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Meditation: It's Time to Dump John 3:16

I hate bumper stickers, even when I agree with them. How can anything important be reduced to so few words? Our media soaked, marketing driven age has generated a sound-bite generation. We have been trained to reduce life and death thoughts into catch phrases and slogans.

It’s even true in the church, where for the last 60 years the most popular verse in the Bible has been John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It’s been the go-to verse for outreach because it speaks of God’s sacrificial love, our need for faith, and the promise of eternal life. I’m in favor of all those things--they are all true. Still, there is a danger in quoting John 3:16 apart from the gospel of the Kingdom of God. It reduces the good news to something Jesus never intended.

It’s time to stop using John 3:16 apart from the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

If Jesus commissioned us to announce the Kingdom and make disciples of the King, we should give people the full story. Anything less is dishonest. John 3:16 isn’t even the full story of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, why have we tried to shrink the Kingdom call into those 26 words?

Here are four drawbacks of shrinking the gospel into John 3:16:

Our use of John 3:16 means we have distorted God’s love, and his call for us to love in return. Make no mistake: God is love. Who could be against love--especially the perfect love of the Father? But the love of God goes beyond his sacrifice and empowers us to respond. His love teaches us to love. His love is modeled in the life of Jesus--not just his death. Most important, when we use John 3:16 for outreach we fail to communicate the first and greatest commandment, that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Our use of John 3:16 means we have distorted the life-changing responsibility of belief. Faith is vital to our entry into the Kingdom of God, but in our day “belief” has been reduced to “agreement.” True faith is a dangerous, life-changing force that causes us to die to ourselves and the old way of life. True faith causes us to count our lives as lost for the sake of gaining God’s Kingdom. The “faith” presented in the bumper-sticker application of John 3:16 asks simply for the nodding of our heads.

Our use of John 3:16 means we have traded the promise God’s vast Kingdom for simply living a long time. I’m so glad I will live forever. I’ve bet my eternal destiny on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Yet when we reduce the gospel to everlasting life, we have presented a false reward. Imagine someone who attained everlasting life apart from the love of God or transformation into Christlikeness--what would this do someone’s soul? What if we got to live forever but didn’t like the life we got to live? Jesus has a different definition of eternal life than simply beating death: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) Eternal life is relationship with our Creator, knowing him and being known by him. To be present with God is to leave this life behind.

Finally, our use of John 3:16 means we have failed to make disciples. The Great Commission has become the Great Omission. We have taken the methods of salesmanship and used them for an evangelism that misrepresents the gospel Jesus announced. It is a bait-and-switch, without the call to switch. We should ask ourselves what kind of disciples have we made. For the last 60 years in North America the answer is that we have fallen short of the Lord’s commission to us. What if we chose Matthew 11:28-30 for their outreach verse instead of John 3:16? What kind of disciples could we make? Or Luke 9:57-62? Or the entire Sermon on the Mount? He calls us to come and follow.

It's not a drive-by gospel. The Kingdom of God doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker.

Reader Comments (8)

Great article Ray. I am so glad you went to John 17:3 to define Eternal Life. However, i would venture to say that Eternal Life and Everlasting Life are two different things. While everlasting life would certainly imply a long time, i.e. forever, i am not sure Eternal has that same connotation (although current church culture certainly wants to foist that connotation upon it).

Not being a Bible scholar or familiar with the original language, this is just my humble layman's reading of it. But i do not believe eternity has a time component. As such we need to look at all Biblical references to Eternal life in light of John 17:3. The promise of Eternal life is to a relationship with the Father and Jesus, not a promise of everlasting life in heaven. While i am not convinced i will live forever, (i am not even sure there is a forever) i am convinced i will live in eternity. Another state of existence all together. An existence in communion with God and without time.

So while i agree with the premise that we have traded Everlasting life for Eternal life, i think it runs deeper than just John 3:16.

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermatthew stanfield

Hi Matthew: Thanks for stopping by. I don't think you have to be a scholar of the original languages in order to make your argument about Eternal/Everlasting life, because it fits the current situation among North American Christians. So yes, I'm with you.

I do think that it is also a translation issue, and that in NT times the people of Israel probably would not have made any distinction.

You're always welcome here.

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

Thanks Ray. I don't give a damn about Heaven or Hell for in my infancy as an heir to eternal life I can't possibly understand either from my limited and secure perspective of Earth and only its dimensions. I care with all my heart, soul, mind and strength to continue this already fruitful relationship with my Heavenly Father, Brother Jesus and my closest friend the Holy Spirit. This potentially eternal relationship with what I now know as the only source for truth and love is what I need to share with my neighbor as much as I now have grown in. It will take at least till the end of eternity to glean all my Lord God offers us all in equal measure.

As I understand my charge to go into the world with this, to me, good news is to only point out the Teacher and the potential reward from accepting the freely offered relationship of family nurture directly from the Source of all life as we know it. I am not to make my siblings my students but am to lovingly invite all who are receptive into the eternally active student body being taught by Jesus the Christ.

This is something I have been graced with a growing understanding of within and external to the organized church. I could write on this subject for a long time. For today I need to share that it truly works to trust that Jesus will take each of us who are willing, prepare us as we each are ready, place us where there is need at the perfect moment, and use us to light the way to Him to personally teach what each desires to be taught. It is important to know that we will not be changed beyond the measure we are willing to trust of our mind, soul, heart and strength. It is always choice. I choose to volunteer all I have dominion over to find the fullness of Truth and Love. That is the only reason I desire eternal life, otherwise I choose to be one of the dead who know nothing. My desired peace is found in an eternity of growing in relationships of love and not the eternal peace found in knowing nothing.

Love you, Herm

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHerm Halbach

I am in complete agreement with your post, Ray, and with Matthew's comment. The crux of the matter has less to do with the difference between time and eternity, though, than it does with what you mean by life. Our pastor has a joke that he uses occasionally that goes something like, "Sure all Christians believe in life after death. What most don't believe in is life before death." Life in Christ, with Christ, indwelled by Christ is something we get from our first step of faith to the end of time and beyond. It is not just breath, existence, and awareness; it is vibrant, annointed, power-filled Life, and it not only doesn't end, but grows as we submit more and more to the Lordship of Christ. I don't like the word discipleship because it has been too often abused and distorted, used way too often by arrogant men who think it means "You obey me" instead of "Let's follow the way of Jesus together in mutual submission" (Ephesians 5:21). But a true Life of following Jesus, letting Him grow greater in us and losing ourselves in Him, is Life abundant both in the here and now and in eternity.

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Ray, I agree that once saved all those things are true. And yes, the Christian life includes the risk of pain, loss, sacrifice and the expectation of learning, personal growth and evangelism. But I see John 3:16 addressing only the most fundamental human need: That you can be certain of the outcome. Having that certainty is what enables us to tune in and experience the pain, loss, sacrifice and the expectation of learning, personal growth and evangelism, and not be myopically obsessed - handcuffed! - by an uncertain outcome.

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEd

Herm: I can see you feel strongly about this! You know, I have absolutely nothing against eternal life--I’m all for it! I had only hoped to point out that the gospel of the KIngdom is so much bigger. Peace to you!

Rebecca: I totally love you pastor’s saying. It’s true that some discipleship-oriented movements have layered-in authoritarianism and abuse (which is so sad), yet I believe the path to spiritual formation includes (not exclusively, mind you) discipleship--whether expressed as an individual embrace of spiritual disciplines or a more directed approach where we allow someone room to speak into our lives. I like the more modest phrases “spiritual director” or “spiritual guide.”

Ed:There’s certainly nothing wrong with the verse, for sure. It’s beautiful. As I was writing the post I lamented my ignorance of church history because I wondered what verses have been prized by other faith traditions (in other centuries and continents). I do, however, think it’s telling that we pull John 3:16 even out of its immediate context of John 3:1-21 and ask it to perform a task for which (in my view) it is ill-suited.

Peace to All!

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

I'm honking

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim Gentry

"Still, there is a danger in quoting John 3:16 apart from the gospel of the Kingdom of God. It reduces the good news to something Jesus never intended."

Wow. So bold and so true. Your last point about failing to make disciples (or failing to make the kind that can do the work of Jesus) is especially strong and important. Thanks for this, Ray.

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