The reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, John 3:14-21, is an unusual passage in that John does not rely on either a parable or a story. In this passage, Jesus tells us, for the first of three times in John’s gospel, that the Son of Man must be lifted up. Then John the Evangelist makes an editorial comment at John 3:16 –For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.
John’s Gospel has a different style than, say, Matthew’s Gospel. Both are apologetic and theologically sophisticated. Matthew expects us to know a lot about prophecy and the prophets of the Old Testament. He refers to Isaiah and other prophets often, and Matthew often speaks of Jesus fulfilling the message of the Old Testament. In fact, the reader cannot fully appreciate the Gospel of Matthew unless he or she fully understands the correspondence between Messianic prophecy in the Old Testament, and the ministry of Jesus as the story is told in Matthew’s Gospel.
John the Evangelist, on the other hand, does not expect the reader to know the tradition of Messianic prophecy in the Old Testament. John tries to persuade us that Jesus is the Messiah through seven miracle stories, which are, in many cases, self-explanatory. On the other hand, John does editorialize heavily, and a knowledge of the Old Testament parallels in his text can be useful. Consider, for example, the verses below.
Lifting Up the Son of Man
Here is John 3:13-14, which is an excerpt from this Sunday’s Gospel reading:
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
This is the first of three instances (Jn 3:14; Jn 8:28; Jn 12:32) in which Jesus will say, the Son of Man will be lifted up in John’s Gospel. Recall in Numbers 21:8 that Moses mounted a bronze serpent on a pole in order to spare the Israelites from the plague of serpents that had entered their camp. In John 3:14, Jesus speaks of himself in the third person, predicting that he will be lifted up on the cross. He calls himself the Son of Man, a term also used by Matthew thirty times, Mark fourteen times, Luke twenty-five times, and John twelve times. Let us now compare this passage with John 8:28:
So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM, and that I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me.”
This passage occurs while Jesus preaches in the Temple area in Jerusalem. Facing a skeptical crowd, he defends himself by explaining his relationship to the Father. Jesus calls himself ἐγὼ εἰμὶ… “I AM.” He borrows from Exodus 3:14 and Isaiah 43:10 to establish himself as on par with God. But Jesus still uses the slightly cryptic third person Son of Man as well. Now consider John 12:32-34, where Jesus dispenses with the Son of Man title for himself and simply speaks in the first person,
And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” He said this indicating the kind of death he would die. So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. Then how can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”
In this passage, Jesus finally dispenses with formality and speaks of Himself in the first person. Ironically, the crowd, in their unbelief, glosses over Jesus’ reference to himself. They argue that the Messiah will rule (on earth) forever, refusing to accept the idea that the anticipated Messiah will either die or be lifted up into heaven.
John 3:14-16 – John the Evangelist Editorializes
After Jesus tells us that he will be lifted up, John the Evangelist tells us why. John does some serious editorializing here, and tells his reader, long before he has completed his Gospel account, that Jesus is an only Son of God. Why does he tip his hand so early in his own Gospel? The Sacred Author wants to make sure the reader understands that the Son of Man who will be lifted up in verse 14 is Jesus himself. While Jesus speaks in the somewhat ambiguous third person, John intervenes, and tells us that the Son of Man is Jesus. John the Evangelist gives us this well-known passage:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.
John also tells us in this verse that Jesus does not offer his life only for the salvation of close friends or saints. On the contrary, he offers salvation to all sinners who repent and believe in the Gospel. To quote from the passage, salvation is offered to everyone who believes in him.
He Who Believes and Is Baptized…
The first part of John’s Gospel – the Book of Signs – weaves together the seven major “signs” that suggest to the reader in gradual fashion that Jesus is the Son of God. In the Gospel of John chapter 3, Jesus performs no sign, but he clarifies to Nicodemus that while Jesus is sent by the Father, Nicodemus himself must be regenerate. Consider John 3:3, I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. Jesus is saying that a believer must be baptized in spirit and water (Jn 3:5), to be saved. John adds to that the statement that not to believe in Jesus is to reject the Father – to be condemned. Coincidentally, John 3 ties together faith and baptism in much the same that Mark 16:16 does: He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.
In John chapter 3, we are given three different messages. First, in this passage, Jesus tells us indirectly that he will suffer and die on the cross: he says that the Son of Man will be lifted up. Second, in this passage, John the Evangelist tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Jesus will offer his life for the salvation of those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. This sort of color commentary by the Sacred Author would be unusual for Mark, and less usual for Matthew or Luke. Third, in the previous passage of John 3:1-13, Jesus tells Nicodemus that our salvation is tied both to our faith and to our baptism.
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.