From time to time, people ask me which verse of the Bible is the most important. Any answer to that question is a personal value judgment. That said, I usually tell them that, in my opinion, the greatest verse in the Bible is the magnificent affirmation by St. John, “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” (John 3:16).
“That statement,” said Martin Luther, “is the Gospel in a capsule.” A perceptive theologian once pointed out that if all the Bibles in the world were destroyed and every page of scripture obliterated, if one Christian could remember that one verse, the most basic premise of our faith would survive. John 3:16 is the very heart of the Christian message.
This well-known verse is set in the context of a clandestine meeting between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. As John tells the story of their meeting, it is obvious that Nicodemus has come to Jesus to discuss the process of salvation. Jesus talks to this leader about the miracle of rebirth, the mystery of the Holy Spirit, and the meaning of Baptism. At the end of their conversation, Jesus sums up the whole meaning of who he is and what his mission is in one simple statement about God’s universal love, humanity's response, and the promise of life eternal.
God’s Universal Love
Here as in most places in the sacred texts, the writer is not referring simply to the planet earth, but to the entire universe. God loves all of it! Love Divine was the motivation in the heart of God from the beginning. God’s universal love always goes the greatest lengths to find expression.
In Jesus Christ, God says to God’s universe, “I love you.” The only fitting response is for us to spend our lives finding ways to say, “I love you too.” God is constantly searching for us, calling to us, wooing us into that relationship that heals what is broken and unwell – that makes us whole.
Humanity’s search for God is the basic premise of most of the world's religions. Judaism and Christianity are exceptions. Both Testaments are the long record of God’s search for humanity – a quest that is grounded in God’s love. Listen carefully: Jesus does not say, “For humanity so loved God.” He says, “For God so loved the world.” That is the basic premise upon which the Gospel is built. It all begins with the love of God.
The Extent of God’s Love
When the New Testament uses the term Son of God to explain the impact of Jesus upon the human situation, the words are chosen very carefully. In the ancient mind, a Son was the extension of his father’s personality. He was part and parcel of his father’s personhood. Thus, when the Bible identifies Jesus as the Son of God, it is portraying Jesus as a projection of God. Jesus is not just a representative of God, he is an expression of God’s very being. God’s gift of the Son is the gift of God’s own life.
A seminary professor made the case that in reading the Prologue to John’s Gospel, one could substitute “Gift” for “Word” so that it reads, “In the beginning was the Gift…and the Gift was with God and the Gift was God.” His point was that from the beginning of time God has been giving God’s self and Jesus Christ is the fullest expression of that divine self-giving.
God’s Promise of Life Eternal
The first Christian teachings about eternal life were based on the thought of St. Paul. Paul believed that death was a sort of sleep and that we shall be resurrected when Christ returns. For example: “I would not have you ignorant of those who have fallen asleep” (I Thessalonians 4:13) and “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (I Corinthians 15:51). There is one occasion in the writings attributed to Paul in which he looks at resurrection in terms other than in the future. In it, he speaks of how in our union with Christ, God “made us alive with Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:5, 6).
In this exception, Paul is more like St. John, who looks at eternal life as a NOW experience. Eternal life is not just a quantity of existence, but a quality as well. Those who comprehend the depth of God’s love and receive the gift of God’s Son by the response of faith (believing) are already participating in eternal life here and now. In fact, the term eternal life is synonymous with abundant life, Kingdom of God, and Kingdom of Heaven – the central theme of Jesus’ mission.
Eternal life is a life in which we are constantly learning to love as God loved, through radical self-giving. Jesus taught that whenever we love like that, his joy is in us and our joy is complete. “Love one another,” says Jesus, “just as I have loved you.”
I'll see you in Church!
The Very Reverend Ronald D. Pogue
St. Andrew’s Cathedral