves – a description of what God’s love is not like, and it is incredibly good news…
God’s love contains no judgment or condemnation. Let that sink in.
The word “condemn” here is from the Greek word, “krino” which means: to separate, put asunder, pick out, select, choose, to esteem, to prefer, to be of an opinion, deem or condemn, to pronounce an opinion concerning right & wrong, to be judged, i.e. summoned to trial
We can now combine and amplify John 3:16-17 like this:
For it was in this manner, you see, that God loved the world; he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age. After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn, separate, put asunder, choose, prefer, to be of an opinion or to judge the world, but so that the world could be saved by him.
In other words, we should never use the threat of judgment or condemnation to get people saved, because Jesus didn’t use the threat of condemnation to save people.
And what exactly is Jesus “saving” people from here? The present evil age… not eternal torment in hell.
This is not a passage about heaven and hell!
It’s a passage about living in the life of God’s new age which began 2000 years ago and continues today.
God doesn’t pick and choose who can join in the life of God’s new age.
He loves everyone, and he doesn’t divide us or condemn us - we do that.
We divide ourselves. We condemn and judge each other.
God doesn’t. He invites all of us into the life of God’s new age now.
Sure, we can choose to remain in this present evil age if we want.
But God isn’t keeping us there.
We can choose to remain in this present evil age if we want.
God doesn’t condemn us for it.
He just calls us “lost” if we do.
It’s a loss of opportunity to participate in the life of God’s new age here and now.
This is really, really good news expressed in a negative way. Jesus doesn't do judgment and condemnation, and if we choose through new birth and baptism to enter the life of God’s new age, we shouldn’t do judgment and condemnation either.
1 N.T. Wright, “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels”
2 James Alison, “Broken Hearts and News Creations”