Fourth Sunday in Lent

by Bear Wade

Saving Us and Our Old-Time Religion From Messianic Illusions
John 3:14-21
Fourth Sunday in Lent
analysis by Steven C. Kuhl

[Jesus said:] 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16For 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. 17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

DIAGNOSIS: Deadly Religion

Step 1 – Initial Diagnosis : Benighted religion. 
The context of the text is the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus “by night.” (Jn 3:2) As a “Pharisee” (3:1), Nicodemus is a religious man; as “a leader of the Jews” (3:1), he is a respected man; as “a teacher of Israel” (3:10), he is presumably not just an enlightened man, but one who is able to bring “light” to others (Cf. 3:19-21), one who is able to “lift up” (3:14) that which is essential. Yet, in spite of his religious commitment, his community status, and his educational credentials, he still remained in the dark with regard to Jesus. Religion made sense to him, but Jesus and the “signs” he does did not. How is it that a religious person like Nicodemus can be so completely in the dark about Jesus? Indeed, how can we? There is only one answer. What he has chosen from Moses to “lift up” as the key sign of God’s presence is not that “serpent on a stick” (3:14), but the stone tablets from the mountain, the law, what might be called, generically, that “old-time religion.” And in spite of its biblical sourcing, Mosaic endorsement (Cf. Jn 1:17), and common-sensical “thou-shalts-and-shalt-nots,” that old-time religion of Moses cannot shed light on, or make sense of, the work of Jesus. Indeed, that old-time religion of Moses seems to make Nicodemus so embarrassed and ashamed of Jesus that he didn’t dare be seen with him in daylight. Now, what kind of religion is that? Answer, old-time religion, benighted religion.

Step 2 – Advanced Diagnosis : lover of darkness.
While Nicodemus and his old-time religion are unable to shed light on or make sense of Jesus, Jesus, by contrast, is certainly able to shed light on Nicodemus and his old-time religion. Indeed, such light “is the judgment . . .” (3:19) that Jesus brings. And what Nicodemus is exposed as being, not in spite of, but because of his religion, is a “lover of darkness.” (3:19) He is a lover of darkness not only in the literal sense, in that he uses the cover of “night” to keep from being seen with Jesus, but also, and especially, in the spiritual sense, in that he uses the cover of “his own deeds” (Cf. 3:20), his religious commitment, community status, and educational credentials, to keep himself from seeing the true nature of both, his old-time religion and himself. Nicodemus here is the quintessential religious person, using the oldest religious ploy in the book. He is using the cover of his deeds and the pretense of his religion to keep the evil that is within from being exposed (3:19)-exposed not only to the world, but also, and especially, to himself and, presumably, also from God. So, while posing to be an instrument of the light, in his heart of hearts Nicodemus is really a “lover of darkness.”

Step 3 – Final Diagnosis : Condemnation Already-Deadly Religion.
Not only is Nicodemus exposed by Jesus as being a “lover of darkness,” Jesus also exposes Nicodemus’ old-time religion as the seal and sign of the status quo, namely, the fact that the world stands condemned already. (3:18) All appearances to the contrary, being in the dark (ignorant) about Jesus and loving it (that is, using our deeds to cover up our evil nature) is no blessing. Ignorance of condemnation is never bliss. It’s just condemnation. Moreover, lifting up that old-time religion is not going to lift the condemnation. That old-time religion will forever and always remain deadly religion.

PROGNOSIS: Lively Christ

Step 4 – Initial Prognosis : The Son of God and the Serpent on the Stick
Note: Not only does Jesus not deny the Godly basis for that old-time religion (i.e., the law of God), but more than any other “teacher of Israel” he sheds light on what that law truly is: the sign of God’s condemnation upon an evil world. But even then, as important as this insight is, that is not the reason Jesus came into the world. It is merely a consequence of his coming, a necessary consequence, to be sure, but yet, merely a consequence. For he really came into the world in order to be lifted up as the only God-given alternative to condemnation, the only viable alternative to that old-time religion. You might say that he came to save us from the status quo of condemnation. (3:17) Of course, Nicodemus, as “a teacher of Israel,” should have known that. There were signs aplenty of this coming alternative already in the story of Moses: Not the lifting up of the tablets of stone, but the lifting up of the serpent on the stick. (3:14) And what a paradoxical sign it was. Through the lifting up of the serpent on a stick, God established the means of salvation for those already inflicted with the serpents’ deadly bite. In like manner, through the lifting up (that is, the condemnation) of the Son of God on a cross, God establishes the means of salvation for a whole world that is already bitten by God’s deadly condemnation. In this and nothing else, then, is God’s unfathomable love for the world: not in God’s giving of the tablets of stone, but in God’s giving of his only Son on the cross. There, in Christ on the cross, God establishes eternal life as the alternative to eternal death.

Step 5 – Advanced Prognosis : Trusting Christ, coming to the light
If the logical, though illusory, response of sinners to the tablets of stone is to love the darkness (meaning, to deny the truth of their condemnation by trying to cover their evil with their deeds), then by contrast, the logical, and effective, response of condemned sinners to the alternative lifted up in Christ is to “come to the light” (3:21), that is, to trust in Christ completely. And that’s precisely what Jesus asks us to do: to believe in him. Just as Israel was asked to look to the serpent on the stick to be saved, so we are asked to look with faith at Christ on the cross to be saved. To such faith God attaches a great promise: “whoever believes in him [will] not perish but have eternal life.” (3:16) Such faith is nothing other that having now, already, God’s loving alternative to the status quo of condemnation: “those who believe in him are not condemned; those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (3:18)

Step 6 – Final Prognosis : Enlightened living.
Finally, such faith, while inward, always manifests itself outwardly in a kind of enlightened living that is in stark contrast to benighted religion. Those who live according to God’s alternative “come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (3:21) For those who believe, there is no cover up, no ulterior motives. For them, what you see is what you get. They live not under the cover of night, but in the full exposure of the daylight. Indeed, their life exists in this kind of paradox. They do not fear being found in the wrong, but welcome it, so that what is evil in them may be overcome by the light. In other words, they even welcome the law, that old-time religion, in all its criticality, and learn from it. They welcome it not because it holds any lasting claim over them, but because whatever truthful condemnation it brings to light, that condemnation is taken up into the cross where it has already been overcome by faith in Christ. That is the essence of eternal life, i.e., enlightened living.


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