Updated: Aug 14
Context is everything.
One of the most popular Bible verses is John 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.” It’s so well-known that the chapter and verse citation of John 3:16 alone can be found on everything from bumper stickers to billboards without the actual verse being quoted. Unfortunately, that beautiful verse’s popularity comes more often from boastful manipulation than from humble authentication. Citing that verse out of context and slapping it on a sandwich board implies that those who believe in Jesus achieve salvation—as in being saved from Dante’s inferno and guaranteed a spot in heaven—while those who do not are doomed to destruction.
Put in context, however, we have to wrestle with what Jesus means by “believe,” and we must appreciate that his meaning of “eternal life” is not to be reduced to a twenty-first century Western world concept of heaven as solely an afterlife realm. We also need to acknowledge that he’s having a conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who, according to Jesus, is missing the point by taking everything Jesus tells him literally. Finally, we cannot separate John 3:16 from the very next verse and the eternity’s worth of meaning overflowing from it: “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” (John 3:17). Not to condemn, but to save.
The context of experience is part of everything, too. I’m thinking of this in light of people in Ukraine, many of whom are being forced to take up arms to defend themselves against a military Goliath by comparison that is ruthlessly invading their country. A lot of those Ukrainians picking up weapons to fight their Russian invaders are not only not trained for war, they do not want to use a gun, and they don’t want to fight. Yet, here they are.
At the start of Lent, I’m hearing Jesus’ words spoken into that experience, and suddenly they hit differently: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). I usually hear that Bible verse as Jesus speaking against violence and all who live by it; as an admonishment of anyone who would take up a sword, and a condemnation of that kind of harmful behavior. But what about those in Ukraine forced into a desperate position who are now forced to defend themselves? Does Jesus condemn them for doing that? Are we who follow Christ supposed to repudiate them, too?
I can’t imagine so. If God so loved the world—the whole world—that God sent Jesus into that world that we share not to condemn, but to save, then perhaps we who are following Jesus into this Lenten season are called to work for a world where no one has to pick up a gun. If everything Jesus does and says, including his admonishment of a lifestyle that lives by violence, is meant to save not to condemn, then even Jesus’ most pointed, partial-sounding quotes can be understood as a means of increasing hospitality between estranged neighbors, advocating for reconciliation between divided houses, and creating peace between children of God who the Creator of us all means to be saved from harm, not condemned to it.
Prayer: God of our salvation, as Lent begins, I pray that you would help me turn away from condemnation and toward your healing love. In this season of inward reflection, fasting, and prayer, may there be less of my tendencies toward picking up punitive weapons—whether they be words or guns, both with the capacity to kill—and more of you and your will empowering me to be a salve for my neighbors, especially those neighbors living in desperate situations. By your grace, help me, I pray, to put the whole world that you so love into the context of your love that puts up with all things, hopes all things, trusts all things, and endures all things. In the name of your Son who leads me on this Lenten journey. Amen.