This verse can evoke mixed emotions. It is a marvelous expression of God’s love for the world, a love so extravagant God willingly gave up his only son to save it. And it makes an extravagant promise – eternal life for those who believe in God’s only son. How we respond to this promise has everything to do with how much we feel the world is in need of saving, and how we feel about the “perishing” part.
For most of the Christian era, it has generally been accepted that people were lost in sin, for which the legitimate penalty was death without chance of parole; and that God had designed a remedy to meet the demands of that penalty in such a way that we could be spared it – by having his own son, the only perfect sacrifice, take on that death sentence for us. Such a reading of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection is directly supported by this passage. Jesus says, straight out, “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.”
I cannot debate here the thorny question of whether humanity needed saving – I think we do; others may disagree. What I do want to assert is that a God who desires not to condemn but to save is a God worthy of our worship and trust. Condemnation lies at the heart of human sinfulness – our tendency to judge and condemn other people and ourselves is one of the most corrosive attributes human beings share. And so one of the most powerful verses in the New Testament for me is Paul’s declaration, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)
To be reminded that Jesus himself said God is not interested in condemning anyone is a crucial corrective to centuries of judgmental, condemnatory, narrowly legalistic, rule-based teaching by the church. Condemnation is a reflection of our sinful nature; gracious love is a reflection of God’s nature, and ours as creatures made and redeemed in the image of our extravagant God.
Is there any pattern or behavior in your life for which you continually condemn yourself? Are there other people, individuals or categories, whom you routinely find yourself condemning? Perhaps today we might bring those people and patterns into the light in prayer, asking God to show us how God’s love might lift from us the burden of condemnation – whether we’re the condemned or the condemner. What strategies might you devise to become more aware of the action of condemnation in your life, and invite the winds of the Holy Spirit to blow you into greater freedom and acceptance, of yourself and others?
This morning I will take part in the Native Nations Rising march and rally in DC, to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock and indigenous peoples across the world. I go with Jesus’ reminder that God’s love is more powerful than all the damage human beings can wreak on other creatures and on creation. As God so loved the world… Might we ask to be so filled with that gracious love that we find ourselves loving the world in God’s name? When all is love, we need not speak of perishing and saving, only of Life everlasting.