- Analysis of each verse
v. 16 Indeed, God loved the world in this way: he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him should not die, but have an endless life.
Literally: For in this way loved (ēgapēsen) God (theos) the world, so as to the son the only begotten (monogenē) he gave, so that everyone who is believing (pisteuōn eis) in him should not perish (mē apolētai), but should have life eternel (allʼ echē zōēn aiōnion).
The first difficulty of this verse comes from anthropomorphism, i.e. understanding God in our human categories, especially our biological categories where we procreate, where we beget males and females. God, belonging to a world apart that is inaccessible to us, cannot enter into our human categories. Yet the evangelist uses the category of son, whose parent is God, who cannot be categorized here as either male or female. Why these categories? Probably, at the beginning, there is the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was a man, and therefore we must talk about sons, and not daughters. Our historical knowledge leads us to affirm that Jesus had brothers and sisters, and therefore that he was not an only son (see Meier
). If the evangelist nevertheless speaks of an only son, it is not on the biological or historical level, but on the theological level: Jesus represents a unique reality in relation to God.
The second difficulty comes from the weight given to the act of believing: it is a matter of life and death; he who does not believe will die or perish, but he who believes will experience an eternal or endless life. What exactly does it mean to believe? Why is believing or not believing a matter of life or death? What kind of life are we talking about? What death are we talking about? Right from the beginning, I reject the simplistic idea of some Christians that he who is baptized and claims to believe in Jesus the Son of God goes to heaven, therefore has eternal life, and that he who cannot make the same claim finds himself in hell, therefore dies. When it is a matter of life and death, the issue cannot be reduced to the simple fact of being a member in good standing of the party, as if God were an authoritarian and implacable party leader.
Let us look at the notion of God in John, also called Father, first of all at the actions attributed to him:
- There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. (1: 6)
- who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (1: 13)
- For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son (3: 16)
- The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. (3: 35)
- "My Father is still working" (5: 17)
- The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. (5: 20)
- The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son (5: 22)
- For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself (5: 26)
- The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. (5: 36)
- For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal. (6: 27)
- Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. (6: 32)
- Everything that the Father gives me will come to me (6: 37)
- No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me (6: 44)
- Just as the living Father sent me (6: 57)
- no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father." (6: 65)
- the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf." (8: 18)
- I speak these things as the Father instructed me (8: 28)
- It is my Father who glorifies me (8: 54)
- We know that God has spoken to Moses (9: 29)
- but God does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. (9: 31)
- What my Father has given me is greater than all else (10: 29)
- I have shown you many good works from the Father (10: 32)
- whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world (10: 36)
- But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." (11: 22)
- but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. (12: 49)
- What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.". (12: 50)
- Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands (13: 3)
- If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. (13: 32)
- but the Father who dwells in me does his works. (14: 10)
- and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. (14: 16)
- and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me (14: 24)
- But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything (14: 26)
- so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. (15: 16)
- if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.. (16: 23)
- so that the world may believe that you have sent me (17: 21)
- Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am (17: 24)
- Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?" (18: 11)
- As the Father has sent me, so I send you." (20: 21)
To sum up, the word that comes up most often to describe the action of God the Father is that of "giving":
- He gives away his son, sometimes expressed as "to send"
- He gives the Paraclete or Advocate, the Holy Spirit, sometimes also expressed with the term "to send".
- He gives his son powers, such as the power to have life in himself, to judge, and even to give him everything (3:35; 13:3).
- He gives Jesus believers, sometimes expressed as "to draw".
- He gives the bread from heaven
- He gives what we ask in prayer.
- He gives to Jesus the works that he must carry out
- He gives Jesus the cup that he must drink
In short, God-Father is the source of everything, he is the source of what Jesus is, he is the source of the Spirit, he is the source of Jesus' mission, he is the source of what the believer receives.
This idea is expressed by a number of other verbs:
- He gives birth to the Word that is Jesus.
- He teaches Jesus what he should say and do, just as he spoke to Moses.
- He commands Jesus to do and say what he should say and do
- So through Jesus he is the one who does his works
- And he reveals the greatness of Jesus' being by putting his seal on him and glorifying him.
- Finally, it was he who sent John the Baptist to bear witness to Jesus
Everything that Jesus is, what he says and does, comes from God the Father. We understand then that the evangelist puts in the mouth of Jesus: "The Father and I are one". We can now understand that, later on, we will say of Jesus that he is the perfect image of God: "He who has seen me has seen the Father". The corollary notion is that God acts, speaks and makes himself visible only through Jesus, or through his envoys.
||ēgapēsen ho theos (loved the God)
Let's take a look at the way John presents God's love in addition to what is said here.
- The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. (3: 35)
- For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. (10: 17)
- They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them." (14: 21)
- Jesus answered him, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (14: 23)
- As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. (15: 9)
- I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (17: 23)
- Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (17: 24)
- I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them." (17: 26)
Let us sum up the characteristics of God's love.
- First of all, this love seems to have conditions: God loves Jesus because he gives his life, God loves people who love Jesus and who keep his word and his commandments, God can only manifest his love if Jesus makes it known.
- Then, God's love for Jesus means that he puts everything into his hands, that he gives him glory even before the foundation of the world; this love implies a transforming action.
- But there is more. Love seems to be a reality in itself, a state of being: love comes to inhabit the person as if it were an independent reality that is transmitted; it has been transmitted to Jesus who in turn becomes the vehicle for us. And the fact of being in this state allows us to grasp the quality of being of Jesus, called here "glory", it also allows us to live in perfect unity with God and with Jesus: fundamentally, love puts us in the same tune as God and Jesus, and makes us capable of truly knowing them.
- Finally, it seems that love is like the fire that must be kept burning, hence the invitation: dwell in my love.
||monogenē (only begotten)
The expression "only begotten" applied to Jesus is unique to the Johannine tradition:
- John 1: 14 : And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.
- John 1: 18 : No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.
- John 3: 16 : Indeed, God loved the world in this way: he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him should not die, but have an endless life.
- John 3: 18 : He who believes in him is not condemned. But he who does not believe in him has condemned himself, for he has not put his trust in the person of the only son of God.
- 1 John 4: 9 : God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.
In the New Testament, the word monogenēs is always the attribute of the word son or daughter. In the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:17), this son is Isaac, whom Abraham was about to sacrifice. In Luke it is either the only son of the widow of Nain (7:72), or the only daughter of Jairus (8:42), or the only child of a man praying Jesus to cure him of his epilepsy. Speaking of the only child accentuates its importance in the eyes of the parents. But in the Johannine tradition, the expression refers only to Jesus in his relationship with God. What does this mean? If the word is rooted in the biological world of procreation, John forces us to take a leap into the analogical connotations of the word to take us to another level. What is that level?
The evangelist is careful to say that we are no longer at the biological level: "he who was not begotten of blood, nor of the will of flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (1:13). He alludes to this level when he speaks of glory, grace and truth: "glory (doxa) which he has from his Father as the only Son, full of grace (charis) and truth (alētheia)" (1:14). The term doxa is derived from the Hebrew kabôd, which means: to have weight, i.e. to be very important and to impose respect, and therefore refers to the quality of being of the person. We are in front of someone whose quality of being is unique. This quality of being is a gift, a grace (charis), a favour. The other attribute is to be full of truth (alētheia). The word truth plays a unique role in the Johannine tradition. Its main characteristic is to be associated with the knowledge of God, i.e. the role of Jesus as the Word, who transmits this knowledge:
- John 8: 31-32: Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
- John 14: 5-6: Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
- John 16:13: When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
- John 17:17: Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.
- John 18:37: For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
This knowledge does not appear as theoretical knowledge, for it is a path and it liberates. It seems to be linked to the quality of being, because people who have this quality listen to Jesus. This truth is dynamic, because the Spirit of truth will complete what is still missing and "introduce into the whole truth". Ultimately, this truth is associated with God Himself, for Jesus was sent to bear witness to the truth, which is in fact God. We now understand the meaning of the "only-begotten Son": he is the only one who has access to the being of God, and he is the only one who can speak to us about him, and this knowledge is liberating and opens the way to God (1:18: "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known").
||pisteuōn eis (believing in)
None other than John spoke so much about the vital importance of belief. This is how his Gospel ends: "But these (signs) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name
" (20:31). Let us examine some characteristics of the act of believing. What is the object or content of this faith?
- 5: 38: and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent
- 5: 47: But if you do not believe what he (Moses) wrote, how will you believe what I say?"
- 8: 24: I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he."
- 10: 38: But if I do them (the works), even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.".
- 12: 44: Then Jesus cried aloud: "Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me.
- 14: 10: Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.
- 20: 31: But these (signs) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name
To believe is to welcome the words of Jesus, to recognize that what he does reflects God's action, and therefore that Jesus is God's envoy, his Messiah and his son. But ultimately, to believe is to accept to say that Jesus lives such an intimacy with God (the Father is in me and I in the Father) that he can bear the same title attributed to God in the Bible: I Am.
||mē apolētai allʼ echē zōēn aiōnion (should not perish, but should have life eternel)
The death/life antithesis often appears in John. We know that the verb to die or perish is not to be taken in the physical sense, i.e. natural death, but in the spiritual sense. Let us try to clarify this meaning by considering a few passages:
- 6: 39: Now it is the will of him who sent me that I should not lose (apollymi) anything of all that he has given me, but that I should raise it up (anistēmi) on the last day.
- 10: 10: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy (apollymi). I have come so that we may have life (zōē) and have it in abundance.
- 10: 28: I give them (my sheep) eternal life (zōēn aiōnion); they shall never perish (apollymi) and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.
- 12: 25: He that loveth his life loseth it (apollymi); and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life everlasting (zōēn aiōnion).
- 17: 12: When I was with them, I kept them in your name which you gave me. I kept watch and none of them was lost (apollymi), except the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled.
These few passages clarify the meaning of die/perish by contrast: it is the opposite of resurrecting, the opposite of life in superabundance, the opposite of eternal life. And an example is given of someone who perished: Judas. The question then arises: is this a reality after physical death, i.e. in addition to physical death, some people will not be resurrected and therefore would experience a spiritual death? In contrast, others would resurrect and have life in superabundance, eternal and endless life. Let us look at what John means by "life". Since there are too many references, we will only take a representative sample. Let us note in particular the verb tenses.
- 1: 4: (In the beginning...) in him (Word) was life, and the life was the light of all people
- 3: 36: Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath.
- 4: 14: but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."
- 5: 24: Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life..
- 5: 25: Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
- 5: 26: For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself;
- 5: 28-29: Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out - those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
- 6: 27: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal."
- 6: 33: For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."
- 6: 40: This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day."
- 6: 47: Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.
- 6: 54: Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;
- 8: 12: Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."
- 10: 28: I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.
- 14: 6: Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
- 17: 1-2: After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, so he gives eternal life to all whom you have given him.
- 17: 3: And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
- 1 Jean 1: 2: this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us
- 1 John 2: 24-25: Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he has promised us, eternal life.
- 1 John 3: 14: We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.
- 1 John 5: 12: Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
The passages on life can be grouped into three categories.
- Life is the very reality of God, in some way its substance (text a). In sharing God's being, Jesus sees his being defined also by life (text f). But what is specific about this life that is Jesus is that it allows the world to find its full meaning, and therefore it is his light (texts a and o). And those who welcome this light are subsequently able to witness that Jesus is the very life of God, the very life of the Father, and therefore an eternal life that cannot disappear (text r).
- Life is a future reality. It is by pointing to the future that Jesus says to the Samaritan woman: "the water I will give him will become in him a spring of water springing up into eternal life" (text c); eternal life exists, but not for now (see also text h). This life seems to be offered only beyond death, since he speaks of the dead who "will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear it will live" (text e). To be more explicit, this future eternal life is linked to a resurrection of the dead (texts e, g, j, l).
- Life is a present reality: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life" (text b). Since life is the very being of God, accepting the word of God in Jesus is the equivalent of accepting life, so that the believer has already passed from death to life (text d; see also k, s, t, u). The same is said of the one who welcomes the bread of life (texts i and l).
- And to complicate matters, there are hybrid phrases, i.e. they refer to both the present and the future at the same time. A typical example: "I give them eternal life; they shall never perish and no one shall snatch them out of my hand" (text n); the sentence begins with a present (give) and ends with futures (shall perish, snatch). There is therefore an "already" and a "not yet" (see also texts b, j, l).
How do we untangle all this? Since Jesus shares the very life of God, accepting his word in faith and becoming bound to his person allows this life to take root in us, and thus to direct our being so that it takes the same path, that it goes through physical death in the same way and resurrects to a new reality in the same way. There is even more. This final resurrection seems to happen now, and is no longer postponed until the end of time: "Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live" (text e). This now is linked to the death/resurrection of Jesus.
In this sequence from faith to the resurrection of the dead, we understand the fundamental role of the starting point: faith. It is one of the keys to understanding this enigmatic phrase: "And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (text q); in Jesus we discover who God is, and in discovering who God is, we discover the path that leads to life, since God is life. Now we understand better the final words of the Gospel: "and that believing you may have life in his name" (20:31).
||v. 17 For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to let the world be liberated through him.
Literally: For he did not send (apesteilen) the God the son into the world (kosmon) so that he might judge (krinē) but that he might save (sōthē) the world through him
||apesteilen (he sent)
This formula where God sends someone is frequently found in the Old Testament. It describes the belief that a man has been chosen by God to carry out a mission, usually a prophet.
- Isaiah 61:1: The Spirit of the Lord Yahweh is upon me, for the Lord Yahweh has anointed me and sent me (apostellō) to bring news to the poor, to bind up the wounded in their hearts, to proclaim release to the captives and deliverance to the prisoners.
- Exodus 5:22: Moses returned to the Lord and said to him, "Lord, why do you mistreat this people? Why did you send me (apostellō)?"
- Genesis 45:8: (Joseph speaks) Thus it was not you who sent me (apostellō) here, but God, and He made me a father to Pharaoh, and a master over all his house, and a ruler over all the land of Egypt.
Jesus is presented as someone who had a mission to fulfill. The term "sent" is used synonymously with "giving" in the previous verse. The word 'give' takes on its full meaning when the emphasis is on the fact that Jesus is the only son of God, while the word 'sent' takes on its full meaning when the emphasis is on mission.
In the fourth Gospel, the term has several meanings.
- First of all, it is the place where people live and where human drama is played out. It is therefore normal that God's intervention is situated in this context: "He came into the world" (Jn 1:9; see 33:19; 11:27; 12:46).
- And if God intervenes, it is because he loves humanity (Jn 3:16), and he will send his disciples into the world (Jn 17:18) so that they may all be one (Jn 17:21) and know that they are loved as Jesus is loved by his Father (Jn 17:23).
- On the other hand, other passages of the Gospel represent the world as an evil force that opposes Jesus: the world did not recognize the one sent by God (Jn 1:10), the world hates Jesus because he testifies that his works are evil (Jn 7:7), the world does not recognize and does not receive the Spirit of Truth (Jn 14:17), the world hates not only Jesus, but also his disciples (Jn 15:18), this world is dominated by a Prince (Jn 16:11).
Thus, the term "world" has multiple meanings depending on the context, designating sometimes the milieu in which Jesus' mission is carried out, sometimes the reality that he wants to illuminate and transform to the point of associating it with his intimacy with God, sometimes the group of people who refuse his word and take it in hatred.
||krinē (he might judge)
The Greek verb krinō
means first of all to separate, to distinguish, to order, to discern (good and evil), from which to judge, to make a decision, to go to court, to accuse, to condemn. And its noun krisis
means a judgment, a sentence, a decision, an accusation, a trial. There is another related noun, krima
, which means a judgment, a verdict, a prosecution, a conviction. In order to understand and interpret these words in John's Gospel, we must remember that the whole Gospel is a huge trial. Let us consider a list of texts.
- John 3: 19: And this is the judgment (krisis): the light came into the world, and men loved darkness better than light, because their works were evil.
- John 5: 22: For the Father judges (krinō) no one; he has given the Son all the judgment (krisis).
- John 5: 24: He who hears my word and believes in him who sent me has eternal life and does not come into judgment (krisis), but has passed from death to life.
- John 5: 27: and he gave him power to exercise judgment (krisis) because he is Son of man.
- John 5: 29: (the hour cometh when the dead shall come out of their graves) those who have done good, for a resurrection of life; those who have done evil, for a resurrection of judgment (krisis)
- John 5: 30: I judge (krinō) according to what I hear: and my judgment (krisis) is just, because I do not seek my own will, but the will of him who sent me.
- John 8: 15: You judge (krinō) according to the flesh; I judge (krinō) no one;
- John 8: 16: And if I judge (krinō), my judgment (krisis) is according to the truth, because I am not alone; but I and he who sent me;
- John 8: 26: I have much to say and to judge about you (krinō); but he that sent me is true, and I tell the world what I have heard of him.
John 9: 39: Then Jesus said: "I came into this world for discernment (krima), that those who do not see may see and those who see may become blind.
- John 12: 31: Now is the judgment (krisis) of this world; now the Prince of this world will be cast out;
- John 12: 47: If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I will not judge him (krinō), for I have not come to judge (krinō) the world, but to save the world.
- John 12: 48: Whoever rejects me and does not accept my words has someone who judges him (krinō): the word that I have spoken, he will judge him (krinō) on the last day.
- John 16: 8: And he (the Paraclete), when he comes, will establish the guilt of the world in sin and in righteousness and in judgment (krisis).
- John 16: 11: of judgment (krisis), because the Prince of this world is being judged (krinō).
The reading of these texts can appear confusing, because Jesus seems to affirm one thing and its opposite at the same time: he does not judge and he judges. And the judgment in question here has above all the meaning of condemnation. Let us try to clarify things. In Judaism, and especially in the apocalyptic tradition, we await the final judgment of Yahweh who will destroy by fire and sword those who do evil, and will gather all others to himself (Isaiah 66:16). The prophet Daniel evokes this final judgment that accompanies the end of time when the great beast and the other beasts are exterminated, while the eternal reign of the Son of Man is inaugurated and the kingdom is given to the saints, after the Elder has given his judgment (Daniel 7:9-26). These texts thus mention a final confrontation between God and sinful humanity, a confrontation that is foreseen for this Day of Yahweh. On this Day, all will rise to receive their sentence, some for life and some for eternal death. The oppressed and the slaves of the Gentiles call for this judgment with all their hearts (Psalm 140:13). And when John the Baptist begins his preaching, he will speak of the "coming wrath" and invite people to conversion in preparation for this judgment of God.
Now, according to the evangelist John, this final confrontation between Yahweh and sinful humanity came in Jesus, especially through his death on the cross and resurrection, releasing the Paraclete or Holy Spirit, and announcing the end of the opposing forces. This is what biblical scholars call realized eschatology (end times). Let us group the texts we have pointed out into five categories:
- First of all, the Judgment of God becomes the Judgment of Jesus, because the Father has decided to delegate this final judgment to Jesus, and Jesus is that Son of Man of the end times of which Daniel spoke (texts b and d).
- Then, each time the evangelist states that Jesus is judging, using the present tense, he immediately links this action to the fact that he is only doing the will of the one who sent him, and more precisely he is only repeating what he heard from the One who is the Truth par excellence (texts f, h and i); it is the same vocabulary that we find when Jesus states that his word is not his own, but the one he heard from the Father.
- All this puts us on the track that it is as Word or light that Jesus judges, not in the sense of condemning, but in the sense of revealing hearts, of discerning, of distinguishing between those who want this light and those who do not, because they have already made contrary life choices (texts a and j).
- This is why Jesus can define his role as one who did not come to condemn, but to save: for all those who receive his light will experience liberation (texts g and l).
On the other hand, by revealing who God is, and therefore what Truth and Light is, he forces a part of humanity to take a stand and assert itself against God, and thereby to stand among those who will rise to eternal death. This is exactly what was planned for the end of time and has now happened. The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, who was set free following the death of Jesus, will continue his work and reveal who is destined for this eternal death and will finalize the final judgment (texts c, e, k, m, n, o).
||sōthē (he might save)
John is not a big user of the Greek verb sōzō
which is usually translated as "to save" and which I translated as "to liberate". Let's try to understand what he means by this word.
- John 4: 22: You worship that which you do not know; we worship that which we know, for salvation (sōtēria) comes from the Jews.
- John 4: 42: We (Samaritans) have heard him ourselves and we know that he is truly the saviour (sōtēr) of the world.
- John 5: 34: Not that I am of the testimony of a man (John the Baptist), but that I may speak of him, that you may be saved (sōzō).
- John 10: 9: I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved (sōzō); he will go in and out and find pasture.
- John 12: 47: If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I will not judge him, for I have not come to judge the world, but to save (sōzō) the world.
All the passages quoted have one thing in common: they refer to the word of Jesus (texts b, d and e) and to the fact that he is sent from God (texts c). Indeed, it is by listening to Jesus that the Samaritans declare that he is the Saviour of the world (text b). It is by listening to his voice that the sheep recognise the good shepherd and follow him, and can thus receive their pasture (text d). It is by accepting his word and keeping it as a light on the world that a person will have eternal life and be saved (text e). Finally, the testimony of John the Baptist aimed at assuring the Jews that Jesus was the one sent by God, and therefore that his word is God's own word (text c). Fundamentally, this word opens up a path of life that will ultimately lead them out of death. In this it saves. In the list of quoted texts, only the first one (text a) stands out. It perhaps bears the mark of the final editor (see M. E. Boismard, A. Lamouille, Synopse des quatre évangiles, T. III - L'évangile de Jean: Paris, Cerf, 1977, p. 144); the latter, by using the word sōtēria unique in the whole Gospel, wishes to recall that the Jewish people remains the people chosen by God, the one who traced the way of the coming of John the Baptist and that of Jesus the Savior (see what Luke says in Acts 13:23: "It is from his descendants that, according to his promise, God raised Jesus as Savior for Israel"; and Paul in Romans 9:4-5: "they who are Israelites, to whom belong the adoption, glory, covenants, laws, laws, worship, promises and also the patriarchs, and from whom Christ according to the flesh came, who is above all, God blessed forever! Amen.")
||v. 18 He who believes in him is not condemned. But he who does not believe in him has condemned himself, for he has not put his trust in the person of the only son of God.
Literally: the [one] believing in him is not judged; but the [one] not believing already has been judged, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten son of the God
This verse summarizes all the themes developed in the two previous verses: to believe (pisteuō
), to judge/condemn (krinō
), the only son of God (monogenēs
). From the outset, it creates an opposition between two types of people, those who believe and those who do not. As we mentioned above, to believe is ultimately to accept to say that Jesus lives such an intimacy with God that he can bear the same title attributed to God in the Bible: I Am. This is what the end of the verse means by specifying what the unbeliever has rejected, i.e. the only son of God. What may be surprising is that the evangelist speaks of two categories of persons to situate them in relation to the judgment, understood in the sense of condemnation: the first escape condemnation, the others do not escape it. The parallelism is striking:
|the [one] believing in him||is not judged|
|but the [one] not believing||already has been judged|
We will have noticed that the evangelist wants to make it clear that it is not God or Jesus who condemns, but it is the unbeliever who puts himself out of the way of salvation. This only accentuates the vital side of faith in order to find life and escape death.
- Structure analysis
- When we follow the logic of these three verses, we can break them down as follows:
Indeed, God (theos) loved (agapaō) the world (kosmos) in this way:
he gave (didōmi) his only (monogenēs) son (huios),
so that whoever believes (pisteuō) in him should not die (apollymi),
but have an endless life (zōē).
For God (theos) did not send (apostellō) his son (huios) into the world (kosmos)
to condemn (krinō) the world (kosmos),
but to let the world (kosmos) be liberated (sōzō) by him.
He who believes (pisteuō) in him is not condemned (krinō).
But he who does not believe (pisteuō) in him has condemned (krinō) himself,
for he has not put his trust (pisteuō) in the person of the only (monogenēs) son (huios) of God (theos).
- We find in a certain way a Semitic inclusion where the end takes up the beginning and the verses answer each other in a parallel way, which we have underlined with similar colours. The structure could therefore be presented like this:
Introduction : this is the way God loved the world
A1 God's central action: he gave his only son
B1: Expected response of the person: to receive it in faith so as not to die but to have life.
C: Meaning of the son's mission in the world, not to condemn but to liberate
B2: Outcome of the person's answer: He who believes is not condemned, he who does not believe condemns himself.
A2 Conclusion on the human response: has not received in faith this only son of God
In an inclusion, the key is found in the sentence at the center, in this case C: the mission of the son in the world is one of liberation or salvation. While the key sentence is centered on the world, and therefore is a general statement, the above and the following are both centered on the individual person, and more specifically on the condition for accessing this salvation. In the above (B1), the emphasis is positive: whoever accepts to believe will escape death and experience life. In what follows (B2), the emphasis is rather negative in that it deals with the risk of condemnation, from which the believer escapes, but which will be experienced by those who do not believe. The whole ends with a conclusion (A2), the refusal to receive in faith this only son, which takes up the beginning (A1) presenting the gift or sending of this only son.
- We have here a typical reflection of the style of the fourth Gospel. The vocabulary is restricted to a certain number of key words: love, life, condemning/judging, believing, only-begotten son, sending. These words are repeated rhythmically like a song or a poem, sometimes with a positive accent, sometimes with a negative accent. And they support this structure of inclusion where the end and the beginning answer each other and which the evangelist frequently uses.
- Basically, we have here a reprise of the ideas of the prologue: "He was in the world, and the world was through him, and the world did not recognize him. But to all those who received him, he gave power to become children of God..." (1: 11-12). The starting presupposition is that humanity lives in a form of darkness, and God must intervene to share his being in the person of his son in order to enlighten him and show him the way of life, but that this light can only be received in faith, and those who refuse to accept it condemn themselves to death.
- Context analysis
Our three verses are part of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus. According to the above (Jn 2:23-25), Jesus is in Jerusalem on the feast of Passover. According to the narrator, many people believe in him at the sight of the signs he performs, but Jesus does not see anything consistent in it and does not allow himself to be fooled by this behavior. It is at this point that Nicodemus, a Pharisee well disposed towards Jesus and a member of the Sanhedrin, appears. Let us consider the sequence of the dialogue (in red the three verses we are analysing).
- Introduction: Nicodemus came at night to see Jesus
- Nicodemus (assertion): :
- You are a master sent by God
- Rationale: only someone sent by God can do these signs
- Jesus (reply)
- To see the Kingdom of God, you have to be born from above
- Nicodemus (question)
- How to be born a second time if you are old?
- Jesus (reply)
- You have to be born of water and the Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God.
- In the birth of flesh, one remains flesh, while in the birth of the Spirit, one becomes spirit.
- With this last birth begins a unique path that escapes others' mind, just like the movement of the wind.
- Nicodemus (question)
- Jesus (reply)
- You're a master of Judaism, and you don't know that?
- The testimony of Jesus and his disciples about what they know and have seen is not received in Judaism.
- If one refuses to believe in things that are accessible, it will be even more difficult to believe in the things of God's world.
- Yet only Jesus, Son of Man, has access to the world of God, the world above.
- Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that the Jews might escape death and have life, so will Jesus be lifted up on the cross so that the believer may have eternal life through him.
- We have here the expression of God's love for the world: he gave his son so that the world might have life and not perish, provided we respond by receiving him in faith.
- Unfortunately, men refused to believe and preferred darkness because they did not want to see their evil deeds unmasked.
- But whoever acts in the truth receives this light in faith, for his actions are inspired by God.
Thus ends this conversation with Nicodemus without any final reaction from the latter. The narrator takes us immediately to the land of Judea where Jesus, like John the Baptist, baptizes in the region of the Jordan River (John 3:22-23).
- What can we learn from this context? This long scene begins by mentioning that it is night, and ends by introducing those who come to the light, for their actions are inspired by God. Between this beginning and this end there is a progressive teaching by Jesus and introduced by questions from Nicodemus. Even if the latter recognizes in Jesus a man of God, this is not enough. He needs the intervention of the Spirit of God who transforms the person, as if He were giving him a new birth. The person thus transformed is not only able to accept the word of Jesus, but to accept his death on the cross as a passage to life. All this is an expression of God's love for the world so that it may have access to life. But access to this life is a matter of acceptance in faith, and the answer depends on the individual: unhappily, many have refused this acceptance in faith, preferring death and darkness, because they did not want to depart from their evil deeds; but others have accepted this life in faith, because their actions were already inspired by God.
- When we look at the immediate context of our three verses, we notice that Jesus refers to his death on the cross, in order to be the source of eternal life. This is how our pericope becomes an explanation of death on the cross: it is an expression of the love of God who offered his only son so that all might have access to eternal life, through the faith acceptance of this reality. Otherwise, it is death that awaits all those who refuse this acceptance in faith. Later, in the context that follows, Jesus tries to explain why so many people have refused this acceptance in faith, while ending on a note of hope by speaking of those who have welcomed this life. Thus the three verses of our pericope begin the theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus' death and its consequences for us: a gift of life and a call to faith.
- Analysis of parallels
As we are used to with the fourth Gospel, there is no parallel with the synoptics' narratives. But we can find parallels with other accounts in the Johannine tradition, in particular a passage from the first letter of John and another from the fourth Gospel itself. We underline similar expressions.
|1 John 4: 9
||John 3: 16-18
||John 12: 46-48|
|God's (theos) love (agapē) was revealed among us in this way: God sent (apostellō) his only (monogenēs) son (huios) into the world (kosmos) so that we might live (zaō) through him.
||16 Indeed God (theos) loved (agapaō) the world (kosmos) in this way: he gave his only (monogenēs) son (huios), so that whoever believes (pisteuō) in him should not die, but have an endless life (zōē).
||46 I have come as light into the world (kosmos), so that everyone who believes (pisteuō) in me should not remain in the darkness.|
||17 For God (theos) did not send (apostellō) his son (huios) into the world (kosmos) to condemn (krinō) the world (kosmos), but to let the world (kosmos) be liberated (sōzō) through him.
||47 Who hears my words and does not keep them, I do not condemn (krinō) him, for I came not to condemn (krinō) the world (kosmos), but to liberate (sōzō) the world.|
||18 He who believes (pisteuō) in him is not condemned (krinō). But he who does not believe (pisteuō) in him has already condemned (krinō) himself, for he has not believed (pisteuō) in the person of the only (monogenēs) son (huios) of God (theos).
||48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge: the word that I have spoken will condemn (krinō) him on the last day.|
- Intention of the author when writing this passage
- Biblical scholars usually place the final writing of John's Gospel around 90 AD. This means that about 60 years have passed since the death of Jesus, or two generations. Since Mark's first catechesis around 67 AD, theology has changed a great deal. Reflection has continued around the figure of Jesus, blurring somewhat his human traits and accentuating his relationship with God. Moreover, opposition to the Christian faith, especially on the part of Judaism, was felt enormously, so that the Johannine community appeared somewhat isolated. The whole Gospel takes the form of a trial between Christians and Jews in which a split already exists.
- Our three verses are part of Jesus' exchange with Nicodemus, a notable Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, in Jerusalem, on the occasion of the feast of Easter. The evangelist loves symbols. This representative of Judaism has just met Jesus by night: for the Jews are in the night by their attitude towards Jesus. The scene with Nicodemus is not a true dialogue, for the outcome of this encounter will never be known; rather, it aims to present the conditions for passing from night to light. In fact, at the beginning the attention is on the signs performed by Jesus, which leads Nicodemus, like some Jews, to recognize that Jesus is supported by God, in the manner of the prophets. But for the evangelist, these signs reveal something much deeper, the presence of the Kingdom of God. That is why Jesus says that to see this Kingdom requires a radical transformation of the person, a transformation that only God can bring about by his Spirit and symbolized by Christian baptism: "Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, no one can enter the Kingdom of God". This transformation makes it possible to become the very substance of God, to become Spirit, and thus begins a road that is unique and escapes the majority of people. Above all, it makes it possible to welcome Christian witness, and in particular the word of Jesus. Only the latter can reveal God's plan, among other things, that of transforming the ignominious death on the cross into a source of life. It is at this point that our three verses are set out to make God's plan explicit. Jesus' discourse ends on a pessimistic note by saying that men have preferred darkness to light, while leaving the door open to every seeker of truth.
- The immediate context is therefore that of Jesus' ignominious death on a cross, like a bandit. For the first Christian generation, it was a scandal that was difficult to address. But for a Paul, this scandal of the cross will become a subject that he will not hesitate to talk about openly and that he will want to make his pride. With John, this death on the cross will become an elevation and a glorification. In the preceding verses (vv. 14-15) we read: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes may have eternal life through him". Here we are referring to the scene in Exodus 21:6-9 where Moses fashioned a bronze serpent and placed it on a standard, which had the virtue of keeping alive the Jews who had been bitten by a poisonous serpent in the desert, provided they looked at this bronze serpent. The evangelist therefore intends to explain this life-giving elevation to the cross in the same way.
- First of all, the presence of Jesus in our world has its source in an action of love of God who offers his only son as Abraham offered his son Isaac. This son is unique in that he shares a unique relationship with God, in that he has access to the very being of God, and therefore can speak of it in a unique way. Thus, through this gift of Jesus, we have access to God himself, to his way of thinking and behaving. In this way, Jesus' death on the cross is not a catastrophe, but a gesture of love that reflects God.
- So this historic death sentence of Jesus should not be seen as a guilty act of the Jews, but as a source of life. For it traces the path of true love, of love that gives itself until death. Love creates life, so that love and life become synonymous. There is even more: they are the very substance of God. In this, they are eternal. And to love and to live are not simply external actions, but are an inner reality that dwells within us and where intimacy with God is lived. Otherwise, it is death. For the human being is made for God, and not to share this intimacy is to die.
- But there is one condition: it is to welcome in faith this reality through the word and life of Jesus, and therefore to accept that Jesus totally reflects the reality of God, not just a part of it. Faith is necessary because this reality is too confusing to be obvious to us. Therefore, the one who believes escapes the fate that awaits all those who do not understand their true identity and that of God, and thus endorses the historical death of Jesus. In this sense, faith unfortunately operates a division between those who are capable of opening themselves to what Jesus represents, and those who are incapable of doing so. Even though God wanted to show in Jesus the way of life, at the same time he found himself pinpointing those who did not want that way.
- In conclusion, through very simple words like love, life, death, judgment and faith, the author translates the essence of the human drama. Jesus represents the heart of God, and at the same time the heart of our true identity. The challenge is to be open to it, to accept it, to take the same path, and thereby find life. This is what some do, and what others refuse, condemning themselves to death.
- Current situations or events in which we could read this text
- Suggestions from the different symbols in the story
In spite of a very short text, we are faced with a very rich symbolism. Let's take a look at some of these symbols.
- The evangelist speaks of a "life without end". As we have analyzed, life is the very substance of God. Today, many ask the question: what is life? Some say they live life to the fullest; what exactly do they do? Others, on the other hand, complain that they do not live, but only exist. Our experience shows that there are people who claim to be alive, but inside they are dead. The evangelist states that Jesus' role is to give eternal life. What does this mean for our lives?
- When we speak of life, we must also speak of death. Jesus' role is to see that we do not die? What does that mean? What does it mean to be dead right now? Does death have many meanings? Can we identify people around us who are actually dead, even though their hearts are still beating? What characterizes them?
- The words "whoever believes in him does not die", "whoever does not believe in him has condemned himself, because he has not put his trust in the person of the only Son of God". For John, faith is so fundamental that it is the source of life. What then is faith? Why is it so fundamental? What are the characteristics of faith? What would be the situation in a world without faith? Are there different kinds of faith?
- "that the world may be set free by it". What does the word "liberate" or "save" mean for our lives? Both words presuppose a situation of distress, imprisonment, alienation or imminent risk. Can we identify any? How does the event of Jesus play a role in this situation?
- "Whoever does not believe in him has condemned himself". Is it possible for people to condemn themselves by the choices they make? Can we name situations where people decide to exclude themselves from life? To refuse to grow up and become all that they can be?
- "his only son". What does this mean to us? God, no one has seen it. The most faithful image of God comes to us from Jesus. What does all this reveal about God? Does it correspond to our idea of God?
- Current situations or events in which we could read this text
- 301 miners killed in Turkey. Television shows us crying women trying to support each other. The population has rage in its heart. How will people get out of such a tragedy? How can today's Gospel bring comfort and a way of life?
- Serbia and Bosnia are struggling with the worst floods of the century due to torrential rains. Entire towns and villages are under water. Twelve have to be evacuated. All this has triggered 12,000 landslides. Thirty-five deaths have been reported in five days. Thousands of people are homeless. It's a national disaster. What words could be relevant to those people? Could that word come from the Gospel?
- 33 children die on a bus in northern Colombia. The bus was taking 48 children, aged 2 to 13, home from a church service at a Pentecostal church. It was a mistake by the driver who poured gasoline into the carburetor of a broken engine to restart it. One can imagine the screams of the parents. Will they ever take solace in the fact that their child is not growing up? Can the words of Jesus in the Gospel shed light on such a situation and transform it into a source of life?
- The newspaper reports the loss of 26,000 jobs in the province. Behind these statistics, there are family dramas, depressions, fears and anxieties. Is it possible to come out of it stronger? Can the Gospel help?
- A new report has just revealed that Aboriginal women suffer much more violence than other women in Canada. The number of homicides against them remains very high. This is a sign of a deeper evil that is not well understood. What can we do about it? The solution requires a very long term approach. Can this solution be guided by what the Gospel can bring?
-André Gilbert, Gatineau, May 2014