Monday, August 9, 2004

John 3:1–21

I think a lot of people have memorized this verse. Not surprising, because it gets treated as if this were the whole point of the Gospel. And yeah, it is indeed pretty important. But I tend to resist (ok, I totally reject) the picking out of one doctrine or verse or tenet and saying, “This is the standard to measure all the rest by.”

Lutherans measure everything by the measure of “salvation by faith alone,” which is not so much false as one-sided. It led Luther to essentially reject an entire book of Scripture as an “epistle of straw.” This is a good sign that something has gone wrong, and if Luther were as serious about his sola scriptura as he claimed to be, he would not have so easily rejected the letter of James simply because it didn’t agree with Luther’s reading of Paul. Luther had at least two other choices: admit that James and Paul are in tension (or even disagreement) but both still canonical, or admit that his interpretation of Paul might be incorrect. But he chose neither; instead we get a tendentious reading of James, grudgingly allowed in the canon, and a dogged insistence that Luther’s interpretation of Paul must be correct, the rest of scripture notwithstanding.

Recently a correspondent, happy with the doctrine of the infallibility of scripture, decided that to actually expect worship to be based upon scripture and conform to its guidelines (particularly in the matter of the Lord’s Prayer) was more or less not necessary. In my opinion, she had decided what proper worship looked like, and it didn’t matter much whether that comported with scripture or not; the scripture had to be interpreted however necessary to make it fit. And that has consequences: to maintain this view, she had to claim that the entire sermon on the mount is not meant to be taken literally. (Presumably on the grounds that it is too hard.)

So I am not willing to take John 3:16 as the be-all and end-all of Scripture. It is one verse, it is important and memorable, but it is not a summation of the whole story. And the best clue of that, of course, is that it isn’t even the end of the pericope. The point of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is about darkness and light, and about understanding why some people just don’t “get it.”

Nicodemus has asked Jesus what is the basis of his authority, and he says in reply first, that Jesus has authority because he speaks of what he knows; second, that Jesus has come down from heaven and will be lifted up, for the the sake of eternal life; and third, that the purpose of this enterprise was not to condemn anyone, but that some will still be condemned because they reject him, and yet, their condemnation is not a result of their rejection, but rather, their rejection is a consequence of their desire to continue in the evil they do.

And that third part is, of course, the point here. The second part--the verse everyone remembers--is only the set up. The point here is that Nicodemus had better understand what is at stake, and to knowingly reject the light is motivated by one’s own desire for darkness. There are, it seems, two reasons people reject Christ: they do not know it is Christ, or they do not want to confront or admit their own darkness.

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