My friend reminded me that it was March 16. In fact, she wrote a little message saying, “Happy 3.16 day!” And then she quoted the scripture… which perhaps you’ve already know by heart because it is by far one of the most quoted and repeated scripture of all time:
16For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.
Even when I wasn’t very religious, I remember seeing people waving signs at football games with “JOHN 3:16” boldly inscribed. If you’re an In-N-Out fan (my brother might possibly be the Biggest In-N-Out fanatic of all time, and frequently bemoans the fact that he lives three hours and twenty-eight minutes away from the nearest In-N-Out), you’ll note that the soda cup has the scripture printed on it at the very bottom. Forever 21 also had the scripture printed on plastic bags. So, even if you’re not religious, this is probably one of the scriptures that you might encounter randomly in popular culture.
Now, it’s a beautiful verse all by itself, but it’s also a gorgeous within the context of the gospel. You see, this was one of the words that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus. Now, you have to realize that Nicodemus wanted to speak to Jesus, but he also didn’t want to be seen with Jesus because he was Pharisee and one of the members of the Sanhedrin, and it would have meant that he would be risking his job security if he had been seriously speaking to Jesus. And so, he went to speak to Jesus at night.
Their dialogue is a… curious dialogue. Take a look at it!
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him.” 3Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” 5Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. 7Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus answered and said to him, “How can this happen?” 10Jesus answered and said to him, “You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand this? 11Amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. 12If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who 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 might not perish but might have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. 20For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. 21But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.
Isn’t it a strange talk?
What blows my mind when I read and reread this scripture is that this is said so early in the gospel! It’s the third chapter of John, and Jesus is only starting to get into His ministry. And yet, Jesus already has a clear idea of what He must do, and also a clear idea of why He must do it: it is because of God’s love that He has entered into this world, and He has done so to save it, knowing fully that He will do so by being crucified.
Which just boggles my mind. You see, sometimes I feel so inadequate and I look upon the crucifix and wonder that maybe Jesus actually made a mistake in dying such a horrible, brutal death. After all, He did so to save us from our sins, and yet here we are. Still pretty inadequate and still floundering about in the world, trying to do His will, but also failing on a daily basis to really take up our crosses and follow Him. And so sometimes I’ll look at the cross and think, “Why, Jesus, did You do all of this for us — including me! — when I am such an idiot?”
And so, everything about this gospel is beautiful. I love how He spoke to Nicodemus in the darkness. I love how Nicodemus asked him idiotic questions (“Surely he cannot enter into his mother’s womb?”) and how patient Jesus is with him. I love how Jesus assures Nicodemus and foretells of His death. (Perhaps those words were meant to be comforting to Nicodemus? After all, Nicodemus would later actively help the disciples bury Jesus and even later become a disciple, though he wasn’t ready to follow Jesus at this particular moment when the conversation took place.)
And I love how this story was passed down so that we would read and reread and wonder at Jesus’s words, thousands of years after they were spoken, and contemplate together how much Jesus loved truly loved us.
The cross was not a mistake that God made.
It was a path that God freely chose to save us all.
And so, today, I figured I would share an artwork that moves me, since it depicts this scene in such a beautiful way:
In the picture, both Jesus and Nicodemus are in the darkness. In fact, Jesus seems to be even shadowed in the darkness in a somewhat paradoxical manner. Nicodemus speaks to Jesus, seemingly caught in the moment where he is gesturing, his hand right above his heart, as if to say that what he is trying to say comes from his heart, and he is offering it up to the Lord. While his lips are closed at this particular moment, his eyes are wide and looking at Jesus in an expectant manner.
And there Jesus is, comfortably sitting in the darkness, watching Nicodemus trying to speak, and being patient all the while. Surely Jesus knows that Nicodemus is not ready to follow Him. Not yet, anyway. And yet, Jesus is willing to speak with Nicodemus in the darkness and let Nicodemus grapple with His Words until Nicodemus is ready to follow Him later.
And I just adore this picture. How many times have we grappled with the Lord in the darkness and tried to talk with Him, not really aware of what we wanted to say? How many times has Jesus patiently answered us and assured us that He loves us and will always love us, and yet we still do not understand?
We are all Nicodemus.
And so, for today, may I suggest that we take some time to really grapple with the Lord and allow Him to speak with us. Let’s be idiots together and ask Him stupid questions, just as Nicodemus did once, a long time ago.
And, more importantly, let us remember that Jesus love us more than we can possibly ever know.