What's the Deal with John 3:16?
One of our church’s most popular YouTube videos is a message I gave back in 2018, called “A Progressive Christian Look at John 3:16.” That video has received more than 18,000 views and over a thousand comments, most of them negative ones, accusing me of preaching heresy.
So, today, I thought I’d clarify what I said in that video, as John 3:16 is part of the gospel reading from today’s lectionary for the Fourth Sunday in Lent.
John 3:16 has probably become the most famous Bible chapter and verse in America in recent years. Go to a sporting event like a football game or Nascar race, and you are bound to see people in the stands holding signs that read “John 3:16.”
Evangelical Christians in America today have adopted this as their “go-to” Bible quote. You’ll see “John 3:16” on t-shirts, hats, tattoos, and bumper stickers.
One Michigan mechanic’s shop recently advertised “Come in and recite John 3:16 and receive a free oil change.”
So what is it about “John 3:16” that it has become the Bible verse that Evangelical Christians in America today love so much?
Well, I’d like to think that it’s the first six words of the verse, which say: “For God so loved the world.” Wouldn’t it be awesome if that’s the message they wanted everyone to hear and to know: that God loves us so much?
Sadly, though, I think it’s the latter half of the verse they wish to emphasize: about Jesus being the only way that leads to salvation.
The misunderstanding over this verse is often the reason many Christians today believe that one MUST accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior or they will be damned to hell.
But, this is NOT what John 3:16 means… so let’s look at it together.
If you notice, in this Gospel passage, Jesus speaks of the “Son of God” and the “Only Begotten Son.” He says, “Whoever believes in him will have eternal life.”
Now, why would Jesus be referring to himself in the third person, not just once but multiple times throughout this passage? You know, people who refer to themselves in the third person are often narcissists.
But, Jesus isn’t being narcissistic here, because he isn’t referring to himself. “Son of God” and “Only Begotten Son” are terms for “the Christ,” and I’ve told you before: “the Christ” existed billions of years before Jesus of Nazareth was even born.
When God birthed the world into existence during the Big Bang and said, “Let there be Light!” the Christ was born. The Divine DNA became infused in all of creation.
God so loved the world that God gave us of its very self, of its very nature.
Jesus was a human being, a man from Nazareth, who lived more than 2,000 years ago. And, during his lifetime, he had an awakening in which he came to the realization that he and God were not in fact two, but were one. Jesus became One with the Divine Light, and he was able to fully manifest the Presence and Power of the Christ. And, after his awakening, he made it his mission to go out into the world and to teach others how to experience this Oneness for themselves.
He told us to follow The Way -- the way of forgiveness, the way of service, the way of unconditional love, because he knew that when we follow this Way of life, we die more and more to the ego, to the small self, and awaken more and more to the True Self, the Divine Self, the Christ Self.
It’s why Jesus said to the crowds of people, “YOU, too, are sons and daughters of God” and “YOU are the Light of the world” and “All of the things that I have done, you can do.”
And, quoting from Psalm 82, Jesus told them, “YOU are gods. You are all children of the Most High.”
My friends, when you awaken to this Truth about yourself, you are set free. That’s what salvation means. And, THAT’S what John 3:16 means. God so loved us that God gave us of its very nature, its only Begotten Son (capital “S”) and that Son -- that Light, that Presence of the Christ -- dwells within you. And, when you believe it, you are set free.
The medieval Christian mystic known as Meister Eckhart, said: “God never begot just one son, but the eternal is forever begetting the only begotten.”
“The eternal is forever begetting the only begotten.” He wrote that in the Thirteenth Century! And, the Church silenced him for it and called him heretic.
But, Meister Eckhart (like all the Christian mystics) wanted us to discover that the “only begotten” wasn’t just in Jesus. It is with us and within us, too. And when we come to know and believe and accept this Truth for ourselves, then we will experience salvation, eternal life, freedom!
It’s not about achieving salvation in the next life. It’s about experiencing freedom in this life!
Jesus said, “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free!”
Buddha knew this Truth. Yogananda knew this Truth. Mohammed knew this Truth. Gandhi knew this Truth.
So, it’s not about becoming a Christian. It’s not about proclaiming Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. It’s about discovering that the eternal (the Only Begotten) dwells with you, within you, and as you.
That’s what our symbol of the cross represents: the place where the human meets the divine and is transformed by it.
In both our Old and New Testament lectionary readings this morning, we also hear about another symbol: the symbol of the snake being lifted up.
Now, snakes crawl around on the ground, right? They can only experience life from an earthly perspective, a limited perspective. God tells Moses (and Jesus tells his apostles) to lift up the snake, to see things not from a worldly perspective, but from a higher perspective, from a higher consciousness.
The Season of Lent is a time for us to go out into the wilderness and into the secret dwelling place of the most high – that sacred place, that Kingdom of Heaven within us – so that we can be lifted up to see things the way God sees them, and to see OURSELVES the way God sees us, as Her Beloved.
That’s why the Season of Lent is about GIVING UP things, letting go of things that are no longer serving us.
And, for some, that may mean giving up unexamined and limiting religious beliefs that we unquestionably and unconsciously took on as children.
The twentieth century Christian mystic, Thomas Merton, said, “If the you of five years ago doesn’t consider the you of today to be a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.”
Now, I told you last Sunday that the word “Lent” comes from an Anglo Saxon word which means Spring.
And, here we are in the last week of winter, and the flowers and trees and plants that appeared dead in winter are now beginning to show signs of new life.
Lent is a time of growth. A time of death and resurrection.
And, so, my friends, may you use the remaining weeks of Lent to die more and more to any limiting beliefs that are keeping you from your spiritual growth and ascension. And, may you come to know more and more of the Truth of your being, the Truth that will set you free.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
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