Second Sunday in Lent - March 5, 2023
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Genesis 12:1-4a + Psalm 121 + Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 + John 3:1-17
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I speak to you today in the name of the + Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
16“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. 17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
It is these several verses that I want to reflect upon with you today, not only because among them are some of the most well-known and oft-quoted verses of the Bible, but more so because they are among the most misunderstood.
16“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.”
A beautiful, indeed comforting, passage for many of us. But what of those who do not believe in him? What does this text mean for them – and more so, for those of us who love them? Is this text saying that non-Christians, non-believers cannot be saved? Is it saying the Christ will condemn those who do not believe in him?
Let me begin by staying close to the text, in order to demonstrate what is going on in these verses in light of John’s overall gospel. It is universally appreciated among biblical scholars that the passage today highlights two prominent literary techniques common throughout the gospel John. The first is his use of ‘typology’ the second is what is called a “realized eschatology.” I want to briefly look at each in turn. Typological readings of scripture look to events, persons, or themes in the Old Testament as “types” prefiguring or anticipating events, persons, and themes of the New Testament. It is precisely the relationship between the two that give each deeper meaning.
In this kind of reading the so-called “type” serves as like a stamp, mold, or pattern from which there is a corresponding imprint or “anti-type.” Just like the image carved into a rubber stamp impresses the same image on paper, so the type impresses itself on the antitype, resulting in an obvious, even if at times opposite, correspondence between the two. Paul, for example, in both Romans and 1 Corinthians refers to Adam as a “type” (tupos) of Christ. Thus, he writes in Romans 5:18 “…just as one man’s trespass [i.e., Adam] led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness [i.e., Christ] leads to justification and life for all.”
Notice that the actions of the “type” (Adam) are reversed by the actions of the “antitype” (Christ). We should not miss here the universal salvation implied in Paul’s statement: “One man’s righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” (Not for a few, or some, or many…but “for all.”).
We see similar statements in the First Letter of Peter, whereby he teaches that the great flood in the time of Noah, was a type of baptism which he calls the ‘ant-itype.” He writes: Just as with the flood in the time of Noah, “eight persons, were saved through water, 21So baptism, is the “anti-type”, which now saves you…”
Or again in Matthew’s gospel Joseph is told by an angel to take Mary and Jesus down into Egypt until it is safe to return to Israel. This, Matthew tells us, is to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophets: “I have called my Son out of Egypt” (Mt. 2:15). In this way, the correspondence between these two sojourns out of Egypt gives deeper meaning to both. Returning to John, we find two typological references in this passage from the gospel today: one reference is to Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness, the other is a more subtle but unmistakable reference to the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham.
In John 3:14-15 there is a clear reference to the story of Moses in the desert with Israel. Deadly venomous serpents are biting the Israelites. Thus, Moses is instructed by God to create a bronze serpent and raise it on a pole with a crossbeam so that all who look upon it will be saved. John compares this to Jesus being raised on the cross, so that all who believe in him may have eternal life. Thus, John 3:14 reads: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
This is classic typology: The serpent is lifted up on a cross in the desert so that all who look upon it might live. This becomes for John a type, foreshadowing Christ who is raised upon the cross so that all who believe in him might live. The Bronze serpent is the type, and Christ the antitype. Or put otherwise, the bronze serpent is the stamp and Christ is the image left by the stamp. The two have a clear correspondence. Look this way, turn to me and be saved.
The second typological reference is to the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham where in Genesis 22 Abraham is instructed to take his only son whom he loved to offer to the Lord. John reflects this same vocabulary clearly in his reference to the cross: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.”
The point in reading Abraham and Isaac as a ‘type’ of Jesus makes the point: While God would never ask Abraham to follow through with the sacrifice of his own son, God, so loved the world, that he would not hold back, as it were. Add to these typological readings, the second prominent theme in this passage: John’s “realized eschatology.” Firstly, the term “eschatology” comes from two Greek words, “eschatos” meaning last, and “Logos” meaning the study of something. So, eschatos-logos or eschatology is the study of the last things: death, salvation, the very nature of the kingdom of God. Thus a “realized eschatology” presents the coming of the kingdom not merely as a future reality but a present reality, that is to say, the kingdom is presented as already realized here and now.
Put otherwise, a “realized eschatology” denotes that the kingdom will not come only after the ministry of Jesus in some future time, but was rather brought into reality – that is to say, it was “realized” or “actualized” during the ministry of Jesus itself. So, for example, Jesus does not say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is coming,” but rather, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is among you.” Notice his point: the kingdom is here, now, already present, that is to say, realized in history. This approach is the dominant view of the kingdom throughout all the gospels (most especially in John) as well as much of the New Testament in general – a notable exception being the Book of Revelation.
In the gospel from John today, we enter this realm of a “realized eschatology” beginning with verse 17:
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
I want you to hear in this the present orientation of this text. Christ is not here to condemn but to save. The ‘condemnation’ (translated from the Greek, krine), does not come from Christ. Rather his presence, the presence of the Kingdom, provokes humanity to judge themselves. Like the bronze serpent raised in the time of Moses: The serpent ONLY heals, it does not harm. The question is, now that the serpent is raised in your midst are you going to gaze upon it or not? Are you going to turn toward it or not. It is important that we hear: there is no such statement of Jesus condemning anyone. To the contrary, here and elsewhere, as for example, John 12:47 Jesus is explicit: “I did not come to condemn the world, but to save it.”
Moreover, there is no reference to “damnation” here. Much less “eternal damnation” which is a meaning often imputed onto this text. This passage is not about eternal life or eternal damnation, as the great biblical scholar Raymond Brown observes, “the very presence of Jesus, in the world is a judgment in the sense that it provokes people to judge themselves by deciding either for or against him.” He is talking about how the kingdom functions here and now, in this life, not about who is or is not saved in the life to come.
The loss of our capacity to properly contextual passages like this has resulted in myopic interpretations that miss the historical, literary, and theological point of the text. But I can tell you how deeply privileged I am to serve in a community of Christians in which the underlying question is not “Are you saved?” but rather, “What does it say about the God we worship if, in the end, we are not all saved?” It is your loving, indeed, sometimes anxious concern for the “others” that speaks to precisely of a community whose mind and heart has been formed by the gospel.
So let me voice what I believe is your anxiety as best as I know how: “If John 3:16 was intended as an exclusive teaching, by which only Christians had any hope of being saved, what would it mean for me, a professed Christian, to spend eternity with God, in a state of perfect bliss, all the while knowing that same loving, merciful, infinitely compassionate God was…torturing Fernando, an avowed atheist, in the fires of eternal Hell?”
Let me be clear: I am not asking you to reflect on what damnation would look like for Fernando, I am asking you to consider what salvation would look like for me, for us, knowing that many of our loved ones, along with the vast majority of people who ever lived (or will live) will suffer eternally at the hands of the same God with whom we are intimately united in heaven. Add to this the theological dilemma rendered by the Christian conviction of God’s omniscience – his capacity to know all things (past, present and future). As the 7th century Christian Saint Isaac the Syrian puts it:
“It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings, in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things, of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when he created them, and whom nonetheless he created.”
In short, St. Isaac is asking “What kind of God, able to see and know all things, and thus who knows that the vast majority of people he created would be eternally damned, would create them anyway? Would it not have been better if God never created them at all? What possible benefit could God derive from such an outcome?
What a pitiful, sadistic, petty, and self-absorbed god that would be? One whose love would be demonstrably less than my love is for Fernando, or the love of a human father or mother for their own child. This precise point was asserted forcefully by the 19th century Scottish congregational minister George MacDonald when he wrote:
Shall a man be more merciful than God? Shall, of all his glories, his mercy alone not be infinite? Shall brother love a brother more than the father loves a son? – More than the brother Christ loves his brother?
From Scripture to its earliest Christian interpreters, to some of the most brilliant theological minds Christianity has ever known, have realized that no biblical passage can be plucked from the pages of scripture, removed from their historical context, or properly understood apart from the inevitable consequences of a God who is love. And our passage today is but one among them.
Thus, the concerns I am raising here are not merely the new-fangled outgrowth of a modern liberal brand of Christianity that simply wants to be “nice” to everyone, to include everyone, or to permit all manner of moral atrocities without having to face the hard questions of justice and consequence. The theme of universal salvation that I am touching upon again today, is all but required by the overarching trajectory of the Gospel itself, when the fullness of its implications are given reign to reach their full and unavoidable conclusion. A trajectory which, like so many revealed truths in scripture, only become solidified in subsequent doctrinal and theological tradition.
Indeed, some fear that faith in Christ would diminish and the message of Christianity would be diluted if we were to fully embrace a doctrine of universal salvation. But this community –all of you --are a testament to the opposite. The world has lost faith in a god who condemns anyone who is not like me, who does not believe as I do. The world has lost faith in a god who seems less loving than those whose conscience has been secretly formed by the gospel itself.
Our churches are emptying precisely because of the paucity of theological imagination, the stinginess of our proclaimed grace, the arrogance of our sectarian views of the world (“Thank God we are saved and to hell with everyone else”). What the church desperately needs is not for us to replace the Gospel with merely ‘being nice” or water down the gospel with a gentler message that will attract a new generation. What the church needs now is to finally proclaim the radicalism of the Gospel for a world that is weary from condemnation. A world that is desperate for to hear the unparalleled and incontrovertible beauty of a God who will not rest until he has rendered the salvation of the deepest heart of every sinner, and the very ends of the cosmos where Paul perhaps says it better than anyone: where God will at last be "all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). FULL STOP. Amen.