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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Harvey

John 3:16 and the Gift of God's Love: Sunday Gospel Reflections with Dr. Harvey

Updated: Mar 7

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2024 Fourth Sunday of Lent’s Gospel: Jn 3:14-21 

(God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.) 

Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever 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. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” 

 

Initial Context 

Jesus meets with Nicodemus in private. Nicodemus does not appear in any gospel besides John’s. He does not appear to be in conflict with Jesus like some of his colleagues. He was a teacher of the Law and member of the Sanhedrin that governed Jewish affairs within the region. Given how he, in a veiled manner, sticks up for Jesus in later chapters and honors Jesus at his burial, he seems to be interested in Jesus and has a great respect for him. While his meeting with Jesus in the night was likely to conceal his activity from the other members of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus’ addressing Jesus as “rabbi” or “teacher” demonstrates his receptivity and humility before Jesus.  

 

This Sunday gospel reading occurs several verses after the start of their conversation. We need to keep in mind that we are entering the conversation and have missed its beginning. You can read John 3 if you would like to read John’s full account of their conversation.  

 

The Son of Man Lifted Up 

Our entry point into this conversation begins with Jesus referencing an Old Testament event that prefigures his own saving work. It occurs during the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness. On more than one occasion, the Israelites ceased acting like God’s chosen people, like God’s firstborn son, and act more like their past selves in Egypt. When they act Egyptian, they too will receive plagues and be reminded of God’s power, glory, and justice. Jesus is referring to one of these incidences when the Israelites received a plague of poisonous snakes (cf. Numbers 21:4-9). The snakes were a sign of their infidelity and sin. According to God’s command, “Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Num 21:9). What was once a sign of their sin also became a sign of God’s mercy.


Jesus too will be lifted up. When he is lifted up on the Cross, he becomes both a sign of our sin and infidelity, but also of God’s mercy. He was also lifted up from the tomb in the Resurrection and lifted up in the Ascension. These things occurred, what are often referred to as “Paschal Mystery,” so that those who believe in Jesus may receive eternal life through him and with him. Why would God do this? 

 

For God So Loved the World... 

God does not need to save us. God does not need me in heaven for him to be God. God needs nothing to be God. Nothing can be done to add to his divinity. The Father sent his Son out of love for our sake. He did this not because we merited such a gift, but because God loved us first. Saint John wrote in his first letter, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:9-10). “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). The sending of the Son is an act of love, and love is a gift freely given.


In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Saint Thomas Aquinas comments on John 3:16 and lists four details that point to God’s great love: 


  1. John 3:16 begins with “For God so loved” and this indicates the person loving. 

  2. The ones being loved, “loved the world,” are sinners and did not deserve such love/gift (cf. Rom 5:8).  

  3. God’s love is shown in the gift he gave, his own Son (cf. Rom 8:32, Jn 5:20).  

  4. Saint Thomas then explains, “Fourthly, from the greatness of its fruit, because through him we have eternal life. Hence he says, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life, which is obtained for us through the death of the cross.”

As we continue our Lenten journey, let us consider how much we are loved, by whom we are loved, and what is now possible because of this love. 

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