Genesis 12.1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17; John 3.1-17
That Gospel reading contains what’s often said to be the most famous verse in the Bible – John 3:16. You’ve probably seen Gideon Bibles in hospitals and hotels. They’re left for anyone to turn to, especially in times of loneliness and desperation. If you open one, you’ll see John 3:16 at the front, translated into lots of languages, highlighted as the ultimate summary of the Christian message, the most condensed of all condensations of what you need to know. John 3:16 is a truly famous passage then – the message of eternal life through belief in Christ. That certainly sounds like good news. But is it THE Good News?
There’s a longstanding question in theology about what exactly is the Good News, given that it’s never given in so many words in the Four Gospels. This was an opening question on a course I used to teach on Mark’s Gospel. I don’t teach that course anymore, but I’ve remained intrigued by that first question, especially since I never arrived at a simple answer myself, in spite of the apparent simplicity of John 3:16.
Let me take you through the issues. One answer is that the Good News is the whole life story of Jesus, as presented by the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. After all, the word Gospel simply means Good News. And indeed, Mark’s Gospel – the original one, we think – opens with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In that case, the written Gospel is the Good News; it asks us to reflect on what Jesus did and taught, and how his story ended, with his death and resurrection, but it doesn’t give us a neat summary of what it should mean for each of us, nor how we apply it. So another answer to the question of what is the Good News is to say that it’s not just Jesus’ life story, but ours too. After all, Mark says “the beginning of the good news”. So in that view, the complete Good News is how the life of Jesus has been played out in the life of every member of the Church after him, in all our faithful individualities. Sounds good, but again it’s no condensed condensation, just more stories and idiosyncrasies to reflect upon. So how about this third answer? If you look a bit further in Mark’s Gospel, and particularly at what he says about Jesus’ teaching, he tells us that when Jesus taught the Good News, he would say, “The Kingdom of God has drawn near, repent and believe in the Good News” (without specifying what the Good News is). There’s a circularity here: the Good News is believing in the Good News. But the gist of everything Mark says about this seems to be something like, “Look out, the end of the world as you know it is coming. Get ready, or else.” In other words, according to this view (and you can find something similar in Matthew and Luke too), the Good News is the message: “Repent, for the end is nigh”. I don’t know about you, but that one doesn’t fill me with hope and joy. So how about a final answer to the question, which is the one assumed almost universally by Christians, and it’s John’s approach, as summarised in 3:16 – “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.” This is the most palatable version of the Good News for many people: it’s short, it’s snappy; it implies God’s tremendous love, and what the Son did for us on the cross. There’s little of the sense of impending judgement, of “Repent, for the end is nigh”, where the imperative is on us to do something, to repent. John 3:16 – in contrast – implies that the hard work has already been done for us, by God. So it’s no surprise that John 3:16 is so famous then, so well known you just have to say the numbers – 3:16 – and many (perhaps most) Christians know what you’re talking about.
I have a story about numbers. A man is invited along to a dining club. When the time comes for the port and after-dinner speeches, one of the members stands up and, instead of telling any jokes or stories, just rattles off a whole string of numbers: “7, 56, 19”. Each number gets riotous laughter and applause. Then someone else stands up and reels off a whole lot more numbers, getting even more laughs. Confused by this, the guest turns to his host and says “What’s going on, what do the numbers mean?” “Well,” says his host, “we know the jokes so well, we’ve given each one a number, so we just need to say the number, and we all recognise it, and that way we get through more jokes.” Encouraged by this, the guest decides to give it a try. So he stands up and says “37”. Absolutely no response. “16”: Still no laughter. In desperation, he blurts out a few more numbers: “9, 23, 54”. Stony silence. Embarrassed, he sits down and whispers to his host “What am I doing wrong, why don’t those numbers work?” “Ah,” says his host “it’s the way you tell them.”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus might as well be speaking in numbers to Nicodemus. Because Nicodemus consistently fails to understand what Jesus is on about. Jesus speaks in code to Nicodemus, about being born from above, or born again, about being born of water and the Spirit, about the Son of Man descending from heaven and ascending to it again. It’s “insider” language, and to Nicodemus, an outsider, it’s gibberish, a secret code. And Jesus gives Nicodemus 3:16 as the key to unlocking the secret code, which suggests that this verse *is* the key to understanding Jesus, Christianity in a nutshell, at least according to John. OK, so what is the secret code? The usual way to unpack 3:16 is this: so great is God the Father’s love for us, that he gave his Son to die in our place, to pay the price for our sins, so that we may not perish in Hell but have eternal life in Heaven. This is an idea called substitutionary atonement: the idea that we’re so sinful that we all deserve the death penalty, but Jesus, God’s innocent Son, was substituted for us. He came and paid the price for us by dying on the cross so that we might go free. Well I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t fill me with hope and joy either. In fact, I think I prefer, “Repent for the end is nigh” over the view that the Good News is all about God needing a death, anyone’s death, to put things right. Dorothy Sayers put it pretty well when she caricatured substitutionary atonement as saying, “God wanted to damn everybody, but his vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of his own Son, who was quite innocent, and therefore a particularly attractive victim. God now only damns people who don’t follow Christ or who never heard of him.”
Quite apart from the moral repugnance I feel towards that view of God, 3:16 actually doesn’t say that. In fact, it says the precise opposite. If you read it closely, it’s quite clearly about the magnitude of God’s love, so great that he gave the Son as a gift. Even the strongest love that we know between humans, that of a parent for a child: God’s love is greater than that. The Son is given as a gift to us. And as you know, if you give a gift, you expect nothing back in return. God gave us the most precious thing of all, the Son, as a gift, so that the Son might have the same kind of human life as us, so that we might have the same kind of life as the Son – eternal. All very positive – no mention of substation or vindictiveness. But if you carry on reading a bit further, you’ll see that 3:16 is qualified, because we hear that this gift only works for those who believe. Those who don’t; well, they’re condemned in the coming judgement. So we start to move towards the “Repent, for the end is nigh” view. But none of this is in 3:16 itself, supposedly Christianity in a nutshell.
So, what am I saying? First, that this wonderful gift of Christianity is a whole lot more complicated than believing that 3:16 – wonderful as it is – captures the entire truth of Christian life and witness, as those of you who have tried to live it for any length of time, with its difficulties, twists and turns, will know. Second, that Christians aren’t quite agreed on what exactly is the Good News. I’ve given you at least 4 versions of it, all different. I suspect that each of them has a claim on the truth, so perhaps it’s better to resist attempts to collapse the Christian life down into a nutshell. It is really a whole lot richer than that, and you’ve got a lifetime – eternal life, no less – in which to explore God’s many subtleties and glories. If that isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is. And that is my firm answer.