Memorizing Transformation: My experience of John 3:16 then and now

Memorizing Bible verses was the thing to do when I was a kid growing up in an evangelical environment. We memorized verses at Pioneer Girls (the Christian version of girl scouts), we memorized verses in Sunday school, we memorized verses at the Christian camp I went to, and later, when I was old enough to attend youth group, we memorized verses there. I appreciate this experience because it has allowed me to “know my Bible” and has given me a familiarity with scripture that I treasure.

The most bang-for-your-buck verse that I memorized was John 3:16. For many, John 3:16 is Christianity in a nutshell. In essence, it is! However, the interpretation of John 3:16 is what I missed out on all those years memorizing verses.

Marcus Borg, recently deceased Jesus scholar, dissects John 3:16 in his short book, Speaking Christian, which offers the common reader a summary of mainstream theology, providing a fresh lens with which to view longstanding popular, but a-little-less-than-theological ideas.

As Borg points out, John 3:16 has long been interpreted by Christians in a very particular way: God loves us so much that “he” sent Jesus to die in our place so we can be forgiven by God. The only way we are saved from our sins is to believe the fact that Jesus is God’s son and he died in our place. Believing this statement gets us into heaven, or, everlasting life.

My own childhood idea of John 3:16 reflects this popular interpretation. I can remember sitting on my cabin stoop at camp memorizing (or re-memorizing) John 3:16 and thinking about all my friends back home from my small town public school. I was thinking about them, because according to the way I was taught to interpret this verse, they were all about to “perish.” I never heard them talk about Christianity, let alone believing in Jesus, therefore, according to this line of thought, they might–they would perish… I remember thinking with panic, Is it really up to me to save my friends from non-eternal life?

Years later, in youth group, I had another encounter with the popular interpretation of John 3:16, but this time it was the first part that I wrestled with, that God sent Jesus to die for our sins. As the youth group leader began to give his message on the topic, I remember how his voice receded into the background of my thoughts as I wondered to myself, what kind of father would “send” his (only!) son to die a gruesome death? Do I even want to believe in a God who would do that kind of thing?

And so my struggle with John 3:16, and with this single widespread interpretation of it, continued for years.

In my adult life, however, I have had many opportunities to rethink popular interpretations of John 3:16 and deepen my understanding of its meaning. The results have been lifegiving.

Marcus Borg offers a good summary of how John 3:16 might be re-interpreted using mainstream theology and Biblical scholarship that has somehow slipped through the church floor cracks for many Christians. What follows is a dialogue around John 3:16 offered by the author of John, paraphrasing of Marcus Borg’s words (1), and my own reflection thereupon…

Author of John: God loved so the whole world

Borg: God loves the world- all of creation.

My thoughts: God is the life-source of every molecule and every living thing. God is close to all living and dying and God’s spirit sparks hope in hopeless moments. God loves the world; God breathes life into the world; God permeates all of nature; God is in the world (2).

Author of John: That he gave his only son

Borg: God gave us Jesus in an act of incarnate love, to live among humanity, and show us the way.

My thoughts: Sending God’s son in John 3:16 denotes the complete act of incarnation; the goal not necessarily death on a cross, but life for all! The countercultural nature of Jesus’ life led to punishment by the Roman domination system, but God showed that God was close to Jesus, even then, and that death does not have the final word. Pope Benedict’s words come to mind… “God created the universe in order to be able to become a human being and pour out his love upon us and to invite us to love him in return.”(3) (4) (5)

Author of John: That whoever believes in him

Borg: The meaning behind the word, “belief” here is deeper than the idea of believing claims about Jesus, “but beloving Jesus, giving one’s heart, loyalty, fidelity, and commitment to Jesus. This is the way to new life.”

The point of Christianity lies beyond believing statements about Jesus. It’s about doing what he did, teaching what he taught and loving how he loved. “Beloving” Jesus is a life-altering, life-long endeavor!

Author of John: May not perish but have eternal life

Borg: In John’s gospel, the phrase “eternal life” refers to a present experience, not a future after-life. It refers to life that is transformed by knowing Jesus and participating in and hoping for the “life of the age to come.”

My thoughts: “Eternal life” denotes transformation of self, world, and even death. Knowing God through Jesus sets us on a path of transformation. It’s a narrow way, but it is an irresistible journey towards abundance. (6)

Another way to think about John 3:16 is to consider its location within the story of Nicodemus. Nicodemus is asking Jesus how it is that someone can be born again. Jesus explains that he means one must be born of the Spirit. As I reflect on John 3:16 in light of Nicodemus, I see Jesus inviting Nicodemus to be one with the spirit of God who created and dwells within creation and became one of us out of incarnate love. This communion moves us to belove Jesus and surrender to the transformation which comes with following him.

I don’t know what I would have done exactly with this alternate, more accurate interpretation of John 3:16 back when I was memorizing it at camp and then in youth group. I’m sure I would have embraced it. I do know that I wouldn’t change anything about the way that I was formed by my childhood experiences and all of the people who shaped my faith, however. I cherish all of that. I simply see it as an opportunity to look back and witness the path of transformation I have been led along by Jesus, as I continue beloving him.

john 3.16

Click to read other posts in Daily Theology’s Vacation Bible School 2015:  Mercy Edition.

  1. Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian (pp. 160-163)
  2. See Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts
  3. Pope Benedict, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, 30
  4. Also see Catholic Study Bible footnote: “Gave: as the gift of incarnation.” (p. 1493)
  5. Also see Barbara Reid’s Taking Up the Cross
  6. See Catholic Study Bible footnotes: “Eternal Life: … this term stresses quality of life rather than duration.” (p. 1493)